Vatican City. It’s part of Italy, but not really. It’s right next door to Rome, but a whole separate country? It’s confusing. Obviously, because when we showed up at the gates we had no idea what “visiting the Vatican” entailed. So for all those travelers out there thinking they might as well check it out when in Rome (see what I did there?), here’s what to expect when visiting Vatican City.
What you’ll find in Vatican City
First of all, One doesn’t simply visit Vatican City. You can do all of one thing within the boundaries of the independent nation without paying entry fees: visit Saint Peter’s Basilica. We think that is reason enough to take the walk across the river from Rome, but more on that later.
We were thinking we’d show up, stroll around the gardens, skip the pricey museums, and just take it all in. That’s not a thing. The only parts of Vatican City you can visit besides the Basilica are the pricey Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel. But all those cost big money. Enough to deter us from pulling out our wallets, anyway. The cheapest available entry to both with no tours and no frills is €17 per person for entry to both (and no, you can’t just pay to see one or the other–we checked). We had already paid to enter the Colleseum (€16), so that was our “big” spend for the city.
Saint Peter’s Basilica
After all, as much as I would like to have seen the Sistine Chapel (and was afraid I’d never be able to tell my art history friends that I didn’t–hopefully visiting all the museums in Florence will make up for it), I couldn’t imagine it being any more impressive than Saint Peter’s Basilica. I mean, wow! I’m not sure I’ve ever been in a more impressive church or cathedral. The level of detail, the mosaic art, the design and the gold leaf and the artwork! Just, wow! I don’t impress easily, and several times I was breathless. Michelangelo may not have painted on the ceiling, but his very first sculpture, Pieta, is inside.
Multiple times during the hour or so we spent inside we would just stop, look up, and utter little gasps of amazement. What a masterpiece men’s hands had created. You could attend church in Saint Peter’s for your entire life and still look up and notice details you had never seen before. It is nothing less than stunning and the quiet reverence within made us never want to leave. Words simply don’t describe. Unfortunately, neither do photos.
Getting into Saint Peter’s Basilica
Getting in took a bit of patience, though. It may be free to enter the Basilica, but you need to be prepared to wait. In mid-afternoon on a weekday, we stood in line outside in Saint Peter’s Square for about an hour before we stepped foot in the basilica, and that was just because everybody has to pass through a metal detector and have their bags checked before entry.
As for bags, large bags aren’t allowed in the museums, but we managed to carry full daypacks into Saint Peter’s without any problem. That was after we checked with every available luggage storage and bag locker joint within a three-block radius to see if we could unload them for a bit. I’m just too cheap to pay €15 to put my bag in a box for two hours.
Once you’re in Saint Peter’s, don’t forget to head down the narrow spiral staircase to the tombs of the popes. There are quite a few past Popes’ tombs on display with a bit of info about each of them. If it’s money you want to spend, you can also pay €8 to go up into the Vatican Dome, €10 to take the elevator halfway, but it involves a whole lot of very narrow steps (and you know how I feel about paying to go up steps). Still, it’s not a high price for the views you’ll get.
Visiting the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel
While you’re standing in line for the basilica, about 300 hawkers will try to sell you tickets and tours to the museums. You can do this if you want, but I think it’s probably a better idea to purchase the exact tickets you want online in advance, don’t you? They’ll shout phrases like “No waiting!” and “Skip the line!” but that’s not for the basilica, so don’t be fooled. The only way to skip that line is to buy tickets to the museums (€17, there’s an additional €4 fee for online bookings, naturally) and enter the basilica through the Sistine Chapel.
There’s also a dress code to get into the basilica and museums. I had a rough time with this one because I do not like wearing clothes when it is hot. I mean, I wear clothes, obviously, but I want as little fabric touching my skin as possible, meaning I hate T-shirts and refuse to wear pants if it’s over 75 degrees. For real. But you won’t be allowed in if you are wearing shorts, a skirt that doesn’t cover your knees, or no sleeves. Naturally, it was 90 degrees that day, so standing outside in pants was not my fave part of the day. I recommend a parasol or umbrella for this sort of situation. We used ours! but I did get away with wearing a tank top and simply wrapping a light shawl/scarf around my shoulders when it was time to go in.
When to go to Vatican City
If you do find yourself in the supremely advantageous position of being in Rome on the last Sunday of the month, rejoice! The Vatican Museums are completely free. I know, right? But that also means they’ll be super packed, so be prepared for crowded rooms and long lines.
If you really hate waiting, you might think you should try to get there early, but that’s when the tours arrive, so it’s not any better. A lot of folks suggest getting there later in the afternoon (last entry is at 4:00 pm) for shorter wait times. But that also means it’ll be hotter, so it’s your call. We were there just after lunch. Just make sure to give yourself a couple hours. More if you’re going to visit the museums in addition to the basilica.
Keep in Mind that Sundays other than the last of the month are usually closed to visitors and Wednesday is the day the Pope makes an appearance to bless the crowds, so it will be especially packed. Saturdays also tend to be very busy, just FYI.
Hopefully that helps you figure out what to get up to when you find yourself in or around Vatican City. If you have any other tips to share, share ’em! Wander on, son!
Alisha is a freelance writer and photographer based in Austin, TX. She loves her tiny house, vegan food and experiencing the community of travel in far away places. She’s also pretty sure she’s addicted to coffee. alishamcdarris.com