When it comes to visiting Vatican City, most people think of 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
1. The Vatican is not in Italy
It might look like just another district of Rome on a map, but when you enter Vatican City, you have officially left Italy! 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.
That’s a recent development, by the way. It was part of Rome for two thousand years but was declared independent in 1929. (Thank you, Benito Mussolini!)
What this means to you is that you can see an entire country in only a few hours, and no visa is required! How cool is that?
ⓘ TIP: This may be the only country on the planet that has an official reception area. Here, you can rent audio guides, use toilets, leave luggage and child strollers, and browse a gift shop for souvenirs. You’ll find it at the base of the steps up to the basilica.
2. There is a Vatican City dress code
As an independent nation, the Holy See has its own list of rules. Of course, all visitors are required to pass through the normal security lines and be prepared to leave backpacks and bags with security when asked. Nothing new there.
There’s also a rule about how to dress when visiting the Vatican. All visitors are screened to ensure that they are “dressed in a way befitting entrance to a holy place.”
As one of the most popular landmarks in Rome, it can be easy to forget that the Vatican City is not a tourist attraction. It’s the worldwide seat of the Roman Catholic Church, and deserves due respect., especially inside Saint Peter’s Basilica.
To ensure you can go anywhere you want, 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.
Some other churches and cathedrals might be more permissive, but they are not. Here’s what you must know about the Vatican dress code:
- All shoulders must be covered. No sleeveless tops, tank-tops, sundresses or halters. Short-sleeve t-shirts are permitted, but as long as the sleeves cover the shoulders.
- Knees must be covered. No shorts, cut-offs or short skirts. Women can wear knee-level skirts or tights to comply with this rule. Or, you can wear convertible pants and reattach the lower legs as needed.
- Remove hats indoors.
While it’s not a Vatican rule, it’s also important to wear good walking shoes. Many people spend a whole day on their feet in the Vatican City, which means lots of hard surfaces and standing in lines.
ⓘ TIP: They will let you cover your bare shoulders or legs with a shawl or sarong, but don’t even think of taking it off while inside. The Holy See has eyes everywhere.
3. Lines are super long, but you can avoid some of them.
The lines to enter the different areas of the Vatican are notoriously endless at any time of the day. It feels even worse when you’re standing in the blazing hot summer sun. This can lead to a lot of wasted time and short tempers, not to mention sore feet.
If you want to make the most of your day in Vatican City, it pays to plan ahead. Pre-purchase guided tours and skip-the line tickets before your trip. For what it’s worth, this Vatican Museums & Sistine Chapel Skip-the-Ticket-Line Entry is a best seller.
If tours are more your speed, three notable ones are the St. Peter’s Basilica with Dome Climb and Crypt, the Vatican Gardens Tour on Minibus, and the 6-hour trip to Castel Gandolfo, the Pope’s summer residence. You can find more tours here.
ⓘ TIP: There’s a security line at both the Basilica and the Vatican Museums. You can avoid the Basilica security line by entering through the direct entrance in the Sistine Chapel.
How to skip the line at the Vatican Museums
The Vatican Museums line is usually the longest ticket line. When we were there, the ticket line snaked around 3 sides of the building! Unless you have all the time in the world and don’t care to see anything else, you’re going to want to avoid it.
Your skip-the-line options include:
- Buy your admission ticket online before you arrive here.
- Book a group or private guided tour with an expert guide.
- Buy tickets online from the official Vatican ticket office. (FYI, they tack on a fairly hefty concession fee, so you may or may not save money over booking elsewhere.)
- 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). To get unobstructed views and no crowds, visit outside of regular hours. Some guided tours offer early or nighttime access to the Vatican Museums. This tour is especially popular.
4. There is a 2000-year-old 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 they say his real tomb is here.
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.
Only 250 people are allowed per day, so you really need to book your visit much in advance. Specify 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.
5. Popes haven’t always lived here
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 only. But beginning in the 14th century, popes Nicholas V and Alexander VI (Rodrigo Borgia) started using it as a residence and the seat of the Holy Church. Now the Vatican, especially after losing its status of kingdom when Rome was annexed to the newly unified Italy in 1870, is the permanent residence of the Pope.
6. It’s easy to see the Pope
And speaking of popes, if you wish to attend a public audience while you’re visiting Vatican City, you need to reserve your seat. This is mandatory, albeit free of charge.
Papal Audiences are held 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.
7. 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.
8. 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.
9. 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 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.
10. The Vatican City is a prime destination for scholars.
While it’s not an attraction (and tourists aren’t permitted), the Holy See is a mecca for researchers. Known as the Vatican Library (or “the Vat” for short), the Vatican’s archives are so vast that even the people who run it don’t know all that’s in there!
Many 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.
Plan your Vatican visit
Here are some resources to help you plan your trip:
- The Vatican’s website has many useful trip planning resources.
- Visas– Find out if you need a visa to Italy here.
- Lodging– Research your sleeping options here.
- Transportation– Rome2Rio shows how to get anywhere by plane, train, bus, ferry and car.
- For more sightseeing, you’ll enjoy our Vatican photo gallery.
- Scroll around Google’s satellite photo map for a good aerial view of Vatican City.
Take a guided tour
- Pope’s Summer Residence Tour with Lunch
- Skip-the-Line Vatican, Sistine Chapel, St. Peter’s Tour
- Rome in One Day: Low Cost Vatican & Colosseum Tours
Here are some related books and articles for further reading.
- For more tips and information on the Vatican, check out this full guide
- Visiting the Vatican City, the Ultimate Guide to the Holy See
- Rome Actually is an excellent website resource and run by this article’s author, a Rome resident.