What a difference a year makes. It’s been nearly a year since Argentine Jorge Bergoglio was selected as the new pope of the Catholic Church. Since Pope Francis’ election, a lot has changed. Conventions that are decades—if not centuries—old have been flouted. Progressive thinking—about capitalism, inequality, and homosexuality—is bringing lapsed Catholics back to the church. Even non-Catholics are visiting the religious city-state in unprecedented numbers. There’s never been a better time to visit Vatican City.
Vatican City is a walled enclave in Rome; it has an open border with Italy. Encompassing only 110 acres, it’s the world’s smallest country in both area and population. The pope is the ruler of the ecclesiastical monarchy, the Pontifical Swiss Guard—in their colorful uniforms—protects the pope, and, should the need arise, the Italian military would defend the landlocked country.
A tour of Vatican City begins in St. Peter’s Square. The huge plaza in front of St. Peter’s Basilica is surrounded by Tuscan colonnades, features an 4,000-year-old Egyptian obelisk, and is always full of tourists hoping to catch a glimpse of the pope. The Renaissance-style basilica, which was built over the tomb of St. Peter, is one of the largest churches in the world. Its massive cupolone—the dome—was designed by Michelangelo. See Michelangelo’s La Pietà sculpture, rub the foot on the sculpture of St. Peter, and study Bernini’s baldacchino—the bronze canopy altar. Then climb 323 steps to the top of the dome for an amazing view over Vatican City with Rome in the distance.
From St. Peter’s Basilica, move on to the Vatican Museums, which house the Vatican’s extensive art collection. See classical sculptures in the Pio Clementino Museum, Roman sculptures in the Gallery of the Candelabra, Flemish tapestries in the Gallery of Tapestries, and Renaissance art in the Gallery of the Geographical Maps. Then make your way to the Sistine Chapel and its even more amazing artwork. See the frescoed walls, the ornate ceiling, and The Last Judgment. After the Sistine Chapel, don’t miss the Aldobrandini Wedding from the 1st century AD.
After dealing with elbow-to-elbow crowds, you’ll be happy to get outside and tour the Vatican Gardens. The gardens cover more than half of Vatican City’s land. Along with green lawns, they’re full of sculptures and fountains. It’s silent and peaceful.
You may not get to meet the pope. You may not even be able to attend Mass. But by visiting Vatican City, you’ll feel the excitement and the optimism surrounding the Catholic Church right now. It’s a refreshing change of pace.