Visiting the world’s smallest independent state is reason enough for millions of people to flock to Rome. It is fair to say that you just can’t leave Rome if you haven’t seen the Vatican. But how can you get the most out of your visit? How much time do you need and what is the best time to go? In this blog post I’m sharing my personal tips to avoid the crowds and experience the Vatican to the fullest.
The advantages of booking a guided tour
I highly recommend booking a guided tour in advance, before you start your trip to Rome. I booked a 3 to 4-hour tour on Viator. Viator offers a dozen tours varying in group size, time and price. I booked the ‘Early access small group tour‘ starting at 8 a.m. and paid € 93,50. I’m so happy I did, it was worth every dime. The tour includes the Vatican Museum, the Sistine Chapel and Saint Peter’s Basilica. The advantages of the Viator tour are:
- You get early access to the Vatican Museum, an hour before the official opening hours for general public, therefore avoiding crowds and walking shoulder to shoulder. In a group of 12 people you get to cover nine miles of museums in the morning when it’s quieter.
- You get to skip the long entrance waiting lines. In high season it can save you up to 2 hours of waiting to enter.
- Guided tours are the best option if you’re interested in learning about the history and artwork inside. You will get context to the Sistine Chapel, Raphael Rooms, and the masterpieces of Michelangelo.
- The guides are authorized to take visitors directly from the Sistine Chapel to St. Peter’s Basilica, while individual visitors cannot.
- You may stay and admire St. Peter’s Basilica for as long as you want after the tour concludes.
Of course it’s not necessary to take a tour. You will be impressed if you go by yourself just the same. Another option is an individual tour guide who can take you to parts that match your interest.
How to get there
- By metro: Metro red line (line A) to either the Ottaviano stop or the Cipro stop – the former is closer to St. Peter’s Basilica, the latter is closer to the Vatican Museums entrance. From both stops it’s a 10 minute walk.
- By tram: tram 8 to Trastevere neighborhood and from there walk the rest of the way north along the river until you reach the Vatican.
- By bus: lines 64, 60 and 40
- On foot: the best way to get around in Rome is on foot because you get to see so much more. There a lots of bridges crossing the river Timber but the Ponte Sant’Angelo which leads directly to the Castel Sant’Angelo is the prettiest. (shown in below photo)
How much time do you need?
You will need approx. 4 hours to tour the highlights of the Vatican Museum, Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica.
The Vatican Museum
The Vatican Museum is the largest, wealthiest and most impressive museum in the world. You get to see the different apartments of previous popes, thousands of art works, Greek and Roman statues and ancient maps and tapestry. And let’s not forget the adorned ceilings and floors. You just don’t know where to look first. In the Vatican Museum the highlights not to miss are:
- The Gallery of Maps and the Gallery of Tapestries with their golden, vaulted ceilings.
- The Raphael Rooms painted by Renaissance artist Raphael.
- The Pio-Clementino (classic antiquities)
It took years to paint the ceiling shown below.
Below a wall painting in the Raphael Rooms painted by Renaissance artist Raphael depicted in a blue garment sitting on the stairs.
The Sistine Chapel
The Sistine Chapel is is a chapel in the Apostolic Palace, the official residence of the Pope. It is in this chapel where the Papal conclave, the process by which a new pope is selected, takes place. But the popularity of the Sistine Chapel lies mainly in the frescos that decorate the interior, and most particularly the ceiling with The Last Judgment by Michelangelo. It was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. Michelangelo painted the ceiling lying down on a platform and it took him 4 years (1508-1512). In 1535 he returned to paint The Last Judgment which he finished 6 years later. His work is regarded as one of the major artistic accomplishments of human civilization.
Inside Saint Peter’s Basilica
St. Peter’s Basilica is the most renowned work of Renaissance architecture and the largest church in the world. It is also regarded as the greatest of all churches of Christendom. St. Peter’s Basilica is free to enter, though there are admission fees for a few parts, e.g. climbing the dome (551 steps) and the Vatican Treasury. The treasury contains church ornaments, statues, papal mitres and various objects, usually gifts of kings or princes. You can also visit the Vatican Grottoes, an underground graveyard that can be found just below the basilica. It is filled with tombs from previous popes and royalty.
The Pontifical Swiss Guard and the Vatican post office
Outside the Saint Peter’s Basilica, the Pontifical Swiss Guards are a popular photo opp. In total there are approx 135 guards who are responsible for the safety of the Pope. They have been guarding the pope for over 500 years. To become one, you need an university degree, be between 18-30 years old and have a minimum height of 1.74 meters. They are military trained and skilled in medieval (sword and halberd) as well as modern weapons.
A few steps down from the guards is the Vatican post office where you can buy Vatican stamps to mail a post card that will get the Vatican ink stamp marking and is therefore an unique souvenir.
Piazza San Pietro/St Peter’s Square
Standing on the Piazza San Pietro is a special moment for many people, as it was for me. My family’s tradition is to always watch the pope’s urbi et orbi before starting our Christmas and Easter brunch. It is fair to say that I have never missed one in my life. Looking up at the dome and balcony your eyes are drawn to 13 large statues on top of the roof. The statues depict Jesus with the Twelve Apostles. The square is encircled by colossal Tuscan colonnades, four columns deep. On top of the elliptical colonnades there are 90 statues of saints. At the center of the square stands the iconic Egyptian obelisk.
Not far from the St Peter’s Square is the Castel Sant’Angelo (Castle of the Holy Angel) and the Sant’Angelo bridge. Originally a mausoleum for emperor Hadrianus, it changed function through times to a fortress and prison and is now a history museum. Since 2000 they have opened the secret underground passageways to the Vatican to the public.
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