Taking for a guided tour in Vatican City? Here's how to make the most of it, from post cards to gelato.
I don't keep a travel bucket list, but if I did, Vatican City would surely be near the top. It's the world's smallest country, both in size and population. It has a unique economic system almost entirely sustained by tourists - many who are clamoring to get rare Vatican City postage stamps, a big bucket list item for many travelers. I've even read that it's the wealthiest country in the world (not that surprising, considering the treasure trove of art within its walls). And, of course, for many travelers it's much more than a bucket list destination - it's their spiritual home as Roman Catholics.
It's unthinkable to come to Rome and not visit the Vatican. But you don't just stroll into such a legendary location without a plan. We started by signing up for a group tour - an invaluable travel tool - and we learned some critical lessons along the way. Here are our seven best practical tips for making the most of a guided tour to Vatican City.
Check and double check your meeting point.
You'd think between a street address, a physical description, and a set of GPS coordinates that we'd have no problem finding our group. Turns out at least one of the three was wrong, we were sent to the wrong spot, and we very nearly missed out on our tour!
Happily a little divine intervention came our way. Thank you to the sidewalk angel/tour ticket seller who pointed us in the right direction and then took things one step further and jogged with us to the appropriate corner! Our advice: Check and double check your instructions. Make careful note of the name of your tour, the company hosting it, and the name of the company who sold it to you. Many tours and companies have very similar names and even logos.
If I were to do it all over again, I'd also look on tour reviews on Trip Advisor, as often there's lots of helpful tidbits of information from other travelers who found themselves in the exact same situation - you might just catch a few practical tips.
There's never not a crowd.
Welcome to one of the most popular tourist attractions in all of Europe! Even the early morning, beat-the-crowds tours are really crowded - the individual groups themselves are a reasonable size but there are A LOT of them. We were traveling during the peak summer season and it felt like everyone had relocated from North America to the queuing area outside the Vatican gates all at the same time.
Happily, while it looked chaotic and crowded to us, things moved quickly and efficently and we never really needed to wait for any significant amount of time and the guides did a good job of ushering everything along.
Pay careful attention to what your tour guide is wearing - you'll want to keep a close eye on them - and ask them where you should meet in the event that you get separated from the group. (But don't get separated! Stick with your group like glue!) Being terrified of losing my guide had an unexpected advantage for me - I was close enough that I could naturally hear her speak, without having to rely on the mic-and-ear-bud system.
You CAN see a lot in a short amount of time.
Virtually every suggested itineary for Roman sightseeing recommends a day to properly tour the Vatican - a suggestion that is simultanously absoutely right and totally wrong. For those visiting the Vatican with an extremely strong interest in art, history, and faith, you'll need at least a day to properly take in all the sights - maybe even more. A true art lover may need several days just to do justice to their passion.
But if your interests are more moderate in nature or if you are doing a whirlwind tour of several Roman attractions to get a taste of the city for a future visit, you can absorb and appreciate the Vatican's main sites in just a few hours.
Our 2 hour Early Entry Sistine Chapel & St. Peter's Basilica Service tour with Walks of Italy was the perfect fit for us. We were able to enjoy a guided tour of the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter's Basilica, as well as receive extensive background information from our guide about the significance of what we were going to see. We also enjoyed a long walk through the galleries of the Vatican Museum and the chance to explore St. Peter's Square on our own at the end.
Obviously this was a less in-depth experience than other tours that offer more intensive programs but it was perfect for us. We had a chance to see something that had intrigued us for years and it still left plenty of time in our limited Rome itinerary for many other attractions and activities. We were truly glad we had gone and similarly happy that we chose a short tour - it was the ideal length and subject matter for us, our interests, and our overall timeline.
Don't stress about photos.
I'll let you in on a secret - the two photos above have been edited and they're still not as good as I'd like. That's because at a world class museum like the Vatican you're going to find art work that's behind smudged bullet proof glass and you'll encounter stunning architecture that's challenging to photograph. There are also going to be rooms - such as the Sistine Chapel - where photography is forbidden.
Add the crowds plus the ever-moving nature of a tour and, well, let's just say that the gift shop is a great idea. Post cards are cheap, easy to carry, and sturdy enough to last a lifetime. Don't worry about getting the perfect shot - just enjoy this special place. And if you do really want a memorable photo opportunity, be open to suggestion and ask your guide for recommendations - they see everyone clamor to get the same shots day after day and probably have strong opinions about overlooked opportunities.
Bring a pen - and hang around for a while.
If memory serves me right, the top shot above was taken not far from the Vatican Post Office (where photography is forbidden). Once our tour concluded, we took the time to wander around the square and track down post cards. I couldn't resist stocking up at the Vatican post office - along with many other visitors. I was one of the few who had a pen on me and I earned grateful smiles by loaning ours out to others. I wonder if they, like me, had heard that Vatican mail was much speedier than the Italian postal system. In any case, it was false for us as it took a month for our cards to reach Canada!
If you're just buying and mailing one card, make sure you have a couple of Euros on hand. I seem to remember that there was a 5 Euro (more or less) minimum to use their credit card machine.
One thing I wish I had known in advance is that there ARE places where you can eat within the walls of the Vatican. If we had a short snack break I'm sure we would have stayed even longer! I love this article about food culture at the Vatican, complete with suggestions on where you can get a basic lunch and some coffee within Vatican City's walls.
Tour or solo, remember this rule: Dress and act respectfully.
A good rule of thumb when determining if your apparel and conduct would pass muster while traveling: Ask yourself if your great grandmother would approve.
Vatican City is the spiritual and political heart of one of the world's largest religions, is a place of deeply important personal and religious pilgrimage to people from all over the world, and is home to some of humanity's most divine artistic treasures - all excellent reasons to speak quietly, be aware of your surroundings, and dress in a comfortable, covered up style. And like any busy travel situation, mutual courtesy goes a long, long way.
(PS: The smiling Sister above is demonstrating another important Vatican City fashion rule - keep your purse in front of your body. As with any other top 10 tourist attraction, pickpockets make the rounds here.)
Don't forget to stop for divine gelato.
Alright, this has nothing to do with making the most of your tour - let's just file it under making the most of life! There is a fantastic gelato shop just outside the Vatican walls. Old Bridge Gelateria makes absolutely wonderful gelato and ice cream using local ingredients. Their organic blackberry gelato - the daily special during our visit - was so intensely flavored and such a dark, deep purple color. I still dream about it! They also have some nice touches you don't see at your average shop, like a large fan to cool customers in line and a hand sanitizer dispenser by the door. Make note of the map below so you easily arrive at Old Bridge and not one of the many other gelato shops in the area.
Make your trip to Vatican City an easy one.
It's easy to let the crowds, heat, and general scope of Vatican City become overwhelming. But like any large and popular destination, a little planning goes a long way. A short tour was the perfect balance of learning, sightseeing, and exploring for us and was the ideal introduction to this most list-worthy of countries.
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Walks of Italy provided us with complimentary media passes for our tour and we are grateful for their support. All research, writing, and opinions remain my own.