Due to the “rock star” popularity of Pope Francis, the Vatican is becoming increasingly popular for tourists and pilgrims alike. Vatican City is expecting 50 million visitors over the course of the year in honor of the Jubilee which started in December 2015. Here are my insider tips to avoid the crowds and queues and visit alternative sites in Vatican City beyond the Sistine Chapel.
The Vatican underground
Below St. Peter’s Basilica are the tombs of over 100 Popes. Further below is an even more enigmatic place called the Vatican necropolis containing the bones of the Apostle Peter. A visit to the necropolis can be booked through the Excavations office called the Scavi. Access is limited to 250 visitors a day and therefore must be booked months in advance. On your guided visit you can see ancient wall graffiti, pre-Christian pagan crypts, and ruins of Emperor Nero’s circus that supports the church above.
Another noteworthy site of underground tombs is the Via Triumphalis, recently discovered during the construction of a new parking lot for Vatican City. A tour of these tombs from the Roman Republic and Empire can be booked through the Vatican Museums website. You will be amazed to find hundreds of tombs dating from the 1st century BC to the 4th Century AD and admire funerary urns, memorial stones, epitaphs, and grave goods.
The Mosaic Workshop
The Pope’s private mosaic art studio called the Fabbrica di San Pietro was established in the 18th Century to advance and safeguard an art technique deeply connected to the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica. Today in the workshop, privileged visitors can watch a handful of artists chiseling color compounds and painstakingly applying minute tile pieces to a putty base producing rare “paintings in mosaic”.
These artists also work to restore hundreds of thousands of square feet of mosaic tile decoration inside St. Peter’s Basilica. They also design mosaic masterpieces for the Pope to present as diplomatic gifts to foreign heads of state. A visit to the small workshop will also lead you into their gallery space to see their art work for sale, including some rare antique art works made in the studio when it was established hundreds of years ago. Tickets are not available for this experience- you will need to enlist the services of a private tour guide for this. This is a hidden gem in every sense!
The Vatican Gardens and Castle Gondolfo
For the first time in history the Vatican has opened the Vatican train for passenger service. Every Saturday the Vatican is offering “Full Day in the Vatican” tours that start with a tour of the Pope’s 50-acre gardens in Vatican City. Visitors then board the historic train at the Vatican’s internal train station built in the 1930′s, to head to the Papal gardens at the Pope’s lake house, Castel Gondolfo.
The gardens in Vatican City are full of topiary art and plants from around the world such as American Ivy and Australian bunya-bunya trees. They also contain an organic fruit and vegetable garden with which the Vatican produces olive oil and wine for the few hundred residents of Vatican City. The gardens at Castel Gondolfo are 75 acres large and built on top of ruins from the time of Emperor Domitian. The “Full Day in the Vatican Tour” can be booked through the Vatican Museums website.
The Vatican can be an over whelming place with Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel attracting more than 30,000 visitors a day. My advice is instead of being overwhelmed by this tiny country’s more obvious attractions, take advantage of its beauty and history, exploring behind the scenes and below the surface.
Greg Grant is Owner of Hosted Villas.