Even though Vatican City only spans a small area, it packs more culture and art into its territory than most European capitals, so you’ll need to plan well to see the sights in a single day. Even better, take a guided tour to jump the queues and get detailed insight into the history behind this fascinating UNESCO World Heritage site.
Guided tours are the best way to appreciate the rich culture on show in Vatican City, with the Vatican itself as well as numerous other operators such as Viator offering organized tours of the main draws, including the Vatican Museums, the Sistine Chapel, St Peter’s Basilica, and the Vatican Gardens.
St Peter’s Basilica, which opens daily from 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m., can be toured for free in 1 hour, 30 minutes at 2:15 and 3:00 p.m. daily from the Tourist Information desk in St Peter’s Square. The Vatican Museums are open from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Monday to Saturday and from 9:00 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on the last Sunday of the month. The Vatican Gardens can only be seen by organized tour on Tuesday, Thursday, or Saturday at 10:00 a.m. Most tours are around two hours in length, should be booked in advance, and depart from St Peter’s Square’s tour desk. The archeological sites of Saint’s Tomb and the Necropolis can only be toured with advance reservations.
It is possible to visit the basilica and museums independently but expect lengthy queues, making it best to space self-led trips to each site over the course of a few days.
A highlight of a visit to the Vatican for Roman Catholics is a chance to see the Pope. Each Sunday at noon, the Pope makes a blessing from his apartment. In summer, the blessing is made from Castel Gandolfo, a 30-minute drive outside Rome. Wednesdays offer a more formal appearance, with the Pope arriving at St Peter’s Square at 10:30 a.m. to bless the crowds. In winter, the Wednesday blessing takes place at Aula Paola VI Auditorium. Tickets should be booked in advance through the Santa Susanna Church or obtained from the Swiss Guards on Tuesdays after midday. Tours and blessings are open to all, but participants and attendees must ensure they are dressed respectfully, including no miniskirts, shorts, or sleeveless tops.
Climb the cupola of St Peter’s Basilica for views across Vatican City and Rome, and into the basilica. This activity is possible between 8:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m. in summer and from 8:00 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. in winter. There are two options for getting to the top: by stairs (320 steps) or by elevator. The climb by stairs is strenuous and therefore only recommended for the physically fit.