The yellow and white flag of Vatican City

It is the smallest independent state in the world. Hardly any people live there. But it has its own stamps, its own radio station and its own bank and the Pope is in charge. But there are more things worth knowing and sights in Vatican City that you should know. Anyone visiting Rome must also see the centerpiece of the Catholic Church. But if you want to discover the most important and beautiful places of the Vatican, you have to prepare yourself well. If only because of the sometimes enormous crowds. That's why we sum most important facts about Vatican City in this article for you!

1. Vatican, Vatican City, Holy See

These terms are often used interchangeably, but the meanings are very different. The Vatican means the headquarters of the Catholic Church: Pope, Roman Curia, congregations, papal councils, and so on. This is located in Vatican City, a 44 ha small enclave within Rome, where the Pope holds sway. The name Vatican may come from a former Etruscan place called 'Vaticanum'.

The size of Vatican City corresponds approximately to 56 football fields.

Vatican City map

This is the map of the whole of Vatican City (click to enlarge the map).

Vatican City map
Vatican City map (source: Wikimedia)

In the past, the Papal States was much larger: then it encompassed almost all of central Italy. That came to an end in 1870, when Rome was annexed to the fledgling Kingdom of Italy. The pope lost his secular power, but continued to head a diplomatic network of papal nuncios, while most European countries maintained their ambassadors, but now directly to the pope, or the Holy See.

That has remained the case, even after the foundation of the new Vatican State. Foreign diplomatic representatives are therefore not ambassadors to the Vatican City, but to the Holy See. And while Italian is the official language of Vatican City, Latin is that of the Vatican.

2. What is Vatican City?

On the streets of Rome you occasionally see cars with a number plate that starts with the letters SCV: Stato della Città del Vaticano. The most important person – and that is, of course, the Pope himself – drives a modest Fiat 500L (at least during his visit to America) with the registration number SCV1. The license plate probably changes from time to time, depending on what the Pope is driving.

The Pope's Fiat 500L with registration number SCV1
The Pope's Fiat 500L with SCV1 license plate (image: YouTube)

Vatican City is indeed an independent state, but a very special one.

It was founded on the basis of the 1929 Mussolini and Pope Pius XI concluded Lateran Agreement. This ended a conflict that had divided church and state since the annexation of Rome. And it worked out for both: the dictator got the support of the Italian bishops and Catholicism became the state religion.

Benito Mussolini and Cardinal Pietro Gasparri sign The Treaty of the Lateran in 1929, which created the Vatican City
Benito Mussolini and Cardinal Pietro Gasparri sign The Treaty of the Lateran in 1929, which created the Vatican City (source)

In addition, the Pope again had his own territory at his disposal. That was admittedly minimal – 0,44 km2, plus some extraterritorial buildings such as the Vatican press room, the seat of Radio Vaticana and Castel Gandolfo, the summer residence of the Pope – but it did separate the Pope and his closest associates from Italian authority.

Vatican City in World War II

This proved useful in World War II, when Vatican City remained neutral and diplomats from the belligerent parties could negotiate within the Vatican walls. And it suited the church when, in the 80s, the corrupt director of the Vatican bank IOR, Mons. Paul Marcinkus, if a Vatican citizen could not be arrested and interrogated by the Italian justice.

The Vatican territory now includes St. Peter's Square and its basilica of the same name, the Vatican Museums, the Papal Apartments, a series of other buildings, and beyond it the lavish Vatican Gardens, which are surrounded by thick walls designed by Pope Urban VII in the 17th century.e century built fortress walls. These now form the border with Italy, together with the colonnade designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, which embraces Saint Peter's Square.

3. A special monarchy

Vatican City is unique in terms of form of government: a non-hereditary absolute monarchyin which the monarch is elected. The Pope has the last word in everything – political and religious matters, legal disputes, appointments, and so on. At least formally, although in practice the main decisions are prepared by the cardinals of the Roman Curia.

Mailbox of the Vatican Post
Mailbox of the Vatican Post (photo: Wikimedia)

As an independent state, Vatican City also issues its own stamps that have traditionally been popular among tourists to frank the postcards they can send from the post office in St. Peter's Square (and only there). There are also Vatican euro coins, with the statue of the Pope, which you rarely find in normal money circulation, because the limited edition – for ten times the face value – quickly ends up in the albums of collectors.

4. National Anthem and Flag of Vatican City

And of course there is a Vatican flag: yellow and white, with the papal coat of arms on the white part.

The yellow and white flag of Vatican City
The yellow and white flag of Vatican City (source: Pixabay)

The Marcia Pontificia by the French composer Charles Gounod is used as the Vatican anthem. The Marcia is always played without words, although a diligent bishop once wrote a text filled with saints and martyrs on it.

5. Living and working in Vatican City

In 2017, there were a total of 605 citizens with Vatican passports. In addition to cardinals and other clergy, there are 187 lay people, including 105 Swiss guards. The population of Vatican City is even lower: 439, of whom 185 are non-clergy.

Many more people work in the Vatican, in total about 5.000, of whom 3.000 are employed by the Holy See – mainly the collaborators of the various congregations – and 2.000 by the Vatican State, mainly in the Museums and the Segreteria di Stato , the government of Vatican City.

A job in the Vatican, even if only as an attendant or a cleaner, is highly sought after in Rome. Not so much because of the wages, which are not very high, but because of the benefits, such as a not too high workload, a well-stocked supermarket and cheap, because lower taxed, petrol, cigarettes and alcohol.

Finally, the Vatican pharmacy is very popular among the often overly concerned Romans, because you can get medicines here that are not sold in Italy (and which may also have the papal blessing).

Swiss Guard
Swiss Guards (photo: Pixabay)

6. The Swiss Guard

Everyone knows them, the young men with medieval halberds, iron helmets and brightly colored carnival costumes. They guard the entrances to the Vatican City, such as those next to St. Peter's and the Porta di Santa Anna, which give access to the barracks (left) and the administrative offices built in characteristic yellow bricks (right).

The guards, as personal bodyguards, are responsible for the Pope's safety. Ever since 1506, when Pope Julius II hired a platoon of Swiss mercenaries. The requirements to become a Gardist have also remained unchanged for centuries:

  • Only Swiss men are eligible
  • You must be under 30
  • You can't be married
  • You must be good Roman Catholic
  • And of course of impeccable behavior

A lot of training is therefore not necessary, and with a little ill will you can see that.

Agent of the Gendarmerie of Vatican City in summer uniform
Agent of the Gendarmerie of the Vatican City in summer uniform (Photo: Wikimedia)

7. Vatican Gendarmerie

But there is also the Vatican Gendarmerie, which is much more modern equipped and dressed in unobtrusive blue uniforms or in plain clothes. These gendarmes oversee would-be terrorists and religious lunatics, as well as thieves and pickpockets, who do not hesitate to strike out on sacred Vatican grounds as well.

As a result, the statistics show Vatican City as the most criminal country in the world. Not because the prelates would roam the ecclesiastical state stealing and shooting, but because 5 arrests in St. Peter's or on the square are already good for one crime per hundred inhabitants.

Caught thieves are handed over to the Italian police. There is still a cell in Vatican City, but it is rarely used. The last guest here was a footman who had leaked secret documents from the previous pope to the press.

Speaking of pickpockets, watch out on bus number 64! It leads from the Stazione Termini to St. Peter's Square and is the domain of professional thieves, who usually operate in groups of two or three at the same time and mainly target unsuspecting tourists!

8. Vatican Museums and Gardens

Anyone visiting Rome, wants to visit the Vatican Museums. And rightly so, because almost nowhere has such an enormous collection of art been assembled. Ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome, the Etruscans, Renaissance, Baroque, the beautiful Stanze of Raphael, modern religious art, maps and globes, tapestries, collections of missionaries from all over the world.

You can only see a fraction in one day, so it's a good idea to plan a route in advance. But every visitor ends up at the Sistine Chapel anyway, so you can't miss it.

The Sistine Chapel
The Sistine Chapel (Photo: Wikimedia)

With more than six million visitors a year, the Vatican Museums are the fifth largest museum complex in the world. That means that most days early in the morning at the Viale Vaticano a queue forms in front of the entrance that can grow to hundreds of meters. That happens less in November and January, the quietest months in Rome, but you can also speed up the process considerably by using your pre-book tickets online.

The Vatican Gardens
The Vatican Gardens (photo: Pixabay)

Also recommended are the Vatican Gardens (Vatican Gardens), which can only be viewed under supervision. The tour lasts about 2 hours and takes you past rare plants, ancient trees, spectacular fountains and garden houses from different centuries. Plus, this green lung is a breath of fresh air if you've already spent a few days in the hustle and bustle of Rome. The ticket is not cheap – currently 33 euros, with a discount 17 – but also gives access to the Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel. Only on the same day, though. Reservations can be made here.

Tip: book the Vatican City Pass, which gives you a guided tour of St. Peter's Basilica and skip-the-line access to the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel at an extra discounted rate!

9. In and under St. Peter's

The Basilica of Saint Peter, Christendom's best-known House of God, is accessible to everyone, provided that it is modestly dressed. But because the visit is a must for almost every Rome traveler, it can take a while to get inside.

In front of the metal detector, there are usually queues that fill the entire right arm of Bernini's colonnade. You can shorten the waiting time by coming in the quieter months or very early: the basilica opens as early as 7am.

Once inside, also descend to the Grotte Vaticane, which are not caves but the excavated foundations of the basilica that Emperor Constantine built here in the fourth century and on top of which today's Saint Peter was built in the sixteenth century.

Map of the Vaticane . Cave
Map of the Grotte Vaticane (source: Wikimedia)

Here are also the tombs of several dozen popes, including that of John Paul II, around which a group of Polish pilgrims is always gathered.

Excavations were carried out under the nave of St. Peter's in the 40s. In doing so, a path dating from the beginning of our era was uncovered, which sloped upwards up the then Mons Vaticanus (Vatican Hill). Flanked by pagan and early Christian tombs, the road opens up to a second-century simple shrine set against a crimson wall, right below the basilica's altar.

Reconstruction of the Tomb of Peter
Reconstruction around the site of Peter's tomb (image: Wikimedia)

It is not entirely certain, but it is plausible that this is indeed the tomb of the apostle Peter. A visit to this two-millennia-old reality is a fascinating experience that requires careful preparation. Guided tours are held in several languages ​​from the Ufficio Scavi (Excavations Office), just past the entrance gate to the left of the colonnade, but only 250 visitors are allowed daily. So you have to book and you can do that by mail You can find a virtual preview here.

10. When will the Pope appear?

Anyone who wants to see the Pope live, albeit from a considerable distance, has two options every week. (Unless he is traveling or on summer vacation.)

Prayer Service: Sunday at 12.00 noon

The first is the Angelus, the Sunday 12 noon prayer service in which the Pope leads from his office overlooking St. Peter's Square. This is freely accessible to anyone who takes the trouble to come to the square.

Audience: Wednesday at 10.30 am

The weekly audience takes place on Wednesdays at 10.30:XNUMX am. In contrast to private audiences this is certainly not an intimate event: in 2016 the audiences attracted an average of 17.000 visitors.

In the summer this takes place in the open air, where the square is filled with folding chairs and the Pope takes a seat on the steps in front of the Basilica and later crosses the rows of believers with the Popemobile.

You can also follow the Pope's audience via YouTube:

And in winter in the Sala Nervi, the modern audience hall just past the entrance to the left of the gallery. For the audiences you must request (free) entrance tickets in writing.

If the audience is held in the open air, this is not really necessary. Many curious people then follow the performance from just in front of the square, in other words from Italian territory.

Written by Aart Heering, Rome expert, journalist and former Foreign Affairs employee