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Things to See in Vatican City

Let's play “Word Association.” When I say Vatican City, what's the first thing you think of? Does it have something to do with Catholicism?

It shouldn't be a surprise if it does. After all, Vatican City Italy is the spiritual and administrative center of the Roman Catholic Church and the official residence of the pope.

Vatican sightseeing

One week in Italy is a challenge. With all the history, art and culture on offer, how do you choose which points of interest to see? I mean, is it even possible to fit over 2000 years of history into seven days?

As a compromise, our final itinerary included two days each in Rome, Florence, and Venice, plus one day in Vatican City. I think we did pretty well, considering we only had time for a few highlights.

We wrote this article to save you some time and share what we learned from visiting the Vatican on our own. Here's what we learned: You can see a lot of the Vatican in a day.

If you expect to be visiting the Holy See, you need to plan ahead if you want to see the pope. There are other important things to know about the Holy See as well, like what to wear in Vatican City (there's a dress code!), points of interest, the top things to do, and the best way to see all those famous attractions like the Vatican Museums, Sistine Chapel and St. Peter's Basilica.

Touring the Vatican is one of the top things to do in Rome, even for people who aren't Catholic. Inside its protective walls is a treasure trove of vast collections of art, religious artifacts that have become some of the best things to see in Rome. Whether or not you are religious, if you do visit, you won't be disappointed.

How to get to the Vatican

To arrive by public transportation, take the Metropolitana Line A to the Ottaviano “San Pietro” stop.

It might look like just another district of Rome on the map, but when you enter Vatican City, you have officially left Italy! Well, actually, it was part of Rome for two thousand years but was declared independent in 1929. (Thank you, Benito Mussolini!)

With only 110 acres of global real estate and a microscopic population (fewer than 1000), Vatican City actually qualifies as the smallest sovereign state on the planet. What this means to you is that you can see an entire country in only a few hours, no visa required! How cool is that?

As an independent nation, though, the Holy See has its own unique set of rules. Besides passing through the normal security lines to enter, visitors can expect to be screened to ensure that they are “dressed in a way befitting entrance to a holy place.”

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

There is a reception area at the base of the steps up to the basilica. Here, you can rent audio guides, use toilets, leave luggage and child strollers, and browse a gift shop.

 

St. Peter's Square

St. Peter's Square, known locally as Piazza San Pietro, is the massive plaza located in front of St. Peter's Basilica, large enough to hold as many as 400,000 people. Visitors can see the Papal Apartments from the plaza, not only where the Pope lives but also the window from which the pontiff often addresses crowds of pilgrims. Like the basilica, it was named after Saint Peter, who the Catholics say was their first pope.

Although the square has two beautiful fountains, it's an ancient Egyptian obelisk that competes with the basilica as its focal point. Caligula brought the obelisk from Egypt to Rome in 37 AD, and it was moved to its current site in 1586.

Dissatisfied with the square's appearance a century later, Pope Alexander VII commissioned Gian Lorenzo Bernini to create a plaza “so that the greatest number of people could see the Pope give his blessing, either from the middle of the façade of the church or from a window in the Vatican Palace.” Bernini surrounded the plaza with a colossal colonnade, built to embrace visitors in “the maternal arms of Mother Church.”

Did you know that the colonnade is four columns deep? Bernini was such a master of symmetry you have to look closely to see it.

 

St. Peter's Basilica

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

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. (St. Paul was also martyred in Rome, but not at the Circus, as he was a Roman citizen.)

The basilica's interior is decorated with magnificent monuments, many of which were created by the great Bernini. The high altar of the basilica, known as St. Peter's Baldachin, is the best of them. Due to the size of the space, it's hard to tell that the altar is actually 10 stories tall.

Make sure you climb all the way to the top of the basilica's dome – designed by another great, Michelangelo, as it offers 360-degree views of St Peter's Square and the city of Rome.

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

People often mistakenly think that St Peter's is the cathedral of Rome, but it's not. A cathedral is the seat of a bishop, which Saint Peter's does not have a bishop. St. John Lateran (San Giovanni in Laterano) is Rome's cathedral.

How to visit St. Peter's Basilica

Hours: Open daily, 07:00 – 19:00.

Admission: Free, no ticket required. However, a few other places have a fee. (Details here.)

Treasury: Open from 09:00 – 18:15, April to September and from 09:00 – 17:15, October to March. €5 to enter. The entrance is from inside St. Peter’s Basilica.

Cupola: Open daily 08:00 – 17:00, open until 18:00 April 1- September 30. A ticket costs €6 euros if you climb the 551 steps … or €8 to take the elevator midway up (it's 320 steps to the top from there). Allow about an hour for the experience.

Tip: If you go to the Vatican Museum, you may enter St Peter's Basilica from the Sistine Chapel without going through another line. Therefore, if you intend to do both in one day, visit the museum first. 

The Vatican Museums

Pope Julius II was an art lover and became the patron of Michelangelo, Bramante and Raphael, as well as of Bernini, the architect responsible for St. Peter's Basilica. Ever since his reign, popes have collected art, and so as a result, 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 although most rooms aren't open, some can still be viewed. So the next time we go we are going to request a guided tour of the Hidden Vatican Museums, the areas of the Museum normally closed to the public.

Tip: There aren't many toilets in the museum, so try to use it before you enter.

 

How to visit the Vatican Museums

The Vatican Museums are behind St Peter's Basilica to the right. To get to the Vatican Museums you have to walk around the Vatican walls from St Peter's Square, about 5 minutes.

Open: Mon-Fri 10:00 – 13:45 during November – February  (Christmas hours 8:45 – 16:45). During March – October the Museums are open Mon-Fri 10:00 – 16:45 and Sat. from 10:00 – 14:45. Entrance to the Museums is not possible from 75 minutes before closing time.

Admission: General tickets are €16,00 and include entry to the Sistine Chapel. On the last Sunday of each month the Museums can be visited free from 09:00 to 13:45. (Crowded; try to avoid!) Guided tours are also available. Either way, get exclusive access and skip the long ticket line by buying your ticket online ahead of time.

Tip: Avoid visiting on the last Sunday of the month, when entry is free. The museums are so crowded that it's hard to see anything at your leisure.

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Sistine Chapel

Considering that how incredible the Vatican Museums are, I'm not sure why so many people try to see the Sistine Chapel by itself. In any case, you'll often see it as a separate Vatican site, so I am doing the same.

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. Truth be told, nobody has used flashbulb 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.

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.

How to visit the Sistine Chapel

  • Admission: Included with Vatican Museum ticket.

 

Inside the Sistine Chapel, Vatican City

Vatican Scavi necropolis

We are so glad we were able to take this tour. It was the highlight of our entire day in the Eternal City – and that's saying a lot!

The Vatican Necropolis began as a humble cemetery in the first century. It was a convenient place to bury Christians who were martyred at the Circus of Nero. According to legend, Peter was one of them so his body ended up here.

Constantine, the first Christian Emperor of Rome, had a bad habit of covering up religious sites with churches, and St. Peter’s supposed resting place got the same treatment. Pope Julius II replaced Constantine’s church with the one we know today, and positioned the high altar over the spot where Peter's body was said to lay.

In the 1940s, Pope Pius XI commissioned a series of excavations (scavi, in Italian) beneath the floor of St. Peter’s Basilica to try to pinpoint the saint's tomb. They uncovered over 20 mausoleums, some containing hundreds of bodies, as well as from papal tombs to an ancient Roman street. However, whether or not the Scavi contain St. Peter’s real remains has never been settled, even within the Vatican.

Regardless, the Vatican Scavi Tour is one of the toughest tickets to come by and one of the most exclusive tours in all of Rome. Only 250 people are allowed through each day – compare that to the 30,000 that visit the Vatican Museums!

The limitation is due to the tight spaces and in order to limit traffic and temperature and humidity levels.

How to visit the Vatican Necropolis

You will need is special permission, granted from time to time by the “Fabbrica di San Pietro.” You do not need to be Catholic. See the official Vatican Scavi website for details.

  • You must request a reservation ahead of time – spots fill up months in advance.
  • If your requested time is available, they will require payment immediately.
  • Visitors must be over 15 years old – no exceptions.
  • The guided tour lasts about 1½ hours.
  • Arrive 15 minutes ahead of time, to clear security.
  • No cameras of any type are permitted. (It is completely impossible to sneak a photo. Believe us, we tried.)
  • This is not something you should attempt if you have difficulty with stairs or tight spaces.

You won't see any gold leaf or bodies in the Scavi.

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.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.Even when they are on tourist duty you’ll find them outfitted with medieval halberds (a spear-axe combo), swords and pikes. They might not appear 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.

Swiss Guard requirements

To be a Swiss Guardsman, you must be:

  • single
  • Swiss
  • Catholic
  • male
  • aged 19-30
  • former member of 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, delicious, Swiss-Italian food cooked by Polish sisters. Their tour of duty lasts for two years.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.

How to see 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.

Wednesdays – 10:30 AM

Seats are on a first-come, first-served basis. Arrive 3 hours early to get a good seat.

  • 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: With no ticket, if the Pope is holding audience outdoors, there is always standing room at the back of the Square.

Sundays – 12 noon

You DO NOT need tickets for the Sunday Angelus.

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

What to wear at the Vatican

As I mentioned earlier, Vatican City has its own dress code. 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 dressed respectfully.

  • Remove hats indoors.
  • Shoulders must be covered. No sleeveless tops, tank-tops, sundresses or halters. A scarf/pashmina is acceptable as a cover up.
  • Knees must be covered. No cut-offs or short skirts. No shorts, either. Women can wear tights to comply with this rule. Or, you can wear zip-off pants (the ones that convert to shorts with zippers around the knees) and reattach the lower legs as needed.
  • Wear good walking shoes. Many people spend a whole day on their feet in the Vatican City, which means lots of hard surfaces and waiting in lines.

 

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

  • The Vatican’s website has many useful trip planning resources.
  • Lodging– Research your sleeping options here.
  • 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.

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Vatican City points of interest, things to do, visiting tips for Vatican Museums, Sistine Chapel St. Peter's Basilica and other attractions. This article has all the details you will need.

Written by Linda

Linda is multilingual and has been to over 50 countries She has an insatiable love of travel, cuisine, and foreign languages. Her goal is to make travel easier for others and to offer a brief escape to another land.

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31 thoughts on “Things to See in Vatican City

  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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