Vatican City - 11 Tips to Know Before You Go
Whether you’re a Catholic or not, I’d consider it a grave sin if you decided to skip Vatican City on your Italian tour. Not only is it the world’s center of Catholicism, this micro-state is also home to the largest cathedral and one of the most famous museums in the world. Plus, if you go on a Wednesday, you may get a chance to see the Pope!
However, since it is a religious site and a very popular one at that, there are a few things you need to consider before you go. These top tips will help you save time and money, and make your trip to the Vatican a pleasant one.
The Vatican barely covers half a kilometre square of land area, yet it receives about 20,000 visitors every day! As you can imagine, the queues to get in are notoriously long, especially in peak seasons and on weekends.
Don’t let long waiting times ruin your holiday. If you’re on a short vacation, every second is precious. You don’t want to be wasting an hour standing in a line when you could use that time to explore. So, make sure you book a fast-track ticket online.*
Discount cards such as the Roma Pass or Omnia Card also allows you to skip the queue.
*UPDATE: To minimize crowds and long queues during the pandemic, entry to the Vatican museums is only with advance online booking.
2. Choose the Right Time to Go
Even with an express ticket, you’ll still have to deal with the crowd inside the Vatican. To avoid this, go early in the morning or late in the evening. The doors open at 9, but you can get early entry up to one hour before the opening time.
In general, Tuesdays to Fridays are the best time to visit because the Vatican is less hectic on these days of the week. Saturdays are usually crowded, and so are Mondays since a lot of the other museums in Rome are closed.
Wednesday mornings also see a lot of people as they flock to St. Peter’s Square to attend an Audience with the Pope. On the plus side, if you don’t intend to go to join the Audience during this time, you may find the museums with fewer people than usual.
Take note that the Vatican museums are closed on Sundays except the last Sunday of the month.*
*UPDATE: During the pandemic, the museums are closed on all Sundays.
3. Avoid Ticket Touts
As you walk towards the Vatican, you may be approached by ticket touts trying to sell museum tickets to you. These are usually scammers. As the saying goes, if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Only buy your tickets from authorized sellers and reliable tour operators.
4. Score a Free Entry to the Museums*
If you’re willing to brave the crowd, go on the last Sunday of the month (the only Sunday the museum is open) because on this day, the Vatican museums are free to enter. That’s right — it’s totally free of charge, with no hidden fees.
The only downside is the crowd, which can be a lot more than usual. It’s a good idea to start lining up well before 9 a.m. The doors close at 2 p.m., so you’ve got to hurry up!
*UPDATE: This is temporarily discontinued until further notice.
5. Dress Appropriately
Being a holy site, the Vatican has its own set of dress code. Although this is rarely enforced in the outdoors (around St. Peter’s Square), visitors will be denied entry to the museums and church for not dressing appropriately.
As a rule of thumb, you should keep your upper arms, torso, and knees covered. That means no short shorts, miniskirts, tank tops, crop tops, or low necklines. Men are required to remove their hats indoors, while women are allowed to keep theirs on.
Bear in mind that only a few rooms in the museums are air-conditioned. So, if you can’t bear the thought of wearing long sleeves and long pants in summer, bring something like a scarf or a sarong to cover your bare shoulders and legs while in the museums.
6. Pack Light
If possible, try to pack light on your trip to the Vatican. All bags have to go through security checks at the entrance, and this may cause unnecessary delays.
According to their official website, any luggage, suitcases, rucksacks, packages, or containers that are deemed unsuitable due to their size or nature will have to be left in the cloakroom.
Similarly, most umbrellas, video cameras, tripods, selfie sticks, and other kinds of sticks (apart from those used for walking) are not allowed in the exhibition spaces.
7. Eat Before You Go
As you might expect at a popular tourist attraction, most of the restaurants and cafes near the Vatican are expensive, and frankly, not worth the price. So, before you go, head to a cheaper part of Rome and fuel up.
Don’t forget to bring some snacks and water with you. Exploring all the museums can be tiring especially in the warmer months and when it’s really crowded. Keep yourself hydrated!
8. Hire a Guide
Wandering around in the museums aimlessly without knowing what you’re looking at would be rather pointless, in my opinion. The Vatican museums are huge and has so many amazing works of art, it would be overwhelming for a first-time visitor.
Doing some reading before you go is a wise move, but nothing can beat hiring an expert guide who’s going to explain everything as you go along and maybe tell you some anecdotes that you can’t find in a guidebook.
9. Take the Secret Passageway
You will not see the Sistine Chapel until the very last part of your tour, but after you’re done with that, there’s a hidden shortcut that can take you straight into St. Peter’s Basilica. Technically, this secret passageway is only meant to be used by tour groups, but you can try waiting for one and walking with them.
This will spare you from the hassle of leaving the museum, walking through the square, and queuing again to get into the basilica.
10. Respect the Church
No matter what your personal beliefs are, when you visit someone else’s religious site, the only decent thing to do is to be respectful. Likewise, in the Vatican, respect for the Roman Catholic Church and its practices is to be expected. Those who are not Catholic should not openly declare it by debating or attacking the Church’s views.
11. Stay Safe
Because of its small population, Vatican City actually has one of the highest crime rate per capita, but the majority of the crime is petty theft and most of the perpetrators come from the surrounding city.
Given the large tourist crowd, it is rife with pickpockets, scammers, and purse snatchers. Do be careful of where you put your money and other valuables. Avoid buying counterfeit items because possession of illegal rip-offs or stolen products may get you in trouble with the authorities.
Homosexuality, although not illegal, is still considered a taboo and a sin. Attacks against LGBTQs rarely occur, but if they do, the police may be unsympathetic.
Do you find these tips useful? Is there anything else you’d like to add? Let me know in the comment section below.
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