Visiting the Vatican Museums & St. Peter’s Basilica: the complete guide
19th Jul 2019
The Vatican Museums boast some of the most spectacular collections of art in all the world. Snaking through countless halls and galleries stuffed full of priceless art treasures and antiquities, a visit to the Vatican Museums is a whirlwind journey through thousands of years of history and culture. Where else can you witness Michelangelo and Raphael’s crowning achievements, the greatest sculptures of the ancient world, priceless tapestries, Egyptian artefacts, jaw-dropping Renaissance architecture and even retired Pope-mobiles all under the same roof? But with so many things to see it can be as challenging a place to visit as it is rewarding. Each year the Vatican welcomes more than 5 million people through its gates, and the resulting jam-packed experience can be overwhelming. So if you want to get the best out of your experience, you had better come with a plan! Discover exactly how to visit the Museums with our comprehensive guide, and find out all the practical information you need to know to plan your visit – from how to get there to when to visit, from ticket prices to how to skip the lines and where to have lunch.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
- What exactly is the Vatican City anyway, and where is it?
- Where can I buy Vatican Museums tickets, and how much do they cost?
- Who is entitled to discounted Vatican Museums tickets?
- Is anyone entitled to free entry to the Vatican Museums?
- What about those days when there’s free entry for everybody?
- What are the opening hours of the Vatican Museums?
- Friday Nights at the Vatican: Special Evening Entrance Tickets
- How long should I spend in the Vatican Museums?
- How do I avoid the crowds at the Vatican, and when should I visit?
- Do Vatican Museums tickets include entry to the Sistine Chapel?
- Do Vatican Museums tickets include entry to St. Peter’s Basilica?
- Can I visit the Vatican Gardens as part of my trip to the museums?
- How do I get to the Vatican?
- What should I do for lunch?
What exactly is the Vatican City anyway, and where is it?
First things first: strictly speaking the Vatican City isn’t part of Rome, or even Italy, at all. Instead, it’s the smallest independent nation-state in the world, an enclave on the western banks of the Tiber river officially founded in its current incarnation via a deal made between Mussolini and Pope Pius IX in 1929. The Vatican Palace is the permanent residence of the Pope, who in his role as Bishop of Rome is the infallible head of the Catholic faith and spiritual leader to billions of people around the world.
The Pope is also the Vatican’s absolute leader and head of state, with control over the executive, the judiciary and legislative branches of the Vatican’s equivalent of government, known as the Curia. The Vatican City operates like a fully-fledged country in miniature: it boasts its own telephone system, internet domain and postal service; it has an official pharmacy, an independent radio station, daily newspaper and publishing press, and even a banking system and its own mint. The Vatican also has its own equivalent of a standing army – the gaudily dressed Swiss Guards are sworn to protect the person of the Pope, and have been putting their bodies on the line in his name since the start of the 1500s.
But although the Vatican does have clearly defined borders marked by its imposing fortified medieval walls, fear not: you don’t need to dust off your passport when you get off the metro on your way to the Museums or St. Peter’s basilica. The Vatican does print its own passports for citizens, the most exclusive identity card in the world – only about 450 are in existence. In practice, however, the public areas of the Vatican city can be visited just like anywhere else in the city of Rome. Just don’t try to sneak past the halberd-wielding Swiss Guards into the private parts of the palaces and gardens that are the preserve of popes and cardinals.
Where can I buy Vatican Museums tickets, and how much do they cost?
If you show up at the Vatican ticket office without a reservation, then tickets cost €17 for adults and €8 for children under 18. But unless you enjoy tests of endurance or consider queuing to be an Olympic sport, then this is not a wise thing to do – you might find yourself waiting literally for hours to get in.
Instead, book your ticket in advance online from the official website of the Vatican museums (museivaticani.va). You will have to reserve a specific date and time-slot for your entrance and pay an extra booking fee of €4 per ticket, but you will be glad you did when you see the endless lines of visitors sweltering in the Roman sun as they queue round and round and round the block! You will still need to queue to get through security along with other visitors who have booked their tickets in advance, but this line will be a heck of a lot shorter.
Please note that tickets are strictly non-refundable.
If you wish to rent an audio guide to talk you through the highlights of the collection you can do this after you enter the museums for an additional €7.
Alternatively, you might want to consider booking a spot on a special guided Vatican tour that will take care of all the practicalities for you, including skip-the-line tickets.
Who is entitled to discounted Tickets, and how much do they cost?
The following categories of visitor are entitled to avail of a reduced entrance ticket costing €8 (the additional booking fee of €4 for online reservations still applies):
- Children aged between 6 and 18 years old (inclusive).
- University students up to an including the age of 25 (with documentation proving enrolment for current year).
- Members of the clergy (including priests, seminarians and novices).
Please make sure that you are actually entitled to a discounted ticket before reserving one, and bring a document to prove it on the day of your visit. If the Vatican officials determine you aren’t entitled to avail of a discounted ticket then they will make you pay for a full price entrance on the day IN ADDITION to the discounted ticket you’ve already purchased.
Senior citizens are unfortunately not entitled to any form of discount and must purchase full price tickets.
Is anyone entitled to a free ticket?
Yes! The following categories of visitors are entitled to free entry to the Vatican Museums:
- All disabled visitors with certified invalidity of more than 74%. This also extends to a companion.
- Children below the age of 6.
- Certain classes of journalists (see the detailed information on the Vatican’s website for more information).
- University academics in certain cases and as authorised by the Vatican (see the Vatican website for more).
- Directors of museums, managing boards and other institutions devoted to protecting historical, artistic and archaeological heritage (apply to the Vatican in advance)
What about those days when there’s free entry for everybody?
Entrance to the Museums is completely free on the last Sunday of each month and on World Tourism Day (September 27th). This might sound like a fantastic idea, but the crowds thronging the entrance turnstiles on these days make queues on a normal day at the Vatican look like the entrance line to your local paleography museum. Consider this option only if you are especially committed to thriftiness and willing to queue for a long time! Also bear in mind that the special free Sunday entrances also come with reduced hours – the last admission is at 12.30 P.M so make sure to get there early.
What are the opening hours of the Vatican Museums?
The Vatican Museums are open Monday to Saturday from 9 AM to 6 PM, with last entry at 4 PM (apart from the last Sunday of each month and special Friday evening openings in the summer – see below). On Sundays the Museums are closed to the public, and the Museums also remain closed on certain public holidays. For an up-to-date list, see the relevant page on the Vatican website.
Friday Nights at the Vatican: Special Evening Entrance Tickets
Like the Louvre in Paris, the Vatican makes available a limited number of special evening entrance tickets every Friday during the Spring and Summer months. On these days the Museums are additionally open between 7PM – 11PM. These tickets cost €21 for adults and €12 for children, and are always in high demand – make sure to book well in advance via the website. Alternatively you can book a dedicated Vatican Night Tour to ensure you don’t miss out. The Museums are markedly less busy during these times, so this can be a really fun and atmospheric way to avoid the crowds!
How long should I spend in the Vatican Museums?
Given the Museum route extends over 7 kilometres, you should really plan to spend most of the day here, and we do not recommend that you to try to pair visiting the Vatican with other sites on the same day. Even so you won’t be able to see everything the Museums have to offer in a single visit, although you will be able to catch the main attractions with a little forward planning and judicious use of your museum map. If you are running a really tight schedule then you can just about see the absolute highlights in 3 hours, but in this case you might be best off taking a guided tour specifically designed for visitors short on time - like Through Eternity’s Essential Sistine Chapel and Vatican tour.
How do I avoid the crowds at the Vatican, and when should I visit?
Ok, so you’ve made it into the Museums without queuing for too long thanks to your forward-thinking, but how do you escape the hordes once you’re inside? There are some things you can do to give yourself the best chance:
Avoid planning your trip for a Monday if possible – as most museums in Rome are closed this day, the Vatican is even busier than usual. Another trick to avoid the worst of the throng is to go early on a Wednesday morning, when the Pope conducts his Papal audience in St. Peter’s square. This attracts large crowds, and can temporarily take some of the squeeze off the Sistine Chapel and other Museum highlights.
Apart from Wednesdays, in our experience the early bird doesn’t always catch the worm at the Vatican. Most of the large mass-tourism groups break for lunch in the mid-afternoon, so this can be a strategic time to make sure you are heading to the Sistine Chapel. Or if you can stick around until closing time, you’ll very possibly find that the crowds dissipate dramatically in the early evening – the Sistine Chapel and Raphael Rooms can be surprisingly peaceful in the half an hour before the guards start shooing visitors out at 5.30 p.m.
If you are really committed to avoiding the crowds then you might want to consider an exclusive Early Vatican tour that enters the museums before they open to the general public, giving you precious time in the Sistine Chapel and other galleries with markedly less competition for prime viewing spots. We think this is a great option.
Do Vatican Museums tickets include entry to the Sistine Chapel?
Yes. The Sistine Chapel forms the heart-stopping climax of the Museum itinerary. As the Sistine Chapel is an integral part of the museums, you cannot purchase a separate ticket that takes you just to see Michelangelo’s masterpieces. To get to the Chapel you will have to follow the itinerary, but trust us – given the amazing array of artistic treasures you’ll encounter on the way, this is no bad thing!
Do Vatican Museums tickets include entry to St. Peter’s Basilica?
Even though they are both situated in the Vatican City, St. Peter’s basilica does not constitute part of the Vatican Museums. Unlike the Museums, the basilica is free to enter and you don’t require a ticket to get in. That being said, the entrance lines snaking across the square outside can be very long. Luckily, there is a way to enter the basilica directly from the Museums without joining this queue. As you are leaving the Sistine Chapel, there is a passage leading off to the right that leads straight into St. Peter’s basilica. This fast-track entrance is technically reserved for tour groups – if you join a guided small group tour to the Vatican this is the route you will take. But if you’re on your own it is worth trying to sneak through this entrance as well, because it’s a real time-saver. Vatican personnel in the Sistine Chapel may prevent you, but if you slip in behind a tour group you have every chance of being allowed through. It’s worth a shot!
St. Peter’s Basilica is open in summer from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and in the winter from 7.a.m. to 6.30 p.m. The Basilica is closed to visitors on Wednesday mornings during the Papal Audience a during other Papal masses. Remember to cover your shoulders or you won’t be allowed in!
Can I visit the Vatican Gardens as part of my trip to the museums?
Tickets to the Vatican Museums do not include entry to the Vatican gardens. The gardens can only be visited on a separate official guided tour organised by the Vatican - tickets cost €33 for adults, with discounts of €22 (closed Wednesdays and Sundays). The tour lasts approximately 2 hours, and must be reserved well in advance – to book, click here to visit the Vatican Museums official website. The ticket to the gardens does however include skip-the-lines entrance to the Vatican Museums included in the cost, which you can enter directly after the garden tour, so it is actually great value.
For more information on what to see in the Vatican Gardens as well as detailed practical information, see our dedicated Vatican Gardens guide.
How do I get to the Vatican?
The Vatican Museums are located in the northwest of the city, and are easily reachable via various forms of public transport:
Metro: The quickest way to get to the Vatican is by taking the A (red) line of the Metro heading towards the terminus Battistini. Get off at Ottaviano station and from there it’s a short walk to the entrance of the Museums on Viale Vaticano (you can also get off at the next stop, Cipro, which is also near the entrance).
Tram: If you aren’t staying near a metro stop you can take tram number 19 to Piazza del Risorgimento, a 5-minute walk from the entrance. This is a great option if you are staying near Villa Borghese, as the tram snakes past the north side of the park (with a stop outside GNAM, or the National Gallery of Modern Art) on its way towards the Vatican.
Bus: Numerous city buses will also take you near to the Vatican Museums entrance. We’ve listed the most useful below:
- The Express 40 route zooms through the city from Termini station, passing through central Rome before arriving at Borgo Sant’Angelo, just off Via della Concillazione and a 10-minute walk from the Vatican Museums entrance. This is the terminus, so you won’t have to worry about getting off at the wrong stop.
- The 62 route passes through Piazza Barberini, down Via del Corso and the historic centre before terminating at Borgo Sant’Angelo (Traspontina), a 10-minute walk from the Vatican Museums entrance.
- The 81 route passes right by the Colosseum, the Circus Maximus, Piazza Venezia and through the historic centre before terminating at Piazza del Risorgimento near the Vatican Museums entrance.
- The 492 route will take you from Piazza Barberini, Via del Tritone and Via del Corso through the historic centre to Piazza del Risorgimento.
Walk: If you’re in the historic centre, maybe the best way to get to the Vatican is just to walk! It’s about a half-hour walk to the Museums entrance from the Pantheon and Piazza Navona. It’s an extremely picturesque route, and this way you won’t have to battle the vagaries of public transport.
Main line train: There is also a mainline train station just to the south of St. Peter’s basilica. This can be very useful if you are arriving from the port of Civitavecchia or other towns along the coast north of Rome – all commuter trains on this route stop here.
Taxi: If you’re running late and need to get to the Vatican Museums in double quick time, then a taxi might be your best bet. From most spots in reasonably central areas this should cost no more than €15 – just make sure that the meter is running!
What should I do for lunch?
The Vatican Museums hosts a café and a restaurant where you can get coffee and pastries, panini and pizza by the slice. Although you shouldn’t expect gourmet cuisine or particularly low prices, they do the job if all you are looking to do is refuel, and the tables beneath umbrellas on the patio outside the café are a pleasant stop to rest your legs. Bringing food in from the outside is frowned upon, but in practice you are unlikely to be stopped if you want to discreetly eat a home-made sandwich on the benches in the Square Garden. If you can keep the hunger pangs at bay and want to have lunch in the local area after you finish your visit then be warned – there are a lot of rip-off tourist traps in the vicinity seeking to part unwary visitors from their cash. Luckily there are a couple of wonderful exceptions to the rule:
Panino Divino – Just around the corner from the entrance to the museums, this hole in the wall joint more than lives up to its name with on account of its heavenly sandwiches. Try the Brunello, with Parma ham, tangy primosale cheese and chilli jam or the Ciro’ – guanciale, caciotta cheese, sun-dried tomatoes and chilli jam.
Via dei Gracchi, 11 A, Mon- Sat 10:00 – 21:00
Borghiciana Pastificio Artigianale – If you’re looking for something more substantial, then this tiny place on one of the Borgo’s most characterful streets is a fantastic option. The casual canteen-like atmosphere belies the quality of their food: all of their pasta is hand-made on the premises, and dishes range from a mere €6.50 to €8. Their carbonara is one of the city’s best, whilst the tagliatelle with citrus is a beautifully light affair. You may have to queue, but the line moves quickly and it’s worth the wait!
Borgo Pio 186, Open 7 days: Mon-Wed, Sun, 09.00-18.00, Thu-Sat 09.00-22.30
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