Navigating The Vatican City – Top Travel Tips and Hints

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.

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

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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, our hotel was a convent and I remember our trip to the Vatican museum and getting 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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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.

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 of the “tours” is basically a pass to get in early, grab your audio guide, and book it 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 longer.

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 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 nin 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 than 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, 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. See what I mean? 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 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.  Of course 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.

Go here to buy tickets ahead of time, and remember that it’s good only for the day you choose.

Opening hours for the Vatican City Museum are basically 9:00-6:00 PM, but as mentioned you can get early entry up to one hour, which gets you ahead of the masses. On the last Sunday of each month, the only Sunday the museum is open, the doors close at 2:00 PM.

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, claustrophic. 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.

Papal Audiences

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.
  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 Absolute Cheapest Way To Visit the Vatican City Museum and Sistine Chapel?

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.

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).

Map of the Vatican City and Vatican City Area

What is the dress code in the Vatican City? 

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 foodless 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!

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

Have you visited the Vatican City? What is your favorite tip or hint for making it an enjoyable experience?

Pin for later –  Vatican City Tips and Hints

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!

24 Comments

  1. Super images and sound advice too Corinne. I cannot stress how going to famous tourist spots early is the only way to go. You will avoid the masses, the long lines, the crowded spots and overall agitation that afflicts all but the enlightened traveler. I am such a chill dude, yet the other night, walking along 5th Avenue in NYC – by Rockefeller Center – tests my patience, with the folks looking down at their phones and filming everything, knocking into you during the process. I often go at 11 PM or later but wanted to head out earlier that night.

    As for the Vatican it is incredibly beautiful. I do look forward to visiting one day when I do a proper Europe trip.

    Ryan

    1. Ryan, Exactly! All of Rome is so popular that no matter what time of year, there are plenty of tourists. It’s tough to navigate around the crowds. I do hope that this post helps people. Thanks and enjoy!

  2. This article is pure gold and trust me it helps so many people who want to visit the Vatican! I remember how excited I was at the entrance and was filled with dismay when I saw 20,000 tourists. Vatican was always on my list ever since I read Angels and demons and all I managed to click that day were the ceilings (because there were crowds EVERYWHERE!) Phew! The early entry tour sounds like a great idea. Lesser tourists, better pictures! The Gallery of Maps was my favourite too! Thanks for this super useful post Corinne! Sharing it:)

  3. Corrine – thanks for sharing all this amazing advice! I’ve been to the Vatican, once – it was many years ago with a high school trip. I think we were able to get in easier as we were a part of a large group, but we are planning a trip to Italy soon, and this post is very helpful! I didn’t even realize you could buy tickets ahead of time!! Great photos and super helpful advice – I’m pinning this for reference.

    -Malini

    1. Malini, I’m glad. It’s one of those must-sees that can be difficult to enjoy because of all the frustrations of crowds. We want people to have the experience they deserve.

  4. What a fantastic first-hand account of your experience. I loved hearing about your adventure. I got this image in my head of this pristine and sacred environment getting run over by people tripping over each other and jogging up and down staircases to find the Sistine Chapel. It’s good to see that there are some quiet spots to enjoy the beauty contained within the city-state. Fantastic photos and great perspective.

  5. Great advice on visiting Vatican City. I used a guide when I was in Rome and he had special access to most areas including the Vatican so I didn’t have to wait in queues. Your tips seem easy and very useful.

  6. The eternal city of Rome has so much to offer and visiting the Vatican is a must when here. I’ve been a couple times and agree – that having a plan to avoid the long queues is important. I always book local, private guides for these sorts of things. Avoid the masses of people, the impersonal audio guide and you don’t have to worry about the queues. Great reminder for those who are visiting – there is more to seer than just the Sistine Chapel. Take the opp to experience it vs. just ticking a box.

    1. Dominic, You said it! I’m not one for listening to guides, because they seem to prattle. At least with the audio, I can pick and choose and listen as long as it’s interesting.

  7. I think a trip to Vatican city is in order to everyone who decides to visit Rome. The inside is awesome, but you’re right that it can be very crowded! Getting at the Museum early in the morning is a great idea!

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

    1. 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.

  10. 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!!

  11. I have visited the Vatican twice. The first time I did a small tour that worked quite well and the second time I booked the same tour that you did! Both were amazing, but the breakfast tour was less crowded and it was a pleasure .

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