Visiting the Vatican: all you need to know to plan your day

by marta

Practical guide with all you need to know to visit the Vatican, by a Rome local. Tips for visiting Vatican City, practical information, best Vatican tickets, tours, must know dress-code and frequently asked questions. .

A visit to the Vatican City is often a highlight of a trip to Rome, regardless of personal background and beliefs.

The Vatican museums and Sistine chapel are a special treat for art lovers and St Peter’s dome, basilica and square are so beautiful and imposing to stop on their tracks the most jaded of travelers.

However, visiting the Vatican requires some planning.

Popular, vast and with special rules dictated by the important religious role of the institution, the Vatican can be tricky to navigate for first- timers.

This is why I have put together this guide: all my best tips and all you need to know when planning a visit to the Vatican. 

Please note: this post contains affiliate links and, should you make a purchase through them, we might make a small commission.

Visiting the Vatican: overview, need to know

The Vatican, or Vatican City, is not one attraction. Instead, it is a small state with several, distinct things to see, some accessible for free and some accessible by pre-booked ticket only.

At a glance:

Address: Vatican city (inside the city of Rome).

Currency: Euro

Opening hours: you can visit the city and catch a view of the facade of St Peter basilica any time (it is wonderful in the evening, all lit up!). The basilica itself, the museums and the other attractions in Vatican City each follow specific opening times. Find them here

Access: despite being an independent State, there is no passport control at the border crossing

Security checks: due to the importance of the site, security checks are in place and bags will pass under security machines before being allowed into the basilica and/or museum. Everyone passes security checks, even with skip the line tickets.

Dress code: there is no dress code for St Peter’s square but a dress code is enforced in the basilica and museums (see below)

The best things to see in Vatican City

Vatican city comprises of several spaces and buildings, all worth seeing in their own right.

Usually, when visitors state their intentions to visit the Vatican, what they mean is that they want to visit the Vatican Museums and St Peters’s basilica.

These are indeed the most famous sites within the Vatican City however, there are also other parts of the St Peters’-Vatican Museums complex that are worth considering. Click each link for additional info:

Things to see at the VaticanTicket needed Yes/No
St Peter’s SquareNo
St Peter’s BasilicaNo (main floor only, this includes Pieta’ and Altar)
St Peter’s DomeYes
Vatican GardensYes
Vatican Museums and Sistine ChapelYes
Bramante Staircase and hidden area of the museumsYes
St Peter’s Tomb and NecropolisYes

St Peter square – Piazza San Pietro

St Peter Square (Piazza San Pietro) is the square right outside St Peter’s basilica and the masterpiece of architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini, who built it between 1660 and 1667.

ST Peter basilica with fountain in front

The square is vast and is surrounded by a colonnade that frames the facade of the basilica in such a way to lead the eye of the visitor to St Peter’s basilica, the focal point of the area.

The square is wonderful and a place I recommend visiting even should you not have the time to enter the basilica or the museums.

Fun fact: In building the colonnade, Bernini applied the concept of forced perspective: if you stand on specific spots in the square (marked on the ground) an optical trick makes many of the columns disappear from sight!

It is one of the best free things to see in Rome and a wonderful introduction to the Vatican if you are visiting Rome with kids – they will love the optical trick and large spaces of the square.

Please note: Access to St Peter Square is free and there is no border control between the city of Rome and the Vatican State. Find all you can see in St Peter’s square here.

St Peter’s Basilica (including Michelangelo’s Pieta’)

St Peter’s basilica is one of the most beautiful and impressive churches in Rome and Italy and towers above Vatican City.

The basilica as we see it now is the result of the genius of several architects who, over the course of decades, built its elaborate naves, altar, facade and dome.

Inside of St Peter Basilica

It is the first building you notice when approaching the Vatican from the river Tiber and by far the most impressive, at least from the outside, thanks to its incredible and gigantic dome and the stunning piazza it opens up onto.

The basilica is the center of Catholicism and is an important place for Christianity in general as it lies above the tomb of St Peter.

Its origins date back to the very beginning of the history of Christianity but it got the appearance we see now over the course of many centuries and many interventions by architects and artists, under the patronage of different Popes.

The first stone of the current basilica was laid is 1506 and the dome was added and finished towards the end of the same century.

The basilica is stunning inside and out: inside the most famous attraction is the Pieta’ by Michelangelo (statue) and the main altar, of stunning decor but really, there are infinite things to see here and each detail is a marvel it itself.

You can find my guide to visiting the inside of St Peter’s Basilica and my highlights here.

You can visit the basilica on your own but to really appreciate its value, I recommend you get at least an audioguide if not a full on guided tour.

You can see how the self guides tour with audioguide works and buy tickets here

Access to the ground floor of the basilica is free but suitable attire (see below) is mandatory.

The basilica is in use and is therefore closed on special occasions and for specific celebrations. You can check its official website for exact opening times and foreseen celebrations.

St Peter’s Dome

St Peter’s dome was designed by Michelangelo and finished by his disciples and other architects including Giacomo Della Porta, who completed the work but also slightly modified the original design and added the lantern that surmounts it.

It is one of the most distinctive sites in the whole of Rome and a truly magnificent one.

You can admire the cupola from below (or afar, it is visible from many viewpoints and belvedere terraces in Rome) or you can join the crowd of the fittest visitors and climb up.

If you decide to go, please be advised that the dome is accessible via over 300 steps and it is not for the faint of heart!

The climb up is steep and unsuitable for people who are afraid of heights or suffer from claustrophobia (the last part of the staircase up gets increasingly narrow): only part of the dome is accessible by lift so good mobility and ease on steps is a must.

If you can tackle it, however, the views over Rome from up there are unbelievable.

As well as the city, you get a glimpse of the wonderful layout of the Vatican Gardens, a true gem (and not just from above!).

Access to the dome is ticketed: you can find info, times and prices on the official Vatican site here.

From the dome of St. Peter’s one can see every notable object in Rome… He can see a panorama that is varied, extensive, beautiful to the eye, and more illustrious in history than any other in Europe.” – Mark Twain, writer

Find more quotes about Rome here

Vatican Museums (with Sistine Chapel and Last Judgement)

The Vatican hosts the famous Vatican Museums, home of many masterpieces by masters of the past in the fields of sculpture, paintings and more.

The Sistine Chapel from outside, beside ST Peter Basilica, part of the large Vatican complex

The museums are vast and showcase art from different centuries and civilizations, from invaluable sculptures from the ancient world (like the Laocoon, my personal favorite) and the stunning ‘Raffaello’s rooms’ to the modern cars used by the Pope (my kids’ favorite)!

The jewel in the crown of the Vatican museums however is, for many, the Sistine chapel.

Designed by Michelangelo, the chapel is decorated with the incredible Last Judgment, a fresco of breathtaking beauty and staggering detailing.

The Sistine Chapel is part of the museums and tickets include access to it. You usually reach it at the end of the museum visit.

Need to know: the chapel is a sacred spot as well as a very touristy one and proper attire is mandatory. See below for what is and is not accepted according to the official Vatican rules.

Find here >>> Our complete guide to visiting the Sistine Chapel

The Bramante Staircase

Another interesting and beautiful things to see inside the Vatican is the Bramante Staircase.

The Bramante staircase is special in many respects: while originally meant to be just a functional staircase, Bramante made it unique adding to its centre a spiral shape that effectively gives the impression of the staircase infinitely spiraling onto itself in infinite motion!

It is a wonderful creation and one that truly tricks the eye.

The staircase is now closed to the general public and only accessible via special tours offered by the Vatican Museums themselves, the hidden Vatican tours – You can find them here.

Good to know! The Vatican Museums are also home to another staircase, the Momo Staircase: built-in 1932, the staircase follows a double helix shape and it is beautiful and impressive. Unlike the original Bramante staircase, the Momo Staircase is along the main visitors’ route in the Vatican Museum and is usually open to visitors.

Vatican gardens

The Vatican gardens lie hidden by the main basilica and are an absolute delight to visit as well as a wonderful place to admire the basilica from an unusual angle: the dome photo ops from here are plentiful!

The gardens are vast and are organized as a series of different styles: you can admire the English, French and Italian gardens, the rock garden, the Marian grottoes and the guide will make them come to life with tidbits about their history and the Popes that called them their backyard!

The gardens are open to visitors by guided tour only, by bus or on foot.

You can find our review of the tour and all the tips for visiting the Vatican Gardens here.

Vatican Necropolis and St Peter’s tomb (Scavi)

Below the current basilica lies the old Vatican necropolis, where St Peter is buried.

Special visits to the necropolis underneath the Basilica and St. Peter’s tomb are only possible following special rules.

Access is possible in small groups only, they need to be led by a Vatican travel guide and they have a maximum number of visitors allowed each day (250), to preserve the integrity of such a delicate environment.

 The access to St Peter’s tomb and Vatican necropolis is separate from that to the museums and must be planned separately. You can find all the info here

Considering the limited access to the tomb area, tickets are exceptionally hard to get and sending a request well in advance is mandatory.

Angels Unaware – the Migration monument

On the left-hand side of Piazza San Pietro stands a particular, interesting monument likely to catch your attention due to its distinctive traits, much different from anything else in this monumental complex.

This is a meaningful, beautiful monument to remind the tragedy of migrations and has been inaugurated by the Pope, who wanted to remember all those who have suffered and still suffer due to forced displacement.

There is no plaque on the monument, nor explanation, however, it is powerful and worth seeing.

The plan was to have in the square for a while and then move to the gardens however, it is still on the square as Pope Francis though it was too meaningful and current to be given a less dominant space.

Monuments to migrants, St Peter Square, Rome

Swiss guards

The Swiss guards are not an attraction, they are the guards that keep the Vatican safe but their uniforms are so distinctive they do attract the attention of visitors!

They are stationed North of St. Peter’s Square and beside the Vatican palace and their colorful presence is unmissable!

A special trip to see the Swiss Guards and their colorful uniforms is one of my favorite things to do when visiting the Vatican City with kids and one of my recommended activities for those who want to see the Vatican but do not feel like tackling the busy museums!

How to book a visit to the Vatican: best Vatican Museum tickets and tours for 2024

There are many ways to book tickets to the Vatican and they include the site of the Vatican Museums themselves and tour providers.

The best Vatican tickets (self-guided tours)

Tickets are necessary to visit the Vatican museums, St Peter’s dome, gardens and underground necropolis.

This is the list of ticket options:

  • Buy timed entrance tickets from the Vatican Museum website – this is a good value option for self guided tours of the Vatican Museum. The tickets are non-refundable, one change to your reservation is allowed up to 1h before your visit.
  • Buy skip the line tickets from GetYourGuide – MY TOP PICK – this is my recommended tickets for a self guided tour of the Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel. The slightly higher cost vs the one above comes with an excellent cancellation option (free cancellatio up to 24h before your visit)
  • Buy Skip the line tickets from Tiqtets – ANOTHER TOP PICK use promo code MAMALOVESITALY to get a 5% dicount. This is an excellent option if you want flexible cancellation policy or are buying last minute, after the official website appears as sold out. The cost is marginally higher than if buying from the museums directly.
  • Vatican gardens tickets are available on the Vatican official site
  • Access to St peter’s necropolis can be booked here

Best Vatican tours (with guide)

You can choose between different types of tours of the Vatican museums and basilica, joining group tours of booking private tours for your own party.

Early entrance tours to the Vatican Museums

Early mornings are the best time to visit the Museums with reduced crowds.

This small-group Vatican early entrance tour is comprehensive and allows you to see the very best of the Vatican Museums as well as Raphael Rooms and St Peter’s Basilica (except Wednesdays, when the Basilica is in use for celebrations).

This is an excellent tour to enjoy the museum and maximize your time in Rome.

Express Early Viewing Sistine Chapel Tour | Semi-Private Tour a short yet comprehensive tour to show you Raphael’s frescoes and Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel in just 1.45h.

The tour stays informative despite the short duration thanks to the small group approach which allows the guide to have a direct and personal relationship with you and your group.

Private and semi private tours of the Vatican Museums

Semi private early morning Vatican tour by LibvTours, one of my favorite providers of tours in Rome in general and the Vatican in particular. This tour allows you to enter the museums before the official opening time, ensuring a quieter experience.

Private tour of the Vatican Museums, Sistine chapel and St Peter’s Basilica, including Michelangelo’s Pieta’ – this is a great tour if you want a bespoke experience catering exactly to your needs.

Highlights of the Vatican & Sistine Chapel Tour | Semi-Private group with a maximum of 6 participants to see the museum’s highlights with a dedicated guide to only few participants

Family tours of the Vatican museum – recommended if visiting the Vatican Museums with young kids

How to meet the Pope when visiting the Vatican

There are several opportunities to see or meet the Pope in Vatican City and for many, this is a huge highlight from their trip to Rome (If you have kids, join our Italy with kids group on Facebook: several families there met the Pope and it is lovely to hear their emotional reactions!)

You can see him on Sundays, Wednesdays and at Christmas when he says Mass. In particular:

Every Sunday at noon, you can see him addressing the crowds on St Peter’s square during the Angelus. On this occasion, he speaks from a window overlooking the square so you hear his voice and see him from afar. Access is free.

Every Wednesday the Pope holds a Papal audience. The audience happens at 10.30, you must get tickets in advance and is the best opportunity to see the Pope in person. You can find all the necessary info on the official site.

If you are in Rome at Christmas, you can see the Pope during mass at the Vatican. You can find official info on mass with the Pope here

Getting a private audience with the Pope is less straightforward and is always done on an ad hoc basis.

The best way to go about it is to make contact and put forward a personal request: there is no option of buying tickets for it as such.

Need to know: In summer, the pope is often in his residence in Castel Gandolfo rather than in Rome. You can check his schedule and plan accordingly here.

What to wear for visiting the Vatican: Vatican dress code

A visit to Vatican city required appropriate clothing.

The dress code is for the sacred areas of Vatican city and this includes the basilica itself and the Vatican Museums, mostly because they include the Sistine chapel which is a sacred space and still operational.

To visit the Vatican you need ‘modest’ attire and this is specified as:

  • Skirts or trousers that cover the knees (both for men and women)
  • Tops and shirts that cover the shoulders (no vests)
  • Attire that keeps belly/back/cleavage covered
  • Comfortable shoes
  • The dress code is more lax for children although respectful clothing is recommended at all ages

Need to know: you may read on travel forums people being allowed into the museums in shorts and that the Vatican dress code is not always enforced. While it is possible for the rules to be occasionally overlooked, this is very much not the norm and many many people have been turned away because of unsuitable attire. I highly recommend you don’t chance it!

Visiting the Vatican with kids

Vatican City is a great place to visit with kids however, the museums are hard for them.

If you have very young children, I recommend you plan a visit to St Peter square and basilica but consider carefully before booking a museum stop.

You can read why and all our tips for a family visit here

If you think the museums may be too much for you and your kids, however, you don’t have to give up and skip the Vatican altogether. Many other attractions such as the square, the passetto and even the Basilica are easy enough to enjoy wt kids and can make for a wonderful day out sightseeing.

You can find my best tips on what to see in Vatican City with kids beside the museums here

How long do you need to visit the Vatican

How long it takes to visit Vatican city depends vastly on what you want to see.

The museums usually take a minimum of 3 hours, unless you purposely rush to the Sistine Chapel only.

The basilica can take as little as half an hour, depending on how much you enjoy it.

I do not recommend any other sightseeing or your day will become overly full.

The best time for visiting the Vatican

There are two special moments to visit the Vatican, in my experience: the early morning and the evening. I find at this time there are fewer visitors and the atmosphere is calmer and more subdued.

Most of the photos in this post are taken on a summer afternoon, right before sunset. Aren’t they beautiful?

However, since the Vatican is not one attraction but a cluster of different landmarks, things to see and museums, there is no such as thing as a best time to visit the Vatican but rather a best time to visit the piazza, the basilica, the museums etc.

In general:

The best time for the dome climb and a basilica visit is the very early morning, as soon as they open

The best time to visit the museums is early morning (pre-opening hour tours) or evening, by joining a late opening evening tour

The evening openings only happen in the good season and they are a treat: you can find the schedule and tickets here

How to get to the Vatican City

Vatican city is right inside Rome, one the far side of the river Tiber from the ancient city center.

St Peter square and basilica are at the end of Long Via della Conciliazione, a large monumental street connecting the river Tiber to the basilica, while the museums are a little detached from it, about 15 minutes from it on foot.

You can get there by metro, bus or on foot.

detail st peter basilica facade and dome

The closest metro station to the museum is Rome Ottaviano – San Pietro (metro A). Cipro is also an option.

Several buses serve this area, the nearest stops being those for buses 40 , 64, 62, 19 (tram), 49, 32, 982, 492, 990, 81.

New for cruisers! If you are coming from Civitavecchia, the best way to get to the Vatican is the train. San Pietro has its own train station, about 10 minutes away from Vatican city, and since 2019 a new service has been linking the cruise port of Civitavecchia to it, making a day at the Vatican very easy for people reaching Rome on a cruise.

My go-to app for exact directions in Rome is Google Maps – make sure you specify if you are heading to the basilica or the museums for the most accurate results.

The walk between the entrance to the museums and the basilica takes about 15 minutes, so getting off at your exact destination goes a long way to preserve your feet – this is a day with a lot of walking, you don’t need to add any more!

You can find info on public transport in Rome here

Visiting the Vatican: frequently asked questions

How much does it cost to visit the Vatican?

Access to Vatican City itself is free, however, several of the attraction are ticketed and do have a cost. The Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel, some parts of the Basilica/ dome, the gardens and the necropolis offer several ticketing options for individuals and groups.

Can I buy tickets to the Vatican Museums at the door?

You can buy tickets on the day however, the line at the entrance is so long I do not recommend it. The best way to get Vatican tickets is online, in advance. If you are not sure about your plans, you can opt for tours with free cancellation up to 24hours before or you can try book online on the day. I only recommend booking on the day if you are ok possibly missing out on the museums: the change of them being booked out it high

How much in advance should l I book Vatican tickets?

Tickets tend to come out 60 to 90 days in advance, depending on the type of ticket. I recommend booking tickets to the Vatican as soon as you know you are going to Rome and they become available Especially in high season they book out weeks in advance, especially the official and most reasonably priced ones.

Do I need my passport to enter the Vatican?

Despite being an independent State, there is no passport control between Rome and Vatican City. However, tickets to the museums are personal so you will need to show your passport/ID to show you are the legitimate ticket holder. The checks that are in place to enter the Museums and the basilica are security checks, not border and customs ones. It is therefore not possible to get your passport stamped

Can you wear sandals in the Vatican? What should I wear to visit the Vatican?

Vatican City has several consecrated spaces and there is a dress code required to access them. While you do not need to dress up to go to the Vatican, the general rules is to dress conservatively: opt for covered shoulders (men and women), long trousers, below the knee skirts and avoid showing off cleavage or bare backs. You can wear sandals and sneakers: I do however recommend you do not wear flip flops, mostly for the safety of your feet in such a crowded space!

Can I bring a backpack into the Vatican? And food?

For safety reasons large backpacks are not allowed into the Vatican museums and Basilica and food is not allowed. Cafe and food options are available in the museums: just be prepared to queue!

What should I not miss at the Vatican?

What to see and what not to see depends on your interests and tolerance for crowds, but the main things to see in Vatican City are St Pater Square, St Peter basilica (altar, Pieta’, floor markings about its size) and the Vatican Museums, especially in my opinion the Laocoon, the Map Gallery, the Bramante staircase and the Sistine Chapel

How much time for visiting the Vatican?

how long to spend in the Vatican depends on what you see. You can see the square only in a matter of minutes and you need at least half a day for the museums. I recommend planning a full day for the area.

Can I see the Sistine Chapel only?

The Sistine Chapel is inside the Vatican museums and tickets allow access to both. You usually get to the chapel at the end of the museum visit. Some early entrance tickets allow for going to the chapel first but check carefully the details given by each provider to make sure it is the case

Do I need a guide for visiting the Vatican?

You do not need a guide for a visit to the Vatican however, especially for the museums I do recommend you get one. The crowds are insane and guides are excellent and navigating them.

Is wearing a mask compulsory in the Vatican?

Yes, in 2022 it is mandatory to wear a FFP2 face mask to enter all Vatican Buildings and also to visit the Gardens. Temperature checks are also carried out at the entrance.

I hope you found this guide to visiting the Vatican useful. Safe Rome travels!

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