Exploring the amazing collections of the Vatican Museum and gazing upon the splendour of the Sistine Chapel and St Peter’s Basilica

Tour Company: Vatican Museum Tickets
Meeting point: Google Map Vatican Museums
Type: Walking tour – easy going with a few stairs to navigate
Prices: €38 per person for a 3-hour tour.

One of the planned highlights of our visit to Rome was to go to the Vatican. After some research, I discovered that the Vatican Museum and St Peter’s Basilica, unlike other tourist sites in Rome – such as the Colosseum, do not put a cap on the numbers of visitors per day. As a consequence as many as 30,000, a day try to cram themselves into this smallest of City-States. This totals a whopping 6 million people per year. So, I booked a “skip the lines” 3-hour small-group tour through the Vatican Museum website.

There are some basic things to know before you visit the Vatican:

  • Vatican City is an independent walled off city within Rome that is about 110 acres and has a population in the 800s.
  • It is an “ecclesiastical” state ruled by the head of the Catholic Church-The Pope.
  • The points of interest within Vatican City are St. Peter’s square, St. Peter’s Basilica, the Vatican museums and the Sistine Chapel.
  • You can pretty much take pictures everywhere apart from in the Sistine Chapel – where silence is expected to be observed.
  • Vatican City’s economy is supported by the sale of tourist items and fees for admission.
  • There is a dress code for entering the Basilica and the museums. Wear long pants or ladies medium length skirts/dresses and cover your shoulders.

A couple of other things to beware of are:

  • St. Peter’s Basilica is closed on Wednesday mornings for papal audiences. To catch a glimpse of the Pope be there at noon on Sundays or go to the Wednesday service. Be sure to get a ticket at least one day before. Papal appearances may vary during the winter and summer months. In fact, when we visited in July, there were no Papal audiences scheduled.
  • The Vatican museums are closed on Sundays and holidays. It is open and free on the last Sunday of the month.
  • You do not need to be part of a guided tour to enter the museums or St. Peter’s Basilica. However, expect to wait long hours during busy tourism months.

Everything I had read said to take the earliest tour possible, so I booked us on the 8:30 am tour. So, we set off early taking the metro line to the Cipro – Musei Vaticani station, which is about a 10-minute walk from the museum entrance. As we approached the Vatican it was only just after 8:00 am and already the queues were stretching back a good quarter of a mile. It was with a mix of sympathy and satisfaction that we walked straight past the waiting hoard and entered the museum to the area where the group tours meet. There are not too many tours, so the waiting area was relatively calm compared to the throng of peopled jostling in line for the ticket booths.

The walls of the Vatican City
The queues inside the Vatican Museum at the ticket desks

Our guide for the day was Simoneta who furnished us with some headsets so we could follow her presentations as we passed through the galleries. In the hubbub of the Vatican Museum, these headsets are essential. It is important to stick with your guide because if you lose track of them in the packed galleries of the Vatican you’ll never find them – and you don’t need to get very far away to get out of range of their audio transmitter!

The crowds of people were something to behold, apart from visiting the Taj Mahal on a public holiday, I can’t recall seeing so many people at a tourism location. From the entrance halls, the first thing you have to do is pass up an escalator. We managed to lose some of our party, even at this early stage!

Simenota found us a quieter spot where there was an interactive multimedia screen. Her mission was to describe the paintings on the walls and ceilings of the Sistine Chapel – she had to do it at this point because she, as with every other visitor, has to maintain silence when in the chapel itself.  The world-renown Sistine Chapel is the great masterwork of the Vatican Museums and the culmination of the Vatican’s treasures. More on this later.

Also on display in this area is a very beautiful scale model of the Vatican City, which really gives you an appreciation of this tiniest of countries (officially a City State).

Apart from the Louvre, there are arguably no better museums in the world than the Vatican Museums. Located in the five-hectare Palazzo Apostolico Vaticano, the museums hold roughly 70,000 works of art, around which 20,000 are on display at any given time. If you were to spend just one minute to look at each work of art on display, you’d be in the museums for roughly two weeks! Luckily, our guide Simeonta was an art historian so she was able to provide us with some amazing insights into the works of art as we traversed the galleries.

Pope Julius II founded the museums in the 16th century and they’ve only grown in importance and size in the intervening years. You’ll find everything here from mummies to ancient Greek and Roman statues to Byzantine tapestries and Renaissance canvases.

Before heading into the main galleries Simeoneta took us outside to appreciate the architecture and beauty of the Vatican buildings.

The museum is made up of many galleries, some are outdoors and house primarily sculptures, whilst the indoor galleries housed paintings and tapestries. One thing they have in common is that they are packed with people. It is times such as this that I truly appreciate the genes that resulted in my 6 foot 5-inch frame.



Of all the rooms in the Vatican Museums, there are arguably none more important than the Raphael Rooms, which feature frescoes painted by the famous master of the Renaissance, Raphael. The four rooms in the Palace of the Vatican feature 16 frescoes that are widely considered the high points of fresco artwork. The frescoes themselves depict great moments from the Bible or antiquity, such as St. Peter’s rescue from prison or the conversion and baptism of Roman Emperor, Constantine.

If you have to pick one masterwork out of the 16 frescoes, The School of Athens has to be it. This painting depicts the great thinkers and artists of Ancient Greece occupying a public space in Ancient Athens. In the middle of all the thinkers are Aristotle and Plato, the two central figures of Greek philosophy. An elderly Plato points to the heavens, indicating his focus on spirituality and the order of the universe, while Aristotle points to the ground, indicating his focus on the material world.

Beyond the important figures of the past in the painting, Raphael also painted many of his contemporaries into the fresco to pay tribute to them. For instance, Michelangelo appears as Heraclitus, who sits on the steps writing in the foreground. As well, Plato bears a remarkable resemblance to Leonardo da Vinci. Raphael even painted himself into the fresco. On the far right side of the work, a young man stares out of the frame, as if making eye contact with the viewer of the work. This is Raphael depicting himself as Apelles, an ancient Greek painter. It’s a clever way for Raphael to pay homage to the past while also taking credit for his remarkable work.

Raphael’s famous “School of Athens”

The museum seems to go on forever. We passed through gallery after gallery with little time to stop and admire everything. Toward the end, we passed through a gallery containing paintings of many of the most famous contemporary artists; including Picasso and Dalí. Everything was bringing us towards the greatest work of art; the Sistine Chapel.

The Sistine Chapel

As we entered the chapel itself it was teaming with people. Luckily, everything that is worth looking at is on the ceiling or high up on the walls. The most famous pieces of art are the ceiling and wall behind the alter, painted by the great artist, Michelangelo.

The works he painted high up on a scaffolding working above his head (contrary to the stories he did not do this lying on his back!). This effort took a serious toll on his body.

The most famous frescoes are along the central ceiling and the altar wall. The ceiling frescoes depict key passage from the Book of Genesis, including God’s creation of Adam, Adam and Eve’s banishment from the Garden of Eden, and the Great Flood. If you pay careful attention, you can notice hidden messages within the frescoes, such as that the shape of God and the heavens in The Creation of Adam fresco resembles that of the human brain; perhaps Michelangelo was making a sly comment on religion, or simply leaving symbols for art lovers to obsess over in future ages.

On the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel, you’ll find The Last Judgment, an epic floor-to-ceiling depiction of the Second Coming of Christ and the End Times. This massive artwork depicts Jesus returning to judge the living and the dead, with demons pulling sinners into hell and angels rescuing the saints to heaven. Within the dozens of figures across the fresco, Michelangelo hid the faces of people he knew in his lifetime, such as Biagio da Cesena, who was the Papal Master of Ceremonies and an embittered critic of Michelangelo; as retribution for complaining about the nudity in Michelangelo’s frescoes, Michelangelo painted Biagio’s face onto the body of the demon, Minos.

Below is a picture of the Chapel taken from the Vatican Museum’s website. It was a little busier when we were there!

St Peter’s Basilica

From the Sistine Chapel we moved to St Peter’s Basilica. If you don’t want to do the Vatican Museum and Sistine Chapel you can head straight to St Peter’s and go in for free, once you’ve passed security and have your bag searched and been scanned by metal detectors.

As you stand outside you can look up to the balcony where the Pope stands when he gives his public addresses.

As we entered St. Peter’s Basilica, we were floored by the sheer size of the building. It’s the largest church in the world, reaching 187m long, and you can feel it when you look up to the dome and across the massive sanctuary. As you look around and notice the cute marble cherubs decorating the walls., these seemingly-small statues are over 2m tall!

In the centre of the sanctuary, you’ll find Bernini’s baldachin, which sits 29m over the main altar. Its elaborate dark gold colour and corkscrew-shaped pillars are eye-catching; it’s also noticeably massive. Nearby, you’ll also find a statue of St. Peter. Pilgrims rub the right foot of the statue in order to get a blessing. The constant rubbing by visitors has even worn down the metal over the years.

However popular the statue of St. Peter is and however eye-catching the baldachin is, Michelangelo’s Pieta remains the undisputed masterpiece inside St. Peter’s Basilica. A marble carving by Renaissance master Michelangelo, the Pieta depicts Mary, the Mother of Jesus, cradling a dead Jesus in her arms. The impossibly-detailed work on Jesus’ muscles is remarkable, as is the fact that Michelangelo depicts him as having an emaciated body, which runs counter to the convention of portraying him as strong and muscular, even when depicting the crucifixion. There are few statues in all the world that are as impressive and moving as the Pieta.

Once you admire Michelangelo’s work and rub the foot of St. Peter, buy a ticket to climb the dome of the basilica to enjoy great views of Vatican City and Rome. After buying your ticket, you’ll enter a queue and have the option of taking the elevator to the roof or walking all 551 steps up the staircase. If you stop at 320 steps, you’ll get to spy on the sanctuary of the basilica from high above before reaching the roof and enjoying views of the surrounding buildings. It’s a great way to cap off your time in the basilica, while on your Italy vacation, and start your exploration of the Vatican.

The balcony used by the Pope for his public addresses
Michelangelo’s famous Pieta sculpture of Mary holding the body of Jesus

St Peter’s Square (Piazza San Pietro)

St. Peter’s square is a large common area filled with gift shops, food vendors and yes tourists!

Designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini in the 17th century, the square is defined by its massive stone columns that encircle you on both sides, and the presence of St. Peter’s Basilica that stands before you. Apparently, Bernini’s design for the stone columns was so exact that if you stand in the direct centre of the square, where the obelisk is, all the various rows of pillars will align perfectly.

One of the more recognisable features is the Obelisk at the centre of the square. It was transported to Rome from Egypt in 37 A.D. It is supposedly sited at the location of the crucifixion of St. Peter and the ball on the top of the obelisk is said to contain pieces of the True Cross and ashes of Julius Caesar.