For one week this September, Pope Francis will trade umbrella pines and St. Peter’s Basilica for New York skyscrapers and D.C.’s Capitol dome. But although Catholics look forward to his trip to the U.S., a Roman holiday to the Vatican remains the best way to get close to the pope.
Secret Garden: The Vatican’s 800-year-old gardens—filled with classical statues, exotic flowers, and graceful fountains—are now open for tours (booked through the Vatican website). Don’t miss the miniature copy of the Lourdes Basilica and Grotto, given to the pope by French Catholics in 1905.
Your Own Sistine Chapel: The home of the papal enclave is as famed for crowds as it is for Michelangelo’s frescoes. Luckily, some tour companies, like Dark Rome and Walks of Italy, can bump you to the front of the line to enter the chapel, while others, including Italy With Us, offer an intimate evening tour.
Papal Gelato: During his 26-year papacy, Pope John Paul II couldn’t resist the temptation of gelato from Rome institution Giolitti. The shop regularly delivered his favorite flavor—marron glacé (candied chestnuts)—directly to the Vatican.
Tailor-Made: Six generations of the Gammarelli family (since 1798) have outfitted bishops, cardinals, and at least six popes. Even if you don’t need a cassock measured, stop at the circa 1874 shop, located near the Pantheon, just to admire its sumptuous vestments—or to scoop up church fashion for the layman: the shop’s famed knee-high socks in cardinal red or bishop purple.
Picture-Perfect: For the quirkiest photo op of St. Peter’s, leave Vatican City for the Aventine Hill headquarters of the Order of Malta. Peek through the entry-door keyhole to see the perfectly framed dome, taking in three sovereign states (the Order, Italy, and Vatican City) in one glance.
Spot the Pope: You don’t need to be Catholic for a papal audience. Anyone can apply for (free) tickets for his general audience, held Wednesday mornings at St. Peter’s (in summer at Castel Gandolfo), by writing to the Prefecture of the Papal Household. No tickets? Head to St. Peter’s Square on Sunday at noon for a glimpse of the pope instead; he gives a blessing from his residence window.
Prati’s New Eats: The Prati neighborhood just beyond the Vatican walls has upped its culinary game. Recent arrivals include Romeo (with a menu boasting everything from rigatoni carbonara to a hamburger with fontina cheese and apricot chutney), gelateria Fatamorgana, and a bakery from Rome’s beloved bread master, Gabriele Bonci, which also serves pizza by the slice.
Michelangelo Who? Sixty years before Michelangelo painted the Sistine ceiling, 15th-century genius Fra Angelico decorated Pope Nicholas V’s private chapel with stunning frescoes. A deeply devout friar later beatified by Pope John Paul II, Fra Angelico was also an artist of extraordinary sensitivity and storytelling ability, as shown in his frescoes from the lives of St. Lawrence and St. Stephen.
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Veronica’s Veil: While walking around the baldachin of St. Peter’s Basilica, pause before the statue of St. Veronica. The chapel above holds the veil believed to be imprinted with Christ’s face; usually under lock and key, Veronica’s veil is displayed to the faithful during vespers on Palm Sunday from the small balcony in front of the chapel.
An Unconventional Stay: Located on Rome’s loveliest square, Piazza Farnese, the 15th-century Casa di Santa Brigida is a convent with simple guest rooms with parqueted floors and antique furniture. You’re even welcome to join the Brigidine sisters for meals and services, which include daily Mass at 7:30 a.m.—or, if you’d rather, you can head up to the rooftop at 4 p.m. to sip wine and listen to the sisters singing vespers below. Make sure to peek at the rooms of the Swedish St. Bridget herself, who lived here in the 14th century.
This article, written by Amanda Ruggeri, first appeared in the August/September 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveler magazine.