Vatican City, an independent city-state located within Rome, is under the jurisdiction of the Holy See. The walled city, which covers only 109 acres, is the heart and headquarters of the Catholic Church and hosts more than 6 million visitors each year. The papal state has a population of around 1,000 and is protected by the Pontifical Swiss Guard.
The immense amount of art and history to be found in this tiny city makes it a must-visit for those traveling to Rome, even those who aren’t religious. World-renowned works by Michelangelo, Raphael, Bernini, and Botticelli are just a few of the stunning creations you’ll encounter in Vatican City. Marble statues, famous paintings and tapestries, magnificent mosaics, and brilliant stained glass are everywhere you turn.
Catholic pilgrims to the Holy City will undoubtedly want to attend a papal audience, a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience. Millions of Catholics visit Rome each year in the hope of locking eyes with, receiving the blessing of, or even exchanging a few words with the Holy Father, the head of the Catholic Church on Earth.
If you follow these simple tips and do some careful planning, your visit to Vatican City will be the highlight of your Roman holiday.
Consider Visiting During The Off-Season
Vatican City is the most crowded between March and October. If you can travel during the off-season, you will enjoy shorter lines and thinner crowds. Rome can be very pleasant in November -- even wintertime can be quite mild -- and the off-season prices can’t be beat.
Book A Hotel Or Rental Near The Vatican
One way to spend less time on Rome’s crowded public transportation and more time sightseeing is to book a hotel or rental near the Vatican.
Borgo Pio is a small historic neighborhood located between the Vatican and the Tiber River. It’s a delightful place to stroll along lovely old streets and soak up the architecture. Borgo is quiet in the evening, with a few shops and restaurants. If you are looking for accomodations within walking distance of Vatican City, Borgo Pio would be a great place to stay. Both Airbnb and Vbro offer many reasonably priced flats in the area.
If you want to stay even closer to Vatican City, there are many hotels just steps away. The four-star Hotel Alimandi Vaticano is located directly across the street from the Vatican Museums. Another lovely hotel just steps away from the Vatican is Residenza Paolo VI, which offers a spectacular terrace view of Saint Peter’s Basilica lit up at night.
Know Your Way Around Saint Peter’s Square
Before you venture into Vatican City, it’s important to familiarize yourself with the area. Take some time to review a map before you head out.
Saint Peter’s Square, or Piazza San Pietro, is an ellipse -- it’s a little over 1,000 feet long, 780 feet wide, and can accommodate 300,000 people. It features 284 Doric columns topped by 140 statues of saints sculpted by students of Bernini. The center of the square is anchored by an obelisk and two fountains, one by Bernini and one by Maderno. It is simply majestic!
Saint Peter’s Square is where the Wednesday General Audience with the pope is held. If you’re visiting on a Wednesday and are not planning on attending the audience, plan to explore the square after lunch.
Every Sunday at noon, visitors and pilgrims gather to say the Angelus and receive a blessing from the pope if he is in residence.
A map of Saint Peter’s Square and the Vatican buildings can be found here.
Order Papal Audience Tickets In Advance
If you plan to attend a papal audience, it’s important to reserve tickets beforehand. Visit the website of the Prefecture of the Papal Household to see the pope’s schedule, including the Wednesday General Audience, Sunday Angelus, and liturgical celebrations. Tickets are free and can be requested by fax from the Prefecture of the Papal Household; this can oftentimes be complicated and time-consuming, so if you plan to obtain your tickets this way, be sure to begin the process early. You will need to pick up your tickets in person at the Bronze Door under the right-hand colonnade of Saint Peter’s Square. You can do so between 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. on the afternoon before the General Audience you wish to attend or on the day of the General Audience after 7 a.m.
Purchasing tickets for a General Audience from Viator or other reputable ticket site, however, will save you time and stress. Most of these tickets include hotel pickup and a local guide to help you navigate Saint Peter’s Square. These tickets cost $30 to $40, but you’ll avoid having to stand in line at the Prefecture.
Try To Score An Aisle Seat For The Papal Audience
The Wednesday General Audience begins at 9:30 a.m., but the pope usually begins his rounds at 9 a.m. Plan on arriving early (7 a.m. or earlier) if you want a good seat. You’ll need to allow time to pass through the metal detectors and wait in line.
Saint Peter’s Square is roped off into sections. A seat either in the front of a section or along the aisle will give you an unobstructed view. The pope travels down all of the aisles. Once he arrives, everyone stands on their plastic folding chairs to see him, and if you have a seat on the perimeter, you won’t need to join in this fairly dangerous practice. It’s important to keep in mind that a ticket does not guarantee a seat -- with 80,000 people in attendance, more people are usually standing than sitting.
During inclement weather, the Wednesday General Audience is held in the Paul VI Audience Hall, which only accommodates 6,000 people. You will need to be in line very early to stake out one of these coveted seats.
Saint Peter’s Square is wheelchair-accessible, and wheelchair accommodations are available.
Book A Tour Of The Vatican Museums
Attending a papal audience and seeing everything else in one day is doable, but it can make for a long day. If you plan to visit the Vatican Museums after the General Audience, book a tour beginning at 1 p.m. or later.
A general-admission tour of the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel costs about $20, and you can add a visit to Saint Peter’s Dome for another $7 (the climb and the view are worth every penny). All official tours of the Vatican Museums end at Saint Peter’s Basilica and Square, which are free to visit. After visiting the museum’s art collections, tour groups enter the Sistine Chapel and then follow their guides into Saint Peter’s Basilica. Purchasing a tour of the Vatican Museums is one of the best ways to access the basilica without having to wait in a long line outside.
Consider splurging for a private after-hours tour of the Vatican with an exclusive visit to the Sistine Chapel -- it’s a top-notch, one-of-a-kind experience. This unique guided tour includes rooms that are off-limits to the general public. For details and pricing, email the Services and Public Relations Office of the Vatican Museums at [email protected]
Another exclusive tour of the Vatican Museums offered through the Vatican tour office is the Vatican Guided Tour. The cost is approximately $350 for the guide plus $25 per person. Up to 12 participants can join the tour.
Don’t Miss The Highlights
The Vatican Museums are extensive, and if you’re not familiar with their contents, you might miss some truly stellar works of art. Here are just a few of the highlights.
The Pio Clementino Museum was built to safeguard priceless works of art and make them accessible to the public.
The Gallery of the Candelabra houses six galleries along the corridor that holds the titular marble candelabra. The galleries include treasures from Ostia, Rome, and Tivoli.
In the Gallery of Tapestries, you’ll find fantastically detailed Flemish tapestries by Pieter van Aelst.
The Pinacoteca contains masterpieces by some of the greatest Italian painters of all time, including Giotto, Fra Angelico, Perugino, Raphael, Veronese, and Caravaggio, among others.
In Raphael’s Rooms, or the Stanze of Raphael, you’ll find world-renowned frescoes painted by Raphael and his school between 1508 and 1524. These include the Deliverance of Saint Peter, the Disputation of the Holy Sacrament, The Parnassus, The School of Athens, and The Cardinal Virtues.
The Sistine Chapel, named for Pope Sixtus IV, who reigned from 1471 to 1484, was dedicated to the Virgin of the Assumption on August 15, 1483. This amazingly beautiful work of art will touch your soul. In 1508, Michelangelo painted his famous ceiling over the original frescoes. This is the art we enjoy today.
As I mentioned before, all official tours of the Vatican Museums end at Saint Peter’s Basilica, a holy site of pilgrimage for Catholics all over the world. It houses some of the most beautiful art and architecture ever produced, so don’t rush through it! Admire the artwork, especially the detailed mosaics. The artists used tiny pieces of glass called tesserae to achieve a painterly effect. Among the treasures of Saint Peter’s Basilica is the Pietà, another of Michelangelo’s masterpieces. Be sure not to miss the extraordinary sculpture.
Dress (And Behave) Appropriately
It’s important to dress appropriately for your time at the Vatican. Modest attire for both men and women is required -- you could be turned away if you have bare knees (shorts and skirts must cover the knees), a bare midriff, or bare shoulders (a pashmina or scarf will come in handy).
Comfortable shoes are key, since you will be walking and standing in lines, but it’s not appropriate to wear flip-flops inside the basilica or chapels.
It’s just as important to behave appropriately as it is to dress appropriately. Remember that the Vatican is a holy site for millions of people, and that Saint Peter's Basilica is an active church, not a museum. Avoid loud laughing and talking and other disruptive activities that could disturb the faithful, and observe the rules on all signage. No food or drink is permitted inside the basilica, and chewing gum inside is not appropriate.
Know What You Should (And Shouldn’t) Bring
Bring your camera or phone! There are beautiful photo opportunities everywhere you turn, but remember to be considerate with your camera.
Bring snacks -- it’ll be a long day. As I mentioned, you may not eat inside the Vatican Museums and Saint Peter’s Basilica, but you are welcome to eat lunch in Saint Peter’s Square.
Do not bring large backpacks, tripods, or selfie sticks. They are not allowed in certain parts of Vatican City.
Be Prepared For Unusual Encounters
Blessings of newly married couples happen frequently in Saint Peter’s Basilica and at General Audiences. It’s always fun to see a bride and groom decked out in their wedding attire in the halls. Vatican City is a wonderfully romantic place any day of the week! Wish the happy couple a hearty congratulations.
The pickpockets are a not-so-fun surprise. Vatican City is typically quite crowded, and if you are focused on something else, your valuables could be gone in the blink of an eye. Consider a money belt or a crossbody bag with a zipper tucked firmly under your arm.