A trip to Vatican City is a must-do for many visitors to Rome. In fact, with an average of 25,000 visitors each day, it’s recognized as the top sightseeing destinations within Rome, along with the Colosseum, the Pantheon and, providing you enjoy your visit, tossing a coin into Trevi Fountain. But, did you know Vatican City is its own city-state? Although it is surrounded by Rome it is not governed by Rome. Here are some more interesting facts about the Vatican and the city in which it is located.
Ten Things You May Not Know About the Vatican
The Vatican is located on Vatican Hill in Rome’s center. It really can’t be missed. You might see the crowds of religious pilgrims and interested tourists who long to see some of the most famous and stunning works of art in the world as well as learn about the unique history of the seat of the Catholic Church. Here are 10 things about the Vatican you may find surprising.
Vatican City is The Smallest Country in The World
Saint Peter’s Basilica was Built Over a Cemetery of Sorts
The Sundial Came from Caligula-Sort of
St. Peter’s Basilica is The Largest Church Building in The World
More Wine is Consumed and More Crime Occurs (per capita) in Vatican City
Vatican City was Created By…?
There’s a Secret Passageway
The Vatican Has an Army
The Pope Didn’t Begin Living in The Vatican Until The 14th Century
The Papal Capital Wasn’t Always The Vatican
Vatican City is made up of about 100 acres, about an eighth of New York’s Central Park, and shares a circular border with Italy. The city-state is a monarchy solely governed by the pope. There are roughly 800 citizens. Vatican City has its own flag and its own national anthem. The Vatican even mints its own money (euros), prints its own stamps, issues license plates and passports and has its own news media. But the Vatican does not collect taxes and operates under money collected through contributions, museum admission fees, souvenir sales and sales of stamps.
Famous anti-Christian Emperor Nero blamed the great fire of Rome in 64 AD on
Christians and began executing them in many horrific ways. St. Peter, as a disciple of Jesus Christ was crucified. All those executed were buried in shallow graves on Vatican Hill. When Christianity was finally recognized in Rome some 300 years later the then Emperor Constantine built the original basilica over the tomb of St. Peter atop Vatican Hill.
The Giant Sundial in St. Peter’s Square was Boosted from Egypt by Caligula
The Emperor Caligula built a small arena at the base of Vatican Hill for his personal events and chariot racing. In order to commemorate both himself and his arena he ordered his troops to go to Egypt and bring back an Obelisk from the tomb of a Pharaoh. The huge obelisk is made of a single piece of red granite weighing 350 tons. In the 16th century it was relocated to its current spot in St. Peter’s Square where it is used as a sundial.
St. Peter’s Basilica is the largest church building at 247,000 square feet. The cathedral is considered by many to be one of the most exquisite examples of Renaissance architecture and celebrated for its principal designers, Donato Bramante, Michelangelo, Gian Lorenzo Bernini and Carlo Maderno. The crowning glory of the church is the dome, famously designed by Michelangelo.
It may be hard to believe but Vatican City sees more crime and consumes more wine than anywhere else on earth, per capita. So, actually, those statistics are driven by the fact that the population is very low. Because Vatican City is a tourist destination it's a hotbed for pickpockets and petty thieves. You might want to limit the items you carry to just what will fit in a front-facing fanny pack.
When measured mathematically, each person who resides in Vatican City consumes a whopping 74 liters of wine annually. However, it’s easy to figure the low population of the city-state and the immense amount of wine necessary for religious celebrations such as the Eucharist skew those numbers a bit.
None other than Benito Mussolini! In 1929 the Vatican was given sovereign status and made its own city-state independent of Italy. This decree was signed by the head of the Italian government at the time, Mussolini.
The Passetto di Borgo is a half-mile long fortified passageway that leads from the Vatican to the Castel Sant'Angelo, a fortification along the Tiber River. The passageway served as an escape path for popes throughout the centuries, most notably for Pope Clement VII in 1527. Emperor Charles V tore through the city murdering priests, nuns and religious pilgrims and then set his sights on the pope. The Swiss Guard held them off and 147 of the pope’s protectors lost their lives in the battle. However, Clement made his way to safety.
The aforementioned Swiss Guard serves the pope as it has since the early 1500s. At the time of Pope Julius II it was popular among European courts to hire Swiss mercenaries for protection. Julius engaged a small army for this purpose. Today the Swiss Army is mostly ceremonial. They are easily recognized by their colorful Renaissance style uniforms and are present at all formal functions. The Swiss Guard is made up of Swiss citizens who excel at marksmanship and are extensively trained. And in case you wondered, the Vatican has no prison.
The Lateran Palace, which was across the street from the Vatican served as the principal residence of the pope. Then came the move to France. The popes remained in residence in France until 1377. Upon their return to Rome they discovered the palace had burned down and the papal residence was moved to the Vatican. However, much renovation was necessary as after the move to France the Vatican fell into disrepair.
In 1309 King Philip IV arranged for a French cardinal to be elected pope. Upon his election he moved the papal residence to a city in the Provence region of France. Avignon was a papal vassal and the Church easily assumed ownership. Seven popes in all ruled from the Papal Palace in Avignon before they were encouraged to move back to Italy.
What to Do to Make Your Visit Easier
As you might expect the Vatican is a popular destination for many, not just Roman Catholics. Because of that there really is no “best time” to visit. It’s always a bit crowded but very much worth the visit. Weekends are typically a busy time as is Wednesday when there is a papal audience when the pope steps out onto a balcony and gives the crowd his papal blessing. However this only happens when the pope is in residence.
During the papal audience St. Peter’s Basilica is closed to visitors. That is because the church may be used for the papal audience if there is inclement weather. Plan to visit after the pope gives his blessing, typically around 10:00 a.m. and lasting a few hours. But be aware the basilica and the Vatican museum tend to get crowded after the pope’s audience ends.
The museums tend to be more crowded in the mornings. That’s because most people, in an attempt to beat the line, arrive early or join tour groups that begin bright and early. If the Vatican is high on your list then we recommend taking a private early in the morning.