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7 Things to See at the Vatican

Let's play “Word Association.” When I say Vatican, what's the first thing you think of?

I’ll bet it has something to do with Catholicism. And why wouldn't it? Vatican City is the official residence of the pope and the spiritual and administrative center of the Roman Catholic Church.

Three cities in seven days

We were in Italy for one week with a plan to squeeze Rome, Florence, and Venice into that time. Of the three, Rome was definitely the biggest challenge in planning our itinerary. I mean, is it even possible to squeeze 2000 years of history into that time?

Our final itinerary included two days in Rome and one in the Vatican. With all the history, art and culture in both of these places, we had a lot to fit into a little bit of time. I think we did pretty well, though we didn't try to see the Pope.


Lots of folks have a Vatican City bucket list, even people who aren't Catholic. Catholic or not, if you add the Vatican to your list of places to see before you die, you won't be disappointed. Even if you only have one day available.

Here are a few items to add to your own bucket list. Just remember: When you check them off, be sure you are wearing comfortable shoes. You'll be doing a whole lot of walking!

1. St. Peter's Square

It might look like just another district of Rome on the map, but when you enter Vatican City, you have officially left Italy! With a microscopic population (fewer than 1000) and only taking up 110 acres of global real estate, Vatican City actually qualifies as the smallest independent country on the planet.

Think of it: You can see an entire country in only a few hours, no visa needed! How cool is that?!

Tradition says St. Peter was martyred here. The 4000-year-old obelisk in the center of the square has stood on this site since the first century.

As an independent nation, though, they have their own unique set of rules. Besides passing through the normal security lines, they also screen visitors to ensure they are “dressed in a way befitting entrance to a holy place.” While it is unlikely you would be hassled for walking around St. Peter's Square in shorts or spaghetti straps, the officials will turn anyone away at the door who they deem is not suitably dressed.

And of course, you should be prepared to leave backpacks and bags with security if asked. Nothing new there.

Vatican dress code in a nutshell:

  • Remove hats indoors.
  • Shoulders must be covered. No sleeveless tops or halters. A scarf/pashmina is acceptable as a cover up.
  • Knees must be covered. No cut-offs or short skirts. No shorts, either.

Tip: If the thought of wearing pants in hot weather is unbearable, wear zip-off pants (the ones that convert to shorts with zippers around the knees) and bring along those lower legs.

2. St. Peter's Basilica

St. Peter's Basilica is a pilgrimage site for many Catholics. There has been a church on this site since the time of Roman Emperor Constantine the Great. This is the second church, built in the 1500s to replace the 4th century Old St. Peter's Basilica. Today, St. Peter's is the largest and one of the best known churches in the world.

The original basilica was built over the historical site of the Circus of Nero, where the Romans martyred thousands of Christians in the first century. According to ancient writers, Jesus' disciple Peter and many other well-known Christian leaders were martyred here. (Paul was also martyred in Rome, but not here.)

The high altar of the basilica, St. Peter's Baldachin, was designed by Bernini. Due to the size of the space, it's hard to tell that the altar is actually 10 stories tall. It was very deliberately centered over the spot where Peter is said to have been buried.

One of the basilica's bronze statues is reputed to be St. Peter, feet shiny and worn by centuries of devotion.

3. The Vatican Museums

Pope Julius II was the patron of Michelangelo, Bramante and Raphael as well as of Bernini, the architect responsible for St. Peter's Basilica. Ever since then popes have collected art, and now the Catholic Church actually owns some of the best-known classical sculptures and masterpieces of Renaissance art in the world.

The same Pope Julius needed a place to house all of his treasures and founded the Vatican Museums in the early 16th century. It now ranks as the 5th most visited art museum in the world.

I would go back there anytime. It was amazingly impressive, despite that we only had time to view a tiny fraction of the works on display. I say “on display” because there's only enough room to show a portion of what the Vatican holds. After we left I learned that most rooms aren't open, but some can be viewed. So the next time we go we are going to request a guided tour of the Hidden Vatican Museums, areas of the Museum normally closed to the public.

  • Admission: General tickets are €16,00 and include entry to the Sistine Chapel. Guided tours are also available. Either way, get exclusive access and skip the long line by buying your ticket online ahead of time.

Tip: Avoid visiting on the last Sunday of the month if you can. Entry is free, but the museums are so crowded that it's hard to see anything at leisure.

4. See the Sistine Chapel

Don't expect to take your camera into the Sistine Chapel and snap your own photo of the Almighty reaching out to touch Adam's finger. Absolutely no photography or video is permitted in the room.

The reason is not so that they can protect their precious frescoes from flash damage. Nope. Not at all. Nobody has used that technology for decades. People use LEDs these days which, I should mention, are what they use to illuminate the artwork. So don't believe that tripe.

Inside the Sistine Chapel, Vatican City

When the Vatican decided to restore Michelangelo's frescoes back in 1980, the price tag was so high that they had to seek outside funding for the project. The highest bidder was Nippon Television Network Corporation of Japan. In return for funding the $4.2 million project they received the exclusive rights to photography and video of the restored art.

Interestingly, Nippon's exclusivity expired three years after the Sistine Chapel's restoration was completed. It seems to me that the current “no photos” rule does little more than encourage purchases from the museum gift shop.

Or am I just being cynical?

  • Admission: Included with Vatican Museum ticket.

5. The Scavi

We are so glad we were able to take this tour. It was the highlight of our entire Vatican experience. And that's saying a lot.

Under St. Peter’s Basilica is a first-century necropolis known as the “Scavi” (it means excavation). This is where St. Peter is said to be buried. It is possible to visit this cemetery and even see the bones they say belonged to St. Peter. All you will need is special permission, granted from time to time by the “Fabbrica di San Pietro.”

Previous popes are buried in a separate area, known as the Papal Grotto. That's a radically different experience.

You won't see any gold leaf or bodies down there in the tomb.

Only around 250 visitors are permitted to tour the necropolis per day, due to the tight spaces and in order to limit traffic and temperature and humidity levels.

Here are the details:

  • Visitors must be over 15 years old – no exceptions.
  • The guided tour lasts about 1½ hours.
  • No cameras of any type are permitted. (Impossible to sneak a photo. We tried.)
  • This is not something you should attempt if you have difficulty with stairs or tight spaces.
  • You must request a reservation ahead of time. If your requested time is available they will require payment immediately. See the official Vatican Scavi website for details.

6. The Swiss Guard

Don’t let the frou-frou of those vibrant Renaissance uniforms fool you: Every Swiss Guardsman has been in the Swiss army, which means they are well trained in firearms and martial arts. Swiss Guards have such a stellar reputation that they have been protecting the Pope and the Apostolic Palace since 1506.

Even when they are on tourist duty you’ll find them outfitted with medieval halberds (a spear-axe combo), swords and pikes. It might not seem very threatening but believe me, those ancient weapons aren’t just for show. Every Swiss guardsman is well trained in each one and won’t be afraid to use it, so don’t try any funny business or you may find yourself at the wrong end of a 9-foot pike.

To be a Swiss Guard you must be single, Swiss, Catholic, male, aged 19-30, former the Swiss military and of excellent conduct and reputation. Those who are accepted get great benefits: 1300 Euros per month (about $1600) plus overtime. They pay no tax, get free accommodation, and eat free, good Swiss-Italian food cooked by Polish sisters. Their tour of duty lasts for two years.

The Swiss Guard are quite serious about their duties. In May 1527 the army of Emperor Charles V stormed Rome. Heavily outnumbered, the Swiss Guards fought the army on the steps of the High Altar of the Vatican while the Pope escaped through a secret passage to the Castel Sant’Angelo. Only 42 of the 189 Swiss Guards survived, but the Pontiff was saved.

As for meeting a Swiss Guardsman, they will talk to you, but don't expect them to be tour guides or pose for photos. They won't let anything stand in the way of duty.

7. The Pope

If you can get to Rome, it's easy to see the Pontiff (if you're dressed appropriately). He speaks to the crowds twice a week whenever he is in town.

Here's how to see the Pope
Wednesdays – 10:30 AM

  • General Audiences last for about 2 hours.
  • You will need a ticket. TICKETS ARE ALWAYS FREE but must be requested and picked up ahead of time.

Tip: Seats are on a first-come, first-served basis. Arrive 3 hours early to get a good seat. With no ticket, if the Pope is holding audience outdoors, there is always standing room at the back of the Square.

Sundays – 12 noon

  • On Sundays he appears in his apartment window on St. Peter's Square and speaks for around 15-20 minutes.
  • Sundays, he gives a short speech, recites the Angelus and ends with the Apostolic Blessing. He may also greet the crowds in various languages.
  • You DO NOT need tickets for the Sunday Angelus.

For the Pope's current schedule and details on getting an audience ticket, see the Vatican's official page.

Inspired?
Here are some resources to help you plan your trip:

Plan:

  • The Vatican’s website has many useful trip planning resources.
  • Visas– Find out if you need a visa
  • Lodging– Research your sleeping options
  • TransportationRome2Rio shows how to get anywhere by plane, train, bus, ferry and car.
  • Tours at the Vatican– The folks at Get Your Guide are the world’s largest online platform for booking tours, attractions and activities. To see a list of all their available tours in Vatican City, click here.

See:

Read:

Here are some related books and articles for further reading.

  • Rome Actually has many excellent articles about Rome and the Vatican.
  • For books about Vatican travel on Amazon’s website, click here.

Save this for later:

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Written by Linda

I’m a happily married mom with an insatiable love for food, travel and languages. I hope our photos and stories will encourage you to travel, or at least offer a brief escape to another land. Let me know what you’d enjoy reading more about, and please consider subscribing to our newsletter.

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30 thoughts on “7 Things to See at the Vatican

  1. I had Rome on my wish list for 2014, but didn’t quite get there. So it’s on the list for 2015 — wish me luck! I want to see and do everything you’ve mentioned. When I hear Vatican, I think “Pope”, so one of my top things would be seeing him. Thanks for the tips on that.

    1. Best wishes on scheduling your Rome trip this year. I hope you manage to spend more than three days in the city (as we did) and get to see everything you want to.

      If you’re a museum lover you might want to consider planning a second day at the Vatican. The Wednesday morning audience eats up a lot of the day.

    1. Hi, Nancie, you have good taste. We enjoyed the Sistine Chapel a lot but we probably need to return and spend more time examining the paintings. The last time we didn’t want to stand around very much because our feet were too tired.

  2. It’s been 30 years since we visited Rome (and the Vatican) so I feel like we’re overdue for a visit. Thanks for the great insider tips like the Hidden Vatican Museums.

  3. We only had 2 days in Rome as well, and decided to skip Vatican City due to time constraints (and all the food I had to fit in). It’s hard to see all of Rome in a few days! I didn’t think I’d like the city, but turns out I loved it! Italy is still one of my favorite countries.

    1. We certainly can’t blame you for wanting to fit in as much food as possible! We want to explore more of the country besides just the Big Three (Rome, Florence and Venice), especially because the food differs by region. Do you have any experience with other places?

  4. I always knew that the Catholic church was very thorough at rising/making money, but I would have never expected such high admission fees combined with such drastic “no photo” rules. Still, I guess the devoted are exited to visit the place. [Disclaimer: this comment in by somebody who has travelled much of the world and has always by-passed Rome.]

    1. Sorry to hear you’ve bypassed Rome, Juergen. Between the ruins and the art it is a fabulous destination. The Roman Empire has its roots there and it’s everywhere you look, which is kind of cool. Besides, the food in Lazio is unique.

      As for the price, the Vatican Museums cost roughly the same as the Louvre.

  5. Oh, let me add one to your list! visiting the Necropolis is a must do for any history lover! The pre-Christian burial grounds are incredible, and the art on the walls there look new and fresh. The City of the Dead is a private tour, contact the Vatican for permission and tickets!

    1. I’m glad you agree with us! Actually, the necropolis was on our list – it’s #4. They call it the Scavi (that’s Italian for excavations). I guess those are the only excavations in the country, lol.

      And yes, indeed, it is a private and exclusive tour that requires prior arrangements.

  6. Well, I hadn’t thought to put Vatican City on our must see list next to Rome but, after this post, I definitely will. Rome has such an amazing history, wealth of art and so many other places to see we’ll have to plan on several days there to do it justice. And wow, am I looking forward to it!

    1. Totally agree with you, Anita. We were there for four days and feel like we barely touched the surface of what Rome has to offer. Though I’m glad we went to the Vatican. It was a fabulous day.

    1. True, that. The Vatican had its own currency until it was abolished in favor of the Euro. Now the Vatican mints its own Euro coins – which are hard to find because collectors grab them up as soon as they are minted.

  7. Hi Linda, those are wonderful tips on Vatican. Like you, I’d go back to the Vatican Museum in a heartbeat. I didn’t about the Hidden Vatican Museum tour! Will definitely keep that in mind. It’s interesting to learn the history of “no photo” rule. I thought they just wanted to protect the artworks from flash exposures. Nice finding your blog.

  8. A very daring plan to squeeze Rome, Florence, and Venice into one week. We had a week for each one of these cities and still left disappointed for not being able to see all we wanted. But sometimes you have to be happy with whatever you can get your hand on and if a week it’s all you get… what can you do? Your post is an excellent guide for this great city. I think no matter how many times you go to Vatican, you can’t help feeling exalted by its beauty and grandeur.

    1. I like to think of the Rome-Florence-Venice trio as Italy 101. It came at the tail end of a 6-week trip through western Europe and was ambitious, to say the least.

      Thanks for the compliment. I suspect there’s a lot more to this little city-state that I missed. I’m hoping we’ll get a few tips from our readers here in the comments that will give us an excuse to return.

  9. We love the Vatican! These are all great tips and glad to say we checked it all off but we had a couple of days there. Like you, the highlight other than attending the papal audience was the scavi tour. It was an incredible experience. We saw the pope during the two hour audience but it was indoors since it was late November. It was amazing and we felt like we were at a rock concert. Pilgrims broke out into songs and spontaneous cheers. We highly recommend it.

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