My 12 tips for visiting the Vatican
1. Dress appropriately
Although the Vatican is visited by hundreds of thousands of tourists every year, it is still a Holy place, and you clothing should reflect this. Make sure you have covered shoulders knees and midriffs for when you are visiting the Basilica - security will turn you away if you are not dressed appropriately for entering the church.
2. Go prepared for a long day
Visiting the Vatican can be a very long day if you are planning on visiting everything or are planning on attending one of the Papal addresses. Especially in summer, you will need hats, sunscreen, water and comfortable shoes for walking and standing in lines.
If you are planning on going to the Wednesday general audience or the Sunday Angelus, where you can be part of the crowd the gets to hear the Pope speak you should be prepared to wait for several hours in the sun beating down on Saint Peter's Square.
In winter it is the same, expect that you might have to wait in the cold instead while you make your way between buildings.
3. Take as little as possible with you
It is a good idea to take as little as possible with you to make your visit as easy as possible. If you are visiting the museum, you will need to check in any backpacks you have with you and this can be frustrating and time consuming. Also make sure you eat a big breakfast so you do not have to take anything with you or buy something expensive in the somewhat average eateries in the Vatican area.
4. Take a tour
There is so much to see and appreciate in the Vatican, and it is definitely worthwhile taking a tour. Whether this is a group tour, private tour, or audio guide, you will have the added bonus of understanding everything you are looking at, and you will not have to wait in long lines if you have booked a guided tour in advance as there is a separate entrance for this. Most group tours also include priority entrance to the Basilica after you have finished touring the museum and the Sistine Chapel.
5. Book your ticket in advance
Expect long lines at every major attraction
If you don't want to book a tour, another good way to reduce your waiting times is to book your ticket for the Vatican Museum in advance. This means that you can use a different queue to the people waiting for general admissions, and these can be booked in advance on the Vatican Museum website.
6. Make time for the Vatican Museums
The gem of the Vatican Museums is the Sistine Chapel, and although this is breathtaking, you should definitely make time to see everything that the museums have to offer instead of rushing through to see Michelangelo's ceiling paintings. An audio tour will give you pointers on what the most important works are along the way to the pinnacle of the museum in the chapel.
7. Go early in the day or late in the day
In high season, it is almost impossible to avoid the crowds in the Vatican, but there are some times of day that can be better than others. If you want to be first in the doors, you can book a tour of the Vatican Museums before the doors open and be one of the first people in the Sistine Chapel for the day, and the light in the chapel is generally best before noon.
The lines are generally worse in the morning, but if you book a ticket or a tour in advance then this won't matter. If you have not booked in advance, then it would be better to go in the afternoon as most people visit the museum in the morning and then move on to the Basilica later in the day (note: the ticket window for the museum closes at 4pm.)
8. Plan ahead
One of the worst things you can do is simply show up on the day. This is a sure fire way to get stuck in very long queues or turn up on days that are even busier than usual. If you plan ahead, you can book tickets or tours in advance to skip the lines, and you can plan to avoid Wednesday or Sundays that are almost always terribly busy due to the Papal address in the square. It also means that you can't book tours for things like the Necropolis or the Vatican Gardens. If it is possible, plan your trip to the Vatican as far in advance as possible.
9. Climb the dome
Saint Peter's Basilica is topped by an enormous dome, and for a small fee it is possible to climb to the top of the dome for stunning views of the surrounding area and a bird's eye view of the square below. You can either pay €8 to take the elevator half way up, or €6 to climb the 551 to the top. Either way you should stop halfway up to admire the inside of the dome up close and look down on the enormous church below before continuing up to see the panoramic views of the city.
10. Visit the museum first and then the Basilica
If you are booking tickets in advance, the best way to visit the Vatican is to see the museum in the morning, and then continue on to the Basilica. There is a bit of a walk in between the two sites, and if you finish your visit in the Basilica, you will be close to the other major tourist sites in Rome if you are going to continue exploring later in the day
11. Avoid visiting on free days
On the last Sunday of every month, the Vatican Museum is free to visit. Even if you arrive early, you will find yourself behind a massive queue and the whole place will be completely crowded. Even if you are on a budget it is not advisable to visit on one of these free days as you will not appreciate what you are seeing and you will be waiting even longer than usual.
12. Be patient
This is probably one of the number one tips for visiting the Vatican. No matter when you go or what tours you book, you will be surrounded by people who are all trying to see the same things. You should allocate yourself plenty of time to visit this stunning city, and be prepared to be surrounded by a lot of people.
What to expect at the Vatican
The Vatican is one of the most visited attractions in the world, and every year millions of people descend on this tiny sovereign state. The museums see around 25,000 people per day. So if you are not good in crowds, then you should definitely consider trying to plan your visit for when there will not be so many people.
There is no 'off' day
As well expecting crowds, you should expect crowds on almost every day. There is even more people on the weekends and on Wednesdays when there is a Papal audience. You should also note that St Peter's Basilica is closed during this address (from about 12-1pm).
Look in every direction
There is almost too much to appreciate when visiting this stunning place. Make sure you look up at the ceilings and down at the floors to fully appreciate the details of both the museum and the Basilica. Even with all of the crowds, you can expect to be in awe of the many beautiful Renaissance displays.
Respect it as a Holy place
Although the Vatican is frequented by thousands of tourists every day, this is a holy place. You should expect dress codes, some quiet spaces, and security measures that ensure that people are respecting the importance of each place.
Prepare for a long day
Between exploring all that the Vatican has to offer, and fighting your way through crowds in order to do it, this visit will be a long day. Most people plan to visit in the morning and then move on to the historic centre afterwards, but if you have the time you will probably want to put aside a whole day appreciate the Vatican (or at least have the afternoon to recover). It will be an especially long day if you are wanting to attend one of the Papal addresses where you will be waiting in the sun for several hours.
Look for Renaissance masterpieces
The Catholic church has many of the most famous Renaissance works of art in its possession, so be ready to see some of these wonderful works in person (the Sistine Chapel alone is testament to the wonders that the Vatican holds).
You have to plan to see the Pope
In general, most people will only get a chance to see the Pope at his general address on Wednesday morning or during the Sunday Angelus. If you are going to any of the public masses or just doing a general visit then you will probably not get a chance to see the pope.
When to visit the Vatican
Early morning to avoid crowds
If you can get there early enough you might be able to beat the crowds, and then have time afterwards to go and explore other things in the historic centre. It is important to note that many people try to do this, and in the morning is when tour groups are usually arriving. Also an early morning visit is a good idea if you want to see almost everything that the Vatican has to offer.
Late afternoon if you have a short list
If you want to see only the major parts of the Vatican like St. Peter’s Basilica and Sistine Chapel for example, you can choose to go in the afternoon, head straight to your areas of interest and return to Rome. There are sometimes less crowds in the afternoon as most people have already moved on, but you should check opening times for the main attractions to make sure you do not miss them.
Don't visit on free days
There are some days where the visit to the Vatican Museums is free (last Sunday of the month), but these will almost definitely be the most busy days. Even if you arrive early, you should expect large, slow moving crowds.
Don't come on Sunday if you are going to the museums
Except for the last Sunday of every month when entry is free, the Vatican museums are closed on Sundays, so do not plan a visit on this day if you are wanting to see the museums
Come in winter to avoid crowds
Like most of Rome, the low season is in the colder months. If you visit around December, January and February you can expect a lot less people. The exception to this is from Christmas Day to January 6th where it gets busy again.
What to take with you
A guidebook for St. Peter’s
If you are visiting the Vatican Museum, this is probably not necessary to buy as there is ample signage in several languages for the major works. It is a good idea, however, to take one when you are visiting St. Peter's Basilica and the surrounding square, as there are many points of interest you would miss if you didn't know where to look for them.
Good walking shoes
No matter how you plan your trip to the Vatican, you will need good shoes. You will be allocating at least half a day to see everything in the area, so make sure you are wearing appropriate shoes for extensive exploring.
As little as possible
Large bags are not allowed inside places like St. Peter's Basilica. Bags can be checked in free of charge, but to minimize your waiting times it would be a good idea to take as little as possible when visiting the Vatican.
It is important to remember that this is not just a tourist attraction - this is a Holy place. Remember to wear clothing that covers your shoulders, knees and midriff (or take something to cover yourself up). You will be turned away if you are not dressed appropriately.
Protection from the weather
Regardless of when you visit the Vatican, you will probably be waiting in lines outside for extended periods of time. You will also be waiting for several hours if you are wanting to attend the General Audience in the square. Come prepared to be exposed to weather, most importantly hats, shawls and sunscreen.
General visiting tips
Eat a big breakfast
Food in and around the Vatican is generally not that great and there are not a lot of options; so it is a good idea to have a large breakfast to keep you going until lunch time.
Book Vatican Museums in advance
You can reduce waiting times for the museum is you book in advance, although this will cost you an extra booking fee. You can book these on the Vatican website, and then print it off so the people at the ticket office can scan your barcode before waving you past the three hour line into the shorter line of people who have booked in advance. You can save money as well as time if you are a student under the age of 25 and are eligible for a reduced ticket price.
Visit the St Peter's Basilica first, then the Vatican Museums
There is about a 20 minute walk between the two attractions, and St Peter's Basilica is closer to the historic centre. It also opens earlier than the museums. So if you are planning on visiting the Vatican in the earlier hours of the day to beat the crowds, you can save time (and your feet) if you visit the Basilica first, and then the museums.
Give yourself plenty of time
If you are visiting the museums, these can take around 3 hours if you are going to give yourself time to appreciate everything (and this is after you’ve budgeted enough time to see St. Peter’s Square and the Basilica in detail). There will also be a lot of people to navigate, so it is a good idea to allow plenty of time for your visit so you do not feel slowed down by crowds.