Essential Tips for Visiting the Vatican
Although I’ve written extensively about Rome and have even added many tips for visiting the Vatican, I’ve never devoted a full article to this famous country. (And yes, it’s a country). I thought I’d change that by giving you the ultimate guide to visiting this holy place. From what it is exactly, to what to expect, and, of course, my recommended tips on what to wear.
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What is the Vatican City? Is the Vatican City a country of its own?
The Vatican City is the smallest independent state in the world. So, yes, it’s an independent country. It was founded in 1929, after a treaty with Mussolini. However, because Rome completely surrounds it, it’s considered an enclave.
The Vatican City is only 0.44 square kilometers in size and has only 1,000 inhabitants. Italian is spoken and they use the euro. However, the country is not a member of the European Union.
It is, of course, best known as the headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church. The head of state of Vatican City is the Pope, who has his official residence in the Apostolic Palace.
Of the its 1,000 inhabitants, the majority are priests and sisters. The Swiss guard, the protection of the pope that you recognize by their colorful outfits, are also considered citizens. Most of the people who work in the Vatican don’t actually live there.
In 2011, nearly 600 residents are considered Vatican nationals. You can only get Vatican nationality through naturalization, because in principle no babies are born there since there are no hospitals. Most owners of this passport have dual nationality.
Is the Vatican City free to visit?
Vatican City itself is free to visit. You can walk right in as there is no visible boundary. However, as a tourist, you’re only permitted to visit certain buildings, and some of those buildings have a fee.
5 Places to Visit in the Vatican
The Vatican City, in its entirety, is on the UNESCO World Heritage List. However, if you’re looking for specific buildings to visit, these are the places you don’t want to miss.
1: The St. Peter’s Basilica
This is truly one of the most beautiful basilicas in the world. The iconic building is located on St. Peter’s Square, and was built between 1506 and 1626. The church was built in late-Renaissance baroque architecture, on the spot where Nero’s Circus once stood.
St. Peter’s is a place of pilgrimage for Catholics, because he stands on the spot where the first Pope Peter was stoned and buried. Many of the Pope’s speeches are given on the square in front of the basilica.
It was the largest church in the world for a long time. It’s free to enter, unless you want to visit the dome. Make sure you bring cash and be prepared to wait for about half an hour at least!
2: The Sistine Chapel
The Sistine Chapel is world-famous because of Michelangelo’s incredible ceiling painting. The painting can be found in a chapel in the Apostolic Palace, and can only be visited as part of the Vatican Museums.
Please note: no pictures may be taken, you must be quiet, and you must actually go through all the time. It is also the space where a new pope is chosen, which is not surprising, because the Apostolic Palace where the ceiling painting can be found, is also the Papal residence.
3: The Vatican Museums
The Vatican Museums are a group of museums in the Apostolic Palace, which exhibit the art treasures of the Vatican. You will find artworks by Leonardo Da Vinci, Caravaggio, and Rafael. You can only visit the Sistine Chapel only through the Vatican Museums.
The Vatican Museums are free to visit on the last Sunday morning of the month. If you visit at another time, entrance tickets for the Vatican Museums are €17. You can use your card but it’d still be helpful to have cash just in case.
4: The Vatican Gardens
Did you know that more than half of the Vatican City consists of gardens and parks? The Vatican Gardens are 23 hectares and lie behind the Vatican Museums and Saint Peter’s Basilica.
You can not just visit the Vatican gardens — you have to book in advance . The tour lasts 45 minutes and is done with an electric bus with an open roof. You can combine this with a visit to the Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel.
5: The Apostolic Palace
This is the Papal Palace, where the Pope lives and works. In the Apostolic Palace, you will find the Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel. The buildings that do not belong to the Vatican museums are actively used by the Pope. Did you know that the Vatican palaces are among the largest buildings in the world? There are no fewer than 1,400 rooms.
During the construction and furnishing, the best artists in the world were invited, including Michelangelo and Rafaël.
Avoiding queues in Vatican City (+ the best time to visit Vatican City)
The Vatican City is a popular place for tourists and therefore always busy. It’s not ideal, but it is just like that. However, do not listen to all the pushy salesmen who tell you that a queue lasts two hours, which is usually not the case
The queue for Saint Peter’s Basilica seems to be extremely long but goes pretty quickly.
For example, we waited half an hour for the Vatican Museums, although this may well be on busy days. See below tips for skipping the queues.
When in doubt, just walk to the start of the queue and ask those people how long they’ve been waiting!
The Best Time to Visit the Vatican
The greatest crowds in Vatican City can be avoided by going in the low season. Besides holidays, November – February are the least crowded times to visit.
Tuesdays and Thursdays are generally the best days, because the Pope holds an audience on Wednesday. On Saturdays, it is usually very busy. The best thing is to visit the Vatican Museums exactly at opening time or after 3:00 PM. Then it is considerably less crowded.
How to Skip the Lines in the Vatican
Even with these tips it is of course still not possible to estimate how long the waiting time is. You can be lucky, but you could also wait two hours. If you do not feel like waiting queues, it is an option to buy a skip the line ticket for the Vatican Museums. You can then walk straight past the queue and immediately go inside. It’s very handy if you have more to do that day!
Should you do a tour of the Vatican?
A tour in the Vatican City offers you the chance to learn more about the buildings you visit. But if it were up to me, I would not really give my money to all the rude street vendors who try to sell tickets to you with anxious stories about the waiting times.
If so, book online so that you know that you book with a professional guide, get a good price, and you can simply report with the tickets on your smartphone.
With this tour you will visit St. Peter’s Basilica, the Vatican Museums, and the Sistine Chapel. You do not have to queue anywhere, and you have a small tour group of less than 25 people. The guide will guide you in 3.5 hours and tell you everything about the art treasures and history of the locations visited. It has 4.5 / 5 stars. Check the availability of the tour here.
Reminder: St. Peter’s Basilica is free to visit. But you have to be in line for that. The only option to skip that row is to follow a tour, but usually the line does not last very long.
What to Wear in the Vatican City
Note that the Vatican City has dress code. In Italy, they are strict on clothing regulations, but in this case the dress code is actually simple:
Knees and shoulders must be covered for both men and women. On principle, you also cannot wear hats or caps.
But what do you wear when the weather is very warm? I generally wear long loose dresses. When I wear something with my bare arms, I always have a scarf in my bag. For men, long(er) pants with a t-shirt or nice shirt suffices.
Those were my tips for visiting Vatican City! I hope you enjoy visiting!
What did you think of Vatican City?
General Travel Tips
- For accommodation, I always check Airbnb or Booking.com for the best prices.
- If your insurance at home doesn’t cover travel, you may want to look into SafetyWing for an affordable option.
- I always recommend checking Get Your Guide for the best tours in Europe.