So you wanna see the Pope? Maybe you like his sweet robes, maybe you dig his cool car, maybe he is your modern day super hero. No matter what, you are headed for Vatican City.
While the odds of you seeing Papa Francis are slim -unless you intentionally attend a mass in the square (suggestion-don’t do this if you have an issue with crowds)- you will at least get to see other stern bald men in sweeping black robes and the occasional nun on a bike, along with one of the most incredible collections of ancient sculpture and Renaissance paintings, and the most significant Baroque architecture and sculpture. The Vatican City has it all-and more- and could literally occupy your entire time in Rome if you were to tackle everything from Dome to garden.
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As a Vatican veteran, I have some tips for you. Not only am I an aficionado of all the afore mentioned cultural works, but I am also Catholic, having visited the Vatican both as a student of art history and a pilgrim. Based on these very separate experiences, here are some suggestions:
#1 Book a museum time
Make. A. reservation. It sounds neurotic and silly but you will understand when you waltz passed a rugby-scrum of a line, 8 people deep and a quarter mile long. You will go straight into the ticket office, to the booth marked “Reservations of Individuals” and show them the confirmation you have printed online. There are many fake sites out there that will charge you a hefty commission so be sure to go here for the real thing: Vatican Ticket Office
(Like good Catholics, there is also an evening opening that includes cocktails on the terrace. Which is awesome.)
I tend to try for a morning reservation in order to get ahead of the groups- but, regardless, there are still groups of 20+ people with headsets all shuffling along behind a woman with an umbrella and a microphone. Personally, I think these groups should not be allowed in museums, but that is just me. There may be something to say about going in the afternoon to avoid crowds, but I think that crowds are just part of the story when visiting the Vatican Museums. Your best approach is just to be prepared for it. Get an audio guide (or hire a registered private guide) and simply take your time. Allow the big groups to pass you and you will end up with plenty of time and space to see it all.
For the full, unabridged tour of the museums, plan 2-4 hours, depending on your pace. There is also a shorter route that takes you to the highlights and the Sistine Chapel. While I would not personally recommend this, as there are so many incredible things to see, if you are simply not an art person, it may be the best route for you.
#2 Museum, then Basilica
I have done the whole of the Vatican in one day. It can be done. I suggest a morning tour of the museums, a long (wine and carb filled) lunch, then continuing on to the basilica in the late afternoon. If you’re feeling wiped from the crowds after the museum, take a stroll in the quaint neighborhood surrounding the Vatican and save the basilica for another day.
To access St. Peter’s, you simply queue up in the line that forms on the north side of the square (to the right as you face the façade) This line swells and thins all day, so don’t stress about it too much. You will be standing in the sun, but there is always someone selling water for a euro as you wait. You do not need a ticket. This is just a security clearance line, after which you will be directed to the main entrance. If your clothing is too revealing, someone will take you to the cloak room where you can borrow a scarf, etc. Also, if you are carrying a large bag, expect to have to check it. It is no big hassle and is usually easy to pick up at the end.
Travel tip, ladies: When visiting any religious capitol (Rome, Istanbul, Jerusalem, etc), chose a cute neck scarf as an accessory. Then you can open it up to cover your shoulders whenever you enter a sacred space
Here are also the lines to access the dome, which I will go over later.
#3 If you’re Catholic
Plan ahead. If you want to get the most out of your trip, reach out to your local diocese about their connections inside the Vatican. It is likely that you can meet some seminarians, attend a service, or locate a special back lot tour. The Scavi Tour is only available to 200 people per day, by request. It takes you into the tomb of St Peter; if you are skeptical, the 134 bone fragments encased in the tomb have been carbon dated to a 60-ish year old man from the second century and were located in a niche with the carving: Peter is Here in Greek. Most notably, none of the bone fragments come from feet; the story goes that St. Peter was crucified upside down and rather unceremonious removed form the cross- by having his feet simply cut off in one fell swoop. Whether you believe in the bones or not, please always be respectful of the people who do feel the connection and are here in an act of reverence.
When I traveled with my church, we attended a Stations of the Cross with some seminarians and then were invited to the roof of the seminary- which has the best view in all of Rome! During this last visit, a large group of pilgrims had a guided procession up the main nave to the spectacular alter- all chanting through tears! It was incredible to watch people moved with such great faith!
#4 All the stops
Recently, the Vatican has opened its old railway station for “Vatican by Train” day tours. We found these a bit too close to our trip, as they were sold out, but we did consider them. There are three options, depending on your preferred itinerary and price range- all of which are very reasonable, capping out at 60eu per person- that will start you with a small, private tour of the Vatican Gardens (only available via guided tour) an early access tour to the museums, followed by a Vatican Train transfer to the papal residences at Castel Gandolfo, south of Rome. Most offer a bit of free time before returning. If you want a no-fuss, all planned itinerary, I think this would be a great option.
If you are in a large group, consider booking one of the other tours of the Vatican “secret museums” that can only be seen in a guided tour. All of these options can be accessed here: Vatican Museum Tours
Now, if you please, allow me to geek out for a bit about this incredible city within a country:
Let’s follow my own advice and start with the museum, shall we?
To start with, the Vatican Museums are a complete maze. Be sure you pick up a map as you enter. They are supposed to coordinate with the numbers on the audio guides (also highly suggested) but ours were a bit off. However, with some common sense, you can sort yourself out.
If you follow the route provided by the audio guide, you will walk through all of the galleries and be directed to the major works. In museums of this scale, I really recommend the use of an audio guide for this reason- it keeps your eyes from glazing over or you from standing in front of something saying “What even is this??”
After walking through the main courtyards of the museums -which are interesting and historic in themselves- you will start down a long corridor which is, effectively, a Roman sculpture graveyard. Take some time to admire the breadth of work, the exquisite facial expressions, the mélange of various marbles.
This corridor will give way into a more formal gallery that highlights more complete and well known sculptures, including that of Julius Caesar in his paper-thin, illustrated armor, large faces and the Nile River personification. As you continue through the sculpture galleries, you will see Loacoon and his sons, the famous menacing guard dogs, what appear to be huge porphyry bath tubs and a massive bronze Greek survivor of the ages.
You may think that you have seen these sculptures on various travels: perhaps you have seen them lining the gardens of Versailles or in the galleries in Moscow. Rest assured, these are the originals.
Don’t forget to look at the small things in between the major works- you will find little model houses, busts of delicate children, and trinkets.
The room of maps is one of my absolute favorites. The intricate maps of Italy and its (former) states are treasure troves of delicate design pieces, insignia, unique land markings. See how many places you can identify! (Or how many Papal Bees you count!)
The remainder of the museums will take you through Etruscan, Egyptian and every other age, as well as Christian art galleries and even a contemporary gallery. There is plenty to see, but it may take you all day. If you skip anything in favor of your leg strength, I suggest bypassing these side galleries on your way towards the Raphael Rooms (best known for the School of Athens, which is just one of many of his works in these), Borgia Apartments and, finally, the Sistine Chapel.
I chose not to show you photographs of these works because no photograph can do them any justice. You will just have to go see them on your own (or Google it, I guess).
Now, onto the Basilica!
Before you enter, start by paying homage to Bernini and his Baroque masterpiece; you are currently standing in it. The Piazza San Pietro. Designed to emulate the arms of the Church embracing its visitors, the four rows of massive, simple Tuscan columns enhance the aspect of effect at you approach the Basilica of St. Peter’s, the seat of the Holy Catholic Church.
The Basilica itself has far too many incredible things to see for me to detail here. Just keep your eyes wide, your head on a swivel, and don’t forget to look up.
And down… Inlaid into the floor of the central nave are markers of other notable churches world wide and where they would end if placed inside the Vatican. As a student of architecture, I always found this fascinating- it gives you a good reference of scale.
For one of the Vatican’s greatest highlights, turn right immediately after entering. Behind a wall of cameras and plate glass, you will see Michelangelo’s Pieta. Famous for its composition and how the young artist depicted such intense emotion into cold stone, it always attracts a large crowd. Be patient and you will be able to work your way towards the front as large tourists come and go. I suggest spending time enjoying this work once you claim a spot along the railing. Fortunately, the herd of tourists flocked to photograph the pilgrims chanting up the nave so we were able to spend some quiet moments alone with the piece. I have seen it many times and this was the first time it brought tears to my eyes- it was the first time that I saw it as more than a remarkable piece of art work. I actually connected with the figures.
Spend lots (and lots and lots) of time walking the transcepts of the Basilica, taking time to pause on whatever grabs you. (Above, you can see my MIL Mary and me having a seated break perched at the base of one of the massive pillars. Its a nice shot for scale reference). I really love taking time to enjoy the 4 massive marble statues in the niches surrounding the main alter- also by Bernini, if the flowing garments didn’t give that away.
Don’t forget to pause and run St. Peter’s bronze foot for good fortune and to pick up all the germs from every other tourist that preceded you.
Note that you can take photos inside of the Vatican. While most photography rules are made to preserve reverence, many are also made to preserve artwork; nothing is more destructive than a flash. Or distracting. However, everything in St. Peter’s Basilica is marble, stone and tile. All of it. If you think you see a painting, look closer. It is mosaic. You cannot damage the artwork in here. However, regardless of the crowds, tours and flashes, please remain as respectful as possible; many people are truly here in pilgrimage and this is a life changing experience for them.
Note that there are few places to sit down for tourists. There is a side chapel that has chairs and a guard, who stops anyone from entering who is not doing so to pray. I saw far too many people sneaking in the sides of this area in order to spread out and fuss with their cameras, phones, etc. Seriously, just don’t do this. If you need a sit, go ahead and take a seat, but spend that time at least pretending to be in quiet reflection- you may really enjoy yourself.
I could type my fingers off with the amount of incredible things to see inside the Basilica, but I will spare you. Let’s finish with the Baldicchino before moving on to climbing the Dome:
The centerpiece of St. Peter’s Basilica is one of Bernini’s crowning masterpieces. Controversial at the time for being overly-opulent (the crowning feature of his Baroque era) this bronze canopy functions not only as a very visual marker of St. Peter’s tomb (which resides directly below) but also as a mediator between the supernatural scale of the building and the human scale of worshipers and officiants who come to worship here. Adorned with papal symbols, imagery of the Barberini family (the patron, of course) and massive bronze angels, the helix-shaped 66-foot columns were made to mimic those of the columns in the original St. Peter’s, brought from Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem by the Emperor Constantine; columns of this shaper are, hence, called Solomonic.
This masterpiece combined sculpture and architecture in an awe-inspiring, massive piece of opulent, spiraling, blossoming, metal. Just imagine approaching this structure after its completion in 1634- nearly 400 years ago!
Once you have picked your jaw off the marble floor and returned it to its natural position prime for nom-ing down bowls of pasta, don’t forget to look behind the canopy at the Chair of St. Peter. If you have been in a Catholic church before, you may be familiar with this large chair that generally sits in the apse as a seat of honor for the highest-ranking member of that church: a bishop, an archbishop, a cardinal or maybe even the Pope. In this case, the chair is seen floating on bronze clouds, as the chair is reserved for St. Peter, the seat of this particular building. (Many people mistake the Pope as being the seat of this Church; he is not. His seat is in St. John Lateran in Rome.)
Finally, before you exit, be sure to go through the crypt. The entrance is discreet, which lends itself well to enjoying a more private experience: look near the massive pillar in front of and to the left of the altar, as you are looking towards the front of the church. You will see plenty of bumblebees in the surrounding insignia as you find the open door and red robe to guide you in. Take a stroll through the 100+ tombs under the marble that you have just traversed. Nearly all are Popes (including a crowd favorite, JPII), but a Roman Emperor Otto II and Swedish Queen Christina (who abdicated to convert to Catholicism) are also below. I suggest coming back to do this at the end of your visit, as the exit takes you outside the cathedral near to the entrance to the Dome (though still within security).
As yes, now the great Dome. Lets make the history short: Designed by the not-one but certainly the only Michelangelo. Influenced by the dome of domes, Brunelleschi’s Duomo in Florence. When Michelangelo left Florence (his home town) to begin work on this behemoth, he said something along the lines of “I will over-scale you, but never out-do you” …or something to that effect (this is pulled from a long ago history class, and I can’t immediately find any supporting information).
To the right of where you entered the Basilica, you will see a ticket office and, most likely, some lines. I guarantee that the long line is for those waiting to take the elevator up. We opted for the short line and its free, included work out of 400+ stairs. For around 7 euro, you can climb to the base of the Dome and look at the tiny little ants dancing around at the bottom- that was you just minutes ago!
Then, If you are feeling bold, you can continue up inside the dome to the tippy-top, where you will be rewarded with views over Vatican City to Rome. Do not take this lightly- for the height avers (me), you will be sliding along the inside of the Dome, as close to the wall as you possible can while holding your camera out and hoping for a good shot. THe climb on the inside is very tight, with some stairways so narrow in their spiral that a single frayed rope hangs down the middle to aid in your climb. Not for the claustrophobic or knee/hip/join impaired!
However, for someone with an intense fear of heights, I found the top much easier to stomach than the base- it felt sturdier and I could see something beneath me (like, maybe I can slide down the dome to my death instead of falling the whole way??) Plus, the views over the city and the papal gardens are immensely rewarding. Throw in the café and gift shop on the roof of the Vatican, and you have a lot of motivation to climb those spiral stairs!
Now that you have survived, wave at the cute Swiss guards in their funny pants and stop by the yellow post boxes to mail a letter from the smallest nation in the world! (Did it- sent a letter to Lizzy, my international pen pal. Upset I don’t have photographic evidence. Usually I forget to post her postcards and they sit on my desk….like the one from Stockholm and the one from Singapore….)
…and then get yourself a big bowl of pasta!
Hey you guys! What part of the Vatican sounds the best to you? Looking for more details?? Drop me a line below and I will help you out!
If you are a Vatican veteran, why don’t you unload some of your highlights in the comments??
In case you cruised straight here, don’t miss the WHOLE post on a great Rome Itinerary!
The Most Complete, Epic Itinerary for Rome