Tips for Visiting the Vatican

Updated on July 5, 2018
My Bell profile image

As a trained journalist and avid traveler, Marcelle enjoys writing articles to inform and inspire fellow travelers.

Doorway entrance to the Vatican
Doorway entrance to the Vatican | Source

The Vatican

As the center of the Roman Catholic Church, the Vatican hosts up to five million visitors each year at its St. Peter's Basilica and Square, museums, and Sistine Chapel. The Vatican actually runs as a separate sovereign state, located in a walled enclave within Rome. It is the smallest country in the world with just over 100 acres, about one-eighth the size of New York City’s Central Park. An absolute monarchy governs the Vatican with the pope at its head. The Vatican puts out its own newspaper, stamps, license plates, flag, and has its own anthem.

Millions of visitors descend upon the Vatican throughout the year. Visitors can spend the day viewing the extensive art collection in the Vatican Museums, stand in awe of the magnificent ceiling in the Sistine Chapel, visit St. Peter's Basilica, and even attend Mass in St. Peter's Square.

Map of Vatican City

The Vatican:
00120 Vatican City, Vatican City

get directions

The walled enclave encompasses just over 100 acres within the city of Rome.

The Swiss Guard

One of the first things you will notice when you visit the Vatican is the colorfully costumed Swiss Guard. Dressed in Renaissance-style uniforms, these guards have served and protected the pope since 1506. Although the soldiers reside at the Vatican, they are actually Swiss citizens. Their role may appear to be primarily ceremonial, however they are highly-trained and skilled soldiers. During a recent visit to the Vatican, I had several interactions with the Swiss guards, securing tickets for the Mass I attended and answering questions. I found them to be very poised and eager to assist.

The Swiss Guard
The Swiss Guard | Source

St. Peter's Square

St. Peter’s Square encompasses the enormous plaza area at the forefront of St. Peter’s Basillica. Designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini in the 17th century, massive colonnades, four columns deep, surround the plaza's elliptical shape. Bernini expressed that the design embraced visitors in "the maternal arms of Mother Church."

The Vatican Obelisk marks the center of the plaza where the Pope holds Mass for the people. In 1586, the obelisk was moved to the plaza from its home in the Roman Circus of Nero and remains the only obelisk still standing since the time of ancient Rome.

Mass for the people is held at St. Peter's Square as well as papal blessings from the window of the papal apartment.

Mass with Pope Francis at St. Peter's Square
Mass with Pope Francis at St. Peter's Square | Source

Pope Francis Greets the Crowd

Mass at St. Peter's Square

Attending Mass at the Vatican is an awesome experience even if you are not a practicing Catholic. If you are fortunate to attend a Mass lead by Pope Francis, you can usually expect him to tour the crowd after Mass to greet the people. I was fortunate to attend a papal Mass during a recent visit and cheer and wave to Pope Francis during his drive around the crowd. Use the links in the Resource section at the end of this article to visit the Vatican website where you can view the Vatican calendar for masses and get free tickets in advance of your visit.

St. Peter's Basilica

St. Peter’s Basilica, one of the largest churches in the world, sits atop an ancient catacomb that according to the faithful houses the tomb of St. Peter. Built in the 16th century, the basilica represents Renaissance architecture at its glory, designed by period architects and artists, including Michelangelo Buonarroti and Gian Lorenzo Bernini.

A Latin cross defines the layout, with a central dome reaching to 136.57 meters from the basilica floor to its maximum outer height at the top of the exterior cross (about 448 feet), and an interior diameter of 41.5 meters (about 136 feet). It is said that the dome’s architect, Michelangelo, used a slightly smaller diameter than the Pantheon's dome out of respect for this grand Roman structure.

The dome designed by Michelangelo in St. Peter's Basilica
The dome designed by Michelangelo in St. Peter's Basilica | Source
The bronze baldachin under the dome
The bronze baldachin under the dome | Source

Visitors can climb the dome for a stunning panoramic view of Rome atop as well as amazing views top down to the main alter from inside the basilica. An elevator will take you most of the way up for seven euros or you can opt to climb all 551 steps for five euros.

Beautiful architecture, sculptures, frescoes, paintings, and ornament fill the basilica from renowned Renaissance architects and artists, including the famed Pieta sculpted by Michelangelo. One of his most well-know sculptures, this piece was sculpted when the artist was only in his twenties.

Slightly aside from under the dome sits the baldachin, a large bronze sculpted canopy structure. Designed in stunning Baroque-style by Bernini, the baldachin's location was intended to sit directly over the place of St. Peter's tomb. Underneath the 20 meter (66 foot) canopy sits the basilica's high alter.

Just below the basilica (and just above the Vatican Necropolis), you can visit the tombs of popes, kings, queens, and cardinals. You can access this level from the center of the basilica near the statue of St. Andrew. Very limited visits are available to tour the Vatican Necropolis, another level under, including the tomb of St. Peter. Advance written request must be made through the Vatican for this tour.

Pieta sculpted by Michelangelo
Pieta sculpted by Michelangelo | Source

Tips for Visiting St. Peter's Basilica

No charge
Daily 7:00am to 6:30pm with exceptions for events.
Lines move quickly. To minimize lines, go early or visit at the end of the museums visit.
Clothing Restrictions
Shoulders and knees must be covered; no shorts and no hats.
Other Restrictions
Large bags are not allowed inside but can be checked free of charge.
Free, daily 90-minute tours are available from the Tourist Information area.

Use Rick Steves Rome Travel Guide

The best tip I can offer is to bring "Rick Steves' Rome 2015" travel guide with you to Rome or anywhere in Italy. Steves gives great, savvy advice and we used the detailed information for just about everything we did in Rome, including visiting the Vatican. It includes self-guided tours that were very useful especially when visiting ruins at the Forum in Rome.

It can be purchased as a hard cover book or as an e-book that can be loaded to your smart phone or tablet before your trip. Click the "Buy Now" link highlighted in yellow here to find out more about this amazing guide and read the glowing reviews.

The Vatican Museums

The Vatican Museums are actually a series of mini pontifical museums. A walk through the museums and galleries will lead to the Sistine Chapel. The Vatican art collection is one of the largest in the world with works from famed artists and sculptors including Michelangelo, Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci, and even modern artist Henri Matisse.

Pigna ("pinecomb") This Roman bronzed fountain once stood next to the Pantheon
Pigna ("pinecomb") This Roman bronzed fountain once stood next to the Pantheon | Source

The vast collection began as a number of statues collected by Pope Julius II early in the 16th century. Over the centuries, artwork was added to the halls and galleries by popes who were also among the first sovereigns to display their collections for the public viewing.

The museums flank a central plaza called the Cortile del Belvedere, designed by Donato Bramante in the 16th century. A wing of the Vatican Library dissects the plaza placing the Cortile della Pigna (translated pinecomb courtyard) at the upper half. At about four meters high, this once-working Roman bronze fountain stood near the Pantheon. Initially the fountain was moved to the original St. Peter's Basillica courtyard and then to its present location in 1608.

Here are just a few highlights from what you will see inside the Vatican Museums:

  • Pio Clementino Museum
    Sculpture museum dating back to the original collection from Pope Julius II. Highlights include: Hall of Animals, Octagonal Court (Belevedere Apollo and Laocoön statues), Gallery of Statues and the Hall of Busts (Ariadne), Round Hall (Heracles bronzed statue), Hall of the Muses (The Belvedere Torso), Greek Cross Hall (Sarcophagus Saint Helena), Hall of the Chariot (two-horse chariot sculpture), Gallery of the Candelabra (The Persian Warrior).

Gallery of Tapestries
Gallery of Tapestries | Source
The Gallery of Maps
The Gallery of Maps | Source
  • The Gallery of Tapestries
    One of the few air-conditioned spaces in the museums, this gallery features Flemish tapestries created from drawings made by Raphael's students in the 16th century. One tapestry, the Tapestry of Christ, creates an optical illusion of a rotating stone door as Jesus steps onto it emerging from his tomb.
  • Sala Matisse
    A collection of 20th century religious art from French artist Henri Matisse.
  • The Gallery of Maps
    Features a series of painted maps of Italy by Ignazio Danti, commissioned by Pope Gregory XIII in 1580.
  • Raphael Rooms
    Includes four rooms that were once part of the apartment of the Pontifical Palace. The artwork was completed by Raphael and his students between 1508 and 1524.

The museums are filled with so many more art treasures. The Vatican website includes a more complete list of museum collections online, including a few virtual tours. See the Resources section below for a link to this website.

Tips for Visiting the Vatican Museums

16 euros, less for children and students. Extra 4 euros for online tickets.
Monday through Saturday 9am to 6pm; last Sunday of the month 9am to 2pm.
Very long, especially during peak season and on the last Sunday of the month when entry is free. Purchase tickets online to avoid lines.
Clothing Restrictions
Knees and shoulders must be covered, no shorts and no hats. Many museum halls are not air-conditioned and it can get hot. Bring a scarf to cover shoulders if needed.
You may take photographs, however, no flash photography or tripods are allowed.
I highly recommend using a guide due to the vast and historically rich collections. The Vatican offers two hour group tours for 32 euros (less for children and students) that includes museum admission.

The Sistine Chapel

The famed chapel of the Apostolic Palace and Papal conclaves, the Sistine Chapel gets its name from Pope Sixtus IV who restored the chapel between 1477 and 1480. In 1508, Pope Julius II decided to adjust the design and assigned Michelangelo to paint the ceiling.

The ceiling decoration consists of nine scenes from Book of Genesis, highlighted by The Creation of Adam, the most infamous of the painted scenes depicted. The scenes starting from the alter are in the following order:

  1. The Separation of Light and Darkness
  2. The Creation of the Sun, Moon and Earth
  3. The Separation of Land and Water
  4. The Creation of Adam
  5. The Creation of Eve
  6. The Temptation and Expulsion
  7. The Sacrifice of Noah
  8. The Great Flood
  9. The Drunkenness of Noah

The Sistine Chapel
The Sistine Chapel | Source
Michelangelo, The Last Judgement
Michelangelo, The Last Judgement | Source


Michelangelo used a painstaking method of fresco painting to create some 300 figures in elaborate scenes over four years. Contrary to popular assumption that Michelangelo painted the ceiling on his back atop scaffolding, he actually painted the ceiling standing upright from scaffolding he built himself. This proved uncomfortable at best as the artist describes his physical discomfort in a sonnet he wrote.

In 1536, Michelangelo painted The Last Judgement on the alter wall in the Sistine Chapel. The fresco depicts the moment preceding when the verdict of the Last Judgement is uttered. It also took four years to complete. The painting contains a self portrait of the artist in the skin held by St. Bartholomew. Much controversy plagued the painting as Master of Ceremonies Biagio da Cesena said that "it was most dishonest in such an honoured place to have painted so many nude figures." As a result of the continued controversy, the Council of Trent decided to cover "obscene" figures with painted drapery in 1564.

Other Renaissance artists that contributed to the decoration include Sandro Botticelli, Cosimo Roselli, Pietro Perugino, Pinturicchio, and Domenico Ghirlandaio. Examples of their work include frescos depicting the Life of Christ and the Life of Moses on the chapel walls.

Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel ceiling
Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel ceiling | Source

Tips for Visiting the Sistine Chapel

Included in museum admission.
Clothing Restrictions
The same rules apply - knees and shoulders must be covered, no shorts and no hats. You may bring a scarf to cover shoulders.
No photography
Other Restrictions
Must maintain silence.
No tours are given since silence is required. A good tour guide can explain the history and what you will see before or after you enter the chapel. If a tour guide is not an option, bring Rick Steves' Rome travel guide on your trip.

More Vatican Artworks

The Vatican Museums house a vast collection of historic artwork. Here are just a few examples:

Laocoön estimated 40-30 B.C. (Pio Clementino Museum, Octagonal Court)
Laocoön estimated 40-30 B.C. (Pio Clementino Museum, Octagonal Court) | Source
Hall of Animals (Pio-Clementino Museum)
Hall of Animals (Pio-Clementino Museum) | Source
Sarcophagus St Helena (Museo Pio-Clementino, Greek Cross Hall)
Sarcophagus St Helena (Museo Pio-Clementino, Greek Cross Hall) | Source
Raphael Rooms, Room of Constantine
Raphael Rooms, Room of Constantine | Source
Assistants to Raphael, The Vision of the Cross (Raphael Rooms, Room of Constantine)
Assistants to Raphael, The Vision of the Cross (Raphael Rooms, Room of Constantine) | Source
Raphael, The Expulsion of Heliodorus from the Temple (Raphael Rooms, Room of Heliodorus)
Raphael, The Expulsion of Heliodorus from the Temple (Raphael Rooms, Room of Heliodorus) | Source
Raphael, Disputation of the Holy Sacrament (Raphael Rooms, Room of the Signature)
Raphael, Disputation of the Holy Sacrament (Raphael Rooms, Room of the Signature) | Source
A ceiling in the Vatican Museums gives the illusion of a carved bas relief, however it is actually flat painting using painted shadows to give the illusion.
A ceiling in the Vatican Museums gives the illusion of a carved bas relief, however it is actually flat painting using painted shadows to give the illusion. | Source

Vatican Resources


"La Santa Sede." The Vatican, n.d. Web. 27 Oct. 2014. <>.

Steves, Rick, and Gene Openshaw. Rick Steves' Rome 2015. N.p.: Avalon Travel, 2014. Print.

Questions & Answers

  • Can I see the Codex Vaticanus? Is it in the library?

    Yes, and it is indeed located in the Vatican library.

© 2014 Marcelle Bell


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    • profile image

      Eelco Kappe 

      4 months ago

      Nice and helpful post! And if you want to save some bucks, you can try out free audio tours in the Amuze - Museum Audio Tours app. They have tours of both the Vatican Museums and St. Peter's Basilica.

    • My Bell profile imageAUTHOR

      Marcelle Bell 

      4 years ago

      Thank you all so much for your kind comments. I feel honored that this Hub was chosen as a Hub of the Day. I do hope to visit Italy and the Vatican again very soon. I am in the process writing some more hubs on my travels.

    • Kristen Howe profile image

      Kristen Howe 

      4 years ago from Northeast Ohio

      Congrats on HOTD on this fascinating hub about visiting the pope in Vatican City. This was so interesting and factual with interesting tidbits for touring the country. Excellent photos and useful information.

    • ChitrangadaSharan profile image

      Chitrangada Sharan 

      4 years ago from New Delhi, India

      Congratulations for the HOTD!

      Wonderful hub and tips on visiting the Vatican. I visited this significant place few years back and was amazed by its beauty, art, sculpture.

      We clicked many pictures too and your hub is a sweet reminder of all that we had experienced there.

      So nice of you to provide a guide for those who may be visiting this awesome place.

      Thank you for sharing!

    • bdegiulio profile image

      Bill De Giulio 

      4 years ago from Massachusetts

      Almost forgot. Congratulations on the Hub of the Day :)

    • bdegiulio profile image

      Bill De Giulio 

      4 years ago from Massachusetts

      Wonderful hub Marcelle. You did a great job explaining what to see and provided tips for visiting. Love the photos also. Visiting the Vatican is an amazing experience but it can also be an overwhelming experience if not prepared. This will help visitors to plan and prepare and to use their time more efficiently. Great job.

    • aesta1 profile image

      Mary Norton 

      4 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Love visiting the Vatican. I have attended two canonizations there and again went back recently but I just can't have enough of it. There is so much art to appreciate.

    • My Bell profile imageAUTHOR

      Marcelle Bell 

      5 years ago

      Thank you for your kind comment, Lee. I loved it so much and am more than ready to return.

    • profile image

      Lee Cloak 

      5 years ago

      A fantastic hub about a place I dream of one day seeing, a really good write, thanks for sharing, Lee

    • My Bell profile imageAUTHOR

      Marcelle Bell 

      5 years ago

      Thank you Windlaser! Loved our Italian vacation and plan to write more articles about our travels there.

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      This website is fabulous. Great way to post a trip.

    • My Bell profile imageAUTHOR

      Marcelle Bell 

      5 years ago

      Thanks, Flourish! You always put such kind comments on my hubs and I really appreciate that from such a great seasoned writer, especially being newer to all this. Thank you for the pin!

    • My Bell profile imageAUTHOR

      Marcelle Bell 

      5 years ago

      Thank you so much, CrisSp! I have more articles in the writing pipeline on Rome, Florence, and Tuscany so stay tuned! Hopefully they will help you out when planning your travels. I have been through Paris and throughout France many times but have to say that Italy has been my favorite!

    • FlourishAnyway profile image


      5 years ago from USA

      This is a splendid travel hub with excellent tips, photos and personal reflections. Voted up and more and shared, plus pinning.

    • CrisSp profile image


      5 years ago from Sky Is The Limit Adventure

      Amazing! I plan to go this year for Christmas if my schedule will allow, if not I'll certainly do it next year. It reminded me of my time in Paris and experiencing the actual Notre Dame, The Versailles and more but I guess, nothing compares to the Vatican.

      Up, beautiful and sharing.

    • My Bell profile imageAUTHOR

      Marcelle Bell 

      5 years ago

      Thank you for the kind comments, Peggy and Dghbrh! Thank you so much for sharing! I must give credit to my husband for the awesome pictures. Our trip to Italy was a wonderful two weeks in Tuscany and ending in Rome. The Vatican was one of the highlights of our trip! I plan to publish quite a few more articles about my travels.

    • dghbrh profile image


      5 years ago from ...... a place beyond now and beyond here !!!

      Its a very nice travel hub....Thanks for sharing your amazing experience with us here...wish i can visit it some times in my life....Photographs are mainly awesome.......votes way up and shared across.

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 

      5 years ago from Houston, Texas

      Your photos were absolutely stunning! What a treat to be able to see this in person. Thanks for all of the information. Happy to share this, G+, tweet and pin.


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