10 Fascinating Facts About Vatican City: A Must-Know Guide

10 Fascinating Facts About Vatican City

Buongiorno, travelers! Max here, your loyal guide to all things Italian. In this article, let’s uncover 10 interesting facts about Vatican City that highlight its allure and importance, making it a must-visit for travelers to Italy.

Vatican City, the spiritual and administrative heart of the Roman Catholic Church, is a sovereign city-state filled with history and cultural significance. Nestled in the heart of Rome, it attracts millions of visitors each year.

So, here they are, 10 must-know facts before you visit this incredible historical site.

1. Home to the smallest country in the world

Map of Vatican City
Vatican City, a tiny state within Rome

Vatican City is the smallest independent state in the world. It covers 108.7 acres, making it even smaller than some large city parks. Despite its tiny size, the Vatican holds significant global importance.

This small state is surrounded by Rome, Italy. It serves as the spiritual and administrative center of the Roman Catholic Church. Because of this, it draws millions of visitors each year.

The Vatican is unique, not only because of its size but also because of its role. The Pope resides here and serves as the head of both the Catholic Church and the Vatican government. The governance structure is quite distinctive, given the blend of religious and administrative duties.

The Lateran Treaty of 1929 established the state’s boundaries and recognized its sovereignty. This treaty, signed between the Holy See and Italy, affirms Vatican City’s independence.

Economically, the Vatican relies on donations, museum admission fees, and the sale of publications and postage stamps. No hard figures are available, but these revenues support the tiny state’s operations. 

2. Population of around 800 people

The Vatican, the smallest independent state in the world, has a population of about 800 residents. Most of these inhabitants are clergy members, including the Pope, alongside the Swiss Guard, who are responsible for the Pope’s safety and are known for their distinctive uniforms.

In addition to the clergy and Swiss Guard, laypeople also reside in Vatican City. These individuals work in various capacities to support the city’s daily operations, from administration to maintenance.

Citizenship is granted based on an appointment to a specific role within the Holy See’s service, which extends to spouses, parents, and other cohabiting relatives. When the appointment ends, the Vatican’s citizenship is revoked.

Most residents live within the Vatican walls, though some commute from outside due to limited housing.

Despite its small size, Vatican City offers high-quality healthcare and education to its residents, fostering a well-supported and close-knit community. This tiny population plays a significant role in the global Catholic Church.

3. Houses the famous Sistine Chapel

Interior of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican Museums
The Sistine Chapel’s stunning ceilings

The Sistine Chapel, one of the most famous art spaces in the world, is located in Vatican City. It is known for its stunning ceiling, which Michelangelo painted between 1508 and 1512.

Michelangelo’s ceiling features scenes from the Book of Genesis, including the famous depiction of Adam’s creation. Each part of the ceiling shows biblical stories with incredible detail.

In addition to Michelangelo’s work, the chapel houses frescoes by other renowned artists. Painters like Cosimo Rosselli, Sandro Botticelli, Domenico Ghirlandaio, and Perugino signed a joint contract in 1481 to produce frescoes in the chapel, adding to its artistic richness.

The Sistine Chapel is used for important religious ceremonies, including the election of new popes. This makes it an art treasure and a functional part of the Vatican’s religious life.

Suggested Read: 10 Famous Artists from Italy You Need to Know

4. St. Peter’s Basilica is a major attraction

Interior view of St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City
St. Peter’s Basilica: a masterpiece of Renaissance architecture

St. Peter’s Basilica is widely regarded as the largest Catholic church in the world in terms of interior area. It is a significant pilgrimage site and a masterpiece of Renaissance architecture. Its impressive dome, designed by Michelangelo, stands tall and can be seen across Rome.

Inside the basilica, you’ll find stunning art and architecture. St. Peter’s Baldachin, a large bronze canopy created by Italian artist Gian Lorenzo Bernini, is a highlight. The beautiful mosaics and sculptures will leave you in awe.

Climbing to the top of the dome offers a breathtaking view of Vatican City and Rome. It’s a bit of a workout, but the panoramic scene is worth it.

St. Peter’s Basilica is not just a tourist spot. It’s an important place of worship for Catholics. Many come to attend Mass or pray at the tomb of St. Peter, which is located beneath the basilica.

Suggested Read: Italian Blessings & Prayers: Unveiling Italy’s Spiritual Heritage

5. Vatican Museums host extensive art collections

You can explore some of the most impressive art collections in the world at the Vatican Museums. They hold thousands of works ranging from ancient sculptures to Renaissance masterpieces.

Among the highlights are the Sistine Chapel ceiling painted by Michelangelo and the Raphael Rooms. These works are famous for their incredible detail and historical significance.

The Vatican Museums also include an extensive collection of Egyptian artifacts, including mummies and papyrus scrolls. You can also find Greek and Roman statues, highlighting the rich artistic heritage.

In addition to these, the museums feature religious art, including early Christian and medieval pieces. The Gallery of Maps is another fascinating exhibit, displaying large maps of Italy created in the late 16th century.

6. The Swiss Guard protects the Pope

Pontifical Swiss Guards in Vatican
The Swiss Guard: iconic protectors in colorful uniforms

The Swiss Guard is a small force responsible for the Pope’s safety. Its striking uniforms and disciplined presence make it hard to miss in Vatican City. Pope Julius II initially employed them in 1506 to ensure his safety against adversaries of the Church.

Joining the Swiss Guard isn’t easy. Recruits must be unmarried Swiss Catholic men. They need to complete basic military training and have a high level of personal conduct. This ensures that only the best protection for the Pope is provided.

The Swiss Guard’s living quarters are within Vatican City. They perform many duties, including standing guard during events and ceremonies. Their presence is not just symbolic; they are trained to react to threats swiftly.

The Swiss Guard played critical roles during historical conflicts. Their courage and loyalty are legendary. For instance, when German troops sacked Rome in 1527, many guards sacrificed themselves to defend the Pope.

The Swiss Guard has other roles besides providing security. They assist at the entrances to Vatican City, checking visitors and maintaining order. You’ll often see them at the Apostolic Palace and Saint Peter’s Basilica. 

These soldiers represent a blend of tradition and commitment, serving a vital role in Vatican City.

7. Vatican City is a World Heritage Site

Vatican City is uniquely honored to be the only country in the world entirely designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

This recognition was bestowed in 1984, highlighting this tiny yet monumental enclave’s exceptional cultural and historical significance. The designation covers the entire city-state of Vatican City and several extraterritorial properties in Rome.

Notable among these are the awe-inspiring Basilica of St. Peter, a masterpiece of Renaissance architecture, and the Basilica of Saint Mary Major, one of Rome’s major early Christian basilicas.

This comprehensive listing underscores the Vatican’s global importance as an art, history, and spirituality treasure trove.

8. Official languages are Italian and Latin

Inscription in Latin language
Both Italian and Latin are official languages in Vatican City

The Vatican City is unique because both Italian and Latin are its official languages. Italian is commonly used in daily communication and administration, while Latin plays a crucial role in the Vatican.

Latin is the historic language of the Roman Catholic Church and is used in many formal documents, liturgies, and ceremonies. Many signs, official publications, and communications in the Vatican are either Italian or Latin, reflecting the city’s rich cultural and religious heritage.

For example, Latin is often the primary language during events like papal masses, showcasing its continuing importance in ecclesiastical tradition. Unsurprisingly, the Vatican Bank’s ATM provides instructions in Latin.

The presence of Latin and Italian in Vatican City highlights its connection to ancient Rome and the Catholic Church’s traditions. You often hear a mix of these languages when you visit, offering a unique linguistic experience.

Suggested Read: 10 Famous Latin Quotes and Meanings

9. Located entirely within Rome

Vatican City is unique because it is surrounded by Rome. Unlike most countries, it does not have traditional borders. Instead, Vatican City is encased within Rome’s streets and landmarks. This proximity creates a seamless blend of history and culture between Rome and Vatican City.

When you visit, you can leave Vatican City and immediately find yourself walking through Rome. The integration is so tight that crossing from one to the other can feel almost effortless.

This unique location also means Vatican City relies on Rome for many essential services. Despite this, it maintains its governance and security, showcasing an interesting coexistence.

10. The Pope resides in Vatican City

View of Apostolic Palace from Saint Peter's Square in Vatican City
The Apostolic Palace, the Pope’s official home, seen from St. Peter’s Square

The Pope resides in Vatican City, a small sovereign state in the heart of Rome that serves as the spiritual and administrative center of the Roman Catholic Church.

The Pope’s official residence is the Apostolic Palace, a historic building that has housed popes for centuries. It includes the papal apartments, offices, and the Vatican Museums.

Living in Vatican City allows the Pope to be at the center of the Church’s activities. As the spiritual leader, he oversees various functions and ceremonies throughout the year.

As mentioned earlier, Vatican City’s population is quite small, consisting mostly of clergy and members of the Swiss Guard, the Pope’s personal security team.

This secure and private environment provides the Pope with immediate access to essential religious and administrative facilities, underscoring his significant role in religious and political matters within the state.

Before You Go…

If you’re intrigued by these facts about the Vatican, don’t miss our guide on how to spend One Day in Rome for an unforgettable tour of the Eternal City.

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