Whether or not you’re a practicing Catholic, the Vatican—the world’s second-smallest sovereign independent state—is a must-see when you’re in Rome , if only for its enormous art collection. In truth, it has more art than most children (or most adults) can appreciate, so keep your focus narrow: Tell the kids you’re here to see the work of one great artist, Michelangelo. Everything else is icing on the cake.
You enter Vatican City through grand colonnaded St. Peter’s Square, where the Pope himself appears on a balcony at noon every Sunday (except mid-July to mid-Sept) to bless the gathered multitudes. Straight ahead is the massive facade of St. Peter’s Basilica, Piazza San Pietro, topped by a majestic dome designed by Michelangelo. (Note: The basilica has a strict dress code: no shorts, no skirts above the knee, and no bare shoulders and arms.) St. Peter was allegedly buried here in A . D . 64; this is the second basilica on the site, mostly completed in the 1500s and 1600s. Don’t be surprised if the riot of gilt, marble, and mosaic inside overwhelms you all—that’s what it was designed to do. Steer the kids into the first nave on the right to see (sadly, behind reinforced glass) a young Michelangelo’s exquisite sculpture of the Pietà, with a tender Virgin Mary cradling the crucified body of her son Jesus. Pass through the grottoes, getting a peek at St. Peter’s tomb, then wait in line to climb to the dome (separate ticket). You can walk up all 491 steps or take an elevator and walk only 320 steps (only!); at the top you’ll have an astounding view over the rooftops of Rome.
Next you visit the Vatican Museums (yet another ticket line), housed in a section of the papal palaces, a labyrinthine series of lavish apartments and galleries. This collection of treasures from antiquity and the Renaissance is so big that visitors are given a choice of four partial tours—all of them ending in the Sistine Chapel. Among much else, you may choose to see the Borgia Apartments, with their frescoes of biblical scenes, or the Raphael Rooms, decorated by Raphael and his workshop for Pope Julius II (the highlight is the second room’s scene of the Greek philosophers, who are actually portraits of great Renaissance artists). Eventually you’ll reach the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo’s command performance for Pope Julius II. It took the artist 4 taxing years in his 30s to complete the nine panels on the ceiling, whose themes are taken from the pages of Genesis. The most famous are Adam and Eve being expelled from the Garden of Eden and the Creation of Man—bring binoculars so the kids can see the details, especially God’s outstretched finger giving the divine spark of life to Adam. On the altar wall is a late Michelangelo painting, the Last Judgment, wherein some of the doomed sinners resemble Michelangelo’s enemies. Hey, even great artists can be petty.