Visiting the Vatican is a must during your holiday in Rome. It goes without saying that, regardless of your religious beliefs, the artistic and architectural significance of the place makes it one of the most visited places in the world.
And precisely for this reason, it will be useful to have a few tips to hand when organising your visit: how to avoid the queues to get in, how to save on tickets to the Vatican and the Sistine Chapel, or how to dress to enter a place of worship. Everything you need to know is explained below, so read on!
1. ALWAYS book tickets to the Vatican without queuing up!
One of the things that most strikes first-time visitors to the Vatican is the long queues of tourists at the gates - long lines that stretch around the walls surrounding the Vatican City! This wait can spoil your visit and when it's your turn to enter, you'll be tired and less motivated to discover the secrets of the Vatican Museums or the Basilica.
2. Cover your shoulders, knees and décolleté
Remember that both St. Peter's Basilica and the Vatican Museums (with the Sistine Chapel inside) are considered places of worship, so you will not be allowed into the Vatican if you are wearing a strapless dress or a skirt or shorts that show your knees.
So how do you dress if you're planning to visit Rome in the middle of summer? Don't worry. The best advice I can give you here is to always carry a scarf in your bag.
It's hard to imagine covering up when temperatures are so high in the city, but you'll appreciate having something to cover up 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 you're there, with your Vatican tickets and your visit organised, you won't be let in because you're not dressed appropriately.
3. A guided tour of the Vatican, better than on your own
When visiting a city with so much history, context and symbolism, the best thing to do is to join a guided tour of the Vatican Museums with an expert. In addition to making the tour more enjoyable, you will better understand the meaning of each work, its history and what lies behind its creator.
In places like the Vatican Museums, with millions of works of art inside, it is a good idea to be accompanied by a specialised guide who will make sure you don't 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 very specialised in art, so you will understand absolutely everything they tell you and you will enjoy it twice as much.
What's more, the prices are quite reasonable and there is a wide range of timetables and languages available. Here is a post about Book your guided tour of the Vatican.
4. The best views of Rome, from St. Peter's Dome
Climbing St. Peter's Dome will take you (literally) to the gates of heaven. So don't hesitate to book a visit with a climb up to St. Peter's Dome. The details of the interior become much better as you get closer to the top, but the spectacular views of St. Peter's Square, the colonnade, the river, Castel St'Angelo and the rooftops of all the ochre-coloured houses in the city are well worth the climb.
However, to get to the top you must bear in mind that there is no lift along the whole stretch. Even if you choose the lift option, the last part of the climb up to the Dome will have to be done on foot: and that' s 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.
5. Beware of tourist traps in the Vatican
The area around the Vatican is full of souvenir shops and fast food stalls and even Italian restaurants. Don't get too hungry and before you sit down anywhere, check their online reputation, reviews from other diners or menu prices. There are some really expensive places whose quality will disappoint you.
You can always go a little further away from the touristy area for lunch or dinner or you can check out my guide on where to eat near the Vatican to be on the safe side.
Best of all, whatever time of day you go, you'll find a good place to have a snack, lunch, dinner or just buy a sandwich to take away and enjoy at home. And if you're looking for a safe bet, opt to book a gastronomic tour of the Vatican.
6. Wear comfortable shoes
Of course you're not about to visit 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 up 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 keep you on your feet for hours on end, especially if it's very hot. Chafing could ruin your guided tour of the Vatican.
7. Don't trust the Vatican ticket touts
Like a concert crowd, you will be approached by dozens of ticket touts all around the Vatican who will try 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 well in advance, always booking your tickets or your guided tour on reliable and official sites.
On Hellotickets, for example, you will be able to see all the schedules, prices and durations of the tours and all the guides are professional and authorized by the Vatican to do the guided tours. In addition, I leave you a post with all you need to know about tickets to the Vatican.
8. Early in the morning to avoid the crowds
It may seem a little strange to be there when the Vatican opens its doors early in the morning as if it were an El Corte Inglés sale, but the crowds of people that can be present during the central hours of the day will make your experience much more overwhelming. In fact, it is possible to book a visit to the Vatican Museums early in the morning.
Not only will you avoid the heat early in the morning, but you will have the opportunity to be practically alone in the main galleries of the Museum, visit St. Peter's Basilica in peace and quiet, and stop to take a closer look at the Sistine Chapel. I could also recommend you to do the visit late in the day, but at that time of the day you are already tired (Rome has a lot of walking to do) and you don't 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
Unless there is a religious holiday that prevents him from doing so, the Pope usually comes out of the window of his Vatican residence to give his blessing every Sunday at noon. This blessing lasts less than 30 minutes and is a short prayer given by the Pope to all the pilgrims who gather 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 for the day you are there and try your luck to see him. There are usually large crowds of pilgrims, tourists and onlookers, so if you want to see the Pope live, you'll need to arrive well in advance to make room.
In my opinion, these are not the best days to visit either the Vatican or the Basilica: there are too many people in the area and you won't enjoy it as much. But if you do go, keep in mind that you can always book a visit to the Vatican with Papal Audience.
10. Being alone in St. Peter's Square, it is possible
Believe it or not, this busy square is empty as soon as night falls. You don't have 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 photo in the middle of St. Peter's Square, next to the Vatican, as if the Earth had swallowed up the rest of humanity.
Take the opportunity to walk in silence along the colonnade, get close to the façade and walk along the illuminated Via della Conciliazione. You will take away a unique and very authentic souvenir of a place that, believe it or not, also has a little respite from so much tourism.