Vatican City is a small country- but visiting the Vatican can be overwhelming. There’s so much to see and do in a small area. This sovereign country is the seat of the Roman Catholic Church, yet sits in the middle of Rome. Inside you’ll find a lot of history- from Ancient Rome through the current church, as well as a massive collection of artwork. There’s a lot for kids to see and learn in the Vatican. Here’s everything you need to know about visiting the Vatican to plan a smooth trip and make sure you see all the highlights of Vatican City.
We visited the Vatican in 2022 as part of our Family Year Out, when our kids were 5 and 7. You may also like our itinerary for 4 Days in Rome with kids. When visiting Rome, we recommend spending at least one full day in the Vatican, and two full days if you can.
While in Rome, don’t miss Where to Eat in Rome with Kids.
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At the bottom of this post, download a free game of Would You Rather: World Edition to play on your next trip!
Where is the Vatican?
The Vatican is the sovereign state of Vatican City, which lies wholly within the city of Rome, and is within easy walking distance from the tourist center of the Eternal City.
Most tourists take the famous pedestrian-only Sant’Angelo Bridge past the Castel Sant’Angelo to reach the Vatican, you can also take the Ponte Vittorio Emanuele II.
Is the Vatican Child-Friendly?
Yes, the Vatican is child-friendly. St. Peter’s Square, the main plaza is wide open with lots of room for children to run. The Vatican Museums can be a bit overwhelming to kids and adults alike.
Kids love the idea of crossing borders, and seeing the “largest anything” is generally a big hit. The dome of St. Peter’s is the largest dome in the world, and St. Peter’s itself is the largest Church in the world. Also, Vatican City is the smallest country in the world.
A trip to Vatican City incorporates all of this, including seeing the Swiss Guard in their memorable striped uniforms.
Do I Need a Passport to Enter Vatican City?
No, you don’t need a passport to enter Vatican City. Actually, if you aren’t paying attention, you won’t even notice you’ve crossed a border! There are no passport controls, and the dividing line is really a line drawn on a map as far as visitors are concerned.
You do not need tickets to enter St. Peter’s Basilica. You will need to stand in line to go through security, but there is no charge to enter. Once you enter, you can purchase tickets on-site to climb the dome.
To visit the Vatican Museums, you will need tickets. These tickets are released 60 days in advance, and you should plan to buy them as soon as they are released. I waited one day after release and found that the earliest tickets still available for our desired day were for 5 pm. Thankfully, the museum let us enter a bit earlier than our tickets stated.
You cannot buy tickets exclusively for the Sistine Chapel, you can only buy tickets for all of the Vatican Museums. The basic ticket includes admission to the museums- there are many other iterations that include breakfast, lunch, or guided tours. You can also pre-purchase audio guides for your visit. Children under 6 do not need a ticket, children 6-18 and students up to age 25 qualify for a reduced fee ticket.
You can either book tickets directly from the Vatican Museums or book a guided tour that includes St. Peters Basilica. The museums are extensive- we highly recommend a tour to get the most out of these collections.
Avoid Free Sundays
The Vatican Museums are free to enter on the last Sunday of the month. Otherwise, they are closed on Sundays. Beware the crowds on the free days- they are said to be extraordinary.
The Vatican Dress Code
The Vatican imposes a strict dress code for both St. Peters Basilica and the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican Museums. Both men and women need to have their shoulders and knees covered. Men are expected to remove hats.
No one will stop you while in line, but we saw police questioning the dress of a few people in front of us right before entering St. Peters after they had stood in line for hours and gone through security.
St. Peter’s Square
When you first enter Vatican City, you will most likely be standing in St. Peter’s Square. Facing St. Peters Basilica, you will see colonnades on both sides with 140 sculptures of saints on top.
Look for the circular marker in the middle of the square, that marks the center of the columns. Stand here, and the columns perfectly align so that you cannot see the columns behind.
Bernini designed the square, with an ancient Egyptian obelisk from Heliopolis in the middle, and columns four deep that are supposed to draw the faithful into the church. The site of the square was in Roman times called the Circus of Caligula, and is where Saint Peter was crucified.
On the south side of the piazza, you’ll find the “Angels Unaware” sculpture of migrants and refugees on a boat. This piece by Canadian artist Timothy Schmalz was installed in September 2019. It depicts various immigrants, including Mary and Joseph, Native Americans, Vietnamese boat people, Irish escaping the potato famine, and more.
You can read more about the piece in this NPR article.
Visiting St. Peter’s Basilica with Kids
Saint Peter’s is just jaw-dropping in scale. It is the largest church in the world, with the largest dome in the world. It is the heart of the Catholic Church- where new Popes are chosen, and where the Pope most commonly addresses the people.
The basilica was built beginning in 1506 and was not completed until 1626. It was designed by Michelangelo, Bramante, Maderno, and Bernini, and is considered a masterwork of Renaissance architecture.
St. Peter’s tomb is supposedly directly below the main altar of the basilica, hence the name.
What is the Difference between a Basilica and a Cathedral?
A basilica is a church that has special importance to the Pope. It outranks a cathedral, and get’s special privileges. A cathedral is a church that is ruled by a bishop.
Reminder: Don’t forget the dress code! Shoulders and knees must be covered. If it’s hot, you can carry a shawl or scarf to put on at the last minute to cover your shoulders.
Travel Tip: If you are not visiting both St. Peters Basilica and the Vatican Museum on a guided tour, consider splitting them into two separate days. The Museums are extensive, and there is also a lot to see inside the Basilica. Add in several hours of waiting in line for the Basilica, and it makes for a very long, tiring day.
Entering St. Peter’s Basilica
St. Peter’s is generally open every day, beginning at 7 am, with the exception of Wednesdays, when it opens at 12 pm. However, the day we visited, the clergy were voting for a new Cardinal, so the church was closed to visitors who did not have a special entrance ticket.
There is no charge to enter St. Peters. However, everyone must pass through security, and lines can be long. We waited two hours to get into the church. There is little shade while in a line stretching around the piazza, so come prepared. The kids spent time climbing around the various columns in the shade as we slowly moved up the line. We also ended up sending one person to buy sandwiches to eat in line as we got closer to lunchtime.
The line tends to be shorter in the morning, and again later in the afternoon. The only way to avoid this long wait entirely is to buy a tour.
You can choose a combined tour of the Vatican Museums which includes access to the Basilica at the end. The tour will get you inside St. Peter’s, but not provide much information once you are there.
This is perfect for those with one full day in the Vatican, that want to make the most of their time and need to combine these two sites, without spending hours standing in line.
If you have more time and can focus on St. Peter’s Basilica separately from the Vatican Museums, we recommend this one-hour tour inside the Basilica.
It will take you up to the dome, and then show you the major monuments inside the basilica, so you don’t waste time wandering around this massive space playing scavenger hunt to find the most important pieces and wondering if you’ve missed something important.
Check Details: One Hour Tour Inside St. Peters Basilica
Climbing the Dome of St. Peter’s
Once you pass through security and head to the front doors of the basilica, look for signs indicating the entrance to the dome on your right. You’ll need to buy tickets- either 8 euros to take the stairs, or 10 euros to take the elevator.
We highly recommend taking the elevator! There will still be plenty of stairs to climb, but it removes the 200 or so less interesting steps at the bottom of the climb. Taking the stairs is 551 steps up, and taking the elevator is 320 steps up.
When you exit the elevator, you will come out on the rooftop of the basilica and see the dome ahead of you. Entering the dome, you’ll have a small set of steps up to the interior of the basilica. You’ll be standing next to the mosaics in the dome, looking down at the interior of the church. This is the best view of the dome experience and a great way to get a sense of the interior of the church before you explore it in detail down below.
Michelangelo designed the dome when he was 71 years old, though he died before it was finished.
Follow the signs are you proceed up much narrower, winding steps curving around the dome to reach an outside viewpoint. Up here you will have lovely views over Rome and can see the vastness of the Vatican Museum complex. You’ll also be able to look out over St. Peter’s Piazza and the obelisk below.
When you are ready, follow signs down the dome and back to the elevator that will take you to the main level of the basilica.
Inside St. Peter’s Basilica
St. Peter’s Basilica is quite large, and there is a lot to see- the entire basilica is lavishly decorated. The central nave is 150 feet tall, the dome reaching 447 feet. Capable of holding 60,000 worshippers, the sheer scale can be overwhelming. Add in dozens of pieces of decoration from patterns to artwork, and it can be hard to know where to focus your attention.
Here are some of the most important and interesting things to look for inside St. Peter’s.
If you enter through the main front doors, just to your right is Michelangelo’s Pieta. When you enter the basilica from the dome exit, you’ll be partway down the main nave, and will need to backtrack a bit to see the Pieta.
This sculpture of Mary holding the limp body of Jesus is Michelangelo’s most famous sculpture. You can’t get very close, as it’s behind bullet-proof glass.
Completed in 1499, when Michelangelo was just 24 years old, it was his first public commission in Rome. It was originally intended for a French Cardinals funerary monument. It is actually the only statue that Michelangelo ever signed.
John Paul II’s Coffin
Just up from the Pieta, in the Chapel of St. Sebastian, is the tomb of the last Pope, John Paul II, who passed in 2005. Much revered, you will often see a crowd around the white marble coffin.
In the center of St. Peters is the enormous structure of Bernini’s Baldachin. Made of bronze, this creates a canopy over the altar, and over the tomb of St. Peter. Considered one of the finest works of Renaissance sculpture, it blurs the line between architecture and sculpture. Its sheer scale dwarfs the faithful who congregate below it.
Bronze Statue of St. Peter
Just before the Baldachin and to the right, look for a bronze statue of Saint Peter. From the middle ages, it is attributed to Arnolfo di Cambio. Peter is supposed to be holding the keys to heaven with one hand while giving blessings with the other. Pilgrims for centuries have kissed and touched his right foot to ask for a blessing.
Bernini’s Tomb of Pope Urban VIII
Beyond the Baldachin, on the right side of the apse, is Bernini’s Tomb of Pope Urban VIII from 1647. It has a pyramidal structure, with the figure of the pope at the top, gilded in bronze. The figure of Charity sits on the left, the figure of Justice on the right. This is the first time that Bernini used a skeleton to symbolize death in his work.
Bernini’s Tomb of Pope Alexander VII
On the far left side of the basilica, just past the transcept, you’ll find Bernini’s Tomb of Pope Alexander VII, which was finished in 1678. In this sculpture, we see the Pope praying at the moment of his death- half into the heavens (dome) above, and the curtain between worlds dropped.
Below are four characters representing charity, modesty, prudence, and faith. Look closely at faith, and you’ll see her foot is on a globe, there is a thorn pressing into her foot representing the Church of England.
In the middle is a skeleton holding an hourglass to represent death. This is an interesting sculpture in that it is built around a doorway, which Bernini incorporated into the design.
Bonus Bernini Sculpture: Just beyond the bronze statue of Saint Peter, you will find the sculpture of Saint Longinus, in the northeast niche of the central church crossing, which is also by Bernini. It was finished in 1638. Longinus, the blind Roman soldier who speared Jesus at his crucifixion (and later had a spiritual conversion) is shown with a spear and outstretched arms.
The Treasury Museum
The Treasury Museum requires a ticket to enter, at a cost of 5 euros. The initial signs pointing to it do not show the price, they lead you back to a gift shop area before showing the price. If you pay extra to visit this area, you’ll see some of the church’s jewels, including the Papal Tiara, and the Vatican Cross.
At the entrance to the Treasure, you’ll also find a list of all the Popes that are buried at St. Peter’s.
The Vatican Grottos
On the left side of the Basilica, you’ll see a sign pointing you to the Vatican Grottos, or Crypt, where dozens of important figures are buried, including more than 90 Popes.
There is no photography allowed in the grottos, and silence is requested. Make sure to visit this section last, as you will exit outside of the Basilica.
Visiting the Vatican Museum with Kids
The Vatican Museums include the famous Sistine Chapel- Michelangelo’s masterpiece that you don’t want to miss! These museums are extensive- more than you can possibly take in during one visit. There are rooms dedicated to Egypt, paintings, Roman sculptures, maps, and more. The scale of this, like the famous basilica, is hard to comprehend.
Entering the Vatican Museums
Once you have your pre-booked entrance voucher in hand actually entering the Vatican Museums can still be a bit tricky.
First, the entrance to the Vatican Museums is not from St. Peters Square. You’ll need to follow the city walls around to the Museum’s entrance on the north side of Vatican City on Viale Vaticano. The walk between the two takes almost 15 minutes.
Once you enter the main door, head to the “Cassa” desk to change your pre-booked vouchers into actual tickets. Hold onto everything they give you!
From here, follow the signs for “entrance”. You’ll scan your tickets to go through the turnstile. Head up the escalator, and you’ll find the desk for the audio guides. They will ask for one of the paper printouts from the ticket desk if you prepaid for your guides.
After getting your audio guides, head to the left to begin your visit, or head right to take a look around the courtyard.
What Can I Bring to the Vatican Museums?
You may not bring any large bags or backpacks into the Vatican Museums, there is a cloakroom where you will be asked to store these items. You can bring food and water, though there is no eating inside the museums.
Large, unfolding umbrellas and knives of any kind are not allowed.
If you visit the Vatican Museums on your own, we highly recommend getting audio guides. We pre-ordered the guides for adults and children. The children’s guide comes with its own map, which makes it a bit of a scavenger hunt for the kids.
What makes these difficult, is that the adult numbers for audio guides do not align with the kids’ numbers. I found myself skipping the adult items, and unable to discuss the items on the kids’ list since my audio guide didn’t play the kids’ selections. This made for a unique experience with the kids repeating the information out loud to me from their guides. A great way to learn perhaps?
Without audio guides, there is not enough signage to make the most out of these extensive collections. After our experience with the audio guides, we highly recommend choosing a guided tour instead of trying to see the museums on your own.
Guided Tours for Families
A guided tour will make sure you see the highlights of the museums, some of which are easy to miss. We spent a few hours making our way to the Sistine Chapel but managed to miss the Raphael Rooms.
Depending on how much time you have you can either take a combined tour of the Vatican Museums and St. Peters Basilica, which allows you to skip the line to enter the church:
Or visit on separate days, and focus your energy on a family-oriented tour of the Vatican Museums.
This 2 1/2 hour tour is designed specifically for families and activities to keep the kids engaged during your visit. You’ll visit the highlights of the collection including the Raphael, the Sistine Chapel, and the Carriage Pavillion. Choose between private or small group options to best fit your family.
Tell Me More: Family Tour of the Vatican Museums
What to See When Visiting the Vatican Museums with Kids
The main map for the Vatican Museums divides the complex into 19 different sections. With a ticket for one entrance, you’ll clearly have to pick and choose how to spend your time. Here are a few of the sections to give you an idea of what to expect and allow you to plan your visit.
The Pinacoteca is often overlooked but is a very important collection of approximately 450 paintings. It is organized chronologically and includes a rare Giotto, several Raphael’s including his final painting, a Carravagio, and an unfinished Leonardo da Vinci.
This museum is dedicated to the Egyptian collection, and it is quite a comprehensive one. S(7) is interested in Egypt, so we focused a lot of our time here. Highlights include a scroll from the Book of the Dead, well-preserved sarcophagi, a statue of Anubis, and a mummified cat.
Museo Pio Clementino
This section of the museum is dedicated to the Greek and Roman works in the collections. Highlights include the Room of the Animals, full of animal statues, the Round Room, with a huge red basin on top of a mosaiced floor, and the gilded bronze Hercules found in Pompei. The Hercules was under restoration when we visited, and may not be on display for some time.
The Raphael Rooms
The Raphael Rooms are four rooms fully painted by Raphael and his students in fresco. If you take the most direct path to the Sistine Chapel, you will miss these rooms. These were reception rooms commissioned by Pope Julius II.
Galleria delle Carte Geograpfiche
I’ll admit, when I saw this one on the list, I fully planned to skip it. Gallery dedicated to maps? Surely there are better places to spend our time visiting with kids. However, whether you even look at the maps on the walls or not, this long hallway is gorgeous. Just stunning. You can’t avoid it on your way to the Sistine Chapel, so check out the ceiling and enjoy the experience.
The Sistine Chapel
The gem of the Vatican Museums, this is what most people come to see. It took Michelangelo four years to paint the fresco ceiling, as the technique required the artist to paint on wet plaster. He later returned to paint The Last Judgement, the wall fresco behind the altar. People are often surprised at the size of the chapel. It is much smaller than most expect.
There are no photos allowed in the Sistine Chapel. Every few minutes guards make an announcement calling for silence. It can get quite crowded, despite a line of seats against both walls.
The Carriage Pavillion
From horse-drawn carriages to Popemobiles, this part of the museum contains the preserved modes of Vatican transportation. Created in 1973, automobile lovers and kids are sure to enjoy this part of the museum.
Other Things to Do at the Vatican with Kids
While the most common things to do at the Vatican include St. Peter’s and a visit to the Sistine Chapel, there are a few other things to consider if you have more time during your visit.
Send a Postcard from the Vatican
Since the Vatican has its own postal service, you can send a postcard (or other mail) from the Vatican. When we visited, there was a postal truck in St. Peter’s Plaza just for this purpose. You’ll also find a post office near the end of your tour of the Vatican Museums.
See the Pope
The Pope makes regular appearances in Vatican City. There are several ways to catch a glimpse of this important global figure. For some, seeing the Pope and potentially getting a blessing from the Pope is the highlight of their trip.
First, check the Pope’s official schedule to see if he is in Rome.
The Pope’s Sunday Blessing happens in St. Peter’s Square on Sundays just before noon. You may catch a glimpse of him at his window in the papal apartments. Look to the right of the square.
Mass is held in St. Peters Square on special occasions. You’ll need to get a free ticket for these, usually picked up in the square a few days prior to the mass. Details are on the Papal website.
The easiest way to see the Pope is to join a tour that will handle getting the free Papal Audience ticket for you. These audiences generally happen on Wednesdays, though location can vary based on the time of year and the weather.
Make it Easy: Tickets to See the Pope at the Vatican
Where to Eat Near the Vatican
Here are two places that we recommend that are particularly close to the Vatican area. There are cafes and cafeterias within the Vatican Museum complex, but we recommend grabbing a snack and eating outside of the museum if you can.
Borghiciana Pastificio Artigianale
This restaurant is small, with only inside seating, and comes highly recommended. The prices were very reasonable, but when we arrived there was a 25-minute wait for a table. Borgo Pio 186.
This restaurant has lovely outdoor tables and handmade pasta. Don’t skip the house-made lasagna! The portions are large, so you can share a few dishes with your family. Borgo Pio 38.
Check out our full post on Where to Eat in Rome with Kids for more suggestions.
Fun Facts About Vatican City
A few fun facts about the odd place that is Vatican City- a sovereign nation without visible borders.
-Vatican City is 1/5th the size of Central Park in New York City, officially the smallest country in the world.
-The Vatican has its own mail service, mints its own coins, and prints its own passports.
-Vatican City is the only country that does not have a prison or a hospital.
-Swiss Guards who protect the Vatican really are from Switzerland. They are the smallest and among the oldest continuously operated armies in the world. They’ve been protecting Popes since 1506.
-Swiss Guards are really Swiss. To apply for the job you must be an unmarried male, between 18 and 30 years of age, Catholic, and a Swiss national citizen, having completed basic training with the Swiss Armed Forces.
-The colors of the Swiss Guard dress uniforms are blue, yellow, and red- the colors of the House of Medici.
-The entire country of Vatican City is designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
There You Have It: Visiting the Vatican with Kids
All the details you need for visiting the Vatican. From planning ahead to avoiding long lines, we’ll make sure you don’t miss any of the highlights during your family visit. From St. Peter’s Basilica to the Sistine Chapel there are so many memorable things to see and do in this small country!