No trip to Rome is complete without a visit to Vatican City. This city-state, entirely enclosed within Rome’s borders, is home to the headquarters of the Catholic Church, and although its list of main sights may be short, it’s impressive. You can certainly cover all the necessary ground in a day if you plan ahead.
Here are some first-time visitor tips for Vatican City.
- Vatican City is the Smallest Independent City-State in the World
The entirety of Vatican City covers a mere 110 acres, most of which is taken up by the Vatican Gardens. Sadly, you won’t get your passport stamped when you walk across the border, but you can absolutely add another country to your “been there, done that” list.
- Allocate a Day for Vatican City
Even with such a small area to cover, it’s wise to set aside a day to spend in Vatican City. The majority of your time is likely to be spent in the vast Vatican Museums (and even with a day you’ll only scratch the surface), and you’ll either need a good self-guided tour or to book a spot on a guided tour to make sure your time is well-spent. This will mean more time for a lunch break midday, too.
Book a Vatican in One Day tour that covers all the must-see attractions, gives you a midday break for lunch, and gets you priority access so you don’t have to wait in lines.
- Obey the Vatican Dress Code
Yes, this is a country with a dress code. Exposed shoulders, knees, cleavage and midriffs are strictly prohibited. There aren’t Vatican wardrobe police running into St. Peter’s Square to shoo out tourists wearing tank tops, but you will absolutely be denied entry into any Vatican building. In Italy’s hot summers, you’ll still need to wear pants or a skirt that covers your knees, and a top that covers you up. If you don’t, you may be forced to wear one of the awful paper costumes ill-prepared visitors can buy outside the Basilica. Don’t let that be you.
- Don’t Mock the Swiss Guard Uniforms
Speaking of attire, you’ll no doubt notice the extraordinarily colorful uniforms on the guards in Vatican City. These are the Swiss Guards, an elite military unit that has been assigned to Vatican City since the 15th century, and their uniforms are modern interpretations of Renaissance uniforms. These aren’t the kinds of soldiers who pose for pictures with smiling tourists, so while you’re free to snap photos of them (everyone does), remember to afford them a bit of respect.
- Book Ahead to Avoid Long Lines at the Vatican Museums
During the high summer season, lines from the Vatican Museums can stretch for blocks – and waiting in them means you’re exposed to the direct sun, too. That’s a huge waste of valuable vacation time, not to mention a really unpleasant way to spend a day – but you don’t have to give in to that fate. You can reserve a ticket to the museums on the Vatican website in advance to skip the line, or you can book a guided tour that includes bypassing the line – either way, the reservation fee and the guided tour are money well spent.
Book a tour that includes options to let you skip the line to see the Vatican Museums, Raphael Rooms, Sistine Chapel, and St. Peter’s, or you can get a special VIP pass for a small-group tour of the Vatican’s Secret Rooms and a private viewing of the Sistine Chapel.
- Be Prepared to Go Through Metal Detectors to Get Inside St. Peter’s Basilica
You won’t pass through anything that feels like a country border when you get to Vatican City, but you will need to pass through a metal detector before you get to go inside St. Peter’s Basilica. In other words, this is not the day to be carrying a Swiss Army knife around in your backpack.
- Decode the Confusing Vatican Museums Schedule
There’s a relatively long list of dates when the Vatican Museums are closed, and another list of dates and times when St. Peter’s Basilica is closed (because it’s in use as a church). Don’t worry about memorizing it; just make sure you check it when you finally know exactly what dates you’ll be in Rome. Also note that there is one day each month (the last Sunday of the month) when entry to the Vatican Museums is free – but this also means it’s even more crowded, so plan accordingly.
- Vatican Gardens are Only Accessible via Guided Tours
The enormous Vatican Gardens aren’t just for the Pope – visitors can get in too, but only with a guided tour. Again, you can book a guided tour that includes a visit to the Vatican Gardens. A gardens visit is not included on your Vatican Museums ticket.
- Plan to Send Your Roman Postcards from Vatican City
As an independent city-state, Vatican City has its own post office – and it’s famously much more reliable than those in Rome. Bring your postcards to Vatican City, and not only will they likely reach their destinations more quickly, they’ll have “Vatican City” stamps and postmarks on them – great fun for any stamp collecting friends you have!
- Yes, You Can See the Pope
When the Pope isn’t traveling, he gives a weekly address in St. Peter’s Square on Wednesdays at about 10:30am. You can watch from outside the official viewing area, or you can arrange to get closer to the main stage by getting a ticket the day before. Tickets are free, but you need to wait in line at St. Peter’s, see if your hotel concierge can get you a ticket, or book one in advance.
Book a ticket ahead of time for a Papal Audience in Vatican City.