8 Things You Need to Know Before Visiting Vatican City

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When people think of visiting the Vatican, what often comes to mind is the Pope’s speeches, Saint Peter’s Square and Michelangelo’s fresco embellishing the Sistine Chapel. However, this is just the starting point of any Vatican visit. It’s a real treasure trove of artwork, the site of important historical events since Roman Imperial times and a collection of lesser-known landmarks.

If you’re considering visiting Vatican City, this article is for you. We’ll share tips for getting the most out of your trip, from time saving tips to the rules for visiting the Vatican (did you know there’s a Vatican City dress code?).

Read on to find out the things to know before visiting the Vatican in Rome and get inspired for your next trip.

ⓘ ALSO READ: Best Things to See at the Vatican: A Visitor’s Guide

St. Peter’s Basilica seen from a distance

1. There is a dress code you need to follow

Probably because one of the most popular landmarks in Rome, many travelers forget to properly abide by the Vatican’s dress code rules. While some other churches and cathedrals might be more permissive, if you want to enter Saint Peter’s Basilica make a point of not showing up too scantily dressed. I know, in summer it might be a pain, but it’s definitely worth it.

So, since the main basilica is a must-see of every visit to the Vatican City, remember that both men and women must avoid shorts and sleeveless t-shirts and tops, and women mini-skirts. Knee-level skirts are fine, short-sleeve t-shirts, too, as long as shoulders are covered. You can also resort to the ruse of covering your shoulders or legs with a shawl or sarong, but don’t even think of taking it off while inside; the basilica has eyes everywhere.

Swiss Guards at Vatican doorway

2. To save time, go online

The lines to enter the different areas of the Vatican are notoriously endless any time of the day. It’s even worse in the blazing hot summer sun. If you are tight on time or it’s hot, you can speed things up by booking tours online before your visit.

The Vatican Museums line is usually the longest ticket line. We think it’s worth purchasing even if you’re on a tight budget. That said, if you want to make the most of your day in Vatican City, you can pre-purchase tickets and tours to the Dome of St. Peter’s, the Vatican Gardens, and other sights as well. See available tours here.

How to skip the line at the Vatican Museums

  1. Buy your admission ticket online before you arrive here.
  2. Book a group or private guided tour with an expert guide. This has the advantage at the Vatican of allowing you to skip the line into St Peter’s Basilica too.
  3. Buy tickets online from the official Vatican ticket office. (Note that they tack on a fairly hefty concession fee, so you may or may not save money over booking elsewhere.)
  4. Use a discount card / tourist pass such as the Roma Pass or Omnia Card. All of these solutions allow you to walk past the lines and give you a heap of benefits such as free transport, etc.

TIP: The Vatican Museums are open Mon – Sat: 9 am – 6 pm (last entrance at 4 pm). Some guided tours offer early or nighttime access to the Vatican Museums with an expert guide. Touring the museums apart from regular hours means unobstructed views and no crowds. This tour is especially popular.

statue of Michelangelo’s pieta

3. There is a Roman cemetery right underneath the basilica

This is possibly one of the most fascinating and mysterious areas of the Vatican City, and it lies right beneath Saint Peter’s Basilica. Of pagan origins, this was built close to Caligula’s (or Nero’s) Circus, on top of which today stands the basilica. This Roman necropolis is the place Saint Peter was martyred in, by being crucified upside down, and it’s where his real tomb is kept.

This ancient graveyard appears as a mix of pagan and Christian tombs as the members of the wealthy Roman families were buried close to their Christian servants.

Since only 250 people are allowed per day, you really need to book your visit much in advance specifying your range of available days, the number and names of the participants and your preferred language. The same dress code for the Basilica is required here, too.

TIP: Check the Excavations Office website for more information.

cherub statue at St. Peter's Basiilica

4. Popes haven’t lived there since the beginning

The first 1,000 years of the Vatican history are pretty shrouded in mystery. One thing is certain, though: Popes didn’t move to the Holy See as soon as Christianity was recognized by Constantine’s Edict in 313.

On the contrary, they kept living in other areas scattered around Rome, such as the Aventine Hill and the Quirinale (today’s seat of Italy’s President), and around central Italy in cities like Assisi, Perugia, Tivoli, and Viterbo.

Initially the Vatican was used for ceremonial purposes. But beginning in the 14th century, popes Nicholas V and Alexander VI (Rodrigo Borgia) started using it as residence and seat of the Holy Church. Now the Vatican, especially after losing its status of kingdom when Rome was annexed to the newly unified Italy in1870, is the permanent residence of the Pope.

columns and statues, detail of a section of the colonnade around Piazza San Pietro

5. It’s true, you can “meet” the Pope!

While you can’t really book a dinner with the Pope, if you wish to attend his public audiences you need to reserve your seat (mandatory, albeit free of charge).

The Papal Audiences are every Wednesday and last from one to two hours. You can request your reservation by phone or fax and you need to collect your ticket at the Bronze Door on Monday morning or Tuesday all day. The Audience takes place on Saint Peter’s Square in summer and in the Audience Hall in winter.

If you can’t make it for the Audience but still want to see the Pope, he appears from his window every Sunday at noon for about half an hour. Just show up in the square for a short speech and his blessing.

TIP: Learn the details of how to see the Pope here.

St Peter's Square set up for audience with the Pope

6. Charlemagne was crowned here

History buffs will certainly know that Emperor Charlemagne was crowned in Saint Peter’s Basilica in December 25th, 800 in the presence of Pope Leo III. However, probably not many people are aware that the huge red porphyry disc where he kneeled for the occasion is still kept at the entrance.

Saint Peter’s Basilica as we see it today was built on top of the former basilica ordered by Emperor Constantine in the 4th century. As the renovation works started during the Renaissance, the porphyry disc most people step over unaware of its glorious history belonged to the old basilica.

If you are a history lover, you will definitely want to see the big circular stone and take a picture of it.

Bust of a pope over a door in the Vaticcan

7. They have their own Constitution

While the Vatican doesn’t beat the of world’s largest basilica record, it does beat another record: the world’s smallest country. Covering an area of 44 hectares, the Vatican counts some 1,000 residents, Vatican passport holders, half of whom don’t even live in the Vatican City but abroad as diplomats or representatives of their state.

Not only the Vatican has its own Constitution, but also its bank, currency, police, prison, and laws. The Chief of the State is obviously the Pope and has legislative, judiciary and executive powers, alongside representative and moral duties.

Building and bronze earth sculpture at the Vatican museums

8. Saint Peter’s is not the biggest basilica on the planet

This will probably sound surprising to many, but Saint Peter’s Basilica is not the world’s largest.

So which building holds the position of the largest Christian church? Counting 272 31-meter-high columns, a 149-meter-high dome and a capacity of 18,000 worshipers inside and 300,000 on the esplanade, the world’s biggest church is the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace in Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast), Africa.

Almost a replica of the Roman Saint Peter’s Basilica, it was built between 1986 and 1989.

The African church was consecrated by Pope John Paul II in 1990, but not without criticism. This was due to the striking contrast between its sumptuous appearance and the poor surroundings in a time of economic recession in the country.

Plan your Vatican visit

Here are some resources to help you plan your trip:

Take a guided tour

Read more

Here are some related books and articles for further reading.

Online

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Written by Angela Corrias

Angela Corrias is a freelance journalist, blogger and photographer who travels and works between Italy and Afghanistan with her husband. Her work appeared in different publications around the world such as Al Jazeera, Forbes Travel Guide, Global Times and Diplomatic Observer. She is one half of travel blogs Chasing The Unexpected and Rome Actually that she regularly updates with her husband.

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