In City Guides, Europe, Vatican City

Vatican City is all of 109 acres, but despite it’s small size, the country is a history and art lover’s delight. We would recommend 1.5 days to see it without feeling rushed, but if pressed for time, it can be done in one day. Prepare yourself for what is sure to be a long day on your feet.



Overview



St Peter’s Square

Although Vatican City is the smallest sovereign state in the world, the physical wall around the city means it can take up to 30 minutes to walk between sights. This may not seem like much, but trust us, with the volume of things to see, every minute counts.

There are also many rules to be aware of while visiting the Vatican. This is the one place you want to be strategic with regards to pre-planning. Below we have outlined all the pertinent information (hours of operation, ticket fees, highlights and other important information) about visiting the Vatican MuseumsSistine ChapelSt. Peter’s Basilica and St. Peter’s Square.



How To Get There



Vatican City is easily accessible from different parts of Rome. We walked from Piazza del Popolo (took 30 minutes) on our way there and took the metro back on the way back.

Public Transportation

Metro: Situated between two metro stations in Rome, Ottaviano and Cipro, it is a ten minute walk from either stations to the museum or St Peter’s Square.

  • Metro Line A to Ottaviano – S Pietro, if you want to begin at St. Peter’s Square (12 minute walk).
  • Metro Line A to Cipro – Musei Vaticani, if you want to begin at the Museum (8 minute walk).

Bus: There are several bus lines that go to Vatican City.

  • Bus no. 40 is an express bus from Termini station stopping at Piazza Venezia, Argentina and ending at Piazza Pia. It is a short 10 minute walk to the Basilica from here.
  • Bus no. 60 can be taken from the Repubblica, Spanish Steps and Piazza Venezia
  • Bus no. 64 can also be taken from Termini station, Piazza Venezia and Argentina
  • Bus no. 60 and 62 can be taken from Repubblica, Spanish Steps, Piazza Venezia and Argentina
  • Bus no. 81 can be taken from Spanish Steps, Piazza Colonna, Piazza Venezia, Circo Massimo and Colosseum
  • Bus no. 32, 81, and 982 all stop at Piazza del Risorgimento
  • Bus no. 492 and 990 stop in Via Leone IV/Via degli Scipioni

Tram: Tram 19 stops at Piazza del Risorgimento

Walking

Depending on where you are in Rome, walking to the Vatican City can be relatively easy and very pleasant on a beautiful day. Just be mindful that if you are trying to do a lot in one day, you may want to skip the walking to the Vatican and save it for at the Vatican.

A 20 minute walk from Piazza Novana (heart of Rome).

Taxi

Taxis are plentiful and easy to take from anywhere in Rome. Be sure to take official taxis only (yellow or white and have meters).



Where To Begin



While this is entirely up to you, we would recommend visiting the museums first and beginning early! The museums are incredibly vast and the collections (even without the Sistine Chapel) are absolutely astonishing. There were rooms and sections in the museums where we wish we could have spent hours. Add to that the surreal experience of being under the Sistine Chapel, and the day will pass you by without your knowledge.

Tip

It is likely that you will not be able to eat a decent meal until after your time at the museum.
Therefore, we recommend eating a hearty breakfast before tackling the museum.

After visiting the museums, break for lunch, head to St Peter’s Square and queue up for the Basilica. The lines are long but they move relatively quickly. Stick around until nightfalls because the Basilica will light up in all its glory and it is a must see!



Vatican Museums & Gardens



Bramante Staircase at the Vatican Museums

 

A lot of people get confused when they read or hear the term museums (plural) with respect to the Vatican. It is actually one giant building but with several (26 to be exact) sections/galleries (or museums as they are referred to). One ticket gives you access to all of them.

Hours

  • Monday to Saturday: 9:00am – 6:00pm (final entry 4:00pm)
  • Every last Sunday of the month: 9:00am – 2:00pm (final entry 12:30pm(except on Easter Sunday, 29 June, 25 December, and 26 December).
  • Night Hours: 7:00pm – 11:00pm (final entry 9:30pm), Fridays (April – October).

Click for details regarding temporary closures, etc.

Tickets

All tickets may be purchased in advance on the official Vatican Museums website. These tickets allow you to “skip the line”.

Tip

We made the mistake of not buying tickets in advance and it cost us a LOT of time in line.
We highly recommend paying the extra and purchasing in advance.

Pay for the audioguides, it singlehandedly alters your experience for the better!

There are several people on the road constantly wanting to sell you tickets. These are NOT authorized sellers and even though some may legitimately have tour tickets to sell you, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Save yourself the headache and buy your tickets in advance. 

Audioguides may be purchased for an additional € 7.

Tour Options

The Vatican Museums offer an array of tours. To see all the options and their details, click here. Below are some of the most popular options:

Note: Sistine Chapel is within the museums and is included in the museum ticket price. It is not possible to buy a ticket just for the Sistine Chapel.

Museums

  • Self-guided tour
  • Guided tour
  • Night tours (self guided or guided): € 32 (full entry), € 24 (reduced)
  • Breakfast and self guided tour: € 35 (full entry), € 27 (reduced)
  • Breakfast and early admission (self guided): € 65 (full entry), € 57 (reduced)

Gardens

Note: Vatican Gardens can only be visited with a guide. It is possible to visit the museums on the same ticket after the guided Gardens portion is over but it must be on the same day. However, the reverse is not true; it is not possible to visit the Gardens with a Museum ticket only.

  • Guided tour: € 32 (full entry), € 24 (reduced)
  • Open bus tour: € 36 (full entry), € 23 (reduced)
  • Guided tour and the Necropolis of the Via Triumphalis: € 37 (full entry), € 29 (reduced)

Navigating the Museums

There are 26 museums (galleries/sections) in the Vatican Museums; Sistine Chapel is one of them. Below is a great map of the museum layout (courtesy of Rick Steves) that will help you plan your visit.

Although we did walk through all 26 museums, we did not have nearly enough time to spend in each as we would have wanted. We recommend visiting them all and finding your favorites. Here are some of ours:

Raphael’s Rooms

Raphael’s The School of Athens

 

One of our favorites is Raphael’s Rooms; a total of four rooms known as the Stanze of Raphael. We were quite taken aback at the profoundness of the frescoes so up close and personal. We spent an exuberant amount of time studying the Disputation of the Holy Sacrament and The School of Athens. Kapil has always been fascinated with Art History, so this was an absolute delight for him. Saadia never got into Art History in college but has now began to see and understand the depth of the subject. Quite a few hours can go by in these rooms, especially if you take the time to listen to all the audioguide commentaries.

Gallery of the Candelabra

Gallery of Candelabra

 

Another favorite museum to photograph was the Gallery of the Candelabra in the Pio Clementino Museum. This gallery is named after the massive marble candelabra that divide the gallery into six sections. Did you know that this gallery was restored as recently as 2016?! It is said to have been a challenging restoration and two essential elements put in place to ensure future preservation include a brand new lighting system and curtain placed for climate control.

Gallery of Geographical Maps

Gallery of Geographical Maps

 

For two travel addicts, you can imagine how wonderful the Gallery of Geographical Maps were to us. It has a series of painted topographical maps of Italy based on drawings by friar and geographer, Ignazio Danti.

Kapil had to stand at the entry for a prolonged period of time just to get a split of a moment where someone’s head was not in the way to get this shot.

Sistine Chapel

Photos are now allowed in the Sistine Chapel, this is a screenshot from the official website

 

However, the most famous museum in the Vatican is of course, Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. Once inside the main museum building, you will see signs for the Sistine Chapel. If you would like, you can head there first, but just be advised that it is actually the last room before exiting the museum. So if you plan to see other museums/exhibitions, you may want to leave the Sistine Chapel till the end to avoid unnecessary backtracking.

The Sistine Chapel is always packed. If you want the place a bit more to yourself, consider doing the night tour; it is guided and 30 minutes is spent inside the Sistine Chapel. We went at the end of November, which is considered off season and even then it was quite crowded during the regular hours.

A few things you should know about the Sistine Chapel:

  • All of the frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and The Last Judgment were created Michelangelo.
  • One of the most fascinating part of Michelangelo’s work is that he did it in what is known as “buon fresco”, meaning he worked only on freshly laid plaster and each section was completed while the plaster was still fresh. He never returned to a section to add any details once it was dry. Can you imagine the level of artistry and pain?!
  • However, there are frescos by Botticelli, Perugino, Pinturicchio, Ghirlandaio and Roselli in the Sistine Chapel.
  • It is the site of the Papal Conclave (even today).
  • Although it is not a silent room, you are expected to speak in a tone of whisper.
  • No cell phone usage, AT ALL! There are guards all over the room and they keep an eye out like a hawk. If you are seen with it, you will be asked to put it away. We have witnessed this a couple of times during our visit.

Photography

There are strict photography rules in place in the Vatican Museums.

  • No flash photography
  • No tripods/stands/professional equipments
  • No selfie sticks
  • No photography of any kind in the Sistine Chapel. Use of mobile phones are strictly forbidden in the Sistine Chapel.

Food and Rest

The museum does not allow you to eat or drink in the exhibitions. You are welcome to bring food and drinks with you but they would have to be stored in the cloakroom for the duration of your visit. However, there are several cafeterias, bistro, pizzeria and restaurant situated throughout the museums for you to take a break and satisfy your hunger.

If you are not hungry but your feet are begging for a rest, you will be happy to know there are plenty of relaxation areas with seats throughout the museums, including the various courtyards and square gardens.



St. Peter’s Basilica



Hours

Daily: 8:00am – 6:00pm (April – September), 8:00am – 5:00pm (October – March)

Tickets

Basilica Entrance: Free

Dome: € 8 (elevator and 320 steps), € 6 (551 steps)

Tip

Bring cash with you as the ticket office ONLY accepts cash!

Inside the Basilica

Inside St. Peter’s Basilica

 

St. Peter’s Basilica is the second largest church in the world, a masterpiece of Renaissance architecture designed principally by Bramante, Michelangelo, Maderno and Bernini. It can feel very overwhelming upon entering and if you would like to learn more about the history of the church, pick up an audioguide at the information desk to the right of the entrance (near bag check area). Here is a great interactive map of the church to help guide you visually, even before stepping foot in it. Every inch of the Basilica is so grandiose that you cannot help but be in awe of it.

Dome

The dome is an absolute must see. Not only is the inside of the dome intricate but the 360º view from above is magnificent. A wonder if you can catch it during sunset (possible on winter nights). Unfortunately, by the time we finished the museum and got into the Basilica, we simply did not have enough time to head up to the dome. We are due to return just for that!

Did you know?

  • Michelangelo designed the dome. After he passed away, Giacomo Della Porta, Michelangelo’s pupil, took over and raised the vault 7 meters.
  • The largest gift shop in the Basilica (there are a few) is on the roof. It can only be accessed with a purchase to the cupola.
  • The dome has been used as a model for later prominent buildings such as Saint Paul’s in London, Les Invalides in Paris and the Capitol building in Washington D.C.
  • The Holy Door, is a door that is only opened for holy years (Jubilee years) and pilgrims who pass through them receive a plenary indulgence.

Tickets to the dome can be purchased on the right of the entrance to the basilica. Look for the sign marked “Cupola”.

Attending Mass

Note: There are no masses in English at the Basilica.

Mass services are held several times a day at the Basilica:

  • Daily: 9:00am, 10:00am, 11:00am, 12:00pm & 5:00pm
  • Sundays and Holidays: 9:00am, 10:30am, 11:30am, 12:15pm, 1:00pm, 4:00pm and 5:30pm

Everyone is welcome to attend mass. Just be aware that if you visit during mass times but are not looking to attend the service, there will be some parts of the Basilica reserved for prayers only.

St Peter’s Treasury

The treasury contains church ornaments, statues, papal robes and a striking art collection. Separate admission is required to access the treasury and can be purchased at the entrance of the treasury. No photos are allowed.

Vatican Grottoes

The Vatican Grottoes is an enormous underground graveyard and houses tombs of popes, kings and queens from the 10th century. It is discretely located, as a result, it is best to ask for directions at the information desk. The entrance to the Grottoes is free. No photos are allowed and silence must be observed when in the Grottoes.

Tip

Be sure to visit the Grottoes at the end because once you exit the Grottoes, you will be outside the Basilica. 

Restrooms

There are two restrooms inside the Basilica, one near the bag check area (lower right side of the facade of the basilica as you are facing it) and the other on top of the dome.

There are also two restrooms in St. Peter’s Square but be aware that if you exit the Basilica to visit either of these, you will have to queue up again to return to the Basilica. WE MADE THIS MISTAKE! The only restroom that can be used without exiting security is the one near the bag check area (or top of the dome).



Vatican Library



If you have read Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons or watched Tom Hank’s movie of the same name, then you may be curious about the Vatican Library. Unfortunately, unless you fit one of the following criteria and have proof with specific documentations, you will never be able to step foot inside what we can only imagine is a marvel:

  • researchers and scholars with appropriate qualifications and/or relevant scientific publications
  • teachers and researchers at Universities and other institutes of Higher Education;
  • graduate students (laureati) who are pursuing research for a doctoral dissertation;
  • in exceptional cases, undergraduate students who can demonstrate that they need to consult material which is available only at the Vatican Library.
  • it is not open to High School students, nor, as a rule, to undergraduate University students.


St. Peter’s Square



St. Peter’s Square

 

St. Peter’s square (better known as Piazza San Pietro) is an enormous space at 1,000 feet long and 750 feet wide, where your eyes are instantly drawn to Bernini’s massive colonnades (on top are 140 statues of various saints) and the Egyptian Obelisk (amazingly how this Egyptian structure pops up all over European cities). There is great emphasis on symmetry in the square, so much so that when a fountain was built on the south side of the Obelisk by Modern in the 17th century, Bernini built another (matching) fountain on the north side of the Obelisk.

If you walk around the square, especially near the Basilica, you are sure to spot a Swiss Guard or two. In their brightly colored attire, they are hard to miss! The Pontificial Swiss Guards, although small in number (130) are highly trained Swiss military men who are between the ages of 19 and 30, at least 5’8″ tall and single, have been responsible for the safety of the Pope for over 500 years.

 

Swiss Guard

 

Depending on the time of day (and year), it can be crowded with people and shift your focus from the brilliance of the architecture to the noise of the people. But take a moment to block out the noise and let the massiveness of the square set in. Is it not just absolutely beautiful? Many hours could be spent just sitting on the steps of the colonnades and people watching. However, there is something greater you could attend if you happen to be visiting at the right time of the week.

Papal Audience

Papal Audience gives visitors a chance to see the Pope and to receive the Papal Blessing.

Hours

Wednesday: 10:30am (10:00am on extremely hot summer days)

Sundays: 12:00pm (when the Pope is in residence, he appears at the window to pray and bless the crowd in St. Peter’s Square)

 

Tip

Arrive early to go through security and find good seats.

Tickets

No ticket is required for Sundays.

Tickets are FREE for Papal Audience on Wednesdays and available without reservation from the Swiss Guards at the “Bronze Doors” located just after security at St. Peter’s Basilica. If you need less than 10 tickets, you can just pick them up here. Tickets must be picked up the day before the audience (Tuesdays, no sooner) between 3:00pm-7:30pm or on the morning of the audience between 8:00am – 10:00am.

However, if you would like to guarantee tickets or need more than 10 tickets, you will need to make reservations in advance by filling out this form and faxing it to the Vatican offices.

Pope’s Address 

The Pope greets the audience in several languages and gives small teachings and readings, predominantly in Italian but also in English, French, German, Spanish, Polish, Portuguese and other languages. The Papal Audience concludes with the Pope praying (Our Father prayer in Latin) together with those in the audience. This prayer is normally printed on the back of the Papal Audience ticket. At the end of the prayer, as Head of the Catholic Church, the Pope imparts his Blessing upon the crowd which extends to loved ones who are sick and suffering and blesses any religious articles (e.g., rosary beads) people have brought with them for the purpose of the blessing.



Dos and Don’ts



Do

  • Dress modestly while visiting Vatican City as you will be turned away from the Museums, Gardens and St. Peter’s Basilica for inappropriate attire. Avoid low cut or sleeveless clothing, shorts, miniskirts and hats.
  • Spend time grasping the vastness of the square and the details of the colonnades and the statues that adorn them.
  • Wait until nightfall to see the square and Basilica light up.
  • Wear comfortable shoes.
  • Send a postcard from the Vatican post office, located in St. Peter’s Square; after all, Vatican City is its own country.
  • Stand in both countries at the same time.

 

 

Don’t

  • Bring luggage, packages or big bags with you as you will be required to leave the items in the cloakroom (free of charge) at both the museums and the Basilica. What is considered “big” is entirely at the discretion of the staff, therefore, it is best to play it safe and do away with any questionable bags. If you do leave items in the museum cloakroom, you must take it with you before exiting the museum as re-entry is not allowed.
  • Rush your time at the square.
  • Forget to buy a souvenir; after all, you are in a different country.


Did you know that despite being its own country, Vatican City does not offer passport stamps? But that’s OK, because it is the only country in the world that is an UNESCO World Heritage Site.

We hope you found this article helpful in planning a future trip to Vatican City. If you have tips of your own, please share them below! We will be returning to the Vatican and would love to hear what your thoughts are of this small but historic nation.

Until next time, Beatus Itineribus (Buon Viaggio)!

Entry to the Vatican Museums, the Sistine Chapel, St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Gardens is permitted only to appropriately dressed visitors.
Low cut or sleeveless clothing, shorts, miniskirts and hats are not allowed.Entry to the Vatican Museums, the Sistine Chapel, St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Gardens is permitted only to appropriately dressed visitors.
Low cut or sleeveless clothing, shorts, miniskirts and hats are not allowed.Entry to the Vatican Museums, the Sistine Chapel, St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Gardens is permitted only to appropriately dressed visitors.
Low cut or sleeveless clothing, shorts, miniskirts and hats are not allowed.
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