When touring Rome, you should consider a visit to Vatican City. It is the smallest country in the world, just over 100 acres, and is completed encircled by the Italian capital. While small, you will find enough things to do in Vatican City to keep you busy for an entire day.
Vatican City has three must see attractions: St. Peter’s Basilica, The Sistine Chapel and the Vatican Museum. In order to make the most of your time in Vatican City, you will need to plan your trip in advance.
About Vatican City
You will first want to understand a few things about Vatican City. It is NOT really a city or a town, but a city-state with nearly 600 citizens. These citizens are either part of the clergy, cardinals or the Swiss guard. Nearly half of the Vatican’s residents live abroad at diplomats in other parts of the world.
You can drive or walk from Rome to Vatican City easily without having to show ID or Passport. While there is a train station, no one really uses it.
The Vatican City is governed as an absolute monarchy with the pope at its head. Even though Vatican City is the headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church, you don’t have to be Catholic to appreciate this city-state has to offer.
Major Things to do in Vatican City
The Vatican Museum first opened to the public under Pope Clement XIV. He began the museum as a way to showcase his collections of sculptures of Julius II.
Over the years, other popes added to the collection and now you will find sculptures and art from Egypt to the 20th century (most notably are works from Michelangelo and Raphael).
The Vatican museum is open from 10am-6pm (ticket office opens at 9am/ last entrance is 4pm).
The full walking distance of seeing everything inside would be like walking 9 miles. You will not be able to see EVERYTHING in one day. Pace yourself.
Guided vs. Self Guided Vatican Museum Tour
When you are on a limited time schedule, you may want to take a guided Vatican Museum Tour so that you see the highlights. A tour guide can walk you through quickly so that you are able to see the main things most visitors want to see. The problem with this is that you might miss seeing things YOU really want to see.
When you go to the Vatican without a tour guide, you can use the audio guide that is available. There is also an Audio Guide Family Tour geared more for kids. Our kids did it and found it to be fun (but time consuming). The kids might have had just as much fun if we just printed the map ourselves and had them to a seek & find without the audio portion.
I think a better option for those travelling with a limited time frame is to download Rick Steve’s Audio Tour (FOR FREE). It is a bit more self-paced and allows you to choose what you want to see.
The Sistine Chapel
Built at the end of the 15th century, this chapel is most known for its ceiling painted by Michelangelo. Be sure to also notice the murals painted by Botticelli along the walls. When you get to the Chapel, it will be crowded, prepare yourself in advance to not have much space to move around.
St. Peter’s Basilica & Square
This is one of the largest churches in the world and the most impressive example of Renaissance architecture.
What sets it apart from others is that St. Peter’s tomb sits directly below the high altar of the Basilica. While you may be able to visit the tomb of St. Peter, the Basilica reserves the right to limit access.
Outside the Basilica is St. Peter’s Square. This is where the Papal Mass is held twice a week.
One of the magnificent features of St. Peter’s Square is the obelisk. This obelisk that was brought to Rome from Egypt by Caligula in 37 AD. In 1586, Pope Sixtus V gave order to move the Egyptian Obelisk to the right side of the St. Peter’s Square where it stands now.
While touring the Basilica is free, they do charge you if you chose to walk up to the dome:
- You can take the lift plus walk 320 steps: 10 euros.
- Climb all 551 steps: 8 euros.
Vatican City Itinerary
- Arrive in Vatican City at 10am to tour the Vatican Museum
- The Vatican Museum ends with the line going straight into the Sistine Chapel.
- Take a break and grab lunch at Panino Sistino
- After lunch head over to St. Peter’s Bascilica and climb the steps to the Dome.
- Walk around St. Peter’s Square
What You Need to Know Before You Go to Vatican City
The Pope’s calendar (even if you don’t want to attend the Papal mass). If you want to attend the Papal Mass, it is free.
The key to getting a good view of the Pope is to get there EARLY. When I say early, I mean like 2-3 hours early.
If you don’t want to attend the mass, then I suggest you choose to go on a Monday, Tuesday or Thursday (a day when there is not a Papal Mass).
If you do end up going on a day when the Pope is holding mass, allow yourself extra travel time & be prepared for traffic because it is CRAZY.
You need to be covered inside the Basilica and Sistine Chapel. Men can get away with knee length shorts (pants are best) BUT women and girls must cover shoulders and knees.
If you get in a bind, there are several shops outside the Vatican where you can purchase a scarf for fairly cheap. Wrap it around your shoulders or turn it into a skirt that covers your knees.
There is NO PHOTOGRAPHY in the Sistine Chapel. PERIOD.
Purchase your Vatican Museum ticket in advance so you don’t waste time standing in the ticket line. Your ticket also includes access to The Sistine Chapel.
Entry to Vatican Museum is FREE on the last Sunday of the month. It is also crowded.
St. Peter’s Basilica is always free.
Rome & Vatican Card
If you know in advance that you are going to travel to both Rome & Vatican City, you should consider getting the Omnia Rome & Vatican Card. It will pay for itself in no time!
- Free entry to Vatican Museums & Sistine Chapel – plus a free Wi-Fi downloadable audio guide for St Peter’s Basilica
- Free entry to your choice of 2 out of 6 top Rome attractions including The Coliseum, Roman Forum & Palatine Hill, Capitolini Museums, Borghese Gallery and National Museum of Castel Sant’Angelo
- Fast Track Entry to St Peter’s Basilica, Sistine Chapel & The Coliseum –
- Free hop-on-hop-off bus tour ticket of Rome for 3 days
- Free travelcard for unlimited access to Rome’s public transport system
- Free detailed Guidebook
- Discounted Entry to another 30 plus sights, attractions and museums in Rome
How to get From Rome to Vatican City
If you are visiting Rome and planning to try to do Vatican City in a day, you have a few options. You can take a bus, metro, car service or a taxi from Rome to Vatican City.
We recommend taking a taxi because it is affordable and takes you straight to where you want to be. Trust me, you’ll do enough walking in the museum. No sense having the extra walk from the metro station or bus stop.
Touring the Vatican City in a day is also a great choice for those taking a Mediterranean cruise and docking in nearby port town of Civitavecchia. You can take the train from Civitavecchia (about 1-2 hours depending on which train you chose) and see both Rome & the Vatican in a day.
The trains are really nice and fairly inexpensive. Just be sure to check the train schedule and give yourself plenty of time to get back to port (in the event the train runs late or stops for no apparent reason).
Have you been to Vatican City? What was your favorite part of your trip?