With the Vatican Museums and St. Peter's Square as its main landmarks, the Vatican is a must-see. The history behind its walls goes beyond any book or guide and that is for me the main reason to visit it.
The experience of visiting the Vatican Museums on your own is totally different from doing it with a specialized guide, who explains and contextualizes the centuries of Art that these museums contain. Choosing a tour among the many available can be overwhelming, but these are the best options:
Small group guided tour at the best price
If you are looking for a guided tour of the Vatican at an affordable price and in a small group this is the best option
Among all the different options, this small-group tour of the Vatican includes practically the same as the general tour for a slightly higher price. In return, you will be in a group of a maximum of 12-14 people with an art expert as a guide.
This allows you to enjoy personalized attention from your guide, which will make it easy to ask them any question you have.
Why I recommend this option: The Vatican Museums are quite crowded and noisy (unfortunately, the biggest drawback of this place is the noise despite being a museum), so a small-group tour greatly ups your chances to hear your guide.
Private Vatican tour
If group tours are not your thing and you would like to visit the Vatican at your own pace with personalized attention, don't think twice about this option
This private tour of the Vatican allows you to customize your itinerary to the areas of the museum that are most interesting for you (guides will even be eager to mix things up and skip the official tour) and, of course, you will receive a personalized narration that will take your experience to the next level.
You will spend enough time in the Sistine Chapel (the absolute star of the Vatican Museums) to understand the symbology and importance of Michelangelo's frescoes, and to admire their beauty.
In addition to explanations about specific works, this private tour of the Vatican also includes interesting information about the architecture of the area, the political and religious importance of the Vatican, and anecdotes missed by most tourists.
Why I recommend this option: Having a private guide for you and your group is a real treat. You will be able to ask him all your questions and discuss any work of art that you have a special interest in.
What you should know about guided tours of the Vatican
With a guided tour, you can stop worrying about times, routes, and waiting (the vast majority of visits to the Vatican have skip-the-line access). Personally, and although it may seem paradoxical, I feel less of a "tourist" when I do this type of visit because my only concern is to immerse myself in the guide's narration and learn about the things I see.
Some options refund the money if you cancel 24 hours in advance. This allows you, in case of unforeseen circumstances, to adapt your plans without the risk of losing your money. When making your reservation, make sure that tickets are included and ensure skip-the-line access instead of taking it for granted, to allow any unpleasant surprises.
Get everything ready for your guided tour of the Vatican
Make sure you have availability in the morning and afternoon. This way you can choose according to your plans, although I recommend that you choose early in the morning to avoid the peak hours at the Vatican Museums.
What to bring
Since you are not going to wait in line you may not need sun protection, but what you do need to bring is a light sweater, scarf, or fowl to cover your neck and shoulders when visiting St. Peter's Basilica, since the Vatican is very strict with the dress code. You will also need to cover your knees, so no shorts or mini-skirts.
As for the admission, just present the confirmation email to your guide and he will provide you with the tickets in case they have not been previously sent to you in digital format.
How to get to the Vatican
The Vatican is far from the historical center of Rome, but, contrary to what many people think, it can be reached on foot from tourist spots such as Piazza Navona or Campo di Fiori. In any case, the easiest way to get there is to take the metro line A to Ottaviano S. Pietro.
Once there, you'll have to find the meeting point of the guided tour, which can vary depending on the experience you choose: all of them are usually easy to find and the guide will bring a clearly recognizable object so you can spot it in the crowd.
The Vatican tour lasts about three hours, although the total time can vary and be longer (rarely will it be less). If you want to see the most important parts of the Vatican Museums in depth, without rushing it and with a comprehensive explanation from a guide, I recommend you to skip any tour that offers less than three hours.
Eating in the area
Get out of that area to eat unless your guide gives you a specific recommendation. Places near St. Peter's Square will be expensive and some may commit the unforgivable sin of giving you a plate of reheated pasta or pizza. If you are going to continue touring the area after your visit, it will be enough to stay away from the central areas or ask your guide for a recommendation. Fortunately, Italy is one of the easiest European countries to eat an amazing meal at a cheap price.
Tour with children
I do not recommend that you take a guided tour of the Vatican Museums with children unless it is specifically adapted for them. The tour is long for the little ones, the museums are crowded and they won't enjoy it and you won't enjoy the benefits of a guided tour of the Vatican. As for strollers, they can be really messy during rush hour.
If you have a special interest in art and painting, you may find the general tour short; after all, the Vatican has one of the largest art collections in the world. If you are an art history enthusiast, it wouldn't be a bad idea to come back on a different day to explore the collection in depth or book an individual private tour.
Ana's Traveller Tip
Avoid hiring the "guides" who will approach you in St. Peter's Square. Many are not official and are not qualified to give a proper guided tour.
7. Frequent questions from travelers interested in the guided tour of the Vatican in Rome
How should you dress at the Vatican?
Because of the particular idiosyncrasies of the place, the general rule is to wear "decorous" clothes. That means no hats, no suspenders, no cleavage, no shorts or short skirts. If you're visiting the Vatican in the summer my advice is to wear a long-sleeved T-shirt or scarf when entering St. Peter's Basilica or the Vatican Museums.
Is it hot in Vatican City?
Not as much as in the Colosseum or the Forum, but yes. The museums are quite cool, but in St. Peter's Square, you will find no shaded areas. So, even if you are not going to stand in line to enter the Vatican Museums, since you are going on a guided tour, bring water and sunscreen.
Can I enter the Vatican Museums with a backpack?
If it is not a large backpack or luggage, yes. Otherwise, you will have to leave it at the ticket office. In any case, I do not recommend you to bring anything other than your essentials to any tour in Rome; this is a city to walk around and any extra weight will make it difficult for you to enjoy it.
Can I enter the Vatican Museums with food?
Eating and drinking are not allowed in the exhibition halls, so if you have packed a snack wait until the end of the visit to eat it.
Can I take pictures inside the Vatican?
In the Vatican Museums, neither flash nor selfie stick is allowed. You can take pictures with your cell phone and with a camera that does not involve professional accessories (for the latter you must ask for special permission).
In the case of the St. Peter's Basilica, remember that you are in a place of worship; although many tourists do not respect it, it is not appropriate to be taking pictures while visitors try to enjoy the seclusion that the place should transmit. Reserve your memory card for the rest of the wonders you will see in Rome or for the views of St. Peter's Square from the dome.
Is it worth climbing St. Peter's Dome?
Although the entrance to St. Peter's Basilica is free and included in a guided tour of the Vatican, going up the dome requires a special ticket. Unless you suffer from claustrophobia, it is an amazing experience. In case you choose not to go up the dome, from the Gianicolo hill you will have a very similar view of St. Peter's Square.
Is it possible to visit the Vatican Museums at night?
The Vatican Museums are open some Fridays during the evening (although there are usually no tours at these times). I recommend you to find out when they are and treat yourself with a unique experience as it is usually much less crowded.
8. What if I only want tickets to the Vatican?
Of course, there is also the option of buying tickets to the Vatican without any kind of guided tour. This will indeed allow you to discover the whole area at your own pace without having to pay attention to the explanations of a guide, but on the other hand, you will miss the details of the works of art and history of the Vatican. Anyway, if you prefer to do a self-guided tour of the Vatican, you should check out this post about Vatican Museum Tickets.
9. Other guided tours in Rome
Another guided tour that may also interest you if you go to the Vatican is the visit to the Necropolis under St. Peter's Basilica. This visit requires a special permit as it gives access to the place where the apostle is buried, but you can find specialized tours that offer this visit.
As for other worthwhile guided tours in Rome, here's one of my favorites: the Colosseum and the Forum of Rome. The area has nothing to do with the Vatican but it is the other must-see of the Eternal City thanks to its fascinating history. I wrote an article about Colosseum Tours that might interest you.
Frequently asked questions
Is there a dress code at St Peter's Basilica?
As St Peter's Basilica is a church, there is a strict dress code enforced whereby shorts and skirts above the knee are not permitted, along with Low cut or sleeveless clothing and flip-flops. The general advice is to wear a long, breezy dress accompanied with a shawl or jacket, or simply jeans and a T-shirt. The key for most churches is to have your knees and shoulders covered.
When is the best time to visit St Peter's Basilica?
If you are trying to visit just the Basilica, try to avoid weekends and Wednesdays, as these days coincide with the Papal Audience, drawing in huge crowds. The best days to visit are Tuesday and Thursday, with most tours operating in the morning, you'll find less people after lunch time (13:00 and onwards).
Will I have to queue to enter St Peter's Basilica?
Unfortunately, long queues and wait times are common place due to the Basilica's strict security checks, couple this with the amount of visitors and the long queues are pretty inevitable, that being said there are Skip the line options, to help alleviate the wait times.
Can I really climb the Basilica's dome?
You can indeed climb the Basilica's dome, however, it is at an additional charge and you will need to address the long queues, but it's definitely a must-do activity. There are, fortunately, Skip the Line options for this as well.