Vatican City is one of the most culturally, politically, and theologically significant sites in the world. As the headquarters of the Catholic Church, it welcomes millions of Catholics each year, all of whom come hoping to catch a glimpse of Pope Francis I. But the Vatican doesn’t attract Catholic tourists exclusively. Millions more of all faiths and beliefs visit the Vatican to experience its art, history, and general magnificence first-hand.
Touring the Vatican is not as simple as arriving in Vatican City and buying a ticket to whatever exhibition tickles your fancy. While you can proceed in that manner if you wish, to fully experience the glory of the Vatican, one must prepare for their trip in advance.
With this guide, it is our aim to help you do that. Below, you will find everything you need to know before you visit the Vatican, including tour options, the best places to stay, and even the most important rules to ensure you stay on the right side of the Swiss Guard!
Vatican Rules and Guidelines
Like any other major religious site, the Vatican has a number of rules in place to protect its sanctity. While many of these rules are a matter of common sense, there are others which are rather surprising.
Nevertheless, they must be followed if you wish to complete your tour of the Vatican without interruption. Among the most important rules and guidelines to keep in mind when touring the Vatican include:
Vatican officials often stress the importance of adhering to its dress code while touring the grounds and its buildings. You should be sure to familiarize yourself with the Vatican dress code before packing your suitcase!
Hats are not permitted inside the majority of Vatican exhibitions. Similarly, sunglasses are not allowed to be worn indoors. Sleeveless tops, or even those which feature anything less than conventional short sleeves, may not be worn. In fact, low cut clothing in general is totally off limits in the Vatican. This includes mini skirts, short shorts, and virtually anything else you may feel inspired to wear by the Italian sun.
If you’re coming to the Vatican as part of a day trip, the chances are you’re going to have some form of luggage with you. Vatican authorities understand that many visitors need some means of carrying their lunch, maps, and whatever souvenirs they may acquire during their visit.
That’s why you are permitted to bring luggage into the Vatican buildings. That is providing, of course, your luggage does not exceed 40 x 35 x 15 centimeters in size.
Luggage larger than these dimensions must be left in the visitor cloakroom, where it will be carefully guarded until you are ready to pick it up.
Contrary to what many first-time visitors assume, photography is actually allowed in the vast majority of the Vatican. However, it is not permitted in the Sistine Chapel. Also forbidden within the walls of the Sistine Chapel is loud talking, music, and the use of a mobile phone.
There are several restaurants within the Vatican offering wine, beer, and other alcoholic beverages. As such, the consumption of alcoholic beverages is not prohibited. In fact, Vatican City boasts the largest wine consumption per capita of anywhere in the world!
What is forbidden however, is entry with alcoholic beverages. Any alcohol not purchased in the Vatican may not be consumed on the premises. You may leave outside alcohol in the cloakroom, along with any other outside food or drink you may have.
Be sure to collect it on your way out, as food and drink that is not collected the same day it is left in the cloakroom is destroyed.
Things To See
No two trips to the Vatican are exactly the same. There is no universal tour model ensuring everybody who visits sees the same sites and enters the same buildings. You see, the buildings and exhibitions that are accessible to Vatican tourists are so copious that it is next to impossible to see them all in the one trip.
For this reason, we advise anybody preparing for a trip to Vatican City to decide what they would most like to see well in advance and plan accordingly. The following are the Vatican’s most noteworthy attractions.
In a way, the Vatican Museums are the foundation of any trip to Vatican City. They are easily accessible and visitors are generally free to roam from exhibit to exhibit at their own pace (although guided tours are available).
The Vatican Museums house a staggering 70,000 works, consisting of sculptures, paintings, papal memorabilia, and other historic items.
The Sistine Chapel
The Sistine Chapel is the last sala of the Vatican Museums. It is best known, of course, for its magnificent ceiling, painted by Michelangelo during the Renaissance. Its paintings alone make it an essential stop on any tour of the Vatican.
However, devoted Catholics will also delight in the opportunity to stand in the same room that serves as the sight of the papal conclave every time a new pope must be appointed.
It is in the Sistine Chapel that Catholic leaders such as Pope John Paul II and Pope Francis I were chosen to guide the church.
Gardens of Vatican City
The Gardens of Vatican City are one of the newest tourist attractions in the Vatican. While they have existed for hundreds of years, they were not open to the public until 2014, when Pope Francis I finally declared them accessible to tourists.
The Vatican Gardens are home to many breathtaking breeds of plants and trees, as well as 17 enshrined venerated images of the Virgin Mary.
St. Peter’s Square
Perhaps the most iconic component of the Vatican this side of the Sistine Chapel, St. Peter’s Square. Located right outside St. Peter’s Basilica, it is a must for anybody hoping to catch a papal address during their visit to the Vatican.
Even if you don’t particularly want to see the Pope, St. Peter’s Square is worth a visit for its beautiful fountains and sculptures.
St. Peter’s Basilica
Admission to St. Peter’s Square is free. Similarly, tourists can access St. Peter’s Basilica free of charge. Inside St. Peter’s Basilica, you can see more of the breathtaking Renaissance masterpieces which are so synonymous with the Vatican.
You can also visit St. Peter’s Dome and climb its hallowed, 551-step staircase.
It is important to remember that St. Peter’s Basilica is one of the most popular stops among Vatican tourists. As such, the queue to get inside tends to be pretty long, often resulting in hours of waiting in line.
Those who are willing to drop some cash to bypass the line can secure priority admission. This may also include a guided tour and admission to exclusive exhibitions throughout the basilica.
There are several tour options available to Vatican visitors. Each caters to a different kind of tourist and will directly influence how you experience Vatican City.
You’ll find the most popular Vatican tour options outlined below.
Vatican Museums, Sistine Chapel, and St. Peter’s Basilica
If you want the most comprehensive Vatican experience possible, this is the tour option for you.
As its name suggests, it offers a guided tour of the Vatican Museums, the Sistine Chapel, and St. Peter’s Basilica to boot. It is, perhaps, the highest-rated of all Vatican tours and ensures you come away knowing all there is to know about the history and art of the Vatican.
Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel
If you don’t have a whole day to dedicate to touring the Vatican, you may want to leave St. Peter’s Basilica for another time and tour the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel exclusively.
This is a great way to see the most famous sites of the Vatican while learning about the significance and history of each.
Additionally, the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel guided tour promises fast-track admission, which gives it a distinct advantage over the free admission without a tour option.
Vatican Gardens, Vatican Museums, and Sistine Chapel
The Vatican Gardens are one of the lesser-visited stops among tourists. Despite this, we highly recommend seeing them if time permits during your visit to Vatican City.
A guided tour of the Vatican Gardens is offered in conjunction with a guided tour of the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel, so you won’t have to sacrifice the two most popular Vatican sights in order to see the least popular one.
Despite the discrepancies in popularity between the Vatican Gardens and the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel, all, as you will see, are equally breathtaking.
An Audience with Pope Francis
Don’t get too excited. The Audience with Pope Francis tour option is not quite as personal as its title would have you believe.
That being said, it is an amazing experience if you are a Catholic (or just simply wish to be in the presence of one of the most powerful figures in the world).
Choose the Audience with Pope Francis option and you will be granted access to the Pope’s weekly address. You will also be given a headset, so you can follow along with the Pope’s statements in your preferred tongue.
Best Time To Visit
Trying to settle on the best time to travel to Vatican City is tricky as you must take two calendars into account: the calendar of the Western world and the calendar of the Catholic Church.
If you wish to experience important religious events in the Mecca of Catholicism (pardon the pun), visiting in April or December is the way to go. During these periods, however, flights and hotel prices tend to increase, especially when it comes to accommodation in the immediate vicinity of Vatican City.
Unsurprisingly, the Vatican sees its highest number of visitors during the summer months. From June to August, the place is awash with tourists, resulting in long lines, increased prices, and masterpieces being rendered invisible by crowds.
To make matters worse, much of the clothing the beaming Italian sun would render necessary is forbidden within the Vatican.
If you have the option to travel to the Vatican outside of the summer months, we seriously encourage you to do so. If summer is your only vacation opportunity, however, it is possible to plan your visit so you’ll encounter the least amount of crowds possible.
If you wish to see the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel, for example, the best time to do so during summer is Wednesday morning.
This is because the Pope gives a weekly address from the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica at this time every week. This means most visitors flock to St. Peter’s Square, resulting in shorter lines and smaller crowds where exhibitions are concerned.
Most tourists visit the Vatican in the morning, presumably in an attempt to free up their afternoon for further sightseeing. If you’re willing to sacrifice the possibility of additional sightseeing for the day, we suggest visiting in the early afternoon. This will get you there just as crowds are thinning out, while leaving you with plenty of time to see all of the Vatican’s most iconic exhibitions.
While the Vatican Museums officially close at 6 pm (after an opening time of 9 am), it is important to remember that admission stops at 4 am. These hours are in place from Monday to Saturday. The Vatican Museums are closed on Sundays, with the exception of the last Sunday of each month, when they open with the limited hours of 9 am to 2 pm.
If you want to avoid the crowds but don’t have an afternoon to spare, you can pay a little extra for an early bird ticket, which will grant you admission to the Vatican before it officially opens for the day.
Early bird tickets can go for as much as €100, so if you’re trying to see the Vatican on a budget, arriving in the early afternoon may be the better option. Plus, an early afternoon visit will allow you to spend a few extra hours in bed, which you’re going to need before a day’s sightseeing in Vatican City!
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