Here are a few tips for a visit to Vatican City.
(1) Get Up Close. If you want to be close to the Pope during one of his weekly audiences, you need to arrive early, really early. We recommend 7 a.m. for the 10 a.m. scheduled audience and get a position close to the gate on the right hand side of the square; the gate is opened by security between 7:30 -8:00. It is a beautiful and memorable event. Best seating is in the front row to get close to the Pope or to watch the event, or along the sides if you simply want to see the Pope up close. We chose the front row on the right side facing the church, since the Pope selects that area after his service to greet special needs people. He does drive his Popemobile all over St. Peter’s Square, and seating is scattered in sections. Yes, there is seating, a lot of it for those who arrive early. You do need a ticket. Check online, there are times when the Swiss guard hands them out. We got ours the day before at Santa Susanna Church, not far from the Termini railroad station. For a suggested donation of five euro each (but none required since papal tickets are free), the church will send you an email confirmation and provide you tickets during a brief period on Tuesday late afternoon before the audience. They cater to American travelers with all Vatican information and tickets. Some online services will provide tickets, for a charge, and pick them up for you and even meet you on Wednesday morning and suggest where to stand. We doubt any will show up early enough to make a difference, and you are just wasting your money.
(2) Skip the Lines. You will see lots of street vendors and websites promising that you can get preferential treatment and skip the crazy zoo-like lines that often are at St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Museum. We found that there are such tickets and tours, and for what we thought a very favorable 37 euros, we got skip the line tickets and a guided tour that lasted three and a half hours. And, we bought it directly from the most reputable source, the Vatican’s own website.
(3) Swiss Guard Salute. We also discovered sort of a “back lot” tour. Not much there, but it made us feel special. The Vatican has a photographic business, and presumably makes a lot of money taking hundreds of photos of the Pope every day he is involved in an event or meeting people. If you are lucky enough to be one of those few people OR, as in our case, you are in the front row of the audience (and sure to be in photos), the Vatican photographer gives you a flyer that entitles you to visit the Photo shop. One thing we do encourage, although we didn’t do it, is to feel free to pose for the photographer, before the event, when he takes photos. All of them are sharp and available for purchase. Anyway, to our surprise, this flyer was our ticket to get part way into a private Vatican area. You go into the side gate that leads to the Vatican apartments and offices, where the bishops and cardinals pass and a few members of the Swiss Guard turn away people looking for the Museum and salute those who are allowed to pass. We were saluted. But we did have to make the first right since the Vatican Gendarmerie have a second checkpoint beyond. The photo shop is located on a quiet private street, again within the private Vatican area, next door to Vatican radio and TV. The photo shop has numerous computer stations that allow you to view all Vatican photos (including those recently taken on the Pope’s US visit), which they will print and sell you within a couple of hours. This gives you a second trip back, to be once again saluted by a Swiss guardsmen.
(4) And, our biggest tip of all is outside of the Vatican, but not far away. As with lots of addresses on the winding streets of Rome, it isn’t easy to describe the location; we suggest you google it. But the best gelato anywhere can be found at Giolitti’s. How about two or three flavors of the richest, creamiest best quality gelato, even on a chocolate covered sugar cone, topped with a huge dollop of fresh whipped cream for $2.50-3.50 euros? They have too many choices, but their secret recipes date back to their founding in 1890. And, it’s still owned by the Giolitti family. Expect a line, but the beautiful woodwork and displays can keep you occupied. They do have enough scoopers, all nicely unformed, to keep things moving. Pay the cashier first to avoid being sent back.