We’ve never met a traveler who wanted to go to Rome and skip a visit to the Vatican City (Città del Vaticano in italian), universally known as the Cradle of Christianity. The Vatican City became an independent state within the city of Rome in the February 1929 with the subscription of the Lateran Treaty by the King of Italy and the Pope, the sovraign of the Holy See: Vatican City State is the world's smallest sovereign state, by both area and population (it has fewer than 1,000 citizens!).
However, despite its tiny size, the Vatican City holds numerous treasures of incomparable beauty and artistic value, making this “walled enclave” one of the world's most-visited places each year!
And because of its enormous number of attractions, and the ensuing hordes of pilgrims and tourists who flock to the streets every day, a visit to the Vatican City could easily become confusing and frustrating if one is not adequately prepared.
So, if you’re struggling asking yourself questions such as “What and When to visit the Vatican?” just relax… Thanks to the following suggestions, made you by ItalyXP, you will be able to optimize your time and energy, visiting this magical place at its best!
WHAT things to do in the Vatican City?
First of all, we recommend you to arrive at the Vatican City passing by the Ponte Sant'Angelo, an ancient bridge adorned with ten stunningly beautiful statues of angels. This path will provide you with terrific picture opportunities of the Tiber and the towering Castel Sant’Angelo, the ancient tomb of Emperor Hadrian with a secret passage to Holy See once used by fleeing popes!
We suggest continuing your walk through the wide Via della Conciliazione until arriving to the Saint Peter's Square, in the heart of the Vatican City State: you can now admire this magnificent, elliptical square, surrounded by two sides of imposing columns arranged in a prominent colonnade, symbolizing the embracing arms of Mother Church. This is probably the greatest place of worship in Italy and a main gathering place for tourists and pilgrims from all over the world. And yes, you’re certainly already seen it on the news!
In front of the homonymous square stands the Saint Peter's Basilica, one of the largest churches in the world. We highly recommend entering the church to admire the enormous interior space that houses many eternal artworks, including Michelangelo's world-famous Pietà. The entrance is free, but make sure you dress appropriately (shorts, tank tops, bare shoulders or short skirts are not allowed).
If you're not afraid of heights and you are in a good shape (it takes a little bit of effort), you can also climb the Dome of Saint Peter’s Basilica to the balcony, from which you can get breathtaking views of Rome, and probably one of the best views in Italy.
To discover the best panoramic views points of Rome, check our suggestions here!
A day at the Vatican wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the Museums of Vatican State, the largest museum complex in the world with over 1400 rooms… You will be amazed by this astonishing amount of art: immense galleries with lots of Renaissance works, masterpieces by the greatest artists of all time, the Raphael Rooms, the papal palace and, of course the Sistine Chapel, beautifully frescoed by Michelangelo.
Although it might be a pleasure to get lost in this realm of art, the Vatican Museums’ collection and the sheer size (stretching over 9 miles) of the complex really does require a bit of guidance. That’s why we suggest you to rely on an Small Group Tour of Vatican Museums, Sistine Chapel and St. Peter's Basilica, giving you the opportunity to have a memorable visit!
WHERE? Best places to eat, have a snack or a coffee break near the Vatican
Being one of the most touristic sights in the world, also in the Vatican City there is unfortunately a lot of the so-called “tourist traps”: places that trick inexperienced tourists by selling low quality, inauthentic food at inflated price. It’s generally considered wise in Rome to try avoiding eating on any of the major piazzas… But let’s face it: there are plenty of tourist traps on the side streets, too.
And although recently there have been several eateries improvements around the Vatican area, is always preferable to avoid seating at the first restaurant you find, and follow our recommendations (all reachable within 15 minutes on foot from the Basilica)!
The first landmark you should keep in mind if you visit the Vatican is Bar Cantiani (Via Cola di Rienzo 234), a great classic frequented by locals, ideal for an Italian-style breakfast with cappuccino. In the same street there is also Castroni (Via Cola di Rienzo 196), which is also a gourmet shop, where you can enjoy a coffee break and look for some special food souvenirs.
For those in search of a quick and satisfying lunch, we suggest Gastronomia Franchi (Via Cola di Rienzo 204), an excellent delicatessen where to eat local dishes, standing at the counter or to take away and eat elsewhere. Alternatively, DuecentoGradi (Piazza del Risorgimento 3) is a bakery with gourmet, delicious sandwiches, freshly made and at reasonable prices.
If you can’t wait to taste some good, authentic Italian Gelato, than do not miss Gelateria dei Gracchi (Via dei Gracchi 272) where they serve an artisanal gelato without preservatives, colorant or artificial flavors. Another beloved gelateria is Old Bridge (Viale dei Bastioni di Michelangelo 5), famous for its giant cones!
For the dinner, there are plenty of interesting options: the renowned trattoria Il Sorpasso (Via Properzio 31) offers a good mix between classic and creative dishes, and an extensive list of regional wines. Also, we’d like to suggest some new restaurant openings that have been creating a buzz in the Vatican recently, such as La Zanzara (Via Crescenzio 84), with a great blend of Roman specialties; and Il Porto Fish & Chips (Via Crescenzio 56), ideal for seafood lovers!
WHEN? The best time of year or day to visit the Vatican
We know that every tourist in Rome will at some point want to visit the Vatican and its attractions. But there is much information and misinformation about when is the best time to visit it. So, ItalyXP tries to bring some clarity on the best way to eXPerience one of the busiest sites in the Capital.
Which are the best months to visit Vatican attractions? The best months to visit the Vatican City State are the slowest months for tourism, which means from early November to early December, and from mid-January to the end of February. During this period you can have the opportunity to visit the Vatican Museums and Saint Peter’s Basilica avoiding big crowds and giving you the rare opportunity to admire all the precious masterpieces in a more intimate way.
Which are the best days to visit Vatican attractions? During the week, Wednesday and Sunday are the busiest days at the Vatican because the Pope hosts his papal audience in the morning, which addresses to Saint Peter's Square thousands of people.
For what concerns the Vatican Museums, they are closed on Sundays except for the last Sunday of the month, when they are open from 9am until 2pm and the entrance is free of charge (however, when the last Sunday of the month coincides with a holiday, they will be closed). And please note that, even in the off-season, on those days they are incredibly crowded!
Therefore, as the museums are generally closed on Sundays, hordes of visitors flock to the Vatican on Monday and Saturday, making Tuesday, Thursday and Friday the best days to visit Vatican Museums!
On each Friday from April to October, the Pope's Museums open their doors after dusk: the Friday Night Openings allow the visitors to enjoy the Vatican Museums by Night from 7pm until 11pm. Also during Vatican Musuems special nightly opening hours, you can book our Vatican City night tour with skip-the-line tickets.
What time? Most people head to the Vatican in the morning. So, to avoid exhausting lines, it might be wise to go in the early afternoon. From Tuesday to Friday, if you arrive between 2pm and 3pm you might even avoid waiting in line (except in peak tourist seasons). Just pay attention, because at 4pm the ticket boxes close, with the museums themselves closing at 6pm. If you intend to visit the Sistine Chapel, keep these times in mind because it takes awhile to reach it from the starting point!
However, if you want to take it easy and skip the otherwise unavoidable lines, you can book your Skip-the-Line Vatican Tour and visit all the wondrous treasures of the Vatican with no rush!
with WHO? visiting the Vatican with a group or going solo
The Vatican complex is so full of things to see that, if you don’t want to make your brain hurt, you really need a plan of attack! Below are pros and cons of visiting the Vatican with a group or going solo!
Vatican Private Guided Tour: this is definitely what we recommend if your budget allows. With a Private Tour of Vatican Museums, Sistine Chapel and St. Peter's Basilica you will get your skip-the-line tickets and you can choose the starting time between 9:30 am or 2:30 pm (we suggest 2:30 pm as the museums are usually less crowded).
An expert will guide you through the Basilica and the museums, and you will learn a huge amount about art, about history, and about the Vatican. Also, you have the opportunity to tailor the tour as you’d like (for example you might want to spend more time on the Sistine Chapel and less on the Raphael Rooms), moving at your own pace and asking for bathroom, or coffee breaks according to your own needs.
Vatican Group Guided Tour: these tours include skip-the-line admission and a guide that will take you through your journey, providing history and context!
The groups are of various sizes: with a small group tour – fewer than about 12 people – you can have a more intimate visit and more time to ask questions to you guide. Larger group tours may be less exclusive, but is almost half the price!
Vatican walk-through with no guide: we generally don’t recommend this option. The Vatican museums are not set as an interactive museum and you might get frustrated after looking at so many art masterpieces not knowing any context or additional information.
Yes, you could buy a book or print out information about the Vatican’s most famous attractions to bring with you… but you wouldn’t be able to ask an expert if you have questions, and also, you will have to book your own tickets.
WHY? Do you really need more reasons to visit the Vatican City?
If you've read this article up to this point we’re sure you were able to find lots of good reasons to visit the Holy See.
However, if you’re still not fully convinced, we feel compelled to mention a few other reasons: in addition to the world-known sights (Vatican Museums, Sistine Chapel, and Saint Peter’s Basilica) there are also some lesser known attractions tourists generally miss: the magnificient Castel Sant’Angelo, the Vatican Necropolis underneath the Basilica, the Apostolic Palace, the ancient Church of Santo Spirito in Sassia, the magnificent Vatican Gardens and the picturesque alleys around the square, such as Via Colle di Rienzo (where you can find many of the eateries we wrote above).
Give yourself plenty of time to explore and to ensure you get to see all of these wonderful sights!
HOW? The special advice of ItalyXP, to discover the Vatican from different points of view!
Some tourists choose tours on a bus, where the actual time spent admiring the Vatican's treasures is very limited. Others prefer walking at their own pace as they feel freer and independent.
However, there are many other ways to visit the Vatican and its surroundings, and ItalyXP provides you with a variety of eXPeriences: for example, the tour on Vintage Fiat 500 will give you the opportunity to explore the Vatican City and other Rome’s sights aboard an authentic icon of the “Made in Italy”. Alternatively, you may choose the private Tour by car of Rome, to visit the city with maximum comfort;
If you’re looking forward to visit this romantic city by night, seeing its treasures under the moonlight, avoiding the hectic traffic of the day, we suggest the Fiat 500 Tour by night, aboard one of the most iconic cars of the ‘60s; because there is nothing like the Vatican by night…