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Tips to visit the Vatican

The Sistine Chapel, St. Peter's Basilica with its Dome, Bernini's colonnade in St. Peter's Square... Do not miss this jewel on your trip to Rome. Here are some tips to make the most of your visit

Carmen Navarro

Carmen Navarro

7 min read

Tips to visit the Vatican

The Vatican | ©Simon Hurry

Visiting the Vatican will be a must during your vacation in Rome. Needless to say that, regardless of your religious beliefs, the artistic and architectural interest of the place makes it one of the most visited places in the world.

And precisely for this reason, it will come in handy to have some tips at hand when organizing your visit: how to avoid queues for access, how to save on Vatican tickets or how to dress to enter a place of worship. Everything you need to know is explained below. Read on!

1. ALWAYS book skip-the-line tickets

Vatican City | ©Jedi Equester
Vatican City | ©Jedi Equester

One of the things that most strikes first-time visitors to the Vatican is the long lines of tourists at the gates: huge lines that go all the way around the walls surrounding Vatican City! This wait can definitely ruin your experience and when it is your turn to enter, you will be tired and not so keen on discovering the secrets hidden in the Vatican Museums or the Basilica.

Therefore, it is essential that you always book your tickets or guided tour in advance and make sure you select an option that allows you to skip the queues.

2. Cover your neck, shoulders, and knees

Tourists visiting Rome | ©Unsplash
Tourists visiting Rome | ©Unsplash

Remember that both St. Peter's Basilica and the Vatican Museums (with the Sistine Chapel inside) are considered places of worship, so you won't be allowed entry if you're wearing a strapless dress or a skirt or shorts that show your knees. So how do you dress if you were planning to visit Rome in the middle of summer? The best advice I can give you is to always carry a foulard or scarf in your bag to cover up.

With the city's high temperatures it's hard to imagine covering up, but you'll appreciate carrying something to cover yourself in your bag (you'll also need it to access other churches or the Pantheon of Agrippa). What you want to avoid at all costs is that, once there, with your tickets bought and your visit organized, being unable to go in because you are not properly dressed.

3. A guided tour, better than a visit on your own

Columnata of St. Peter's | ©Patrick Schneider
Columnata of St. Peter's | ©Patrick Schneider

When visiting a city with so much history, context, and symbolism, it's best to join a guided tour of the Vatican Museums guided by an expert. In addition to making the tour more enjoyable, you will better understand the meaning of each work, its history, and what is behind its creator.

In addition, in places like the Vatican Museums, with millions of works of art inside, it is a good idea to be accompanied by a specialized guide who will make sure you do not miss the most important works. The best thing about guided tours is that they are usually adapted for the general public: they are not usually too specialized in art, so you will understand absolutely everything they tell you and you will enjoy it twice as much. In addition, prices are quite tight and there is a lot of availability of schedules and languages.

4. The best views of Rome, from the Dome

St. Peter's Dome | ©Aldo Loya
St. Peter's Dome | ©Aldo Loya

Climbing St. Peter's Dome will bring you (literally) close to the gates of heaven. The details of its interior are much better appreciated as you get closer to the top, but the spectacular views of St. Peter's Square, the colonnade, the river, the Castel Sant'Angelo and the roofs of all the ochre-colored houses of the city are worth the climb.

Of course, to get to the top you must take into account that there is no elevator along the entire stretch. Although you choose the option of using the elevator, the last part of the ascent to the Dome you will have to climb it on foot: and that is not for everyone. The stairs get narrower and the passage is quite narrow. If you are claustrophobic or have a heart condition it is not recommended to go up.

5. Beware of tourist traps

Delicious Italian Pizza | ©Nick Owens
Delicious Italian Pizza | ©Nick Owens

The area around the Vatican is lined with souvenir stores and fast food stands and even Italian restaurants. Don't get hungry and before you sit down anywhere, check out their online reputation, reviews from other travelers, or menu prices. There are some really expensive places whose quality will disappoint you. You can always go a bit further away from the touristy area for lunch or dinner or you can consult my guide on where to eat near the Vatican to be on the safe side and not make the wrong choice.

Best of all, no matter what time of day you go, you will find a good place to have a snack, lunch, dinner, or simply buy a sandwich to take away and enjoy it anywhere else.

6. Wear comfortable shoes

Comfortable shoes for your visit to the Vatican | ©Flavio Gasperini
Comfortable shoes for your visit to the Vatican | ©Flavio Gasperini

Okay, you're not visiting a park or a mountain, but a visit to the Vatican always takes longer than expected. The sheer size of the Museum, the majesty of the Sistine Chapel, the hustle and bustle of St. Peter's Basilica, and even the climb to the Dome could keep you in the area practically all day.

And you don't want your feet to hurt. Trust me. Wear extra comfortable footwear to stand for hours on end, especially if it's very hot. Chafing could spoil what will be one of your most interesting visits in Rome.

7. Don't trust ticket touts

Vatican St. Peter's Square | ©Michele Francioso
Vatican St. Peter's Square | ©Michele Francioso

As if it were the most crowded concert, all around the Vatican you will be approached by dozens of vendors who will try to convince you to sell you tickets, guided tours, etc. My advice is not to get carried away by their overwhelming arguments and to plan your visit to the Vatican ahead of time, always booking your tickets or guided tour in advance on reliable and official sites. At Hellotickets, for example, you can see all the schedules, prices, and tour durations, and all the guides are professional and authorized by the Vatican to give guided tours.

8. Early in the morning, you will avoid the crowds

Vatican in the morning | ©Xavier Coiffic
Vatican in the morning | ©Xavier Coiffic

It may seem a bit strange to be there when the Vatican opens its doors early in the morning as if it were sales season at the mall, but the crowds that can be present during the middle hours of the day will make your experience much more overwhelming.

Early in the day, you will not only avoid the heat, but you will have the opportunity to be practically alone in the main galleries of the Museum, visit St. Peter's Basilica at your leisure and stop to observe the Sistine Chapel in detail. I could also recommend you to visit late in the day, but at that time of the day the fatigue begins to be heavy (a trip to Rome involves a lot of walking) and you do not want to do this visit in a hurry and reluctantly. Get up early!

9. If you want to see the Pope live, go on Wednesdays or Sundays

The Pope's Angelus | ©Unsplash
The Pope's Angelus | ©Unsplash

If there is no religious holiday to prevent it, the Pope usually comes out to the window of his Vatican residence to give the blessing every Sunday at noon. This blessing lasts less than 30 minutes and is a short prayer given by the Pope before all the pilgrims who congregate in St. Peter's Square to see him and is called "The Angelus".

On Wednesday afternoons he also usually offers a religious celebration in St. Peter's Square, so I recommend you check the schedule of the day you are there and try your luck to see it. There are usually large crowds of pilgrims, tourists, and onlookers, so if you want to see the Pope live you'll need to get there early to make room.

In my opinion, these are not the best days to visit neither the Vatican nor the Basilica: there are too many people in the area and you won't enjoy it as much.

10. Being alone in St. Peter's Square is possible

Vatican at nightfall | ©Anelale Najera
Vatican at nightfall | ©Anelale Najera

Believe it or not, this busy square is empty as soon as night falls. There is no need to go at ungodly hours. If you wait until the sun goes down and the doors of the Museums and the Basilica are closed, you can take a picture of yourself in St. Peter's Square as if the Earth had swallowed the rest of humanity.

Take the opportunity to walk in silence along the colonnade, approach the facade, and walk along the Via della Conciliazione illuminated. You will take away a unique and very authentic souvenir of a place that, believe it or not, also has a moment of respite from so much tourism.