Your Pocket Guide To Exploring The Best Of The Vatican
With over 1.6 billion Catholics worldwide, it’s no wonder there are over six million people who visit Vatican City a year. When visiting The Vatican for the first time – you’re probably going to be overwhelmed with all there is to see and do. We’re so excited to share this pocket guide for everything you need to explore (and daydream about later)!
If you want to visit, make no mistake it will be the highlight of your trip. Vatican City is home to Renaissance art, the works of world-renowned thinkers, and some of the most incredible architecture. Not to mention – Vatican City is also home to priceless artifacts from Egypt and Greece, some of which are free to explore!!
Major Attractions At The Vatican
Attractions at the Vatican can be grouped into two categories. The first being the free things to see in Vatican City and the second category being things you can only see with tickets and tours.
In order to make the most of your visit to The Vatican, it’s best to do a little research beforehand and figure out what you really want to see!
You could spend two days exploring and many do! If you’re on a short trip to Italy however, you may not want to spend too much time in one place. Read our guide here on how to make the most of your short vacations.
Free Things To Do at The Vatican
Before you enter into the paid portions of the Vatican, remember to take a look around at some of the gorgeous works outside. Some of them might surprise you!
If you’re a budget traveler or backpacker not willing to separate from your pack – we get it! It’s not always easy to check your bags, especially if you’re worried about your gear. (Make sure you’re always traveling with travel-insurance friend!) There are still ways to experience what the Vatican has to offer international travelers for free.
- SAINT PETER’S BASILICA: That large blueish dome you can see over all of Rome? It belongs to The Vatican and sits atop Staint Peter’s Basilica!
You can see the outside from St. Peter’s Square and it’s free to enter. The only tricky part about visiting St.Peter’s Basilica is how heavy the crowds are. As the largest church in the world, we highly recommend you go early to avoid the crowds. (Most likely before your tour!)
St. Peter’s Basilica was designed by three of the greats from the Renaissance Era: Raphael, Michelangelo, and Bramante. It’s also the burial place for Saint Peter, the first of Christ’s disciples. The Basilica is arguably the most famous part of the Vatican and a can’t miss!
Saint Peter’s Square
In Vatican City, St. Peter’s Square and St. Peter’s Basicilia are the only places that are free to visit at the Vatican. If you’re not interested in doing a tour but would like to at least see some of the Vatican – it’s a great idea to walk the piazza. (The piazza is the open area in front of Saint Peter’s Basilica!)
- THE OBELISK: You’ve probably seen pictures of St.Peter’s Basilica all over the world. Something you might not know is that the tall structure standing in front is actually an artifact from pre-first-century Egypt! Also called Caligula’s Obelisk, this archeological relic is one of 8 in Rome. The others aren’t pre-Christ-era Egyptian artifacts though so The Vatican’s Obelisk is special. Rome’s third emporer Caligula brought the Obelisk to Rome in 37 A.D.
The collonades (large rows of columns) you see when you enter the Piazza in front of Saint Peter’s Basilica are also special. There are 284 Doric columns in rows surrounding the piazza with the Obelisk at its center. Designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the history of this place is palpable as the sun shines between the columns.
All of these would be incredible photography destinations if you’re in the area! Keep in mind – no drone photography is allowed here. It’s illegal to fly over the city of Rome and in the Vatican with a drone.
Ticketed/Tour-Only Attractions in The Vatican
All of these attractions are seen only by booking guided tours or paying for self-guided tickets (which we’ll cover later)!
If you want to see the most photographed parts of the Vatican, and even dabble in a little photography yourself – these locations are where you’ll want to spend the most time.
- St.Peter’s Dome – In order to see the incredible view from St.Peter’s Dome – you have to purchase a special ticket. Most people book this ticket because it offers stunning views of Rome, unparalleled at any point in the city. (Get tickets below!)
**St. Peter’s Basilica is free to enter but the elevator and stairs to the dome require tickets.**
- The Bramante Staircase – Located in the Pio-Clementine Museum, there are actually two spiral staircases. This magnificent structure is the most photographed place within The Vatican. The original was designed by Bramante in 1505 A.D. The second was built in 1932 and can still be walked on today as you’re leaving the museum!
- The Pinecone Courtyard – About halfway through the Vatican Museums on the first floor, there is a giant open courtyard available for the public to walk through. There you’ll find the famous ‘Sphere Within A Sphere’ scultpure by Arnaldo Pomodoro from the mid-1900s. The most famous of all scupltures though are two peacocks flanking the even larger bronze pinecone. The pincone itself dates back to second century AD!!
- The Vatican Gardens: If you’re interested in seeing the famous Vatican Gardens, take note that your Vatican Garden’s ticket also includes access to all of the Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel. Orginally started be Pope Julius II in the 16th century, the gardens today occupy ’16 hectares’. We’re not exacly sure of the translation between hectares and miles – but it’s the largest part of Vatican City!
- The Vatican Museums: This is where all of the priceless works of art are stored in The Vatican. When you buy tickets to the Vatican Museums, you are also granted access to the Sistine Chapel.
The Sistine Chapel
The two most important things to note about visiting The Sistine Chapel: no photography allowed and all visitors must remain absolutely silent.
The Vatican aims to maintain an atmosphere of serenity for those viewing the most precious of art and frescos by Michaelangelo, including The Creation of Adam and The Last Judgement. Michaelangelo was brought to the Vatican by Pope Julius II in 1508 and didn’t complete the project until 1512.
- The Creation of Adam: Center to the ceiling panel fresco this specific painting is one of the most famous in Europe! This painting symbolizes when God created Adam from dust. The center panel also depicts Depicting Noah and his family, the prophet Daniel, Moses, creation as a whole and the ancestors of Jesus.
- The Last Judgement: Depicting scenes from Revelation where Christ & God judge all souls on whether or not they gain immortality. This painting wasn’t added to the Sistine Chapel until after 1536. When Michaelangelo painted The Last Judgement, it was considered extrememly shocking because the people were mostly nude. After his death, artists covered the more extreme cases of nudity with underwear etc. The painting we see today is not the original!
Must-See Museums in Vatican City
Beyond the major attractions on your Vatican tour, there are other works and museums within Vatican City worth visiting.
When you buy your Vatican Museum tickets, you’ll get access to all of the museums in the Vatican Museums collection as well as the Sistine Chapel. It’s really like one big museum with a bunch of smaller rooms.
NOTE: Many tours will bypass certain museums, which is great for a first-timer. You will be overwhelmed by the sheer amount of art, sculptures, and history you see. Since there is no re-entry once you book your tickets – make sure you know what you want to see!
First Floor Museums
There are many museums in the Vatican and thirteen on the first floor alone. While all of them offer something unique, it’s important to remember you may not have time to see them all.
If it’s your first time seeing the Vatican and you’re pressed for time – these are the museums we would pick on the first floor:
- THE PINACOTECA – In order to visit this museum, you’ll need to buy a guided tour ticket or ticket to the Vatican Museums. Before you get to the oh-so-famous Sistine Chapel and Raphel rooms – take a peek around this one! Works by Leonardo Da Vinci, Raphael, Titian and many more famous artists have works displayed here. There are over 450 paintings making it one of the most important respostories of art in the world.
- THE PIO-CLEMENTINO MUSEUM – Home to the famous Lacoon sculpture, and many more priceless sculptures from around the world. Ancient Roman and Greek influences are seen heavily throughout the pieces displayed here.
- GREGORIAN EGYPTIAN MUSEUM: Priceless works of Egyptian antiquities are found in the Gregorian Egyptian Museum. Everything from ancient papyruses, pottery, and mummies in sarcophagi can be seen throughout this room!!
For a downloadable map of all of the Vatican Museums, click here.
Famous Art on The Second Floor
These are some of our favorites that we still remember when visiting the Vatican.
- The Tapestries Hall: Right before you get to the Sisine Chapel, you’ll have to walk through this hall. On the left are the tapestries depict scenes from Christ’s life. On the right you’ll see tapestries dedicated to the life of Pope Urban VIII.
The tapestries have been here since the 1830s, but they’re much older than that! The Pope Urban VIII tapestries are from the 17th-century students of the Barberini School.
The tapestries depicting Christ’s life are much older. Pope Leo X commissioned 12 works that detailed the life of Jesus to be designed by Raphael in 1514. They were then created by the master weavers of silk and wool from the School of Pieter Van Aelst in Belgium in 1516.
- The Gallery of Maps: This one is our personal favorite. Created in the 16th century, these maps were commissioned by Pope Gregory XIII to be completed by painter Ignazio Danti. At the time, cartography was just taking off and new tools were being introduced like compasses, sextons and telescopes. The forty maps adorning the walls of the gallery now are still over 80% accurate! One of the most interesting and most accurate maps is the map of Venice. It can still be used as a guide today because its so accurate!!
- Raphel’s Rooms: Actually four separate rooms in the row of Vatican Museums, these are considered by many to be the most important paintings in the Italian Renaissance. They were commissioned by Pope Julius II to be paited by Raphael for this personal apartments. The four rooms represent four differnet themes including Constantine, Heliodorus, Segnatura, and the Room of the Fire in the Borgo. Every tour guide will show you these rooms so don’t worry about missing them on your tour!!
The Papal Audience
To see the pope you have three options.
- Visit St. Peter’s Square on Sunday – The Pope does a weekly Angelus Papal address at noon. St. Peter’s Basilica will be closed on this day. Tickets are completely free and you can get them two ways. The first way is by faxing this form to the proper authorities, and the second way is to get tickets from the Swiss Guards in St.Peter’s Square from 3pm until 7pm at the Bronze Doors.
- Papal Audiences on Wednesdays at 10:30 AM: To get tickets you must fax the Vatican offices the same request form as above.
- By Invitation Only at The Vatican Hall: At the auditorium left of St. Peter’s Square, these are also free events.
These events only happen when the Pope is in residence and have been changed drastically due to Covid-19. To check for the most accurate information, check the Pope’s official schedule. Get the Pope’s official schedule here.
How To Book A Guided Tour Of The Vatican & Vatican Museums
You can purchase tickets for the museums at any time through The Vatican’s main website – but tours tend to book up fast! If you’re traveling during Italy’s high season from April through September, you need to book in advance! (When we say advance – we mean at least a few nights before to get your preferred tour time!)
To book a guided tour, best for first-timers, you need to book ahead of time from a reputable company like Get Your Guide. There are options for private tours for you and your family, as well as cheaper options where you’re included in a larger group.
The best part about booking a guided tour is that like Ev in the photo above – you’re given an earbud so you can hear your guide! The Vatican tends to be incredibly loud because there are thousands of visitors at all times. We highly recommend doing a guided tour if you’re a first-timer.
- TOUR TIP: Make yourself a note that you can’t touch anything. Maybe some banisters, maybe a few guardrails but other than that – remind yourself to just keep your hands in your pockets if you have to! It can be so tempting to want to touch the statues and the art. They’re gorgeous – but remember that you’re basically in a city sized museum dedicated to the preservation of these priceless religous artifacts. (Not to mention that everyting is heavily montired and you will be arrested/ asked to leave depending on the serverity of your tresspass!)
What To Wear To The Vatican
Keep in mind that this is a holy place for many around the world. Your goal should be to be comfortable but respectful. If you’re walking Italy all day – make sure you bring items to be able to adhere to the dress code at the Vatican.
You’ll be surrounded by nuns, families, and tourists of all kinds. Visiting the Vatican (and Vatican City as a whole) is not the time for super short dresses, short jean shorts, or spaghetti straps!
The Vatican dress code explicitly states:
- No cleavage
- Shoulders should be covered for men and women
- No Shorts for either men or women
- No hats for either men or women
The best thing to do is wear comfortable clothing and layers no matter what season you travel. In the summer there is no air conditioning so you may get hot amongst the crush of visitors.
For women, we highly recommend dresses or lightweight pants and linen tops in the summer. Sandals are ok – just make sure non of the straps rub and nothing pinches your feet.
For men, Ev bought a neutral pair of hiking pants that were nice enough to transition to decent pants to wear on dressier occasions. They looked nice and actually paired incredibly well with slip-on loafers. (Look for hiking pants with no pockets on the sides!)
Lets Talk Shoes
We know, we know – you’re on vacation and you want to look cute! Just remember that there are options to look cute and stay comfortable. You’ll be doing 2-3 hours of walking, so wear comfortable shoes at all times! I(Shelbs) wore an adorable pair of espadrille sandals. While we all love them – they rubbed my feet raw and I majorly regret that decision!!
For men, slip-on loafers will look nice and make even the most simple of t-shirts and pants. (If you’re a budget backpacker like us – these dress up just about anything so don’t worry about bringing dress shirts etc.!)
What To Bring With You To The Vatican
It’s easy to assume you can just bring a backpack and be good all day – but remember that Vatican City is full of priceless works of art. Not only is this place heavily guarded by the Swiss Guard, but the priceless treasures on display requires tight security.
You can’t bring a backpack or even a large purse with you into The Vatican or its museums. If you’re only interested in seeing the free attractions before leaving, by all means, bring your backpacking ruck.
If you’re interested in doing a full-on tour though or walking through the Vatican Museums, you have a few options:
- Check your bags
- Bring only a small satchel or purse
- Carry your water bottle to get as much into your bag as possible.
What We Brought With Us
- Collapsible Water Bottle – You can fill these up all over the city because the water in Rome is drinkable. Highly reccomend this investment!
- Sunscreen: If you’re touring the gardens, and esepcially in the summer you’ll want sunscreen!
- Ev – A small daypack & Shelbs – A small crossbody purse with our camera on my camera strap.
If there is one thing you’ll notice at the Vatican, and all throughout your tours – everyone around seems to be taking photos all the time! If you’re trying to grab some great shots, here are a few things we recommend to make your day easier.
- Lightweight Camera: For the average traveler – we love our Sony a6400. It’s given us a ton of versaility without being heavy or obtrusive to our experineces.
- Versatile Camera Lens: We love this lens that gives us wide angle shots as well as those more spectacular zoomed in shots with a creamy bokeh.
- Camera Clip: If you’re bag is heavy enough – you can get away with this camera clip that makes it super easy to take your camera on an off without adding stress to your neck.
- Camera Strap: If you’re more comfortable with a Camera strap, we love this wide canvas one for Shelbs to carry!
The Best Time To Visit Vatican City
Italy’s most popular tourist season is in the summer from May through September.
We highly suggest not visiting at these times because it’ll be very busy throughout the entire country – not to mention crammed at the Vatican.
We went in October and were able to get right into a tour that we didn’t book beforehand.
After walking right up to the tour center in St.Peter’s Square – we waited around 30 minutes for our tour to begin. (If you’re traveling after travel restrictions due to Covid-19 have ended – it’s most likely that your wait times will be less! Hence: Go before people really start to travel ‘en masse‘ again.)
How To Get To The Vatican
Vatican City is easily accessible from all over Italy and Rome.
If you’re coming from outside of Rome – you’ll need to get on a train bound for Rome’s Roma Termini Station. From there take Line A (the underground train) towards Battistini. Get off at the Cipro-Musei Vaticani stop. It’s really easy from there! There are signs everywhere.
If you’re walking in Rome before your tour or even just from your Airbnb, remember that Rome is very easily navigated. (Even if you’re a newbie!) The Vatican from the Trevi Fountain it’s a 30-minute walk. If you’re at the Pantheon, it’s only a 25-minute walk. We highly recommend walking Rome at night after your tour by the way – it’s so romantic!
- From the Leonardo da Vinci Airport (Fiumicino) – take theLeonardo Express train to Termini Station and follow the directions above.
- From Ciampino Airport: Take the Terravision bus to Termini State and follow the directions above.
For the best offline directions, get our complete guide for how to get around Italy here!
- Even though the Vatican is its own country – you don’t need a passport nor will you get a passport stamp for going. If you want a momento – send yourself a postcard from the Vatican gift shop that will be sent through the Vatican mail service!
P.S. There are plenty of restaurants around the Vatican. Everywhere you look there are little cafes with adorable umbrellas just waiting to serve you wine and help you relax before your tour. We highly recommend eating before you go because you’ll be walking a ton!!
FAQ’s About Visiting Vatican City & The Vatican
If you’re looking for a few quick answers to plan your trip, here is all of the most pertinent information! Here we’ll go over ticket FAQs, discount tickets for children and students, as well as water, food, and restroom questions.
- Is there one ticket you can buy that gives you access to everything at the Vatican? In short: no. But there are passes you can purchase to see the Sistine Chapel and all Vatican Museums to skip the line. (Sometimes this line can be hours long so we highyl reccomend prucahsing your ticket before hand.)
- Can you leave and come back? No. In short there is no re-entry. Once you enter – you can plan to be there for 2-5 hours, and walk at least 4.5 miles/7.5 kilometers. If you’re on a tour, once the tour ends and you want to see more – plan to head back throughthe museums at your own pace.
- How much does it cost to visit The Vatican Museums? 21€ If you book your tickets from The Vatican online in advance, and 17€ onsite for just the Vatican Museum tickets at the kiosk.
- Is Your Ticket A Timed Arrival? Typically you have a timed arrival with 30 minutes on either side to enter the Museums or the Vatican Gardens. (As in – if your ticket time is at 9 AM, you can enter anytime between 8:30 and 9:30 AM.)
- Can I Get A Refund or Change My Vatican Museum Tickets? There are no refunds for tickets to the Vatican but there are options to modify your reservation. Whether booking with an outside agency, you can contact either to modify your tour, however, we suggest any changes be made the earlier the better.
- Can I bring a stroller to the Vatican? While St.Peter’s Square and St. Peter’s Basilica are semi stroller friendly – we wouldn’t reccomend taking a stroller through the Vatican Museums. There are so many people and it would be a nuisance to those around you and hard for you as well. For this reason there are stroller check stations at the museum’s entrance.
- When can you visit the Vatican Museums for free? The last Sunday of every month, the Vatican Museums are free for everyone (but this doesn’t include the Sistine Chapel, Saint Peter’s Dome, The Vatican Gardens etc. These are also highly busy times and if you want to leisurely enjoy your experince, amy not be your best best.
- Is the Vatican Museum free for kids? Yes! Children under 6 don’t need reservations or tickets. Kids from 6-18 pay a reduced rate of 8€.
- Is there a student discount to visit The Vatican Museums? Students under the age of 25, with proof of being enrolled in school, are eligible for discounted tickets at the rate of 8€.
Water, Food and Restrooms
- Can I bring my own water and snacks? Yes! We brought in our collapsible water bottles and refilled them throughout the day. You’ll want to carry as little as possible during your tour, especially if you’re with kids. We knew we would be walking quite a bit so we made sure to eat before hand and drink plenty of water.
- Can I purchase water or food? There is a gift shop located on the first floor of the Museums as well as a coffee bar/restaurant located in the Pigna Courtyard. If you have small children – we highly reccomend you bing snacks!!
- Are there restrooms in The Vatican? There are plenty of restrooms (with changeing tables) all evenly spaced throughout the Vatican Museums. If you’re on a tour – just ask your guide and they’ll do their best to wait for you!
For all official questions, please refer to the museivaticani.va Useful Information Guide.
Facts About The Vatican You May Not Know
A few extra things to know before you plan your trip! These little tidbits make your adventure more enjoyable, especially if you have time to kill before you get there.
- The Vatican wasn’t always it’s own country like it is today. The world’s tiniest soverign nation actually didn’t become it’s own legally standing country until 1929. Mussolini signed a treaty for the Italian king at the time to create Vatican City.
- Do People Live at The Vatican? Actually yes! Over 900 people live inside The Vatican walls including 200 women (most of whom are nuns). The other people are the Swiss gurad, and servants to the Pope and clergy.
- How big is Vatican City? Vatican City is only about 100 acres, and located inside a 2 mile around wall.
- For 60 years in the 1800s/1900s – Popes refused to leave the city.
- Secret Passageway: In 1277, A secret 0.5 mile passageway was constructed to allow popes to escape to the Tiber River.
- The Vatican Owns Territory In The USA: Because Rome grew so rapidly, the famous Vatican Observatory made it too difficult for astronomers to study the stars. In 1981, The Vaticon opened a research center in Tuscon, Arizona.
- Angels & Demons The Movie: Thius popular hisorical thriller movie was set in Vatican City, but none of the movie was actually shot in Vatican City. Instead, artists created gorgeous sets to mimic the Vatican. If you’re wanting to go, it will give you a good feel of the interior of the Vatican.
Pin This Post
Make sure to subscribe to our blog, snag all of your road trip basics (below), get your travel insurance, and have fun jamming to a new playlist!
Until next time friends,
Thanks for all the information. We are heading to Italy the last week of September, and will definitely utilize your advice.
i have been wanting to visit Rome & the Vatican for some time now! i hope to get there before the end of the year, especially to see the Sistine Chapel. thanks for this thorough guide w/ so many great tips for visiting.
wow these pictures are amazing! the architecture is beautiful! I hope to be able to visit one day! thanks for sharing!
This is packed with such great info on the Vatican. Beautiful site!
Emma | The Checklist Chic
It’s so beautiful! Now I really want to visit The Vatican!