It’s impossible to describe the Vatican Museums without a heavy dose of superlatives. Located in the world’s smallest country (Vatican City) and adjacent to the world’s largest church (St. Peter’s Basilica), this labyrinthine complex contains what many consider the world’s most extensive and valuable collection of fine art.

Experiencing the Vatican Museums is a must-do thanks to its endless list of masterpieces, including Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, Raphael’s Transfiguration, Leonardo da Vinci’s St. Jerome in the Wilderness, and Caravaggio’s The Entombment of Christ. That said, though a feast for the eyes, the museums can be a trial for the feet—lined up edge to edge, the art would purportedly stretch for nine miles (14.5 kilometers). A visit can be either the highlight of your Rome vacation or an overwhelming battle to see too much in too little time while dealing with a crush of people.

Here are some tips to ensure your time exploring the Vatican Museums is memorable for all the right reasons.

Get Your Facts Straight: Vatican Museums Ticket Inclusions

The museums are vast, but they’re just part of what you can see in the Vatican. With other must-sees—St. Peter’s Basilica and Dome (Cupola di San Pietro), the Vatican Gardens, and St. Peter’s Tomb—plus a number of more exclusive areas (the Niccoline Chapel, Bramante Staircase, Via Triumphalis Necropolis, and Carriage Pavilion) vying for your attention, it’s important to choose the right ticket or tour.

  • The Vatican Museums require a ticket, while St. Peter’s Basilica does not (but there is a separate security check, for which lines can be long). Most visitors combine a visit to the museums with entry to the adjacent basilica.
  • A ticket to the Vatican Museums includes access to all the collections and the Sistine Chapel.
  • Free entry to St. Peter’s Basilica includes the church’s ground floor—where Michelangelo’s Pietà is located—and the papal tombs in the underground Vatican Grottoes (not to be confused with St. Peter’s Tomb, which requires a separate ticket purchased well in advance).
  • Entry to the St. Peter’s Basilica dome is ticketed, and you can buy yours at the booth under the church’s portico. You’ll gain access to both the dome’s inside and outside.
  • The Bramante Staircase is only open to specialized Vatican Museums tours.

Save Time: Booking Vatican Tickets in Advance

Minimize time standing in the museums’ notoriously long lines and maximize time standing in awe by booking admission tickets in advance.

  • Booking Vatican Museums tickets ahead is highly recommended year-round but absolutely imperative in the busiest months from April to November.
  • With pre-booked skip-the-line tickets or fast-track tours, bypass the endless ticket line and head for the much shorter ticket pick-up line or simply breeze straight to security.
  • Holders of pre-booked and day-of tickets must pass through a security check, where there may be a short line.

Don’t Be Caught Short: Vatican Dress Code and Other Rules

It’s rare to visit the Vatican without spotting at least a dozen tourists with cobbled-together outfits to cover bare shoulders and knees. Be prepared with the modest attire required to enter the basilica, Vatican Museums, Sistine Chapel, and Vatican Gardens. Low-cut or sleeveless shirts, shorts above the knee, mini skirts, and hats are not allowed.

Other entry rules are equally simple:

  • Banned objects include luggage and backpacks; umbrellas; knives, scissors, and other sharp instruments; food and drink; and video cameras, camera tripods, and selfie sticks. Leave these in the museum’s free cloakroom.
  • Photography without flash is welcome in the Vatican Museums, but the Sistine Chapel bans all photography (even with a cell phone). Guards are on watch to ensure visitors follow the rules.
  • Taking video is not permitted in either the museum galleries or the Sistine Chapel.

Timing is Everything: Best Times to Visit the Vatican

It’s virtually impossible to avoid crowds at the museums. You can, however, avoid the thickest throngs by timing your visit carefully or opting for a special tour that includes access to the museums before or after opening hours.

  • The Vatican’s least crowded time of year is winter, from November to March. January and February are coldest but best for dodging crowds.
  • When visiting in summer, avoid the busiest days at the Vatican. The most crowded times are weekends and on Wednesday, when you can see the pope during the weekly Papal Audience. The museums are also open and free on the last Sunday of the month, so it is by far the busiest day.
  • Early-access tours offer 7:30 or 8am entry to the museums—up to 90 minutes before the public and 30 minutes before other group tours. Some tours allow you to head directly to the Sistine Chapel to enjoy it with just a handful of others before circling back to the galleries.
  • If you long for a quiet visit but would rather not get up at dawn, opt for an after-hours evening tour after the galleries have closed to the general public. Choose an evening tour that also includes dinner to dine with a view of St. Peter’s Basilica before your guided museum tour.

True VIP: Have the Vatican Museums All to Yourself

If an early-access tour isn’t quiet enough for you, you can now have the Sistine Chapel all to yourself. The TripAdvisor-exclusive Waking Up the Vatican tour begins at 6am, when a tour guide leads you and a small group of visitors behind the Vatican Museums’ clavigero (key keeper) as he walks through the empty galleries to unlock each door and turn on the lights. This is by far the most unforgettable way to see some of the world’s most extraordinary art.

  • On the day of your exclusive tour, you’re one of the first 20 people inside the Sistine Chapel, the Raphael Rooms, and the Gallery of Maps.
  • You’ll benefit from the added privilege of commentary from your guide—this is the only tour in which speaking in the Sistine Chapel is allowed.
  • This VIP tour includes a buffet breakfast in the Pinecone Courtyard.

Bring the Kids: Family-Friendly Vatican Visits

If you’re planning a Vatican Museums visit with children, booking a kid-friendly tour for families is essential for their (and your) enjoyment. Family-focused tours are paced appropriately for young ages, keep the kids engaged, and include plenty of breaks for the bathroom, snacks, and drinks. Kids tend to love the excellent Egyptian and Etruscan collections, as well as the Gallery of Maps.

Top Off the Tank: Food and Drink at the Vatican Museums

Regardless of how you visit, there is a lot of ground to cover at the Vatican Museums, and you won’t want to do it on an empty stomach. You’ll find a number of options for quick snacks and full means.

  • The self-service Ristorante dei Musei offers a full menu of hot and cold dishes.
  • The on-site pizzeria serves a selection of pizzas and sandwiches.
  • For a coffee or cool drink, stop in Caffetteria Centrale next to the Ristorante, Bistrot La Pigna in the Pinecone Courtyard, Caffetteria Il Forno at the Sistine Chapel exit, or Caffetteria Le Carrozze at the Carriage Pavilion exit.

Many private museum tours also include meals—try the VIP early-access tour with breakfast, an after-hours tour with dinner, or an evening tour with an aperitivo.

The Best of the Best: Museum Highlights

You can’t possible see the entire 54-gallery collection in a day—or likely even in a month. But you can customize your Vatican itinerary with the sights that most interest you or navigate the galleries efficiently and see the most important pieces on a guided tour with an expert guide. Here are some can’t-miss museum highlights.

Sculptures:

  • Laocoön and His Sons
  • Apollo Belvedere

Paintings:

  • Raphael’s Transfiguration
  • Leonardo da Vinci’s St. Jerome in the Wilderness
  • Caravaggio’s The Entombment of Christ
  • The Raphael Rooms, especially School of Athens
  • Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes

Halls and Spaces:

  • Gallery of Maps
  • Gallery of Tapestries
  • The Round Room (Sala Rotunda) and porphyry basin
  • Pinecone Courtyard

For much more on the Vatican Museums, Rome, and beyond, head to TripAdvisor!