Visiting the Vatican: everything you need to know

Written by Sam Van den Haute aka CheckOutSam

Visiting the Vatican is one of the highlights of your Italian vacation, but it's also very easy. It's the smallest country in the world and that means that all the sights of Vatican City are within walking distance of each other. If you're planning to visit the Vatican, be sure to read this article so that you are completely prepared for a flawless trip without spending hours in queues!

Sam Van den Haute CheckoutSam

Hi, I'm Sam, the blogger behind CheckOutSam!

Sam Van den Haute has been a full-time world traveler for ten years and has therefore gained a lot of travel and lifestyle inspiration on all continents. Do you still have questions after reading this blog? Ask them in the comments section or send me a message at [email protected] and I'll be happy to help you wherever I can!

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A brief history of Vatican City

How did that land of just 44 hectares actually come to be? Technically, it is an independent city of which the official name is ‘the Vatican City State’.
In 1870 there arose a dispute between the Pope and his cabinet and the Kingdom of Italy. The pope and his following refused to leave the Vatican territory until the case was cleared.
It was not until 1929 that an agreement was reached, after having negotiated for three years on political, religious and financial relations.
With the Treaty of Lateran, the Vatican was therefore recognized as a new entity and not just a Papal State like most of central Italy at the time. Later, these ecclesiastical States would be included in the Italian Republic, except for Vatican City, which would always remain independent.

The most important sights of the Vatican City

Although it is very small, there is a lot to do when you visit the Vatican. To make it easier for you, I wrote down a bit more about all the main attractions and sights:

St. Peter’s Basilica

It seemed appropriate to me to start this list with some form of irony. The largest church in the world is located in the smallest country in the world. With a surface area of ​​15,160 square meters, this whopper can accommodate around 60,000 believers. And luckily too! Because thousands of visitors come visit this church daily. If you plan to visit the basilica, it is not a bad idea to purchase priority tickets. This way you can just pass the queues of sometimes up to three hours (!) long. But be in time, because these skip-the-line tickets are of course also limited.

Originally there was another basilica, but in 1506 it was demolished and the construction of the basilica we know today started. It was not until 1626 that this giant construction was finished and dedicated to Saint Peter, one of the twelve apostles. He was also one of the founders of the Catholic Church and was buried under the basilica (at least that is what they claim).
The design of this Major Basicila (a title given to the four highest placed Catholic churches) was entrusted to Michelangelo, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Donato Bramante and Carlo Maderno. Michelangelo was also responsible for the imposing dome, which has an inner diameter of 42.6 meters.
If you are honoring this iconic church with a visit, you should definitely go upstairs with the stairs or elevator to the roof where you have a phenomenal view over the Vatican City and Rome.

view saint peters basilica dome

The view from the dome of the St. Peter’s Basilica. Wonderfull, isn’t it? On the left side of the photo you see the queue. And trust me: it can get even longer!

Saint-Peter’s Square

Right in front of the basilica you will find this beautiful square, which was also named after the apostle Peter.
In the center is an obelisk of 25.5 meters high which was brought to Rome by the famous emperor Caligula from Alexandria. It used to stand right in front of the circus of Nero until 1586 when it was moved to the Vatican City. Almost 100 years later, the previously mentioned Gian Lorenzo Bernini designed the square, with as its showpiece the Tuscan colonnades (284 Doric columns and 88 pillars lined up in four rows) that visitors must embrace, because they can be seen as an impersonation of the maternal arms of the Mother Church.
The other eye-catchers on this huge square are the two identical fountains: one designed by Carlo Maderno in 1613 and the other by Bernini in 1675. Why Bernini made a copy of it is still a mystery… (just kidding: they just wanted the square to have more symmetry).

st peter's square st peteres basilica

The St. Peter’s Square with the majestic St. Peter’s Basilica in the distance.

The Vatican museums

The Vatican museums contain no fewer than 70,000 works of art, of which 20,000 have been exhibited to the public. It is one of the largest museums in the world and we all owe that to Pope Julius II. In the beginning of the sixteenth century he got the genius (or divine) idea to make a museum of the Vatican art collection. The Vatican museums are actually a collection of a number of museums and galleries, including an Egyptian museum, a collection of Etruscan art, a collection of topographic maps and, of course, an impressive amount of masterpieces from the Renaissance. If you have always wanted to admire a work of art by Caravaggio, Raphael, Titan, Giotto and even Leonardo Da Vinci, this is the perfect opportunity.
Do not forget that you have to wait in line at another queue if you want to visit the Vatican Museums. Skip-the-line tickets are not a bad idea here either.
I would also like to give you a valuable tip: If you book a guided tour, you can go directly to the St. Peter’s Basilica via a side entrance and you do not have to wait in line twice.

visiting the vatican museums

Beautiful paintings and priceless sculptures. The Vatican museums are fantastic!

The Sistine Chapel

Technically, the world-famous Sistine Chapel is part of the Vatican Museums. So you automatically get access when you buy tickets for the Vatican museums. It is therefore not possible to buy a ticket for the Sistine Chapel, because you have to go through most of the museums until you reach the chapel (in most tours it’s the final destination). Take your time here and do not just walk through without admiring the other beautiful artworks.
The Sistine Chapel was given its name by Pope Sixtus IV della Rovere who commissioned Giovanni Di Dolce in 1475 to build it. Sandro Botticelli (known for his Venus) was called in for the interior. Eight years later, the chapel was solemnly inaugurated.
Only in 1508 Michelangelo was commissioned by Julius II (a nephew of Sixtus) to paint the now legendary ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The artist needed four years for this and in 1536 he was also asked to paint the Last Judgment on one of the remaining walls (commissioned by Paul III, another pope). He actually did all of this against his will, because he saw himself more as a sculptor than anything else. Artists…

final judgment michelangelo sistine chapel

Actually you may not take pictures, but I really had to share this beautiful piece of art with you of course!

The Swiss Guard

In 1506 these colorful bad boys were created by Pope Julius II to protect the Pope with their own lives. Not much later, in 1527 to be precise, Emperor Charles V entered Vatican City to assassinate Pope Clement VII. Thanks to the Swiss Guard he escaped through a secret passage to the Castel Sant’Angelo, although 150 of the elite troops were slaughtered.
Nowadays they are the personal bodyguards of the pope and they are armed with a traditional halberd, but also with modern firearms. Not everyone can be part of this elite corps, you have to meet the following requirements:

  • being a man (women are not allowed in)
  • at least 1.74 meters in size
  • be younger than 30 (although some may return after retirement)
  • being unmarried (although after at least three years of service after the age of 25 and at least being corporal and willing to serve at least three additional years, you may get permission to marry)
  • as the name suggests, you must have Swiss nationality and have undergone basic training with the Swiss army

If you visit the Vatican, you will definitely see them. A tip: they will be the only ones who have a crazy blue, red, orange and yellow suit. Or well, at least I hope they are the only ones…

swiss guard visiting the vatican

The Swiss guard are visiting the Vatican everyday! Lucky boys!

A papal audience

If you’ve always dreamed of getting a papal blessing, cheer and throw your arms in the air while you shout “hallelujah”, because this is in fact possible!
On certain Wednesdays when he is in the Vatican, he gives pilgrims and other visitors the papal or apolistic blessing. He reads a bit and also speaks some words of wisdom in Italian, but also in English, French, German, Spanish, Polish and Portuguese. Depending on the visiting groups, it is also possible that he speaks in other languages. What a polyglot. All information about his timetable can be found here. Praise the Lord.

visiting vatican papal audience

How can your visit to the Vatican City be even better? If you see the pope, of course!

The Vatican gardens

Strictly speaking there are two Vatican gardens. The most famous (and popular) are those just behind the St. Peter’s Basilica. The others are those of the papal summer residence at Castel Gandolfo (half an hour outside of Rome). Since this article is about the most important things to see inside the Vatican City, I of course will talk more about the first mentioned gardens. If you buy tickets for this, I actually have good news for you. Because you also get guided access to the Vatican Museums including the Sistine Chapel, without having to wait in line for a single minute! You will need to plan your visit a bit, but that is absolutely no disadvantage. Tickets can be ordered online.
In any case, it is wonderful to stroll around in the beautiful gardens, and there is also a replica of the grotto of Lourdes in France. So you can be sure that you’ll get a Christian VIP experience!

vatican gardens

The Vatican gardens are much less crowded.

Tickets for the Vatican

Access to the Vatican City itself is free, but for the Vatican museums and gardens you have to pay. Even if you want to climb the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica, that will cost you money. You do not have to pay for St. Peter’s Basilica, but keep in mind that waiting times of two or more hours are definitely possible. Of course there are also tickets with which you can just pass these long queues, but they cost €20 per person.
Tickets for the Vatican are very popular, so it is best to reserve your visit to Vatican City. Last-minute tickets can be booked online at various websites, such as GetYourGuide, Tiqets, Ticketbar and Viator.
Here you can easily book tickets for the Vatican Museums including the Sistine Chapel and if you plan this in advance, you will not have to wait for hours in the queue (along with countless other unprepared tourists).

A guided tour of the St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Museums combined is of course also possible and I really recommend doing so.
If you do not like crowds, you can also visit the Vatican Museums an hour before they officially open with a professional guide.


Eight facts about the Vatican you need to know before you are visiting the Vatican

  1. If you have ever wondered where the rings of the planet Saturn come from, you should not turn to science to get an answer. In the seventeenth century a mischievous librarian wrote a treatise with the melodious name ‘De Praeputio Domini Nostri Jesu Christi Diatriba’. In English this means as much as ‘A Discussion about the Foreskin of Our Lord Jesus Christ’. I never thought that those words would ever be spoken in one sentence. Now, the rascal believed that the foreskin of Jesus transcended his body and became the rings of Saturn. You read that well, yes. Jesus’ foreskin became the rings of Saturn. Even after writing it for a second time it still sounds ridiculous.
  2. Speaking of foreskin… did you know that photographer Piero Pazzi compiles a yearly photo calendar of the most handsome priests of the Vatican? For ten euros you already have an unforgettable souvenir. Fortunately without foreskin.
  3. Emperor Caligula, the one I mentioned above, was quite the joker! He named his horse as his consul, ordered his soldiers to attack the seawater and kept countless orgies. On top of that he was nicknamed “the monster” because he was so incredibly horrible. That makes it all the more ironic that his obelisk is standing in the middle of one of the most pious places in the world.
  4. Travelers who used to study Latin and have wondered why they did this… You can finally make good use of it! If you want to withdraw money when you visit Vatican City, you will be greeted in Latin! Totally worth those six years in high school!
  5. Has the pope always been a man? Not if we can believe a popular legend which tells us that during the Middle Ages, a certain Johanna dressed up as a man and of course she became a new Pope. She was only discovered when she gave birth to a child during a procession and thereby lost her life. Since then, a newly elected pope would have to sit in a special chair with a strategic opening, so that one can check whether all the right genitals are present.
  6. The shortest reign of a pope was barely thirteen days: Pope Urban VII in 1590. Pope Stephen II suffered a fatal stroke after only being elected since four days, but he wasn’t initiated yet. The youngest pope was Benedict IX, who was barely eleven years old when he was elected in 1032. This rascal later sold his papacy and allegedly organized homosexual orgies in the Lateran Palace. And no, he was not a member of the Caligula family.
  7. One pope (Benedict XII) was in fact elected by accident. During the Middle Ages, during the first round of voting, the cardinals often voted for a random candidate, to see for whom the rest had a preference. That went fine until 1334 when by accident they all voted for the same person. Something in me says that Donald Trump was elected in the same way… The longest election lasted three years.
  8. The current pope, Franciscus, used to work as a bouncer in a bar in Buenos Aires. You can stay up to date of his adventures via Twitter (@Pontifex). To give you an idea whay you can possibly expect: in the past he was fond of tango dancing and he also really loves Tolkien’s books. Also, think twice before you give him a present during a papal audience. He once received a Harley Davidson as a gift, but he sold it and gave the proceeds to the homeless. No idea how the giver of the gift felt about this.

Visiting Vatican City is of course a must if you are in Rome. In the Eternal City there is a lot to experience and discover (read this article) as well, which makes the Italian capital the ideal destination for a city trip. With or without a papal blessing.

things to do in the vatican city

Plan at least one day in this small country, because there is a lot to see!


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