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Accessible Rome - Vatican City

Mary Murphy-Hanson

Accessible Rome: Getting around Rome in a wheelchair, for the disabled traveler. Read Wheelchair Travel for some basic information.

Vatican City, a separate legal entity from the city of Rome, is in the center of Rome, across the Tiber River from the main historic center. Here you can visit St. Peter's Basilica, St. Peter's Tomb (scavi - excavations), Vatican Museums, Vatican Gardens, the Sistine Chapel, and Castel Sant'Angelo.

Due to the vastness of St. Peter's, I find combining St. Peter's with the Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel to be physically impossible. Even though they are literally cheek by jowl, I cannot seem to muster the energy to do them all on one day. Maybe it is Art overload. My recommendation is to combine your visit to St. Peter's with the something a tad less overpowering, like the nearby Castel Sant'Angelo. See the Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel on a different day.

Mary in front of St. Peters, Vatican City

Mary in front of St. Peters, Vatican City

St. Peter's

From central Rome (Largo Argentina area) the cab fare to the Vatican varies from five to eight euro, depending on number of people and whether or not the cabby charges for the wheelchair. This is one of the best cab rides in Rome. You go along the Tiber River, with the large trees arching over the street. A sharp turn and there in front of you is the breathtaking Basilica of St. Peter. You go up Via de Conciliazone (and it literally is up, St. Peter's is built on one of the hills of Rome) where those wonderful embracing arms of the Bernini Colonnade reach out to enfold you. You are dropped about a block from the beginning of the Colonnade.

You can also wheel/walk from the historic center to the Vatican. (map showing route to be added)

To get into St. Peter's, enter the Bernini Colonnade at the end farthest from the cathedral and on the right (as you face the cathedral). This is the only place where the colonnade is ramped. About half way through the colonnade, on your right side, are accessible restrooms. The wheelchair elevator that takes you into St. Peter's is on the right hand side of the basilica as you face the facade, by the cloakrooms.

You'll know you are going the right way when you see the beehive fountain. This water is potable and the fountain accessible so you can stop and get a drink. The water in Rome's drinking fountains is wonderful; totally safe and very tasty. Bring a water bottle for filling.

You are subjected to airport-type security as you enter St. Peter's. Once you have taken the elevator to the front of the basilica you still have to go all the way across the facade to the ramp that goes into the basilica.

Map of Vatican City,  Touring Club Italiano, Milano - click for larger image

Map of Vatican City, Rome © Touring Club Italiano, Milano
accessible restroom  accessible elevator  gate for tickets
wheelchair route on sidewalk in yellow
click for larger version

St. Peter's is huge; several football fields in length and width. The polished marble floors make wonderful pushing and skidding stopping. Here are some of the things you can see:

  • The scavi (excavations) are not accessible. They are under the main altar and lead down to the Tomb of St. Peter. Touring it is the equivalent of spelunking; low narrow passages and steps. Reserve through the Vatican (see Resources).
  • The wheelchair visitor can visit the Tombs of the Popes (not the same thing as the scavi as described above). Reserve through the Vatican, as you do for the Scavi Tour. When you make reservations, inform the Vatican that you are a wheelchair visitor. You also need to apply to the Vigilanza della Citta del Vaticano (06-69883023) for access to the alternative wheelchair entrance. Enter the tombs at the Largo Braschi; three steps. Exit the same way as everyone else (exit is extremely difficult).
  • The Michaelangelo Pieta is to the right as you enter the basilica and is behind glass and a guardrail. Due to the press of tourists around the statue, it is almost impossible for a disabled person to view the Pieta up close. You can ask one of the guards (the people in blue blazers with walkie-talkies) and they MIGHT help clear a path for you.
  • The Museo Tesoro (Treasury Museum) inside St. Peter's is 100% accessible (a few tight turns) with displays of over a thousand years worth of religious artifacts.

Dome of St. Peter's (Cupola)

For those of you who want an eagle's eye view of the cathedral interior, there is an elevator to the base of the dome (think of the St. Peter's dome as a coffee cup turned upside down onto the basilica). The "rim" is accessible to anyone in a wheelchair (one small negotiable step). You can overlook the interior of the cathedral and there is an accessible restroom here. At the platform where the elevator exits is the base of the stairs that climb to the very top of the dome (not accessible for a wheelchair).

If you have people in your party who are going to climb the dome, pick someplace on the main basilica floor to meet. They will exit across the dome from where you enter if you climb to the top of St. Peters. You are not going to be able to find each other on the second floor where the elevator stops.

Beehive fountain in Piazza San Pietro (St. Peter's)

Beehive fountain in Piazza San Pietro (St. Peter's)

Papal Audience

Wednesdays and Sundays are papal audience days. You need tickets to attend papal audiences on Wednesdays. The Sunday audiences are open in the square and the pope leads the angelus. There is a general blessing on Sunday. Wednesday audiences tend to be a bit more personal. There is a special section of the Piazza in front of St. Peter's (Piazza San Pietro) set aside for wheelchair travelers and their companions on these days.

If you are an active Catholic in an American church the best advice is to have your diocese secure your tickets for the Wednesday papal audience. An alternative is booking through Santa Susanna (see Resources below), the American parish in Rome, or get tickets at the Vatican Ticket office (see below) one to three days before the audience you wish to attend.

When you book the ticket be sure to inform them that you are in a wheelchair. They will give you special tickets, instructions on how to approach the square, where to sit, etc. If you book through Santa Susanna, the problem is picking up the tickets. The church is not accessible, nor is the parish office. Call the staff and work with them on a location for you to pick up your tickets.

Vatican Ticket Office

As you approach the basilica, on the left hand side is a gate with a Swiss guard. Roll diagonally across the piazza to the Swiss Guard gate. Approach the guard and request "biglietti per il papa?" (tickets to see the pope?). They will direct you to the office where you get tickets to the papal audiences and the Vatican Garden tours. The ticket office is accessible (no steps). The ticket office people will see you are in a wheelchair and will give you the appropriate passes.

Accessible Restrooms

  • In Piazza San Pietro, under the Bernini Colonnade on the right, as you face the cathedral. The colonnade is ramped on this side. About half way through the colonnade on your right are accessible restrooms.
  • At the top of the elevator to St. Peter's Dome (at the "rim" of the dome).

Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel

You can wheel/walk to the Vatican Museums from Piazza San Pietro (St. Peter's). See map for the route which takes you on a sidewalk to the entrance.

There is usually a block long line for the Vatican Museums. The line is on a very steep hill, which means you are stuck waiting on the hill. It moves quickly and you shouldn't have to wait more than 15 to 30 minutes. To avoid crowds, go to the Vatican Museums early in the morning or about one hour before the entrance closes. Crowds are thinnest at these times.

There is a discounted entrance fee for the disabled and wheelchairs are available, but you must provide official proof (just showing up in a wheelchair doesn't count). For Americans, the best proof is the blue handicap parking placard you can get from most state's Department of Motor Vehicles to prove disability. An accessible restroom is by the ticket/entrance/security gates.

The Vatican museums consist of 17 kilometers of hallways lined with the world's art treasures. The wheelchair traveler at the museums is given access through a different series of ramps from the usual tourist. The problem is this access leaves you swimming against the crowds. There are four wheelchair accessible tours of the Vatican museums. The ticket booth will give you the itineraries and indicate which ones are open. I have never been able to do more than the two main tours due to closed galleries, problems with elevators etc. The two tours that are open 100% of the time are the tour to the Sistine Chapel and the tour to the Raphael rooms. What seems to be inaccessible are the sculpture galleries and the Etruscan collection.

After getting tickets, you are escorted to an elevator. As you exit the elevator on the second floor take a minute and wheel over to where you can peer down and enjoy the gorgeous spiral ramp that is the normal entrance. The Laocoan is located by the elevators; don't miss this incredible ancient sculpture.

The Raphael rooms are smaller than the Sistine Chapel and are nearly as heavily visited. This translates into extremely difficult and crowded conditions. I've run over people's feet and I've had people fall over the wheelchair and into my lap. I've been hurt (bruised) and so have others. Arriving at the earliest possible moment and immediately going to the Raphael rooms is the only way you can see the rooms in any comfort or safety.

Regular tourists arrive at the Sistine Chapel from behind the altar and then have to work their way to the front of the church. Many of them never take the time to turn around as they leave through the main doors. The wheelchair visitor to the Sistine Chapel gets a unique perspective. They arrive at approximately the same place that Michelangelo's contemporaries would have, through the main door. I am convinced that Michelangelo painted this magnificent space with this particular view point in mind. You go down a narrow hallway and then there is a small stair lift before you actually are on the floor in the Sistine chapel. There are guards in the chapel who will assist you with the lift.

Accessible Restrooms

  • Vatican Museums by the ticket/entrance/security gates.

Vatican Gardens

The Vatican Gardens are accessible only through guided tours booked through the Vatican Ticket office (see Papal Audience above for directions). These tours usually do not sell out and on a recent trip we were able to book a tour for the following day.

The garden paths are loose gravel so it's best to take a mobility scooter rather than try to push a wheelchair. The tour is about two miles in length; you climb up most of the Vatican hill, ending up at the helicopter pad. The garden tour takes about 3 hours.

Castel Sant'Angelo

A taxi can let you off near the entrance or, if you are staying in the historic center, you can wheel/walk there. See this map for the best route. <<<< link to map

Mary at Castel Sant'Angelo

The final attraction in Vatican City is Castel Sant'Angelo. Originally the Emperor Hadrian's tomb, the castle was a fortress for several popes. It is located by the Tiber River.

The Castel Sant'Angelo is accessible in most of the areas open to the public. You can go about half way around the ground floor and can access parts of the second and third floors in equal amounts. You can access the parapets and look out through the arrow slits. You cannot access the Treasure Room due to a long narrow hall that is too winding and narrow for a wheelchair. By someone's grave oversight you also cannot access the gift shop.

Higher levels of Castel Sant'Angelo are accessed through a locked elevator. We got up to the top and had a terrible time finding an employee to get me back down. Another reason to bring someone along who is mobile.

The cafeteria on the third floor is accessible. Stop and order a cappuccino and sit in front of one of the arrow slits overlooking St. Peters and the Tiber. The view is spectacular.

Accessible Restrooms

  • Castel Sant'Angelo, on the ground floor.

Photos

Slow Travel Photos - Accessible Rome: Photo essay to go with these pages.

Reservation Information

www.santasusanna.org: Santa Susanna, the American parish in Rome. Book tickets for a papal audience through them if you cannot book with your local Catholic church.

www.vatican.va: Scavi Tours (Excavations, St. Peter's tomb), reservation information

Resources

www.christusrex.org: Vatican Museums in Rome.

Tour Guides for Rome: There are many tour companies for Rome. They may make arrangements for wheelchair travelers.


Mary Hanson is a wheelchair traveler with four months experience navigating Rome in a wheelchair. When she isn't visiting her heart in Rome, she resides in Phoenix with her husband Tom and her mutt Beau-dog.

© Mary Murphy-Hanson, 2005

Touring Club Italiano (TCI) maps used with permission, © Touring Club Italiano, Milano

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