Rome and the Vatican are tied together since Christianity started. But the influence of the Pope is not limited to just the Vatican. The Vatican owns many properties and you can visit them in Rome and surroundings. If you’re wondering where you could meet and see the Pope in Rome, I have 9 recommendations for you.
Note to the reader: I’m aware the Vatican and her leaders are currently in the news for (covering up) abuse. Obviously, I do not support this in any shape or form. However, this doesn’t mean the buildings of the Vatican are no longer important and interesting. As a curious traveler, I think it is good to see the properties of the Vatican and learn more about the Papal influence. Having said that, I do like to point out that I’m not religious. My interest in the Papal properties is more out of curiosity for nice things and historic significance. If you’re looking for religious places to experience your religion, some of these churches might be perfect for prayers and reflection, while others are not suited for this purpose.
I paid for everything in full myself. I was not paid or sponsored. All my opinions and experiences are my own.
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9 Places you might see the Pope in Rome
Places of Papal Influence in Rome and surroundings
- Castel Sant’Angelo
- Santa Maria Maggiore
- Saint John in Lateran
- Papal Palace in Viterbo
- Papal Palace of Castel Gandolfo
- Vatican Gardens
- Sistine Chapel
- Saint Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City
- Audience with the Pope at Saint Peter’s Square
Continue reading below for a more detailed description of each of these places. Or click the link above to jump straight to the subject of your interest.
Papal refuge at Castel Sant’Angelo
Emperor Hadrian built the Castel Sant’Angelo or Castle of the Angels
In the 14th century, the Papal Castle of Angels was annexed to St. Peter’s Basilica via a secret, covered and fortified corridor. They called it: Passetto di Borgo. In the 15th century, the Pope fled to Castel Sant’Angelo during the sack of Rome.
In 1536, a marble statue of Saint Michael with his sword was added, that gave the castle its name we know today. It was later replaced by a bronze statue that you can see today.
In later centuries, Castel Sant’Angelo was used as a prison and the courtyard was used for executions. Today, it houses the National Museum of Castel Sant’Angelo and you can visit it as such. Make sure to walk across the Bridge of Angels to see the Castle and Saint Michael at the top in full glory. From the top terraces, you’ll have a stunning view of Rome and St. Peter’s Basilica.
Unfortunately, Castel Sant’Angelo is not free to visit. You must buy a ticket to enter as nowadays it is a museum. Purchase your skip-the-line-tickets in advance here.
Papal Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore
The Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore is one of the 4 Papal Basilica. This means, the Pope can use it to perform sermons and the Vatican owns the church by the Vatican. The Pope usually performs the rites for the feast of the Assumption of Mary of August 15th.
The Santa Maria Maggiore was constructed between 422 and 432 ACE. The saga tells the story that the location for the Santa Maria Maggiore was chosen because it snowed on that location in August. A sign for the divine.
The Santa Maria Maggiore is one of my favorite churches in Rome, because of its size and mixture of building styles, ranging from earlier Christianity to Baroque. Inside you’ll find 5th-century mosaics, impeccable Cosmati flooring,
The Santa Maria Maggiore offers a few times a day tours to see the Papal Loggia and several rooms with Papal artifacts like robes and Bibles. You’ll also get a sneak peek at one of Bernini’s masterpieces, his spiral staircase. The tour is only a couple of Euro and really worth it. A visit to the Papal Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore is free.
Of course, if you’re really interested in the background and history of the Santa Maria Maggiore, you can book a guided tour with a guide.
Papal Basilica of Saint John of Lateran
The oldest and most important of the 4 Papal Basilicas is the Archbasilica of Saint John in Lateran. It is the main Cathedral of the Archbishop in Rome and therefore holds a very important place on the list of most important churches (in the Catholic world). It is seen as the Mother Church of Christianity and even ‘outranks’ Saint Peter’s Basilica in importance.
The current church stands on the remains of a Roman fort and early Christian churches. The name Lateran comes from the earlier palaces of the Lateran family. The facade we face today was completed in 1735 and is by the hand of famous Baroque architect Borromini.
He’s also responsible for the immense statues of the 12 Apostles inside the Saint John of Lateran. The main feature is the 14th-century high altar, supposedly made with the wood from the altar of Saint John.
Things to see at St. John of Lateran
From the church, you can also visit the cloister garden of the old monastery. A typical courtyard cloister garden with delicately twisted columns. A really nice retreat to escape busy Rome. A visit to the Lateran Baptistery with its octagonal basin is also a nice thing to do.
Across the road from Saint John of Lateran, you’ll find the Scala Sancta or Holy Stairs. A must-do for committed Christians who want to follow in the footsteps of Jesus Christ.
A visit to Saint John of Lateran is free, but a small fee must be paid to enter the cloister garden and another admission is required for the Holy Staircase.
Papal Palace in Viterbo
As you might know, the seat of the Catholic Church did not always reside in Rome and the Vatican. You can find one of the alternative locations at the Papal Palace in Viterbo. I visited Viterbo on my way from Rome to Orvieto. Viterbo is located roughly 80 km (50 miles) north of Rome.
Besides its cute compact medieval center, the main attraction in Viterbo is the Papal Palace or the Palazzo
You can visit the Papal Palace t
The Papal Palace of Viterbo is not that big, you’ll enter via a wide staircase and I loved the open loggia with the petite columns on the piazza side. On the other side, you’ll have a panoramic view of the city of Viterbo. I found the main hall a bit boring from an architectural point of view. They did spruce up the place by informative panels about the 24 years the palace was used by the popes. It holds some intriguing information about the first and longest conclave in history with reference to the markings on the floor where the Cardinals would pitch their tents! Can you imagine that?
Papal Palace of Castel Gandolfo, the Pope’s summer residence
Where do you think the Pope spent his summer holidays? He can’t really take a vacation in Ibiza now does he? 23 km (14 miles) south of Rome the Vatican owns a patch of land in the lovely lakeside Castel Gandolfo. The crater lake Albano of Castel Gandolfo offers an amazing backdrop to the lovely village of Castel Gandolfo. I stayed here for 2 nights and I had a lovely time, taking in the scenery, enjoying the local food and paying a visit to the Papal Palace of Castel Gandolfo.
I visited Castel Gandolfo by car, but parking is limited so use the free parking site outside the old town. You can also take the train to Castel Gandolfo station and walk to the little town. A visit to the Apostolic Palace of Castel Gandolfo is a must if you’d like to see this Papal property. You can purchase a ticket to visit individually with an audio tour or a combination ticket to visit the Papal Barberini gardens too.
The weather was a bit moody during my visit, so I skipped that option. What I understand is that they drive you around in a toy train with plastic windows, making the whole Papal gardens a bit of fake experience.
The Papal Palace of Castel Gandolfo is worth your time though. After security checks, you get to admire the Papal collection of cars and continue to the picture gallery. Each Pope has his portrait here and it’s a great game to read all the captions, years of their pontificate and how they died.
You’ll learn about the household of the Pope and garments as you roam around the upper floor of the Palace. Make sure to take sneak peeks outside as the views on the crater lake are stunning!
Sadly, this is the only thing I haven’t done yet myself. But the Vatican Gardens are a great way to explore the Vatican. You can only visit the gardens on a guided tour, conducted by the Vatican City. Tickets are very limited and must be applied for in advance via the website of the Vatican. A ticket does include skip-the-line entry to the Vatican Museums as well so it’s a great way to explore the Vatican in 1 day.
You can visit the Vatican Gardens by walking with a guide, this will take 1,5 to 2 hours. Another option is to take an open bus tour (45 minutes) but you cannot get off. The Vatican Gardens offer amazing views of the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica and several botanical mini-gardens. You can see a replica of the cave in Lourdes at Lourdes Grotto and you can marvel at the Eagles Fountain.
The Sistine Chapel in the Vatican Museum
Besides a masterpiece of Michelangelo’s work, the Sistine Chapel is still a functional area of the Papal Palace in the Vatican. When a new Pope must be elected from the circle of cardinals, the Papal conclave is held inside the Sistine Chapel. The conclave is locked and the cardinals choose the new Pope. This can take several days if not weeks (or even months!) and during that time, the Sistine Chapel cannot be visited.
When you do have a chance, the Sistine Chapel is the highlight of every tour of the Vatican. In 1483 the first mass was celebrated in this chapel. Between 1508 and 1512, Michelangelo left his famous fresco marks in the Sistine Chapel, painting the ceiling and the wall with the Last Judgement.
To really take in the amazing architecture of the Sistine Chapel and her decorations, you need to have a lot of knowledge of the content of the book and recognize the signature paintings of Michelangelo. Unfortunately, the Sistine Chapel is always overcrowded, I recommend booking a small tour with a knowledgeable guide who uses an earpiece. Whatever you do when you visit the Sistine Chapel, make sure to take enough time. Security personnel will sometimes usher people to move forward, which can result in seeing the exit sooner than you intended. Stand on the side and only move towards the back of the room (and the exit) when you’re ready.
Sistine Chapel Tours
I always visited the Vatican and the Sistine Chapel on my own but many people like to take a tour. That is perfectly fine as it will give you priceless insights and information about the 100 details and hidden jokes in the artwork of the Sistine Chapel. See below a list of tours that give you good value for money AND a good tour of the Sistine Chapel. Always check and do your research if the tour is right for you.
- Vatican Museum and Sistine Chapel Fast-Track Entrance
- Skip the line Vatican Museum and Sistine Chapel Tour
- Audio-Guided Tour + Skip the Line Vatican Museum and Sistine Chapel
- Sistine Chapel and Vatican Museum at night
Saint Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City
If you only visit one church in your life, I recommend it to be Saint Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. It is not even the largest religious building in the world, but in my humble opinion, it is the grandest. Her Renaissance architecture shows elegant solutions to building problems and her scale and significance to the world makes everyone feel tiny as they enter.
Make sure to save plenty of time to
All visitors must pass through security checks which cause long lines. A visit at 7 am can bypass this problem. Once inside, pay special attention to Michelangelo’s Pièta on your right as you enter and the amazing height of the baldachin. You can even visit the crypt underneath Saint Peter’s Basilica where you’ll find many tombs and burial monuments for deceased Popes. You can visit the Grotto free of charge.
You can visit Saint Peter’s Basilica for free but you must pay to climb the tower for the viewpoint as well as entry to the treasury. The Grotto is free to visit. Saint Peter’s Basilica has toilets and a cloakroom and you can rent an audio guide too.
A visit to Saint Peter’s Basilica can be overwhelming. Consider taking a guide or booking a tour. A lot of tours include a guided tour of the Vatican Museums too, but here are some dedicated St. Peter’s Church tours:
- Self Guided Tour with reserved entrance slot: St. Peter’s Basilica
- Saint Peter’s Basilica with dome and crypt tour
- Guided Tour of Saint Peter’s Basilica, Dome Climb,
Audience with the Pope at Saint Peter’s Square
If you’d like to see the Pope in Rome, your best chance is to attend an audience with the Pope. The audiences and masses held by the Pope take place almost every week on Wednesday (schedules change, so please check for actual dates). They can be attended free of charge, all you have to do is sent an e-mail or fax to the Vatican to apply for a ticket. There is no assigned seating and you do have to arrive on time to be seated.
In 2000, I attended an audience by Pope John II and he even mentioned our school in his thanking speech. Last year, I arranged for tickets for my sister-in-law who took her mother to Rome for the audience with Pope Francis.
An audience will take approximately 1 to 1.5 hours but arrive on time for the security checks and to find a good seat. For all information and to request your tickets, visit the website for papal audiences.
Keep in mind, these audiences with the Pope are free. Do not buy your tickets from anyone online or in the streets.
Can you see the Pope in Rome?
Chances are slim to none that you’ll see the Pope during your time in Rome. However, following in his footsteps will increase the odds. But even when you don’t see the spiritual leader of the Catholic Church, visiting the Papal Basilicas and Papal Palaces will give you great insight into the historic position of the Pontifice and the role the Popes played in the history of Christianity, art, and everyday life in Europe.
Practical Tips to prepare you for your visit to Papal Palaces and churches
The main thing to keep in mind when visited a church, but especially a Papal Basilica and the Papal Palaces is to apply modest dress. You don’t have to be fully covered, but gentlemen must wear long trousers. For both men and women, the shoulders should be covered. Ladies need to cover the knees (so a long skirt or dress is ok, as well as skinny jeans) and I wouldn’t show cleavage.
No torn jeans with holes in them, no long-sleeved tops with bare shoulders, no open-back dresses, please. In order to circumnavigate all these rules, it is safest to wear a long dress or skirt or trousers and cover any skin or cleavage with a thin scarf like a pashmina. Saint Peter’s Basilica even offers a sort of cape you can wrap around yourself to adhere to the correct dress code if you come unprepared.
Take off your hat when entering the churches and palaces. Open shoes are allowed but beware those stiletto heels will echo in the big halls and they make quite some noise and might turns some heads.
Silence and overall modest behavior are always appreciated inside churches and palaces. Above rules also apply for your visit to the Vatican Gardens and Audiences with the Pope.
Visit the Pope in Rome
These are my favorite places that show the Papal influence in Rome and surroundings. You can visit everything on a day trip from Rome or during your visit to the Vatican. They just need a little bit of planning and preparation.
Did you know there was more to the Vatican than Vatican City alone? Did you visit any of these places looking to see the Pope in Rome? Which one is your favorite site in Rome with Papal influence? Let me know in the comment section below, I’d love to hear your thoughts.