To clear up any confusion we need to define some terminology:
- Vatican City is a city-state with clearly defined borders. It is an independent country within Italy’s confines, with its own leader (the Pope), currency (Vatican-issued euro), security force (the Swiss Guards), post office, etc.
- St. Peter’s Basilica is the world’s largest church, and is within the borders of Vatican City.
- When people in Rome refer to the tourist destination “the Vatican” they mean “the Vatican Museums”. These museums are vast and contain huge collections of art and stunning antiquities, and the world-famous Sistine Chapel. They make up a large part – but not all – of the Vatican buildings.
- The rest of the space within the Vatican’s city walls is made up of chapels, ceremonial spaces, offices, accommodation, the papal apartments, the Vatican gardens, restaurants, shops, a bank, an auditorium (in which Papal audiences take place), and even a radio station.
When someone asks “are you going to visit the Vatican while you’re in Rome?” they likely mean the Vatican Museums. The Vatican Museums require you to book a guided tour or buy a timed ticket and take about four hours to go through, even to scratch the surface of the 8 miles of corridors, and to visit the Sistine Chapel. (Note that if you opt for a guided tour, you usually get a skip-the-line visit to St. Peter’s Basilica via the papal corridor direct from the Sistine Chapel.)
By contrast to the museums, Michelangelo’s stunning St. Peter’s Basilica is free to visit. The largest church ever built has a different entrance to the Vatican Museums, about half a mile away round the city walls – you line up in St Peter’s Square to go through security check and enter the church through the front door. Please note that shoulders and knees must be covered to be allowed entrance to the Basilica. During warm months people can and do get turned away regularly for not covering up, even after waiting in line for half an hour.
If you are running short on time, you can usually visit the Basilica in the space of just over an hour, including waiting time (depending on how long the line is). Note that since the Basilica is a working church, it is sometimes off limits to visitors; if you’re lucky though you may even see the Pope giving mass, or on giving the Papal Address to the crowds in St Peter’s Square – usually at 12 noon on Sundays.