You can spend at least a whole day in the Vatican and you will surely not finish seeing all the art it contains. In addition to the spectacular square that welcomes you with a pristine white colonnade, you can access the Vatican Museums to enjoy the Sistine Chapel or access St. Peter's Basilica to get the best views of Rome from its Dome.
Don't be overwhelmed by the amount of things to see and do in the Vatican. I have compiled a list of the must-sees and must-dos in the Vatican that you can't miss:
1. Contemplate Michelangelo's frescoes in the Sistine Chapel
The Sistine Chapel contains one of the most popular works of art in the world, without a doubt. It is located inside the Vatican Museums and to access it you will need to buy Vatican tickets. As large as the Vatican Museums are, you will see that virtually every visitor stops at the Sistine Chapel. At first you won't be able to take pictures (or at least not with flash), but don't worry. Enjoy the views of such a unique work and forget about your cell phone and camera for a while. It's worth it.
You should know that not only Michelangelo participated in the frescoes that cover the walls and ceiling, but also artists such as Botticelli, Guirlandaio, Signorelli or Perugino. While the 12 side paintings depict episodes from the life of Jesus and Moses, the high altar fresco is Michelangelo's masterpiece, 'The Last Judgment', and the ceiling mixes passages from the Old and New Testament. I tell you more in my article on the Sistine Chapel.
2. Climb the Dome of St. Peter's for the best view of Rome
The Vatican is famous for being the place where St. Peter, the first Pope, was buried, but it is also the smallest state in the world with a population of about 1000 inhabitants. The area, dominated by the majestic Dome of St. Peter's, attracts pilgrims from all over the Christian world every day.
History and religion aside, this Dome is one of the highest points in the city of Rome and the view from the top (that square with two semicircles bounded by columns that you have seen in hundreds of aerial photographs) is worth the effort it takes to climb. Tickets to climb the Dome are purchased directly there, there is no way to get them online.
However, keep in mind that the climb is not easy and is not suitable for everyone, so if you are thinking of climbing to the top of Vatican City, you can consult before my article on how to climb the Dome of St. Peter.
3. Admire Michelangelo's Pieta inside St. Peter's Basilica
As soon as you discover the sculpture of the Pietà as you enter St. Peter's Basilica and admire its imposing white marble size you will understand why this sculpture dating back to before 1500 went down in history as one of Michelangelo's most special works.
The figure depicts the Virgin Mary lamenting over the body of her son Jesus after dying on the cross. The realism of its faces, its proportions and the movement and tension that this work accumulates make it unique in the world.
Almost two meters high, it leaves everyone who enters St. Peter's Basilica open-mouthed, and no wonder. This is the most outstanding work you will see inside the Basilica.
4. Walk around St. Peter's Square and Bernini's colonnade
Before going up to the Dome, allow yourself to contemplate St. Peter's Square from below (it is the square from which the famous masses of the Pope are celebrated). The obelisk in the center gives in the summer months the only shade available to a square that is 320 meters long and 240 meters wide. It is very difficult not to feel comfortingly insignificant before the magnitude of these dimensions.
5. Photograph the Baldachin of St. Peter's Basilica
These gigantic canopied columns that preside over the altar of St. Peter's Basilica will catch your attention as soon as you cross the entrance doors. The baroque style brought to its maximum expression by the author Bernini makes this piece the undisputed protagonist of all eyes inside the Basilica. You will have to go far away to fit it completely in your camera, since it is almost 30 meters high.
6. Discover the Vatican Museums in depth, on a guided tour or on your own
The real jewel in the crown in Vatican City are the Vatican Museums adjacent to the square. Inside is, of course, the well-known Sistine Chapel, but this is not the only attraction of a museum that collects art from the fifteenth to the nineteenth century, Egyptian, Assyrian, Greek, Roman, Etruscan, Italic, Christian, medieval and modern religious.
The Vatican Museums are divided into several areas or museums and, although you can spend as many hours inside as you want, if you do not want to return from your trip to Rome with a thorn in your side, in my opinion you should not miss the well-known Sistine Chapel, the sculptures of the Pio Clementino Museum and the rooms of Raphael. You can visit them on your own or with a guided tour of the Vatican Museums...
The sculptures of the Pio Clementino Museum
Dedicated to classical sculpture, this museum contains works such as the statue of 'Laocoon and his sons' (one of my favorites for the expressiveness it reflects) or the Apollo of the Belvedere, which embodies the ideals of classical beauty.
The paintings of the Pinacoteca
Your Art History teachers would never allow you to skip a collection of a total of 460 paintings that includes masterpieces by the greatest artists of Italian painting such as Da Vinci, Titian, Caravaggio or Raphael.
The Gregorian Egyptian Museum
Although for the vast majority these works will not be so well known, I recommend you to take a look at the Egyptian art collection, one of the treasures of the Vatican Museums.
The rooms of Raphael
It is perhaps the area that arouses more expectation after the Sistine Chapel. Pope Julius II commissioned Raphael to decorate these four rooms and for 16 years he and his pupils were entrusted with the task with such mastery that these paintings turned out to be the ones that put the painter's fame on a par with Michelangelo. It is a real treat for the eyes to dwell on the details of these paintings.
The helicoidal staircase
You will find it at the entrance; stop to take a look from above and do not let this architectural toy go unnoticed among the works of art.
The Gallery of the Candelabra
If, like me, you like to admire the museum rooms themselves apart from the works they contain, I recommend you to look for this gallery because, besides being one of the most original, it has a very nice view of the Vatican Gardens.
Of course, you as a traveler must decide what interests you most. If you are passionate about cartography the Gallery of Maps will be for you a must-see and if you know how to recite by heart the Roman emperors you will like to see the Hall of the Busts. The catalog of the Vatican Museums is immense.
7. Stroll through the Vatican Gardens
If you are wondering how to visit the Vatican Gardens, let me tell you that you can only do it with the help of the internal staff of the Museums: either with a guided tour or on board a bus with audio guide.
Personal opinion: it is not a must if you are thinking of paying the entrance fee to the Museums just to see it, but while you are there, when you visit the Museum do not miss the tour.
8. Discover the surroundings of the Vatican
While you're there, you might want to take a walk around the Vatican to get a more complete picture of Rome. In and around the Vatican you will inevitably find hundreds of souvenir stores with the Pope's face even on tennis rackets. But if you feel like taking a stroll beyond the Walls surrounding Vatican City, you will discover Prati, a residential neighborhood away from the masses where you can see Romans strolling, shopping or having an aperitif.
Via della Conciliazione is also worth a walk: its breadth and majesty leads to St. Peter's Square and links it to Castel Sant'Angelo, which is also worth a visit.
9. Meet the Pope at the Vatican
As you may well know, the Pope, the highest representation of the Catholic Church in the world (and head of the Vatican State) lives in Vatican City itself. And although having an audience with the Pope in private requires a lot of paperwork, good contacts and a very good reason to meet him, it is possible to attend a live mass or the weekly blessing he gives every Sunday from his window.
Expect crowds, as there are always religious groups and pilgrims who go there to attend these events, but if you feel like completing your visit to the Vatican with a meeting with the Pontiff, here's everything you need to know to see the Pope at the Vatican.
10. Enjoy the gastronomy of the Vatican area
You may be surprised at this point, but yes, in a place with so many tourists you can eat very well and without going broke. But you will have to know how to look, because the area is full of tourist traps. That's why I've made a list of places to eat near the Vatican and have included menus for all tastes and times of day. Bon apetit!
Frequently asked questions
Do I have to pay to enter the Vatican?
Access to the Vatican City is free, but you will have to buy a ticket to enter the Vatican Museums, where the Sistine Chapel is located. St. Peter's Basilica is free.
Are there discounts to enter the Vatican?
Yes: students, the disabled, accredited journalists and members of religious congregations with proper identification have special rates or free admission.
What do I have to see at the Vatican?
You should not leave without seeing the Sistine Chapel, St. Peter's Basilica and its Dome, St. Peter's Square and the main galleries of the Vatican Museums.
Do I have to cover myself to enter the Vatican?
Yes, to enter St. Peter's Basilica and the Sistine Chapel you must cover your shoulders and knees, as it is a place of worship. It is recommended to wear long pants or skirts and wear a scarf or jacket to cover shoulders and neckline.