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 should. After all, the Vatican is the spiritual and administrative center of the Roman Catholic Church and the official residence of the pope.
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?
We have written 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.
Tip: Plan ahead. If you expect to be visiting the Holy See, you really need to plan ahead, especially if you want to see the pope or visit the Scavi. 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 cultural and religious artifacts, as well as vast collections of world class art.
Whether or not you count yourself among the faithful, if you do visit, you won't be disappointed.
Vatican City travel logistics
To get to Vatican City 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.
Tip: There is a reception area at the base of the steps up to the basilica. This is where you can rent audio guides, use toilets, leave luggage and child strollers, and browse a gift shop for souvenirs.
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. Like the basilica, it was named after Saint Peter, whom the Catholics claim as their first pope.
The square has two beautiful fountains, but it's an ancient Egyptian obelisk that competes with the basilica as the square's 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 large enough “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.”
You can see the Papal Apartments from the plaza, which is where the Pope lives. One of his windows overlooks the square, and this is where the pontiff stands when he addresses the crowds of pilgrims.
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 St. Peter's. It was built in the 1500s to replace the original St. Peter's Basilica, which was constructed in the fourth century.
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 places in the basilica charge 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
These museums are Vatican City's national museum of art. 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.
Even though the Vatican museum complex is massive, there's only enough room to show a portion of what the Vatican holds, and most of the rooms are closed to the general public.
One of the smartest things we did was to buy fast-track tickets. Aside from avoiding an hour of unnecessary standing, it was hot outside and the ticket line was ridiculously long. (Get your skip-the-line tickets here.)
Tip: There aren't many toilets in the museum, so try to use it before you enter.
We would go back there in a heartbeat … and we probably will, the next time we're in Rome. The Vatican Museums are overwhelmingly impressive, despite that we only had time to view a tiny fraction of the works on display.
My biggest regret from visiting the Vatican Museums was that we did it all on our own. A tour features the best of the museum, all in a time-efficient manner. (We wasted time backtracking. Also, can you say, sore feet?) The next time we go, we'll do one of these:
- See the Hidden Vatican Museums, take a guided tour of those areas normally closed to the public.
- Early morning priority access to the Vatican & Sistine Chapel – all to yourself for a whole hour before the general public hordes descended. (Photo op!)
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. And it bears repeating: get exclusive access and skip the long ticket line by buying your ticket online ahead of time. I'm serious!
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.
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.
The chapel full of Michelangelo's paintings. That said, it is best known for the Creation of Adam on the ceiling.
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 the same lighting technology that 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.
Here's what they don't tell you: Nippon's exclusivity expired three years after the Sistine Chapel's restoration was completed. I wouldn't be surprised if the current “no photos” rule exists solely to encourage purchases from the museum gift shop.
How to visit the Sistine Chapel
The Sistine Chapel is a part of the Vatican Museums.
- Admission: Included with your Vatican Museum ticket.
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 scavi (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, but you will see them in the basilica.
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.
Swiss guardsmen 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:
- 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, as long as you're dressed appropriately. He speaks to the crowds twice a week whenever he is in town.
Tip: You will need a ticket to claim a seat. However, when the Pope is holding audience outdoors, there is always standing room at the back of the Square for those without one.
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.
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, you can find the information here.
While it's not an attraction (and tourists aren't permitted), I would like to mention that Vatican City is also a mecca for researchers. Known as the Vatican Library (or “the Vat” for short), it is so vast that even the people who run it don't know all that's in there! Many of its documents are over 2000 years old, making it a unique research library for history, law, philosophy, science and theology.
The Vat is open to anyone who can document their qualifications and research needs. If you need access, here's how to get in.
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.