Catholic or not, to see some of the finest works of art in the world you should visit the Vatican Museums (Musei Vaticani). History comes alive in this behemoth complex as you wander through room after room filled with treasures from the past. Since thousands of people every day want to see those artistic gems, queues to buy tickets are quite beastly. To skip-the-line, you will want to either reserve your Vatican museum tickets online or book a tour (see below for details). A little bit of planning can save you a lot of wasted time and stress.
Once you enter, you will find yourself roaming through sumptuously decorated rooms housing an important collection of art and antiquities. The Catholic church was (and is) very wealthy and very powerful; consequently, they have purchased, confiscated, and been beneficiaries of the greatest paintings, statues, pottery, tapestries, precious metals/stones, religious relics, jewelry, archaeological treasures, historical objects, and archival goods the world has ever known.
Stroll through ancient Roman, Greek, Etruscan, and Egyptian exhibits. Walk down the fabulous frescoed Hall of Maps. Pass through the Hall of Tapestries and be slightly unnerved by the piece where it feels as if Jesus’ eyes are following you. Chuckle a little as you pass by male statues whose “manhood” are covered by fig leaves—thanks to prudish popes condemning nudity in artwork. Don’t miss the rooms painted by the great Renaissance artist Raphael. My personal favorite is his famed School of Athens fresco, which characterizes the Italian Renaissance perfectly. The museum’s itinerary flows naturally through many of the collection’s highlights as you proceed towards the Sistine Chapel, so it is quite easy to navigate. See my “Top Ten” list below to know what pieces I don’t miss.
There is much to see at the Vatican Museum, so I recommend going early in the day and picking a few major pieces and “can’t miss” areas of the complex. Make plans to come back on another trip to see more of the Vatican Museum’s treasures (throw a coin in the Trevi to ensure this happens). It’s easier to not cram too much in if you know that you will return.
One “can’t miss” area is the Sistine Chapel—where Michelangelo, commissioned by Pope Julius II, painted Biblical stories to inspire piety in those worshiping below. Its frescoed ceiling and walls will take your breath away; it was not until I first laid eyes on Michelangelo’s masterpiece that I truly knew what that word meant. Sorry readers, no photography. But I like the fact that picture taking and videography are prohibited, because it means nothing stands between my eyes and that priceless, breathtaking view. With a three-dimensional look, some of Michelangelo’s characters seem as if they are coming out of the ceiling. Stand there and take it all in.
At this point, you are probably feeling a little tired…and overwhelmed by the artistic riches you have seen. If the short-cut to St. Peter’s Basilica is open though, you may want to take it, but otherwise the itinerary will take you back down another long hall to the entrance (and anything you may have left in baggage check). You’ve probably worked up a hunger by now, so I recommend stopping by nearby Hostaria Dino & Toni, where two brothers will provide an amazing meal.
Have a great time visiting the Vatican Museum! Here are some details to assist you in your trip planning. Happy travels!
How to get tickets:
- Book online at the official Vatican Museums website and skip the ticket-buying line. This is a great option for those who like to have an unstructured visit. You buy your tickets online, reserve an entry time, print your voucher, and show up at your designated time. Since you already have your ticket, you skip by the long line of people who didn’t buy tickets online and show up at the visitor entrance for online reservations. When buying online, the Vatican offers many different options, such as guided tours, breakfasts, night openings, special itinerary tours, garden tours, and more. If you buy the basic entrance ticket to the museum and want more information, you can rent an audioguide when you get there.
- Book a private tour. There are many great companies doing tours that have special features. We took one with the Tour Guy that gave us early entrance to the museum and time (virtually alone) with the Sistine Chapel.
- Go to the Vatican tourist information booth in St. Peter’s Square and buy same-day tickets there. Please note that there isn’t a guarantee that they will have tickets or that you will avoid a long line.
- Pray. And then stand in the long line for those who show up to the Vatican Museum without tickets.
Getting there: I think the easiest way is just to take a taxi. Make sure you tell the driver “Musei Vaticani” so that he/she knows to take you to the museums and not just to Vatican city or St. Peter’s. You can take the metro to get fairly close–take Line A towards Battistini and get off at the Cipro station. Alternatively, bus 49 stops right in front of the Vatican Museum.
Dress code: This is the Vatican so you need to avoid sleeveless clothing, low-cut clothing, miniskirts, shorts, or hats. If it is hot outside and I want to wear a sleeveless shirt, I just bring a scarf to cover myself while I’m in there. The same dress code stands for St. Peter’s Basilica.
Navigating the museum: The itinerary is quite easy to navigate. The traffic is basically one-way and guides you towards the Sistine Chapel and then back down a different hall to the entrance. One area that isn’t right on the main itinerary is the art gallery (Pinacoteca); this is quite close to the entrance so if you’re going to see it then make it a first stop. After, you can peruse through the Etruscan area, Egyptian rooms, Pinecone Courtyard, Octagonal Court, and other rooms before entering the long hall that will take you down to the Raphael Rooms and Sistine Chapel. On the way back, there are some interesting items, but I find that long stretch back towards the entrance a little boring. It’s okay though, because I’m usually exhausted after the Sistine Chapel and not looking to take in a lot more at that point anyway. Here is a map, so that you can plan ahead. Also, Rick Steves has a hand-drawn map (that is quite easy to understand). It is accessible if you download his free app, Rick Steves Audio Europe, and select the Vatican Museums audio tour.
My Top Ten List
- Sistine Chapel—starring Michelangelo’s masterpiece paintings on the ceiling.
- Raphael Rooms—four rooms containing frescoes by Raphael that are fabulous, especially School of Athens in the Segnatura room.
- Pinacoteca—featuring paintings mainly from the 12-16th centuries: Raphael’s The Transfiguration, da Vinci’s Jerome, and works by Caravaggio, Giotto, Fra Angelico, da Forli, Tiziano are all of note.
- Gallery of Tapestries—see the aforementioned tapestry where Jesus’ eyes seem to follow you and his body pivots with you.
- Octagonal Court—see the stirring Laacoon statue, as well as that of Perseus Triumphant, a River God, and others.
- Round Hall—see Nero’s enormous porphyry basin—that man sure was excessive.
- Hall of Maps—this hall is covered with maps of various parts of the world that were under papal control. Painted between 1580-1585 these maps are captivating…the key-design on the floor is pretty spectacular too.
- Cortile della Pigna (Pinecone Courtyard)—a colossal bronze pinecone flanked by two bronze peacocks are showcased here. The pinecone used to adorn an area near the Pantheon.
- Borgia Apartments—see the rooms of the man, the myth, the legend–Rodrigo Borgia.
- Egyptian Rooms—the Vatican has an amazing collection of Egyptian artifacts on display.
Tip: Bring a candy bar or something that can be discreetly munched. Every time I go, I work up a hunger and my husband gets hangry so having a couple of candy bars in my purse makes for a pleasant visit and holds off the hunger pangs until we can have a leisurely lunch.
P.S. You may think the title of this article is wrong…well, it is. The Vatican is its own state and not technically part of Rome,” but its borders are right within the city and most first-time visitors may not know this distinction. In order to make sure that as many travelers as possible visit the complex, I chose to include the Vatican Museums (I chose museum because most may not know to search for the plural form) as part of my “Things to Do in Rome” series. The official name is Vatican Museums (plural) not Vatican Museum (singular), but to help those searching I included both forms. I hope I haven’t offended anyone. Buon viaggio!
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