How to Visit the Smallest Country in the World—Minus the Lines

Even the Romans haven’t seen the Vatican like this before.

Every day, 25,000 people flock inside the walls of Vatican City, the smallest country in the world stuck directly in the middle of Rome. Whether you’re a history enthusiast, art lover, going on a pilgrimage, or just want to check it off your travel bucket list, the Vatican is a must-see. It is home to some of the most famous artwork in the world, is the seat of one of the largest religions, and contains centuries of history. Plus it's just really pretty to look at.

Now for the first time, a section of the Vatican has been opened to the public, and it’s a sight to see. But if you don’t want to spend most of your time waiting in lines, being jostled by crowds, and feeling hunger pains as you wander around in rooms that haven’t allowed food in them for centuries, here are some key tips to make the most of your time in the tiniest country on Earth.

Saint Peter's Square in Vatican and aerial view of Rome
You can’t even see the line between Rome and Vatican City. | S.Borisov/Shutterstock

To see all of Vatican City, you’ll need to leave Rome

When Pope Francis became the head of the Catholic church, he broke with a lot of tradition. He lives in a small apartment, not the Papal palaces, and he ditched the elaborate robes for a much simpler outfit. Another big change is that he opened the Papacy’s summer palace to the public.

Pontifical Villas of Castel Gandolfo is about one hour outside of Rome via taxi, and until seven years ago, it was completely closed to the public. The villa overlooks beautiful volcanic lakes and has acres upon acres of gardens. The property also includes the ruins of an ancient Roman palace that belonged to Emperor Domitian (from the year 96!). On Saturdays, a free train runs between the palace and St. Peter’s. It'll be busier on Saturdays–during the rest of the week, you can book a taxi ride to the palace.

In addition to stunning views of the Italian countryside, meticulously landscaped grounds, and vistas of an emerald and turquoise lake, you’ll also be able to tour rooms that were only available to presidents and dignitaries just a decade before. Castel Gandolfo is even more of a must-see, considering that there is no guarantee that the estate will remain open to the public under future popes.

View of St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican. Rome, Italy
Don’t wanna be in this crowd! | Stanley Kalvan/Shutterstock

Skip the lines

There are very few circumstances in which you won’t want or need to have timed-entry tickets purchased in advance for the major attractions in Vatican City. For starters, booking tickets and tours in advance will save you massive amounts of time standing in line. When I visited the Vatican Museum on a relatively calm week day in May, the line for people who hadn’t purchased tickets beforehand stretched twice as long and was surrounded by people trying to hawk tickets at a markup.

There are a few different ways you can buy tickets. The first is to go straight through the official Vatican website, where you can purchase entry to just the museum, a guided tour of the museum, or combine tickets so that you can visit the Vatican Museum and the Pontifical Villas of Castel Gandolfo. There are also options available for just the Vatican Gardens, which begins at 21 euros.

Private companies also offer tours and “fast pass” style access. GetYourGuide offers “Skip the Line” tours of the Vatican Museum and the Sistine Chapel (where Michelangelo’s hand of God is painted on the ceiling) for around $50, while Headout offers an unguided skip the line tour for about $30. Given how crowded the museum and the chapel tend to be, having a guide is actually pretty helpful to not miss any of the major pieces of art and navigate such a large collection.

Woman sitting at traditional Italian cafe outdoors
Any food near the Vatican is bound to be… blessed? | RossHelen/Shutterstock

Get there early and eat breakfast in style

Outside the gates of Vatican City, Rome is bursting with dozens upon dozens of excellent restaurant options. Inside Vatican City? Not so much. Book an early visit to the museums, and make time to have breakfast in the Cortile della Pigna (named for the giant pine cone statue in the courtyard). The small cafe there serves espresso, classic Italian pastries and even some American-style breakfast options. It’s a smart start to a day that will be spent mostly in spaces where no food is permitted.

Think of this more as a pit stop rather than a culinary experience, though. You're getting fuel to power through hours of walking. Also, the cutlery at the cafe comes in packages with the Vatican Museum crest, which is a fun little detail.

Detail of the Universal Judgement inside the Sistine Chapel
Like the fingers of Adam and God—painted by Michelangelo on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican Museums—just not quite touching. | Creative Lab/Shutterstock

The Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica are no longer connected

Some savvy people used to pass through the Vatican Museums straight into St. Peter’s Basilica. Unfortunately, that's no longer an option. But if you choose to book a tour guide for your visit, you’ll likely be guided from one location to the other. If you’re going on a self guided adventure, though, you’ll have to find your way to the entrance of St. Peter’s Basilica on your own.

There is no admission fee to enter St. Peter’s, though you'll want to budget time to wait in the security line. There are also skip the line-style tickets from tour agencies for St. Peter’s, which will run you anywhere between $30 and $90 per person, depending on the experience you book. If you only have a short time in Vatican City and want to see everything, skipping the line might be worth it. If you have a flexible schedule or are on a tight budget, just make sure to bring extra water for all that standing under the hot Roman sun.

Woman outside St. Peter’s Square
You can still have style, though. | GaudiLab/Shutterstock

This simple tip might be the most important

Come prepared for your time in Vatican City: Just about every building has a dress code. Every person who enters the museums and St. Peter’s must wear clothing that covers their knees and elbows. That means no Roman gods-style togas. Tank tops, shorts, and any sort of revealing clothing is best for other days of your Roman holiday.

If you are traveling in the summer, long sleeve shirts and pants made of linen are a wise choice. The fabric will keep you cool and the sleeves will keep you in dresscode. Right now, masks are also required indoors in these buildings. So on your packing list, make sure you include a face mask, plus those modest clothes.

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Opheli Garcia Lawler is a Staff Writer on the News team at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.