Vatican City, the smallest country in the world, is located within Rome, Italy. A trip to Rome is not complete without visiting the magnificent St. Peter’s Basilica and marveling at Michelangelo’s masterpiece in the Sistine Chapel. Vatican City is the home of the Catholic Church and contains many sites of spiritual importance. Even if you are not Catholic, you will be interested in these historical and artistically significant sites. While it is not the easiest place to visit with kids, it is definitely worth the hassle!
The Vatican border is easily crossed without any need for passports. Just hop in a cab or walk across the Tiber River into the Vatican. The useful hop-on/hop-off buses also will drop you off at the entrance to the Vatican. Avoid visiting at popular times, such as Sundays during church services or Wednesday mornings during the Pope’s weekly audience.
Note that modest dress is required for all indoor and outdoor spaces at the Vatican, including no shorts, short skirts, or sleeveless tops. I wore a long skirt and my boys wore pants instead of shorts for our visit. Before your visit, it is also helpful to discuss the solemn nature of the site and how to be reverent while visiting the church and museum. No running, yelling, or general horseplay is allowed. I have found that kids do much better when you set that expectation up front rather than fussing in the moment!
The first main attraction in Vatican City is St. Peter’s Square, which you will recognize from numerous TV appearances. This massive outdoor square is where huge crowds gather for religious holidays or to catch a glimpse of the Pope during his weekly audiences. My kids marveled at the immensity of this site – it is hard to even comprehend its size! Be sure to look at the over 2,000 year old Egyptian obelisk in the center. This is a great place to let your kids explore before heading to the other attractions, which are all indoors. There are plenty of souvenir kiosks and stores around the perimeter of the square that are fun for kids to see.
There are two sites to see at the Vatican – St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Museums.
St. Peter’s Basilica
St. Peter’s Basilica is the largest church in the entire world and its sheer size will mesmerize your children! Read more about its history and significance here. Entering the basilica is free and no tickets are required. There is usually an extremely long entry line in front of the church but it moves very quickly. Once you go through security, you can do a self-guided tour of the basilica and crypt. Download Rick Steves’ audio tour before your trip to help guide you through the basilica.
With kids in tow, it can be hard to see all of the sites he discusses but you don’t want to miss seeing a few of the most important places, including the spot where St. Peter was crucified, the massive dome, and the burial spot of Pope John Paul II.
My kids loved the corkscrew columns around the main altar – they are unlike anything I have ever seen! The art and sculpture in the church are overwhelming and most kids are not interested. However make an exception to see Michelangelo’s pietà, which is beautiful.
I recommend visiting the crypt before you leave the church, which can be accessed by the main alter. This is where popes have been buried for centuries and where you can peer down into the tomb of St. Peter. Kids love the feeling of being under the church and in a “creepy” area. Plus it is a great respite from the heat!
You can also take a dome tour to the very top of the basilica, and its entry line begins outside. I have not done this tour but it sounds amazing and exhausting – 551 stairs! I can’t imagine how far you can see from the top of the dome!
The Vatican Museums
The other must-see site in Vatican City is the Vatican Museums, which includes the Sistine Chapel. This enormous museum can be overwhelming for adults and kids alike, with over 4 miles of galleries! However, it is an important place to see so with a little advance planning, you can get your kids through it!
Note that the entrance/exit to the Vatican Museums is actually outside the Vatican walls. The entrance/exit is on Viale Vaticano, which is a 15-minute walk from St. Peter’s Square. If you plan to visit the basilica before or after your museum visit, be ready for a crowded walk along the outer walls of the Vatican.
You must have timed-entry tickets purchased well in advance for this museum. The line to buy tickets usually stretches for blocks and is not worth the wait if you can’t get tickets ahead of time. Buy your tickets directly from the museum site here. With ticket reservations, you will still have to wait in a security line but it is much shorter than the ticket buying line.
I think it is worth the extra money to get the audio guide, which can explain what you are seeing and is fun for kids to use. You can also download Rick Steves’ audio tour to help guide you through the museum. I recommend listening to the tour while looking at this map before your trip so you can have a better plan once you are there.
It is worth exploring a guided tour of the museum, which can also provide quick entry. We did not do a guided tour on our trip, and I wish we had done so. Absolute Italy has a kid-friendly Vatican scavenger hunt tour for kids that looks great! Having an expert to guide you through the maze of the museum is worth the price alone!
Once you enter the museum, there are signs directing you to the main event – the Sistine Chapel. The museum is usually very crowded, and you will be shoulder-to-shoulder with hundreds of other tourists for most of the walk, especially in the most popular sections. Be sure to bring your stoller as the walk through the museum is too much for little legs to handle.
We power-walked through most of the museum with our kids, following the signs to get to the Sistine Chapel in the quickest way possible. It was hot and crowded, and most of the art is just too esoteric for little kids to appreciate. We did enjoy the courtyard area, and our kids loved the visit to the rooftop terrace, with its great view of St. Peter’s Basilica.
My kids also enjoyed the Gallery of Maps with its variety of maps from different ages. Luckily these galleries are seen quickly as you continue walking toward the Sistine Chapel.
The route to the Sistine Chapel is quite circuitous and long. However once you are ushered into this reverent space, you will see why the walk was worth it! No photo can compare to seeing the magnificent Michelangelo 16th century masterpiece in person. Note that the chapel is very solemn and no loud voices or noises are allowed. The entrance to the chapel is quite small and crowded so be sure to hold tightly to little ones’ hands.
According to Rick Steves, there is an exit here that takes you directly into the basilica but we were not able to use that shortcut. We trekked the long way back through all of the rooms we had just seen to get back to the exit. If you can exit into the church, that has to be a quicker way out!
There is a great gift shop and bookstore that you can visit as you exit. The post office is also a fun place for kids – mail yourself a postcard from here to get a “Vatican City” stamp! If you have already visited the basilica, the neighborhood outside of the museum is a fun place to grab a bite to eat or to rest.
Vatican City is a must-see cultural site with kids while you are visiting Rome. While it can be overwhelming and exhausting, you can see the main sites in a couple of hours with a little advance planning. This is an important historical and spiritual site that everyone should experience at least once!
- Basilica: free (dome tour is 8EUR)
- Museum: 17EUR/adults; 8EUR/kids 6-18; free/under 6
- Basilica: all ages
- Museum: 6 and up
- Plan to spend most of the day in Vatican City. Build in extra time for security lines and crowded galleries.
- Basilica tour takes at least 30-45 minutes
- Museum tour takes 1-2 hours
- Gift shops are located throughout the area, especially in St. Peter’s Square. In the museum, an extensive gift shop is located at the entrance/exit and a smaller one is located near the Sistine Chapel.
- Transportation: Nearest Metro stop to St. Peter’s Square and the Vatican Museums is Ottaviano. Most hop-on/hop-off buses and taxis will drop you off on the Via della Conciliazione, directly in front of St. Peter’s Square.
- Dining options nearby: The Vatican Museums has a cafeteria and several snack shops. I do not recommend the touristy food trucks that line the Via della Conciliazione. A much better dining option is to walk into the neighborhood near the museum entrance and find a trattoria there. There are some good options on Via Santamaura.
- Hotels nearby: See my recommendations on hotels here!
- Nearby attractions: Vatican gardens and Castel Sant’ Angelo
Books to Read:
- 14 and up:
- 10 and up:
- 6 and up:
Have you been to the Vatican? Did you fight through the crowds to see the Sistine Chapel? Comment below!