If you’ve never been to Rome or the Vatican, the idea seems simple: buy a ticket to the Vatican Museums, head into the Sistine Chapel, and check it off your list. The reality can be very different—with long lines and large crowds. If you’re willing to get up early, though, you can beat the crowds and have an amazing experience! Here’s the best way to visit the Vatican.
Pro Tip: Planning your visit to the Vatican in Rome? Bookmark this post in your browser so you can easily find it when you’re in the city. See our guide to Vatican City for more planning resources, our top Vatican tours for a memorable trip, and how to visit the Vatican.
What is the Vatican?
The word Vatican is tossed around frequently, so let’s establish exactly what we mean and where you’ll be going when you visit the Vatican. Of the three possible options, the last two you are able to visit.
This refers to the entire Sovereign country, which is ruled by the pope. The land area that constitutes the Vatican City is approximately 100 acres and covers the entire area within the Vatican Walls. It includes the Vatican Radio tower, living quarters for the pope and other residents (around 900), the Swiss Guard, the Vatican Gardens, and the Vatican pharmacy. It also includes multiple buildings that aren’t within the walls and the pope’s summer residence, Castel Gandolfo. Most areas of the city are off-limits to tourists and guarded by the Swiss Guard.
This is a series of buildings within Vatican City. Inside the museums, you will find countless masterpieces by some of the most famous Renaissance artists the world has ever seen. Included in the Vatican Museums is the Sistine Chapel, so you’ll have to visit the Vatican Museums to see the Sistine Chapel. You can visit the museums by paying an entrance fee.
St. Peter’s Basilica
St. Peter’s Basilica is a church located within the Vatican City, first built in the fourth century over the gravesite of St. Peter. It has been and continues to be one of the most important pilgrimage sites in Christianity. The church is free to visit.
Pro Tip: Bear in mind there is a dress code for the Vatican when you enter St. Peter’s Basilica. Your knees and shoulders must be covered.
How Many People Visit the Vatican Museums Per Day?
According to Statista, in 2019 a whopping 6.9 million people visited the Vatican Museums. This means that on average, 22,000 people visited the museums per day! With that number in mind, you’ll have a better sense of just how many people you could be sharing your Vatican experience with.
This is why one of the best ways to see the Vatican is by taking an early access Vatican tour—to escape the crowds! As an official tour guide of Rome and the Vatican, I‘ve been present on days when the actual number topped 30,000 people in one day. Therefore, the chances of you getting into the Sistine Chapel without crowds is almost impossible…or is it?
Popular Vatican Tours
Not ready to book a tour? Find out if a Vatican tour is worth it.
Is There a Line To Get into Vatican City?
There are actually three different lines to enter the museums, and which line you end up in depends on whether you’re entering by yourself or if you’ve decided to do a guided Vatican tour. Here are the three different entrances and who goes in each one.
This is the entrance you‘ll use if you haven’t bought a ticket in advance. This entrance doesn’t open until 9 am, so you won’t be permitted entry at least until then.
This is the notoriously long line featured in people’s photos. In the high season, it’s possible to wait in this line for up to 3 hours to enter.
Vatican Accredited Line
Tour operators who are accredited by the Vatican Museums are allowed to purchase tickets that allow them entry from a different line in front of the museums. These skip-the-line Vatican tours fast-track visitors past the individual line to the security line, which everyone has to go through.
This entrance opens at 8 am. So, tour operators and their groups are allowed to enter the museums one full hour before the public. This is a great way to beat the crowds in the early morning. By the time you get to the Sistine Chapel with an 8 am entrance, you might find around 500 people in the Sistine Chapel, which may sound like a lot but it’s far fewer than an hour or two later.
The Early Sistine Chapel Tour Line
Taking an early Sistine Chapel tour, you enter 1.5 hours before the main crowds are allowed inside. This is the ultimate experience when visiting the Sistine Chapel and Vatican Museums—with no crowds at all! At this time, there is also no security line, so you basically enter immediately.
There will be moments on this visit when you won’t see any other groups, and it’s completely possible to have entire galleries to yourself. You get to visit the museums the way the pope does—empty.
Depending on the season, you could appreciate the Sistine Chapel almost entirely empty. And even in the high season, there won’t be more than 200 people in the chapel. Given its size, you will almost feel alone anyway. If your dream is to see the Sistine Chapel without crowds and still get the pricing of a small group tour (versus a private tour), then this is the only way to go.
What’s the Hype Over the Early Sistine Chapel Tour?
The Vatican has hand-picked a select number of tour operators (including us) who have been awarded a special privilege—entering the Vatican Museums at 7:30 am. All other skip-the-line Vatican tours enter the Vatican at 8 am.
While this 8 am entrance is still an hour before the general public, getting in at 7:30 am gives you an extremely exclusive experience—it’s the best way to visit the Vatican.
As one of the first groups to enter the Vatican Museums, you will get to admire the iconic works of art without other tour groups. You’ll also be one of the first to enter the Sistine Chapel, the main highlight of your tour.
You’ll get to experience the chapel the way it was meant to be experienced: in a quiet and spiritual manner without the noise and crowds.
Check Out Our Top Early Vatican Tours
Not ready to book a tour? Check out our best Vatican tours to take and why.