With the Vatican Museums and St. Peter's Square and dome as main landmarks, the Vatican is a must-see. The history behind its walls cannot be read in textbooks and that is one of the main reasons to visit them.
The experience of visiting the Vatican Museums on your own is totally different from doing it with a specialised guide who explains and contextualises the centuries of Art of these museums. Choosing a tour among the many options can be overwhelming, but these are the best options:
Guided tour with a small group at the best price
If you are looking for a guided tour of the Vatican at an affordable price and with a small group this is the best option
among all the guided tours in the Vatican, this small group tour of the Vatican includes practically the same as the general tour with a slightly higher price. The big difference is that you will be in a group of 12-14 people maximum and the guide is an expert in art history.
Why this option is recommended: In other places it is not so important, but the Vatican Museums are crowded (unfortunately, one of the biggest drawbacks of the place is the noise despite being in a museum) and the guide cannot raise his/her voice, so if he/she addresses a small group it will be much better. This also allows you to be closer to the guide, which will make it easier for you to ask him/her all your questions.
Private Vatican tour
If you want to avoid groups, go at your own pace and have a personalised explanation, this is the best private Vatican tour
This option of a private tour of the Vatican allows you to adapt the itinerary more according to the areas of the museums that most interest you (most of the time the guides have no problem to modify the itinerary and even appreciate to go out of the official tour) and, of course, to receive personalised explanations to which you will get much more juice.
The time in the Sistine Chapel (the star of the Vatican Museums) will be enough to explain the frescoes perfectly and not to get lost in the amount of information behind the paintings.
Why this option is recommended: 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 life of the Vatican (worthy of a TV series) and anecdotes that most tourists do not know.
Having a private guide for you and your group is a real luxury. You will be able to ask him all your questions and curiosities and of course, he will put more emphasis on the explanations of the points that interest you the most.
What you should know about guided tours of the Vatican
By booking a guided tour (and this works in virtually all cases) you can stop worrying about times, itineraries and waits (the vast majority of Vatican tours include skip-the-line access). Although it may seem paradoxical, you feel less like a tourist with guided tours because the only concern is the stories the guide is telling.
There are options that refund your money if you cancel 24 hours in advance. This allows you, in case of unforeseen circumstances, to adapt your plans without losing your money. When making your reservation, make sure that tickets are included and ensure skip-the-line access: although it may seem basic, nothing should be taken for granted.
Organise your guided tour of the Vatican
Although there are several schedules, it is recommended that you choose the early morning to avoid coinciding with the peak hours of the Vatican Museums.
What to bring
You need to bring a jacket or a scarf to cover your shoulders and necklines at the entrance and during the visit, as the Vatican is very strict with the dress code. As for the voucher for the visit, you can present it to the guide from your cell phone and he will provide you with the tickets if they have not been sent to you previously in digital format.
How to get to the Vatican
The Vatican is far from the historic centre of Rome, but, unlike what many people think, you can reach it 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, the guide will explain you where the meeting point of the guided tour is depending on the tour you choose: all of them are usually easy to find and the guide will bring some clearly recognisable object so you can spot it in the crowd.
The Vatican tour lasts about three hours, although the total time can vary and can be longer (rarely will it be less). If you want to see the most important parts of the Vatican Museums in depth, without rushing around and soaking in the guide's explanations, a tour of less than this time is not recommended.
Eating in the area
Leave the area for lunch unless your guide gives you a specific recommendation. Places near St. Peter's Square will be expensive and some may commit the grave sin of offering 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 well and cheaply.
Tour with children
It is not recommended that you take a guided tour of the Vatican Museums with children unless it is specifically suitable for them. The itinerary is too 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 the baby strollers, they can be a real chaos 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, I would say don't rule out coming back another day to explore the collection in depth or book the private individual tour.
Ana's Traveller Tip
Avoid hiring the "guides" who will approach you in St. Peter's Square. Many are unofficial and are not qualified to give a quality guided tour.
Frequently asked questions by travellers interested in a guided tour of the Vatican in Rome.
How to dress in the Vatican?
Because of the particular idiosyncrasies of the place, the general rule is "decorous" dress. That means no hats, no suspenders, no cleavage, no pants or short skirts. If it is summer when you visit the Vatican you can wear a long-sleeved shirt or scarf for when you have to enter St. Peter's Basilica or the Vatican Museums.
Is it hot in Vatican City?
Not as hot as the Colosseum or the Forum, but yes. The museums are under cover, but in St. Peter's Square there is no shade. 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 must leave it at the ticket office. In any case, it is not advisable to carry a backpack on any of the excursions you take in Rome; this is a walking tour and any extra weight will make it difficult for you to enjoy the city.
Can I bring food into the Vatican Museums?
No. Eating and drinking is not allowed in the exhibition halls, so if you are carrying provisions in your backpack or purse, do not take them out while visiting the exhibition.
Can I take pictures inside the Vatican?
In the Vatican Museums, flash and selfie sticks are not allowed. You may take photos 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 Saint 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 are trying 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 you will surely go to see it during your guided tour of the Vatican, the climb to the dome is charged apart. If you are fit and do not suffer from claustrophobia it is worth doing. Otherwise from the Gianicolo hill you will have a very similar view of St. Peter's Square.
Can I visit the Vatican Museums at night?
Some Fridays of the year the Vatican Museums are open during the afternoon-evening (although there are usually no tours at these hours). Find out when they are and take the opportunity to visit them if you are in Rome, as they are usually much less crowded.
What if I only want tickets for the Vatican?
Of course, there is also the option of buying tickets to the Vatican without any guided tour. It is true that this will allow you to get to know the whole area at your own pace without having to be attentive to the explanations of a guide, but on the other hand, you will miss the charm of knowing in detail the explanation of all the art, the way of life and the curiosities that the Vatican hides. You can read here about Vatican Museum Tickets.
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 because it gives access to the place where the apostle is buried, but there are some specialised tours that offer this visit.
As for other worthwhile guided tours in Rome, without hesitation the favourite is the visit of 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 and also the history it carries with it is fascinating. This post about Colosseum Tours might interest you.
Of course, Rome does not begin and end at the Vatican. Read more here about things to do in Rome.