Visiting Vatican City
Easter is over and spring has truly sprung in Rome, bringing with it record numbers of tourists and pilgrims alike, most keen to see the tiny state of Vatican City. The Vatican has been my workplace and home for nearly a decade! I vividly remember my first day at work in 2009, entering through the Sant'Anna gate and being saluted by the Swiss Guards on the way to the offices of L'Osservatore Romano, the Pope's newspaper! In 2014, I became one of the few hundred residing citizens when I married one of those handsome Swiss Guards. Yes - some of them can marry!
Hence my delight in being able to share with you how best to prepare for your visit to Vatican City, including some packing tips, my favorite local restaurants and hotels, and how to get up close and personal with Pope Francis! I’ve also included the best time to visit St. Peter’s Basilica and how to really skip the line to get to the Sistine Chapel, visit the Pope’s Gardens and see the Papal summer residence in Castel Gandolfo! Plan ahead, using my map and hints below, and you can see it all on a budget and with a minimum of stress. There’s no need to give in to the hawkers offering the chance of a lifetime to skip the line!
If you’d like to see Pope Francis on your visit to Rome this spring, the only upcoming Papal Masses are on Sunday, May 20 at 10:00am for the Solemnity of Pentecost and Friday, June 29 at 9:30am for the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul, also a public holiday for the city of Rome (tickets required for both Masses).
Luckily for pilgrims there are two fixed opportunities every week to see the Holy Father. On Sundays at 12:00pm sharp, Pope Francis leads the Regina Caeli or Angelus prayer from the window of his study overlooking St. Peter’s Square. You only need to arrive 10-15 minutes earlier to find a good viewing spot and it’s all over by about 12:15pm. At the end of Angelus prayer and blessing, he will no doubt wish everyone a “Buon Pranzo” (have a good lunch), just as he does every Sunday!
Alternatively on Wednesday mornings you need to be up bright and early to get a good seat for the weekly General Audience, having requested tickets beforehand by fax or letter from the Prefecture of the Papal Household. Don’t be alarmed if you don’t receive an immediate or any response but you should expect that your free tickets will be waiting for you at the Vatican’s Bronze Door for collection on the day before the Audience. If you haven’t booked tickets, ask the Swiss Guards at the Bronze Door or Saint Anne entrance of the Vatican as they normally have extras for every Papal Mass and Audience a couple of days beforehand. Remember all tickets are free!
As I mentioned, you’ll need to line up early on Wednesday morning because the Vatican gates open to the public at 7:30am and the Pope will start his tour of the square in the Popemobile about 9:30am. When the gates open, RUN for a center-aisle seat close to the front as the Pope should drive by at least twice. Note that the second section back is almost better than right at the front because the Pope seems to hover there in the center for longer. Be aware that Pope Francis may stop the car at any time to greet pilgrims, especially the sick, elderly and babies! It’s lots of fun but be ready for some pushing as people try to get close to the Pope. He’s like a rockstar for nuns and diehard Catholics alike! The Gospel reflection is read aloud in many languages including English and it’s all over by about 11:30am. FYI there are restrooms available and do take some water, a snack and an umbrella just in case. At the conclusion of both the Angelus and the General Audience, Pope Francis gives his Apostolic Blessing, which he extends to you, your loved ones, and any devotional items such as rosaries you’ve brought with you.
Please be aware that there are no Papal Audiences scheduled for July. During the summer, Pope Francis does not travel to the Pontifical Villa close to Rome at Castel Gandolfo as did Pope Benedict XVI and many other Popes before him. Rather, the Apostolic Palace has become a museum and even the Villa’s Barberini Gardens have been opened up for guided visits. Both the palace and gardens can be booked on the official Vatican Museums website.
St. Peter’s Basilica, Dome & Grottoes
Basilica opening hours: 7:00am-7:00pm, April to September
Spring and fall are the loveliest times of the year to see Rome but be prepared for the crowds. By 9:00am every day during the week after Easter, the line-up for St. Peter’s Basilica was already snaked around St. Peter’s Square! The best time to visit the basilica is at 7:00am or 5:00pm. But whatever the time of day, please remember that your clothes should cover your shoulders and knees. It’s handy to carry a scarf around Rome with you in order to enter any of its 1,000 or so churches! At the basilica’s opening and closing times, it feels like you’re actually visiting a church not a museum, because you can go to Mass and pray in peace. It’s also an opportune time to climb the 550 steps to the Dome, open every day from 8:00am to 6:00pm and accessible from the portico to the right of the basilica entrance. Halfway up (which can also be reached by a lift) you’ll even find a coffee bar. Depending on which time of day you decide to visit, it’s quite the spot to take your morning coffee or a spectacular sunset photo of the Dome.
When the basilica opens at 7:00am, you can find Mass being celebrated at nearly every altar and chapel, in any and every language. For example, you’ll find Mass in Italian at the Altar of St. Jerome and across the main aisle at the Altar of the Transfiguration at the same time you’ll find the Traditional Latin Mass. This is something I love about the Catholic Church – unity in diversity. There’s something for everyone! Just ask one of the guards inside the Basilica for directions and don’t worry about missing the start of Mass because you’re going through security. The priests prepare for Mass in the sacristy and will likely reach the altar at the same time as you.
If you’re there in the late afternoon, be sure to tell the guards blocking the way past the Statue of St. Peter and Bernini’s 29 meter (100 ft) high bronze Baldacchino that you wish to attend Mass. You just need to say the magic word, “Messa”. Otherwise they will mistake you for a selfie-taking tourist and not allow you to pass. The Archpriest of the Basilica, Cardinal Angelo Comastri celebrates Mass at five o’clock every evening (5:30pm on Sundays) at the Altar of the Chair of St. Peter and it’s a glorious time of day to take a moment out and say a prayer for your loved ones and give thanks for being able to make this pilgrimage to Rome. Even if you’re not Catholic, attending a celebration gives you a complete experience of this magnificent church. I guarantee that when you’re sitting there listening to the Vatican choir while the last rays of sunlight are streaming through the amber stained glass “Dove of the Holy Spirit” window, you won’t regret it for a moment.
The Vatican Grottoes can be accessed from the center of the basilica, just across from the statue of St. Peter. The grottoes consist of a series of chapels dedicated to various saints and contain the tombs of many popes, kings and queens. They are open every day from 7:00am to 6:00pm, April to September.
Last but not least to note about the basilica is that Adoration is from Monday to Saturday in the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament from the end of the 8:30am Mass until Benediction at 4:45pm.
The most incredible thing you can do in Vatican City is visit the tomb of St. Peter and the necropolis underneath St. Peter’s Basilica. For large groups you should email the Ufficio Scavi (excavations office) months in advance, specifying a preferred date, language and how many people. For one or two people, try visiting the Scavi office in person when you arrive in Rome and hope for a cancellation! Access the Scavi office via the Swiss Guards at the Vatican entrance at Piazza Sant'Uffizio. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Vatican Museums (Sistine Chapel) and Vatican Gardens
Whether it’s your first or fifth visit to Rome, there’s always the question of whether you can brave the long lines of the Museums to reach the prize of the Sistine Chapel. Please note: you do NOT need to line up to see the Vatican Museums! It’s not well-publicized but the Vatican has its own version of the skip-the-line ticket that the hawkers outside the Vatican are jumping over each other to sell you. Ask the sellers as many questions as you like but don’t follow them to their office and pay too much for a group tour that won’t start for at least another hour. Instead, take a moment to book your entrance time online via the Vatican Museums official website and thereby skip the line! And before walking into the glorious Cappella Sistina, prepare yourself by watching Dr. Elizabeth Lev's Ted Talk on the unheard story of the Sistine Chapel. You will be mesmerized before you even enter the chapel.
From April 20 until September, you will have the extraordinary opportunity to visit the Museums after sunset, and even enjoy happy hour! An admission ticket plus happy hour is only 34 euros and it means you can relax in the Pinecone Courtyard, sip on a prosecco and enjoy the lush green surroundings and an amazing view of the dome of St. Peter’s. For me, this is the only way to enjoy the Vatican Museums. There are no crowds and there’s something so special about being inside a museum at night, especially this immense and dynamic museum. The Happy Hour ticket gives you one drink and one visit to the generous buffet table. Make it count and that’s dinner done. Or you can simply pay for another round. But don’t forget there is still a long way to go to reach the Sistine Chapel, so leave yourself ample time to enjoy the Museums’ treasures.
The glorious Vatican Gardens can also be visited on a guided tour with a ticket bought through the Vatican Museums website (link above). The Museums have come up with a very innovative and competitively priced tour called Vatican by Train which takes in the Vatican Museums, the Sistine Chapel, the Vatican Gardens and the Pontifical Residence in Castel Gandolfo by return train – all for only 41 euros. This full-day tour is only available on Saturdays and books out quickly.
Packing List and Helpful Resources
- Don’t forget to bring your favorite devotional items such as rosaries, religious medals and prayer cards that you’ll want to hold onto at the end of either the Angelus or the General Audience when the Pope imparts his Apostolic Blessing to you and your loved ones, as well as any of these items. You’ll probably want to buy some of these in Rome and take them home blessed by the Pope to give to friends and family. I would recommend Comandini in Borgo Pio (two minutes from the Vatican) which has a great selection at very reasonable prices.
- Bring spare camera memory cards, camera and phone batteries, chargers and cords, and at least one adapter plug for Italy.
- To enjoy the extra sunshine that comes with the Roman spring, you’ll need a hat and some sunscreen, especially if you're sitting outside at the Papal Audience all morning. A hat is also a great way to hide dirty hair while you’re traveling. I also never go anywhere without dry hair shampoo.
- Whether it’s to wipe your hands after that huge gelato or because the public toilets are missing soap, you’ll need some packaged wipes on hand at all times. I always carry a selection (cleansing, mosquito repellant and sunscreen).
- The Roman cobblestones are tough on feet so bring some cool sneakers, spare socks and plenty of bandaids. It breaks my heart to write this but unless you’re driving everywhere or well-practiced at walking on your toes, save room in your luggage by forgetting the heels. Or do what I do and carry them in a bag and slip them on at the restaurant!
- A pilgrimage to Rome is a physical, intellectual and spiritual journey so bring a journal to make some notes along the way. You’ll be so glad you did when you look back on it.
- Bring an Italian phrasebook. Even if you only know and use the words hello and goodbye (ciao for both) and thank you (grazie), Italians will appreciate it!
- Leave your passport in the safe at the hotel and carry a photocopy of the photo ID page and visa if applicable. It's also a good idea to have a photocopy of your credit cards and insurance information (separate from your cards obviously). You won't need it if you are continually aware of potential pickpockets. It's hard in Rome but you can't afford to let people into your personal space. Don't worry about offending anyone by moving away if you feel people are too close to you and your belongings.
- If you have a mobile device, be sure to download Rick Steves’ self-guided audio tours of St. Peter’s Basilica, the Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel using the free Rick Steves Audio Europe App. It’s great to listen to before and during your visit to Vatican City.
- Lastly, bring your patience! La dolce vita is a bit slower, whether it's waiting for service in a restaurant or lining up at the post office. So enjoy the more relaxed pace that is forced upon you. By the way if you want to send something overseas, I would recommend the Vatican Post Office just outside St. Peter's Square.
If you want to be able to walk out your door and be at St. Peter’s Square in under five minutes, here are my top local hotels, in alphabetical order because I love them all. Where I have included an email address, feel free to contact them directly using my name. They will not only give you a discount but take extra good care of you!
Hotel della Conciliazione: 4 star hotel in Borgo Pio between the Vatican and Castle St. Angelo. Chic option with free wifi and ample buffet breakfast.
Residenza Paolo VI Hotel: 4 star hotel overlooking the Vatican. Take a drink on their terrace and you’ll feel like you’re sitting on Bernini’s colonnades.
Sant’Anna Hotel: 3 star hotel in Borgo Pio very close to the Vatican. Pretty rooms in a 16th century palace, often with balconies overlooking the Borgo or quiet internal courtyard. Very good breakfast. To book accommodation email Signore Viscardo: email@example.com
Starhotels Michelangelo: 4 star hotel between St. Peter’s train station and the Vatican. Stately hotel with a restaurant and nice lobby bar. Importantly it's nestled in between two of my favorite pizza-by-the-slice bars, Station Pizza and Panificio Fornaci.
For information on the best Roman aperitivi close to the Vatican, see my blog post.
Here are a few of my local favorite restaurants and takeaway spots, in addition to the hotels listed above which have great dining-in options. And keep an eye out, you might just bump into some off-duty Swiss Guards!
1-5 minutes walk from the Vatican:
Bacio di Puglia: Selection of delicious ready-made pasta, pies and thick-based pizzas, typical of the south of Italy. Eat in or take away. Fabulous catering option. Tel. +39 06 68307697
Da Benito e Gilberto: Tiny family-run seafood restaurant of the highest quality and selection for raw and cooked fish and shellfish. Book ahead and take me! Tel. +39 06 6867769
Da Romolo: Newly renovated two-level restaurant with terrace. Good quality pizza and pasta, with a view of the famous ‘Passetto’ (passageway from the Vatican to Castle St. Angelo). Tel. +39 06 6861603
Duecento Gradi: Amazing selection of panini (sandwiches) and salads made fresh to order. Eat in or take away. Good choice of craft beers too! Open until 2am. Tel. +39 06 39754239
I Quattro Mori Hostaria: Fixed seafood menu. Amazing plates like those above just keep coming. Don’t eat beforehand and say hi to owner Fabio for me! Tel. + 39 06 6390195
Isola della Pizza: A favorite pizza, pasta and steak hangout for the Swiss Guards. Great for large groups. Tel. +39 06 39733483
La Vittoria: Food is a little touristy but always reliable. Order the cacio pepe (Roman specialty of spaghetti with sheep’s cheese and pepper). Tel. +39 06 631858
Old Bridge Gelateria: Family-run gelateria perfectly placed after a visit to the Vatican Museums. Don't worry the line moves quickly! Tel. +39 3284119478
Pastasciutta: Fresh pasta and sauces for takeaway. The pasta is usually made only hours before and it’s only 6 euros per serve! Tel. +39 333 6503758
Pizza Alice: Large variety of pizza by the slice for takeaway. Next door to Pastascuitta. Try the spicy eggplant! Tel. +39 06 6875746
Ris Cafè Pub: Great for burgers and beers and Swiss Guard sightings. Tel. +39 06 39754330
Ristorante Tre Pupazzi: Always one of the top restaurants within walking distance of the Vatican (extra Portugese menu on Friday and Saturday nights). Tel. +39 06 6880 3220
5-10 minutes walk from the Vatican:
Ristochicco: Delicious, large servings of pasta. Also great cheese platters! Tel. +39 06 6889 2321
Taberna de’ Gracchi: Be the only tourist at this elegant old-fashioned Roman eatery. But do save room for a gelato next door at the divine Gelateria dei Gracchi, where you'll only find seasonal flavors. Tel. +39 06 321 3126