When you think of a Vatican visit, it’s mostly about the Vatican Museums and the St. Peter’s Basilica. They are among the main attractions for pilgrims and Roman visitors. Here’s how to save time while visiting the Vatican Museums, the St. Peter’s Basilica and Dome in half a day, and what you need to keep in mind to avoid being rejected at the entrance.
The Vatican is thought of as the area around the St. Peter’s Basilica. The Vatican Museums and St. Peter’s Basilica with its treasury, the Dome and the Grottoes are all publicly accessible. In half a day, you can visit a good part of the Vatican Museums and St. Peter’s Basilica.
The Vatican gardens and the necropolis under the St. Peter’s Basilica are only accessible through a guided tour. In particular, the tour of the necropolis must be reserved in advance and is quickly booked.
At the Vatican, special rules apply to access to the pharmacy, to the main post office and to the Campo Santo Teutonico.
Please keep in mind that St. Peter’s Cathedral is usually closed on Wednesday morning because of the Pope’s General Audience, as well as during the Angelus prayer on Sunday and at Pope’s Masses.
The Vatican Museums are among the largest and most interesting museums in the world. You could spend many days visiting them. If you are visiting the Vatican Museums for the first time, you should book a guided tour. In two to three hours you will get an overview and see the most important pieces of the collection.
The Vatican Museums are always very busy and during normal opening hours the halls and corridors can get very crowded. This can only be avoided by booking the early entrance. As the crowds of visitors arrive, you disappear through the passage from the Sistine Chapel to St. Peter’s Basilica.
Unfortunately, the St. Peter’s Basilica is closed on Wednesday morning, when the Papal Audience takes place. The dates of the general audiences can be found in my holiday calendar.
There is another way to enjoy the Vatican Museums in peace: the evening opening on Friday. With a little patience you will even find a seat in the Sistine Chapel! In the evening, the St. Peter’s Basilica is closed.
Early risers book a tour beginning between 7 and 8 o’clock, which allows you to be at the St. Peter’s Basilica at around 10 o’clock and then you can visit the Grottoes. The Grottoes will be opened to visitors between 9am and 10am. Before, there are mass celebrations. The guided tours of the Vatican Museums and St. Peter’s are particularly time-saving due to the direct passage to the St. Peter’s Basilica. Although you can’t see the helical staircase at the exit of the Vatican Museums, you can save some kilometers on foot and don’t need to check the security at St. Peter’s Square.
The entrance to the St. Peter’s Basilica is free. One problem with visiting St. Peter’s is the queue at the security checkpoint. Sometimes it goes around half of the square and you have to stand in line for more than an hour. If you have paid a lot of money for travel and hotel, it’s not worth it to spend your precious time in Rome in various queues.
There are two ways to avoid the queue at St. Peter’s Basilica:
- Between 7 and 9 o’clock, there is not a long line and you can access to the St. Peter’s Basilica quickly. The grottoes are usually accessible later since masses are celebrated there in the morning. The dome of St. Peter’s opens at 8 o’clock. It is quite pleasant to be among the first to climb into the dome. If you want to take pictures, you have to take into account that in the winter the sun is low in the morning and the city of Rome is in the backlight.
- You book a guided tour with preferred entry on the internet. For the preferred entry, you go through the right columns of the Bernini and after the post office you will find the Vox Mundi staff which gives you direct access to the security checkpoint. People with disabilities and their companions can use the direct access for free.
Are you already in the queue? You can have the ticket sent directly to your mobile phone. Beware of hawkers! You can not be sure what’s going on.
Although there are official opening times for the Grottoes, you need a bit of luck to visit them. By the way, the name Grottoes is a bit misleading. The Grottoes are the floor of the first St. Peter’s Basilica, built by Emperor Constantine in the 4th century. They were created by the fact that the new Basilica was built elevated. The Grottoes consist of a three-aisled church as well as niches, corridors and chapels. Many popes, kings and queens are buried here to be close to the tomb of St. Peter.
The grottoes are newly renovated and there is not much to see except for the tomb of St. Peter and some papal tombs.Taking pictures is prohibited in the grottoes. The visit doesn’t take up more than 15 minutes.
The cash register for the access to the dome of the Basilica of St. Peter is at the exit of the Grottoes.
To visit the dome, the ticket office is located next to the exit of the grottoes, above the visitor center on the right side of the St. Peter’s Basilica. With the elevator you can easily reach the roof of the St. Peter’s Basilica, otherwise you can also take the stairs. From the roof you have a breathtaking view of Rome. In the dome, there is a corridor from which you can look down into the cathedral and on the papal altar.
For the climb towards the lantern there are two staircases, one for the ascent and one for the descent. You can not turn around once you’re on the stairs that lead to the top, which means that you should avoid climbing the dome if you have a fear of small spaces. From the top you have a spectacular view over the city of Rome and the Vatican.
Please note the Vatican dress code. It applies to all sacred sites of the Catholic Church in Rome. These include the Vatican Museums, all the basilicas and churches and the catacombs.
The dress code provides for acceptable clothing. This means no low neckline, shoulders and knees must be covered. This applies to men, women and children. If you are wearing a strapless dress or a shirt, you should have a light shawl with you. No matter if skirt or pants, they have to reach over your knee.
Regarding the shoes, there are no specific rules published. If you are not traveling with a folklore group, you will not get into the Vatican Museums and St. Peter’s Basilica with beach sandals or clogs. Even if you are barefoot, you will be refused. Jesus too went barefoot. You can try to quote the Bible, for example, Luke 10:4 or Exodus 3:5.
Luke 10:4 “Carry no moneybag, no knapsack, no sandals, and greet no one on the road.”
Exodus 3:5 “Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.”
But for your visit to Rome, you should definitely wear sturdy, comfortable footwear, as you will be walking for many miles and the most paths and paved roads are usually very rough. For the same reason you should also refrain from high heels.
Vatican Visit · Morning or afternoon
For the visit of the Vatican, I would recommend the morning. A three hour tour starting at 8am or 9am for the Vatican Museums and St. Peter’s Basilica fits in well in the morning and you can plan further sightseeing afterwards. It is obvious to combine the tour of the Vatican with a visit to Castel Sant’Angelo.
For the Castel Sant’Angelo you can book the preferred entrance without waiting. Also with the Roma Pass you have preferential access and can pass the queue. Excluded are the days on which the admission is free for all. The dates can be found in the list of museums. In Castel Sant’Angelo, the ascent goes over several levels and is easily possible for all. People with disabilities can take the elevator to the middle level.
In the Borgo between the Vatican and Castel Sant’Angelo, there are many nice restaurants, street food and a McDonald’s. The Borgo is where the staff of the Vatican used to live. It’s behind the wall on which runs the “Passetto”, the escape route of the popes between the Vatican and Castel Sant’Angelo.
The McDonald’s is at Borgo Pio, if you go from St. Peter’s Square to Piazza Risorgimento, turn right at the traffic lights . Two blocks down on Via di Porta Angelica, in Via delle Grazie, is Alice Pizza selling pizza from the tin at the street .
If you are already at Castel Sant’Angelo, you can cross the Angel’s Bridge. Continue straight ahead to Campo de’ Fiori, half left, through Via di Panico to Piazza Navona. Already at the next intersection you will find nice bars offering sandwiches and small dishes. In the area you will find many nice bars and restaurants, both half-way in Via dei Coronari and through winding streets to Via del Governo Vecchio. In Via dei Coronari is also one of the best ice cream parlors in Rome, the “Gelateria del Teatro” , in the next street on the right, Via della Vetrina, you will get a selection of fresh homemade pasta at “Solo Pasta” for less than 10 euros . Solo Pasta is open at lunchtime until late afternoon and is closed on Sunday.
My suggestions for the afternoon
To get from the Vatican to Piazza Navona, go over the Angel’s Bridge and then through Via dei Coronari.
To get to the Caelius and Oppius hills, take bus 81 from Piazza del Risorgimento to the Celio stop.
For the Pope Basilicas and Catacombs tour, take bus 23 from Piazza del Risorgimento to the Basilica of St. Paul. If you want to go directly to the Catacombs, take Metro A from Ottaviano to San Giovanni and from there bus 218.