Within the Vatican City are religious and cultural sites such as St. Peter’s Basilica, the Sistine Chapel and the Vatican Museums.
A quintessential part of the Vatican City experience is a stroll across the gigantic elliptical 17th century St. Peter’s Square designed and built between 1656 and 1667 by the famous Italian architect, sculptor and painter Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Visitors enter Vatican City through the St. Peter’s Square. Thousands gather in the square to hear blessings from the Pope or to participate in masses especially on religious holidays like Christmas and Easter.
The square is made up of two different areas. The first area has a trapezoidal shape marked off by two straight closed and convergent arms on each side of the church square. The second area is elliptical and is surrounded by the two hemicycles of a 4-row colonnade. The semi-circular colonnade according to Bernini symbolizes the “stretched maternal arms of the Church embracing the world” and welcoming everyone of all faiths.
The square is surrounded by 284 columns, set out in rows of 4 and 88 pilasters atop which stand 140 statues of saints along the balustrade above the columns. The statues depicting popes, martyrs, evangelists and other religious figures are all created by Bernini and his students. Also prominent in the middle of the square is the tall red granite Egyptian obelisk brought to Rome from Heliopolis (one of the most ancient Egyptian cities) by Caligula (Roman emperor Julius Ceasar).
Harmonizing perfectly with the vast square and usually crowded with tourists are the two identically beautiful fountains on the left and on the right.
The crowning glory of the Vatican City is the St. Peter’s Basilica with its immense silver-blue dome dominating not only the square but also the skyline of Rome. The cornerstone of the church was laid more than 500 years ago in 1506 and completed in 1626. Catholic tradition holds that the Basilica is the burial site of St. Peter, one of Christ’s Apostle and also the first Pope. Supposedly, St. Peter’s tomb is directly below the high altar of the Basilica.
We’re wowed by what we find inside the basilica. The incredibly opulent interior which includes 45 altars can hold 60,000 people. Everywhere we look there are works of art. Not to be missed in the first chapel of the right aisle is the world-famous “Pieta”, a masterpiece of Renaissance sculpture by Michelangelo and the only work he ever signed, housed in a case of bullet-proof acrylic glass since its restoration from the attack in 1972 when a geologist named Laszlo Toth ran into the Basilica and attacked the statue with a geologist’s hammer. Yelling “I am J. Christ” he took Mary’s arm completely off from the elbow down and chipped a chunk out of her nose and damaged one of her eyelids.The Bernini’s large baroque sculpted bronze canopy upheld by four spiral columns towers over the high altar under the extraordinary dome, 119 meters high (390 ft.), designed by Michelangelo. The enormous dome with its balconies decorated with reliefs is accessed from an elevator to the roof for an incredible view from the top of the basilica. You have to be ready to climb 551 stairs or take an elevator halfway. Once you reach the top of the elevator you have to take another 323 additional steps that take you to the best panoramic view of Rome from anywhere in the city. We made the effort to go up to the top and we’re rewarded with the finest views of the Vatican City and Rome.
St. Peter’s Basilica is open daily at 7:00 AM. Arrive early as you can before the long queue snakes all around the square. However, you can be turned away by the attendants at the entrance door if you are not dressed properly as dressed code is strictly enforced – no shorts, no bare shoulder or miniskirt. This applies to both men and women.
The Vatican City is also home to expansive museums which boast one of the most impressive, finest and most extensive collections of art in the world including the wall and ceiling paintings of the Sistine Chapel, the suite of rooms Raphael, as well as Egyptian, Etruscan (pre-Roman Italian art), Roman, and Renaissance sculpture, paintings, and porceleins. A tour of the museums is a must for any visitor to the Eternal City.