Vatican City, accessible on foot from the center of Rome, is the residence of the pontiffs and the center of Catholic power in the world. Its main attractions are St. Peter's Basilica with its Dome, St. Peter's Square and the Vatican Museums with the Sistine Chapel.
If you want to avoid the queues, which are literally the longest queues in Rome, make sure you buy your ticket in advance. I will tell you what types of tickets are available so you can choose the one that suits you best:
Join a guided tour of the Vatican Museums in a small group
Enjoy a more intimate experience visiting the Vatican with an expert guide in a small group
With this option you will be paying for your access to the Vatican Museums, where you will be able to contemplate, among thousands of other works of art, the wonderful Sistine Chapel. The advantage? It includes a ticket that saves you endless queues at the door and you will be accompanied by an expert guide who will help you contextualize everything you see.
Believe me: in a place with so many works, so much history and so much symbolism, you will appreciate having some information about the main galleries, the main artists and the essential works so as not to be overwhelmed by the great amount of stimuli, corridors and art that you will find inside the Vatican Museums. With this itinerary you will go through the main rooms and galleries of the Museums, learning the most relevant details of the most significant works of the Vatican Museums. In this case the difference is that for a slightly higher price, you can enjoy the guided tour in a small group.
If you are one of those who do not enjoy tours in large organized groups, consider this option because it will allow you to be closer to the guide's explanations, have a lighter pace during the visit and have more freedom to raise questions, ask for recommendations, connect better with the guide, etc.
Why I like this option: this is a good option to visit the Vatican Museums with a guide in a small group, allowing you to enjoy a more intimate experience.
Recommended if... you want to visit the Museum with a guide but without having to join a large group.
Visit the Vatican Museums early in the morning to avoid crowds
This is definitely the most exclusive way to visit the Vatican Museums: you will be able to access the Sistine Chapel before it opens to the general public and enjoy the art without too many tourists around, with an expert guide in a small group.
Among all the premium tickets you can find for the Vatican, if you have to seriously consider one it is this early entrance with preferential access to the Sistine Chapel. Particularly, I like to enjoy some serenity and calmness in museums and I am not lying if I say that in the Vatican Museums in general and in the Sistine Chapel in particular it was particularly difficult for me.
This option allows you to visit the Sistine Chapel with a smaller capacity (before it opens to the general public and other tours) and, undoubtedly, that allows you to enjoy it much better.
The difference between seeing this place in a small group, in detail, in silence and without hundreds of flashes around you will definitely mark how you live the experience. This type of ticket guarantees that you will be able to see the Vatican Museums in general and the Sistine Chapel in particular for an hour and a half before the crowds flood the corridors. If you have to indulge yourself on your trip, I advise you to value this one very seriously.
Why I like this option: first of all, because on a normal visit, the Sistine Chapel is usually crowded with tourists, which makes it lose a lot of charm. If you visit it first thing in the morning, with an expert guide to help you contextualize everything you see and accompanied by a small group, the experience really takes on another level.
Recommended if... you believe that visiting the Vatican Museums is something you have to do once in a lifetime and you have to do it enjoying it to the fullest, believe me, this is your option.
Another highly recommended option is to combine the visit to the Vatican Museums in the morning with the visit to the Colosseum in the afternoon. As you may already know, a visit to the Colosseum is a must on your trip to Rome (no matter how many times you have seen its façade, you can't imagine everything inside until you visit it).
If you want to save time and money when buying tickets to the two most emblematic points of Rome, this combined ticket with guided tour to the Vatican Museums and the Colosseum is the best option in my opinion. In this article on How to buy tickets for the Colosseum and the Vatican I have described what this combined guided tour consists of, what it includes, how you can arrange it, etc.
Why I like this option: if you are planning your trip to Rome you should already know that both the Colosseum and the Vatican are two must-sees in the city. And the best way to visit them is to combine access to both places, to save some money and also to be able to tour them with an expert guide who will make sure you don't miss anything.
Recommended if... you are planning to visit the Colosseum and the Vatican, this is the most recommended way to hire both guided tours, enjoy the tour with a local guide and don't worry about organizing anything!
In summary, we compare the three options:
Small group guided tour of the Vatican Museums
Perfect for touring the Vatican Museums, Sistine Chapel and St. Peter's Basilica with an expert guide in a small group size to enjoy the experience more. Plus, you'll skip the line to enter the Museums
Visit the Vatican Museums early in the morning to avoid crowds
The most exclusive way to visit the Vatican Museums: you can enter the Sistine Chapel before it opens to the general public and enjoy the art without too many tourists around, with an expert guide.
The best of Rome in one day at the best price
If you are planning to visit the Colosseum and the Vatican, this is the most economical way to book both guided tours. You will see both attractions in one day together with an expert guide
How to access the Vatican with the Roma Pass and Omnia Card
Being such a touristy city and with so many wonders to see, you can opt to buy the Rome tourist card, which will serve you to visit the Vatican Museums because it has the entrance tickets included in its price.
Omnia Vatican and Roma Pass
Also known as Omnia card Roma, this card is usually combined with the Roma Pass and is the best option for visiting the Vatican as it includes entrance to the museums and other attractions. If you are going to visit the area in depth and go sightseeing in the rest of Rome I recommend you to take a look at this other article about the Roma Pass, where I tell you how to use it and all its advantages.
Rome City Pass
It is the VIP pass of Rome and with it, you can enter for free to the Vatican Museums and also to other places like the Colosseum. You can purchase the card for a period of 1 to 7 days and include transportation or airport transfer for a supplement.
How to get tickets for the Vatican at the box office
From experience, I assure you that the nearly two hours of queuing outside (with long stretches in the sun) will take a lot of energy away from seeing the Vatican Museums. Keep in mind that, depending on what time you go, you may run the risk of tickets selling out, so I advise you to go first thing in the morning.
The first thing you need to know is that when we talk about general skip-the-line entrance to the Vatican we are referring to the entrance to the Vatican Museums. The Vatican City is free of charge (you don't need any entrance ticket; it's like visiting another area of Rome) and the access to St. Peter's Basilica is free.
Therefore, with this option you will be paying for your access to the Vatican Museums, where you will be able to contemplate, among thousands of other works of art, the marvelous Sistine Chapel. The advantage? With this ticket, you save endless queues at the door and you will be accompanied by an expert guide who will help you contextualize everything you see.
If you are going to buy tickets at official Vatican website, please note that they are non-refundable and valid only for the day you choose. If you like to improvise during your travels, I recommend this Hellotickets option, as it allows free cancellation; this way you will not lose the money if any mishap arises during your trip.
Ana's Traveller Tip
If you book your ticket in advance you will avoid queues of more than two hours.
If you are interested in visiting the Vatican Museums, you will also be interested in...
Visiting the area. While you're there, take a look at everything there to assess the option of dedicating the whole day to Vatican City. This includes, aside from the museums: St. Peter's Square and Dome (of course), Castel Sant'Angelo (I loved it and the terrace of the castle has a spectacular view of the Tiber) and the Pontifical Gardens and Villas of Castelgandolfo (known as the summer residence of the Popes and considered one of the Vatican's hidden treasures).
What you should know about the Vatican in Rome.
You may feel overwhelmed, perplexed, comforted or even helpless as you contemplate the immensity of the Vatican, but what's clear is that regardless of your beliefs, this visit is going to make you feel something. You may think that the Vatican City and all that surrounds it is a tourist attraction in Rome reserved for those who have a special interest in religion.
And it's true that there's no denying the high religious charge of the area, but what you're going to find if you buy tickets to the Vatican Museum is one of the largest art collections in Europe. Just as art knows no borders, the sensation you will have when contemplating the immensity of the Sistine Chapel or St. Peter's Square from the top of the dome also knows no religion.
What to see in the Vatican
St. Peter's Dome
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 around 1000 inhabitants. The area, presided over 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.
St. Peter's Square
Before going up to the Dome, allow yourself to contemplate St. Peter's Square from below (it is the square from which the Pope's famous masses 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. Very difficult not to feel comfortingly insignificant in the face of the magnitude of these dimensions.
The Vatican Museums
But, despite the architectural beauty of this enclave, the real jewel in the crown 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.
The Sistine Chapel
The frescoes that cover the walls and ceiling were not only painted by Michelangelo, but also by artists such as Botticelli, Guirlandaio, Signorelli and 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.
Buying tickets for the Vatican Museums to visit the Sistine Chapel will be a delight for lovers of painting, but there is a catch: the large influx of tourists that is concentrated inside. Fortunately, this option of early admission with preferential access to the Sistine Chapel allows you to see it with a smaller capacity before its doors open to the crowds.
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 Pinakothek
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 are not going to be so well known, I recommend that you do not fail to take a look at the collection of Egyptian art, one of the treasures of the Vatican Museums.
The rooms of Raphael
Perhaps this is 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 spiral staircase
You will find it at the entrance; stop to take a look at it from above and do not let this architectural toy go unnoticed among the works of art.
The gallery of the chandeliers
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.
The Vatican Gardens
By the way, if you are wondering how to visit the Vatican Gardens, I'll tell you that you can only do it with the internal staff of the Museums: either through a guided tour or on board a bus with audio guide. Personal opinion: it is not a must.
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.
Organize your visit to the Vatican
How to get to the Vatican
Indeed, Vatican City is far from the center of Rome, but that doesn't mean it's difficult to get to.
- Walking: depending on where you are staying, you may well be able to walk there. If, for example, your accommodation is near Piazza Navona and you feel like taking a walk you can cross the Tiber and in about half an hour you will reach St. Peter's Square; if you take a detour you can even pass Castel Sant'Angelo beforehand. No walk in Rome is a waste of time, but if you choose this option remember to leave early to get there at a good time.
- By public transport**: the fastest way to get to the Vatican by public transport is to take metro line A to Ottaviano S Pietro. If the metro is not convenient for you, there are also buses that go there and leave from Piazza dei Cinquecento or Termini station.
Vatican Museums opening hours
The opening hours of the Vatican Museums are, with few exceptions, from 9 am to 4 pm. Be aware that on Sundays the museum is closed all day for the Papal Mass celebrated in St. Peter's Square and some holidays as well. The best time to visit is usually, as is common with all tourist attractions, early or late in the day.
The surroundings of the Vatican
Aside from the tourist sites, you may be wondering what the area is like. You will find hundreds of souvenir stores with the Pope's face even on tennis rackets and, of course, the restaurants in the area will be full of tourists and neither the quality nor the price will be the best, so I advise you to go a little away from the "heart" to enjoy a meal or a walk in peace and quiet, as there will be many people inside the museum.
Duration of the visit
Three hours (two, if you go running, but it is not worth it). I personally prefer to dedicate three hours to a quiet and relaxed visit in which I have some things left to see of the collection rather than see the whole museum in two hours to have the "check" of having "seen" everything.
Ana's Traveller Tip
Carry a scarf in your backpack so you can cover your shoulders when entering the Vatican Museums and St. Peter's Basilica.
Practical tips for visiting the Vatican
Check if you are entitled to a special entrance fee.
Admission to the Vatican is free or has a special rate for students under 25 and university students, members of religious schools or pilgrims, disabled, journalists and children under six years old.
Remember that the entrance to the Dome is paid separately.
If you want to go up to the Dome of St. Peter's you will have to pay a separate ticket, but you can buy it right there without reservation and there are usually no long waits for access. If you hesitate between paying or not to climb the dome my advice is to take a breath and go up; halfway up you will probably regret it (the narrow spiral staircase is a challenge), but when you get to the top the views will be worth it and you can file the experience as one of the feats of your trip.
You can learn from your mistakes and I'm sure you know someone who after planning their visit has had to turn back without visiting the museums or basilica. In these two places you must wear legs and shoulders covered. No sleeveless, low-cut clothing, shorts, miniskirts or hats are allowed.
Do you have to cover up in the middle of summer? Let's see, common sense: carry a scarf or long foulard in your backpack that you can wear to enter these places and that you don't have to wear all day. I assure you that prevention is better than cure.
To avoid queues, you already know that you have to buy the entrance to the Vatican Museums in advance, but the crowds will not be so easy to avoid them... The only way to reduce them is to choose the first or the last schedule and not to go before or after a holiday and, if you can, avoid the peak season.
Backpacks and luggage
They are not allowed and queues can again form at the ticket offices. I recommend that you make your visit with the minimum essential because after so many hours on your feet even the pack of tissues ends up weighing.
Audioguide for children
If you visit the Vatican Museums with children, I recommend that you ask for an audio guide especially for them (recommended for ages 6 to 12). This way the visit will be less tiring for them and they will enjoy the works of art more.
Other must-sees in Rome
If you are thinking of visiting the Colosseum (actually it is a must visit) I have written an article on Colosseum Tickets that may help you. If you prefer a guided visit to the most famous amphitheater in the world, you can read my guide about Colosseum Tours.
Frequently asked questions
How much of the Vatican City can I visit?
The majority of the Vatican City is actually closed off, however St Peter's Square, St Peter's Basilica, Vatican Gardens and the Vatican Museum are all open to the public. There is also the Vatican Library, reserved for researchers, as those who enter need to provide proof of their research and qualifications.
Is there a chance to see the pope when I visit Vatican City?
While you're unlikely to see the Pope wondering the city, he usually gives his Papal Audience on Wednesdays around 10:00 at St Peter's Square, our advice is to get there extra early to avoid the crowds and get yourself a seat. He also holds a number of Papal Masses, but you'll need to check his Papal Mass schedule to find out when and which churches they're held.
How busy does the Vatican City get?
Considering that most tours around the Vatican City last over 3 hour, combined with the popularity of these tours, the Vatican City can get particularly hectic. It's for this reason that Skip The Line tickets are often recommended, as their pre-booked nature means you can avoid the queues to pick up tickets, and in some cases enter via a different entrance.
How many galleries are in the Vatican Museums?
The Vatican Museums consist of a staggering 54 different galleries (named salas), the last sala is the Sistine Chapel. Of them, notable galleries include the Gallery of Maps, the Raphael Rooms, the Borgia Apartment and the Pinacoteca Vaticana.