Visiting the Vatican
The Vatican, both a tiny independent state within the city of Rome and the head of the Roman Catholic Church, has lots of interesting stuff for religious and non-religious alike.
The Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel
The Vatican Museums are a series of galleries that showcase some of the best paintings and sculptures in Italy, plus Michelangelo's famous ceiling and Last Judgment frescoes in the Sistine Chapel. In the summer, there are often long lines for the Vatican Museum. To avoid the lines, either get there early, book online (€4 booking fee for each group of tickets), or book a tour group (since groups skip the line). Open M-Sat 9-6, last ticket sold at 4. Open and free (and thus crowded) on last Sun of the month, 9-2. See the main Rome page for recommended tour companies.
St. Peter's Basilica
St. Peter's is both impressive and beautiful; Michelangelo's design and dome are outfitted with a panoply of religious art, including Michelangelo's own Pietà. Open daily 7-7, closes at 6 Oct-March. Note that the dress code is strictly enforced: no bare shoulders or shorts are allowed (yes, they will stop you). If you are up to it, don't miss the climb to the top of the cupola (the top of the dome), which gives you a great view of Rome and a different perspective on Michelangelo's impressive dome--from the inside (€6 ticket, 8 to 5:45 or 4:45 from Oct-March). More info at the Saintpetersbasilica.org Travel Information page.
- As of 2017-2019 there are now very long security lines during peak tourist season; AnAmericanInRome gives a good summary of how to skip these lines (apparently, the old trick of going directly from the Sistine Chapel to the Basilica doesn't work anymore unless you're with a tour group)
Seeing the Pope
Wednesday General Audience
- Held on Wednesdays at 10:30 AM (sometimes 10 AM in summer) in St. Peter's Square
- Usually consists of prayers and a short homily (in Italian and Latin)
- Can be cancelled for summer vacation or travel
- Check out the Pope's Schedule to be sure
- Anyone can pass by and watch, but the best seats/views are with a ticket
- reserve tickets well in advance!
- Ticket information:
- Vatican prefecture website is the official source
- Sometimes last-minute tickets are available from the Swiss Guards the day before between 3 and 6 PM (7 PM in summer) at the Bronze Door Entrance (just after the security line)
- Americans will likely pick up their tickets at the Pontifical North American College (near the Trevi Fountain)
- Also good information at US Embassy and Santa Susanna Church
Sunday Angelus Blessing
- Held on Sundays at noon in St. Peter's Square
- Shorter blessing (in Italian and Latin)
- Can also be cancelled for summer vacation/travel
- No tickets given/required
The pope also presides over major services in St. Peter's (or the square outside). For example, there are papal masses on Easter Sunday and Christmas Vigil (midnight mass) each year. All of these require tickets; see the ticket information above for details. (Reports are that the Christmas mass is lots of fun—bring a blanket and some wine to make the wait outside more bearable!) See the Pope's Schedule for a full list.
Other Religious Events and Masses
St. Peter's has daily Mass (not led by the pope) each day at 8:30, 10, 11, 12, 5 or on Sundays/holidays at 9, 10:30, 11:30, 12:10, 1, 4, and 5:30...most are held at the Altar of St. Joseph, except the first, which is held at the Blessed Sacrament Chapel. A useful resource for religious tourists is Santa Susanna Church, the home of the American Catholic Church in Rome. They offer an English mass every day at 6 PM at their church on Via 20 Settembre, near the Piazza della Repubblica. Fr. Greg, the pastor of Santa Susanna, leads occasional religious walks for English-speaking Catholics in Rome; his church also leads a pilgrimage prayer on Monday mornings. Their website also lists convents that offer cheap rooms for pilgrims and a list of English-language church services in Rome (for various denominations, not just Catholic).
Other Special Tours
The Vatican offers a few special tours by reservation only (often you have to reserve well in advance, although occasionally you can luck out with next-day or same-day tickets).
Vatican Garden Tour
Every day at 10 AM, except Wednesdays and Sundays, you can see the Vatican Gardens. See the US Embassy website for more information.
St. Peter's Excavation (Scavi or Necropolis) Tour
Part of the area under St. Peter's has been excavated to reveal ancient Roman burial sites and what is believed to be the tomb of Saint Peter himself. See the Vatican website, Santa Susanna website, or US Embassy website for more information (also the St. Peter's website, in Italian).