The independent city state is a centre of political and religious power, home to the Pope and his Swiss Guards who dress like medieval jousters, and the global centre of the Catholic faith. Christianity was founded here, with the relics of St Peter, the first apostle, buried deep beneath the altar of the basilica that bears his name. As a repository of history, liturgical tradition and artworks whose value is far beyond measure, the Vatican is unparalleled anywhere in the world. The patchwork of ancient cobbled streets of the area known as Borgo, immediately adjacent to the Vatican, are also worth a wander.
Nothing can really prepare you for St Peter's, Italy's biggest and most spectacular basilica. The grandeur of the church – which was started by Bramante, replanned by Michelangelo and finished by Giacomo della Porta, Domenico Fontana and Carlo Maderno – is matched only by its intense spirituality. It is home to Michelangelo's Pieta (his only signed work), the relics of St Peter and the tombs of past popes. The dome is Michelangelo's greatest architectural achievement which you can truly appreciate by climbing the 551 steps to the top (you can take a lift for a bit of the way) though it's not for the faint-hearted or claustrophobic.
You'll run out of superlative descriptors at the Vatican Museums. The Sistine Chapel, covered with Michelangelo's frescoes, is the jewel in the Vatican Museums' crown and often overshadows the many other highlights including the Raphael Rooms, Egyptian mummies in the Museo Gregoriano Egizio, classical sculptures in the Museo Pio-Clementino, paintings in the Pinacoteca, and frescoed wall maps in the Galleria delle Carte Geografiche, which you pass on your Sistine-bound route.
It's not all about Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel – Botticelli, Ghirlandaio and Perugino all painted frescoes there – but his ceiling paintings are so astounding that they do get most of the attention. If you're going to blow your money on one special activity in Rome, a private tour of the Sistine Chapel, before the museum opens to the public, is it. You arrive early and go straight to the Sistine Chapel so that you see this masterpiece with very few other people around. Expensive, yes, but bucket list stuff.
About five minutes' walk from the entrance to the Vatican Museums is Rome's best new-wave pizzeria, Pizzarium, a tiny hole-in-the-wall where pizza maestro Gabriele Bonci sells pizza al taglio, Italy's great gift to the world of fast food. Toppings change constantly – but they're all superb. Via della Meloria 43.
Lay tourists can't actually sleep within the Vatican walls, but there's no shortage of hotels or apartments nearby. Brilliantly positioned near Piazza del Popolo, which is a shortish stroll or quick taxi ride to the Vatican, Hotel Locarno is more Roman in flavour than international and quirky as a result. There's a gorgeous roof terrace, bar and bikes for hire. The family suite can accommodate up to six people.
Dress appropriately for the Vatican, covering your shoulders and knees: no singlet tops, bare shoulders, miniskirts or short shorts, even for kids. The Vatican Museums are closed on most Sundays (except the last Sunday of the month, which is free). As a result Mondays tend to be crowded with visitors who've only got a couple of days in Rome.
Sally Webb has lived in Rome and has travelled there extensively at her own expense.