How to Visit the Vatican Museums

Ceiling detail at the Vatican Museum

Intricate ceiling detail at the Vatican Museum

Prepare for your journey through the hallowed halls of artistic brilliance and historical significance as we unveil the secrets to making your Vatican visit an unforgettable memory. Housing one of the world's most extensive art collections, the Vatican stands as a beacon for art enthusiasts, history buffs, and wanderers alike. Nestled in the heart of Rome, this iconic venue draws visitors from every corner of the globe. Join us as we unlock the doors to an immersive experience and provide insider tips on navigating the mesmerizing wonders that await within the Vatican's embrace.

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.

Navigating Crowds at the Vatican

Please be aware that during the summer travel period, the Vatican Museums, Sistine Chapel, and St. Peter’s Basilica can be subject to extremely high levels of visitor traffic. It’s important to anticipate slower movement, limited visibility, and potential restrictions on accessing certain areas due to the density of crowds. Our experienced guides are adept at navigating through these challenging conditions and will strive to optimize your tour experience.

To enhance your experience, we recommend considering the following suggestions:

  • Plan your visit wisely: Consider visiting during non-peak hours or choosing alternative times of the year when crowd levels tend to be lower. Mondays and Wednesdays seem to experience the highest levels of crowds during our Summer 2023 Season so far. During these peak times, there may be raised voices from security guards as they try to control the crowds. 

  • Opt for a private or small group tour: By booking a private or small group tour, you can enjoy a more intimate experience and personalized attention from our knowledgeable guides, which can enhance your understanding and enjoyment of these remarkable sites. Using their years of experience navigating the halls of the Vatican Museums, our guides are often able to take alternative routes through the galleries. 

  • Patience and understanding: We kindly request your patience and understanding as we navigate through the crowds together. Our guides will do their utmost to make your tour as enjoyable as possible, but please be aware that some elements may be beyond our control.

  • Comfortable attire and footwear: As you may spend a significant amount of time standing and walking, we recommend wearing comfortable clothing and sturdy shoes to ensure your comfort throughout the tour. Several of the halls within the Vatican do not have air conditioning, and so it can be useful to pack a fan and a bottle of water.

Vatican Opening Hours

To visit the Vatican, the museums are open from 9:00 AM to 6:00 PM Monday through Saturday with final entry at 4:00 PM. From May 5 to October 28 Friday hours extend to 10:30 PM with final entry at 8:30 PM and Saturday hours extend to 8:00 PM with final entry at 6:00 PM.

Every last Sunday of the month hours are 9:00 AM to 2:00 PM with final entry at 12:30 PM.

However, those wondering how to visit the Vatican should note that tour operators are allowed in earlier in the day. 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 17 EUR for adults, and 8 EUR for anyone under 18 years old. There will be additional fees for "skip-the-line" admission tickets. 

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.

Please Note: St Peter's Basilica is closed on Wednesdays as the Papal audience is held on these days. Context does not operate our signature Arte Vaticana tour on Wednesdays. 

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 Museum Highlights – 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.
  • 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.

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