The Vatican is a place that many dream of visiting when they’re in Rome. For some, it’s a place they visit for religious reasons, including to hear the Pope address large crowds.
The Vatican is steeped in history as well as some mystery. There has been numerous scandals, too, including claims of sexual abuse against children, unfortunately.
Despite some of the potentially darker sides of the Vatican and its history, it’s still a major tourist destination.
If you’re planning a trip there, keep the following in mind.
An Overview of Vatican City
Vatican City is the smallest country in the world, and a two-mile border with Italy surrounds it. Vatican City covers a little more than 100 acres, and it’s governed as an absolute monarchy, with the pope as the leader.
The Vatican mints its own money, issues passports, operates media outlets, and has its own flag. It doesn’t assess taxes, however. Instead, the revenue for the Vatican is generated through admission fees to the museum, sales of stamps and souvenirs, and contributions.
On Vatican Hill during pagan times was a Roman necropolis. Emperor Nero crucified St. Peter there.
Vatican City was signed into existence by Benito Mussolini, following a dispute between the government of Italy and the Catholic Church. The 1929 Lateran Pacts let the Vatican exist as a sovereign state.
The Swiss Guard was hired as a mercenary force in the 1500s, and you’ll still find the guards there, whose sole role is the protection of the pope.
The Vatican is to the west of the Tiber River in Rome, between the districts of Prati and Aurelio.
When To Visit
Lines start forming early at the Vatican, as it’s a destination for more than six million tourists a year.
The earlier you can get there in the morning, the better. It’s advisable to try and be in line by 7:30 to get in when the museum opens at 9 a.m. unless you’ve booked a tour that allows you to get in at a certain time.
If you get a Vatican Museum ticket, you get admission to several museums, including the Sistine Chapel.
There are skip the line tickets offered by tour companies.
The Vatican Museums are closed Sundays other than the last Sunday of the month, which is a free day.
There’s not one day, in particular, that’s considered the best day to visit the Vatican, but the weekends can be busier.
On Wednesdays, if there is the Papal Audience, the crowds might be quite a bit bigger.
If you want to beat the crowds and you visit Rome from April to October, you can book a Friday night visit to the Vatican Museums.
The most crowded day is probably Saturday because there are not only international travelers, but there are often visitors from other parts of Italy.
As far as the pope’s audience, this may be different because of the coronavirus pandemic, but typically it’s held each Wednesday except in July. In warm weather months, it’s in the square. In cold months, it’s in a hall to the left of the basilica.
If you are going to the Vatican specifically for the Papal Audience, you can get tickets in advance, but it’s still first-come-first-serve, so you may want to get there early to get a good seat. It gets very hot in Rome in the summer when the Audience is outside.
The Papal Audience usually starts at 9 or 9:30 a.m.
There is also the chance to see the Pope on some Sundays at noon if he’s in Rome. Sundays are called the Papal Blessing, and this is when the Pope appears at an apartment window and gives a short speech and blessing. The event in total usually lasts anywhere from 15 to 20 minutes.
What Are the Rules?
When you visit the Vatican, you have to follow some rules. First, be aware of what the restrictions are for bringing backpacks or bags in. You can’t bring large umbrellas, video stands, tripods, weapons or knives.
You have to dress appropriately, meaning that you need to wear clothes covering your shoulders and knees. You can’t wear shorts, short skirts or sleeveless shirts.
You can’t take videos or photos in the Sistine Chapel, although you can elsewhere. You also can’t use a mobile phone in the Sistine chapel.
You can’t touch any art either.
If you’re going to the Vatican without a tour, you might want to start with the museums because they’re the most rigorous part of visiting.
If you do take a tour, you can go directly from the Sistine Chapel to the basilica.
St. Peter’s Basilica is one of the world’s largest churches, and it dates back to the Renaissance era.
It’s not a cathedral but does have a bishop.
If you want to climb the Vatican dome, there are hundreds of steps, and it can be claustrophobic.
If you make it to the top, the views of the city are beautiful.
The Vatican Museums showcase the world’s largest private art collection.
You can’t just go and see the Sistine Chapel. To see it, you have to go through the whole of the Vatican Museums, although you can book express tours which last just under two hours. You still have to walk through the other museums, but not actually tour them.
Overall, if you have the opportunity, it can be best to see the Vatican, especially for the first time, with a tour guide. This might mean a group tour or a private tour, but either way, it can make your experience a lot more fulfilling and manageable. There’s a lot to see and it’s overwhelming to try to do on your own without a guide.
You can also have a scheduled time to enter with a guide, and a guide can help you figure out what your priorities are as far as what you most want to see during your visit, so you don’t miss those things.