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Vatican Self-Guided Tour

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This is a self-guided tour of Vatican City, which is the world's smallest nation-state. Situated on a large graveyard and featuring a maze of secret tunnels, Vatican City spans 106 acres and is surrounded by a two-mile border.

Its building began back in the 4th Century, AD, and it became its own sovereign nation in 1929.

Find out what you should see, what you should skip, and what to expect on this self-guided tour of the Vatican, Rome.


FAQs - VISITING THE VATICAN 

When should I visit?

  • The Vatican Museums are open Monday through Saturday year-round. Check the Vatican's website for special closure information.
  • Peak season is pretty much year-round, except January, February, early December, and late November. Crowds can be especially large in the summer months.
  • Most times of the day can be extremely crowded. The busiest times are opening until about 3 pm.

What time do the Vatican Museums open/close?

Generally speaking, the museums open at 9 am and close at 6 pm. Check out the Vatican's website for specific hours.

What should I expect during my visit?

  • Everyone must go through a security check before entering the Vatican.
  • Check the Vatican's website for a list of prohibited items.
  • The main prohibited items are weapons, knives, umbrellas, and luggage.
  • There is a coat check available free of charge for coats and large items.
  • Flash Photography is prohibited.
  • Drawing or replicating artworks is prohibited; contact the Vatican for special permissions.

Can I/should I bring my kids?

Yes! The staff can assist you in finding elevators and child-friendly routes. Please note that there are quite a few nude sculptures.

What can I wear?

Bare legs and shoulders are forbidden, so don't wear shorts, tank tops, halter tops, or strapless attire. Bring a shawl if you're concerned about being turned away.

How long should I plan to stay?

Plan to stay at least four hours in Vatican City, longer during peak seasons.

What are the must-sees for first-time visitors?

Most first-time visitors should plan on checking out the major rooms in the Vatican Museums, the Sistine Chapel, and St. Peter's Basilica.

Can I eat or drink at the Vatican?

You cannot bring food into the Vatican Museums; there are designated places for eating and drinking on the premises. Alcoholic beverages are not allowed on site. Luckily, there are plenty of restaurants in and around Vatican City, so you won't need to travel far to eat.

How do I see the Pope?

Attend a private audience with the Pope on Sundays or Wednesdays.

Can I get an audio guide?

Yes! Audio guides are available for €7. Check out audio guide info here.

Can I do a tour of the Vatican?

Yes! A tour is one of the easiest ways to see Vatican highlights. Check out some of our favorite Vatican tours here.


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SELF-GUIDED TOUR OF VATICAN CITY

St. Peter's Square

Before entering the Vatican Museums, you'll arrive in St. Peter's Square. This massive square was designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini in 1656 to allow for the massive weekly papal audience. Pope Alexander VII oversaw the project.

One of the main focal points of the square is a large obelisk that stands 25.5 meters tall. It was designed by an Egyptian pharaoh and originally stood in Heliopolis. It was moved to Rome by Caligula in 37 AD. It was moved to its current location in 1586.

This is where you can see the Swiss Guard, the Swiss soldiers who protect Vatican City. You can also pick up Papal tickets here. The Papal Apartments pope'sso be seen from here.

This area was once used by Roman emperor, Nero, for chariot races and Christian persecution—including Peter in 65 AD. It was here that Peter was crucified, and he asked to be crucified upside down because being crucified in the same manner as Jesus felt wrong.

Peter was buried on Vatican Hill—the current site of St. Peter's Basilica dome.

From here, make your way to the Vatican Museums, which are about a 15 minute walk away.


Vatican Museums

The Vatican Museums were founded by Pope Julius II in the early 16th Century. They are located in Belvedere Palace, the former summer retreat to the Pope. Start your journey in front of the giant pine cone.


Pine Cone Courtyard

This courtyard is appropriately named Pine Cone Courtyard, thanks to the giant larger-than-life pine cone statue that stands in front of Belvedere Palace. The courtyard was constructed by Donato Bramante, though the pine cone was constructed much earlier—nearly 2,000 years ago. It originally stood near the Pantheon and represents, Isis, the god of fertility.

Behind you is a giant sphere that was constructed in 1990 by Arnaldo Pomodoro. Though its meaning is unknown, many speculate that the sphere represents the cosmos.

The two sculptures are very different and represent the old and the new in Vatican City.


Octagonal Courtyard

The next courtyard is called the Octagonal Courtyard. The most impressive piece of art in this courtyard is the Apollo Bevedere. Apollo was the Greek god of the hunt. Many scholars consider this sculpture to be the most perfect and symmetrical sculpture in the world. It was found during the Renaissance and is thought to have been created around 120 AD. Michelangelo used this sculptor to paint Jesus in "The Last Judgment".

Also in this room are a statue of the River God, Arno; Laocoon, the man who tried to warn the Trojans not to accept the Greek's gift of the wooden horse; and several sarcophagi. The River God sarcophagus dates back to 140-150 AD. Laocoon was sculpted by Michelangelo.


Hall of Animals

The next room holds "The Belvedere Torso". This is the torso Michelangelo modeled his Jesus's torso after in "The Last Judgment".


The Round Room

The next room back is also appropriately named. The mosaic floor is 1700 years old and depicts scenes from battle. The giant bath supposedly once belonged to Nero, emperor of Rome. It's made of imperial porphyry, a purple stone only found in the mountains of Egypt. The room actually had to be built around the bath.


Gallery of the Candelabra

The long gallery behind the Round Room is full of pale marble statues. These statues were once colorful, but their paint has long-since worn away. Many of the statues were adorned with fig leaves from the mid 16th Century to the early 19th Century to give the statues a little modesty.

Two of the most prominent statues are of the Greek goddesses Diana and Artemis. Artemis is the goddess of fertility, and Diana is the goddess of the hunt. Both hunters and farmers used to pray to these statues in hopes of a prosperous year ahead.


Gallery of Tapestries

The next long gallery holds many tapestries that were woven by students of Raphael. These students would sketch their designs on paper before attempting to fashion large-scale tapestries. All the tapestries depict scenes from Christ's life.


Gallery of Maps

The final long gallery holds 40 maps. These are topographical maps based on Ignazio Dante's drawings from 1580 to 1583. The ceiling is covered in paintings by Cesare Nebbia and Girolamo Muziano.


Raphael Rooms

To the left are the Raphael Rooms. These rooms include paintings by Raphael and his students. They are broken down into four rooms: Room of the Segnatura, Room of Heliodorus, Room of the Fire in the Borgo, and Room of Constantine.


Sistine Chapel

The Sistine Chapel is one of the most popular sites in Vatican City. This room can get extremely crowded during high seasons. We strongly recommend taking a guided tour of the Vatican Museums that includes early entry to the Sistine Chapel to avoid crowds.

This chapel is the home to the papal conclaves, the group that choses the next Pope. The chapel was finished in 1481 and was designed by Baccio Pontelli. It is named for Pope Sixtus IV, for whom it was named. The chapel is most famous for the frescoes that adorn the ceilings and walls, painted by Botticelli, Perugino, Ghirlandaio, and of course—Michelangelo.

The frescoes on the walls depict scenes from the life of Moses, scenes from the life of Jesus, narratives from Genesis, and the ancestors of Christ.

The ceiling was painted by Michelangelo from 1508 to 1512. He also painted "The Last Judgment" from 1535 to 1541.


St. Peter's Basilica

Like St. Peter's Square, St. Peter's Basilica was designed by Bramante. It was also designed by Michelangelo, Bernini, and Maderno.

The church was built on the grave of St. Peter, the first Pope and replaced Old St. Peter's Basilica that was built in the 4th Century, AD. Old St. Peter's, which was in dire need of repair, was demolished in the 1500s to allow for the new church to be built in its place. Many of the stones from Old St. Peter's were used to build the new basilica.

It took over 120 years to build St. Peter's.

Walk into the atrium. The five bronze doors in front of you were the first works of Roman Renaissance art. They depict several Catholic saints. They are only opened on holy years—every 25 years.

Start to make your way into the nave of the church.

Everything is larger than life in St. Peter's Basilica. It is almost 114 meters wide. The ornate Baroque interiors were designed as a way to woo churchgoers back to Catholicism during the Counter Reformation.

To the right is Michelangelo's "Pieta". It depicts Mary holding the body of Jesus. It sits behind bulletproof glass. He sculpted it in 1499, and it was one of his first major works.

The plaques on the nave floor are etched with the names of famous churches from around the world. They show where the church would end in comparison to St. Peter's.

Continue walking toward the altar. Stop once you are under the dome. This dome was built by Michelangelo. The dome is one of the largest and most impressive of its kind. It stands almost 450 feet. St. Peter's tomb is nearby, though it is not visible.

You can visit the top of the dome—accessible by elevator or more than 300 stairs.


Vatican Gardens

The Vatican Gardens are only accessible by guided tour. Check out tours of the Vatican here.

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About The Author

Stephen Pickhardt

Stephen is the CEO of Free Tours by Foot and has overseen the transformation of a local walking tour company into a global tour community and traveler’s advice platform. He has personally led thousands of group tours in the US and Europe, and is an expert in trip planning and sightseeing, with a focus on budget travelers. Stephen has been published and featured in dozens of publications including The Wall Street Journal, BBC, Yahoo, Washington.org, and more.
Updated: November 22nd, 2021
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