38 Fascinating Facts About Vatican City, The Holy See

Interesting Vatican City facts

In this blog post, we’re going to introduce you to some fun, unusual, and interesting facts about Vatican City. Also see these fun facts about Rome, the city that surrounds Vatican City.

With thousands of years of history, Vatican City is easily one of the world’s most unique yet tiny countries. From a treasure trove of art, culture, and religion to mind-blowing architecture, Vatican City has it all. 

General Vatican City Facts

1. Vatican City is the smallest independent country in the world, both in terms of area and population. It covers an area of about 44 hectares (110 acres) and has a mere population of less than 800.

2. Ironically, its tiny size makes it one of the most densely populated countries in the world. With 1559 people per square km (4040 per mi square), only 5 countries (Monaco, Singapore, Bahrain, Maldives, and Malta) are more densely populated. This figure is deceptive, though, as the country is only half a square kilometer.

View of Vatican City from above.
The world’s smallest country, Vatican City, is in Rome.

3. Vatican City is one of only three countries that is surrounded by another country. Vatican City is in Rome, so it is surrounded by Italy. San Marino is also surrounded by Italy, while Lesotho is surrounded by South Africa.

4. Vatican City is the only country with Latin as an official language. Besides Latin, Italian is also an official language of Vatican City. As Vatican City is a popular tourist attraction, English is also widely spoken, particularly by the Vatican workforce.

5. As the headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church, Vatican City holds immense religious significance. It is the residence of the Pope, the leader of the Catholic Church, and a hub for millions of pilgrims and tourists seeking spiritual experiences.

6. Vatican City is famous for its impressive architecture that dates back thousands of years. These include St. Peter’s Square, the Sistine Chapel, and St. Peter’s Basilica. 

Looking up at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel which is covered in famous paintings
Famous Michelangelo paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel

7. Vatican City only became an independent state on February 11, 1929. That makes the nation less than 100 years old. Before then, Vatican City was part of Italy.

8. Uniquely, Vatican City is the only UNESCO Site in the world comprising an entire country. In 1984, the entirety of Vatican City was officially declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site

Interesting Facts about Vatican City History

9. The iconic obelisk in St. Peter’s Square, known as the Obelisk of Caligula, was moved to its current location in 1586. It was originally brought from Egypt by Emperor Caligula and is over 3,000 years old.

10. St. Peter’s Basilica is said to have been built over the site of Nero’s Circus. Nero’s Circus was a chariot racing track where early Christians were persecuted. The basilica’s nave is as long as the circus is wide.

11. Vatican City was once attacked by pirates. In 846, Arab raiders sailed to Italy and plundered Saint Peter’s and Saint Paul’s Basilica. They looted treasures including a golden cross and smashed St Peter’s tomb.

An obelisk on the left, with chairs filling the square around it
Obelisk in Vatican City

12. In 897 AD, the Vatican put a dead man on trial. The trial of Pope Formosus was held by his successor almost 7 months after his death. Unsurprisingly, he was found guilty.

13. According to medieval legends, there was a female Pope named Pope Joan who allegedly reigned for a few years in the 9th century. However, she is considered fictional by historians.

14. Beneath Vatican City lies a network of ancient pagan burial grounds and early Christian catacombs. It was once believed that the catacombs were a hiding place for Christian worship.

15. In the Castel Sant’Angelo, a fortress adjacent to Vatican City, there is a prison cell where several popes were historically imprisoned. The castle was also regularly used as a refuge during times of danger.

16. During the 16th Century, Vatican City had a resident elephant. Hanno the elephant was kept by Pope Leo X as his pet. The Pope received the elephant as a gift from King Manuel I from Portugal.

A river with bridges leading to Vatican City
Rome & Vatican City

17. The Vatican Secret Archives is regarded as one of the most secure places in the world. Founded during the 17th century, an estimated 35,000 volumes are stored in the archives.

18. The Roman Catholic Church was once known for its brutal torture methods. These included racking and burning at the stake. These punishments and executions would usually take place in public across Italy. 

19. In the early 19th century, an astronomer named Ignazio Danti created a meridian line within the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri. This “heliocentric meridian” marks the solar noon and is used to measure the Earth’s position to the sun.

20. The automatic telephone exchange was invented in Vatican City. It was first built by Giovanni Battista Marzi in 1886. 

Facts about the Pope

The pope standing and delivering a speech
Pope Francis

21. The Pope has been the head of state of Vatican City since the 8th century. He is the head of the Catholic Church and the Bishop of Rome. This makes Vatican City a “theocratic absolute elective monarchy”. There are only 5 other theocracies, all Muslim (Yemen, Afghanistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Mauritania).

22. The smoke that comes out of the Sistine Chapel signifies the result of an election to find a new Pope. If the smoke is black, a new Pope hasn’t been elected. If it is white, the Pope has been elected. This tradition only goes back about 150 years.

23. When a Pope dies, it is tradition to remove his ring with a silver hammer. No documents can be sealed with the ring again until a new Pope has been elected.

24. The Pope is protected by Swiss Guards. Also referred to as the Pontifical Swiss Guard, the soldiers were first hired in 1506 to protect Pope Julius II who required protection from the Church.

25. The Pope wears a dress. Known as the Pope’s ordinary or house dress, he wears the dress for daily use outside of religious commitments. It consists of a white full-length garment and typically features a papal coat of arms.

Unusual Facts About Modern Vatican City

A small black train car with flowers in foreground and building of Vatican City in background
Vatican City’s one-station railway line (image belongs to public domain)

26. Vatican City is home to the shortest rail track in the world. Opened in 1934, the track is just 0.42 miles (0.68 kilometers) long and is used to carry goods. From 2015, the track also ran one passenger service every Saturday morning.

27. Vatican City has its football team. Founded in 1934, FC Guardia currently plays in the Vatican City Championship. The team is entirely made up of Vatican City’s Swiss Guard.

28. It is rumored that Vatican City has a time travel device that lets people see back into the past. Believed to be invented in the 1950s, the Chronovisor acts as a television. It is even claimed that the device has been used to verify the existence of Jesus Christ.

29. Since 1983, Vatican City has had its own television programming, radio station, and newspaper. Vatican TV can be streamed around the world but it doesn’t have many channels.

30. For 60 years, Vatican City’s chief exorcist performed more than 150,000 exorcisms. Late priest, Father Gabriele Amorth, was one of more than 250 exorcists to have spent time in Vatican City.

A mostly empty street in Vatican City
A total lack of streetlights in Vatican City

31. Unlike other nations, citizenship in Vatican City isn’t based on birth. Instead, citizenship is granted to those who live in the city. Approval must be given by the Pope to anyone who hopes to reside in Vatican City.

32. In 2018, Monsignor Carlo Alberto Capella became the first person to be criminally convicted in Vatican City. Convicted on child pornography charges, he was sentenced to five years in prison, which he will serve in Vatican City.

33. Vatican City is one of the only places in the world without any streetlights. The city’s small size and lack of public roads make them unnecessary. Bhutan is the only other country with no traffic lights.

34. Vatican City has its own postal system, but it operates without traditional street addresses. Instead, letters and packages are addressed to specific offices or departments within the city.

35. The Vatican Bank has an ATM that operates in Latin. There are three ATMs in Vatican City in total. After being a cash-only country for some time, credit cards and now accepted there again.

A street full of tourists with a church in background in Vatican City
Crowds of tourists in Vatican City

36. Vatican City residents drink more wine than any other nation in the world. On average, Vatican City residents consume over 70 liters of wine per person per year. That’s more than double the per-capita consumption of Italy.

37. Vatican City has the highest crime rate per capita in Europe, making it the 4th most criminal city in the world. However, this figure is massively inflated due to the size of the country and the large number of people that visit every year.

38. Vatican City is a country of tourists. More than 5 million tourists visit Vatican City every year. This is more than 6250 times the country’s total population. On any given day, 25,000 tourists visit the city, or 30 times the city’s population.

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