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On the first day of our 12 days spent exploring Italy with Globus Tours, we started at Vatican City. To be honest, I knew very little about the Vatican, other than it housed the Sistine Chapel with its famous Michelangelo painted ceiling and the Pope. Other than looking forward to seeing that magnificent chapel, I had little interest in touring the rest of the Vatican.
Silly me. That was my ignorance talking.
I had no real idea what lay behind the those tall Vatican walls. A delightful surprise awaited me.
Check out these 10 fun facts about Vatican City, so that you know more than I did on your visit.
10 Fun Facts About Vatican City
Visit Rome, Italy and you’ll likely see the walled Vatican City, completely surrounded by Roman neighborhoods. Home to the Pope, the Sistine Chapel and incredibly beautiful architecture, this is not a sight to miss while exploring.
There’s so much more to the Vatican than the Pope’s home though. How many of these fun facts do you know?
Smallest Country in the World
Vatican City covers 121 acres, making it 1/8 the size of New York’s Central Park, and it is entirely surrounded by the city of Rome. It’s an independent city state, making it the smallest country in the world.
Vatican City is governed as an absolute monarchy, with the Pope as the head. The Vatican mints its own euros, prints its own postal stamps, issues passports and license plates, has its own flag, anthem, newspaper and radio station and operates media platforms.
The population of Vatican City numbers about 800. To gain citizenship you must work there as an employee. Lose the job, lose citizenship. There isn’t an official language.
Vatican City is the only entire country to receive the UNESCO World Heritage Site classification.
St. Peter’s Basilica Sits on a City of the Dead
During Pagan times a Roman necropolis…city of the dead…existed on Vatican Hill. When the great fire leveled Rome in AD 64, Emperor Nero accused Christians of starting the fire. He executed them at the base of the hill, in horrible ways, including Peter the apostle of Jesus. Peter was buried, supposedly, on Vatican Hill.
By the 4th century, Emperor Constantine began building the original basilica on top of the old burial grounds, with the tomb of Peter at the center. The present basilica, constructed in the 1500s, sits over a maze of catacombs.
More than 100 tombs exist inside St. Peter’s Basilica. Ninety one of these hold past Popes. However Queen Christina of Sweden rests here along with James Stuart, the pretender to the British crown.
The Obelisk that Stands in St. Peter’s Square Came from Egypt
Emperor Caligula of Rome built a small amphitheater at the base of Vatican Hill, where charioteers trained and Nero martyred the Christians. He transported an obelisk from Egypt, that once stood in Heliopolis, to the center of the amphitheater.
The obelisk, made of red granite, was built to honor an Egyptian pharaoh more than 3,000 years ago. It moved to St. Peter’s Square in 1586.
The Swiss Guard Protects the Pope
The Swiss Guard, dressed in colorful Renaissance style uniforms, serves as bodyguards to the Pope. Founded in 1506, they are the world’s smallest standing army, with 135 members currently. Although also ceremonial, the soldiers are highly trained marksmen. Members of the guard must be Swiss, Catholic and undertake basic training with the Swiss Armed Forces.
The Pope Owns a Telescope in Arizona
The Vatican owns one of the oldest astronomical research institutes in the world, the Vatican Observatory. However, because of light pollution in Rome, the Observatory purchased a top of the line telescope and installed it on a hilltop in Tucson, Arizona, in the US. It’s called the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope, with a primary use of conducting astronomical research.
There’s a Secret Passageway
A half mile long elevated covered passageway, constructed in 1277, connects the Vatican with the fortified Castel Sant’Angelo on the banks of the Tiber River. It served as an escape route for the Pope.
In 1527, Pope Clement VII used the passageway to safely evade the forces of Emperor Charles V as they murdered priests and nuns throughout the city. The Swiss Guard held back the throngs long enough for Pope Clement to escape to Castel Sant’Angelo although 147 of the guards perished.
Vatican City Has Its Own Soccer Team
Vatican City has a soccer team, called the FC Guardia. All of the players are Swiss Guards. In 1972 the city founded the Vatican City Championship. Eight teams, comprised of workers from the City’s various state departments, compete.
Vatican City Has the Highest Wine Consumption in the World
Because of its small population, the country earns the title of highest wine consumption in the world. Most of the residents of Vatican City drink wine…averaging 54 liters each per year…plus it is used in religious ceremonies.
World’s Shortest Railway
Vatican City opened a railway in 1934. At just 300 meters long, with one station, it’s the world’s shortest national railway. The train is used primarily to transport freight and occasionally for ceremonial purposes.
The Vatican Palaces are Enormous
Although it’s a small country, the Vatican palaces are huge. The palaces consist of connected buildings with more than 1,000 rooms. Inside is the Pope’s residence, plus museums, meeting rooms, chapels…including the Sistine Chapel…residential apartments and offices. Additionally, you’ll find nine miles of gorgeous artwork on display.
Have You Visited Vatican City?
I’m grateful that our tour of Italy began at Vatican City. Had I made my own travel decisions, I know I would have skipped the Vatican. And what a shame if I had. We spent all morning there. I felt amazement over the rooms and rooms of art. St. Peter’s Basilica is truly beautiful and mysterious. And the Sistine Chapel did not disappoint.
My advice: don’t skip seeing Vatican City. It’s worth spending half a day or more exploring all that this interesting place has to offer.
Have you visited Vatican City? And did you learn any new facts about it in this post?
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