Touring the Vatican: One Day Itinerary for Vatican City
Planning a visit to Vatican City and wondering how to organize your day?
This 24 hour Vatican itinerary and pocket guide has you covered. This one day itinerary takes you to the top attractions in Vatican City: the Vatican Museums, St. Peter's Square, St. Peter's Basilica, and Castle Sant'Angelo.
You'll find tips for visiting each Vatican attraction, a description of what to see at each attraction, and a primer on how to budget your time. I also give you suggestions for where to eat.
Be forewarned, it's difficult to spend an entire day in Vatican City without burnout or a dose of museum fatigue. The papacy is over 2,000 years old and its haul of fine art masterpieces is staggering. Plus, you're visiting an entire country, however tiny. Ideally, you would break up your Vatican visit into two half days.
BUT you can pull it off! I've done Vatican City in one day, to make my Rome visits more efficient geographically.
With breaks, some stamina, and the right strategy, a 1 day blitz in Vatican City can certainly be done and enjoyed. Plan to budget at least 6 hours for the attractions alone. Even then, you'll be doing a quickie tour of the Vatican Museums.
Vatican City is 100 acres. The city's holy buildings are monumental in scale. Its lavishly-decorated museums house some of the world’s most celebrated artworks.
How To Spend One Day in Vatican City
Here's what to see and do in Vatican City in 1 day:
1. Vatican Museums
The Vatican Museums consist of 26 museums and almost 5 miles of wall space with densely packed displays. You could spend days and weeks admiring and discovering all the exhibits. Pick up a map when you walk in.
To help you economize on time and effort, I list below the main things you can't miss as you walk through the Vatican Museums.
I list them in the likely order you'll encounter them on the museum path. I like to call this path the Expressway, since it's mostly a jam packed rat race to get to the Sistine Chapel.
I tell you all the key spots to visit in the Vatican Museums. But you may have to pick and choose among them, depending on your timetable and personal museum-going interest. There are some specialized museums that may or may not be worth your time.
The Vatican Pinacoteca, or painting gallery, is one of the most important collections on planet Earth. The museum contains an often overlooked, but truly amazing, collection of old master paintings.
The Pinacoteca has over 450 top tier paintings and other masterpieces. You'll find stunning art works by Giotto, Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci, Titian, Caravaggio, and Bernini. The Pinacoteca is effectively a mini-Louvre of Italian painting.
The Pinacoteca opened in 1930 and contains the papal "easel collection," meaning pantings that are mobile. It contains a historic overview of the development of Western painting.
18 rooms hold the Vatican's most precious paintings. A highlight is Room 8, with three Raphael paintings.
Opened in 1932, the Pio-Clementine Museum is the oldest art collection in the Vatican Museums. It houses ancient Greek and Roman sculptures, dating back to the time of Pope Julius II.
The museum is named after the two popes who oversaw its foundation, Clement XIV and Pius VI. You'll stroll through parts of the museum on a standard tour.
The heart of the museum is the 18th century Octagonal Courtyard, with fountains, trees, and benches. It was designed by Renaissance architect Donato Bramante and contains the most famous statues in the Vatican.
The Pio-Clementine Museum is where you can admire works such as the Colossal Statue of Hercules, Laocoon and His Sons, the Belvedere Torso, the Belvedere Hermes, Statue of River God, Venus Felix, and Apollo Belvedere. There are also several sculptures by famed Neo-Classical sculptor Antonio Canova.
Chiaramonte Museum + Braccio Nuovo
This Chiaramonte sculpture collection is named after its founder, Pope Pius VII. Though less well known than the Pio-Clementine Museum, it still has some treasures. The museum was curated by famed Neo-Classical sculptor Antonio Canova.
The Braccio Nuovo, or New Wing, is where the large sculptures in the Chiaramonte are located. This is where you'll find the colossal statue of River Nile (shown above). It's one of the largest pieces in the Vatican Museums, discovered near the Basilica of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva and the Pantheon in 1513.
You can also see the stunning Augustus of Prima Porta, Bust of Julius Caesar, Wounded Amazon, Bust of Claudius, and statue of Euripides.
Gregorian Egyptian Museum
This specialized museum owes its existence to Pope Gregory XVI. He was an ardent admirer of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, art, and culture. The pope founded the museum in 1837. He then began collecting Egyptian artifacts, including those found in the Villa Farnesina and Hadrian's Villa in Tivoli.
The museum is arranged thematically in nine rooms. The first two rooms have funerary monuments and sarcophagi. The following two rooms have masterpieces of Egyptian sculpture. The last rooms contain smaller sculptures in bronze and clay.
In this museum, you need to look for and admire the Colossal Statue of Queen Tuya, the Seated Amon-Ra, the Sarcophagus and Lid of Djet-Mut, and the Head of Pharaoh Mentupuhotep II.
Gregorian Etruscan Museum
Opened in 1837, this is another specialized museum inaugurated by Pope Gregory VI. The museum showcases an extensive collection from the Etruscan culture, which was dominant in Italy before the Roman Empire.
The most precious pieces in this museum are the Etruscan Goldsmith, the Mars of Todi, and the Sitting Child. You'll also find plenty of Etruscan vases, reliefs, sculptures, and artifacts.
This area houses Renaissance and Baroque tapestries, among the Vatican's most important treasures. The tapestries were designed by Raphael and painters from the Netherlands. Some of these tapestries formerly adorned the walls of the Sistine Chapel, featuring scenes from the lives of Saints Peter and Paul.
Gallery of Maps
Most visitors go crazy for the Gallery of Maps, located in the Belvedere Courtyard. Perhaps because it's so unusual and has an absolutely magnificent ceiling.
The gallery houses the largest cycle of geographical pictures ever painted. It consists of 16 frescoed panels that were commissioned by Pope Gregory XIII.
The frescos were completed in 1580-81. They depict the history of Italy and the papal states. The vaulted ceilings have scenes from the history of Rome, beginning with Constantine. There are also scenes form the Old Testament and mythology.
The maps were based on full sized cartoons (i.e., preparatory drawings) by the Dominican monk Ignazio Danti and executed by his large workshop.
You'll find a juxtaposition of antique and contemporary maps. These areas are followed by maps of the Italian province and maps of the Italian islands. Each map has a bird's eye view perspective and is based on an identifying cartouche.
Turn left after the Aldobrandini Room and head into one of the Vatican's real highlights -- the stunning Raphael Rooms. These four rooms were once the public rooms of the papal apartments in the era of Pope Julius II.
The Raphael Rooms are a magnificent assemblage of Renaissance frescos, one of the world's most famous Renaissance interiors. Hired by Pope Julius II, a precocious young Raphael and his assistants (especially Giulio Romano) painted dramatic frescos in four rooms in the pope's apartments between 1508-24.
The four Raphael Rooms, also called the Raphael Stanza, are: the Room of Constantine, the Room of the Signature, Room of Heliodorus, and the Room of the Fire of Borgo.
The most famous painting is Raphael's magnificent School of Athens, a symbol of the humanistic values of the Renaissance.
The Borgia Apartments are a lavishly decorated suite of six rooms. They're one floor down from the Raphael Rooms. You've got to take the stairs. But it's worth it.
The Borgia Apartments are ancient, without the benefit of the facelift given to the Raphael Rooms. There are divine gilded ceilings and tile weathered floors.
The apartments were home to an infamous Spanish pope Rodrigo Borgia, known as Pope Alexander VI, from 1492 to 1503. He was despised as tyrannical, deceitful, and lustful. He wasn't exactly an shining example for a celibate clergy.
There are six monumental rooms. The rooms now house part of the Vatican's contemporary religion collection. It was these rooms that Alexander VI's successor, Julius II, spurned in favor of creating the Raphael Rooms.
Tour guides typically either skip or rush through these apartments. But that's a mistake. They're filled with beautiful frescos by Pinturicchio.
Though they don't rank with the Sistine Chapel frescos, the frescos are still a wonder of Renaissance art. Pinturicchio's frescos sparkle and glow with gold and lapis lazuli. Pinturicchio was inspired by the grotesque frescos discovered in Nero's Golden House, Domus Aurea.
The Sistine Chapel is perhaps the world's most famous interior decorated space. And it (mostly) came out of the mind of just one man, Michelangelo, nicknamed Il Divino. The scale of the work and breadth of Michelangelo's fevered imagination is incredible.
In 1508, Pope Julius II summoned Michelangelo from Florence to paint the ceiling of his private chapel. But it wasn't just a private room. It's a room of grave importance, where new popes are elected in a conclave.
The frescos depict scenes exclusively from the Old Testament. They seem to open up the chapel to heaven. There's a lot of overly perfect naked male bodies, Michelangelo's particular obsession. He considered muscled masculinity a sign of the divine.
At the highest point of the ceiling is a central band with nine scenes from the Book of Genesis. You read them beginning at the altar wall. The scenes follow the chronology of the Bible, from the Creation through the Fall of Man and the Life of Noah.
All the scenes are framed by a painted architectural framework. It looks almost real, not like mere paint. In the nine panels, there are four smaller scenes and five larger scenes.
In 1536, 24 years after he had finished painting the ceiling, Michelangelo returned to the Sistine Chapel. At age 61, Pope Clement VII summoned him to paint The Last Judgment on the altar wall.
The Last Judgment is rendered in a different style than Michelangelo's prior ceiling frescos. The 300 figures are more monumental and the colors are largely monochromatic -- essentially sky and flesh tones.
In the middle, Christ looks decidedly different than usual. He's shown as excessively youthful, buff, smoothly shaven, and floating on clouds.
He's depicted more like Apollo than the suffering bearded savior one expects. His raised hand casts judgment against the damned.
The lines at the entrance of the Sistine Chapel can move quite slowly. Guards may block further entrance if they think the chapel is filled to capacity.
Here's my complete guide to the Sistine Chapel.
Practical Information for Visiting the Vatican Museums
Address: Viale Vaticano, 00165 Rome
Hours: Monday to Saturday 8:30 am to 6:30 pm. From July 1 to Oct 31, on Friday and Saturday, the Vatican is open until 10:30 pm (final entry 8:30 pm).
Entry fee: € 17. € 21 if purchased online, which is recommended. Click here to purchase tickets from the official Vatican website. On the last Sunday of each month, the museums are free from 9:00 am to 2:00 pm. But it will likely be packed.
How to get to the Vatican: The Vatican museums can be accessed by foot, metro, or bus. You can literally just walk right into Vatican City. The metro stops are Ottaviano and Cipro. Or take bus #40 or 64. If you arrive at St. Peter's basilica first, it's a 15 minute walk to get to the entrance to the Vatican Museums.
Pro Tips: Click here for all the rules for visiting the Vatican Museums.
There are plenty of eateries around the Vatican. Try to avoid the restaurants with pushers handing out flyers.
Instead, grab a porchetta sandwich at the Angry Pig, a nice meal at Magazzino Scipione, or a slice of pizza at Hostaria dei Bationi. Top it off with a gelato at Galleria Old Bridge.
3. St. Peter's Square
After lunch admire St. Peter's Square. The beautiful piazza is perhaps Gian Lorenzo Bernini's greatest contribution to Vatican City. The square is lorded over by hundreds of statues of biblical figures and saints created by Bernini's workshop.
In 1656, Pope Alexander VII commissioned Bernini to build a vast square worthy of the basilica. Prior to Bernini, the piazza was an empty space with a lone obelisk, brought to Rome by Caligula around 37 A.D.
Bernini created an elliptical plaza with two semi circular colonnades, consisting of four rows of Doric columns. The colonnades represent a pair of stretched and embracing arms, welcoming pilgrims to the basilica. If you stand on the foci (marble plates) near the fountain designed by architect Carlo Maderno, the columns line up perfectly behind one another.
On the balustrade at the top of the columns are a line of 140 statues of saints, martyrs, and popes crafted by Bernini's workshop.
The paving stones of the square are cobblestone and travertine marble. They radiate from the central hub of the obelisk. The square is a magnificent entry point to the basilica, meant to be a symbolic heaven.
4. St. Peter's Basilica
Now, it's time to head to St. Peter's Basilica, the most famous church in Christendom. Designed by Bramante, Raphael, and Michelangelo, St. Peter's is a true Renaissance-Baroque masterpiece. It may be the most ornate space you've ever stepped foot inside, filled with precious treasures, grandiose decoration, and inlaid marble.
St. Peter's Basilica was completed after 120+ years of construction, the reign of 18 different popes, incalculable cost, and the direction of 12 different architects. Measuring more than two football fields in length, it's by far the largest church in Christendom.
St. Peter's has a "wedding cake" palace-like facade, rather than a church facade. Eight columns support the upper attic on which thirteen 18 foot marble statues stand.
The central balcony on the second floor is known as the Benediction Loggia. This is where the pope delivers a speech upon his election.
The greatest artist of the Baroque, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, decorated the interior. This is where you'll find the famous Bernini Baldachin canopy and Michelangelo's tragically beautiful Pieta. The basilica is also the burial place of Saint Peter and past popes.
The dome of St. Peters, with input from the revered Michelangelo, is the tallest in the entire world. The entrance to the dome is on the right side of the basilica, above the visitor center. The dome is open daily from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm, until 6:00 pm during high season from April 1 to September 30.
Here's my complete guide to St. Peter's Basilica.
Practical Information for Visiting St. Peter's Basilica
Address: Viale Vaticano 00165 Rome
Hours: Open daily 7:00 am to 7:00 pm, closing at 6:00 pm in winter. On Wednesdays when the Pope holds his audience in St. Peter's Square, the Basilica doesn't open until 12:00-1:00 pm.
Entry fee: Entry is free. Audio guides can be rented at the entrance of the Basilica. The Vatican Necropolis is € 13. But you have to pre-book a guided tour.
Dome fee: A ticket for the dome costs € 6 euros if you climb the 551 steps or € 8 to take the elevator midway up. From the elevator, it's another 320 steps to the top. Allow about an hour for the dome experience.
When To Go: Try to avoid going on Wednesdays or Sunday if there is a papal appearance. It will be unbearably crowded.
5. Castle Sant'Angelo
Castle Sant'Angelo is a 2,000 year old landmark in Rome Italy. It's one of Rome's must see ruins and archaeological sites. As a national museum, it's official name is the Museo Nazionale di Castle Sant'Angelo.
The castle is the former tomb of Emperor Hadrian decorated in papal splendor. Castle Sant'Angelo is the perfect reflection of Rome's history. Though Castle Sant'Angelo owes its name to a medieval legend, its history dates back to ancient Rome. Visiting the Castle Sant'Angelo is a walk through the entire history of Rome in one go.
There's honestly a lot to see inside, spooky passageways and sumptuous salons. You'll also get a stair stepping workout. From the entrance, a winding spiral subterranean ramp leads you up five floors.
The museum is stuffed with centuries of goodies most suitable for history buffs. It's an eclectic collection -- paintings, sculptures, military memorabilia, popes' apartments, and a wonderful viewing terrace. To me, the frescoed ceilings and panoramic view from the top were the museum's best features.
Practical Information for Visiting Castle Sant'Angelo
Address: Lungotevere Castello 50
Hours: Open daily 9:00 am to 7:30 pm. There may be extended hours during summer. Check the website.
Entry fee: Castle Sant'Angelo isn't cheap at € 15. There's free entrance on the first Sunday of the month. The Roma Pass is accepted.
Pro tip: You can download a free app for Castle Sant'Angelo for your visit, with free wifi onsite. There's also plenty of signage. And there's a lovely cafe, Cafeteria Ristorante Le Terrazze, that offers up splendid views of St. Peter's Basilica.
6. Ponte Sant'Angelo
This stunning bridge was built by Emperor Hadrian in 134 AD. He used it to make a regal entrance from downtown Rome. The bridge was hence formerly known as the Bridge of Hadrian.
In the 7th century, the bridge was renamed after the Archangel Michael was seen atop the castle. In the Middle Ages, the bridge was used by pilgrims visiting St. Peter's Basilica.
The bridge is lined with 10 white marble angels atop marble parapets. They hold symbols of the passion of Christ. The angels were designed by Bernini and are rendered in a classic late Baroque style, full of movement and emotion.
Two of the angels were carved by Bernini himself. You can find them in the Church of Sant'Andrea delle Fratte.
7. Dinner in the Borgo Neighborhood
For dinner, head to Vatican City's Borgo neighborhood. It's just to the west of Vatican City.
Some good options are Borghiciano, Tre Pupazzi, Panificio Bonci, or Il Sorpasso. A little further afield is the innovative Italian restaurant Il Gatto E L'uva.
If you'd rather dine in Rome proper, head back over the Ponte Sant'Angelo.
How To Budget Your Time in Vatican City
The typical Vatican Museums guided tour lasts only 2 hours, 3 if it includes St. Peters Basilica. This simply isn't enough time to see and absorb the treasures of the Vatican Museums.
In fact, it barely scratches the surface. You may want to make a repeat visit on your trip. That's what I did last time I was in Rome.
Here's how to allocate your time while exploring Vatican City in one day. You'll have a long day. Plan to spend 6-7 hours just at the sites, with additional time for breaks and lunch.
Vatican Pinacoteca: 45 minutes to 1 hour
Pio-Clementine Museum & Braccio Nuovo: 30 minutes
Gallery of Maps: 15 minutes
Raphael Rooms: 30-45 minutes
Borgia Apartments: 15-30 minutes
Sistine Chapel: If you're on a tour, you'll likely only get 10 minutes. Guards and signs advise 20 minutes. Take more time if you can.