There are so many reasons to visit Rome, but one of the most compelling is the fact that, inside its environs, it houses a whole other country, the Vatican City. A full city-state of its own, the Stato della Città del Vaticano has been the home of the Pope for over six centuries.
It is a monarchy, but the throne is not inherited as in most monarchies. Instead a new pope is elected after one dies. To be sure, visiting the Vatican City, and especially the Vatican Museum is one of the most popular sights in all of Rome, so we wanted to get in early before the crowds descended. How were we going to visit it without too much frustration? Here are our recommendations and travel tips for visiting the Vatican City.
Tips For Visiting The Vatican City – Rome, Italy
Whether you want to visit the Vatican because you are making a pilgrimage to the Holy See or whether you are going as a tourist because of the rich history, the Vatican City, St. Peter’s Basilica, and the Vatican Museum should be high on your list of things to visit when you go to Rome.
I have been to Rome twice before, once with my dad and sister when I was a mere teenager. On that trip, all I remember is the colosseum, our hotel was a convent, and that our trip to the Vatican museum had me so worn out trying to follow the signs to the Sistine Chapel. I remember it took 40 minutes on the “direct route,” and I wasn’t the only member of the family that was “over it” before I got there. We looked up for about three minutes and left. I was not impressed.
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Years later, I headed there with Jim and the girls. We didn’t do much to prepare ahead of time, and this was before the age of “skip the line” tickets. As we headed to the museum entry from the Metro stop, we rounded the corner and the line was around the block. It would take a minimum of 2 hours, we were sure and we decided it wasn’t worth it to wait in line so we took off to do most of the other Roman sites.
So before this trip, I had technically visited the Vatican but Jim hadn’t and we felt we needed to rectify the situation. Although you can just walk up and eventually get in, I don’t think the line has gotten any shorter. Thankfully there are a number of ways to avoid the lines at the Vatican with some pre-planning and of course some extra money.
The Vatican Breakfast Tour
How do you enter the Vatican City Museum and get down to the magnificent Sistine Chapel before the throngs of tourists are so thick that all you want to do is run away? There are a few ways and price-wise they range from pricey to downright expensive.
First, you can sign up for a guided tour with any number of companies. Prices range from about 30 to 80 Euros per person. The cheapest “tour” is basically a pass to get in early, grab your audio guide, and hurry on to the Sistine Chapel. This one starts with early entry at 8:00 AM, one hour prior to the official opening of the museum.
The pricier tours lead you in a clump again to the Sistine Chapel telling you the highlights, then having you re-listen to it on your audio guides. Usually the tours last 3 hours, but since you’ve paid for entry, you can remain in the museum as long as you want on your afterward.
What we did was a take-off on the early entry tour. The Vatican City Museum offers an early risers breakfast buffet. You must buy your tickets online, but the doors open at 7:30. You and the others (40 people or so) follow the guard as he takes you to a cafeteria where a breakfast buffet is set up.
The day we visited, mid-week in November, it seemed there were mostly North Americans. We did hear a couple of French, German, and Italian speaking families, but overall the group spoke English, and they all rushed to the table that served eggs and pancakes, while the Europeans rushed to the pastry and cold cut table.
At any rate, the guard and some helpers from the restaurant staff guide you in and direct you to a seat. We all did as we were told and waited until they told us it was time to eat. We were all so excited to be entering early, we barely touched our fluorescent scrambled eggs and pseudo-pancakes. To be honest, the breakfast wasn’t the best, but we really weren’t there to eat, we were there to beat the crowds. Priorities you know!
We were sat across from two American men, one of which was regaling his partner with the ins and outs of the system. He’d done this before. Our ears perked up when we realized we had an expert in the crowd. Our table then began peppering this guy with question after question. What time will they let us in? What’s the fastest route to the Sistine Chapel? How long can we stay in the Sistine Chapel? I can’t even remember all the questions we asked him.
As 8:00 drew near, we all congregated next to the door guard awaiting our okay to enter, and when he said “go” you should have seen the group lunge for the corridor and up the steps.
The Shortcut To The Sistine Chapel
Jim was mad at me. Right before the guard let us go, and our new-found guide led the table group up the stairs, I went to the bathroom. Hey, in my defense, who knew when I was going to get another chance? It didn’t really matter, because yes there are signs. But, oh, the signs.
Like my first run a few decades earlier, the signs said it was the fast route, but there were always choices. Which was the fastest? Luckily another bathroom goer I was following up the steps, asked yet another guard and he pointed us to the second floor.
The route we took was pretty quick; ten minutes. I’m still not sure it was the fastest, but hey it wasn’t 40 minutes, you know what I mean? We sped up the stairs, out onto the patio to cut off a corner, into the hall of maps, and down some steps.
Ridiculous. How can it be the fastest way if we first go up steps and then come down another set of steps? Finally, we found ourselves bounding down a narrow staircase into what felt like a cellar before turning right and ending up in the Sistine Chapel. We weren’t alone.
There must have been about 100 other people already there. It didn’t matter, though. The two benches lining the walls had open seats so you could listen to the audio guide and learn all about the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo, and the other painters, and of course the meaning of the frescoes. I did not listen to everything. It’s too much. We probably stayed gawking and enjoying the beautiful artwork for about 20 minutes and then it was time to see the rest of the museum.
The Vatican City Museum Tips – It’s Not Just About the Sistine Chapel
One of the most amazing things about the Vatican City is that the museum has so much to offer. It’s not just a religious museum, although it has some of the world’s most precious religious artifacts. It’s not just a historical museum, even though the exhibits draw from almost every corner of the world and countless centuries. It is not just an art museum, even though it has some of the most well-known pieces of art in the world. It’s a collection of so many different eras, civilizations, and art; it’s mind staggering.
Religious artifacts such as the papal seal rings, the red marble papal throne, as well as garments, readings are just some of pieces that are on display.
Famous Vatican Museum Paintings and Sculptures
The Vatican museum paintings alone can keep you busy for hours. Michelangelo, who planned and painted the Sistine Chapel is only one of the famous artists that have contributed. There are works by Leonardo da Vinci, Picasso, Matisse, and our favorite frescoes were completed by Raphael in the pope’s apartments.
Of course there are plenty of sculptures such as Belvedere’s Torso and Laocoön and His Sons, as well as an entire hall of Roman statues and famous religious statues as well. It’s not just what’s inside, but the buildings themselves are something to enjoy, like the double-helix staircase designed by Giuseppe Momo in 1932.
Other Vatican City Museum Exhibits
Some of the other exhibits and museums of the Vatican City Museum include: Carriage Pavillon, Borgia Apartment, Raphael’s Rooms, Pio Clementino, plus about 20 more.
There is no way to enjoy all the different exhibits, so if there are some things that you really want to see, I would head there first then double back and do the other exhibits. Jim really wanted to see the Egyptian collection, and even though it was on his list, we kept getting side-tracked. We did finally get there, and it was well worth the effort.
How to Visit the Vatican Museum
Goto the Vatican Tickets Official Site to buy tickets ahead of time, and remember that it’s good only for the day you choose. The cost of tickets is 17 Euros if you buy at the door, however there are added fees or discounts depending on where or how you buy your tickets.
Vatican City Museum is usually open from 9:00-6:00 PM, but as mentioned you can get early entry up to one hour, which gets you ahead of the masses. However, on the last Sunday of each month, the only Sunday the museum is open, the doors close at 2:00 PM and entrance is free, and it gets very crowded.
Visiting St. Peter’s Basilica
The second, and maybe even bigger attraction that the museum and Sistine Chapel is St. Peter’s Basilica. It’s free to enter, but there are costs if you decide to use an Audio Guide or climb the dome, which can be quite strenuous and towards the top, claustrophobic. The lines are extremely long, but the basilica is open from 7:00 to 7:00 in summer and closes an hour earlier in winter.
How to Get Papal Audience Tickets
Each Wednesday the pope addresses a small group. You must have a ticket to enter, but there is no cost. To find out more about how to see the pope, check out the Official Website of the Vatican City.
Some Fun Facts About the Vatican City
- It is the smallest country in the world, with the smallest population where most of its people don’t live there. Its 110 acres is completely surrounded by Rome.
- The Vatican City was disputed by the Italian government until Mussolini signed a pact assuring Vatican autonomy.
- Because of the small size of its population, and the nature of thieves and tourists, Vatican City has the highest crime rate of any country.
- The Vatican City is the only UNESCO World Heritage Site that is also a full on country (city-state).
- The forbidden fruit that Eve picks in the Sistine Chapel is a fig.
- The Vatican City has no laws regarding divorce, but it does have its own national football team.
You can find a whole list of facts here.
Practical Information for Visiting the Vatican City
What Is The Cheapest Way to see the Vatican?
Backpackers and budget travelers listen up! On the fourth Sunday of the month, the Vatican City Museum is free! No cost at all. The only problem is the crowds and the wait can be long, but hey, F-R-E-E! We suggest lining up well before the 9:00 opening time.
Where is the Vatican City?
“All roads lead to Rome,” and I would guess really they meant the Pope, which is the Vatican City.
The Vatican City is smack-dab in the center of Rome, but entry is well guarded. You know you have arrived because the walls are tall and foreboding. They are angled in a way that it would be pretty hard to climb. It’s secure, but also very easy to find.
There is one main entrance, and no matter what time you go, you’ll see it. There’s a huge line!
By bus: Closest bus stop to the Vatican museum Leone IV, bus 23 and 492.
By metro: Closest metro station Ottaviano, on Metro A (red line).
How to Dress for the Vatican?
The Vatican City is first and foremost a religious site and therefore it is appropriate to dress moderately. No one should wear shorts, flip flops, or athletic gear. Apparently if one of the guards feels you are not dressed up to snuff, you will be asked to wear a cloak.
We went during winter, so we didn’t see anyone wearing anything that could be misconstrued as inappropriate and I also didn’t see any of the cloaks being worn. I would be curious if this is still really happening!
What is the currency of the Vatican City?
The Euro, but they have their own special Euros. We looked for them, but except for buying a minted set we didn’t see any.
We did find the post office since they have their own stamps as well. I only bought one, much to the vendor’s amusement. The post office is on the way out of the museum after you leave the museum store. I bought my mom a postcard and sent it right then to her. It’s a nice souvenir.
Where to eat in Vatican City?
There is an entire section of the museum dedicated to feeding you. This is where we started with our breakfast, but it’s mostly open for lunch and coffee. There are plenty of choices from pasta to pizza, pastries to ice cream.
The cheapest coffee was in the coffee shop right outside the Sistine Chapel for those folks who got up early but just took the food-less tours. There is also a beautifully situated cafe and restaurant outside in the garden by the golden earth sculpture, but a cup of coffee there was four times as expensive. To sit there and have a snack would run you about 8-10 Euros per person.
Of course there are plenty of places to eat right outside the Vatican City area, and we opted for a snack at McDonald’s (a coffee and some deep-fried stuffed olives). What a treat…and cheap!
The Vatican, the home of the Pope, is a must-see when visiting Rome. This small world heritage city-state has some of the most valuable art and religious artifacts in the world. The most famous sight is Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel which can get crowded, so we suggest taking a breakfast tour and entering the chapel before the museum officially opens for the day.
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