All first timers to Rome visit the Vatican, heading to the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel first, then marveling at St. Peter’s Square and St. Peter’s Basilica. But not many actually make it to the Vatican Gardens.
It’s such a pity! The Gardens of Vatican City are one of the most interesting, beautiful places to visit in Rome, packed with history, architectural delights, art and obviously lots of flowers which are especially beautiful in the spring months, when they are in full bloom.
If you are curious about this place, continue reading. In this post I will share the history of the Gardens of Vatican City, the main sights and all the practical information you need to plan your visit.
Make sure to read my post The Most Interesting Facts About The Vatican.
The History Of The Vatican Gardens
The private urban gardens and parks that make up the Vatican Gardens cover an enormous part of what makes up Vatican City itself. In fact, this green space takes up more than half of the microstate, covering around 23 hectares (57 acres).
Long closed to the public, they were officially opened by Pope Francis to tourists in 2014. But, of course, the history of these gardens goes back centuries – almost a thousand years.
The Vatican Gardens find their origin in the Medieval period, when the Papal Apolistic Palace was first built. At this time, the gardens were made up of orchards and vineyards that spread out to the north of the palace.
When Pope Nicholas III, from the Orsini family, moved his residence from the Lateran Palace to the then newly built Vatican Palace in 1279, he went about developing the green space that was already there; he planted an orchard, a lawn and a garden. Their first location was close to the hills of Sant’Egidio, where today’s Palazzetto del Belvedere and the courtyards of the Vatican Museums are located.
The aim for Nicholas III was to carve out a space for meditation and contemplation, but as he was a fairly learned Pope, he was also interested in the medicinal properties of plants. He set about planting a medicine garden where he could study the healing powers of various plants, and cultivate them.
His successor Nicholas IV, along with his personal physician Simon of Genova, the garden – also called the Viridarium Novum – developed as a first-rate medicinal garden. The largest of its kind in Europe, it was here that the Papal doctors came to devise new remedies and strange potions from the botanical selection.
Students from the newly founded Sapienza, aka the University of Rome (founded in 1303), came for lectures and to study the plants found in the medicine garden. It is considered one of the first attempts to study botany in terms of science. Even today, there are many rare species of plants that can be found in the garden.
By the 16th century, the landscape underwent much redevelopment under the rule of Pope Julius II. The original design of Donato Bramante (1444-1514) was further elaborated by splitting it into three courtyards in the style of a Renaissance landscape; Julius II created the Cortile del Belvedere, the Della Biblioteca and the Della Pigna.
Further Renaissance garden design and landscaping continued with an enormous rectangular labyrinth of boxwood, edged with Italian pines and cedars from Lebanon, as well as fountains and tree-lined avenues. Bramante was also tasked with building a defensive wall in order to protect the Papal enclave.
In 1480, Pope Innocent VIII built an ornate loggia, inspired by the work of the Renaissance artist Antonio del Pollaiuolo (1429-98). Bramante developed the loggia two decades later, inspired by ancient Roman architecture and their terraced courtyards, into the Palazzo Belvedere and the Belvedere Courtyards.
Over the years, the gardens have seen much change. However, in recent decades there has been more work towards protecting what currently exists and restoring past gardens, using non-toxic, environmentally friendly products for gardening. The large green space is today a combination of Medieval fortifications, colorful flowerbeds, luscious lawns, fountains and Renaissance topiary.
What To See When Visiting The Vatican Gardens
The 16th-century Italian garden is made up of a stylized labyrinth, plotted out with boxwood and decorated with rose beds and topiary. It also borrows landscape from the distant hills of the Castelli Romani, so as visitors stroll down the sun-dappled avenue, they can feel far away from the rest of the city, among camphor trees and oaks.
The French Garden, found near the old Leonine Wall, is a masterclass in Baroque garden design and the use of water to create a theatrical backdrop to enrich the landscape.
A particularly picturesque spot among all of the gardens, the English Garden is made up of sweeping lawns, charming woodlands, elegant walkways, ancient ruins, temples, streams, fountains and even a Chinese-style pagoda.
It’s a really popular spot, thanks to all the various plant life on offer, and the more natural setting opposed to the more geometrically constrained Italian and French gardens.
Grottoes or artificial caves were a big part of Baroque garden design. This one, Lourdes Grotto, was built as an exact replica of a real cave, located in Massabielle, France, where – according to tradition – Bernadette Soubirous saw a vision of the Virgin Mary. You’ll find it situated just to the southwest of the French Garden.
Palazzo di Leone XIII
This majestic and very photogenic palace was built in honor of Pope Leo XIII. But it’s not just the building that’s impressive; it’s also the manicured lawns, hedges, fountains and rose gardens surrounding the structure that make it a particularly charming part of the Vatican Gardens.
Bramante’s Belvedere Courtyard
Although Bramante didn’t live to see his works completed, his garden design lives on to this day, famously in the form of Cortile del Belvedere. Informally known as Bramante’s Courtyard, this is a sizeable courtyard that’s connected to the Vatican Palace and the Museums themselves. There’s a renowned spiral staircase that makes up this part of the gardens, too.
Statue of Saint Therese of Lisieux
Therese of Lisieux was a French Catholic nun who died in obscurity at the early age of 24. However, it was her autobiography – Story of a Soul – published following her death, that became a bestseller around the world and rocketed her into global fame. She was made a saint, and today she retains a large following globally.
Mater Ecclesiae Monastery
Though the Gardener’s Lodge is the current home of the Vatican’s head gardener, the much grander Mater Ecclesiae Monastery was where head gardeners of the past would have lived. Modernized and enlarged in the 1990s, it is now home to the former Pope Benedict XVI, and has been since he stepped down from the position in 2013.
St Peter’s Dome
Although the dome of St Peter’s Basilica isn’t actually in the Vatican Gardens themselves, this tranquil green space makes for a great place to catch sight of the record-breaking roof of the basilica. From here, you can really take in the architecture of this impressive structure, with multiple vantage points to soak up the facade and sheer scale of the building.
And alternatively, if you do decide to make the trip up to the Dome of St Peter’s Basilica, make sure to look out for the gardens down below; the Italian Gardens, with their geometric designs, are the easiest part to spot and arguably the most impressive from up high.
This compact, unassuming building – situated near the St Peter Memorial – actually dates back to the 12th century. It is a rustic piece of architecture that is home to the Vatican’s head gardener. The head gardener manages a surprisingly small team of gardening staff (only around 30 or so).
Papal Coat of Arms
Located in front of the Palazzo del Governatorato, this floral piece of art is a must-see. It’s embedded neatly on the well tended lawns and consists of an arrangement of perennial and annual flowers that colorfully depict the Papal Coat of Arms.
Every time there’s a new Pope, their personal insignia is carefully created in colors that match their crest. For the current Pope Francis, thousands of red begonias and yellow-tipped Euonymus pulchellus were planted. Look closely, and you can see the keys of St Peter in the crest.
Torre di San Giovanni
Situated in the southwest of the Gardens of Vatican City, the Torre di San Giovanni (Saint John’s Tower in English) was first constructed in the 16th century by Pope Nicholas III, and makes up part of the defensive 9th-century Leonine Walls.
The tower was rebuilt by Pope John XXIII in the 1960s. Today the structure houses Papal apartments; another claim to fame is being the place where Pope Benedict XVI met then President George Bush in 2008.
The Jubilee Bell of the Year 2000
Commissioned by Pope John II, this bell was designed to commemorate the year 2000 – a particularly important event for the Catholic Church, as it marked two millennia since the birth of Jesus Christ.
The bell itself was made by the Marianelli foundry, a family-run operation who have been in the business of making bells for centuries; in fact, it dates back to the founder Nicodemus Marianelli who started signing the bells he made in the 13th century. The foundry is located in the ancient town of Agnone, and its famous bells can be found across all corners of the globe today.
Not all parts of the Vatican Gardens are purely decorative – take the Vatican State Railway Station, for example. This station represents the terminus of the special railway line that runs from the Vatican City to Albano Laziale via Castel Gandolfo.
Open for private (i.e. Papal) use only, apart from specific days for the public, the train station reminds visitors that the Vatican is its own city-state, complete with its own infrastructure.
Similarly, you’ll also find buildings housing parts of the Vatican Radio in the gardens. Vatican Radio has been on the air since 1931 and today broadcasts in 47 different languages. There are two main buildings: one is the headquarters, complete with a picturesque tower; the other, situated more to the south, is a Marconi Radio Transmission Building.
You may be surprised to learn that there’s a piece of the Berlin Wall located in the Vatican Gardens, but it’s true! Taken from the district of Kreuzberg, this section of the wall was gifted to the Vatican by Marco Piccininni in 1994, and is still decorated with mural artwork by the artist Yadegar Asisi.
Practical Info About Visiting The Vatican Gardens
The Vatican Gardens opening hours
The Vatican Gardens is open Monday to Saturday, from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., with the final entry at 4 p.m. It’s closed on Wednesdays and Sundays, except for the last Sunday of each month when the gardens are open.
Note that opening times vary throughout the year; expect shorter opening hours in the winter.
Vatican Gardens tickets
There is no such thing as plain Vatican Garden tickets. In order to visit the Vatican Gardens you’ll have to actually enter the Vatican Museums, so you can plan to visit on the same day.
In theory, you would need to purchase tickets to the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel, which are €17 for adults, with reduced cost tickets of €8 for students 18-25 years old, and children 6-18 years old. All visits must be booked ahead of time (in fact, make sure to book well in advance as it often gets sold out). There is an additional €4 fee for online bookings.
However, you can’t wander around the gardens on your own and will have to join a guided bus tour, and again this has to be booked. This means that if you want to visit the Vatican Gardens you have one of two options via the official website:
Join a group tour of the Vatican Gardens and Sistine Chapel – this lasts about 3 hours and includes the Vatican Museums too. This option has a final cost of €39.
Join a small group tour – this is structured exactly like the tour mentioned above, but it’s for no more than 10 participants. This is a more expensive option which makes sense if you are traveling in a group, so that you can share the cost of the guide (which is €320).
You can book your Vatican Gardens tour via the official website here.
Alternatively, you can book a guided tour via a reputable third party booking site such as Tiqets. For more information, click here.
Make sure to also read my post How To Get Vatican Tickets.
Vatican Gardens tours
You can only visit the Vatican Gardens on a guided tour – you won’t be able to just enter and wander around by yourself, independently. However, this does mean that you’ll get a greater insight into the history, architecture and design of the gardens.
The Vatican Gardens tour is actually an electric bus tour where you’ll be given an audio-guide and which stops at all the main landmarks so that you can easily take photos.
To access the gardens you’ll have to enter via the Vatican Museums. As such, there will be security checks. Just make sure that you allow extra time for this on a busy day, and don’t bring any prohibited items with you (scissors, knives, etc.).
Dress code still applies for the Vatican Gardens as it does to St Peter’s Basilica, the Vatican Museums and pretty much any other religious building elsewhere in Rome. Make sure your shoulders are covered, and don’t wear skirts, dresses or shorts that show your knees. As a general rule, it’s a good idea to cover up with long, loose clothing on a warm day anyway.
Make sure to read my post The Vatican Dress Code.
Is photography allowed?
Photography is allowed for personal use, but flash photography, selfie sticks, tripods or any other professional equipment is not allowed. But you’re free to shoot in the gardens – which is good because they’re beautiful.
You won’t be able to get off the bus when touring the Vatican Gardens, so make sure to use the toilets inside the Vatican Museums before hopping on.
The Vatican Gardens can only be explored via a bus tour which isn’t exactly accessible to wheelchair users.However, the Vatican Gardens can be made more accessible with a specialized tour, which can be booked through the Vatican itself.
How to get there
The address of the Vatican Gardens is Viale Vaticano – you have to use the same entrance as that of the Vatican Museums. A lot of visitors arrive here via the metro; there are two stops on Line A – Ottaviano and Cipro – which are both around a ten-minute walk from the Vatican. Probably the most popular stop is Ottaviano; here you can get off and simply follow the crowds from there (it is also well signposted).
If you want to arrive by bus, you have multiple options. Bus 49 stops in the square in front of the Vatican Museums; buses 32, 81, and 982 stop at Piazza del Risorgimento, which is close by.
Bus 492, which stops at Via Leone IV, or 990 (Via degli Scipione) are also options.
You can even use the tram. Tram number 19 stops at Piazza del Risorgimento.
It’s also fairly simple to arrive from various central locations in the city if you want to walk. The Trevi Fountain is around 30 minutes away on foot, while from the Pantheon the walk takes about 25 minutes.
All visitors should note, however, that once you arrive at St Peter’s Square, the entrance to the Vatican Gardens (and the Museums) is still around a 10 to 15 minute stroll away.
For more places to visit in the Vatican, you may want to read these posts:
- A Guide To St. Peter’s Square
- A Guide To St. Peter’s Basilica
- How To Visit The Vatican Museums
- How To Visit The Sistine Chapel
- The Best Hotels Near Vatican City