Top Tips for Visiting the Vatican: What to Know Before You Visit
The Vatican has always been an intriguing place to visit to me. During my first visit to Rome, however, I encountered some issues when exploring the Vatican I wish I knew before I came. Luckily, I had enough time in Rome to figure out what to do and what not to do when it comes to visiting the Vatican. In the end, I was able to enjoy my time at the Vatican and see everything I wanted to see.
You can avoid a stressful visit to the Vatican, by reading the following tips first!
Here is what you really need to know about visiting the Vatican:
Visiting the Vatican – When to go
There is no “perfect” day for visiting the Vatican. It is always packed. The Vatican is probably the most popular tourist destination in Rome and is pretty much always busy. However, Tuesday or Thursday might be the best days as the weekend is a lot busier. On Wednesday, there is (usually) the Papal Audience, meaning the pope holds an audience at St. Peter’s Basilica.
While many people and tour groups come early to try to “beat the line,” the Vatican Museums are actually less crowded in the afternoon.
Saturday is probably the worst day to visit St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Museums as Rome fills up with weekend visitors from all over.
Also notice: The Vatican Museums are closed Sundays, except for the last Sunday of every month – then, they are free. Unfortunately, this is the busiest time you can imagine for visiting the Vatican Museums.
Wednesdays (except for late July and August when the pope goes on vacation to Castel Gandolfo to hold audiences there), the pope holds an audience at St. Peter’s Basilica. In summer, it is usually held in the massive square. In the winter months, it takes place in an auditorium-type hall just to the left of the basilica. During this time, the whole area will be packed with tens of thousands of people who want to attend the pope’s audience.
If you do visit the Vatican on a Wednesday when the papal audience is held in St. Peter’s Square, know that you can still visit St. Peter’s Basilica when the papal audience is over, at around 12 to 1 pm.
The winter months are considered the low season in Rome and are best if you want to visit the Vatican and find smaller crowds. However, between Christmas and January 6, the Vatican is just as crowded as in summer.
Here’s how and when to include visiting the Vatican in a 3-day itinerary in Rome.
What to see (St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Museums, and which to see first)
The most important things people want to see when visiting the Vatican in Rome are St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Museums. It’s hereby important to remember that the famous pietà by Michelangelo is inside St. Peter’s Basilica, and Michelangelo’s iconic Creation of Adam is located on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel inside the Vatican Museums.
Most people do definitely want to see both of these unique locations but you can also only visit one or the other. Visiting both in one day is doable if you don’t plan any other big visits into your schedule. You’ll spend many hours wandering through the Vatican and will be completely exhausted after. The only other appointments you should make are for a big dinner and maybe a relaxing massage at a spa.
ST. PETER’S BASILICA
St. Peter’s Basilica is not only the heart of the Vatican but also the largest church in the world. The Vatican is a basilica but not a cathedral, as it does not have its own bishop.
ST PETER’S DOME
Michelangelo’s dome is located inside St. Peter’s Basilica and will get you one of the most iconic views of St. Peter’s Square. Be warned, the way up to the dome is tiring with many steps. For the first part of the climb, you can choose to take an elevator that will save you 231 steps (the elevator ticket costs you EUR 10).
The last part up to the viewpoint, however, still requires you to climb 320 steps. The stairway also gets narrowed as you go up, so if you cannot handle narrow spaces, this might not be for you. Also be sure to bring enough water! I made the mistake and climbed up the dome without any water with me – and I deeply regretted this carelessness.
THE VATICAN MUSEUMS
Besides climbing up the many steps of the dome at St. Peter’s Basilica, the museums will take most of your time and energy. The Vatican Museums are home to the world’s largest private art collection in the world. It is estimated that the museums house around 70,000 works; but only 20,000 are actually on display. Most of these pieces are among the most important works of art in human history.
How to get tickets / skip the line to the Vatican museums
The Vatican is busy year-round. Even during low season, it’s best to purchase tickets in advance to reduce waiting time. Who wants to spend precious vacation time lining up in front of the gates? Think of all the time that gets lost where you could be eating pasta and gelato!
- Option 1: You can book a skip-the-line ticket. This ticket enables you to bypass the hundreds of people lining to get into the museum, explore the world-class collections at your own pace, admire the breathtaking frescoes of the Sistine Chapel and wander through the Gallery of Tapestries, the Geographical Maps, and the beautiful Raphael rooms. This ticket does not include a tour. You meet the tour guide at a meeting point outside, head inside the museum with the guide to receive your ticket and can explore on your own.
- Option 2: You can book a tour of the Vatican Museums. This tour includes a multi-lingual guide, who leads you through the museums. This tour also includes a guided tour through the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica.
- Option 3: You can purchase an Omnia Pass. This convenient pass is also going to get you a tour with a guide from the Vatican Museums, as above. The Omnia Pass lasts for 72 hours and gets you into 30 Rome and Vatican museums, art galleries and monuments. With the card, you also save over 30% on attraction costs and get fast-track entry to top tourist attractions, such as St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican Museums, the Sistine Chapel, the Colosseum, and more, plus the Hop on Hop Off Buses.
Can you just visit the Sistine Chapel?
No, it’s not possible to just see the Sistine Chapel.
The Sistine Chapel is the last part of the Vatican Museums. This means, you’ll have to go through the entire museum, which takes around 2 hours if you navigate through it and only see the highlights.
How do you visit St Peter’s Tomb?
At the Vatican, you can go down one level to see an area where some of the popes are buried. There is a lot of history down there and it’s totally worth it going down. There are no photos allowed down in the tomb area, though.
NOT TO BE CONFUSED WITH THE VATICAN NECROPOLIS
The Vatican Necropolis is also a burial ground and it is said that St. Peter is buried there. To visit Sant Peter’s tomb, you need to book tickets way in advance as only 250 people a day are allowed to visit in 12-person groups at a time. There are no photos allowed in this part of the Vatican either.
How to plan all your Vatican visits for your trip
To get the most out of your visit to the Vatican, I recommend starting with the museum first as this is the most intense part of the visit. It’s also better to start at the museum because you can take a short passage into St. Peter’s Basilica directly from the Sistine Chapel, the last part of the museums. However, there is no way to get from St. Peter’s Basilica into the Vatican Museums. If you visit the basilica right, you will have to wait in a very long line and then walk all the way to the entrance of the Vatican Museums after your visit. This is not very smart.
People typically spend half a day exploring the Vatican Museums and St. Peter’s Basilica. These are both easy to book, and easy to fit into a typical 3-day visit to Rome.
What to wear when visiting the Vatican
One of the most important tips for visiting the Vatican is the dress code. The Vatican is very strict in terms of dress code. You must cover your knees and shoulders or aren’t allowed in. Wearing long trousers in the extreme summer heat of Rome may seem like torture, but the Vatican is very well air-conditioned inside its buildings so you won’t have to worry about overheating.
The only exception here is when doing the climb up to the dome at St. Peter’s Basilica. That’s why I recommend wearing something loose and breathable for this part of the Vatican.
Where are the Swiss Guards?
The Pontifical Swiss Guard is a small force maintained by the Vatican that has been responsible for the safety of the Pope since 1506. The reason why they are so unique is that they still wear the traditional uniform from the 16th century today.
To be honest, I almost missed them on my visit to the Vatican as I wasn’t able to spot a single Swiss guard up until the very end of my visit actually. While they do walk around the entire Vatican from time to time, there is a checkpoint, where two or more Swiss guards patrol every single day. This is right at the exit area of St. Peter’s Basilica, next to the Vatican Post Office.
Pin it and save it for later
After sharing my top tips for visiting the Vatican, this is the most important piece of advice I want to give you lastly. Visit this amazing place and take a moment away from the camera and the phone and just admire this truly beautiful place.
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