Planning on visiting the Vatican when you come to Rome?
Here's everything you need to know!
Here is what you really need to know about visiting the Vatican:
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 (long before smartphones and Google, ahem.)
It must have been a Free Sunday, when the Vatican Museums are open and free but with reduced hours.
Now that I live here, I go often to Saint Peter's Basilica, Saint Peter's Square, and the Vatican Museums.
I also helped thousands of our guests plan their visits in the 17 years we ran our B&B.
Based on years of first-hand experience, 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!
QUICK FACTS ABOUT VISITING VATICAN CITY
To visit St Peters Basilica and the Sistine Chapel, 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.
No matter what season you visit Rome, here are 4 things never to leave at home:
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The main things to see when visiting the Vatican are Saint Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Museums.
You can see one and not the other, although visiting both in a single day is very do-able.
Looking for Michelangelo's masterpieces?
Michelangelo’s Pietà is inside Saint Peter's Basilica.
Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel is inside the Vatican Museums.
Just try not to plan any other big visit like another museum or archeological site like the Coloseum for the day you visit the Vatican, as you will be pretty exhausted.
Do you really want to visit the Vatican and Colosseum in one day? Here's how!
Or take the stress out of it by taking this "Rome in a Day" Tour with Vatican, Colosseum & Historic Center.
To get the most out of your visit to the Colosseum, take a VIP Colosseum Underground Tour with Roman Forum & Palatine Hill.
Saint Peter’s Basilica is a Renaissance-era church and by many standards, 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 head of Vatican City, 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.
Click here to read more about what exactly the Vatican is.
Click here to visit my dedicated page all about Saint Peter's Basilica and its history, and things to see and do there.
It's very much worth visiting the basilica's dome, but you should know it can get a little crowded up there, and there are a LOT of steps.
The first level is 231 steps, but there is an elevator option. (Someone in a wheelchair or with walking difficulties can take the lift to this first level.)
The second portion is another 320 steps, with no elevator option.
The dome gets narrower as you go up, 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.
Visit my dedicated page all about Saint Peter's dome and how to climb it.
My favorite piece of art inside of St Peter's Basilica is Michelangelo’s Pietà.
Actually, it may be my favorite piece of art in the world.
I can't help it...just look at it:
It’s on your right as soon as you walk inside Saint Peter's Basilica.
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 take note of Mary’s face.
It’s really special when you see it in person.
This was one of Michelangelo’s first major works.
He made it when he was only 22.
He was not sure people would know he did it, so he snuck in late one night and carved his name (Michelangelo Buonarroti) on Mary’s sash.
The Pietà is the only sculpture Michelangelo ever signed (or needed to sign.)
Inside Saint Peter's Basilica, 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, called the Vatican Grottoes - 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 (no photos allowed.)
To visit the Vatican Grottoes, get up close to Bernini's Baldachin and look for the entrance nearby.
It's free to visit the Vatican Grottoes.
You should make sure you are done visiting the basilica or have a plan to go back up, because the normal route through the grottoes has you exit the basilica entirely.
When people talk about visiting the Vatican grottoes, they are referring to a place where you can see the tombs of many popes (as I wrote above.)
But this is not the same as visiting the Vatican Necropolis, where St. Peter is said to be buried.
A visit to Saint Peter’s tomb, also referred to as a scavi visit, is a special and wonderful thing to do, and I highly recommend it. ("Scavi" means "excavations".)
It is a delicate archeological site, and they only take 250 people in per day, in 12-person tours at a time, so you must book way in advance. (No photos allowed.)
The second major site to visit at the Vatican is the Vatican Museums.
This is the part about Vatican City that will take most of your time and energy.
The Vatican Museum contains the world’s largest private art collection (and just imagine that much of the art they own is not even on display!)
They are called "museums" and not just singular "museum" because the museums were started in 1506 and have been added to many times over the centuries.
They now occupy many different buildings all connected to on another.
That's one reason there is so much to see!
You will see a lot of art inside the Vatican Museums, including paintings, sculptures, ancient artifacts, and much more.
I think the number one thing people want to see when they visit is the Sistine Chapel.
For more about the Vatican Museums and Sistine chapel, visit my dedicated pages:
Besides the two main sites - the museums (Sistine Chapel) and the basilica, there are more things you will see when you visit Vatican City.
Look for these as you walk around:
It would be easy to take Saint Peter's Square, Piazza San Pietro in Italian, for granted.
After all, if you're beelining to get into the basilica, you might be focused on the security queues and wondering how long you will have to wait.
But St. Peter's Square, also called Vatican Square, is worth visiting and enjoying by itself.
It's the only part of Vatican City you can visit without any tickets or queuing.
If you have very limited time, you may even decide that this is about as much as you want to see of Vatican City, since everything else involves queues and/or tickets plus an involved visit inside.
Click here to visit my page all about St. Peter's Square, its history, and what to see.
You might spy one or more of the Swiss Guard at the gate to Vatican City.
The Swiss Guard wear different outfits depending on their duties, but they are all dressed in costumes originally designed in the early 1500s (although not by Michelangelo, an urban myth.)
The Swiss Guard have a specific duty to guard the pope's life and Saint Peter's Basilica.
They are the world's smallest army and they are very well trained.
You will not see the Swiss Guard at the Vatican Museums.
There, you will see Vatican Museums guards who dress in more modern attire.
In the 9th century, Pope Leo IV had defensive walls built around Vatican City following the sacking by raiders of Old St. Peter's Basilica in 846.
You can still see those walls today in and around the Vatican, especially if you visit the Vatican Gardens.
You can also see parts of these walls surrounding Saint Peter's Square on the side where the security gates are, and along the way from the Vatican to nearby Castel Sant'Angelo.
Click here to read a more detailed yet brief history of the Vatican.
For more Vatican history, check out these dedicated pages:
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!
There is also a Vatican mailbox up on the roof (Saint Peter's Dome), and usually another post office in Saint Peter's Square.
Besides Saint Peter's Basilica and the Vatican Museums, there are some more sites you can visit in Vatican City.
You have to pay for these (and for the scavi and gardens, you must book in advance.)
You will find more details about each one on their respective dedicated pages:
If you book a tour of the Vatican, usually this means taking a guided tour of the Vatican Museums, which ends with the Sistine Chapel.
Some tours include taking the shortcut from the Sistine Chapel into St Peters Basilica.
If this is the case, the decision is made for you.
But if you are visiting the Vatican Museums without a tour or you are taking a Vatican museums tour that does not include the basilica, you'll have to decide what order to visit the museums and the basilica in, assuming you want to visit both on the same day, which many people do.
To visit the Vatican Museums (where the Sistine Chapel is), you need a purchase a ticket (unless you come on the Free Sunday.)
Once inside, even if you go quickly, you will need about 2 hours for this this visit.
When you visit on your own or with a tour that does not include Saint Peter's Basilica, you will exit where you entered.
This is about a 15-20 minute walk from Saint Peter's Square and the entrance to the basilica.
Click here to see a map of Vatican City and how far apart the entrances of the Museums and the Basilica are (it opens in a new window.)
NO MORE SECRET SHORTCUT!
As of 2019, it is no longer possible to take the shortcut from the Sistine Chapel to St Peter's Basilica unless you're on a tour.
They are checking and enforcing this rigorously.
So if you do not book a tour that includes the basilica, you will have to wait in both security lines - one at the Vatican Museums, and the other at Saint Peter's basilica.
Click here to view a map of Vatican City (it will open in a new page.)
A visit inside Saint Peter's Basilica could take anywhere from 1-2 hours, not including the time you spend in line waiting to go through security.
To visit Saint Peter's Basilica, you do not need (nor can you buy) tickets, as it's free to go inside.
But you do have to wait in the line for security, which is airport-style - there is an x-ray machine to put your items in and you will walk through a metal detector.
And that can cause the queues to get pretty long.
Lately, the lines to get into Saint Peter's Basilica have been so long, they are looping back again around the square.
Wondering which tour to take of the Vatican Museums?
Visit my page about Vatican Museum tours to find out all the options!
If you are here in anything close to a busy season (March - November), I'd suggest getting to Saint Peter's Basilica when it opens at 7 AM (if you want to avoid the line), and then taking a break for some food, and then going to the Vatican Museums.
I used to advise visiting the museums first because it's a pretty intense visit, but now that the lines to get into Saint Peter's Basilica are so long, I'd suggest the basilica first.
At least with the museums, you have a timed entry and you will only have to go through security there (this is a different security line than the one at the basilica.)
Of course, this is all if you decide to visit without taking a tour.
If you take a tour of the Vatican Museums, you can book a tour that also includes the shortcut to the basilica, which will save you a LOT of time. (Not all tours include the basilica.)
This is why I recommend a tour:
The easiest way to skip the lines at Saint Peter's Basilica is to book a tour that includes the basilica (and the shortcut from the Sistine Chapel.)
If you only plan to visit Saint Peter's Basilica, and not the museums, or you take a Vatican Museums tour that does not include the basilica, you can avoid the queues by following the tips in my video above:
Wondering where the bathrooms are at the Vatican?
The history of the Vatican stretches back thousands of years, and to know everything about this incredible micro-state would take a lifetime to learn.
With this eBook, discover the brief history of Vatican City - where it got its name, who built the basilica, where the Popes are buried and more!
Topics covered include:
What else is included in this Brief History of Vatican City e-book?
This may be the number 1 question I get about visiting Rome - How to skip the line for the Vatican Museums?
It's quite simple:
Most Vatican City tourism consists primarily of a visit inside the Vatican Museums, which always includes the Sistine Chapel.
Some tours also include a visit or even a tour inside Saint Peter's Basilica.
You may expect a guided tour of the Vatican Museums and Basilica to last roughly three hours total.
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.
No, you cannot just see the Sistine Chapel.
To see the Sistine Chapel, you must go through the entire Vatican Museums, which can take at least 2 hours if you tour it and see the highlights.
The Sistine Chapel is at the very end.
That said, if you are interested in an "Express Tour" of the Sistine Chapel, you can book this tour that skips the line then beelines to the Sistine Chapel and finishes in Saint Peter's Basilica.
This tour is only 1 hour and 45 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 Saint Peter's Basilica.
(If you are really pressed for time, you could peel off once you get to the basilica and just not finish the tour.)
I really do believe that 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.
You have the Raphael rooms, the maps gallery, the floor-to-ceiling tapestries, papal apartments, Etruscan art, and so much more.
Click here to visit my page about the top 10 Vatican Museums must-sees.
I highly suggest taking a tour to visit the museums.
They will take care of getting your tickets.
But if you go your own without a tour, you could get the audio guide, or follow my instructions here for the best way to visit the Vatican Museums.
And you will have to book your tickets on your own.
If you are heading to the Vatican in the morning, as I said above, I suggest you visit Saint Peter’s Basilica first, and the museums later, because the queues for Saint Peter's Basilica have gotten so long (sometimes it's a 1-2 hour wait to get in!)
If you decide to go to the Vatican Museums first, just make sure to leave enough time to stand in line to visit Saint Peter's so that you get inside while there is still some daylight, so you can enjoy the sun coming through all the stained glass.
Here's a great Vatican Highlights Tour with St. Peter’s Dome Climb
Perhaps the easiest way to see the Sistine Chapel with fewer crowds is to come in really low season.
But we hardly have a low season anymore in Rome, and even when we do, somehow the Vatican is always still crowded.
So how can you see the Sistine Chapel without the crowds?
It is possible!
With the below tours, you will have a VIP, exclusive experience, and you'll get to enjoy the Sistine Chapel almost alone:
On this exclusive tour with Walks of Italy, you will have true VIP access to the Vatican museums - literally accompanying the guard who opens all the doors to get the museums ready for visits.
You will accompany the Vatican Museums Key Master as you walk through the museums, turning on the lights, even inside the Sistine Chapel!
Watch my video to see what it's like:
On this exclusive tour, you will get to see the Sistine Chapel after hours, with only your group.
This tour starts right when the Vatican Museums close the ticket office for the day.
It's considered an evening tour, although it's not the same as the Vatican Museums tours on Friday and Saturday nights from April - October.
This is a much more exclusive and special visit!
The typical way of visiting the Vatican is to spend half a day seeing the Vatican Museums and Saint Peter's Basilica.
These are both easy to fit into a typical 3-day visit to Rome.
The perfect 3-day itinerary in Rome
Trying to figure out how to organize your visit to Rome? I've got the perfect 3-day itinerary for first-time visitors (or those who have not been here in a while.) It works for a 2.5 day visit as well.
In my 3-day itinerary, you'll see all the major must-see Rome attractions like the Vatican, Colosseum, Trevi Fountain, Pantheon, Piazza Navona, Spanish Steps, Castel Sant'Angelo, and much more.
And if you have more time, or want suggestions for extra/other things to do, you'll find that there too.
Visit my page with the best 3-day itinerary in Rome for first-timers.
I have found that often when people can get tickets to special things at the Vatican, like St Peters tomb (the Vatican Necropolis, or scavi), the Papal Audience, or the Vatican Gardens, they often want to also visit the Vatican Museums on the same day.
Here's my advice for visiting Vatican City when you want to see more than just the Vatican Museums:
Papal Audience tickets are not difficult to come by, and since it's "in the morning", many visitors assume it would be a good idea to go to the Vatican Museums right after the audience.
I don't agree.
If you are really short on time, then, you CAN go to the Vatican Museums after the Papal Audience.
It's just that this is going to make for a pretty exhausting day.
To go to the Papal audience, you need to get there by 8am to get a decent spot, let alone a seat.
The audience begins around 9:30 AM and finishes around noon.
You'll probably want to grab at least a snack or lunch somewhere in there.
This means going inside the museums from about 2 PM once you have made your way to the Vatican Museum entrance.
If you also visit St. Peter's Basilica after the museums (which is typical), that is a 3-4 hour visit.
And a very long day. (Also, if you want to climb the dome, you likely won't get there in time.)
If you can break these visits up over two days, I would.
Attend the Papal Audience and then go inside Saint Peter's Basilica (and climb the dome if you want.)
Then on a separate day, visit the Vatican Museums and see the Sistine Chapel.
At the end of the scavi tour (St. Peter's tomb), you wind up inside Saint Peter's basilica.
So you will already see that.
You could also climb St. Peter's dome if you have time and energy.
Visiting the Vatican Museums takes easily 2.5 - 3 hours, and that does not include the time it takes GETTING there once you leave the basilica.
If you are coming to the museums from St. Peter's basilica, you need to factor in about 15-20 minutes' walk to the Vatican museums entrance.
This is after you've already done a 1.5 hour scavi tour, and spent time walking around one of the largest churches in the world.
So as you can see, adding the Vatican Museums makes it a pretty exhausting day.
If you need to do it all in one day, make sure to book your scavi tour first, then book your museums visit with at least 4 hours between visits.
Break this up over two days.
Book the scavi tour.
You have no control over when they will grant you tickets, so if you are lucky enough to get them, you can then book other things around that.
Plan to see St. Peter's basilica (and climb the dome) on this day.
Then, book your Vatican Museums visit for another day.
You are definitely going to need two days.
First book the scavi visit which is never on a Wednesday mornings anyway (the Papal Audience is on Wednesdays.)
Plan to visit St Peter's Basilica after that, since you will come out into the basilica after the tour anyway.
If you want to climb St Peter's dome, you will do it on this day.
This is a pretty long and full day by itself.
Then, once you get your Papal Audience tickets, book your tickets or tour of the Vatican Museums for after the audience (even if I said above I discourage doing all this in one day, at least if you don't include the basilica it's a little less tiring).
This will be a very full and long day also.
Ready to plan your trip?
TWO Vatican Gardens
On this page, I'm referring to the gardens inside Vatican City, i.e. directly behind Saint Peter's Basilica.
There are ALSO papal gardens at the Pope's summer residence, the Apostolic palace at Castel Gandolfo.
To learn more about the gardens at Castel Gandolfo and how to visit them (it's easy!), visit my dedicated page here.
If you are able to get tickets to St. Peter's tomb (scavi) and also the Vatican Gardens, congratulations!
Here's how to include visiting the Vatican Museums and St. Peter's basilica as well.
First book the scavi visit.
Then book the Vatican Gardens tour on a different day, and plan to visit the Vatican Museums right after the gardens, as it's included in your ticket price with the gardens.
Visit St. Peter's Basilica after the scavi, again, on a different day from the Gardens/Museums.
How you plan your days fitting in these visits will depend on two things - the Papal audience, which is always Wednesday morning 10am - 12pm (although you need to get there by no later than 8am); and the time of your scavi booking (which depends on the scavi office - you cannot control this).
Once you get those two bookings, the next difficult booking to get is for the Vatican Gardens.
So book that one around the Papal Audience and scavi tour.
Note that tours of the Vatican Gardens are at 9am or 11am.
They are also not held on the morning of the Papal Audience.
I'd suggest you spread this over 3 days.
Or, to fit this into two (intense) days, try to do the scavi tour after the Papal audience, if you can get scavi tickets for the afternoon.
Then book the Vatican Gardens, Vatican Museums, and St. Peter's Basilica on a separate day.
(And climb St. Peter's dome once you are inside St. Peter's basilica if you like.)
You have several options for how to get to the Vatican.
But the most important factor to consider is what you are visiting first.
Click here to see a Google map showing where the different entrances are for the Vatican Museums, Saint Peter's Square, and the scavi entrance. It will open in a new window.
The Vatican Museums entrance is on Viale Vaticano.
If you plan to take a taxi, just tell the driver "Vatican Museums".
Otherwise, the most common way to get there is by Metro.
Rome's metro red line A has two stops, equidistant from the entrance to the museums (about a 10-12 minute walk): Ottaviano and Cipro.
The Ottaviano metro stop is the first one you will come to if you are coming from Rome's center.
When you emerge from the metro station, you just need to follow the crowd towards Vatican City.
Once you see Michelangelo's bastions (walls), follow them to the right and you will come to the entrance of the Vatican Museums.
If you are visiting the Vatican museums from the opposite direction, or if you forget to get off at Ottaviano, or, better yet, if you want to get off at the next stop to get some fabulous pizza by the slice from Bonci's Pizzarium, then you will get off at Cipro stop.
However, from this stop, you cannot see the same stream of people, nor can you immediately see the Vatican City walls, so you will need to navigate a little bit to find the walls.
Once you see the walls, follow them until you come to the entrance.
Another option for arriving at the entrance of the Vatican museums is to take a bus or buses.
Many buses will get you pretty close to the entrance of the Vatican museums.
These include the 492, 49, 23, and the 81.
The entrance to St. Peter's Basilica is on Saint Peter's Square.
This is about a 15-20 minute walk from the Vatican Museums, so if you are not visiting the Vatican Museums (or not visiting them first), and want to go directly to the basilica, you can still take the metro, but make sure to get off at Ottaviano, not Cipro.
From Ottaviano metro stop, St. Peter's Square is about a 10-15 minute walk.
Follow the crowds, but at the walls, do not make a right towards the museums, just keep going straight.
Buses that arrive closest to St. Peter's Square include the 40 and the 64.
If you are visiting the Vatican for an appointment to see St. Peter's tomb, the fastest and easiest way to arrive is by taxi.
They can drop you right in front of the entrance where you need to go, which is at the Swiss Guard, to the left of the basilica as you face it.
If you take a bus, get the 64, as it drops you about a block away.
To take the metro, make sure to get off at Ottaviano, and give yourself about 20 minutes' walking time from there to get the the entrance of St. Peter's tomb.
There is no place to eat inside St Peter's Basilica or in St Peter's Square (there is a tiny snack bar on the roof of the basilica, which you can only access if you climb the dome.)
There are some cafés and fast-food options inside the Vatican Museums.
There are also fun dining options you can book, and combine with your visit to the Museums.
Otherwise, visit my page about lots of options for eating breakfast, lunch, dinner and aperitivo near the Vatican.
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