You can spend at least a whole day in the Vatican and you'll probably never 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.
Don't be overwhelmed by the amount of things to see and do in the Vatican. I've compiled a list of the must-see must-do's:
1. See 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'll find that almost every visitor stops at the Sistine Chapel.
You won't be able to take photos (or at least not with flash), but don't worry. Enjoy the views of such a unique work of art and forget about your mobile phone and camera for a while. It's worth it.
You should know that 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 Judgement', and the ceiling mixes passages from the Old and New Testaments.
Best time to visit the Vatican Museums
If you want to avoid the crowds, the Vatican Museums are difficult to visit due to the high number of visitors. However, there are always tricks to see the museums without the crowds: book a visit to the Vatican Museums early in the morning or book a guided tour at night to see the Sistine Chapel and the rest of the Vatican Museums.
2. Climb St Peter's Dome for the best views 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 around 1000. 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've seen in hundreds of aerial photographs) is worth the effort it takes to climb. Tickets to climb the Dome can be bought online, and also include a guided tour of the Basilica and the papal tombs.
However, be aware 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 my article on how to climb the Dome of St. Peter's beforehand.
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 from 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 he died 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 metres high, it leaves everyone who enters St. Peter's Basilica open-mouthed, and with good reason. This is the most outstanding work of art you will see inside the Basilica.
4. Tour St. Peter's Square and Bernini's colonnade
Before going up to the Dome, allow yourself to view St. Peter's Square from below (this is the square from which the Pope's famous masses are celebrated). The obelisk in the centre provides the only available shade in the summer months for a square that is 320 metres long and 240 metres wide. It's hard not to feel comfortingly insignificant in the face of the sheer 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 eye 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 stand quite a distance away to fit the whole of it in your camera, as it is almost 30 metres high.
6. Discover the Vatican Museums in depth, on a guided tour or on your own
The real jewel in the crown of Vatican City is 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 houses art from the 15th to the 19th century, Egyptian, Assyrian, Greek, Roman, Etruscan, Italic, Christian, medieval and modern religious art.
The Vatican Museums are divided into several areas or museums and, although you can spend as many hours as you want inside, if you don't want to come back from your trip to Rome with a thorn in your side, in my opinion you shouldn't 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 'Laocoön and his sons' (one of my favourites for the expressiveness it reflects) or the Apollo of the Belvedere, which embodies the ideals of classical beauty.
The paintings in the Pinacoteca
Your art history teachers would never allow you to skip a collection of 460 paintings that includes masterpieces by the greatest artists of Italian painting such as Da Vinci, Titian, Caravaggio and Raphael.
The Gregorian Egyptian Museum
Although for most people 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
This is perhaps the area that arouses most expectation after the Sistine Chapel. Pope Julius II commissioned Raphael to decorate these four rooms and for 16 years, he and his pupils undertook 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 feast 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 don't let this architectural toy go unnoticed among the works of art.
The candelabra gallery
If, like me, you like to admire the museum rooms themselves as well as the works they contain, I recommend you seek out this gallery because, as well as being one of the most original, it has a beautiful view of the Vatican gardens.
Of course, it is up to you as a traveller to decide what interests you most. If you are a cartography enthusiast, the Gallery of Maps will be a must for you, and if you can recite the Roman emperors by heart, you will love the Hall of Busts. The catalogue of the Vatican Museums is immense.
7. Stroll through the Vatican Gardens
If you are wondering how to visit the Vatican Gardens, you can only do so with the help of the internal staff of the Museums: either with a guided tour or on board an audio-guided bus.
Personal opinion: it's not a must if you're thinking of paying for tickets to the Museums just to see them, but while you're there, when you visit the Museum, don't miss out on a tour.
8. Discover around the Vatican
While you're there, you might want to explore a bit of the Vatican's surroundings to get a more complete view of Rome. In and around the Vatican you will inevitably find hundreds of souvenir shops with the Pope's face on them, even on tennis rackets. But if you fancy a stroll beyond the Walls surrounding Vatican City, you'll discover Prati, a residential neighbourhood away from the masses where you'll see Romans strolling, shopping or having an aperitivo.
The Via della Conciliazione is also worth a stroll: its vastness and majesty leads to St. Peter's Square and links it to Castel Sant'Angelo, which is also worth a visit.
And if you want to tour the streets of Rome in a different way, I recommend taking part in the Angels and Demons tour of the Vatican based on Dan Brown's famous novel. Save the cardinals from the Illuminati while you get to know the most emblematic places of the city.
9. Meet the Pope at the Vatican
As you may know, the Pope, the highest representative of the Catholic Church in the world (and head of the Vatican State) lives in Vatican City itself. And while 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 flocking to attend these events, but if you fancy rounding off your visit to the Vatican with a meeting with the Pope, here's everything you need to know about seeing 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 without going broke. But you'll have to know how to look, because the area is full of tourist traps. That's why I've put together a list of places to eat near the Vatican and have included menus to suit all tastes and times of day. Bon apetit!