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. Luckily, the museums are now open later.
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 B&B guests plan their visit there. 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!
The main things 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.
You might spy one 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.
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. If you want to see the Vatican Museums and Saint Peter's Basilica, I highly recommend a tour. For one thing, this will allow you to easily go directly from the Sistine Chapel into the basilica. For another thing, there really is so much to absorb, and having a good guide will help you focus on the most important aspects.
Whether you are on a tour or not, there is no way to get from St. Peter's Basilica into the Vatican Museums.
If you only want to visit the basilica (and not the museums), or, if you prefer to visit the basilica first, and are not planning on taking a tour, you can avoid waiting in line at St. Peter's Basilica if you book this skip-the-line entry ticket with audio-guide. (It's free to enter the basilica, but you CAN purchase a skip-the-line ticket to bypass the crowds.)
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 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.
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 steps (the first level is 231 steps, but there is an elevator option).
But the second portion is another 320 steps, and there is no elevator option. In fact, 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-scape.
My favorite piece of art inside of St Peter's basilica 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 take note of Mary’s face. It’s really special when you see it in person.
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 (no photos allowed).
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 (city of the dead, or burial ground), 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.)
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!)
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.
I don't mean to sound cliché but 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 as well.
You have the Raphael rooms, the maps hall, the floor-to-ceiling tapestries, papal apartments, Etruscan art and so much more.
If you are visiting the Vatican 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.
Did you know the Sistine Chapel is a working chapel, and that special services are held there?
I was so lucky to be invited by my friend Travel Angel to attend Vespers inside the Sistine Chapel. Watch my video below to see how the chapel is meant to be used!
With these tours, you will have a really VIP, exclusive experience, and you'll get to enjoy the Sistine Chapel almost alone:
On this exclusive Viator tour, Sistine Chapel Private Viewing and Small-Group Tour of the Vatican's Secret Rooms, you will get to see the Sistine Chapel after hours, with only your small group of 15 people.
You'll also have completely skip the line access, and will visit secret rooms not normally available to visitors. This is about as exclusive a tour as it gets!
And on this exclusive Viator tour, Waking Up the Vatican: VIP Small-Group Tour Before Museums Open, you will have a different kind of VIP access to the Vatican museums - literally accompanying the guard who opens all the doors to get the museums ready for visits.
Then you get to enjoy breakfast in the Pinecone Courtyard. How special is that?
This may be the number 1 question I get about visiting Rome - How to skip the line for the Vatican Museums? In fact, it's quite simple:
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.
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 the Vatican when you want to see more than just the Vatican Museums:
This is also pretty common when visiting the Vatican. 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 finishes around noon. (You'll probably want to grab at least a snack or lunch in there.)
This means visiting the Vatican Museums from about 2pm. 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).
My suggestion? If you can break these visits up over two days, I do suggest it as a better way of visiting the Vatican AND including the Papal Audience.
Visiting the Vatican Museums takes easily 2.5 - 3 hours, and that does not include the time it takes GETTING there.
If you are coming to the museums from St. Peter's basilica, you need to factor in about 15-20 minutes' walk to the entrance of the Vatican museums. 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.
My suggestion? 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. 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 this, 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.
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.
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.
My suggestion? 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.)
When visiting the Vatican, you have several options for how to get there. But the most important factor to consider is what you are visiting first.
The entrance to the Vatican Museums 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 the Vatican, and once you see Michelangelo's 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.
From this stop, you cannot see the same stream of people, nor can you immediately see the Vatican walls. You will need to walk just a little bit until 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 15 minute walk. Follow the crowds, but at the walls, do not make a right towards the museums, just keep going straight.
The buses that arrive closest to St. Peter's Square include the 40 and the 64. The 64 bus is probably the one that takes you the closest to Saint Peter's Square.
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 cafe's 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.
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