The Vatican Museums house something like 70,000 pieces of art, only 20,000 of which are on display. It’s one of the largest museums in the world and includes 54 galleries, including the Sistine Chapel. The museums were founded by Pope Julius II in the 16th century and today it is the 4th most-visited museum in the world, with around 6 million visitors shuffling their way through the galleries each year.
And then there’s the rest of Vatican City: the Basilica, the Square and centuries of history.
I planned and plotted my visit to Vatican City, scouring the internet for tips on how to make the visit enjoyable, but it was still overwhelming. Incredible and beautiful, but still overwhelming.
1. GET TICKETS & GO EARLY.
My Vatican City adventure happened in mid-May, technically before peak tourist season, but only by a little bit. Everything I read online about visiting the Vatican Museums said I should buy tickets in advance, ideally for early morning entry. So, we bought our tickets about a month in advance, just in case, and got to the Vatican right around 8:30 a.m. with our 9 a.m. tickets in hand.
There was a line, but it was short and for about the first hour or so, the crowds inside were pretty thin. By noon, when we finished our visit, the place was packed and the line to get in snaked its way along the walls of Vatican City.
2. MAKE A PLAN OR TAKE A TOUR.
The thought of listening to someone talk about the Vatican for multiple hours did not appeal to us at all, nor did the idea of shuffling along behind a tour guide with a big group of strangers, so we visited the Vatican Museums without a guide.
In retrospect, I wish we’d done more research on the collection and made more of a plan to see specific pieces instead of just meandering from gallery to gallery. Rick Steves has an audio tour and most guidebooks will provide at least a brief overview of the key pieces in the Vatican’s enormous collection to help visitors better prioritize their art-viewing experience.
3. DRESS APPROPRIATELY.
It’s church, y’all! Both men and women are required to have shoulders and knees covered and, if you don’t, they won’t let you in. If you’re planning to visit multiple churches in Italy, especially if it’s super hot outside, take a scarf or shawl that you can wrap around your upper or lower parts to ensure you’re not barred from entering any of these incredible places.
4. PREPARE FOR A MARATHON.
Drink water, wear comfortable shoes, maybe stretch a little, because, in visiting Vatican City, you will walk many, many miles and there will be little opportunity to sit down. Be sure to take water with you and a snack too, because no one wants to be around you when you get hangry in the middle of the Sistine Chapel.
5. DON’T FALL DOWN THE STAIRS.
I was really excited to take a picture of that much-photographed spiral staircase at the Vatican and it’s even more lovely in person, but what no one tells you is that it feels sort of like you’re going to tip over when you’re walking down it. I did not like it one bit, but that didn’t stop me from taking a whole slew of photos in between taking teeny, tiny little steps down.
6. DON’T FORGET ST. PETER’S BASILICA.
The walk from the Vatican Museums to St. Peter’s Square and the Basilica takes about 15-20 minutes. Unlike the Vatican Museums, the Basilica is free to enter, but it requires waiting in a few more lines. We spent about an hour in line, mostly just waiting to get through security. The line was in the sun and even in May it was very, very hot. Wear a hat, reapply your sunscreen and don’t forget to hydrate.
7. CLIMB (OR RIDE) TO THE TOP OF THE BASILICA.
For those who’d like to see St. Peter’s Square from the top of St. Peter’s Basilica, you can either hike up 551 stairs for €6 or ride the elevator halfway up and hike the remaining 320 stairs for €8. We opted to walk, being absolute lunatics and while my legs definitely complained on the way up and down, it was so, so worth it for the view.
Plus, it’s a life rule to do the hard thing, even when it means climbing 551 stairs.