You cannot go to Rome and not visit the Vatican. Even if you’re not religious, it’s an unmissable when visiting Rome. The Vatican attracts more than 5 million visitors each year, and it’s the “headquarters” of he Catholic church. This is also the place of residence of the pope. You’ll find in Vatican City wonderful places: St. Peter’s Square and the legendary Sistine Chapel among others. Unfortunately, many people waste time because they didn’t prepare their visit to Vatican City properly. In this article, I’m first gonna list what to see in Vatican City, then I’m gonna explain how to organize your visit to Vatican City so that everything goes smoothly.
Believe me or not, the Vatican is an European country. With an area of 49 hectares (121 acres) and a population of about 450, it’s the smallest country in the world by both area and population. People mostly go there to admire the impressive St. Peter’s Square, the Sistine chapel or the art collections in the Vatican museums during their visit to Rome. Indeed the Vatican owns 70,000 works of art (20,000 “only” are exhibited). Some visitors also want to attend an audience in order to see the pope. Let’s see in detail what to do in the Vatican.
St. Peter’s Square
St. Peter’s Square is impressive! You can spot 284 columns placed on four rows with their 140 saint statues watching over the pilgrims. This is where the pontificate Masses happen. St. Peter’s Square was designed so that believers could attend the Mass in the best conditions possible. It has the shape of a trapezium. For your information, St. Peter’s Square can host up to 150,000 people!
St. Peter’s basilica
St. Peter’s basilica is a Baroque church. It’s the largest Catholic church in the world! Completed in 1626, it’s a very important place of pilgrimage. It can host up to 60,000 people, and the Mass still takes place there sometimes. In the front of the basilica, you can see the statues of Jesus, John the Baptist and the eleven disciples of God. Don’t miss the “Pietà” (a statue of Mary) by Michelangelo.
It’s free to get in St. Peter’s basilica, however the wait is very long to get in (up to 3 hours in high season!). It’s best to get a skip-the-line ticket. Click here to buy one. If you want to find out more about the basilica, go on a guided tour. Click here to find out more. Otherwise get an Omnia Card. I’ll talk about it in detail further, but you get access to numerous attractions in Rome (including direct access to the basilica, the Colosseum, etc.), and public transportation is also included! Click here to buy it.
The dome of St. Peter’s basilica
If you want to admire St. Peter’s Square from above, you’ll have to reach the highest point of Rome, which is the dome of St. Peter’s basilica. You’ll have to climb 551 stairs to get there, or first climb 320 stairs to reach the first floor then take the elevator. Don’t do it if you’re claustrophobic. Once you get on top, you’ll enjoy a wonderful view of St. Peter’s square and the city of Rome. It’s 6 euros to get up there by stairs, and 8 euros with the elevator.
The sacred caves of the Vatican
Located under the St. Peter’s basilica, you’ll see in this crypt the tombs of 148 former popes. Pope John Paul II was buried there until his beatification in May 2011. He’s now in one of the chapels of the basilica. Be careful, if you take the exit next to the caves, you’ll leave the basilica!
The necropolis of the Vatican (Scavi
This is where the tomb of St. Peter is, below the crypt. I didn’t see it because you have to book a long time before and they limit the number of visitors (200 people maximum per day). You have all the info here.
The Vatican museums
There are 14 Vatican museums in total. They’re all small museums. We follow a path and pass all the museums. Works of art are exhibited from the Roman empire era until now. Depending on the museums, you’ll see art from Egypt, Italy, China, etc. If you’re not into art, it won’t take long to go through the museums. Otherwise, you can spend several hours there.
There are among others the gallery of maps, an art gallery, a museum dedicated to Ancient Egypt and a wonderful painting collection. Some rooms are very famous like the Raphael Rooms. Many people take a photos of the Bramante staircase.
The Sistine chapel
Sorry to disappoint you guys, but it’s not possible to go straight to the Sistine chapel, or just see the Sistine chapel. You’ll have to go through all the Vatican museum and the Sistine chapel is actually the last stop. Its vault is 40 meters (134 ft.) long and 13 meters (44 ft.) wide. You’ll see there the famous Creation of Adam, where God gives live to Adam, the first man. There’s also the Last Judgment! Unfortunately it’s forbidden to take pictures in the Sistine Chapel…
Attend an audience
The audiences take place on Wednesday mornings on St. Peter’s Square (or in the Paul VI room if it’s raining). Needless to say, on Wednesday mornings St. Peter’s square is packed! The pope goes around the square in his papamobile after giving his blessings. You don’t have to book but you can do it for free here.
The Swiss Guard
The Swiss Guard is in charge of the security of the pope and the Vatican since 1506! You have to see them to be entertained by their get-up, which is the same since the 16th century (a mix of red, orange and blue). You’ll see them when leaving the basilica. For your information, the guards are all Swiss and must be Catholic. They take an oath in front of the pope himself. Why are they all Swiss? It dates back to 1527, when 147 Swiss guards died while fighting to defend St. Peter’s tomb and to allow pope Clement VII to escape through an elevated passage. It’s the oldest army in the world still working.
How to get to Vatican
The Vatican is in the heart of Rome. If you’re staying in the center of Rome, you can get there by foot. If you’re a bit further, take line B of the metre and get off at the “Ottaviano” stop. Otherwise there are many buses stopping next to the Vatican, like bus #64, but also buses #40, #62 and #81 not far.
Best time to visit Vatican
I said it before, the Vatican attracts 5 million visitors every year. What’s the best day to visit Vatican? If you can, get there on a weekday. Since most people visit Rome during the weekend, there are more people. On Wednesdays, the Vatican is packed (because of the audiences). On the first Monday of the month, museums are free. Therefore many people go visit the Vatican and it’s packed! Avoid this day! Tuesdays and Thursdays are the best since there are less people than usual.
Regarding the seasons, avoid the summer. But there are also many people in spring and autumn. It’s best to go wintertime but not in December (it’s packed during Christmas time). When to go to Vatican during the day? Either you should go early in the morning with a skip the line ticket. Or around lunchtime, there are less people and the groups of tourists are gone. Don’t forget your Omnia Card if you don’t want to wait. Click here to buy it. Otherwise you might wait 3 hours in high season!
Vatican dress code
If you plan to visit Vatican thoroughly, you’ll have to cover your shoulders and knees. Otherwise they won’t let you in. Actually you mostly have to respect this rule if you want to visit the Sistine chapel and St. Peter’s basilica. So avoid wearing skirts, shorts and tank tops to respect the dress code in Vatican, even if it’s scorching outside! However you can wear what you want to if you visit St. Peter’s square only. If you have a big bag, there are lockers.
Vatican tickets price
It’s free to get in St. Peter’s Square and St. Peter’s basilica, but you’ll wait a long time. Click here to buy a skip the line ticket. It’s 16 euros to get in the Vatican museums and admire the Sistine chapel. Admission is incuded with the Omnia Card. Click here to buy it. Admission to the dome of St. Peter’s basilica costs 6 euros if you take the stairs, 8 euros if you take the elevator. They accept cash only.
You can get to St. Peter’s square 24/7. St. Peter’s basilica is open from 7am to 6pm (7pm from April to October). The Vatican museums are open from 9am to 6pm everyday except on Sundays. The dome is open from 8am to 5pm (6pm from April to October).
How long to visit the Vatican
You need at least half a day to visit the Vatican. If you spend some time to visit the museums, you might spend a full day in the Vatican.
The Vatican for people with reduced mobility
You can go to the Vatican easily and see almost everything there. There are specific entrances for St. Peter’s square, St. Peter’s basilica and the museums. However it won’t be possible to access the dome because you have to climb stairs. Even for those who take the elevator, there are stairs to climb.
Visiting the Vatican tips
- If you go to the Vatican museums first by yourself, take the exit reserved to the tourist groups. They don’t really pay attention in the morning since hundreds of people use this exit. You’ll head straight to the basilica! If you don’t do it, you’ll leave the museums and you’ll have to wait to get in the basilica (unless you have an Omnia Card). As I said numerous time, you can wait up to 3 hours!
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