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Navigating The Vatican City – Top Travel Tips and Hints

Visiting the Vatican City, and the Sistine Chapel is a must-see, but the crowds can get you down. We’re here to help with all the info you need for entrance, tours, what to wear, and much more.

There are so many reasons to visit Rome, along with taking one of the best Colliseum tours, there is one compelling fact that, inside its environs, it houses a whole other country, the Vatican City.  A whole country: how cool is that?! A UNESCO World Heritage 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.

5 Saint statues of the Vatican City Italy.
The Colonnade of Saints look down on the crowds in St. Peter’s Square – The Vatican City, Rome

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.

Pin one of these Visiting Vatican City pin for your future planning!

Traveling to Rome? One of the things you must do is the Vatican City!
Traveling to Rome? One of the things you must do is the Vatican City!

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.

Luckily, the Vatican is a wheelchair accessible museum, so no matter if you want to take the long way or find a shorter way, it should be no problem.

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.

Door and Entry to Vatican City Museum with Latin inscription and a decorated mantel.
The old entry to the Vatican City Museum, but now if you are visiting there is a boring looking door over to the left of this.

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.

Marble lion killing a horse.
One of the many sculptures that caught my eye as I wandered through the antiquities on exhibit at the Vatican City Museum, Rome.

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 through a tour operator like Get Your Guide, 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!

The Gallery of Maps in the Vatican.
One of my favorite spots in the Vatican – The Gallery of Maps. It is on the way to the Sistine Chapel, but most people don’t stop to look because they are in such a hurry to beat the crowds. Even though it was difficult, we doubled back afterwards to really enjoy the maps.

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.

 This is the map of Liguria in the Vatican City's Gallery of Maps.
The maps in the Gallery of Maps are all these colors, cobalt blue, light green, and gold. They’re beautiful. This is the map of Liguria.

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.

Blue and wood cabinets that hold the exhibits of the Vatican City Museum.
I love how the exhibits are all stored, and displayed, in these gorgeous cupboards. It makes it seem so very much like home.

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

There are many ways to get to the Vatican, but one way you might try is scooter rental in Rome. It gives you the flexibility to do whatever you are interested in without having to find a parking space.

Buy Tickets

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.

Opening Hours

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.

Chairs set for a papal audience.
Set up for a papal audience in St. Peter’s Square.

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.

Fountain in St. Peter's Square, the Vatican City.

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.

The Mimo staircase in the Vatican.
The Mimo staircase in the Vatican.

Some Fun Facts About the Vatican City

  1. 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.
  2. The Vatican City was disputed by the Italian government until Mussolini signed a pact assuring Vatican autonomy.
  3. 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.
  4. The Vatican City is the only UNESCO World Heritage Site that is also a full on country (city-state).
  5. The forbidden fruit that Eve picks in the Sistine Chapel is a fig.
  6. 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.

An Egyptian coffin.
An Egyptian coffin

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?

Getting There

“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.

Planning a trip to Italy, check out these other posts:
Things to do in Rome, Your Guide to the Eternal City
Gondola Training – It’s All Wine and Boats
10 Tips For Your Trip to Cinque Terre
Finding (and Making) the Best Tiramisu
Venice – The Challenges Of Photography & Our Top Photo Tips To Handle Them
Just Another Hidden Gem in Italy – Lucca
Best Areas to Stay in Rome
18 Places to Visit Europe by Dan Brown

Author Bio: Corinne Vail is a travel photographer, food lover, and a perpetual traveler who has been travel writing for over 14 years. For many years she lived overseas in Germany, Japan, Turkey, South Korea, and the Netherlands teaching the children of the US. military. She’s visited over 90 countries, and she’s not stopping anytime soon.

Pin for later –  Vatican City Tips and Hints

Traveling to Rome? One of the things you must do is the Vatican City!
The Vatican City! One of the most religious places on Earth, and its museum is amazing!

Tonya Moore

Wednesday 6th of March 2019

We are headed to Rome, for my 3rd visit since the age of nine, this summer. We are considerably older than the average tourist and looking for ways to find short cuts. Thank you for your insights and tips. This will be our granddaughter's first trip and we hope not to short change her. The coin in the fountain at age nine has worked well.

Corinne Vail

Wednesday 6th of March 2019

I certainly hope you have a great time. I love traveling with younger family.

Jim Vail

Monday 18th of December 2017

We truly enjoyed the fewer people and getting in early. Glad to hear you had a similarly great experience.


Friday 15th of December 2017

I am fascinated by Vatican city since I read Dan Brown's 'Angels & Demons'. I really like the fun facts you shared, I never knew it has a national football team!!

Corinne Vail

Saturday 16th of December 2017

Ankitas, Right?! I love learning things like that too!

Sandy N Vyjay

Thursday 14th of December 2017

The Vatican is a fascinating place. We had a great time when we are there. This is a very nice article with great pointers as navigating the Vatican can sometimes be an issue and one may miss out on some important places. Our favourite was of course the Sistine Chapel. It is a place that seems out of the world. And yes the corridor of maps too is exquisite.

Corinne Vail

Thursday 14th of December 2017

Sandy, I think the Vatican is one of those places that you can visit time and time again to find something interesting to view. We're just hoping that our readers can avoid some of the crowd frustration while they are there.

Liza Williams

Thursday 14th of December 2017

You have some great tips here.. this city looks beautiful I guess to some its worth tolerating the crowds and thieves. I was mesmerized by your photo's there is so much amazing history from this city its a place we should all experience at least once in a lifetime.

Corinne Vail

Thursday 14th of December 2017

Liza, We didn't really come across any thieves, but I'm sure they do exist in a huge city. We loved all of Rome, but it's a place that takes some planning.