Vatican | Tips and 1-day itinerary
The Vatican or the Vatican City – Città del Vaticano, in Italian – is a city-state, that is, a city that is also a country at the same time – in this case, the smallest in the world! – is engaged by a lot of history. Writing about it is a challenge because, everywhere in the country are options for tourists and it is difficult not to leave some attractions out on a quick visit, as it requires some planning so as not to count on luck. Also because it is very difficult to know, geographically speaking, what the Vatican is in practice, as it is a country strangely within a city, Rome. To take care of everything the Vatican has to offer, you need time. Unpacking it requires at least a day, or two half days, depends on how you want to organise it. Regardless of religion, the Vatican is a must-visit on a Rome tour. So, I built a one-day itinerary that can be divided into two or even three in the Catholic capital.
The Vatican, the smallest country in the world
A country created less than a century ago, the Vatican still displays all its pomp and opulence from the time that was just a neighbourhood in the city of Rome. Founded by Cardinal Pietro Gasparri after the Lateran Treaty, it has less than 1,000 inhabitants and is just a few miles from the Tiber River, near Castel Sant’Angelo, which was formerly responsible for the Vatican’s main defense – today it is Italy itself that has this responsibility. In its few streets, its centuries of history tumultuously mix with a gigantic amount of tourists. Due to its size, it is obviously easy to explore on foot – the only way, in fact. Although it is no longer the largest church in the Catholic world, the Vatican still has the most visited of them.
Within the city-state, there is the Pope’s house, the third-largest basilica in the world, and rich museums. It is an autocracy where all powers are concentrated in the Pope since he is the successor of Saint Peter. The church in his name, St. Peter’s Basilica, can be seen at every turn, among old buildings.
Don’t miss its details, the Holy Door and Michelangelo’s Pietá. It is still possible to see the tomb of Saint Peter and visit the Sistine Chapel, but this is only by visiting the Vatican Museums, one of the most important museums in the world! Even if you don’t understand or enjoy art, these museums are something to feel the unique and incredible feeling of being inside, it’s all very beautiful and magical. Sometimes, the works are the least there.
How to organise your trip to the Vatican
To get the most out of your visit to the Vatican, unfortunately, it is important to organise a little in advance. The first question to answer is whether you want to see the Pope. As he only appears on Sundays and Wednesdays, you must book one of these days if applicable. The advantage of Wednesday is that you can dedicate only one day to the Vatican, but if you choose Sunday, the most traditional, you will probably have to dedicate at least two half-days to the Vatican, as museums only open one Sunday a month, the last.
As for time, reserve at least 3 hours to visit the Vatican Museums if you are interested in art. If you have a lot of interest, you can easily spend twice as much there. If you don’t have an interest, set aside at least 2 hours, as the museum is quite large and you have to cross a large part of it to visit the Sistine Chapel.
Buy your tickets to the museums 3 months in advance, if you want to combine the visit with some other tour there – I advise you to do anyone who gives you access to the Vatican gardens, as it is beautiful and rich in history! If you don’t want to combine anything and if it’s not August, 1 to 2 months in advance is enough to guarantee a specific day and time. The advantage is not to face the queue at the museum and still guarantee the best time to combine with other attractions.
Another super interesting option, but much more restricted, is to visit the Vatican necropolis where Saint Peter’s tomb is located. The problem is that you have to request the tour by email, sending the names of the people who are going to do the tour, the language you want and the days you will be visiting the Vatican, at least 3 months in advance. They respond quickly. There is another tour sold on the Vatican website to a necropolis, but it is not the same.
If you wish to attend a papal audience held on Wednesdays, you must also request in advance. The best way nowadays is to request through Saint Patrick’s American Community at least 1 week in advance. You only need to check the correct dates on the Vatican City hall website. Some hearings do not require tickets, but you must arrive at least 2 hours in advance at the venue.
Our experience with the Vatican was to go there almost every day of the 5 days we were in Rome. All because we wanted a sunset from the top of St. Peter’s Basilica.
Our first trip to the Vatican was to take the tour of the Musei Vaticani – the Vatican Museums – together with the Giardini Vaticani, which are the gardens where the Pope lives, and the Necropoli Via Triumphalis. It was super interesting, we have no regrets at all for taking this type of visit. The whole story of the main sites of the gardens, the necropolis (which existed even before Christ) and the Vatican itself is told in detail. After all the explanation, the subsequent visit to the Basilica di San Pietro becomes much richer. You must book in advance, as the options are already a little limited. We had to book for a Saturday morning.
The tour ended at the entrance to the Vatican Museums. The museums are wonderful, probably the best museum we’ve ever been to in our entire lives. Even for those who don’t like museums, it is a must. The place itself is already beautiful, but, with the works that are there and Cappella Sistina, one of the last stops inside the museum – go, you won’t regret it a bit! From there we crossed Piazza San Pietro, but we did not enter the basilica. We left it for the next day.
The following day, we started our tour by arriving early at the basilica in order to visit it in full before the Pope’s blessing. We decided to go on Sunday morning. It is certainly the busiest day, as it is the day that the Pope goes to his small window to bless his nation – called Angelus, an ancient Catholic prayer. Before the Angelus, we walked a lot through the wonderful, exciting basilica! Time easily flies there admiring everything.
As we arrived about 2 hours before the blessing, we could enjoy the basilica, but I think until we lacked a little longer. It is important to arrive early, as there is a strict inspection of everyone who enters this area, so the queue takes a while – before entering the square and also after, just before entering the basilica. And the part of the square that has the best view of the pope is only accessible after going through the door of the basilica. Time has flown! And it didn’t even seem like there was that much queue…
The blessing is relatively quick. About 10 minutes before, the Pope’s window starts to be prepared – the crowd starts to get excited – and, at 12 pm, the Pope appears punctually at the window. The Angelus takes a few minutes, varying according to the day, the one we saw was about 10 minutes, but it was really exciting! There are people from all over the world in the square, with flags, singing, and anxiously waiting for the Pope. Funny thing is that there are several false alarms before, always accompanied by an “Ahhh” chorus. Leaving there, it is a good idea to climb on top of the basilica to enjoy the view – especially at the end of the day.
From there, we walked through the few streets of the country-city and proceed to Castel di Sant’Angello, which is already outside the Vatican. For centuries this small fort was responsible for papal security. Even outside the Vatican, I would say that it is an attraction to be enjoyed when you are there, both for its proximity and for the connection of the castle with the Vatican. There is a lot of history, secret passages and paths that still connect the two. At the end of the day, we still went back to the basilica with the intention of going up and watching the sunset, but the long line forced us to postpone our plans for another day. At least, we walked inside the basilica again.
On Tuesday, we returned for the third time to the Vatican at the end of the day to try to see the sunset from above the basilica. Unfortunately, we didn’t make it again, as we arrived a little late. Anyway, it’s for the next one!
What to do in Vatican City
The following attractions are grouped by proximity. Except for the Vatican Gardens and the Vatican Necropolis, none of the other places can be missing from any itinerary!
Piazza San Pietro, Basílica di San Pietro & Necropoli Vaticana
St. Peter’s Square is one of the most beautiful and largest squares in the world, which can host more than 300 thousand faithful. It was built in the 17th century and gives access to the main doors of St. Peter’s Basilica. It was designed by the Italian architect and sculptor Bernini – who has works spread throughout Rome and, of course, as it could not be missing, in the Vatican. It is very worthwhile to dedicate time only to the square. Once there, be sure to check out the immense columns and pilasters that surround it and those shelter statues of Catholic saints on top, the two fountains in the middle of the square, and the 82ft high obelisk brought from Egypt by Caligula when the site it was still a circus, even before the existence of the square. It was in this obelisk where Saint Peter was martyred and, at its top, says it houses parts of the cross where Christ was crucified – placed there in the 16th century.
St. Peter’s Basilica is where the Pope celebrates the most important liturgies and, inside, is the Holy See, the most important religious temple of Catholicism. It bears this name in honor of the first pope, St. Peter, who is buried in the catacombs of the basilica.
The current basilica was completed in the 17th century, replacing the old one originally built in the 4th century, under Constantine’s order. It preserves 8 original columns from the first church. The altar remains in the same location, but the new basilica uses a different area. Several architects participated in its construction, among which Michelangelo, Bernini and Raffaelo stand out. Its dome, also Michelangelo’s initial work, is 446ft high and can be seen from afar from various areas of Rome. It was a landmark of architecture at the time. The best views of the basilica and its dome are from the Vatican Gardens and via Via della Conciliazione coming from Castel Sant’Angelo. It is amazing to see it growing in the landscape with each step until it takes over the whole panorama. The dome, by the way, served as the main inspiration and reference for the Washington Capitol and London Cathedral. Don’t miss the classic view from up there, especially if the day is beautiful. If you can, the sunset seen from there is wonderful. It’s paid, but it’s worth it!
The basilica is gigantic and can accommodate up to 200,000 people. Entering the basilica, especially if you are a Catholic, is one of the most incredible things of any trip to Rome. Inside, there are several famous statues such as Bernini’s Baldaquino, Michelangelo’s La Pietà and the bronze statue of Saint Peter on his throne, in addition to the tomb of Pope John Paul II. And since you are here, also visit the Treasury Museum of San Pedro and Capella dei Papi, where some old popes are buried.
It is only possible to visit the real tomb of Saint Peter with a 3-month advance reservation by sending an email with the name of the people who will be taking the tour, the desired language and the days that will be in the Vatican. It is found in the Vatican Necropolis, which is located under St. Peter’s Basilica. It is part of an ancient Roman necropolis buried during the construction of the first church on the site, as Emperor Constantine wanted the main Catholic church on top of St. Peter’s tomb, at the time, the only one that was preserved. Excavations in the last century unearthed the entire necropolis in search of the tomb of St. Peter, which ended up being whelmed with the years and disuse of the site, which revealed not only the tomb but pagan and Christian tombs.
Musei Vaticani & Cappella Sistina
One of the most visited museums in the world, the Vatican Museums bring together thousands of works belonging to the Catholic Church. It is actually a palace that gathers several smaller museums but connected to the same building. As you enter the museums, you will see several signs indicating different paths. If you like art, don’t take the shortcut to Capella Sistina, take the longest way.
The line to enter the Vatican Museums is the worst line on a trip to Rome. Therefore, it is best to buy tickets online. And reserve at least 3 to 4 hours for museums. However, if you really want to enjoy it, it’s more than an easy whole day. Get ready as the visit is a bit tiring because there is a lot to see and a lot, but a lot of people. Moreover, museums do not open on Sundays, except on the last of each month when admission is free, and on international holidays and some Catholic holidays.
The collection has been brought together since Pope Julius II’s initial donation in the 16th century. Since then, it has only increased until it became one of the largest in the world. The museums, in order of the complete route, are:
- Museo Gregoriano Egizio – 9 rooms with monuments, artefacts and sarcophagi of Ancient Egypt (3rd century BC), and 1 room with pieces from Mesopotamia, Syria and Palestine.
- Museo Pio Clementino – 54 rooms of Greek and Roman works. A highlight for the sculpture of Canova “Perseus with the head of Medusa”.
- Museo Gregoriano Etrusco – 22 ceramic, bronze, silver, and gold rooms of the Etruscan civilization (9th to 1st century BC), Italian vases and Italian frescoes.
- Museo Chiaramonti – a thousand works, from statues to friezes and sarcophagi.
- Sala della Biga – statues and the monumental marble chariot of the 1st century.
- Galleria degli Arazzi – 16th century flamenco rugs;
- Galleria delle Carte Geografiche – 40 gigantic maps painted on frescoes in the 16th century.
- Appartamento di San Pio V – flamenco rugs from the 15th and 16th centuries, miniature medieval ceramics and mosaics;
- Sala dell’Immacolata – 19th century Italian canvases;
- Stanze di Raffaello – 4 rooms decorated by himself and his students.
- Collezione d’Arte Contemporanea (Appartamento Borgia) – more than 600 sculptures, paintings and prints, with emphasis on works by Chagall, Gauguin, Kandinsky, and Klee.
- Sala delle Nozze Aldobrandine – room with Reni’s frescoes with stories of Samson.
- Pinacoteca – 18 rooms that display paintings from the Middle Ages to the 19th century. A highlight for works by Botticelli, Caravaggio, Da Vinci, Fra Angelico, Raffaello, Titian, and Veronese, among other masters.
- Museo Missionario Etnologico – containing more than 80,000 works of art from all Catholic missions in Asia, Africa and America.
- Museo Storico (Padiglione delle Carrozze) – carriages, riding chairs, papal portraits, automobiles, and even the first locomotive in Vatican City.
- Museo Pio Cristiano – a collection of sarcophagi and Paleocristan statuary (6th century) and Hebrew epigraphs and tombstones.
- Museo Gregoriano Profano – statues, bas-reliefs and mosaics from the Roman era (1st to 3rd century AD).
In addition to these galleries, rooms and museums, and other smaller ones not listed, there are four chapels along the route that display frescoes and historic paintings such as Cappella di San Pietro Martire, Cappella Niccolina, Cappella di Urbano VIII and, probably the most famous chapel the world, Cappella Sistina.
The Sistine Chapel is Michelangelo’s masterpiece, one of the Vatican’s greatest treasures. In addition to all the art of the place, it is still used today for the selection and coronation of the popes. It was built in the 15th century and the original temple of Solomon inspires its architecture, but it only received the painting present today in the subsequent century. It has works – besides Michelangelo, of course – by Botticelli, Perugino and Rafael, among others.
All of the ceiling frescoes are the work of Michelangelo, with emphasis on the nine stories of Genesis in the center. The main and best known, the Creation of Adam, is right in the center of the vault. On the higher altar is another masterpiece by Michelangelo, the Last Judgment. The most curious thing is that his most famous works present here in the chapel, made them upset because he thought he was much more of a sculptor than a painter.
Along with the ticket from the Vatican Museums, it is also possible to purchase the entrance to the guided tour of the Vatican Gardens, in case the Pope does not have an appointment in the gardens. The place is beautiful, with lots of nature – flowers, lawns and even a small forest – and spirituality, sensational. Each corner is rich in detail. If you want to know more about the Vatican, the tour is essential. The gardens also have one of the most beautiful views from the dome of the basilica.
The gardens occupy a large part of Vatican Hill and have been maintained in the original landscape designed by the architect Bramante (with small additions) since the 16th century. Curiosity: part of the soil of the gardens is of soil originally brought from Mount Calvary, where Jesus Christ was crucified.
When to go to the Vatican
The Vatican can be visited at any time of the year, but August is usually a bit more crowded, as there are no tickets to see the Pope on Wednesdays, visits become on a first-come, first-served basis. For the Vatican Museums and the Basilica, the queues are huge at that time and, to guarantee online tickets, you have to buy them a little more in advance than in other months.
Getting to and from the Vatican
The only way to get in and out of the Vatican is through Rome.
By land, the most popular options for Rome are:
- Florence – 2.5 hours by train or 4 hours by bus for €20;
- Zurich, Switzerland – 8 hours by train for €80 (via Como and Milan);
- Salzburg, Austria – 9.5 hours by train for €50 (via Venice).
By air, there are direct flights to Rome from the main European cities. From those that do not border, you can find good prices for:
- Bucharest, Romania, Valletta, Malta, Budapest, Hungary, Athens, Greece, Berlin, Germany, Brussels, Belgium, Madrid, Spain, Copenhagen, Denmark, London and Edinburgh, UK, and Lisbon and Porto, Portugal, from €10;
- Prague, in the Czech Republic, Paris, France, from €15;
- Krakow, Poland, from €20;
- Lviv, Ukraine, from €30;
- Amsterdam, in the Netherlands, from €45.
By water, there are only regular ferry lines to Sardinia and Sicily, among those to Spain:
- Palermo – 13.5 hours by ferry for €45;
- Sardinia – 7 hours by ferry for €50;
- Barcelona, Spain – 20-hour ferry ride for €60.