Founded in 1929 by a special treaty with Italy, the Vatican is a rare wonder: a small, autonomous city state inside the boundaries of another, much larger country. While you won’t need to cross a border or show your passport, you will encounter Swiss guards, a local flag and high levels of security to enter both St Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Museums. You’ll also see the wonders of Michelangelo’s magnificent dome, the dazzling Sistine Chapel and Bernini’s stunning piazza.
For members of the Catholic religion, the Vatican is also a site of spiritual pilgrimage, with devotees coming from all over the world to pay homage to the Pope. Whatever your beliefs, be respectful when you visit, as for many this is the holiest of holy cities.
The best way to enjoy a day (or longer) at the Vatican is to pick and choose the highlights you’re most interested in seeing, and be sure to book tours and tickets ahead of time. If you’ve got a tight schedule in Rome, you might opt to visit only St Peter’s Basilica, either with a guide or on your own. If you’re an art and history lover, you won’t want to miss taking an expert-guided tour of the Vatican Museums, home to the famed Sistine Chapel. While steamrolling through both the basilica and museums alone and back-to-back is common, it’s ill advised. By the time you reach the Sistine Chapel (typically the last stop), you’ll be so worn out from the long lines, massive crowds and art overload you won’t enjoy what you’re looking at.
By far the best option is to divide and conquer. Devote a full day to visiting the sites, but break it up with a nice long lunch and a stroll and recharge in between. Alternately, if you’re in Rome for a while, you can split your visit into two – the basilica one day, the museums another. You’ll enjoy your visit so much more if you give yourself time to absorb what you’re seeing.
Your journey starts here. Crowning the square, the 136-metre (446-foot) gilded dome of St Peter’s Basilica is one of the Eternal City’s most recognisable buildings. The heart and soul of the Vatican, St Peter’s has seen centuries of religious, political and artistic legend and lore. Famously engineered by a rotating cast of Italy’s best architects – with a dome designed by none other than Michelangelo – the basilica took 120 years to complete and remains renowned throughout the world for its grace and beauty.
It’s dedicated to St Peter, one of the patron saints of Rome; legend says that his original tomb may lie beneath the building. Regardless, the basilica is at once a sacred site and a treasure trove of Italy’s greatest artistic works, from Michelangelo’s marble Pietà to Bernini’s bronze Baldachin. Don’t miss taking a peek at the grottoes with their papal tombs, or climbing the dome (which requires a separate entry fee). Here, you can get up close to Michelangelo’s cupola and take in the spectacular views from the terrace.
You can opt to climb the 281 stairs or, if you’d like to save your energy, take the lift. A second narrow spiral staircase winds even further up, if you’re feeling intrepid.
As a religious site, dress codes at St Peter’s are strictly enforced (no tank tops, shorts or miniskirts). Entry is free, but heightened security makes long lines almost unavoidable. The best time to visit is early morning. Walks of Italy offers a popular St Peter’s Tour, including pre-reserved dome tickets, which promises to take you “from floor to dome, Pietá to Baldachin, and everywhere in between”.
Every Sunday at noon (unless he’s travelling) Pope Francis, known affectionately in Italy as Papa Francesco, appears in a small window overlooking St Peter’s Square to bless the crowds below. Plan to arrive at least an hour early to get a good spot, as the massive square gets packed. Devotees can also request free tickets to the weekly Wednesday Papal Audience held in St Peter’s Square. Tickets should be requested well in advance via fax here.
In the era of selfies and digital media, there is something deeply satisfying about real post you can hold in your hand. Send your family and friends an unexpected treat with a postcard from the Vatican. Pop into the post office here to get your special papal stamp, then sign, drop and send.
While you’re at it, pick up a few gifts to take home. If you’re looking for souvenirs, head into the wonderland of Borgo. With ancient walls and cobbled roads, this quarter has a quirky charm all its own. Here, you’ll find everything from the pious to the tongue-in-cheek – from rosaries and saints’ medals to gemstone-encrusted chalices. Grab a coffee at one of the outdoor cafés then stroll and browse amid the charming, winding lanes. Be sure to look out for Il Passetto, the ancient wall linking the Vatican to Castel Sant’Angelo; the wall hides an ancient papal escape route. If you’ve got time, explore the castle grounds along the river.
When hunger strikes, stay off the crowded main drag and head to Borgo Pio. This pedestrian stretch of shops and eateries has a handful of places to catch your breath, rest your feet and grab a leisurely lunch at sunny outdoor tables. For pasta and a glass of wine, the sophisticated Il Pozzetto is a longtime local favourite; make sure to to try the carbonara. If you don’t want to sit down for a full meal, you’ll also find a handful of panini shops here that make quick, cheap and tasty sandwiches to go. Stop off for gelato on your stroll back at Gelateria Del Monte or Hedera.
From the Sistine Chapel to the Rooms of Raphael, the staggering complex of the Vatican Museums is a wonderland of art, history and architecture. The joy is in exploring and discovering the parts you love best. “One of my favourite things at the Vatican Museums is the Maps Gallery, which is a corridor lined with huge maps of Italy that were commissioned by Pope Gregory XIII and drawn in the 16th century,” says Linda Martinez, who owns Rome’s popular Beehive Hostel with her husband and is therefore well accustomed to directing travellers around the Vatican. “These maps are a lot of fun and interesting to look at up close, and I could spend hours in this section alone. The ceiling in this gallery is stunning.”
Deeply enthralling, the museums are also far too overwhelming, crowded and confusing to navigate alone. The best way to enjoy your visit is to relax and put yourself in expert hands by pre-booking a small group tour. This unique evening tour led by an art historian from Context Travel will take you through the collection’s highlights at nightfall. As you stand in the halls of history, the evening light and night air lend the Vatican an aura of ethereal magic. Spend a few quiet moments lingering in the restored Sistine Chapel admiring the stunning frescoed ceilings, some of Michelangelo’s most famous masterpieces.
Night tours typically run on Fridays, from April to October. For daytime tours you’ll find multiple year-round options. Some day tours also include visits to nearby St Peter’s if you want to do everything in one go. Check itineraries carefully, as circuits vary. And as Martinez wisely tells guests, be mindful of the heat, take breaks and pack a water bottle.
After a long day, reward yourself with a pre-dinner drink on the stunning terrace of the Atlante Hotel. The outdoor rooftop panorama bar offers unbeatable views of St Peter’s. Its aperitivo hour, from 6pm to 9pm, features cocktails and wine by the glass with snacks. If you miss happy hour, never fear – the bar stays open late and the night-time views are spectacular. For late-night supper, head to Sorpasso to eat, drink and contemplate the sights of the day. In this wine lover’s paradise, you’ll find a list featuring bubbly, whites and reds from all across Italy. Classic platters here feature an array of delicious charcuterie and cheeses perfect for pairing and sharing. Sorpasso is tiny and popular, so reservations are highly recommended.