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 go often 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 a bit busier, and on Wednesday there is (usually) 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 July, when the Pope takes a break), the pope holds an audienceat Saint Peter's Basilica. 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.)
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 Basilicaand 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 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 (usually) take the short passage into St. Peter's Basilica directly from the Sistine Chapel.
There is no way to get from St. Peter's Basilica into the Vatican Museums.
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.
If you only want to visit the basilica (and not the museums), or, if you prefer to visit the basilica first, and you want to avoid waiting in line at St. Peter's Basilica, you can book this skip-the-line entry ticket with audio-guide. (Normally it's free to enter the basilica, but you CAN purchase a skip-the-line ticket.)
Saint Peters Basilica
The central nave of Saint Peters Basilica, one of the largest, and arguably one of the most beautiful churches in the world.
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.
St Peter's Dome
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 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 do take note of Mary’s face. It’s really special when you see it in person.
This was one of Michelangelo’s first works ever. 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.
Vatican Grottoes - 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 (no photos allowed).
Not to be confused with St. Peter's tomb
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!)
The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel inside the Vatican Museums. Michelangelo Buonarotti, 1508-1512.
Can you just see the Sistine Chapel?
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.
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 museumsare 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
Then you get to enjoy breakfast in the Pinecone Courtyard. How special is that?
IMPORTANT TIME-SAVING TIP:
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 walk 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!
One final caveat - once in a while, the guards get more vigilant. And you may not be allowed to pass if you are not with a tour group. If this happens, you can try saying that your "tour group" is ahead and you are trying to catch up with them. Worst case scenario, you will simply have to leave through the regular exit and make your way to Saint Peter's basilica from the front.
Skipping the line to get into the Vatican Museums:
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:
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.)
I do not recommend this at all, but if you have not booked tickets, and they are sold out online, and you find yourself arriving at the Vatican Museums, you will ALWAYS find touts selling you a skip-the-line ticket or tour. I don't recommend it because you cannot be sure they are legit, and if they are, you have no idea what kind of tour you are getting. I also just can't stand, in principle, to be so bombarded by these guys every time I am within a mile of the Vatican. But it can be a good option if it's your last recourse and the lines are crazy long.
Visiting the Vatican museums with a tour is one of the best ways to get the most out of your visit. There is just so much to see!
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.
The spiral staircase inside the Vatican Museums is one of the most photographed things in the museums.
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:
Including the Papal Audience
How to visit the Vatican Museums and attend the Papal Audience
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.
After the Papal Audience, Pope Francis gets in his popemobile, and goes all through the crowd. I got this close shot by being there at 7am and grabbing a seat front and center!
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.
When you leave the Sistine Chapel, go out the normal (left-hand) exit, and don't try to take the shortcut into St Peter's basilica, as you'd have already done this. This will be a very full and long day also.
Including a visit to the Vatican Gardens
IF YOU WANT TO VISIT THE VATICAN GARDENS AND VISIT THE SCAVI (St. Peter's Tomb)
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.
One of my favorite things to see in the Vatican Gardens is this precious fountain with turtles!
If you want to do it all - visit the Vatican Museums, vatican gardens, papal audience, scavi tour and st peter's basilica and dome
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.
Including a visit to the Vatican Gardens is a fantastic thing to do. Just make sure you budget time for this if you want to do other special Vatican visits too!
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.)
One final note - I have a friend who lives inside Vatican City. She is in fact married to one of the Swiss Guard! She is on Instagram as @SwissGuardWife, and she also publishes a blog, Travel Angel.
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.
How to get to the Vatican Museums
The entrance to the Vatican Museums is on Viale Vaticano. If you plan to take a taxi, just tell the driver "Vatican Museums".
Visiting the Vatican Museums and arriving by Metro
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.
Rome's Ottaviano metro stop is the most commonly used stop for visiting the Vatican.
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.
For me, getting some of Bonci's Pizzarium pizza is one of the highlights of visiting the Vatican. It's right at the Cipro metro stop, so it could not be more convenient (as if I needed an excuse).
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.
Visiting the Vatican Museums and Arriving by Bus
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.
How to Get to Saint Peter's Basilica and Square
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.
How to get to the scavi/St Peter's Tomb
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.
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