If you are thinking of taking your summer vacation in Rome, with the goal of also visiting the Vatican, you are in good company. And lots of it.
The tiny quarter-mile-square city-state is the most popular tourist destination in Rome, with estimates ranging between 4 and 5 million tourists each year and upwards of 25,000 per day. Visitors range from the faithful on pilgrimage to the larger Catholic community to the merely curious.
While there are several must-see and must-do activities, there is no one-size-fits-all plan for a visit to the Vatican.
Mention summer visits to the Vatican to those who have been and invariably the first thing they mention is the heat – and humidity.
Father Ed Becker, pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in La Habra, spent two years studying in Rome and says summer heat is why Romans use July and August as the time to escape. The downside for visitors is that the exodus can mean closed restaurants and stores.
However, Father Ed says people shouldn’t let concerns like weather and crowds stop them from the trip of a lifetime.
“You just have to be aware,” he says.
Generally the top two sights on most people’s lists are the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica. To reach the Sistine Chapel, visitors must enter through the Vatican museums. Tours generally arrive in the morning and anyone planning to walk up should be prepared for hours-long lines. Weekday afternoons are a little less busy. Saturdays are most crowded with weekend visitors from elsewhere in Italy and Europe. The museums are closed most Sundays. If the pope is in town, Saint Peter’s Basilica is closed during the Wednesday morning papal audience in St. Peter’s Square.
There are numerous tours of the museums, and while Father Ed says some can be expensive, they allow visitors to skip the lines. In addition to the many private tour companies, the Vatican has an online ticket office on its home page at mv.vatican.va with a variety of choices.
While the Sistine Chapel is the climax of the museum tour, there is much else to see, such as the magnificent frescoes by Raphael.
Father Ed also suggests hiring a guide for St. Peter’s Basilica.
“Take the tour, especially if it’s your first time,” he says. “Then you can allow time after to go back through and take it all in. It’s worth spending some time.”
First-time visitors should also be aware that the Vatican dress code requires shoulders and midriffs to be covered, and legs to be covered below the knee. There are also security checkpoints and no talking of any kind in the Sistine Chapel.
As one past visitor says, “Just remember, you’re walking on sacred ground.”
Tourists are nonetheless advised to keep a tight hold on their valuables, especially in the crowded vendor areas.
Near the top of Father Ed’s list is the Scavi tour, which takes visitors into archaeological dig areas and the tomb of St. Peter. It is limited to 250 people per day and reservations must be made well in advance. The Vatican website (mv.vatican.va) has specifics.
“Everybody raves about it,” Father Ed says.
Another highlight is a general audience with the pope. Although past popes traveled to Castel Gandolfo during summers, Pope Francis plans to remain in Rome. According to the Prefecture of the Papal Household, the pope will have general audiences through June. They are currently suspended in July. The rest of the pontiff’s summer schedule has not been announced.
For the faithful, if the Pope is having an audience, attending is a must, says Father Ed.
“That is a faith experience,” he says, “It’s an energy that can’t be described, being in the body of Christ, past, present and future. And if you happen to be lucky enough to get into a Mass, wow.”
The pope is scheduled to conduct liturgical celebrations June 4 and June 29.
Papal audiences are held Wednesdays at 10 a.m. Tickets are free and can be requested from Santa Susana Church, the home of the American Catholic Church in Rome (santasusana.org). The audience also can be viewed from the back of St. Peter’s Square without tickets.
An audience with the pope consists of small teachings and readings mainly in Italian and ends in prayer with the pontiff, and a blessing. It usually lasts 90 minutes to two hours.
On Sundays at noon, the pope appears briefly at the window of his apartment with a greeting, short speech, recitation of the Angelus and a blessing.
Although options may at times see overwhelming, Father Ed says it’s important to figure out your main goals.
“Don’t overload yourself,” he says. “If you try to see everything, you won’t see anything well.”
While the Vatican is an important part of any visit to Rome, Father Ed says there is so much more.
“If someone goes to Rome and only sees the Vatican, that would be ridiculous,” he says. “It would be almost sinful.”
Father Ed says even Saint Paul is not buried within the walls of the Vatican and the entire city is steeped in Catholicism. To Father Ed, some of the fascination of Rome is exploring. To him, venturing beyond the Vatican is “necessary to the Catholic experience.”