Vatican City is never what you'd call "low profile", probably the most politically active area in the world outside of Washington DC and the UN headquarters in New York. Still, following the recent appointment of Pope Francis the area has been under international scrutiny usually reserved for Royal weddings. Vatican City is one of the world's most popular tourist destinations, but the dense, historic feel can be daunting. Most just take a quick guided tour then head back into Italy proper - don't do that. The world's last true city-state has so much more to offer.
Vatican City is not large, just under half a square kilometre in surface area, but it packs an astonishing amount of history into that space. It has its own currency, its own newspaper, its own postal service, even its own military. The Swiss Guard, created in the sixteenth century by Julius II, still patrol the Vatican grounds today.
A word of advice: Do not play games with these gentlemen, who are trained in combat and who take their duties very seriously. Take them lightly at your own risk - as an independent state, the Vatican enforces a small contingent of special laws. Though travellers are unlikely to face real legal consequences from mocking a Vatican guard, many an overzealous explorer has found themselves tackled. Go where you're told, and don't get too bent out of shape if they ignore you or treat you brusquely - for many in service at the Vatican, their duties are a solemn religious observances.
With that in mind, however, you'll have a hard time not enjoying yourself in the Catholic capital. Just walking the grounds is a revelatory experience for many visitors, as the place seems to exude historical importance. Outdoor statues and reliquaries, not to mention the jaw-dropping carved building exteriors, can easily fill a day, and should. Heading inside, especially into some of the more popular destinations, begs for a little more forethought. Buy your tickets online, the day before you plan to go, and avoid hours-long ticket lines.
The most popular sight in Vatican City is definitely the Sistine Chapel. Its recently (and tremblingly) cleaned ceiling is one of the all-time most famous works of art, or collections thereof. By far the most famous is Michelangelo's The Creation of Adam, which is equalled in fame only by Leonardo Da Vinci's Mona Lisa. The ceiling is home to many other frescos, each a treasure and an artistic marvel in its own right. Tapestries by Raphael are a major further attraction, lining the walls along with several other jaw-dropping murals.
Then, of course, there is the museum. The Vatican Museums make up the world's largest museum complex, and it shows: in 2011, the Vatican announced an all-time record high attendance rate, with more than 5 million visitors in that year alone. The museums put on display the Catholic Church's immense collection of artefacts and historical items, one which is so large, varied and valuable that it could only belong to a group as ancient as the Church itself.
Many people close a visit to Vatican City with a trip to the top of St. Paul's Basilica, from where you have inarguably the best view of the Vatican, and of Rome. Head up before sunset to beat the rush, which is well warranted given the gorgeous views.
Vatican City can be one of the world's most rewarding places to visit, but you have to know the ropes. Buy tickets to major attractions early, and you can skip the often enormous lines. Plan out a route ahead of time, one that maximizes your sightseeing while minimizing wandering. And most importantly, budget more than a single day.