Rome off the beaten path: 5 things to see at St. Peter’s and the Vatican

Nobody goes to Rome without visiting St. Peter’s and the Vatican right? It’s a big attraction that takes the better part of a day to see properly. But if you want to see Rome off the beaten path, take my advice: there are 5 things that it seems most people don’t know about (based on my unscientific anecdotal studies), or maybe it’s just that people get overwhelmed with all there is to see inside St. Peter’sThe Vatican, and The Sistine Chapel, and these five fall through the cracks. Well I’m here to highlight them.

Nov 2


The no-brainer: Il Centro del Colonnato

As you’re walking through St. Peter’s Square, keep your eye out for a circular black and white marker on the ground (photo above) between the obelisk and either fountain (there are two) that says Centro del Colonnato. Take a minute to stand on it, facing Bernini’s columns. You’ll notice that from that exact spot, the two rows of columns line up perfectly so you only see the first row of columns (photo). The second row is completely hidden. It’s referred to as Bernini’s Illusion.


I really recommend this one

Book a 90-minute guided tour of the Scavi, under the Basilica. Visiting tombs of Popes underneath the cathedral might not seem like an obvious winner, but this tour is often described as one of the highlights of a trip to Rome. Only 120 people a day are allowed to tour it, so get tickets early. At least a month in advance, email to ask about English tours on your desired dates and times. Include the number of people in your party, their names, and the name of your hotel in Rome. Note: children under aged 12 are not allowed on the tour. Don’t be late for your tour, and dress appropriately (no bare shoulders or knees).

St peters view optical illusion


A must-do for fantastic views

Maybe because Italy has lots of towers and domes to climb, or maybe because taking the elevator part of the way to the top of St. Peter’s dome still leaves you with a couple hundred steps to climb, many people pass on climbing the dome (though you wouldn’t know it from the crowds in the staircase). I think some people just don’t realize you can climb it. But if you make it to the top, you’ll see one of the most gorgeous views over Rome, and why St. Peter’s square is also referred to as the Keyhole Square (photo above).

Vatican gardens marcel germain



This is not for everyone, and that’s why you should consider it

The Vatican gardens can be visited (only) with a guided tour.  Some people love this tour while others (in my experience, gardeners) don’t think it’s worth it. It’s a large green space, and you’ll get time away from the crowds in addition to a behind-the-scenes peek into the workings of the Vatican. And with the garden ticket you go straight into the Vatican Museums – no need to go back out and wait in line. But don’t expect roses – or even many flowers – or an English garden, that’s not what this is. Email about tours.

Rome Italy Knights of Malta keyhole

Photo by Ray Flynn


An Interesting Photo with a Good Story

Go to the Piazza Cavalieri di Malta on Aventine Hill, and look through the keyhole in the gate to the entrance of the Priory of the Knights of Malta. You’ll see a symmetrical tunnel of trees with St. Peter’s Basilica framed at the end (photo above). Gary of the Everything Everywhere blog also has a great shot of the keyhole. Honestly I am impressed with people who get a photo here, because the keyhole is small! If you’d like to try, read this article in which Gary explains how to get this photo.

Photo of St. Peter’s Square by Optical Illusion; Photo of the Vatican Gardens by Marcel Germain; photo of keyhole by Ray Flynn

Italy map with Rome


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Posted by on Nov 16, 2009 in Rome | 2 Comments


  1. Sergio
    November 19, 2009

    Thank you so much for all the kind words you use to describe our country!
    I found it almost by accident, but will defenitly suggest it to my foreigners friends.
    Why dont you write a post about “italians and rules”? The lonely planet guide has a short funny paragraph about it (italians dont fight a rule they consider wrong, they ignore it) but i think you would do a better job.
    A friendly hug,
    Sergio, Milan, Italy

  2. Madeline
    November 19, 2009

    Sergio thanks so much for your comments!
    Interesting you should bring up Italians and rules – I’ve actually been pondering it recently, but so far it’s too big an elephant for me know where to take a bite! 🙂
    I love that Italians ignore rules they consider wrong, but it’s not at all obvious to us foreigners which ones we are allowed to ignore – anyway you’ve got me thinking… thanks!


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