Visit St. Peter’s early, when it opens
Both, St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Museums, are equally important attractions in the Vatican and a proper visit to each of them can take upto 6 hours in total. For a smooth day at the Vatican, you should visit St. Peter’s Basilica first and then visit the Vatican museums after that, with a break at St. Peter’s square in between, This way you will:
1. Maximize your day at the Vatican
Opening times are conveniently staggered. St. Peter’s Basilica opens early at 7am in the morning while the Vatican Museums only open at 9am. When you are visiting the Vatican it is always a good idea to start your day as early as possible because there is so much to take in at the major attractions - St. Peter’s Basilica and Vatican Museums.
2. Be less tired
Coming from Rome, St. Peter’s comes first and then it is a 20 minutes walk to Vatican Museums. If you start at the Basilica you can then walk onto the Museums after, and then return to Rome at the end of a long museums visit. If you do it the other way round and visit the museums first, you will end up too tired walking within the museums and then to the Basilica even before you start your St. Peter’s visit.
3. Take advantage of less crowds
There are very few crowds at St.Peter’s when you go early in the morning, while Vatican Museums will be crowded at any time of the day anyway. The queues at St. Peter’s are shorter than those at the Museums, they move at a quick pace, and if you go early you may find no queues at all. And to top it all you will enter the Vatican museums in the afternoon when the peak period of queues is over.
4. See more of the Basilica
Going early to the St. Peter’s allows you to also see the rest of the Basilica before the crowds come in - the Grottoes are open at 7am and the Dome climb opens at 8am - start with the main Basilica, go up to the dome, come down, and finish your Basilica visit with the grottos and the treasury.
5. Get enough time at St. Peter’s square
During all this, make sure to plan your day in a way that you have lunch and see St. Peter’s square at a comfortable pace, after you are done with your early morning Basilica visit. Plan to arrive at the museums no later than 2pm so you have enough time. Buy a skip the line ticket and keep in mind that the last entry to the Vatican Museums is at 4pm (closing at 6pm).
If you have limited time at Vatican
Still, start at St. Peter’s
645am - 8am: St. Peter’s Basilica
Get early to St. Peter's so that you are in the security line before the opening time of 7am.
Take a tour of the main Basilica building, budget for about an hour, and head straight to the Vatican Museums.
Then, go to Vatican Museums
820am - 10am: Vatican Museums / Sistine Chapel
Arrive at Vatican Museum, it will take you 20 minutes to get there from St. Peter’s. Get in line, the queue itself will take you another 30 minutes at least in the morning before opening. So you should be in the museums by 9am.
Head straight to the Sistine Chapel, which will take you 20 minutes to get to within the museum. Or follow the direct route to the Chapel (signposted) and you may even get some alone time if you are lucky! You should be done by 10am.
End at St. Peter’s square
1015am - 1130am: St. Peter’s Square
Use the early start to spend quality time at St. Peter’s square. By now the crowds would’ve started pouring in but they will all be heading to the Basilica and the Museums, so you will get to see the square at a time when the crowds are relatively low.
The best time of the day to enter St. Peter's Basilica is early in the morning, when there is no row and you gain time to see the huge building. To see the Basilica you need to make a ticket, and you can book the online audio guide. St. Peter's Basilica requires half a day to be visited throughout, but it's worth it. On the dome it is possible to climb through the approximately 500 steps or the elevator.