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Guide to the Vatican Museum

One of the coolest things about visiting Rome is that you can visit an entirely different country without leaving the city limits. I’m talking about Vatican City, of course, and even if you’re not Catholic (or religious, for that matter) a day spent in the Vatican is a day well spent. In fact, you could spend countless days on end in the Vatican Museum alone.

When you’re the Pope, you get to collect some really impressive works of art. Not only that, but over the centuries, the Vatican has had official artists creating masterpieces in the name of the Catholic church. The good news is that Vatican officials make this art collection open to the public in the Vatican Museums (“Musei Vaticani” in Italian). The bad news is that those officials don’t make it very easy to get in during the busiest travel season. But we’ll get to that in a bit. First, let’s look at why you want to make a beeline for the Vatican Museum entrance early one of the mornings of your stay in Rome.

Contained within the vast labyrinth of the Vatican Museums (it’s often referred to in the plural because each section is considered a different museum) there are treasures from Egypt, the Near East, and Etruria (the Etruscans pre-dated the ancient Romans in Italy), including some sculptures which the ancient Romans even considered ancient (which is saying something). And of course there’s the Sistine Chapel, perhaps the most famous painted ceiling on earth.

There are paintings, tapestries, ceramics, mosaics, and sculptures from every era and corner of the globe. There are frescoes by Italian greats Raphael and, of course, Michelangelo. His Sistine Chapel ceiling and altar wall are the end point of a tour through the Vatican Museum, but don’t skip the rest of the museums just to get there because you can’t go backwards. Take your time. Those frescoes aren’t going anywhere.

Quick links to Vatican Museums resources:

Vatican Museums Visitor Information

  • Open Hours: The Vatican Museum’s hours can be confusing, because they change depending on the season, the day of the week, during Vatican holidays and (seemingly) on the whim of the Pope. Generally speaking, the front doors open around 8:30 and the last guests are ushered out between 13:45 and 17:30 depending on the day, with the last tickets being sold an hour or so before closing time. The museums are closed on Sundays (except the last Sunday of the month), Easter, June 29, and December 25-26, among other potential holidays. For more specific information about the current year’s schedule, consult this page.
  • Admission: €15 adult, €8 reduced fare (special pre-organized visits by schools or pilgrimages, students under 26 with valid ID, and children under 14). On the last Sunday of each month and on World Tourism Day (September 27), the museums are free of charge to everyone. Disabled visitors (and one helper/companion) are also permitted free entry at all times, as are children under 6 years of age. You can see if you qualify for any of the other discounts here.
  • How to Get There: There are a few Rome buses that stop near the Vatican’s walls, and from there it’s a brief walk to the museum entrance. Buses 40, 62, and 64 all run to the Vatican from central Rome. Metro line A also runs near the Vatican Museums – the Cipro-Musei Vaticani stop is about a 10-minute walk from the museum entrance. (Here are more details on getting to Vatican City.)
  • Official Vatican Website: Official Vatican Museum website

Taking a Guided Tour of the Vatican Museums

The two main sights in Vatican City, the Vatican Museums and St. Peter’s Basilica, can take up an entire day of sightseeing – especially how long the lines can be just to get through the doors. Taking a guided tour of Vatican City can help you get through both of these monumental attractions without missing the most important pieces (not to mention being told why they’re important) and avoid the potentially long lines at the museum entrance.

Most of the tours you can book that include the Vatican Museums will allow you to bypass the ticket lines that you may have heard stories about. It used to be commonplace to have to wait in line, even if you were on a tour, in order to get tickets and get into the museum – they didn’t really have a system set up for guided tour groups to go into a separate entrance or skirt the lines. Thankfully, this is no longer the case.

Generally, Vatican City tours will combine both the Vatican Museums and St. Peter’s Basilica, some with a lunch break between the two, and you probably don’t want to spend less than five hours total on such a tour. I know it sounds like a lot of time for basically two sights, but they’re huge and the time will fly – especially if you’ve got a good guide. I highly recommend Context Travel’s tours (they have some in Vatican City, in addition to other areas of Rome and elsewhere in Italy), but there are many guided tours you can book for the Vatican Museums. Here are a few:

  • Vatican Museums & St. Peter’s Basilica 3-Hour Walking Tour – Take a small group walking tour of the Vatican Museums and St Peter’s Basilica, and jump the queue by booking ahead. Numbers are limited to a maximum of 20 people on this small group walking tour, ensuring you’ll receive personalized attention from your guide. And by booking ahead, you won’t waste any time waiting in line!
  • Vatican Museums & St. Peter’s Basilica Half-Day Walking Tour – Get much more out of your visit to St Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican by taking a guided walking tour. St Peter’s and the Vatican Museums can be overwhelming, especially if this is your first visit, so allow your experienced guide to lead the way and share the history, architecture, and politics of the Vatican. As an added bonus, you’ll skip the long ticket lines when you visit the Vatican Museums (entrance fees payable direct on the day of travel).
  • Vatican in One Day (8 hours) – Vatican City’s most comprehensive introduction combining two walking tours to see Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, Gallery of Maps, Raphael’s Rooms, St. Peter’s Basilica and the most important Basilicas of the Vatican including Santa Maria Maggiore, Saint John Lateran and St. Paul, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This is the only Vatican City tour that incorporates all of the Basilicas along with the Vatican Museums to ensure you see everything in one single day! Plus, you’ll skip the long lines – don’t waste time waiting in lines when you’re on vacation! Numbers are limited to a maximum of 25 people on this small group walking tour, ensuring you’ll receive personalized attention from your guide.

You can approximate this experience by using an audioguide that you rent from the Vatican Museum’s ticket office, or by downloading a self-guided museum tour from the likes of Rick Steves, and now that the Vatican allows for online ticket sales in advance of your visit you can still skip the long wait in line. You’ve just got to plan ahead – which is covered in more detail below under “Visitor Tips.”

Visitor Tips for the Vatican Museum

The Vatican Museum is one of the most popular attractions in Rome, so here are a few visitor tips to help you make the most of an enormous collection that can just as easily overwhelm as impress.

  • Dress appropriately, please. – There’s a strict dress code for St. Peter’s Basilica, and if you’re visiting both the famous church and the Vatican Museums in one day then you’ll need to dress appropriately for both. Modest dress in this case means no bare shoulders, knees, or midriffs for either men or women. If you find yourself without the appropriate coverage, there are vendors around selling – I kid you not – paper clothing which you can wear over your existing attire.
  • Don’t try to see everything. – The truth is that even with an excellent guide and lots of time you won’t see all the art and historic pieces in the Vatican Museum. Trying to see everything will leave you exhausted and your feet aching. This is why it’s highly recommended to take a guided tour – whether it’s a self-guided tour to help you navigate (and make sense of) what you’re seeing, or whether it’s a real, live person you’re following around. Either way you’ll be sure to not miss the highlights, the really important pieces, and, what’s more, understand their importance. If you are a real art lover you may want to opt for a self-paced tour so that you can deviate from it when you want to without fear of losing your tour guide – or, better yet, plan to return for a few days to take in as much as possible.
  • No tour for you? Book tickets in advance. – In 2008, the Vatican finally introduced online ticket sales to help alleviate some of the problems of long lines to get in during the high season. If you know when you’ll be in Rome and what day you want to visit the Vatican Museums, you can buy your tickets online. You’ll get a confirmation email with a reservation code, which you’ll print and bring to the ticket office on the day of your visit. You’ll need to present photo ID with your reservation, and have ID ready for any students or children for whom you bought reduced-rate tickets. There’s a reservation fee of €4 for doing this online purchase, but it beats waiting in line and wasting your precious vacation time.
  • If you have to wait in line, here’s how to handle it. – For those of you who can’t get tickets ahead of time and don’t want to take a guided tour, you need to prepare to wait in line in the high season. Summers in Rome can be really hot, and the line to get into the Vatican Museums is outdoors and not always in shade. So bring sunscreen and water, and queue up early in order to avoid waiting in the worst of the afternoon sun if at all possible.
  • One easy way to avoid the lines? Visit in the off-season. – Low season lines to get into the Vatican Museums will be short or non-existent, but if the weather’s cold or wet you’ll want to remember a warm coat or an umbrella. Or both. Just in case.

photos, top to bottom, by: Vvillamon, Leo-seta, beggs, Joao Maximo, pdsphil, beggs