There’s plenty to know before visiting the Vatican City. The Vatican City is the world’s smallest country, surrounded by Rome. It’s only 44 hectares and is home to a mere 1,000 residents, that’s less than the number of people that can fit on a London tube train. In addition to being the seat of the Roman Catholic Church, the city-state attracts millions of tourists each year to view its artistic masterpieces. It is also the only country that is entirely a Unesco World Heritage site.
I don’t consider myself very religious, but my grandfather is a devote Catholic. It was his dream to visit the Vatican City for years. With no better time than the present, my mom and I whisked him out to Rome for a few days, with Vatican City high on our list.
No matter your religious affiliation or lack thereof, the artwork, architecture, and grandeur that makes up the Vatican City is not to be missed. However, there are some things to keep in mind when visiting. Not only to make the most of you time and avoid the crowds, but to remain respectful.
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What to see and do while visiting Vatican City
The Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel are must-sees when visiting the Vatican City. They often emerge on the top of must-do lists when in Rome. So as you might expect, lines of tourists snake all the way around the Vatican city walls. And wait times can be hours. There was no way I was doing this. So I booked a skip the line tour to see everything the Vatican City had to offer.
You really need to book ahead to visit. The good thing about our tour is once you are inside they leave you to your own devices. We got an audio tour with it although I didn’t pay it much attention.
It’s a huge museum to go through and to be honest I was a bit bored with it after awhile. I would recommend not going through it too slowly and in too much detail if your main goal is the Sistine Chapel, you’ll feel jaded by the time you reach it.
The Sistine Chapel
You may have noticed this by now, but Matt and I are not big on taking tours. We prefer exploring in our own time. And I hate crowds. So the first time we visited Rome, we skipped the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel. However, this past trip called for a visit to both as they were very high up on my grandfather’s list of things to do. I’m going to be honest with you, it was crowded. The Chapel is not a large room and it was cramped with chatting tourists, dotted with a man over a loud speaker saying “ssshhh! Silencio!”. I may have used my grandfather’s chair like a battering ram to get out of there. An estimated 25,000 people pass through it every day.
But it is a stunning masterpiece. Painted ceiling to floor by some of the greatest artists with the main focus the west wall and ceiling painted by Michelangelo. We’ve all seen one of the most famous sections of the ceiling, The Creation of Adam, but there is just so much incredible art located in this one room.
If you visit, remember to be respectful and silent as you observe the masterpieces all around you. Take your time. You may find gaps between tour groups to be able to more freely take in the art around you. Remember, you can’t take photos inside the Sistine Chapel.
St Peter’s Basilica
St. Peter’s Basilica is certainly worth seeing on your trip to the Vatican City, more than the museums and Sistine Chapel in my opinion. The vast Basilica is the spiritual centre of Catholicism and is quite stunning to behold when you’ve stepped through the doors. Everything is carved of marble, covered in gold, or just a masterpiece.
St. Peter’s Basilica is also free to enter. You can book skip the line tickets or tours of it but personally I think there’s any need to. There’s also an option to climb up to the top of the dome, although I don’t have experience of that.
St Peter’s Square
There’s so much to see in this incredibly vast square in front of St Peter’s Basilica. It’s free to visit the square and there are no lines to wait in here. In the centre of square sits an obelisk dating back from ancient Egypt. To each side of the square are two Renaissance fountains, seemingly identical but with slight differences to the trained eye, the Maderno and Bernini fountains, named after their architects.
Visiting the Vatican’s Post Office
Despite being surrounded by Rome, Vatican City does maintain some of the necessary infrastructure to make it a country in its own right. The post office is part of the proof. Swing by and send a postcard or two.
See the Changing of the Swiss Guards
The Swiss Guard change takes place at noon everyday near St Peter’s Basilica. There isn’t as much pomp and circumstance as many guard changing ceremonies, but it is worth seeing for the colourful Swiss guard uniforms alone.
Tips for visiting Vatican City
Rome, especially in the Summer months, can get stiflingly hot. The urge to be in shorts and vest tops can be strong, but when you enter the Vatican City, modesty is key. It was a particularly hot, sunny day when I first visited with Matt, and I was grateful for my flowy maxi skirt and kept a cardi rolled up in the bag to cover my arms before we entered the city. Remember: No bare knees, midriffs, or shoulders, and when in doubt, cover up. Flip flops are also frowned upon and you should take off any hats before entering any of the buildings. You’ll likely be refused entry if you aren’t dressed appropriately
This is a holy place, and even if you aren’t religious, it is important to show respect while visiting. This isn’t the place for crude language or lewd conversations. Or being too loud. Be respectful of a place that means a great deal to those practising the religion.
Even if you’ve followed my advice above, it’s still going to be busy. Security into the main square can move at a glacial pace, it’s a lot like waiting at the airport. And you will be waiting awhile without skip the line tickets into the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel.
In the gift shop of St. Peter’s Basilica, you’ll see little glass bottles for holy water for sale. You can take these to a specific location at certain times of the day to get filled. I think it was between 2pm and 4pm but the shop will be able to advise where and when to get it.
Take your time in the Basilica
There’s a lot to see here, and if you don’t take you time, you may miss the building’s nuances if you just poke your head in and rush out. Because it’s so large, it’s much nicer to take your time exploring here because it is much (much!) less crowded than the Sistine Chapel. And free!
Planning your trip to Vatican City
Most people, myself included, see Vatican City while on a city break in Rome. I would recommend allocating a day just for the Vatican if you really want to see it all.
When to visit
Because it’s closed on Sundays, Mondays can be quite busy, as well as Saturdays and Fridays. On Wednesdays there is the Pope’s Audience in St. Peter’s Square so I’ve heard the mornings are a good time to visit the museums and chapel, but leave the square and Basilica to another day. I went on a Thursdays at the end of September both times and it seemed to work well.
Getting to Vatican City
The Vatican City is easily reachable by Rome’s buses and metro. It is located on metro line A (the red one). Get off at Cipro for the Vatican Museum/Sistine Chapel or get off at Ottaviano for St. Peter’s Basilica. It’s not too difficult to walk between the two.
Where to stay near Vatican City
As the Vatican was top of the list on my second tour of Rome, we decided to stay not too far away near metro stop Valle Aurelia in an Airbnb. It was easy to reach the Vatican by bus or by metro. However, some of the area was under a lot of construction with narrow paths, which wasn’t the easiest as my granddad was in a wheelchair. There are a lot of accommodations near the Vatican City itself for a wide variety of budgets. It’s a decent area to stay and is only walking distance from some of the other main sights such as the Spanish Steps and Trevi Fountain. You can find nearby accommodation here.
Luggage – If you visit the Vatican City on the day you check in or out of your accommodation, you won’t be able to bring any luggage in with you. Luckily there is nearby luggage storage to drop you bags beforehand.
Refreshments – When you arrive and still have time to wait until your entrance time, it might be really tempting to grab something like a gelato from the Cafe Vaticano nearby. But don’t, it’s incredible overpriced. However, you can find a nice place around the corner called Old Bridge Gelateria that’s cheaper and better. Skip a lot of the restaurants really close to the Vatican City as you’ll find the same thing – extremely overpriced food.
Tours for visiting Vatican City
Looking for a tour to see the Vatican City? Check out these: