Tips to visit the Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel
Because of its popularity, it’s best to arrive prepared when you visit Vatican Museum.
Most people know two common facts about the Vatican City – it’s home to the Pope and it’s the smallest country in the world. But within the borders of this 44-hectare independent state lies a treasure chest of art and history.
People flock to the Vatican in their millions to stare in awe at Michelangelo’s masterpieces on the ceiling and walls of the Sistine Chapel, to get a glimpse of the Pope, and to marvel at the inside of St Peter’s Basilica.
It is highly recommended to buy your Vatican Museum tickets in advance. You can also take a guided tour if you don’t have time to read up about the most important places and works of art.
- 1 10 things to see and do when you visit Vatican Museum
- 1.1 1. Visit Vatican Museums in general
- 1.2 2. Visit Sistine Chapel
- 1.3 3. Visit St Peter’s Basilica
- 1.4 4. St Peter’s Square
- 1.5 5. Attend a Papal Audience
- 1.6 6. Attending Mass in St Peter’s Basilica
- 1.7 7. Enter the dome of St Peter’s Basilica
- 1.8 8. The sacred caves of the Vatican
- 1.9 9. The Vatican Necropolis (Scavi)
- 1.10 10. Visit Vatican Gardens
- 2 Vatican Museum tickets and avoiding the queues
- 3 Is there a Vatican Card included in Rome Passes?
- 4 Practical information to visit Vatican Museum
- 5 Conclusion to the tips to visit Vatican Museum and attractions
10 things to see and do when you visit Vatican Museum
1. Visit Vatican Museums in general
The Vatican City State was founded on 11 February 1929. One could say it’s the “headquarters” of the Roman Catholic Church. As such, it’s home to the Pope as the head of the church.
Various Vatican museums contain some of the world’s most valued paintings, sculptures and other works of art collected by the Popes over many centuries.
Monumental works of art included in the Vatican Museums are:
- The Sistine Chapel
- The Chapel of Beato Angelico
- The Raphael Rooms
Important individual museums within the Vatican include:
- The Pinacoteca
- The Christian, Profane and Missionary-Ethnological Museums
- The Egyptian Museum
- The Etruscan Museum
- The Gallery of Tapestries
2. Visit Sistine Chapel
Pope Sixtus IV commissioned the construction of the Sistine Chapel as a defensive structure against, among others, Muhammad II’s Turks. Sixtus also inaugurated the chapel in 1483. Afterward, he summoned various painters to decorate the chapel. They included Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, and Perugino.
But it was Pope Julius II who, in the early 1500s, summoned Michelangelo to fresco the ceiling vault. The exquisite painting dedicated to the history of mankind before the coming of Christ took four years, from 1508 to 1512, to complete. Between 1536 and 1541 Michelangelo also painted the “Last Judgement” in the Sistine Chapel.
Take note: Photography in the Sistine Chapel is no longer allowed.
Top tip: If you book a guided tour of the Vatican, you’ll most likely enter St Peter’s Basilica from a different entrance after visiting the Sistine Chapel, saving you a lot of time.
3. Visit St Peter’s Basilica
Holding the tomb of St Peter, or the “Prince of Apostles”, the St Peter’s Basilica was consecrated in 329. It was a longitudinal building with a nave, four isles, and a transept. Many changes and additions followed over the years, including the vast dome which was designed by Michelangelo in 1547.
The “classical” façade of St Peter’s was designed by Carlo Maderno and completed between 1607 and 1612. Visitors are in awe of the vast size of the basilica. It’s 187 metres long, 140 metres wide at the transept, and 58 metres wide across the aisles. The maximum height of the vault is as high as a 15-storey building.
4. St Peter’s Square
The huge square in front of St Peter’s Basilica was designed and built between 1656 and 1667 by Bernini. Surrounded by 284 columns, the square is 320 metres deep and 240 metres in diameter.
Things to look out for on St Peter’s Square:
- The statues of 140 saints on the balustrade above the columns
- An obelisk with a fountain on each side in the centre of the square
- Statues of St Peter and St Paul at the foot of the staircase in front of the basilica
- The Royal Staircase which leads to the Vatican Palaces
Tip: Approach St Peter’s Square from the Via della Conciliazione for a superb view of the basilica dome.
5. Attend a Papal Audience
Join thousands of Christians for a Papal audience every Wednesday morning when Pope Francis is in Rome. Tickets are free (although you must apply in advance). Most Papal audiences are held on St Peter’s Square. Check the official Vatican website for the up-to-date schedule.
A Papal Audience shouldn’t be confused with a Papal Mass, like at Christmas or Easter. During a Papal audience, the Pope gives a speech, followed by prayers, a homily, and singing. At the end, he is available to bless babies and religious articles in general.
6. Attending Mass in St Peter’s Basilica
Despite it being a major tourist attraction, St Peter’s Basilica is still an actual parish church where regular masses are held.
Public masses are held every weekday at 8:30 in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel, and hourly from 9:00 to 12:00 at the Altar of St. Joseph. On Sundays and Holy Days, the first mass starts at 9:00 at the Altar of the Chair, with more to follow at different times during the day.
Click here for more information about St Peter’s Basilica masses.
Take note: The regular masses are held in Italian only.
7. Enter the dome of St Peter’s Basilica
For an unforgettable top-down view of the nave of St Peter’s Basilica (and surrounding Rome), it is highly recommended to climb inside Michelangelo’s cupola (dome). You can either walk the 231 steps or take a lift to get to the first level. If you’re brave, you can take another 230 stairs (no lift) to the very top.
From inside the dome, you can see the beautiful decorative mosaics up close. It’s also possible to go out onto the roof from the first level. Apart from the views over St Peter’s Square and Rome, you will see the statues of Jesus and the Apostles from the back.
At this level, you can also walk out onto the roof of the basilica. Here, you can go to the front and check out Jesus and the apostles. These are the statues you see on the roof of the basilica when you look at it from the square.
Note: To enter the dome, you must visit either the Vatican Museums or St Peter’s Basilica.
Skip-the-line tickets (available here) for one or either are highly recommended to speed things up.
8. The sacred caves of the Vatican
The Vatican Grottos are a special area in the basement of St Peter’s Basilica where the tomb of St Peter and a number of Popes can be seen.
There are various chapels, corridors, and niches in the Vatican Grottos, with some tombs, art and artifacts dating to the 10th century. A fresco depicting Mary’s swollen face by Pietro Cavallini, a well-known Roman painter from the 14th century, is a must-see in the Vatican Grottos.
Also, look out for the much newer monuments of Popes Paul VI and John Paul II.
9. The Vatican Necropolis (Scavi)
The scavi or Vatican Necropolis, which were only discovered between 1940 and 1949, is the Vatican’s own underground catacombs. They are different from other catacombs in that they were originally part of an open-air cemetery containing tombs from the 2nd century BC.
Recent studies are supporting legend that the Apostle Peter was buried at the end of the necropolis. To preserve the site and because of the limited space around the tomb, Vatican Necropolis tour numbers are visited. So, book yours in time!
10. Visit Vatican Gardens
If it’s possible to get tired of architecture and art when you visit the Vatican, then the Vatican Gardens offers a different experience.
The history of the gardens may go as far back as 1279 but the beautiful plants are a stunning reflection of the Vatican of today.
Covered in sprawling lawns, exotic flowers, fountains, and statues, the Vatican Gardens make up around half of the Vatican City’s 44 hectares. Tours can be booked through this website.
Vatican Museum tickets and avoiding the queues
As one of the most popular attractions in the entire world, you can imagine the waiting lines for Vatican tickets. It’s really worth buying your tickets in advance and including fast track access if you can.
Here is an overview of some of the different options for Vatican tickets:
- Vatican Museum tickets and Sistine Chapel – Admission is €17 (+4€ for skip the line) when you buy the ticket at the Vatican on the day. Online tickets cost €29,70 and include fast-track access
- Vatican Museum and St Peter’s Basilica guided tour tickets – To really appreciate the historic significance of the Vatican and understand the works of art, a guided tour is a must. Including skip-the-line tickets, you can choose between an audio-guide or a personal guide (check options here).
- Early entrance Vatican Museum tickets with breakfast – Beat the crowds by starting your visit to the Vatican Museums at 7:00 or 7:15. These special tickets also include breakfast
- Special night tickets for Vatican Museums and St Peter’s Basilica – From late April to late October special online tickets are available to visit the Vatican Museums and St Peter’s Basilica from 19:00 to 23:00
Is there a Vatican Card included in Rome Passes?
While Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel tickets are not included in the Roma Pass, there is a special pass that does include a Vatican Card as well as the Roma Pass.
Called the Omnia Card (available here), this offer is tailormade to give you access to Rome’s best attractions in the shortest possible time with skip-the-line tickets.
The OMNIA Card costs €113 (check last price here) and is valid for 72 hours. It includes the following:
- Vatican Museum tickets & Sistine Chapel tickets
- Entry to 2 out of 6 top Rome attractions such as the Colosseum and Roman Forum
- Fast track entry to St Peter's Basilica, the Sistine Chapel and the Colosseum
- Travel on the hop-on-hop-off Rome bus for 3 days
- A public transport travelcard for unlimited access to Rome's public transport system
- Discounted entry to more top sights and attractions
Practical information to visit Vatican Museum
The best time to visit the Vatican Museum ?
Because of its popularity big groups arrive between mid-morning to mid-afternoon. The best times to avoid the crowds and visit Vatican museum are soon after opening or shortly before closing.
Winter months are also quieter except for Christmas and New Year. Avoid going at Easter to visit Vatican museum when visitor numbers are at their highest.
How to get to Vatican Museum ?
The Vatican is easily reached on foot or by public transport. The Metro (A-line) has two stops close to the Vatican – Cipro and Ottaviano. In addition, tram 19 stops at St Peter’s.
With the Omnia Card (buy here), you can also use the hop-on-hop-off bus to get close to the Vatican.
General tips for a successful Vatican Museum visit
Allow 2 to 3 hours for your tour of the Vatican Museums (including the Sistine Chapel) and another one to 2 hours for St Peter’s Basilica and the sacred caves. Note these times do not take into account waiting in line for tickets or for the security check.
No large bags or objects, including umbrellas, tripods and video cameras, are allowed inside the Vatican Museums. You must also check all food and drink in.
Also, remember there is a strict dress code. Sleeveless clothes, shorts, mini-skirts or hats are not allowed.
Conclusion to the tips to visit Vatican Museum and attractions
Whether you visit the Vatican for the art, the architecture, the Pope or simply because it’s the smallest country in the world – you’ll be much better off going prepared. Buy your Vatican and Sistine Chapel tickets online in advance to avoid queuing for them.
Even better, consider the Omnia Card to make the best of your Rome and Vatican visit overall.