Despite being a religious state, Vatican City isn’t exclusively for followers of the Catholic faith. In fact, this small country offers a treasure trove of historic buildings and a rich cultural heritage that will captivate tourists and art enthusiasts alike.
Situated right in the heart of Rome, the Vatican is a foreign state with some strict entry rules, and due to its popularity, it remains bustling with visitors all year round.
The Vatican City: the Smallest Country in The World
The Vatican isn’t just the smallest country in the world. This tiny State, with a population of less than 500 inhabitants, is renowned as the famous headquarters of the Catholic religion and the home of the Pope.
You have two options to explore the Vatican: you can visit it during a self-guided tour or join a guided tour of the Vatican. Personally, I’d recommend the latter, even if you happen to be a permanent resident of Rome. And now, let me explain why.
Are Guided Tours of the Vatican Worth it?
Why Opt for a Vatican Guided Tour
- A guided tour typically covers all the main attractions of the Vatican in a well-organised single tour of a few hours.
- The Vatican Museums are truly vast and filled with exquisite artworks. In fact, they’re so extensive that attempting to visit them independently can be overwhelming. With a guided tour, you can focus on the essential highlights without running the risk of getting tired before you’re even halfway through the visit.
- Even with a skip-the-line tour, queues for the Vatican Museums can be incredibly long. Choosing a guided tour with authorised tour operators can be a smart solution, as it grants you access through partner-exclusive entrances.
- Exploring the Vatican with professional guides allows you to discover
fascinating anecdotes and insights that you wouldn’t come across during a self-guided visit.
Types of Vatican Tours
There are several options for visiting the Vatican. Let’s explore them.
Guided Tours of the Vatican
As I mentioned earlier, a guided tour is definitely the best way to make the most of your visit to the Vatican. I’ve tried visiting the Vatican on my own multiple times, and having an expert guide by your side can truly make a difference. These tours usually start at a meeting point in the area.
Group Tours of the Vatican
This is the most common type of tour. Many tour operators offer tours in small groups, so following your guide and moving around the Vatican Museums is not complicated at all. Besides, if you ever feel like breaking away from the group, you can always rejoin them and continue at your own pace.
Private Tours of the Vatican
This is a decidedly luxury option. The price of a private Vatican tour is higher than a group tour. The advantages? You’ll have the guide entirely at your disposal. Moreover, many private Vatican tours include pick-up and drop-off at your hotel or apartment.
Vatican Early Opening Tours
Among the various guided tours, both private and group, there are some that grant access to the Vatican Museums at their early opening. As I’ve mentioned before, the Vatican is one of the major tourist attractions in Rome, and there’s often a very long queue to get in.
So, if you want to see them without the typical crowd that fills them, I recommend booking one of the Vatican’s early opening tours. You’ll literally be the first to step inside the Museums and the Sistine Chapel, and your visit will have a whole different feel.
Self-guided Tours of the Vatican
If you’re on a budget, you can still visit the Vatican by purchasing an entrance ticket to the Vatican Museums without a guide. However, this option may entail waiting in line at the entrance for as long as 3 or 4 hours. The same goes if you decide to visit only St. Peter’s Basilica, which doesn’t require an entrance ticket.
Skip-The-Line Tours of the Vatican
Let me tell you: skip-the-line tickets for the Vatican are worth every penny of their price.
In the past, I worked for a tour operator, and for work-related reasons, I visited the Vatican several times with a skip-the-line service. I can assure you that if you choose the right tour operator, you won’t even wait for 5 minutes at the entrance. You’ll bypass the long queue that starts from Via Leone IV and goes all the way to the Vatican ticket office. And you’ll thank me for recommending this type of tour.
After-Hours Tours of the Vatican
From April to October, the Vatican stays open on Friday evenings. So, if you wish, you can opt for one of the enchanting evening tours of the Vatican offered by tour operators. Not only will you see the Vatican in a completely different light, but you’ll also avoid sightseeing during the hottest hours of the day.
Tours of the Pontifical Villas of Castel Gandolfo
Castel Gandolfo is a delightful town on the shores of its namesake lake, located about 24 kilometres southeast of Rome. It’s been the summer retreat for the Pope for centuries.
And now, you have the fantastic opportunity to join a tour of the Pontifical Villas, where you can travel to Castel Gandolfo and explore the beautiful gardens and historic residences that belong to the Vatican, just outside the confines of Vatican City itself.
These tours are typically available during the summer months, and you can easily reach Castel Gandolfo by train from the Vatican Museums. Once there, you’ll be guided through the extensive gardens and the Apostolic Palace, which serves as the official residence for the Pope during his stay at Castel Gandolfo.
Major Attractions in Vatican City
There’s so much to see within Vatican City, and it’s an incredible place to explore.
What to See Inside St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican
Inside St. Peter’s Basilica, you’ll have the chance to visit:
- The magnificent Baldacchino, a work of art by both Bernini and Borromini
- Michelangelo’s breathtaking Pietà, located in the right nave of the Basilica
- The lid of Emperor Hadrian’s sarcophagus
- The tomb of Pope Alexander VII, crafted by Bernini
- Michelangelo‘s iconic Dome
- The Vatican Grottoes: the final resting place of the Popes and St. Peter himself.
What to See Inside the Vatican Museums
Now, when you venture into the Vatican Museums, make sure you don’t miss out on these incredible sights:
- The Tapestry Room, filled with intricate and awe-inspiring tapestries
- The Pinacoteca, which houses masterpieces by Giotto, Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, the Perugino, and Caravaggio
- The Pio-Clementino Museum, dedicated to statuary, where you’ll find the impressive Laocoön sculpture group
- The Gallery of Maps
- Raffaello’s Rooms, including the famous ‘School of Athens’ fresco
- The magnificent Spiral Staircase
- the Vatican Museum Gardens
Time Needed to Tour the Vatican
Most guided tours at the Vatican run for a standard 2 to 3 hours, giving you an overview of the Vatican Museums, the Sistine Chapel, and the iconic St. Peter’s Basilica. These tours usually start early in the morning or early in the afternoon, leaving you plenty of time to enjoy the place.
Of course, nothing is stopping you from entering the Museums when they first open and spending the entire day delving into the wonderful art collections they hold.
Dress Code for the Vatican
The Vatican is a religious site, and although it attracts many tourists, it does have a conservative dress code. It’s really important to respect this dress code if you want to be allowed entry. Many foreign visitors are disappointed each year when they’re turned away due to inappropriate attire, and I don’t want you to be one of these.
To enter the Vatican, it’s important to:
- Avoid short skirts and shorts
- Cover your shoulders and arms
- Steer clear of plunging necklines and cropped tops
- Remove hats before entering
- Wear anything that might offend Catholic morals or decency
- Cover any tattoos you might have
I know it gets scorching hot in Rome during the summer, but it’s crucial to adhere to these rules. My advice for the hot months is to wear a long dress or lightweight suit, or perhaps bring a light jacket to cover your arms and shoulders before entering. You can show off your sexiest outfit after you’ve completed the visit.
Tip: By dressing respectfully, you’ll ensure a smooth visit to the Vatican and demonstrate your appreciation for the sacredness of the place.
Tips For a Great Vatican Experience
And here we are at the end of this guide to Vatican tours. I’ll share a few extra tips that might come in handy in addition to what’s already been mentioned.
- Make sure to visit the Vatican early in the day – you can’t imagine how crowded it can get.
- Only book guided tours from professional authorised tour operators.
- Always double-check the opening times, especially around religious dates and events throughout the year.
- Purchase your ticket several weeks in advance, as they often sell out quickly.
- Upon entering the Vatican, you’ll go through a security check with a metal detector, similar to airport security. Be sure to read the rules on the official Vatican website. Among other things, you can’t bring knives, scissors, umbrellas, or cameras with you, and even things like tripods and selfie sticks are not allowed.
- Once inside the Sistine Chapel, remember not to take any photos or videos – it’s strictly prohibited, and the security personnel may ask you to delete any shots you’ve taken in front of them.
- Accessing the Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel requires payment, but on the last Sunday of each month, you can enjoy free admission to both the museums and the Vatican Gardens from opening until 12:30 PM. Visiting St. Peter’s Basilica alone is, instead, always free, so you can still marvel at its grandeur without any cost. Happy exploring.