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 is not in the textbooks and that is one of the main reasons to visit.
The experience of visiting the Vatican Museums on your own is totally different from visiting them with a specialised guide who explains and contextualises the centuries of art in these museums. Choosing a tour among the many options 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 with a small group, this is the best option.
When it comes to selecting the best guided tours of the Vatican, I suggest you consider options such as the small group Vatican tour includes virtually the same as the general tour at a slightly higher price.
The big difference is that you will go in a group of 12-14 people maximum. This also allows you to be closer to the guide, which will make it easier for you to ask him all your questions.
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 voice, so if he addresses a small group it will be much better.
Private tour of the Vatican
If you want to avoid groups, go at your own pace and have a personalised explanation, this is the best private tour of the Vatican.
This option of a private tour of the Vatican allows you to adapt the route to the areas of the museums you are most interested in (most of the time the guides have no problem in modifying the route and are even happy to go off the official route) and, of course, to receive personalised explanations which you will get much more out of.
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.
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 series, and there are several) and anecdotes that most tourists don't know.
Why this option is recommended: Having a private guide for you and your group is a 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 most.
Why book skip-the-line tickets to the Vatican?
When you arrive at the gates of St. Peter's Basilica or the Vatican Museums you will be infinitely grateful to carry your tickets in your pocket or on your phone and not have to wait to go through the ticket office. In Hellotickets, all the tickets and guided tours you book for the Vatican include the option to skip the line, which is essential to enter the Museum fresh and not have to wait several hours in line and enter already tired.
Keep this in mind if you are considering buying your tickets at the ticket office once you arrive in Rome, because in that case you will be waiting in long lines and it could spoil your experience visiting the Sistine Chapel or St. Peter's Basilica.
What you should know about guided tours of the Vatican
By hiring a guided tour (and this works in virtually all cases) you can stop worrying about times, routes and waits (the vast majority of Vatican tours are queue-free). Paradoxically, you feel less like a tourist on a guided tour because the only concern is the stories the guide is telling.
There are refund options if you cancel 24 hours in advance. This allows you to adjust your plans in case of unforeseen circumstances without losing your money. Make sure when you book that tickets are included and ensure queue-free access: although it may seem basic, nothing should be taken for granted.
Organise your guided tour of the Vatican
Although there are various timetables, it is advisable to choose the early morning to avoid coinciding with peak times at the Vatican Museums.
What to bring
You will need to bring a jacket or scarf to cover your shoulders and necklines at the entrance and during the visit, as the Vatican is very strict about clothing. As for the ticket voucher, you can present it to the guide from your mobile phone and he will provide you with the tickets if they have not already been sent to you in digital format.
How to get to the Vatican
The Vatican is far from the historic centre of Rome, but, contrary to what many people think, it is within walking distance from tourist attractions such as Piazza Navona and Campo di Fiori. In any case, the easiest way to get there is to take metro line A to Ottaviano S. Pietro.
Once there, the guide will explain 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 have a clearly recognisable object with him or her 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 (it will rarely be less). If you want to see the highlights of the Vatican Museums in depth, without rushing around and soaking up the guide's explanations, a tour of less than this time is not recommended.
Lunch 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're 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 countries in Europe 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 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 advantages of a guided tour of the Vatican. As for pushchairs, they can be a real chaos at peak times.
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're an art history buff, I'd say don't rule out coming back another day to explore the collection in depth or book a 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 the Vatican Guided Tour of Rome
How should I 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 trousers or short skirts. If it's summer when you visit the Vatican, you may want to bring a long-sleeved T-shirt or scarf for when you enter St. Peter's Basilica or the Vatican Museums.
Is it hot in Vatican City?
Not as much as the Colosseum or the Forum, but yes. The museums are under cover, but there is no shade in St. Peter's Square. So, even if you're not going to queue to enter the Vatican Museums, since you're going on a guided tour, bring water and sunscreen.
Can I enter the Vatican Museums with a backpack?
If it's not a large backpack or luggage, yes. Otherwise, you will have to leave it at the ticket office. In any case, it is not advisable to go on any of the tours you take in Rome; this is a walking city and any extra weight will make it difficult for you to enjoy it.
Can I bring food into the Vatican Museums?
Eating and drinking is not allowed in the exhibition halls, so if you have provisions in your backpack or bag, don't take them out while visiting the exhibition.
Can I take photos inside the Vatican?
Flash and selfie sticks are not allowed in the Vatican Museums. You may take photos with your mobile phone and with a camera that does not involve professional accessories (special permission must be requested for the latter).
In the case of St Peter's Basilica, remember that you are in a place of worship; although many tourists do not respect this, it is not appropriate to be taking photos while visitors are trying to enjoy the seclusion that the place should convey. Save your memory card for the other wonders of Rome or for the views of St. Peter's Square from the dome.
Is it worth climbing St. Peter's Dome?
Although entry to St. Peter's Basilica is free and you'll probably see it during your guided tour of the Vatican, there is a separate charge for climbing the dome. If you're fit and don't suffer from claustrophobia, it's worth doing. Otherwise, from Gianicolo Hill you will have a very similar view of St. Peter's Square.
Can I visit the Vatican Museums at night?
On some Fridays of the year, the Vatican Museums are open during the afternoon and evening (although there are usually no tours at these times). Find out when they are and take advantage of them if you're 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 kind of 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 about Vatican Museum Tickets here.
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, my personal favourite is 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 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 about things to see in Rome here.
Frequently asked questions
Is there a dress code for the Vatican Museums?
Yes, it is best to avoid shorts and skirts below the knee, as well as sleeveless clothes and sandals. The best advice is to wear a long, cool dress, accompanied by a shawl or jacket, or simply jeans and a T-shirt.
Is there a guided tour that will allow me to enter the Sistine Chapel directly?
The Sistine Chapel is one of the many rooms of the Vatican Museums. However, if you are not too interested in getting to know the Museums in depth, you can choose the express guided tour that will take you quickly to the Chapel.
Do the tours include St. Peter's Basilica and when is the best time to visit?
If the guided tour you choose does not include a visit to the Basilica, you can do it before or after visiting the Vatican Museums.