The difference between St. Peter’s Basilica, the Sistine Chapel, and the Vatican

The definitions of the Vatican Museums, the Sistine Chapel, St Peter's Basilica can be confusing. We clear it up and show the best way to visit each.

To clear up any confusion we first need to define some terminology:

Vatican City

Vatican City is the smallest country in the world. It is a city-state with clearly defined borders, surrounded by Italy, and presided over by the Holy See (the Catholic church’s jurisdiction), with its own leader (the Pope), currency (Vatican-issued euro), security forces (the Swiss Guards), post office, etc.

Vatican City contains the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel, St. Peter’s Basilica, the Vatican Gardens and other buildings including churches, shops, and offices. 

Inside the Vatican walls

Vatican Museums & Sistine Chapel

Inside the walled borders of Vatican City are 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. They require a ticket.

Insider tip: the Vatican Museums have 8 miles of corridors. While it’s possible to visit on your own, there’s a strong chance you may miss one of the important works. A guided tour will take you directly to the key points of the museum. 

Even better, though talking and photography are foribidden inside the Sistine Chapel, a guide will be able explain the nuances and history of the world’s greatest artwork before you enter, enhancing your experience massively.

We’ve teamed up with the best independent tour provider in Rome to bring you one of Rome’s most fascinating and stimulating tours of the Vatican Museums & Sistine.

Vatican Gardens

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, a bank, shops, an auditorium (below), and even a radio station. These are not generally open to the public, though it is possible to go on a guided tour of the gardens.

Vatican Auditorium

To the left of St Peter’s Square is the Paul VI Audience Hall (Aula Paolo VI), which is where audiences with the Pope are held. It’s a large modernist structure built in 1971, the centerpiece of which is a dramatic and grotesque 1964 sculpture by Fazzini called “The Resurrection”, which His Holiness stands before while addressing the invited crowd.

Outside the Vatican walls

There is also a small part of Vatican City that is outside the walls and may be accessed on foot from Rome city. In this space are St. Peter’s Square (Piazza San Pietro) and St. Peter’s Basilica (Basilica di San Pietro) and no ticket is required to visit them.

St. Peter’s Square

Piazza San Pietro is the massive Bernini-designed circular space surrounded by enormous colonnades which complements the front of the vast St Peter’s Basilica. Most of the time the square is open to the public and can just be walked into from the street, but during Papal masses and other occasions it may be fenced off. 

St. Peter’s Basilica

The largest church ever built, the Michelangelo-designed St. Peter’s Basilica is one of the marvels of the world and is unmissable. It’s free to enter but we recommend the following tour:

What you need to know about visiting Vatican City

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 an entrance ticket and take between two and 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, meaning you don’t have to line up twice.)

Plan ahead: schedule your Vatican visit >

Confusingly though, they might sometimes mean St. Peter’s Basilica. Unlike the museums, Michelangelo’s stunning St. Peter’s Basilica is free to visit. The largest church ever built (it is not a cathedral!) 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 for any gender, shoulders and knees must be covered to be allowed entrance to the Basilica. During warm months people can and do get turned away regularly at the door for not covering themselves up, even after waiting in line for half an hour. If in doubt, carry a pashmina or sarong to throw over yourself when at the clothing check.

You can usually visit the Basilica in the space of just over 90 minutes, including waiting time (depending on how long the line is, which can seem ridiculously long, but usually moves quite quickly). However if you’re in a hurry, you can also skip the lines at St Peter’s.

Why is Vatican City a separate country?

Before Italy became a country it used to be dozens  of tiny city-states, one of which was the Vatican. When Italy united (only just over 150 years ago) the Vatican still owned lots of bits of Italy, all over the country. The Vatican and its satellite states were absorbed into Italy, but the papacy didn’t want to cede control, and initially refused to acknowledge Italy’s sovereignty, refusing to leave the city walls, and threatening to leave Rome to take the “caput mundi” (the head) of the Catholic church to another city or country. To resolve this problem, eventually it was granted independence in 1929 by Mussolini in exchange for the Pope acknowledging Italy’s sovereignty over the former papal states.

Finally 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 even giving the Papal Address to the crowds in St Peter’s Square – usually at 12 noon on Sundays.

Related: what’s the best way to skip the lines at the Vatican?

Now make sure you don’t miss out: plan your visit in advance:

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Photo credit: AFP

Tickets in advance!

Because of ticket supply problems following the end of Covid restrictions, it is strongly advised that you buy tickets and tours in advance to visit attractions in Rome.

Buy your tickets now to avoid disappointment.