Today on the blog we have an international travel feature from blogger and student Olivia Cunningham.  

She is a college student who blogs about travel, frugality, religion, culture, and life in general at You can find her on Facebook at


Vatican City is a definite must-see for travelers to Rome, especially Catholics. Its single square mile is simply steeped in history, both of the Church and of the Roman Empire before it. Any visitor to the Vatican should see St. Peter’s Basilica and the Sistine Chapel, but some of my favorite things at the Vatican are details that often go unnoticed.

When you enter St. Peter’s Square, spend a few minutes just taking everything in. It truly is huge and impressive, not to mention that it’s hard to wrap your mind around the fact that you’re standing not far from where St. Peter was crucified, in the middle of one of Nero’s circuses. Be sure to find the marker on the ground that indicates where the columns of Bernini’s colonnade line up, making it appear as if it’s all one column.

Explore the obelisk and the fountains in the piazza and then turn to the right. The plain building that abuts the square to the right of the basilica is where the Papal Apartments are located. The first three windows of the top floor are the pope’s windows! The third from the right is where he will appear to deliver his blessing every Sunday at noon. Pope Francis has chosen not to live in the apartment, preferring a simpler style, but still uses the space as an office.

Next, look at the building that is slightly recessed between the basilica and the apartment. Notice the portrait of the Madonna. Legend has it that in 1981 when Pope John Paul II was shot, he prayed to the Virgin Mary as he was carried out of the square. In tribute to her protection of him that day, he thought that an icon of her was missing from the piazza. Eventually, an appropriate one was found and installed, so that future pilgrims would have a visual reminder of Mary, the mother of the Church, and her protection.

Inside the basilica, you must see Michelangelo’s Pieta and Bernini’s dome. But don’t neglect to notice some of the other monuments, including the tombs of Bonnie Prince Charlie and his relatives and Queen Christina of Sweden.

Pilgrims typically walk around the church in a counter-clockwise circle. About 2/3 of the way around, to the left of the altar, is the entrance to the crypt. Entrance to the first level, which includes many, many tombs of popes and such, as well as some preserved walls and paintings from the earliest time of the basilica, is entirely free. Guided tours of the lower excavations, which include St. Peter’s tomb, must be made by appointment and cost about ten euro. If you don’t have time or inclination for that kind of commitment, the free crypt is fascinating and an easy addition to your visit.

Another overlooked point of interest inside the church is the adoration chapel, which contains a beautifully intricate tabernacle designed by Bernini. It is reserved for prayer only (no pictures allowed) and attended by a guard, but it’s well worth a few minutes to spend in silent prayer and contemplation.

After you exit, spend some time in the piazza, perhaps eating a gelato from the famous nearby Old Bridge gelateria. St. Peter’s Square is one of the best places to people-watch in all of Rome.

Finally, the Vatican post office is located on the left side of the colonnade (as if you’re looking at the church). It’s a convenient place to mail postcards, and much faster than the notoriously slow Italian post. Make sure to let them know that your letter is going to the USA if you need an international stamp.

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