So, you’re heading to Rome. You’ve got a packed itinerary, and sitting top of the list in the scrawl of thick, bold, black pen ink is the Vatican City
. You can’t wait to see all the city has to offer. To spend hours exploring the 54 museums that make up the Vatican Museums and the sumptuous artistry of Michelangelo’s beautifully frescoed Sistine Chapel. You can’t wait to be dumbstruck by the sheer, imposing grandiosity of St. Peter’s Basilica. To walk it’s vast hall and marvel at the Pieta sculpture, and Bernini’s bronze sculpted Baldachin. But, in peak season the Vatican sees 25,000 people pass through its main doors - that’s a lot. So, take it from me, before you go you’re going to want to spend a bit of time looking into what the best way to see the Vatican
is. Read on.
Let’s start with the basics. The Vatican City is an independent state within Rome
, and it applies its own laws. One of which is a strict dress code. So, fellas keep the short shorts and hot pants in your suitcases for this trip. In the summer as temperatures rise it may be tempting to sport weather appropriate clothing. But, remember the best way to tour the Vatican, or any place really is by being respectful and considerate of where you are. A good rule of thumb is to cover your knees and shoulder. And, for those thinking “meh,” the guards are vigilant and keep a keen eye out.
Okay, now you’re suited and booted, time to head out. If you jump off the underground and grab Metro Line A, you can take this line to the stops Lepanto or Ottaviano. Ottaviano is closer, but getting off at Lepanto means a walk through Rome’s popular shopping street, Cola di Rienzo.
The Vatican City is also serviced by regular buses. Bus 492 stops at Piazza Risorgimento which is 5 to 7-minute walk in either direction to the entrances of both the Vatican Museums and the Piazza San Pietro (crowned by St. Peter’s Basilica).
Bus 62 stops at the bottom of Via Della Conciliazione which is the big street that leads up to the Piazza San Pietro. Bus 64 connects Termini, Rome’s central station, with the Vatican City and stops at key sites along the way, such as Piazza Venezia.
Bus 81, which crosses much of the city, stops off at a lot of points of interest (like the Colosseum) and ends its route at Piazza Risorgimento.
Vatican Museums: Book Ahead
Despite all the tips you read on the best time to visit, Vatican City is always busy. The Museums pack out on Saturday and Sunday with weekenders. And, every Sunday, except the last Sunday of the month when admission is free, the place shuts its doors. Don’t get ahead of yourself and think you can save some cash by heading down on a Sunday when the Museums are open and free. The place is heaving with people, and this will dampen your experience. Wednesday the Pope holds an audience and so, then too, the place is swarming. Arguably, the best time to visit Vatican Museums is on a Tuesday and Thursday.
A popular recommendation is to head to the Vatican Museums first thing in the morning, and it’s not a bad one. However, by mid-morning, the crowds swell. The best time to go is in the late afternoon. If you aim for 2 pm then by the time you get to the Sistine Chapel, roughly 6 pm, the Museum will be closing. With crowds thinning you will be able to enjoy a more peaceful view of Chapel and its beautifully frescoed walls.
Most important of all though, is to book ahead. There’s nothing worse than turning up raring to go only to have to queue to get tickets. And, then, once you’ve got your tickets having to head to the back of another queue to get in. Most advance bookings come with fast-track entrance or skip the line options.
Navigate like a Pro
It’s a kilometer walk between the Vatican Museums and St. Peter’s Basilica, which when you’re going to be on your feet all day is unnecessary energy expenditure. If you make St. Peter’s Basilica your first stop of the day make peace with the fact that you will, once you’ve taken in all its beauty, have to hike up to Vatican Museums. And, if you haven’t booked tickets in advance, you’ll be queueing for an age at both spots.
However, for those in the know (or on tours) if you make the Vatican Museums your first stop, there's a handy little hack to take advantage of. In the right-hand corner of the Sistine Chapel, you will find a door labeled “tour groups only.” If you go through this door and travel down a corridor, you will end up in St. Peter’s Basilica. That’s right, no joke. The door is very real and will save you up to 20 minutes travel time.
To guarantee getting through the door grab an actual tour. Failing that, attach yourself to one in the Chapel and act like you belong. Or, for the daring, just sneak through, the guards are often too busy telling people to “stop taking photos!” to notice. Good luck.
Once You’re In
The Vatican Museums function on a one-way system which means that you can’t make a bee-line for the Sistine Chapel. And, that’s a good thing. Trust me. The Vatican Museums house’s one of the world’s greatest collections of art. There are over 7 kilometers and 1,400 rooms you can enjoy, all of them brimming with absolutely stunning pieces of art.
This museum has 18 rooms that display, in chronological order, paintings from the medieval age through to the 19th century. There are over 460 paintings from artists including Giotto, Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Il Perugino and Caravaggio. This is a must-see for Renaissance art lovers.
Commissioned by Pope Gregorios XIII and painted by Ignazio Danti this room is composed of 40 panels of frescoed maps. Each panel represents an Italian region and the Papal properties owned at the time of there painting (1580-1585).
This is the most important museum for Roman and Greek artwork. It is formed by 12 museums and contains some of the most spectacular statues. In the Octagon Courtyard, you can see the Roman copy of the Apollo Belvedere and the Laocoön sculpture group.
The Raphael Rooms in the public part of the papal apartments in the Palace of the Vatican are, second to the Sistine Chapel, the Vatican Museums’ most visited site. Here, the walls of four rooms adorn the beautiful frescoes of Raphael. Along with Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, these sequences of paintings mark the high Renaissance.
The centerpiece of the Vatican Museums and Catholicism and undoubtedly the main reason everyone heads to the Vatican Museums is the Sistine Chapel. Here, you can marvel at Michelangelo’s breathtaking frescoes, The Creation of Adam and The Last Judgement.
Remember though, that these are the most popular attractions within the Vatican Museums and are often very busy. So, don’t be afraid to forge your own path. Head off the “beaten track” and explore the quieter rooms of the Museums too. This can be the best way to see the Vatican. After all, who knows what hidden gems you may uncover?
To Tour or Not to Tour?
It’s a question that Shakespeare himself would have asked, and in all fairness, it’s a good question to ask. The Vatican Museums are so big and contain so much artwork that there is an appeal to simply throwing yourself into them. To let yourself get lost exploring the rooms and works at your own pace and leisure. For many, this will be the best way to see the Vatican Museums.
But, then again, the Vatican Museums
are SO big and contain SO much work that it can also feel pretty daunting. In this case, invest in getting yourself a Vatican guide, it will be well worth it. They will be able to whip you through the Museums, give you a comprehensive history of the works on display and point out pieces you may otherwise have missed.
INSIDER TIP: Choosing a tour over a ticket gives you an exclusive access to St Peter’s Basilica directly after exiting the Sistine Chapel. Otherwise, you have to go all the way out and queue all over again to get inside the church.
For a really special experience (and in my opinion, the best way to tour the Vatican Museums) look into booking an early morning Vatican tour. These are private tours of the Vatican that happen before the Museums open.
If mornings aren’t your thing, there is there is an after-hours equivalent. Both offer up a fantastic, exclusive (there are very limited tickets) way to experience one of the world’s greatest art collections. But, what makes it really worthwhile is getting to stand in the transcendence of the Sistine Chapel, surrounded by the beautiful frescoes and beneath Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam without the jostle of crowds. You will have the place almost entirely to yourself.
Grabbing a Bite to Eat
If you’re going to spend the whole day exploring you’re going to need a place to refuel. Because the best way to see the Vatican is when you’re not starving. And, there are lots of places to eat in the area. But, as always these are tourist traps ready to extort grumbling bellies with overpriced and underwhelming food. Don’t fall victim to the table pricing many of the nearby joints employ and head a little further afield to enjoy some better quality and less expensive food.
For a quick sandwich made with fresh, locally sourced organic ingredients head to FA-BÌO. The place doesn’t offer anywhere to sit down, but it’s perfect for a grab n’ go.
- Pizzarium di Gabriele Bonci
This little place serves up delicious pizza by the slice as well as great tasting supplì (rice balls). Again, there is no seating, but service is quick and very friendly.
Here, you can take a load off and enjoy fantastic pasta at reasonable prices.
This traditional Roman trattoria offers up a place to sit and enjoy a meal of simple, great tasting Roman dishes.
People often forget about the Vatican Gardens when visiting the Vatican. These gardens cover about half of the Vatican. Designed in 1279 and well worth a visit, the Gardens were built to be a place of papal meditation. Open Monday to Saturday, you have to book a tour to gain access. But, given that tickets are limited and that the grounds are always quiet it is well worth the effort. Here, you can enjoy a beautiful layout with some stunning fountains and even better views.
Every Wednesday the pope holds a papal audience. In the summer months, to see it, head to Peter’s Square for 10.30 am (earlier if it is hot). And, in the winter months, the Pope holds audience inside St. Peter’s Basilica. It is free to attend, but you do need to get a ticket. You can get tickets up to three days beforehand from the Swiss Guards at the Vatican’s bronze doors.
On Sundays, at 12.00 pm the Pope holds the Angelus. For this, he appears at the window of his apartment, gives a speech and blesses the crowd.
- The Vatican Grottoes and the Scavi
Lying beneath St. Peter’s Basilica are two often overlooked sites, The Vatican Grottoes and the Scavi. If you want to experience the Basilica in a way not many do, then sorting out a tour of these two sites is a must.
The Scavi, also known as the Necropolis, exists beneath St. Peter’s Basilica and is believed to be St. Peter’s burial site. It also contains the temple of Emperor Constantine, underground fountains, and buildings. Only 250 people are allowed in across a day in groups no larger the 12. Admission costs 13 €, and you have to apply to the Excavation Office well in advance unless you book through a tour agency.
The Vatican Grottoes makeup part of the Necropolis and are a crypt network. Here, you will find the tomb of John Paul II as well as dozens of other popes and the remains of columns from the original 4th-century basilica. Again access has to be booked well in advance through the Excavation Office or organized through a tour agency.
The Vatican postal service is widely regarded as the world’s best. In fact, the Vatican City's postcode sees more letters sent from it than any other postcode in the world. And, before you start with the, “well, duh, how many tourists visit the Vatican a year,” just know that it’s not only tourists who use it. A large chunk of the Vatican’s postal service users are Romans, which certainly says something about Italy’s less reliable national post!
The Vatican City has operated its own postal service with its own stamps since 1929. And, the city’s special stamps are actually one of the Vatican’s largest exports, contributing significantly to the state’s internal revenue.
Sending a postcard to a loved one is a must if your visiting the Vatican and the stamps make for a great souvenir to take home with you. But, remember that you can only post postcards directly from a post office or from one of the yellow Vatican post boxes. They must also carry a Vatican stamp.
If you’re looking for a post office, there are two in the Vatican Museums, both located near the entrance. There are another two locations in the St. Peter’s Square. You can find the first behind the semicircular colonnade and the second, along the orange wall between the colonnade and St. Peters Basilica.
So, end your trip in style, send a postcard to put a smile on someone’s face. Maybe even include that you now have all the insider hacks for the ultimate visit to the Vatican.
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