Planning a trip to Vatican City and not quite sure where to start? Home to several incredible sights, a strict dress code, some of the most famous works of art on the planet, and enormous crowds, visiting the Vatican for the first time can be a bit overwhelming.
In other words, visiting the Vatican packs quite the punch considering that Vatican City is the smallest country in the world!
Here’s everything you need to know about visiting the Vatican, from the best way to enjoy the museums to when to go to exactly what to wear.
Table of Contents
What to See When Visiting the Vatican
When visitors talk about visiting the Vatican, they’re most commonly referring to visiting the Vatican Museums and St. Peter’s Basilica, but visiting Vatican City can easily extend beyond those popular sights.
Here are the parts of Vatican City to consider when planning your visit, from the incredibly popular to the fairly niche.
St. Peter’s Square
St. Peter’s Square is the easiest part of the Vatican to visit–you can simply walk in and admire the beautiful oval square and exterior of St. Peter’s Basilica without any advance planning.
The Vatican Museums
The Vatican Museums are home to some of the most incredible works of art in the entire world, including Raphael’s most famous frescoes and the Sistine Chapel.
You will need a ticket or tour to visit, and when people talk about how long the lines are to get into the Vatican, they’re most commonly referring to the lines for the museums–we’ll cover more on that in the next section of this Vatican City blog post.
The Sistine Chapel
The Sistine Chapel, with its magnificent ceiling painted by Michelangelo, is one of the most well-known houses of worship on the planet.
It is accessed through the Vatican Museums and cannot be visited separately.
St. Peter’s Basilica
St. Peter’s Basilica is the largest church on the planet, and a masterpiece of Renaissance architecture (Michelangelo and Bernini both contributed to its design).
It is free to visit, but you will need to pass through a security checkpoint to enter, and the lines for that can get very long.
You can also visit the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica (unlike visiting the basilica itself, climbing the dome does require a ticket–more on that below), and from there you can admire incredible views of St. Peter’s Square.
The Vatican Necropolis (or “scavi”) lies below St. Peter’s Basilica–and even below the “grotto” area that is also under St. Peter’s Basilica.
This area was a cemetery dating back to the first century, and, most importantly to Christian history, it is the presumed resting place of St. Peter himself.
Tours are required and absolutely must be booked in advance. If you’d like to tour directly with the Vatican, there are directions for how to email them (yep, it’s done by email!) here.
Alternatively, this well-reviewed tour will allow you to visit the Vatican Necropolis and is much more straightforward to arrange.
Check availability and book your Vatican Necropolis tour today!
The Vatican Gardens
The Vatican Gardens are beautiful and exclusive–only a handful of reservations are accepted per day (so like the Necropolis, you absolutely must plan ahead), and therefore they are never crowded.
Like the Vatican Necropolis, the Vatican Gardens must be visited as part of a tour like this.
When the Pope is at home in Vatican City, he gives an audience each Wednesday morning in St. Peter’s Square that is open to anyone who would like to join.
Tickets are free but must be booked in advance.
Important Tips for Visiting the Vatican Museums
The Vatican Museums house the largest private art collection in the world–and despite the enormous amount of art and historical artifacts displayed, only the tiniest sliver of the complete collection is on display to the public!
Beautiful, overwhelming, and one of the most highly sought-after art museums in the world, visiting the Vatican Museums can be a bit of an intense experience.
Here’s what to know before you go.
Don’t rush to the Sistine Chapel.
I know on our first visit to the Vatican Museums, we were highly anticipating the Sistine Chapel and always hoping it was coming up soon… but it’s one of the last things you see, so be sure to appreciate everything along the way!
Plan to spend at least two hours in the museums.
Three is even better, but it is hard to visit the Vatican Museums in less than two hours without simply making a beeline for the Sistine Chapel and not paying attention to much else.
Once you add in time to get there, security checks, potentially waiting in line, and maybe visiting St. Peter’s Basilica and St. Peter’s Square, it’s best to consider visiting the Vatican at least a half-day commitment if you’re going to be touring the museums.
Strongly consider booking a guided tour.
Guided tours add so much context to a Vatican Museums visit, and offer the opportunity to learn so much about the history of the art in the museums. They also make visiting the Vatican far less stressful from start to finish.
We’ve visited the Vatican Museums both independently and with a guided tour, and after experiencing both, strongly recommend a tour.
… and at the very least, absolutely book skip-the-line tickets.
Absolutely don’t want to take a Vatican Museums tour, or just don’t have the budget for it?
That’s completely understandable. In that case, we recommend booking skip-the-line tickets (ideally these early-access ones, but skip-the-line tickets for the normal operating hours are very helpful as well).
I’m not exaggerating when I say that the lines to access the Vatican Museums are the worst we have ever seen at any museum in the world.
During one of our longer trips to Rome, we stayed just beyond the Vatican Museums for a solid month and walked past the line for the museums almost every day–and as mid-October turned into mid-November, the lines remained incredibly overwhelming.
Keep in mind alternative hours.
The typical opening hours for the Vatican Museums are Monday – Saturday from 9:00 AM to 6:00 PM (with the last entry at 4:00 PM).
However, there are a few ways to access the Vatican Museums outside these hours if you’d like to mix up your visit!
Early Morning VIP Entry
With early-morning entry, either via pre-booked tickets for an independent visit or via a tour, you can enter the Vatican Museums as early as 7:30 AM, therefore avoiding the worst of the crowds (and during warm weather, the worst of the heat).
This incredibly popular tour a tried-and-true early morning option for touring the Vatican Museums!
Friday Nights Between April and October
For seven months out of the year, the Vatican Museums are open on Friday nights until 11:00 PM (last entry at 9:30 PM), and we can personally attest that visiting the Vatican Museums at night is an incredible experience (and far less crowded than general entry hours).
We took this amazing tour on a Friday night and loved it!
Book the Friday night Vatican Museums tour we loved today!
Last Sunday of the Month
The Vatican Museums are typically (and unsurprisingly) closed on Sundays, but on the last Sunday of the month, the museums are open until 2:00 PM (last entry at 12:30 PM).
Like many free museum days around the world, the general rule of thumb with visiting the Vatican Museums on a free Sunday is that it’s a great option for those on a strict budget, and a terrible one for those who want to avoid extremely heavy crowds.
Make sure to follow the dress code!
There is a dress code for visiting the Vatican Museums. Essentially, no shorts, no bare shoulders, no cleavage, and no hats.
In our experience, this is most strongly enforced in the Sistine Chapel, but as a gesture of respect and to avoid the risk of being denied entry, you should absolutely follow the Vatican Museums’ dress code.
We recommend light, loose clothing that will allow you to stay both covered and cool, because the museums can get very warm.
With limited exceptions, there is no air-conditioning in the museums.
Only a few rooms are air-conditioned, so as you can imagine, during Rome’s hot summer months it can be a bit blistering inside the Vatican Museums.
Avoiding the heat (which is, of course, made even worse due to the heavy crowds that are normally visiting the Vatican) is another good reason to book an early morning or Friday night Vatican tour–not only will there be fewer crowds, the museums will be much cooler!
Don’t take photos in the Sistine Chapel.
Despite this being obviously and clearly banned, complete with repeated announcements every few minutes from the security officers and strict enforcement, you’ll still see people trying to snap photos of the Sistine Chapel. Don’t be one of them!
The photos of the Sistine Chapel I’ve used in this Vatican blog post are stock photos for that reason.
Don’t plan to eat at the Vatican Museums if possible.
There is a cafeteria inside the museums selling basic meals and snacks if you get hungry, but with so much incredible food to eat in Rome, it’s best to plan your meals for before or after your Vatican Museums visit if at all possible.
You won’t see the famous spiral staircase isn’t until the very end of your visit.
It’s one of the absolute last things you’ll see in the Vatican Museums–even after the Sistine Chapel–so don’t expect to see it early on!
Should You Take a Vatican Museums Tour?
We think the Vatican Museums are one of the best places to splurge on a tour in Rome–even more than at the Colosseum.
The context gained is incredible, and having a tour guide also makes visiting the enormous museums much less stressful and overwhelming.
We’ve visited the Vatican both independently and with a tour, and absolutely preferred our visit with a tour.
Shop excellent, well-reviewed Vatican Museums tours today!
All About Visiting St. Peter’s Basilica
Sprawling and stunning, St. Peter’s Basilica is the largest church in the world and an absolute must-see sight when visiting the Vatican.
Here’s what to know before you go.
St. Peter’s Basilica is free to enter.
You do not need a ticket to enter St. Peter’s Basilica–it is completely free to visit!
… but you do have to go through a security line first.
This line follows the curve of St. Peter’s Square and tends to grow throughout the day, and is in place for security. You’ll pass through a metal detector and have your bags checked when you reach the front.
The line can get excruciatingly long–if you’re not visiting St. Peter’s Basilica as part of a longer tour, we recommend arriving either very early in the morning (it opens at 7:00 AM every day except Wednesday) or in the early evening–the crowds often start to die off a couple hours before closing (6:00 PM or 7:00 PM depending on the time of year).
You should absolutely visit the dome.
The view overlooking St. Peter’s Square from the cupola is one of our favorite views in all of Rome–and the views of the interior of St. Peter’s Basilica from above are pretty phenomenal, too.
We absolutely recommend climbing the dome when visiting St. Peter’s Basilica unless 1) you have difficulty climbing large amounts of stairs (you must climb a minimum of 320 steps to access the dome), or 2) you’re uncomfortable in tight spaces–there are some very closed-in areas on the way up.
You can buy tickets inside St. Peter’s Basilica, and they’re currently 10 Euro for a ticket that involves a partial elevator ride, or 8 Euro if you’re willing to climb all 551 steps (the elevator ticket lets you bypass 200 or so steps).
The biggest benefit to the cheaper ticket, though, is not the lower price but the fact that it normally has a much shorter line than the elevator option!
How to Get to Vatican City
Vatican City is located in the heart of Rome and is easily accessed by either foot, metro, or bus.
Keep in mind that unless you’re on a special tour that gives you a workaround (more on that in the FAQ section), it’s a 15-minute walk around the edge of the Vatican from St. Peter’s Square to the entrance to the Vatican Museums.
St. Peter’s Square is closer to Centro Storico, so if you’re approaching by foot, you’ll likely come across it first.
We absolutely love walking through Rome, and one of our favorite walks winds from Centro Storico all the way to St. Peter’s Square–in other words, the Vatican is absolutely accessible by foot!
For example, St. Peter’s Square is a 35-minute walk from the Trevi Fountain and a 25-minute walk from the Pantheon.
Those times might sound long, but in addition to all the general beauty of Centro Storico, you’ll find some interesting highlights along the way such as Piazza Navona and Castel Sant’Angelo.
From St. Peter’s Square, it’s another 15 minutes by foot to the entrance to the Vatican Museums.
There are two metro stops close-ish to the Vatican: Ottaviano and Cipro, which are each a short walk from the Vatican Museums entrance.
There are several bus lines that stop near Vatican City, with the most frequent being 40 and 64.
FAQ About Visiting Vatican City
Have more questions about visiting the Vatican?
Here are the answers to some of the most common Vatican City FAQs!
Can you reach St. Peter’s Basilica from inside the Vatican Museums?
Yes… but only on a tour.
There is a semi-infamous door between the Vatican Museums and St. Peter’s Basilica links the two together and makes it possible to go right from the museums into the basilica without taking a (long) walk and waiting in line again, but independent visitors cannot use it.
Some guided tours, though, like this one, do give you the opportunity to use this door.
What is the Vatican City dress code?
When in the Vatican Museums, Vatican Gardens, St. Peter’s Basilica, or Sistine Chapel, you’ll want to avoid wearing anything sleeveless, any shorts, or showing cleavage. Hats are also not allowed.
If you’re just visiting St. Peter’s Square, you don’t need to subscribe to the dress code.
You can see the official language of the dress code here.
Is Vatican City a country?
Yes, it is–it’s the smallest country in the world, covering only 0.2 miles of land area.
It’s also one of the only absolute monarchies in the world, with the Pope ruling it both as the Pope (overseeing The Holy See, aka the Catholic Church), and the King (overseeing the country of Vatican City).
Vatican City is not part of the UN, but The Holy See (aka the Catholic Church) is a permanent observer of the UN.
Do you need your passport to enter the Vatican?
Even though it is a country, there’s no need to bring your passport when visiting the Vatican.
Can you visit Vatican City for free?
If your goal is only to step inside the country of Vatican City, you can enter St. Peter’s Square (for free, and without waiting in line) and St. Peter’s Basilica (for free, but after waiting in line) to pay a quick visit to the country.
Can you get a Vatican City passport stamp?
No, Vatican City doesn’t offer passport stamps.
However, you can buy a postcard in the gift shop and mail it home from Vatican City!
It will be processed through the Vatican’s mail system, and many people use it as a souvenir from their visit to the Vatican in lieu of a stamp.
Can you see the Pope when visiting the Vatican?
We covered this a bit above, but essentially, every Wednesday morning that the Pope is in Vatican City, he’ll give an audience in St. Peter’s Square.
Tickets are free but must be booked in advance.
Can you just visit the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City?
No, you can’t.
The Sistine Chapel is one of the final stops when touring the Vatican Museums and can’t be seen without visiting the museums.
Is St. Peter’s Basilica part of the Vatican Museums?
No, it’s not.
You can visit St. Peter’s Basilica separately from the museums.
Should you visit the Vatican Museums and St. Peter’s Basilica on the same day?
You can, but be prepared for a long day, as you’ll have to enter both areas separately… unless you book a tour that includes both the Vatican Museums and St. Peter’s Basilica, that is.
In that case, you’ll be able to seamlessly visit both without exiting the Vatican Museums and waiting in an additional line to access St. Peter’s Basilica.
This tour is a popular option that includes both!