The distinction of smallest country on Earth (by size AND population) goes to Vatican City.
Located within Rome, Italy, Vatican City has less than 1000 inhabitants and has been an independent country since 1929.
Also called the Holy See, it has been the home of the Catholic Pope since the 14th century and is the seat of worldwide Catholicism.
Each year, roughly five million tourists visit this tiny country, each one entering through St. Peters Square.
Though only 44 hectares (110 acres) there is much to see and centuries of history, culture, and religion to learn about.
Let’s have a look at the best things to do in Vatican City:
1. Saint Peter’s Basilica
Built over the tomb of Saint Peter, this is one of the largest churches in the world. It’s also one of the world’s most beautiful.
The modern day structure was completed in the 17th century and built on top of an earlier 4th century church. It took roughly 120 years to complete and is a treasure trove of history.
Entrance is free, though there is a dress code, and once inside you’ll see three of the most celebrated masterpieces of any age: Bernini’s 29-metre-high baldachin which sits over the papal altar, Michelangelo’s Pieta, and his glorious Sistine Chapel.
2. Saint Peter’s Square
Designed in the 17th century by Bernini, Saint Peter’s Square is the main entrance to the basilica and Vatican City.
Divided into two sections, Bernini wanted an effect that would honor ‘the matrix of all the churches’.
There are 140 statues of saints along the balustrade, two majestic fountains, Michelangelo’s Pieta, a wide promenade leading to the basilica, and statues of Saint Peter and Saint Paul.
Tourists love to see the Royal Staircase that leads to the Vatican Palaces.
It’s roughly 60 metres high, but thanks to progressive narrowing of the width as it goes up, it looks impressively longer.
3. Sistine Chapel
Built in the 15th century to serve as the pope’s private chapel and the location for the cardinals to elect new popes, the Sistine Chapel is a magnificent sight.
It is the most popular and famous attraction in all of Vatican City and showcases Michelangelo’s fresco masterpieces on the ceiling and behind the altar.
On the ceiling you’ll see famous Old Testament stories and behind the altar is The Last Judgement which depicts the second coming of Christ and the Day of Judgement.
The walls are decorated with frescoes from artists like Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, Roselli, and Perugino.
4. Saint Peter’s Tomb
Underneath the modern day basilica are the remains of the original 4th century church.
Excavations at this site have revealed what archaeologists believe to be the tomb of Saint Peter, who died around 64 to 67 AD.
Bones of an elderly and strong man were found in a box behind a wall there in 1942.
The Vatican has never made a definitive claim regarding whose bones they are, but Pope Paul VI did state that the identification process was ‘convincing.
5. Ponte Sant’Angelo
In the second century, emperor Hadrian constructed Ponte Sant’Angelo, a bridge meant to serve as a grand entrance to his mausoleum, Castel Sant’Angelo.
It means Bridge of the Holy Angel, and it spans the Tiber River. It was Bernini who made it a masterpiece in the 17th century.
He designed ten angel statues, each one holding a symbol related to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ – including a whip and thorns.
6. Castel Sant’Angelo
Emperor Hadrian’s mausoleum is known as Castel Sant’Angelo, and with its clunky round exterior, it’s one of Vatican City’s most recognizable landmarks.
Today, it is home to the Museo Nazionale di Castel Sant’Angelo which has a remarkable collection of sculptures, paintings, medieval weapons, and other military pieces.
Once used as a fortress, there is a secret passageway, created in the 13th century, that provided escape for the pope’s other high clergy.
Upstairs you will love the ornate Renaissance interiors and the terrace with amazing views over the city of Rome.
7. Vatican Museums
Originally founded in the 16th century by Pope Julius II, the Vatican Museums hold one of the largest art collections of any country.
Covering roughly seven kilometres of corridors, you’ll see Egyptian mummies, Etruscan pieces, Renaissance masters, and modern art.
Don’t miss the classical statuary in the Museo Pio-Clementino and the Raphael frescos.
The museums are housed in two palaces – the Vatican Palace and the Belvedere Palace.
Inside you’ll find three stunning courtyards: the Cortile della Biblioteca, the Cortile della Pigna, and the Cortile del Belvedere.
It’s impossible to see everything in a day, so prepare ahead of time to figure out what your ‘can’t miss exhibits’ are.
8. Complesso Monumentale Santo Spirito in Saxia
This 8th century structure was once lodging for Saxon pilgrims and then later turned into a hospital complex by Pope Innocent III.
Sixtus IV added a beautiful courtyard and two halls filled with frescoes.
Now privately operated for conferences, the massive building is impossible to miss and inspires awe in everyone who visits.
9. See the Pope
If you are visiting on a Wednesday, you’ll have the opportunity to see the Pope as Wednesday is his audience day.
He makes his appearance in Saint Peter’s Square and the reaction of the crowd is just as interesting as a sighting of the famous man himself.
The Pope generally welcomes various visiting groups, says a prayer, blesses any religious artefacts that visitors have brought, and then ends with a blessing.
Most of the square is first come first served seating, so be sure to arrive early if you want a good view.
10. Vatican Gardens
Covering more than half of the total 110 acres of Vatican City are the Vatican Gardens.
At roughly 57 acres, they occupy the western part of the country.
In the gardens you’ll find monuments and buildings dating as far back as the 9th century, medieval fortifications, the Vatican Radio Station, the Our Lady of Lourdes grotto, and numerous sculptures and fountains.
First established during the Renaissance and Baroque periods the current gardens owe their look to Pope Nicholas III who enclosed the area and planted orchards when he moved the papal residence back to the Vatican from the Lateran Palace.
11. The Sacred Grottoes
The Sacred Grottoes are the final resting place of the popes.
Located under the basilica, if you look up at the ceiling when you’re there, you’ll see the iron flooring.
Some previous popes who have been laid to rest here include Pope Hadrian IV, Pope Boniface VIII, Pope Paul VI.
Pope John Paul II was interred here before being moved to the Chapel of Saint Sebastian in 2011 after his Beatification.
12. Vatican Necropolis
Often confused with the Sacred Grottoes is the Vatican Necropolis.
Also below Saint Peter’s Basilica, the necropolis dates back to Imperial times.
The space fluctuates from between five and 12 metres below ground and in the 1940’s a major excavation was undertaken.
The excavation was a request of Pope Pius XI who wanted to be buried as close to the remains of Saint Peter as possible.
Be sure to look for the tomb of the Julii, which dates to the 3rd century.
13. The Apostolic Palace
The official residence of the reigning pope is the Apostolic Palace. Located in the northeast section of Saint Peter’s Basilica near the Palace of Gregory XIII and the Bastion of Nicholas V.
The current structure dates back to the 16th century. Also known as the Vatican Palace, it consists of several Papal apartments, some Catholic Church government offices, Vatican Museums, the Vatican Library, the Vatican Observatory, and several private and public chapels.
There are roughly 1000 rooms inside the palace. It is here that you’ll find Raphael’s rooms and the Sistine Chapel.
14. The Cappella Paolina
One of the chapels within the Apostolic Palace is the Cappella Paolina.
Commissioned by Pope Paul III, the chapel is just behind the portico of Saint Peter’s Basilica and actually connects the palace with the basilica.
Symbolically, this joining demonstrates the joining of papal authority, ceremony, and ritual.
All of the frescoes in the Cappella Paolina were created by Michalangelo.
Today, this is the most preferred spot for papal meetings.
Be sure to check out Sala Ducale, Portone di Bronzo, and Sala Regia, all nearby the chapel.
15. St Stephen of the Abyssinians
This Roman Catholic church within Vatican City is dedicated to Stephen the Protomartyr and is the national church of Ethiopia.
Mass here is celebrated according to the Alexandrian rites of the Ethiopian church. It is one of the only structures to survive the destruction of the original Saint Peter’s Basilica and so is the oldest surviving church within Vatican City.