Vatican City is the smallest sovereign nation in the world, located right in the middle of Rome. There are two main Vatican City tours that visitors tend do every time they visit Vatican City – St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Museums. And those are great, of course, but you haven’t nearly done it all. What you might not know is that there are so many more Vatican City tours you can do in this small city state.
For more on small countries of Europe, you can read Ali’s great article on 7 smallest countries in Europe, including the Vatican City.
For those who want to explore more and do more, there are many more things to see beyond the basilica and major museum walls. Take note though: you will need to plan these Vatican city tours carefully. Many of these visits require a reservation far in advance of your visit. Here are some of the lesser known Vatican City tours that you can book and make your trip to the Holy See a much more fulfilling experience.
Exclusive Vatican Museum tours for groups
If you are traveling with a group, consider doing some of these tour options that only are offered to groups. The Vatican Museums offer a numerous tours that only reserved as a group. You can check out the complete list of what you can do as a group, as well as the cost involved, and how to make the reservation here at the official Vatican Museums webpage. A reservation for a group up to 20 people will be granted access with a Certified Vatican Tour Guide.
Here are some highlights of what you can do when making a reservation as a group instead of an individual visit.
- Breakfast at the Museums. If having an American buffet breakfast at 7:15 AM inside the Vatican Museums is your thing, check out this group offering. After the breakfast, your group will be able to skip the line and enter the museums before the official opening time.
- Vatican Museums after hours and Night Openings. The museums offer a few options for after hours visits, as well as night openings, which include some cultural and musical repertoire.
- The closed areas of the Vatican Museums. With a tour group, you can exclusively visit areas of the museums that normally are closed to the public: the Niccolene Chapel (Chapel of Nicholas V), the Bramante Staircase, and the Cabinet of Masks. The tours last around 3 hours.
- The Excavations of St. John Lateran. Although St. John Lateran Basilica is not located inside the Vatican City fortification wall, a tour to visit the excavation area under this Basilica is offered by the Vatican Museums. Your group will be able to see some staircases, mosaics and remnants of the ancient construction during the early Christian era. The tour lasts around 1.5 hours.
The Vatican City Gardens
No matter what the tour operator tells you while trying to sell you Vatican City tickets, a visit to the Vatican Gardens is not included in general Vatican City tours. Nor they can guarantee you that you will meet the pope. Yes, believe it or not, some unscrupulous ticket sellers, even here in the cradle of Catholicism, will try to guarantee you a Papal audience!
Admission to the Vatican Gardens can be only arranged by the official Vatican Museums ticket office. There are a few options on this tour to choose from, and you can do them either on foot or with an open bus. You can read the descriptions of each tour and book your reservation at Vatican Museum official ticket office. You will have to arrange your visit to this perfectly manicured Rome Vatican garden at least a week in advance.
Castel Gandolfo and Barberini Gardens
Castel Gandolfo is a big part of Vatican City history. Located about 20 miles south of Rome, Castel Gandolfo and its picturesque grounds have been the private summer residence for Popes since 1596. Often referred as the Second Vatican, this papal ground was kept out of the public eye until just recently. Former Pope Benedict took refuge here for months after his resignation in 2013. After Pope Francis took office in 2014, he decided that the Pontifical Villas of Castel Gandolfo, including the Apostolic Palace and the Barberini Gardens, had to be accessible to the public.
The humble Pope Francis also opened up his private railway route from St. Peter’s railway station to Castel Gandolfo, which operates every Saturday. For other times, you can use the public train from Rome Termini Station to the village of Castel Gandolfo, which is offered every hour. It takes 40 minutes and costs €2.10. You will need your reservation prior to your visit. Read the next section for more information about how to use the Pope’s private railway.
Vatican by Train
For many railway enthusiasts, opening up the Vatican by Train route is the best thing that ever happened in the City State. Since 2014, train trips have been offered on Saturdays to visit the Pontifical Villas of Castel Gandolfo. They leave from St. Peter’s Railway Station. You can see the full day itinerary of this unique Vatican City – Rome tour and make your reservation at the official Vatican Museums ticket office. This is one of the best full day tour options to explore Vatican City Rome, as you will be able to skip the line at the Vatican Museums.
Necropolis Via Triumphalis
In 2003, a Roman Necropolis was accidentally discovered during the construction of a parking lot in Santa Rosa in the nearby Vatican Garden. Via Triumphalis was an ancient road, and an extensive burial ground was established during the Roman times (1st century BC – AD 320). There are layers of tombs and burials that were discovered. They reveal how burials were carried out for various social classes. The poor would have a simple burial or cremation, while the wealthy would use freestanding decorated marble tombs with vivid frescoes. Many of these tombs were covered in mud for over a millennia, so they were remarkably well-preserved. This is an active archaeological site and you can see and learn more of the project during your visit.
English tours are offered only on Mondays and Saturdays at 8:30. They last around 2 hours. Be prepared for standing the whole time during the duration of the tours. Check availability for updates and reservation. Note that the Necropolis via Trimphalis tour shouldn’t be confused with the famous Scavi Tour to visit St. Peter’s bones (see below).
The Scavi Tour
A very limited number of visitors are approved each day for one of the coolest Vatican City tours – the excavated area below St. Peter’s Basilica. This tour is organized by the Ufficio Scavi, or the Excavation Office, which is not part of the Vatican Museums tourist bureau. They are responsible for the excavation projects throughout the Vatican City State, and have discovered many artifacts below the Basilica, dating all the way back to more than 2,000 years ago. Present day St. Peter’s Basilica was built on top of Vatican Hill, which used to be a necropolis or a burial site for many early Christian saints. The highlight of the Scavi Tour is to be able to pay your respect to St. Peter’s relics.
You must apply far in advance and eventually be approved by the Ufficio Scavi in order to attend the tour. Read our Vatican City Scavi Tour post for a more in-depth description with tips, as well as how to make your reservation.
Vatican City Scavi Tour – Excavations Office (Ufficio Scavi)
00120 Vatican City State
Tel.: + 39 06 69 885 318
Fax: + 39 06 69 873 017
The Vatican City Library
Biblioteca Apostolico Vaticana, or the Vatican Library, is one of the world’s most important libraries. It has an exceptional collection, ranging from the priceless Codex Vaticanus – the oldest known Bible in existence, to some of Michelangelo’s sulky letters to Vatican officials demanding payment for his work on St. Peter’s Basilica. The collection of 1.1 million prints and books, along with 75,000 manuscripts, is every bookworm’s dream!
A Vatican Library visit is one of the hardest Vatican City tours to arrange. You will need the Electronic Reader’s Passes, which is issued by the Vatican Library Admission Office. You must also submit official proof of your credibility as a scholar or researcher. For higher education students, print this Letter of Surety on your university’s official institutional letterhead. It must be signed by your dissertation supervisor. You may be granted an annual pass, and only a handful will be allowed to view much of the Vatican City book collection.
The full requirement, as well as how to request a pass, can be found here: official
Vatican Library Admission Office
Phone. +39 06698 79403
Medagliere – the Numismatic Cabinet
The Vatican Library also oversees about 300,000 coins and medals, ranging from ancient Chinese, Greek and Roman coins, to recent pontifical medals. You can access its impressive online catalog of coins and medals here. To get an access to the collection, you must be granted access to the Vatican Library (see above). Due to the priceless nature of the collection, you will need to make a separate appointment by calling them. When you visit, you will be met by a staff member to put your personal belonging in a locker and to sign in and out.
Numismatic Department Vatican Library
Cortile del Belvedere, V-00120 Vatican City
Phone. +039 06698 79406
Fax. +039 06698.79428
Not Vatican City Tours, but worth doing
Weekly Papal Audiences
This is not a meet and greet with the Pope, nor is it a Holy Mass. However, you can reserve a ticket to the weekly Papal Audience. Every Wednesday morning at 10:30 (except in July and August), the Holy Father comes out to give a short prayer and blessing to the attendees at St. Peter’s Square. This Papal Audience will be closed with blessings of religious articles that were brought in by pilgrims and visitors. There is no cost involved, but you must have a ticket in order to attend.
The Catholic American Community in Rome offers a reservation service for free tickets to the weekly Papal Audience in St. Peter’s Square. You must reserve your requested date by filling out their official request form. Read the directions carefully and pick up your approved tickets at Saint Patrick’s sacristy on Tuesdays from 5 – 6:45 PM – the day before your scheduled Papal Audiences. Read the section of this post on Saint Patrick’s Church of Rome for address and directions.
Papal Masses & Liturgies – Holy Week, Easter or Christmas Mass
One of the most sought out things to do in Rome is to attend the Holy Week liturgies, Easter or Christmas Masses. You will be required to have a ticket in order to attend one of these Papal Masses and liturgies. Fortunately, there are several ways for your to find a ticket. Pontifical North American College and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, staffed by The Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma, Michigan are the names you may want to know. These Catholic organizations are dedicated to help North American pilgrims and visitors arrange their religious visits in Vatican City.
Check out their official visitor’s page to learn more about events and tickets you can request from them, as well as how to get them. Keep in mind that due to limited numbers and high demand, tickets are not guaranteed. You will need to request any popular event tickets far in advance. Email them the request and you’ll receive a confirmation with instructions on how to get them.
U.S. Bishop’s Visitor Office / Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma, Michigan
(located at the Casa Santa Maria dell’Umiltà, one block from the Trevi Fountain)
Via dell’ Umiltà 30, 00187 Rome, Italy
Sposi Novelli – Newlywed Couples Blessing
While it’s not exactly one of the Vatican City tours, if you are a newlywed Catholic couple, you can ask a blessing from the Holy Father during the weekly Papal Audience. The U.S. Bishop’s Visitor Office (see above) will be able to acquire the Sposi Novelli tickets for this specific purpose. In order to qualify, couples must have been married within two months of the Audience, submit and bring their Sacramental Marriage Certificate signed by their priest, and wear their wedding attire to attend the Papal Audiences. The Pope will give a special wedded life blessing for each couple at the conclusion of the Papal Audiences.
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