The Vatican Museums – three words which spark cries of enthusiasm and squeals of delight from Romans and tourists alike. The Vatican Museums, in a nutshell, are a haven of priceless artwork and religious artifacts in the world. Founded by Pope Julius II in the early 16th century and developed by successive pontiffs, you are in for a real treat here. So, how do you make the most of your Vatican visit? Take in all the history and culture, but the one piece of advice we give you is to plan ahead. Here is our guide to “The Best Ways to Visit the Vatican”, because believe us you won’t want to miss out and not do it justice.
When to Go to the Vatican
Set your alarm because the Vatican Museums don’t wait for anyone. It’s get up and go if you want to beat the crowds, whether you’re taking a guided tour or planning on exploring yourself. The lines start winding around the block before 8am, so you should plan to be in line by 7:30am-7:45am to make sure you’re one of the first members of the general public to get in when the museums open at 9am.
Our Roman Guy Vatican tours start at 7.30am, so rise and shine because it’s an early morning! Our tour lets you skip the line – and this is just one of the beauties of our Vatican Tours. When you arrive, you’ll see lines winding around each and every corner near the Vatican. This is when can breathe a sigh of relief. After all, you’ll be skipping the line and getting to see the Sistine Chapel A WHOLE HOURE BEFORE the rest. That’s because our tour groups get into the museums at 8am, an hour before they open to the general public.
What to see at the Vatican
What to see in the Vatican Museums? Well, ideally everything! Granted the Museums are massive, a whopping 7 km long, you may want to pick and choose what you see and wander around. We understand that you can’t see absolutely everything, especially if you’re on a tight schedule of sight seeing and museum hopping around Rome. So we have compiled our highlights of the Vatican Museums to give you the best bits:
St Peter’s Basilica
There are around 900 churches in Rome and nothing comes anywhere close to St Peter’s. It is indeed Italy’s most spectacular basilica. It is built atop an earlier 4th century church and was completed in 1626 after 120 years of construction. The basilica boasts many impressive pieces of art, but it is Michelangelo’s Pietà, his dome and Bernini’s 29m-high Baldacchino that are the most celebrated.
The dome is something incredibly special and you can walk up it too. From the dome entrance on the right of the basilica’s main portico, take the 551 steps to the top. Alternatively, there is a small lift that takes you halfway and then you can walk up the last part. Whichever way you choose to go up, it is indeed a steep climb. It’s definitely worth it though, with incredible and stunning rooftop views, but we recommend you do this as your final activity.
It’s a great way to end your Vatican experience and as you look over Rome you’ll get the chance to romanticize about the other treasures waiting for you to explore in the Eternal City. The interior of the basilica is nothing short from majestic too. Its 187m-long interior covers more than 15,000 sqm of space and is utter perfection. Michelangelo’s Pietà, sculpted when he was just 25, stands at the head of the right nave.
Next up is Bernini’s famous Baldacchino. This masterpiece is supported by four spiral columns and is made with bronze ‘borrowed’ from the mighty Pantheon. The sculpture stands over the high altar. The only priest allowed to serve at this magnificent spot is the Pope himself.
The Sistine Chapel
Michelangelo’s ceiling frescoes (1508-1512) and Last Judgment (1535-1541) are what everyone wants to see. So much so that on a busy day you might actually be sharing the room with up to 2000 people. That’s why we offer early morning tours, because then you get to see these masterpieces an hour before the crowds flood in. VIP or go home 😉
Michelangelo’s work is literally breathtaking, you can’t keep your eyes off the artwork here. But don’t take your camera out! Licensing laws mean you are not permitted to take pictures inside the Chapel.
What’s more, the Vatican security guards insist on visitors keeping silent. We believe that you can’t appreciate the art from a photograph anyway, you have to stand under it to really understand.
The ceiling of the Chapel is best viewed from the main entrance, situated on the far east wall. The design is simply incredible covering a 800 sq m surface. It depicts the scenes from the Creation, the Fall, the story of Adam and Eve and the plight of Noah.
Opposite, The Last Judgement shows Christ passing sentence over the souls of the dead, whilst being taken from their graves to face him. The saved souls are sent to heaven, while the others are sent to suffer in hell.
The four frescoed chambers are another highlight in the Vatican Museums tour. These chambers were part of Pope Julius II’s private apartments. Raphael painted the Room of the Segnature (1508-11) and the Room of Heliodorus (1512-14). The Room of the Fire in the Borgo (1514-17) and the Hall of Constantine (1517-24) were decorated by students.
The best route to take is: Hall of Constantine, The Room of Heliodorus, The Room of the Segnature and The Room of the Fire. As you walk through you’ll see frescoes depicting Constantine’s defeat of Maxentius, the school of Athens and much more.
Gallery of the Candelabra
This particular gallery was originally open as a loggia. It was built in 1761 but it was walled up towards the end of the 18th century. The gallery features Roman copies of Hellenistic originals (2nd-3rd century BC) and some great 2nd century candelabra from Otricoli. The ceiling, which is a magnificent feature of this room was painted in 1883-1887.
Gallery of Tapestries
There are some interesting pieces displayed in this gallery. Some of the Flemish tapestries featured were designed in Brussels by Pieter van Aelst’s School, from cartoons drawn by Raphael’s pupils, during the pontificate of Clement VII (1523-1534). These delicate pieces were originally displayed in the Sistine Chapel in 1531, but later moved to the Gallery of Tapestries in 1838. There is also a tapestry with a fantastic optical illusion which our guide will show you. Keep your eyes peeled!
Gallery of Maps
Many people’s favorite place in the Vatican Museums is the Gallery of Maps and it’s easy to understand why when you step through the doors. It portrays such interesting pieces of work with an incredibly old and traditional feel to it. You can tell the amount of detail, precision and care taken to create each masterpiece. You can find 40 maps frescoed on the walls, each representing Italian regions and the papal properties of Pope Gregory XIII (1572-1585). The maps were painted between 1580 and 1585 and were based on drawings by a famous geographer, Ignazio Danti.
Where to eat at the Vatican
After all of that exploring you will definitely need a sit-down, something to eat and a place where you can reflect on all the art, history and culture you’ve just seen. There is a cafe inside in the Vatican Museums, ideally located if you just want a pitstop on your museum wandering. Be warned, however, that the cafe is very overpriced. If in need, you can find this cafe located one floor down from the Atrium of the Four Gates. Go down the stairs near the Picture Gallery, or at the top of the escalators turn right and follow the signs. There is also a coffee shop with a souvenir spot which is one floor down from this restaurant. The ‘Sistina’ coffee bar is on the stairs leading to the Sistine Chapel entrance, located near the toilets.
What we recommend, however, is heading to our favorite Trattoria nearby for a hearty Roman lunch after your Vatican adventures. Two friends, Dino & Tony, own a typical trattoria just around the corner, with traditional Roman recipes, good wine and a friendly atmosphere. You arrive, you sit, there is no menu, there is just plate after plate after plate. Antipasto, pasta, more pasta, meat, dessert, wine. We can guarantee you won’t leave hungry (food just keeps coming).
One key thing about visiting the Vatican Museums – dress appropriately. Cover your shoulders and avoid shorts. Take a light scarf to wrap around yourself if needed. Dress modestly and be respectful and you’ll be fine.
There is much more to the Vatican than just the Museums. Every Wednesday at 11am, the pope addresses crowds here. Note that in June and August this takes place in Castel Gandolfo near Rome. You have to apply for free tickets. For further details go on the Vatican website or give us a call/email and we will help you out with our Trip Planning services, we’ll also book your table for lunch and organize Rome activities for you for the rest of your day or even your entire vacation!
When the pope is in Rome, he also blesses the crowd in St Peter’s Square on Sunday at noon. To find out more about there kind of Papal events, see our post on how to get tickets for the Papal Audience in Rome!
Did you know?
- The Vatican Museums contain the world’s largest collection of art. The amount of art could wrap four and a half times around the walls of the Vatican.
- Michelangelo was an individualistic concerning details. In the Sistine Chapel, he depicts the tree from which Eve picks forbidden fruits from. Interestingly, he doesn’t display an apple tree. If you look at the leaves of the tree it actually is a fig tree.
- The Vatican doesn’t have any taxation revenues. It generates 90% of its revenues from Museum admission fees, contributions, souvenir and stamp sales.
As mentioned in the post, The Roman Guy offers a Vatican Tour that gives you access to The Sistine Chapel a whole hour before it opens to the general public, before enjoying a tour of the museums, all of the top places within the Vatican mentioned above and St Peter’s Basilica. Our trusty guide will take you through the museum highlights and give you all the information you need and more to truly appreciate the Vatican Museums. See our website for a list of the types of Vatican Tours we offer.
Want to learn more about the Vatican before your trip? See some related vatican posts here:
- Vatican Museum Opening Hours and Information
- 5 Must See Masterpieces on a Vatican Tour
- How to Discover the Vatican Museum Highlights
- How to Get Papal Audience Tickets in Rome
- Rooftop Bars Near the Vatican