Tips for Visiting the Vatican
What to know before you go
Here is what you really need to know about visiting the Vatican:
A rare uncrowded view of Saint Peter's Basilica in Vatican City
The first time I came to Rome as an adult, I missed seeing the Sistine Chapel because I had no idea the Vatican Museums closed at 2pm. Luckily, the museums are now open later.
Now that I live here, I've been many times to Saint Peter's Basilica, Saint Peter's Square and the Vatican Museums, and have helped thousands of our guests plan their visit there. I know how to tell you what to do and what not to do.
You can avoid a stressful visit to the Vatican, by reading my tips first!
Visiting the Vatican - When to go
Waiting in the queue to get into Saint Peters Basilica in summer
- There really is no "best" day for visiting the Vatican, i.e. when there are fewer people. The Vatican is Rome's most popular tourist destination and is pretty much always busy. You might consider Tuesday or Thursday as your best bets. Dates around a weekend are probably busier, and on Wednesday there is the Papal Audience, meaning even more crowds.
- In the mornings, most of the tour groups show up, and many people come early to try to "beat the line," so you may find the Vatican Museums slightly less crowded in the afternoon.
- Saint Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican museums tend to be even more crowded on Saturdays, when Rome fills up with weekend visitors from other parts of Italy and Europe.
- The Vatican museums are closed Sundays, except for the last Sunday of every month, when they are free. This is the most crowded day you can imagine for visiting the Vatican museums.
- On Wednesdays (except for late July and August when the pope goes on vacation to Castel Gandolfo, and holds audiences there), the pope holds an audience at Saint Peters. In warmer months, it will be in the square. In colder months, it will be in an auditorium-type hall just to the left of the basilica. This means that the whole area will be packed due to the tens of thousands of people who attend the papal audience, many of whom decide to visit the Vatican Museums after the audience.
- If you do visit the Vatican on a Wednesday when the papal audience is held in Saint Peter's Square, know that Saint Peter's Basilica will be closed until the papal audience is over (around 12-1pm.)
- As for time of year, winter low season months are best if you want to be more relaxed and find smaller crowds. This means most of December (except December 8, and Christmas through the Epiphany, January 6), January and February. Believe it or not, it is just as crowded at the Vatican between Christmas and January 6 as it is during summer.
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You will find large crowds at the Vatican the week after New Years in Rome
To visit St Peters Basilica, you must be properly dressed: no bare knees, midriffs or shoulders. Sandals and jeans are fine.
Be careful when wearing knee-length shorts and skirts; the opinions of the Vatican guards as to what is acceptable may vary.
You may wish to bring a sarong or wear the kinds of shorts that have attachable legs, such as hiking trousers.
In a pinch, you will find plenty of vendors just outside the Vatican, who sell t-shirts or scarves.
Visiting the Vatican - What to see
The main things most people want to see when visiting the Vatican are Saint Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Museums. (To be clear, Michelangelo’s pietà is inside Saint Peter’s basilica, and Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel is inside the Vatican Museums.)
You can see one and not the other. However, visiting both in a single day is very do-able. Just try not plan any other big visit (like another museum, or the Coliseum) else for that day, as you will be pretty exhausted after this.
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- You might also spy one of the Swiss guard at the gate to Vatican City. They all have different outfits, depending on their duties, but they are all dressed in costumes originally designed in the early 1500's.
- Don't miss a visit to the Vatican Post Office if you want to mail any postcards. It's easier and more efficient than going to the Italian Post Office, and your mail will get there faster!
Which to see first - The Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel, or St. Peter's Basilica?
When visiting the Vatican on your own (without a tour), I'd advise visiting the museums first, because they are the most intense part of the visit, and, because you can take the short passage into St. Peter's basilica directly from the Sistine Chapel.
If you visit St. Peter's basilica first, you may have to wait in very long lines to get in. Once you get out, you then have to walk all the way to the entrance of the Vatican Museums, as there is no way to get from the basilica into the Vatican Museums.
If you want to avoid waiting in line at St. Peter's Basilica, you can book this skip-the-line entry ticket with audio-guide.
Saint Peters Basilica
The central nave of Saint Peters Basilica, one of the largest, and arguably most beautiful churches in the world
Saint Peter’s Basilica is a Renaissance-era church and one of the world’s largest.
The Vatican is a basilica but not a cathedral, as it does not have its own bishop.
The main cathedral of the “Bishop of Rome”, as the pope is called, is San Giovanni in Laterano, or Saint John in Lateran.
(But the pope is of course head of Vatican state, where he resides.)
It's a little confusing isn't it? Anyway, just think of the Vatican as a huge church, with a lot to see inside.
Michelangelo's dome inside Saint Peter's Basilica
It's very much worth visiting the Vatican dome, but you should know it's can get a little crowded up there, and there are a LOT of stops (the first level is 320 steps, but there is an elevator options.) But the second portion is another 231 steps, and there is no elevator option. In fact, the dome gets narrower of course, so you will be climbing this part single file, and with the roof slanting over your head.
I say this as someone with a close relative with vertigo: you may want to avoid climbing the dome at the Vatican if you suffer from vertigo or claustrophobia. But if none of that is an issue, then do it! You'll love the views from up there, both of the church and of the surrounding city-scape.
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Michelangelo's pietà inside St Peters Basilica
My favorite piece of art at the Vatican, perhaps one of my favorite statues ever, is Michelangelo’s pietà. When visiting the Vatican, don't miss this. It’s on your right as soon as you walk into Saint Peter’s. When I visited it with my mom, she cried, saying “look at her face, it’s just about a mother’s love for her child."
Unfortunately, someone wielding an axe once attacked it, and it’s now behind glass. But you can still see it very well. And do take note of Mary’s face. It’s really special when you see it in person.
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This was one of Michelangelo’s first works ever. He was not sure people would know he did it, so he snuck in late one night and carved his name (Buonarotti) on Mary’s sash.
The Pietà is the only statue Michelangelo ever signed.
The Tombs of the Popes
When visiting the Vatican, you can go down one level and see the area where some of the popes are buried. Saint Peter is said to be entombed just underneath the church. This is why many popes are also buried here.
It's quite interesting to visit the popes' tombs - there is a lot of history down there. Don't worry, it's not dark or claustrophobic. On the contrary, it's a huge open space full of light and lots to see.
If you want to visit Saint Peter’s tomb, called the “necropolis”, you must book long in advance (Click here to book this through the Vatican.) It is an archeological site, and there is a limit to how many visitors they will allow, so you should book way in advance.
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The Vatican Museums
This is the part about visiting the Vatican that will take most of your time and energy. The Vatican Museums contain the world’s largest private art collection (and just imagine that most of the art they own is not even on display!)
The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel inside the Vatican Museums. Michelangelo Buonarotti, 1508-1512.
No, you cannot just see the Sistine Chapel.
To see the Sistine Chapel, you must go into and through the entire Vatican Museums, which can take at least 2 hours. The Sistine Chapel is at the very end.
That said, If you are interested in an "Express Tour" of the Sistine Chapel, book this exclusive tour with Viator, that skips the line then beelines to the Sistine Chapel and finishes in Saint Peter's Basilica.
This tour is only 90 minutes and does not include a tour of the rest of the Vatican Museums. You do still have to walk through them, but the focus of the tour will be the Sistine Chapel and the Basilica of Saint Peter's.
Visiting the Vatican museums is absolutely worth doing in its entirety, even if you really only wanted to see the Sistine Chapel. The rest of the museums are truly wonderful as well. You have the Rafael rooms, the map room, the floor-to-ceiling tapestries, papal apartments, Etruscan art and so much more.
Raphael's "School of Athens" in the Vatican Museums
I would definitely suggest taking a tour. But if going on your own, I strongly recommend pre-booking your tickets.
If you are visiting Vatican City in the morning, you could visit Saint Peter’s Basilica first, and the museums later, because the lines at the Vatican museums are more crowded in the mornings. If you go to the Vatican Museums first, just make sure to leave enough time to visit Saint Peters while there is still some daylight, so you can enjoy the sun coming through all the stained glass.
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After visiting the Vatican Museums, you can save yourself a lot of time by going right into Saint Peter's Basilica without waiting in any lines!
Once you have seen the Sistine Chapel, you will be in a sort of anteroom just before exiting the building. If you leave the building (exit on the left), you will then have to talk all the way around the museums’ exterior and back through Saint Peter’s square, to get to the entrance for Saint Peter’s Basilica. That walk takes about 15-20 minutes, and, you will have to wait on line to go through security again.
To avoid this, take the secret passageway (exit on the right) straight from the Sistine Chapel right to Saint Peter's basilica.
Well it’s not secret, but it’s supposed to be used only by tour groups.
But several guards I spoke with told me everyone uses it and it's fine. This walk will take about 10 minutes, and you will wind up in the basilica without having to go through security again, and without having to queue!
Skipping the line to get into the Vatican Museums:
- You can pre-purchase tickets to the Vatican Museums through the Vatican's website. (This means that you will not have to stand in the line waiting to buy tickets. You will, however, have to wait in a short line of others like you, who have pre-booked tickets and have to pick them up. You also still need to go through security as everyone does. So you do not entirely skip the line, but your line will be much shorter.)
- You can purchase an Omnia Pass. This is also going to get you a tour with a guide from the Vatican Museums, as above. It’s not as simple as it sounds and you will need to be careful to understand what you are getting into. Click here to go to my page about the Roma Pass and Omnia Pass for more details about these passes.
- You can book a tour of the Vatican Museums. The guide/tour company pre-purchases tickets for you and you enter the Vatican Museums with your guide/tour without having to wait in line.
- If you book a visit to the Vatican Gardens, you skip-the-line tickets to the Vatican Museums are included!
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Visiting the Vatican Museums with a Guide
Most guided tours consist primarily of a visit inside the Vatican Museums, and always include the Sistine Chapel. Some then also include a visit inside Saint Peter's Basilica.
You may expect a guided tour of the Vatican Museums and Basilica to last roughly three hours total. Only licensed tour guides may give tours inside Vatican City.
To find out about the many different kinds of tours you can book, visit my page about Vatican Museum Tours, which breaks down your options between group tours, early access tours, semi-private tours and more.
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Visiting the Vatican