The Vatican City is actually the smallest country in the world, measuring 109 acres with a population of less than 1,000 people. Even though it’s located in the middle of Rome, it has its own post office, banking system, coins, stamps and passports. In addition to providing personal security for the Pope, the Swiss guard is the country’s military force. The basilica was built over St. Peter’s grave in the 4th Century, but the sovereign nation was only established in 1929 and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Vatican museums stretch for over 9 miles and it would take you about 4 years to see every painting, even if you only stopped for a minute to look at each one. The sheer volume of priceless art contained within these chambers makes this a must-see destination for over 5 million people a year. If you visit on any day in summer, you can expect to be joined by about 20,000 others. Here are a few tips for getting the most out of your time at the Vatican and making the day a little less hectic.
- The Vatican is closed on most Sundays and several other days throughout the year. You won’t be allowed in after 4:00 pm and the museums close two hours later.
- You can combine a visit to St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican museums in a day, but you need to factor in a lot of time for waiting in line. If you are trying to see both, start with the museums as you can cut across to the Basilica and avoid another long queue. There’s a passageway that links the two right after you exit the Sistine Chapel. It’s only supposed to be used by tour groups, but the Swiss guard will usually just let you through.
- Plan to visit in the afternoon. Coaches start dropping loads of tourists when the museums open at 9:00 am and by mid-morning the queue will stretch around the square. It’s shorter later in the day but you should still expect to wait at least 45 minutes and up to two hours in summer.
- Avoid visiting on a Wednesday because the Pope is usually holding a public audience that day, meaning tons more people show up. On the last Sunday of every month, the museums are free and only open for limited hours. You won’t have much time to see anything, even if you do manage to get in. Tuesdays and Thursdays are your best bet.
- Another way to skip the queue is to book a tour of the Vatican gardens. They’re incredibly beautiful, uncrowded, and include fast-track tickets to the museums.
- If you’re short of time, consider a fast-track ticket. You’ll get in through a reserved entrance and jump the queue, but they don’t come cheap.
- Both the museums and Basilica enforce a strict dress code. No shorts or bare shoulders. For women, all dresses and skirts must fall below the knee. If it’s a really hot day, you can dress down when you’re waiting but be sure to bring something to cover up once you get to security.
- You can carry a small bag with you through security but will have to leave larger items in the cloakroom. They’ll also be checking for anything sharp that could potentially damage the artwork so make sure you don’t have a pocket knife buried somewhere in your gear.
- Entry to St. Peter’s Basilica is free but you’ll still have to wait in a long line to get through security. Inside, you’ll have to pay if you want to climb the dome or see the treasury. Don’t attempt the dome if you suffer from vertigo or claustrophobia! Be sure to tour the crypt but do that last as you’ll find yourself outside again when you exit the grottoes.
- Peter isn’t buried beneath the Basilica. His tomb is said to be at the Vatican Necropolis, which only accepts 250 visitors a day, so you’ll have to book a tour a long time in advance.
The bottom line on visiting Vatican City is that you’re in for a long day that’s going to involve a lot of waiting and huge crowds. The best way to enjoy it is simply to know what’s coming and roll with it. Give yourself lots of time and shell out for a tour if you don’t want to wait in the queues. The Vatican is Rome’s most popular tourist destination. With the world’s largest private art collection on display, it’s not hard to see why - and your patience is definitely going to be well rewarded once you’re in.