Rome has A LOT of sights to see. So many that you could stay for more than a week in Rome and not see everything. Seriously. This poses a problem for many tourists, who often only spend 1 or 2 days in Rome (which I think leads to the common and, frankly wrong, opinion that Rome is not a favorite Italian city). Of all the sites, two of the most popular are Vatican City and the Colosseum. Most information will advise that you should not visit these two sites on the same day due to time constraints, etc., and I agree. But sometimes you just don’t have the time to split them up, and that’s exactly the position I found myself in in November when I was in Rome for 3 days with 8 family members! Due to a strong desire to see both sights, I bit the bullet and planned a perfectly timed day visiting both Vatican City and the Colosseum in the same day! While I would not necessarily recommend this if you have plenty of time, it is doable, and here’s how!
IN BRIEF: 8 – 11:30, the Vatican Museums, 11:30 – 11:50, walk to St. Peter’s Basilica, 12:00 – 1:45 St. Peter’s Basilica interior OR a proper sit down lunch, 1:45 – 2:15 transfer to the Colosseum, 2:30 – 4:30, Colosseum!
Vatican City, or simply “the Vatican,” is its own city-state located inside Rome. The Vatican is on the opposite side of the Tiber from most Roman tourist attractions, about a 20 minute walk from Piazza Navona (in the opposite direction of the Colosseum). You can move freely between the Vatican and Rome without any sort of passport control and honestly, you probably won’t even know that you crossed the border.
The main tourist attractions in the Vatican are the Vatican Museums and St. Peter’s Basilica. Aside from those attractions, the Vatican is filled with lots of off-limit areas, loads of tourist shops and over priced restaurants and cafes, and those yellow “Vatican” mailboxes from which people love to mail postcards home (for the Vatican stamp!).
For planning your day, I suggest starting with an early morning guided tour of the Vatican, which is exactly what we did. You can certainly visit without a guide, but there is a lot to unpack in the Vatican. A guide will be very helpful and almost always worth the money. We met our guide at 8:00 AM in front of the Vatican Museum, which is not in the Piazza San Pietro, but a 15 minute walk away. I suggest taking a car directly to the museum entrance. The Vatican Museums officially open at 8:00, so we got in line and listened to some helpful information until the doors opened. We were some of the first people to enter. Side note, entry requires bags to go through security and people a metal detector. Once in, we proceeded pretty quickly down the Gallery of Maps, eventually finding Sistine Chapel. As you may know, the Sistine Chapel is the jewel of the Vatican Museums and it was practically empty when we visited. Insane, especially compared to the last time I visited in 2008! You need a minimum of 1.5 hours to visit the Vatican Museums, but 3 or 4 hours is more realistic to not feel rushed. We spent 3.5 hours and still felt a bit rushed.
After the museum and the Sistine Chapel, it used to be standard to take the back entrance from the Vatican Museums into St. Peter’s Basilica, skipping the St. Peter’s lines and the 15 minute walk back to Piazza San Pietro. However, that back entrance closed in the Summer of 2021 and has yet to be re-opened. SAD. As such, most tour companies now will not include St. Peter’s Basilica with a tour of the Vatican Museums unless it’s a full day tour, despite what name the tour may carry. Instead of St. Peter’s at this time, we toured the Pope mobile collection and spent some time in the Pinecone Courtyard. Due to the closure of the St. Peter’s back entrance, we were offered to see another area of the Vatican Museums, but we skipped out on the tour early to walk down to St. Peter’s Basilica. We ended our Vatican Museums tour with a visit to one of the many gift shops and the famous Bramante Staircase. Despite our tour cutting St. Peter’s and us leaving early, we still spent about 3.5 hours from arrival to departure at the Vatican Museums.
Some random notes on visiting the Vatican Museums, there are a lot of stairs in the Vatican, many more than I remembered. And there are very few elevators (according to our tour guide…). Plan ahead if you have mobility issues.
ST. PETER’S BASILICA INSIDE THE VATICAN
After leaving the Vatican Museums, we walked the 15 minutes to Piazza San Pietro to see St. Peter’s Basilica. Its an easy walk on flat sidewalk – you just follow the Vatican walls. We arrived at Piazza San Pietro around 11:30 AM. Everyone got to see the exterior and take photographs.
We also saw the line to get in, which was quite long, despite Covid. At this point, our group decided to split up. Those who wanted to see the interior of St. Peter’s Basilica waited in line to enter (about 40 minutes per their experience) and those who did not went to a relaxing sit down lunch!
If you want to see the inside of St. Peter’s Basilica, there are currently no skip the line tickets available and you will have to wait in line, which on this 1 day itinerary leaves you with a very, very short window for lunch. Be prepared to grab something to go or pack some snacks in your bag. Also, if you want to go to the rooftop of St. Peter’s this itinerary will not work for you, as that takes much longer.
LUNCH BREAK AT LA ZANZARA
For those not entering St. Peter’s Basilica, there are tons of restaurants right around the Vatican and St. Peter’s Basilica. Many of them are not good and are very overpriced; in other words, tourist traps. I suggest walking about 10 minutes away from this area to eat somewhere local and reasonably priced, which is exactly what we did! After looking at a number of different options, I made us a lunch reservation at La Zanzara, a popular restaurant an 8 minute walk from St. Peter’s Basilica. Despite being only an 8 minute walk away, La Zanzara is on a local street largely devoid of tourists. Real Italians were eating here! Since I made a reservation in advance, we were seated right away and were able to keep on schedule. And on that note, an unplanned lunch between the Vatican and the Colosseum could really ruin your plans. Don’t leave lunch to chance – you will need it.
Our lunch at La Zanzara was really enjoyable (it will have its own post!). The food was good and it was nice to have a real break between our two fast paced tours. We left refreshed, recharged, and ready to take on the Colosseum.
Those who skipped lunch in favor of St. Peter’s Basilica grabbed to go slices of pizza that they scarfed down in front of La Zanzara and then the Colosseum…
TRANSPORTATION BETWEEN THE VATICAN & THE COLOSSEUM
Those familiar with Rome will recognize that the Vatican and the Colosseum are not exactly close. Its a 45 minute walk, a 30 minute metro ride (witch a change), or a 15 minute drive without traffic. Knowing this (thanks Google Maps!) and that we needed to be at the Colosseum for a 2:30 (14:30) tour, I pre-arranged for a car to pick us up at La Zanzara at 1:45 (13:45) and drive us to the Colosseum. I booked the car through Booking.com’s “airport taxi” service and it worked out fine. Our driver was early and the van he drove was plenty large for our group. Great success. If you are doing a similar itinerary, I recommend picking a spot a bit away from Piazza San Pietro to meet a car to pick you up. This avoids the traffic and frequent road closures around Piazza San Pietro and allows the party to split up if everyone knows when and where to meet.
Alternative options are Uber or a taxi, but during our visit normal Ubers/taxis could only take 2 guests, and larger cars could only accommodate a maximum of six people. I think the van sent to drive us was classified as a minibus and therefore had a work-around. I understand those Covid restrictions have been removed, but be sure to confirm in advance.
THE COLOSSEUM & ITS NEWLY OPENED UNDERGROUND
Ah, the Colosseum. Probably the # 1 sight in all of Rome. There are many different ways to explore it – outside only (free), inside on your own, or inside with a tour guide. We opted for a guided tour because (1) we had 8 people and I did not feel like leading them around; and (2) the Underground just opened for the first time in June 2021 and you can only visit it with a tour guide. We booked our tour through Touriks, which included a guided tour of the Underground and the Colosseum. The tour was a “shared” tour, but it was only our party of 8 and one solo tourists.
As we had a tour, we met our guide, were each given ear pieces to hear the guide, and promptly entered (the guide took care of the tickets). I think everyone was pretty impressed to be inside the Colosseum. And honestly, it is really cool!
As our tour included the newly opened and exclusive Underground, we started with that portion of the tour, walking down many, many stairs to reach the Underground. Side note, there are elevators all around the Colosseum, but they are only, only available to those really needing them (or appearing to really need them). They let my parents use the elevators due to their age, but denied the rest of our group the option (including Dan’s Dad, who actually has a knee problem – be sure to bring proof of injury/disability if you need to use the elevator). Once down the stairs, we walked through the Underground, which is the area under the Colosseum where animals, gladiators, etc. were kept pending a match. Seeing this area was very special – we took lots of pictures. The ground was flat and pretty easy to walk though.
After the Underground portion, we toured the normal part of the Colosseum, which is always impressive. Since we were on a guided tour, our guide kept our pace and made sure that we saw everything. We finished our tour literally just as the Colosseum closed for the day.
GETTING BACK TO OUR HOTEL.
As mentioned, we walked out of the Colosseum just as it closed at 4:30 PM (winter hours). Some of our group stayed in the area to do some more sightseeing. The six of us going back hired two Ubers that took us straight to our hotel. Another note, this day is more feasible in the Summer when the Colosseum is open later. That being said, that then cuts into any down time/dinner, etc. The Ubers were easy enough to order (we have T Mobile and used their free international service).
SOME TIPS & TRICKS FOR VISITING THE VATICAN & THE COLOSSEUM ON THE SAME DAY
- Joining a guided tour makes such a day much more doable. Even though they are pricey, its worth it if you only have a short period of time in Rome.
- Check opening hours, days, etc. before planning such a tour. Opening hours vary between seasons and even days of the week.
- On this tour you will necessarily miss climbing St. Peter’s dome. Its an awesome experience, but there is just no time in this packed itinerary. Likewise, you will miss the Roman Forum, although you can generally see it from afar.
- Plan you lunch ahead of time, meaning making reservations if necessary or packing your own lunch.
- Start your day right when the attractions open.
- Be sure everyone in your party wears walking shoes and clothing appropriate for indoors and outdoors (the Colosseum is almost all outdoors). Layers are my recommendation.
- And on that note, be sure you are dressed appropriately for the Vatican. I’ve not seen these rules enforced in the Museums, but St. Peter’s is really strict about clothing showing too much skin or displaying any sort of immoral image/saying. Large bags are also not allowed into the Vatican.
- If you are not joining a guided tour, at least buy the skip-the-line tickets if you have limited time.
- We had a bit of time for souvenir shopping in our itinerary (Vatican Museums shop and tourist stands outside of the Vatican), but there was definitely no time to “go back” and get something someone did not buy. As I always say, if you see something you love, buy it on the spot!
- While a busy day, it was totally worth it for our family to experience both the Vatican and the Colosseum. Don’t let people dissuade you. You work with what time you have!
STEAL OUR TRIP
Roman Guy Vatican & St. Peter’s Tour: We did the linked Skip the Line Vatican Tour with St. Peter’s Basilica at around $60 USD per person. Despite the name, we did not visit St. Peter’s Basilica due to the back door closure mentioned above. It’s like that you will have the same experience, as the door is not scheduled to reopen. This tour was good but its quick paced covering a lot of ground. The guide was very knowledgable and gave us loads of information.
Touriks: We did the Colosseum Underground & Arena Express Guided Tour at about $85 USD per person. Our guide was FANTASTIC and super accommodating of my some slower walkers in our group.
La Zanzara Bistrot: Via Crescenzio, 84 • 00193 • Roma (RM) Italy. Reservations +39 06.68.39.22.27 or E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. I made a reservation via email. La Zanzara Bistro is popular with locals and swanky, as such its pricer than other restaurants in Rome but not necessarily more than restaurants in the Vatican (even though La Zanzara is technically outside the Vatican). I would definitely eat here again!