Tips for Visiting the Vatican - Smallest Country in the World
One of the most common questions asked about the Vatican City is, “Is it really a country?”
The answer is yes, it is. Although it barely covers half a kilometre square of land area, Vatican City (officially Vatican City State) is a fully independent nation with its own constitution, domain, flag, national anthem, passports, licence plates, and even its own euros.
I, for one, would never pass up the opportunity to visit these tiny countries because it’s such an easy way to add more countries to my list, it’s almost like cheating! In fact, Vatican City was the third micro-country I visited on the same trip, after Liechtenstein and San Marino.
But even more important than its size is the fact that it’s the center for the Roman Catholic religion and the home of the Pope. Although tiny, Vatican City attracts around 20,000 visitors every day.
So, if you’re in Italy, particularly in Rome, visiting the Vatican is a must! Here’s what you need to know about visiting this city state:
Table of Contents
Overview of Vatican City
Where is the Vatican City located?
The Vatican City is located in the heart of Rome, on the west bank of Tiber River. The country’s terrain is mostly made up of the Vatican Gardens, and is between 19 and 75 metres above sea level.
How big is the Vatican?
The enclosed land area of the Vatican is only 44 hectares (109 acres) within its walls, and the boundary around it is 3.2 kilometres.
Vatican City is one of the only absolute elective theocratic monarchies in the world.
Absolute means all the power and decision making lies in the hands of the ruler (the Pope); elective means it’s not a hereditary position but based on election; theocratic means the laws that govern everything are solely based on religion; and monarchy implies that the ruler is active for his lifetime or until he abdicates.
The Pope rules both as the Pope, overseeing the Catholic Church, and also as the King, overseeing the country.
Vatican City’s history as the seat of the Roman Catholic Church started with the construction of a basilica over St. Peter’s grave in Rome in the 4th century A.D. The area then developed into a popular pilgrimage site, controlled by the popes.
In 1377, famous landmarks such as the Sistine Chapel, the Apostolic Palace, and the new St. Peter’s Basilica were built. In 1929, the Italian government agreed to let Vatican City become an independent nation, with the signing of the Lateran Pacts.
Officially, there are about 806 citizens living within Vatican City, making it the smallest nation in demographic size in the world. Each of these citizens were elected by the Pope. It is impossible to be born a citizen of Vatican City!
The Holy See (the Catholic Church) holds Latin as its official language. However, Italian is the official language of Vatican City and is the more useful and widely used of the two. Since the Vatican is the world’s center of Catholicism and receives many international visitors every day, English is also widely spoken.
The Vatican is not a member of either the European Union or the European Economic Area, but it maintains an open border with Italy and is treated as part of the Schengen Area. So, although it’s a separate country from Italy, you don’t need a passport or a visa to get in.
Vatican Museum Operation Hours 2023
- Monday to Saturday: 9:00 a.m. – 6:00 p.m. (last entry at 4:00 p.m.)
14th April – 28th October 2023
- Friday & Saturday: 9:00 a.m. – 10:30 p.m. (last entry at 8:30 p.m.)
Every Last Sunday of the Month
(provided it does not coincide with Easter Sunday, 29th June Saints Peter and Paul, 25th December Christmas Day, 26th December Feast of St Stephen, and 31st December Feast of St Sylvester).
- 9:00 a.m. – 2:00 p.m. (last entry at 12:30 p.m.) FREE ENTRY.
In December, the Sunday opening with free admission will be brought forward to the 24th of the month.
Visitors are required to leave the halls 30 minutes before museum closing time. Please go to Vatican Museums’ official website for bookings and updates.
Best Time to Visit the Vatican
Rome and Vatican City are very popular destinations, and are therefore never deserted. But there are usually fewer tourists in the winter months, as well as the shoulder seasons (April to June and September to October). Tuesdays and Thursdays are generally less busy at the Vatican.
It is best to go early in the morning or late in the evening to beat the crowd because the Vatican is notorious for super long lines of people waiting to get in.
Weather-wise, the best times to go are during fall and spring. Summer is good too, if you don’t mind the heat and humidity (the average high is 30°C). Winter is mild with temperatures around 10°C, but is also the rainiest time of the year.
I visited in late September and it was very warm outside that I had to take my jacket off.
How to Get to Vatican City
Since the Vatican City is situated right in the center of Rome, it’s very easy to get there by taxi, bus, train, Metro, or on foot. You know you have arrived when you see the tall and foreboding walls. There is only one main entrance.
The closest train station is St Pietro, a 10-minute walk to St. Peter’s Square.
Take the A Line to either Ottaviano or Cipro station. Both of them are about 5 minutes’ walk away from the Vatican.
From Termini train station, take bus #64 to the last stop (Piazza Stazione S. Pietro). From the bus stop, it will take you around 15 minutes to walk to the Vatican.
If you’re from the Colosseum area, take bus #81 to the end of the route (Piazza Risorgimento), which is a 5 minutes’ walk away from the Vatican entrance.
Do take care of your personal belongings in the public transports and in the areas surrounding the Vatican. Pickpockets like to target tourists.
Things to Do in Vatican City
The Vatican Museums, Sistine Chapel, and St. Peter’s Basilica are among the most popular attractions in the world, which explains the number of tourists visiting Vatican City ever day. But there are also some off-the-beaten-track spots you can visit. Here’s a full list of things to do in Vatican City:
1. Hang Out at St. Peter's Square
This iconic square (that’s not quite shaped like a square) is the first place you’ll find yourself in when you enter the country. Built between 1656 and 1667, it resembles a keyhole when seen from above. The two large colonnades on either side of it are meant to represent the ‘motherly arms of the church’.
The square is free to visit 24 hours a day and has become a popular gathering point for visitors. This is also where the Pope makes his appearance for the General Audience every Wednesday morning in the summer months (more on that below).
2. Visit St. Peter's Basilica* & Vatican Grottoes
Apart from being the most famous landmark in the Vatican, St. Peter’s Basilica is one of the largest cathedrals ever built and an important pilgrimage site for Roman Catholics from all over the world.
You can climb the 551 steps up the cupola to enjoy one of the best views of the city from above. If climbing all those steps sounds daunting, there’s an elevator to take you up the first 320 steps.
While there is a charge to climb the dome, the basilica itself is free to enter but there can be long queues especially in the peak season, so you might want to get there early.
Before leaving, you should also check out the Vatican Grottoes located right underneath, where tombs of several popes are enshrined. The entrance is slightly hidden near the Pier of St. Andrew by the high altar, and the exit will take you outside the basilica, so you’ll want to make this your last stop before exiting.
* Due to the pandemic, St. Peter’s Basilica is currently closed until further notice, but you can still admire its magnificence from the outside.
3. Admire the Artworks at the Vatican Museums
Another main draw to the Vatican is the world-renowned Vatican Museums, which houses an astounding number of fifty-four separate collections, including works by Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael. The entire collection is estimated to be worth over 15 billion euros!
Some of the most popular museums within the complex are the Vatican historical Museums, the Gallery of the Statues, the Gallery of the Maps, and the Raphael Rooms.
4. Marvel at the Sistine Chapel
Possibly one of the most famous buildings in the world, this chapel was named after Pope Sixtus IV who commissioned the building in the 15th century. It makes up a small part of the Apostolic Palace (the Pope’s official residence) and is used as the Papal conclave during the election of a new Pope.
But for most people, the main reason for visiting is to see the magnificent artwork on the ceiling that was done by Michelangelo between 1508 and 1512.
5. Attend an Audience with the Pope
On Wednesdays, if the Pope is in the Vatican, pilgrims and visitors will have the chance to see the Pope and receive his blessing. In the summer months, the Papal Audience is usually held at St. Peter’s Square to accommodate the large crowd.
Readings will be done mainly in Italian but also occasionally in English, French, German, Spanish, Polish, Portuguese, and sometimes other languages, depending on the groups visiting.
At the end of the Audience, the Pope will pray together with the crowd and extend blessings to loved ones, especially those who are ill and suffering. He will also bless any religious articles like rosary beads that the attendees have brought with them for the purpose of blessing.
To get a seat, you need to book a ticket in advance (which is free), but the seats are on a first-come-first-serve basis, so you still have to come early to secure a good seat. Most people will arrive up to three hours before the 9:30 a.m. scheduled start.
However, Pope Francis has made it clear that everyone is welcome to attend, with or without ticket, so don’t feel discouraged if you don’t have one because there’s plenty of standing room at the back of the Square.
Please visit the official Papal Audience website to find out more about the tickets, schedules, and updates.
6. Mail a Postcard from the Vatican
However, if you want a meaningful souvenir for yourself in lieu of a passport stamp, you can buy a postcard and mail it home from the post office at St. Peter’s Square. It will be processed through the Vatican’s mail system with a Vatican stamp, and postmarked from Vatican City.
7. Wander Around the Vatican Gardens
The Vatican Gardens occupy 23 hectares of land, which is more than half of the entire country.
Dating back to the medieval times, the gardens are made up of three styles: the formal Italian style from the Renaissance era, the classic French baroque style, and the geometric English style. In addition, the gardens also feature medieval sculptures, monuments, fountains, and 3 hectares of wooded area.
Despite there being 18 million tourists visiting Vatican City each year, only a small portion of them actually visit the gardens. This is because entry to the area is only permitted in the company of an official accredited guide. On the plus side, this makes it much less crowded than the rest of the country.
8. Explore the Necropolis
Beneath the Vatican Gardens, there is an ancient underground cemetery called the Necropolis of the Via Triumphalis. After extensive excavation and refurbishment works, the site has been turned into a museum with multimedia displays to explain in detail about its history. You’ll also get to see the burial chambers, mosaics, and frescoes preserved from centuries past.
Similar to the gardens, the Necropolis is only accessible when you book a tour from the official Vatican website.
9. See the Vatican Mosaic Studio
Another attraction you’ll get to visit when you go on the official tour is the Vatican Mosaic Studios.
Here, you will see Vatican artists at work, restoring the ten thousand square metres of mosaic found in the St. Peter’s Basilica, as well as producing new mosaics for individual collectors and the Pope who would periodically gift them to heads of state. A piece of custom-made mosaic can cost up to 200,000 euros!
10. See the Castel Sant'Angelo
Although not exactly within the country walls, Castel Sant’Angelo is connected to the Vatican by an ancient passageway called the Passetto di Borgo.
The building was originally commissioned by Emperor Hadrian to be his family’s mausoleum, but it later became a fortress due to its strong structure and strategic location by the river. It has also been used by the popes as a refuge and to store their treasure during attacks.
Inside, you will see a collection of ancient weapons, armors, and frescoes.
What to Wear for the Vatican
The Vatican is a sacred place, and just like any sacred place in the world, visitors must adhere to a dress code. Although this is rarely enforced in the St. Peter’s Square, you will be denied entry to the Basilica, museum, or anywhere else with a security check if you don’t dress appropriately.
Avoid shorts, miniskirts, tank tops, crop tops, or anything that expose the thighs, knees, shoulders, cleavage, and midriffs. Basically, you should try to cover as much skin as you can. This applies to both men and women. Alternatively, bring a scarf or sarong to cover your shoulders and legs.
When entering religious sites, men must take their hats off, whereas women are allowed to keep theirs on. For more tips, read:
Where to Eat in Vatican City
Just as you might expect in a popular tourist destination, many of the restaurants around Vatican City are overpriced, and frankly, quite underwhelming. You’d better off having something to eat before you go and bringing some snacks and water with you for the trip.
However, if you choose to eat in the Vatican, there’s a dining area in one section of the museum where you can have a selection of pasta, pizza, pastries, and desserts. There’s also a coffee shop right outside the Sistine Chapel, and a cafe and restaurant in the garden by the golden earth sculpture. Expect to pay around 8 – 10 euros for a snack.
How Long Should You Spend in the Vatican?
Since the entire country is less than a kilometre square in size and the area accessible to the public even smaller, you’re not going to need more than half a day to spend in it.
Visitors typically spend around two hours in the museums, but depending on what time you go and whether you’ve got a skip-the-queue ticket, you might need to factor in the queue time and security checks as well.
If you’re planning to do all of the things listed above, allocate 5 – 6 hours in total.