With no discernible border between the two, it’s easy to forget that Vatican City is not Rome. The tiny state is entirely ensconced within Rome, however, and the riches of Vatican City is well worth a day out of your time in Rome.
My guess is that there are some details about the Vatican that you already know, but before you head to St. Peter’s Basilica let me offer you a few more interesting tidbits. I’ll wager there are at least a few things on this list that even repeat visitors to Rome didn’t know.
Read more in my Vatican City guide!
- Vatican City is the smallest independent nation on earth. – Perhaps the most widely-known fact about Vatican City is that it’s the smallest country in the world. But do you have a sense of just how small it is? Vatican City is a mere 0.17 square miles – less than 109 acres. The city-state of Monaco, just outside Nice on the French Riviera, is also extremely small, but Vatican City would fit inside Monaco more than 4.5 times. When you compare Vatican City with Russia, the world’s largest country, the difference is staggering – Vatican City would fit inside Russia more than 38,833,341 times.
- But you can’t get a Vatican passport stamp. – Despite the fact that Vatican City is its own independent country, you can’t get a Vatican passport stamp. In some of the world’s other tiny city-states you can pay a small fee at the post office and get your passport stamped just for fun – but Vatican City doesn’t offer that service. While this may be disappointing to some passport stamp collectors, at least you don’t have to worry about bringing your passport with you when you visit the Vatican from Rome.
- St. Peter’s Basilica is the largest church in the world. – St. Peter’s Basilica is a whopping 730 feet long and 500 feet wide and covers more than 5 acres, and it’s capable of holding more than 60,000 people at a time. Markings on the floor of St. Peter’s Basilica indicate the size of the 15 next-largest churches in the world – in other words, they would each fit inside St. Peter’s.
- The Vatican has its own post office and radio network. – You may not be able to go into a nearby post office to get a passport stamp, but Vatican City does have its own post office. It’s well-known to be more reliable than Italy’s postal service, so if you’re the postcard-sending sort, bring your postcards to mail from the Vatican. Stamp collectors will want to stop at the Vatican post office, too, as they have their own unique stamps. The Vatican also has its own radio network – with more than 200 journalists reporting from 61 countries worldwide – broadcast in 47 languages.
- Vatican City mints its own euro coins. – All of the countries that use the euro currency mint their own coins, with unique designs on one side so you can tell which country each coin comes from. The Vatican is no exception – their euro coins display the likeness of the current pope. Actually getting hold of one of these coins can be challenging, however, even if you’re spending money in Vatican City. They’re popular with coin collectors, and often go for far more than the value of the coins themselves.
- St. Peter’s Basilica has been around for more than 300 years longer than Vatican City. – The massive St. Peter’s Basilica was consecrated in 1626 after 120 of construction work. It was built on the site of the 4th century St. Peter’s Basilica, and both churches mark the spot where St. Peter is said to have been buried. The Papacy has been headquartered in and around modern-day Rome since early Christianity, but Vatican City as an official independent nation has only existed since the 1929 Lateran Treaty signed between the Italian government and the Holy See.
- The famous Sistine Chapel chimney is temporary. – The Sistine Chapel chimney everyone watches during a papal conclave to see whether the smoke is black or white isn’t a permanent fixture – it’s installed before a conclave, and removed after.
- Popes used to keep their names. – Today, when a new pope is elected we are accustomed to him taking a new name – his papal name – and no longer being referred to by the name given him at birth. But this wasn’t always so. Prior to 1555, popes continued to use their birth names after becoming pope. The last pope to do this was Pope Marcellus II. Incidentally, the most common papal names are: John (21 popes), Gregory (16 popes), Benedict (15 popes), Clement (14 popes), Innocent (13 popes), and Leo (13 popes).
- Vatican City is the only entire country on UNESCO’s List of World Heritage Sites. – The UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites can make a great checklist for travelers, as it endeavors to protect and preserve places with cultural importance. Italy has more UNESCO sites listed than any other country, but that’s not the only bit of UNESCO-related trivia in Italy. The whole of Vatican City is on UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites list, and it’s the only listing that is an entire country.
- The Vatican Museums get an average of 25,000 visitors every day. – There are many superlatives you can throw at the Vatican Museums, the Vatican’s extensive collection of some of the most incredible art on earth. Founded in 1506, the current Vatican Museums broke attendance records in 2011, topping 5 million annual visitors for the first time. (That’s enough to fill London’s 90,000-seat Wembley Stadium more than 55 times.) Certainly some days are busier than others, but on average, 25,000 people visit the Vatican Museums every single day – which is as good a reason as any to book a guided tour so you can bypass the long ticket line.
- There are more than 120,000 pieces of art in the Vatican Museums collection. – Another excellent reason to book a guided tour of the Vatican Museums is the ridiculous number of masterpieces in its 54 rooms. Even though only 70,000 of its 120,000 works of art are usually on display, you’d spend more than 80 days in the building if you spent a minute looking at every single piece. Knowing what to focus on – and what to skip – can be the difference between enjoying the Vatican Museums and thinking they’re tedious.
- Italy wins the race among pope-producing countries. – It’s probably not surprising, given the location of Vatican City, that most of the popes in history have been Italian. Italy’s impressive lead in the standings isn’t likely to be caught anytime soon, either. 196 popes have been Italian, followed by 15 from France, 11 from Greece, 5 from Germany, and 5 from Syria. Besides Argentina, other countries that count only one pope are: Croatia, Israel (whose pope was Saint Peter), Netherlands, Poland, and the United Kingdom.
- The Pope is the ceremonial chief of the Vatican military. – You may have seen the colorfully-costumed guards around the Vatican, and you may know they’re the Swiss Guards. This elite force is technically the Vatican’s military, charged with protecting the pope in a way that’s similar to the secret service protecting the U.S. President. And, just like the president is also the Commander in Chief of the U.S. military, the pope is actually the Ceremonial Chief of the Vatican military. As the name implies, Swiss Guard soldiers are, indeed, Swiss. The division of the Swiss Guards that’s stationed in Vatican City is technically called the Pontifical Swiss Guard (other branches have served other European courts). They’ve been the Vatican’s guards since 1506, and guards must not only complete military training but also be Catholic, single, and male. The Swiss Guards take their jobs very seriously, and do not pose for photographs with tourists.
- Michelangelo did not design the Swiss Guard uniforms. – This is a common myth, and it sounds fun, but it’s not true. The uniforms are brightly striped in yellow, red, and blue with a large, standing white collar, dramatically poofed sleeves (with a ruffle of red at the wrist), puffy pantaloons with coordinated stockings underneath, and typically a black or blue beret. While the uniforms are inspired by those worn during the Renaissance, the modern design only dates to the early 1900s.
- Vatican City has citizens, but no one is born there. – Vatican City’s population was 836 as of July 2012. But citizenship in Vatican City isn’t based on being born there – indeed, there isn’t a hospital in Vatican City so no one is born there. Instead, Vatican citizenship is based on “jus officii,” meaning someone has been appointed to work for the Holy See. This citizenship usually ends when the appointment ends. And yes, these Vatican citizens get Vatican passports – but still no Vatican passport stamps.
- 78 former popes are now saints. – It’s probably not surprising that so many popes have been made saints. Of the 78 former popes that are now saints, 49 of them are the first 49 popes, through Pope (now Saint) Julius I, who was pope from 337-352 AD. Beyond those 78, 11 more have been “beatified” (“blessed”), which is the last stop in the canonization process prior to sainthood. Pope John Paul II alone beatified more than 1,340 people – more than the combined efforts of the popes from 1590 on. Pope John Paul II himself was beatified a short six years after he died.
- The youngest pope may have been 11 at his election. – There’s some disagreement among church historians about which pope was actually the youngest when he assumed the post, and exactly how young he was. One story says that Pope Benedict IX was 18 when he became pope in 1032, but some now believe he was actually more like 11 or 12 at the time. Others think that he was actually closer to 20, which would make Pope John XII the youngest pope ever, at the age of 18 in the year 954. For comparison, the oldest pope at the time of election was Pope Clement X, who was 79 when he became pope in 1670, and the oldest pope at the time of his death was Pope Leo XIII, who died in 1903 at the age of 93.
- Vatican City (technically) has the highest crime rate on earth. – Because of the Vatican’s low official population, the crime rate is listed at roughly 1.5 crimes per person, supposedly giving it the highest crime rate in the world. This doesn’t take into account the millions of tourists who visit Vatican City each year but aren’t factored into its population, so that “highest crime rate” designation is pretty ridiculous. Still, there’s no doubt Vatican City is a pickpocket’s dream thanks to the huge influx of awe-struck tourists every day – so keep your valuables safe. (Might I suggest a money belt?)
Guided Tours in Vatican City
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