Secrets Of The Vatican To Know Before You Go

Millions of Euros worth of international artwork, a high crime rate, hidden paintings, exorcisms, and an underground crypt. Though it's the world's smallest country, there are a fair number of secrets of the Vatican. The 600-year-old centre of Roman Catholic life has fascinating curiosities — no border controls, Swiss Guards who specialize in weaponry, and about 1000 clergymen who call the Vatican their home but spend most of their time abroad.

The Vatican, and the Catholic Church, ruled Rome for hundreds of years, until the Italian Unification in 1870. This was a tricky time for the popes. In fact for fifty years the popes did not leave the Vatican and felt they were prisoners within its walls. Independence was granted in an uneasy 1929 treaty between the pope and Mussolini and his government. Since then millions of visitors flock to the Vatican every year. But, before you go, learn some of the secrets of the Vatican…

1. The Not-So-Secret Dress Code

Raphael Room

Number one isn't so secret. If you want inside the Vatican you must be dressed "modestly". Here are some of the rules

No bare shoulders, no hats, no short-shorts (both for women & men), no miniskirts. At the Vatican you can buy wraps and paper clothes (that's right!) as coverups, but why bother?

Simply dress sensibly before you head to the Vatican. Other dress code guidelines include — wear shoes, not sandals; avoid sheer fabrics and pop tops; make sure your belly button is not exposed. Do not wear shirts with bold logos or writing on them.

2. The Vatican State Has Only One Entrance

St Peter's Square

The only entrance for tourists is through Bernini's 17th-century St Peter's Square, called Piazza San Pietro.

In the centre of piazza is a highlight — a 4,000-year-old Egyptian obelisk brought to Rome by Emperor Augustus. You can see the papal and Vatican apartments, but the only part of the palace accessible to you is the vast Vatican museum and the Sistine Chapel.

3. There Have Been Two St Peter's Basilicas

Old St Peter's Basilica

According to Catholic mythology, Peter was buried here in 64 AD, close to the place of his execution.

Centuries later Emperor Constantine ordered a church to be built over Peter's tomb. It stood for more than a millennium.

After it crumbled, the new Baroque basilica was built, starting in the Renaissance during the 1500's. The vary talented Michelangelo was appointed chief architect.

4. Pieta – The Secret Signature


Carved from a single slab of Carrara marble, Michelangelo's elegant sculpture of the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ is now kept behind glass due to an infamous act of vandalism in 1972.

It was in that year that an unstable and unemployed Hungarian geologist jumped the railings with a hammer and struck a dozen blows to the masterpiece before he could be stopped.

During the painstaking restoration work, the craftsmen noticed the letter M subtly carved onto Mary's left hand. Michelangelo was just 24 years old when he completed Pieta in 1499.

5. The Dome Is the Largest In Rome – and In the World

Michelangelo's dome

The grandest sight in St Peter's Basilica is Michelangelo's dome.

Climb the steps of the 136-meter-high — the elevator will only take you so far. You'll be rewarded with one of the best views over the rooftops of Rome & the Vatican gardens.

Warning — the staircase is slender and if you have any issues with claustrophobia you might reconsider the climb up. Michelangelo died at the age of 89 but he didn't live long enough to see the dome completed.

6. A Guided Tour is Really the Only Way

VIP Vatican Tour

If you want to have a fun, relaxing day visiting the Vatican, a skip-the-lines guided tour is the only way to do it. Honest.

It took centuries to amass the greatest collection of art in the world. The Vatican Museums are so massive and so filled with art that the only possible way to make sense of it is to take a small-group tour.

The Vatican is a very busy, busy tourist attraction. To avoid the long line and have the best, most informative day, we strongly recommend a VIP, skip-the-lines walking tour. The best way to make sense of the centuries of history.

7. The 1st Depiction of North American Natives

North American Natives

For years, nobody paid much attention to Pinturicchio's painting languishing in the dimly lit Borgia rooms.

The 14th-century. painting, The Resurrection, was covered in centuries of dirt and grime. During a recent restoration a new exciting discovery was made — men decorated with feathered headdresses, one of them with a Mohican hair cut, are dancing around a fire.

This appears to be the earliest European depiction of Native Americans, painted just two years after Christopher Columbus returned from the New World.

8. The Biggest Secret Is 2 Floors Beneath the Basilica


It's called Scavi and it was discovered in the 1940s. It's a necropolis, one that dates back to the 3rd or 4th century when it was a Roman cemetery on a hillside.

But Scavi is bigger than a cemetery. It's more like a city with an underground maze of mausoleums along narrow, dark streets. Only 250 visitors are allowed daily and a tour cannot be booked through private touring companies. The tour must be booked months in advance. Requests can be sent via email to .

9. The Sistine Chapel's Own Secret

The Sistine Chapel's Own Secret

Everyone knows about the ceiling fresco painted by Michelangelo. It took him four years to paint the world's most famous fresco and it's as colourful as the day it was finished in 1512.

When your neck gets tired of gawking, seek out the wall behind the altar. At the age of 60, Michelangelo was asked to complete the chapel door. Depressed by the dark mood in Rome at the time, he painted a dour self portrait, The Skin of St Bartholomew.

10. Secret Twilight Visits at the Vatican Museums

After-Hours Vatican Tour

During May, June and July, then September and October, the Vatican Museums keep their doors open after sunset on Friday evenings.

Twilight visits give you access to the important collections — Pio-Clementine Museum, The Upper Galleries, the Raphael Rooms, and the Egyptian Rooms.

On late-night Fridays the museum is open until 9:30 pm.

Haunting Facts about the Vatican

  • Time's 1994 Man of the Year, Pope John Paul II, (1978 to 2005) personally performed three exorcisms during his reign.
  • The Catholic church actually has a chief exorcist, Father Gabriele Amorth, who performs about 300 exorcisms a year. His favourite movie? The Exorcist.
  • Vatican City has the highest crime rate in the world. The massive crowds make it a pickpocket's paradise and it's complicated by the fact that there's no law-enforcement agency, no prison, and only one judge. The guilty parties are usually walked back into Rome.
  • Michelangelo died before seeing his work completed in the world's tallest dome at 136 meters, or 450 feet.