In the crowds thronging Roman piazzas by night, you can always spot who's spent the day at the Vatican. Just look for eyes starry with heavenly frescoes, knees wobbly from wanders past priceless splendours, and a radiant, spiritual calm - even when the pizza is slow to arrive. Vatican City isn't just another neighbourhood in Rome: it's a masterpiece-packed micro-nation. With insider tips on visiting this independent papal state, you can hit more high notes in a single day here than in a month at the opera.
Though it's only 0.44km square and the world's smallest sovereign state, Vatican City is a maze of wall-to-wall treasures. In the Vatican Museums, you'll walk through 1.2 miles of classical art treasures from ancient Greece to the Renaissance before you even reach the Sistine Chapel - and there's an optional two-mile detour through the Etruscan and Egyptian collections. Rushing to meet Michelangelo is a rookie mistake. The Raphael Rooms will stop you in your tracks to inspect the High Renaissance master's bafflingly exact architectural perspective.
One of the world's greatest masterpieces, Michelangelo's amazing Sistine Chapel ceiling fresco shows Adam brought to life with the touch of the Almighty's forefinger. Signs request that visitors remain silent in the chapel, but gasping is a given. Nothing can prepare you for the depiction of this simple, all-powerful gesture - but in order to witness its wonder first-hand, you'll need to plan well ahead. Bring a printout of advance online reservations and a passport to enter the Vatican's papal palace no later than 12:30pm.
Before you attempt a heavenly ascent to see glorious panoramic views of Rome, heed the growl in your stomach. Hint: the handiest places to St Peter's aren't the tastiest. For a memorable, filling, bargain lunch, head to Mondo Arancina (www.mondoarancina.it), specialists in Sicilian fried risotto balls stuffed with gooey mozzarella and your choice of meaty ragu, seasonal vegetables, savoury squid ink or (highly recommended) anchovies. To get there, exit the Sistine Chapel, take the metro from the Vatican Museum stop to the next stop, Lepanto, or just walk down Via Germanico to Via Marcantonio Colonna.
The grandest view of Bernini's colonnaded St Peter's Square is usually in the afternoon, when sunlight plays hide-and-seek through the four rows of Doric columns. To receive a blessing from the Pope at close range, you'll need to arrive in the square well before his noon appearance on Sunday. Free tickets are also available for papal addresses on Wednesdays at 11am September through June; fill out an official request online (www.vatican.va), fax it to the Pontificate (+39 (0)6 6988 5863), and pick up your tickets under Bernini's colonnade to the right of St Peter's.
No matter when you cross the threshold of St Peter's Basilica, the experience is sublime. Sunbeams filter through high dome windows, alighting briefly on the heads of awestruck visitors and Bernini's baldachin before scattering across the inlaid floors of the massive nave. St Peter's throne hovers mystically in the apse, crowned with Bernini's gilded rays and haloed in golden light. Archaeologists have recently discovered what they believe are the mortal remains of St Peter in the crypt; visits to the Tomb of St Peter can be arranged in advance for visitors aged 15 and up by emailing the Ufficio Scavi (Excavations Office; email@example.com; tickets EUR10). Tough guys might believe they can escape St Peter's without welling up - but stationed by the door is Michelangelo's Pietà, his unfinished sculpture of the Madonna cradling her lost son with such intense grief that the Carrara marble block seems to glisten with her tears.
St Peter's Dome
Save your stamina and one last gasp for Michelangelo's other masterpiece at St Peter's: the dome, reached via a side door to the right of the Basilica, a creaky elevator ride, and a narrow, slippery 320-step climb up a winding staircase. Emerge to panoramas of Rome's hills awash in rose-gold light, with flocks of tiny starlings signalling the imminent arrival of sunset and aperitivi (happy hour).
Return to Rome
Recover from the Vatican's heavenly sensory overload at Passaguai, a grotto wine bar just outside the Vatican's walls, offering Lazio wines, artisanal beer and platters of cheese and charcuterie fit for a cardinal. As the skies turn inky indigo, return to the secular world across the Tiber River via the Ponte Sant'Angelo, the ancient Roman pedestrian bridge with Bernini angels dancing across the balustrades in rapture. After your day at the Vatican, you'll understand the feeling.