Visit the Vatican museum
Since Pope Julius II had the idea in the early sixteenth century of creating the Vatican Museums, they have become one of the most impressive art collections in the world. Egyptian mummies, Etruscan art and both antique and modern paintings; few other museums offer so much variation of such quality. The complex covers an area of 5.5 hectares and consists of two palaces: the original Vatican Palace (near St. Peter’s Square) and the Palazzetto (literally: palace) di Belvedere. These are connected by two long galleries. On top of that, you have three more internal courtyards: the Cortile della Pigna, the della Biblioteca and the Belvedere. You may already have realized that you can actually spend almost your entire vacation solely in these museums!
Skip the long queues
Before you visit the Vatican museum, I give you one tip that you really have to take to heart. Don’t wait in line to buy your tickets.
The queues are incredibly long. Once you think you’ve finally arrived at the ticket booth, the queue takes another two to three times as long. Waiting in line for longer than three hours has become the standard nowadays. I think that there are better ways to use that time, for example by seeing some other of Rome’s attractions!
By booking your ticket online you’ll be assigned a fixed time and you only have to be there fifteen minutes in advance. These online tickets are of course quickly fully booked. So arrange your tickets a few days in advance. Is the Vatican museum not the only place where you don’t want to wait in line? Then make sure to also read these tips on skipping lines in Rome.
Vatican museum highlights
Even if all of this art and history doesn’t interest you too much, you should definitely visit the Sistine Chapel. Whatever you choose, I would like to tell you more about the highlights of the Vatican museum, including of course the Sistine Chapel.
Strangely enough, this gallery is often overlooked by many visitors and I don’t really understand why. Paintings by Raphael (his beautiful La Trasfigurazione), Giotto, Titian, Caravaggio can be admired here. And if that didn’t persuade you, maybe the unfinished San Gerolamo by Leonardo da Vinci can?
Museo Chiaromonti & Braccio Nuovo
Technically speaking, the Museo Chiaromonti is a long corridor with thousands of statues and busts. Pretty much all periods of art can be seen here, here because both the gods and the ordinary Romans are depicted here. At the end, the Braccio Nuovo (New Wing) begins, of which the highlight a statue of the Nile depicted as a god, covered with sixteen babies. Or how art has always been a little strange and quirky.
You must visit this Vatican museum only because it contains one of my favorite artworks. If you have always wanted to admire the magnificent Laocoön and his sons, this is the place to be. This is one of the most famous sculptures of Ancient Greek art and was made by no less than three sculptors: Agesander, Athenodoros and Polydoros. It tells the story of the Trojan priest Laocoön who wanted to protect the Trojans from letting the famous horse enter. Unfortunately, he and his two sons Antiphantes and Thymbraes were strangled by sea serpents. The facial expressions of the images are absolutely impressive and in my opinion it’s one of the absolute showpieces of the Vatican museums. Not to be missed, in other words.
If you’re tired of all the busts and human figures, then you should certainly look at the hall of the animals. Dozens of lifelike images of only animals! Who would have thought that a zoo is hidden in the Vatican Museums!
Museo Gregoriano Egizio
The collection is not as extensive as for example the Egyptian museum in Turin (also recommended), but there are some beautiful objects on display. A statue of Ramses II on his throne, sarcophagi, a mummy… you’ll find it all here!
Museo Gregoriano Etrusco
As the name suggests, here you’ll find a collection of Etruscan art. Many of the objects were excavated in Etruscan tombs in the north of Lazio. The eye-catcher here is the Marte di Todi (Mars of Todi, another particularly charming village to visit), a black bronze statue of a warrior dating back to the fifth century BC.
Galleria delle Carte Geografiche
Lovers of geography should visit this wing, because this gallery of 120 meters long (394 ft) is equipped with 40 topographical maps of Italy from the sixteenth century. A nice change after all those statues and paintings.
Stanze di Raffaello
These four rooms are decorated with beautiful frescoes by Raphael and it’s therefore not surprising that they were part of Pope Julius II’s private rooms. Although it must be said that only the Stanza della Segnatura and the Stanza d’Eliodoro were painted by Raphael himself. The Stanza dell’Incendio and the Sala di Costantino were painted by his students, who followed his guidelines and designs.
La Cappella Sistina
Last but not least is the world famous Sistine Chapel. Here you can find the two most famous works of Michelangelo: his frescoes and Giudizio Universale (Last Judgment). This is the only place of all Vatican museums that really everyone wants to see and honestly, that’s not surprising at all. About 2000 people visit this chapel every day. The aforementioned frescoes consist of nine panels that depict stories from the book of Genesis. The most famous panel is without any doubt the Creation of Adam, where God points his finger at Adam and thus brings him to life.
Fun fact: the Sistine Chapel is also where the conclave meets to choose a new pope.
With a guided tour of the Vatican museum, you get a lot of interesting information about this place. For that alone I would recommend a guided tour. Michelangelo has painted some (daring!) jokes in the gigantic ceiling painting and the guide will gladly tell you all about them.
La Basilica di San Pietro
Visiting the Vatican is difficult without having seen St. Peter’s Basilica, so that’s why I would like to tell you a bit more about this fantastic structure. It was built on top of a church from the fourth century and after a construction time of no less than 120 years (!) She was finally inaugurated in 1626. The basilica owes its name to the holy apostle St. Peter would have been buried here between the years 64 and 67.
Although the whole building is an eye-catcher, the dome and Pietà by Michelangelo and the 29-meter (95 ft) high canopy of Bernini are the absolute highlights. Unfortunately, Michelangelo has never been able to admire his architectural masterpiece because he left life before it was finished. Don’t forget to climb the tower from where you can enjoy a beautiful view of the Vatican City and Rome.
The Vatican gardens
If you visit Vatican City and have some time left, a trip to the Vatican Gardens can be interesting. The Vatican Gardens are usually seen as the ones behind the St. Peter’s Basilica because these are the most famous and therefore most popular. However, there are also gardens in the papal summer residence in Castel Gandolfo, half an hour outside of Rome. Next to the Papal Palace you can also visit the Barberini gardens. These weren’t opened to the public until 2014 by Pope Francis. It’s never very crowded in both gardens, so ideal if you want to have a little bit of rest.
Tips for visiting the Vatican Museums
- With an Omnia Pass you get access to the Vatican Museums, St. Peter’s Basilica but also the Colosseum, the Galleria Borghese and much more. You’ll not only save a lot of money, but you also don’t have to queue up. You can purchase the Omnia pass online here.
- The exhibitions in the Vatican museums aren’t very well marked, so buying an audio guide (seven euros) or the written guide (fourteen euros) can be useful. Personally, I still liked a real-life guide the most.
- The previously mentioned papal summer residence in Castel Gandolfo can easily be reached by train!
Five fun facts about Vatican City
- Vatican City is the smallest country in the world. In terms of size it’s barely an eighth of the size of Central Park in New York. Vatican City is a monarchy with the Pope as head. They also have their own euros, stamps, passports and license plates, for example. They only lack tax revenues, but they can generate income through museum tickets, stamp and souvenir sales and donations from benefactors.
- The famous Swiss Guard, known for their colorful costume that still originates from the Renaissance, has protected the Pope since 1506. Originally it was mercenaries hired by Pope Julius II to protect him. They may look harmless, but don’t be mistaken! They are extensively trained and very skilled. And of course, this mini-army only consists of Swiss citizens.
- There is a secret corridor, called Passetto di Borgo, which connects the Vatican with the Castel Sant’Angelo. As a result, the popes can (or could) escape if necessary. In 1527 this construction saved the life of Pope Clement VII when the troops of Charles V stormed the city and murdered many priests and nuns. Thanks to the aforementioned Swiss Guard, the Pope had just enough time to escape.
- Of the nearly 600 residents of Vatican City, the majority lives abroad. In addition to the pope, 71 cardinals, 109 members of the Swiss Guard, 51 members of the clergy and one nun live here. The largest group, 307 members of the clergy, involve diplomatic positions around the world.
- Now say again that the Pope has no sense of humor. When they asked the then Pope John XXIII how many people worked in the Vatican City, he answered dryly: “About half of them”.
The Vatican museums are so much more than just the Sistine Chapel. Make sure you take your time when you visit the Vatican because the smallest country in the world has a huge cultural merit. You must have visited a Vatican museum at least once in your life.
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Hi, I'm Sam Van den Haute. The last three years I've been traveling the world almost constantly. Heading out for an adventure and visiting the most beautiful places are what I love to do! Let me inspire you with great stories, beautiful pictures and handy tips from my adventures and travels. On my facebook page and instagram account you'll get to see the latest updates and photos to inspire you for your next vacation.