Visiting Vatican City was a big part of our honeymoon in Rome. Tom is Catholic and we were married in the church. Some of my favorite study abroad memories are from a quiet evening spent in St. Peter’s Square. Similarly, some of my most stressful memories stemmed from visiting the Vatican museums and being herded through the experience. I didn’t plan in advance, so there were lines, crowds, and more lines and crowds.
Thankfully, all the lessons I learned during study abroad contributed to refining my travel planning skills, and I was able to make sure that our honeymoon was perfect! I’m happy to share these travel tips with you to ensure you have an equally memorable experience!
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10 Tips for Visiting Vatican City
I don’t know about you but I didn’t expect to need a Vatican tour guide the first time I visited. I thought that I would be able to absorb and understand everything I was seeing. Wrong. You can show up and grab Vatican tickets on the day of, but it’s impossible to parse through the museum collection without help.
Buy Early Access Vatican Museum Tickets in Advance
Before Tom and I were engaged, one of my students told me about a guided tour she and her family took that allowed them early access to the Sistine Chapel. I filed that tidbit away as something that would likely be too exclusive and expensive for us.
When I sat down to plan our tours in Rome, I was shocked to find that these early access tours of the Vatican Museums are quite reasonable. Though the morning starts very early (7:00am for us), it is completely worth it. Not only was our group less than 25 people, but we also had Sistine Chapel to ourselves for as long as we wished to stay. (It was the last stop on the tour.)
We sat inside the Sistine chapel for 45 minutes, observing it from all corners, and taking the time to appreciate all the details and stories within it. Truthfully, it felt like I was seeing it for the first time ever. It was certainly a luxury to be able to sit and enjoy it.
Our guide was truly incredible. I had a lot of flashbacks to seeing the tapestries, stained glass, and gilded as a college student, but I wasn’t being herded through the museum. Our guide took time to show us important works of art, share more about the art, and allow us time to take everything in. (My favorite part was sitting in the stillness of the Vatican gardens in the early morning hours. That’s another thing I didn’t experience while studying abroad.)
The hardest part about visiting the Vatican museums is that there is truly so much to see beyond the Sistine Chapel. I think you could take this tour multiple times and learn new things on every tour.
Buy your early access Sistine Chapel tickets before you leave!
Visit St. Peter’s Basilica in the Late Afternoon
Can you really go to Rome and not go to St. Peter’s? I mean, I guess you can, but you really shouldn’t! The line at St. Peter’s Basilica can snake around St. Peter’s Square from mid-morning throughout the afternoon. That said, if you go an hour before the Basilica closes, the line will virtually be non-existent and you will have more than enough time to see the Basilica. (If you want to go to the top of the dome, you’ll want to allot time for that.)
La Pieta is one of my favorite works of art to see when visiting the Vatican. I find it to be a beautiful reminder of sacrifice and love. Though I didn’t spend much time with it on our honeymoon trip, I remember how it took my breath away when I saw it the first time.
When the day trip crowds and tour buses leave, you can fully appreciate the beauty of St. Peter’s. I often feel dwarfed by the enormous cathedral, but when the late afternoon sun filters in through the small windows near the dome, it’s hard to not to be awed.
Tom’s favorite way to tour St. Peter’s Basilica is by using the Rick Steves audio guide or the walking tour in his Rome book. Visiting St. Peter’s late in the afternoon ensures that you will have it to yourself.
Visit the Cupola of St. Peter’s Basilica for a View of St. Peter’s Square
We didn’t do this on our honeymoon but I did it on my first trip to Rome. (It’s where I learned that I have a propensity for being claustrophobic.) That being said, it was worth the trek to the top because it gave me a perspective for the size of the city-state that is the Vatican.
It also provided that classic bird’s eye view of St. Peter’s Square (and Rome)! Vittorio Emmanuel II is HUGE and it only becomes apparent when you see it from above, in my opinion!
Book a Papal Audience Tour
I expect that this might become more of a necessity post-2020, but if you want to attend a papal blessing in Rome, book your ticket in advance. The security lines are long and the crowds can be quite large. By booking your tickets in advance, you’ll get tips on the best vantage point, know what to expect, and be able to enjoy the experience a little bit more. (I’m a big fan of doing everything you can to make sure you are in the moment.)
When we were in Rome at Christmas, we met a couple who had gotten married recently and their priest had requested tickets for the Christmas blessing. While I think that would be an incredible experience, it did sound like it would require a bit of advance planning (and donations to the church). I would also expect even more significant crowds. Same with Easter. (We’ve flown to Rome over Easter weekend a few times; hotels are expensive and the crowds are significant. We chose to spend Easter in Tuscany and Cinque Terre those years.
Visit St. Peter’s Square at Night
The second best way to see Vatican city is at night. I love to watch the sunset from St. Peter’s Square. The soft skies will fade away, the warm lights will come on, and it will be you, the saints, and the soft sounds of the fountains in Vatican Square.
The crowds surrounding the Vatican in the mid-day can feel crushing. The lines to enter the attractions are long. There are so many things to see that you can’t possibly take them all in all at once. It’s too much for me. The first time I went to Rome, I took the metro back to Ottiviano one evening. I had the entire piazza to myself. The fountains were on, the lights lit up the saints surrounding the piazza, and it was just one of those magical moments where I could sit and just be.
In December, there is a large nativity set up in the middle of the square. It can be more difficult to have the square to yourself, but it’s worth an evening trip to the Vatican anyway.
Visit the Vatican Gardens
I completely overlooked the Vatican Gardens. It wasn’t until my second trip to the Vatican with a guide that I realized you could visit the gardens within the museum complex.
These are especially nice to stroll through after you finish going through the Vatican Museums or the Sistine Chapel in the early morning. Side note: the courtyard that leads to the Sistine Chapel is another beautiful space to sit and just be, too.
Respect the Dress Code for the Vatican
You’re visiting a church. You’re visiting a religious place. You’re visiting the site of a pilgrimage for many people. Be respectful in both how you dress and how you act. They do take the dress code for visiting the Vatican seriously though. Women, you’ll need your hemlines to be appropriate and your shoulders covered, otherwise you may find yourself sporting a weird, gauzy hospital gown cover up. Worse case scenario, they won’t let you in.
I wore a cardigan over my knee-length Lela Rose dress. I definitely saw them assessing my hem line, so be respectful and be smart. Tom wore pants and a button-down shirt. He’s worn slacks and khaki pants. Both seem to be acceptable but he feels more comfortable in slacks.
Don’t take photos in the Sistine Chapel. It ruins it for everyone when the guards have to yell at you.
Take a Gelato Break in Between Touring the Vatican Attractions
You are probably going to need to take a breather or two – and that is okay! A visit to the Vatican city can be overwhelming in a myriad of ways, even (especially?) if you are a deeply spiritual person. I was so excited to share the Vatican with Tom that I never even consider that it might be overwhelming to him – mentally, spiritually, or even physically! By the time we finished the tour of the Sistine Chapel and Vatican Museums, he was not ready to visit St. Peter’s.
Luckily, there is an amazing gelateria that is less than a five minute walk away from the Vatican Museums! Old Bridge Gelateria is one of my favorite gelaterias in Rome. It’s a tiny shop with cheap gelato. You can get up to 3 flavors in a small cup or cone! (I really love their sorbetto flavors!)
We ended up heading back to our hotel for a power nap, did some other stuff that afternoon, and then went back to St. Peter’s near the end of the day. As a result, we enjoyed less crowds, then we sat for in the square for a couple hours watching the sunset.
Stay in One of the Hotels Near Vatican City
On our first trip to Rome, we stayed near Termini station because of the proximity to transportation. This proved to be silly because we ended up walking everywhere – and it was a pretty good walk to all the attractions. On our last few trips to Rome, we’ve stayed at Le Meridien Visconti, which is quite a bit closer to all the sights.
Staying on the Vatican side of the Tiber River is quite a bit more cost-effective. It is quieter and feels a bit more local. (There’s a grocery store a couple blocks from Le Meridien and the clientele doesn’t feel touristy at all.)
Make a Plan for Visiting the Vatican in Rome
I can’t stress this enough. Make a plan. Get your Vatican city tickets in advance. Download the Rick Steves audio app. The Vatican Museums are HUGE. There’s more to see than what you could possibly fit into one visit – or even a lifetime of visits.
Figure out what’s important to you and plan ahead to make sure you see those things. I have a whole list of mistakes that are easy to avoid in Italy. Make sure to check it out!
Christmas in Vatican City
It may be on your bucket list to spend Christmas in Rome and visit the Vatican City. With a little advance planning, you can find ways to enjoy the Holy See at Christmastime. In the meantime, check out our video from 2019 to see if that’ something you might be interested in experiencing. While Rome was certainly more crowded than Venice at Christmas, it wasn’t too overwhelming or expensive.