How to Visit the Vatican

Ceiling detail at the Vatican Museum

Intricate ceiling detail at the Vatican Museum

The Vatican remains one of the largest collections of art in the world, and is a must see on many peoples’ bucket lists. It is not only one of the most visited sites in Rome, but in the world. In this post we share some tips for how to visit the Vatican.

Vatican History

The beginnings of the Vatican start with the martyrdom of St. Peter in 67 AD, but it wasn’t until 1277 that it became the official residence of the Papacy. Each Pope added his own touches to the apartments, most famously in 1473 when Pope Sixtus IV commissioned the building of the Sistine Chapel hiring Perugino, Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, Rosselli, and Luca Signorelli to fresco its walls. It wasn’t until 1508 that Pope Julius II brought in Michelangelo to paint the famous ceiling, and a young Raphael to paint the frescoes of the Papal Apartments. It was this same Pope that began the collection of antiquities, which still forms the backbone of the Vatican’s collection. More than just the seat of Catholicism, the Vatican to this day remains a repository for artistic masterpieces.

Planning How to Visit the Vatican

The Vatican is generally broken down into two distinct entities: the Vatican Museums and St. Peter’s Basilica. While many people visit both in the same trip or tour, they are both massive sites worthy of deeper exploration.  Also note that they do not necessarily open or close at the same hours. Those wondering how to visit the Vatican should carve out some time to properly explore.

The museums house the art collection within the walls of the Vatican City. More than six million people visit them annually, making it one of the most visited art museums in the world. There are 54 galleries ranging from classical antiquities and Ancient Egyptian pieces up to modern religious art. The most famous is of course the Sistine Chapel, which is famously the last gallery before exiting the museum. You could easily spend days lost in the many hallways and rooms filled with masterpieces when you visit the Vatican.

St. Peter’s Basilica started as a 4th-century church begun by Emperor Constantine the Great over the site of St. Peter’s tomb. By the 15th century, this building had fallen into disrepair, and Pope Nicholas V began plans for a new magnificent church to be built on the site of the previous one. In the end, Julius II, who famously started the art collection, decided to demolish the old basilica and commissioned Michelangelo to design the now-famous dome. Construction continued for more than 80 years before the dome was finished in 1590, the last year of the reign of Pope Sixtus V. The adornments in and around the Basilica continue to be added, including Bernini’s baldacchino, Cathedra Petri, and Gloria. Still an active church to this day, Catholics can still attend mass in the largest basilica in the world.

Vatican Opening Hours

To visit the Vatican, the museums are open from 9:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., with last entry at 4:00 p.m. Those wondering how to visit the Vatican should note, however, that tour operators are allowed in earlier. It is best to visit either first thing in the morning, with the 8:30 a.m. start time being ideal if you are touring, or early in the afternoon (around 1:30 p.m.) when it tends to clear out a bit after lunch. Keep in mind that museums are closed for all major Catholic holidays, so it is best to check your trip dates against the religious calendar if you wish to include the Vatican. Tickets to the museum cost 21.50 EUR for adults, and 13.50 EUR for anyone under 18 years old. St. Peter’s Basilica is open to the public from 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. in the late spring and summer, and 7:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. in the fall and winter. It is free to enter the main Basilica, though there are fees for some of the other sites within the church.

Visit the Vatican with Context Travel

  • Arte Vaticana with Skip the Line Tickets – This four hour seminar explores the collections of the Vatican Museums, including the Sistine Chapel, and St. Peter’s Basilica in the company of an art historian or theologian, and will explore the relationship between art and religion throughout the centuries.
  • Vatican Collections – This in-depth exploration of the Vatican Museums lasts 3-hours and includes the Sistine Chapel. It is a shorter version of the Arte Vaticana tour skipping St. Peter’s in favor of a greater depth to the survey of the art collections of the Vatican.
  • St. Peter’s Tour – Our comprehensive tour of St. Peter’s Basilica spends 3 hours looking at the architecture, art, and religious significance of this famous church.
  • Vatican Museum Tour for Kids – A 3 hour walk which will children a basic introduction to art and religion without overtaxing anyone’s patience.
  • Evening Vatican Tour - Explore the Vatican in the evenings through the summer season without the crowds led by an expert guide. Does not include St. Peter's Basilica, as it is closed during these hours.
  • After Hours Vatican Tour - Explore the Vatican for 2.5 hours led by an art historian when it is closed to the public with this exclusive private experience, only offered 4-5 times per year. No lines, no waiting.

How to Visit the Vatican: Transportation

To get to the Vatican the nearest metro stop is Ottaviano on line A. This is the orange line that runs through the Flaminio (Piazza del Popolo), Barberini (Trevi Fountain), and Termini stations. Exiting onto Via Ottaviano, the entrance to the Vatican is just around the corner, less than a 10 minute walk.

Additional Reading

  • The Pope’s Elephant by Silvio A. Bedini, 2000
  • In the Footsteps of Popes: A Spirited Guide to the Treasures of the Vatican by Enrico Bruschini, 2001
  • Michelangelo’s Last Judgement: The Renaissance Response by Bernadine Barnes, 1998
  • Lives of the Artists. by Giogio Vasari, 1998 The Renaissance in Rome. by Charles L. Stinger, 1998
  • High Renaissance Art in St. Peter’s and the Vatican: An Interpretive Guide by George L. Hersey, University of Chicago Press, 1993

Glossary of Terms You'll Hear

  • Baldacchino – an ornamental canopy on columns that rests over a tomb, altar, or throne.
  • Cartoon – a preparatory drawing made to the scale of the final work.
  • Chiaroscuro – the use of bold contrasts in light and dark to enhance volume.
  • Fresco – a method of painting on plaster. In true (buon) fresco, pigment is painted directly on damp plaster. As the plaster dries the pigment becomes a part of the wall. In dry (secco) fresco, pigment is applied after the plaster has dried. This method is not as durable as true fresco.
Want to learn with a true expert? Get a comprehensive view with one of Context's private or small group tours in Rome or travel the world from home - starting with a virtual tour of Italy.

Even More from Context

Subscribe to our Newsletter

Weekly stories to bring context to your world and to your inbox

Explore Tours

Join walking tours with top experts all over the globe.

Browse Our Cities