If you are planning a trip to Rome and are wondering whether it is worthwhile to also include the Vatican Museums in your itinerary, the simple answer is YES.
Yes, because it’s probably one of the most exciting museums you will ever visit. The collections you will find here are unmatched anywhere in the world. For more than 500 years the popes have been able to spend their incredible wealth on the finer things in life. During the Renaissance they have fed and clothed the most accomplished artists of their time. The treasures they have collected from around the ancient world are priceless.
Plus, the Vatican Museums are housed in some of the most lavish European buildings. The high ceilings are elaborately decorated with frescos and plaster, the staircases are clad in precious marble, the composition of the buildings is pleasing to the eye.
And let’s not forget the special standing of the Vatican as a tiny city state within the country of Italy. It’s a real state with own postal system and mint, it’s own rules and Latin as an official language. An oddity in this day and age right in the middle of modern Europe. It is exciting to see and experience this in person, if only for a day.
But before you go, make sure you do your homework. The Vatican and the museums are a sought-after place. You need to come prepared if you want to make the most of your experience.
Follow these 10 easy steps and you will be set up for an experience of a lifetime.
1. Know when to go
Or rather: know when not to go. The Vatican Museums are a busy place and it helps to understand when it is its busiest.
First of all, the museums are not opened daily. More precisely, they are closed on most Sundays. An exception is the last Sunday of each month, when the museum will be opened until 2pm. But be warned: On those days the entry is also free until 12.30pm, so you can imagine what this means to the visitor flow.
There are also a number of religious holidays when the museums will be closed – it is advisable to check with the official website to make sure you won’t end up in front of closed doors.
I am also a firm believer of the early bird, and I think it makes sense to visit the museums first thing in the morning (starting well before the doors open, unless you want to find yourself somewhere in the queue that wraps around the block).
2. Skip the queues
Speaking of queues: The queues in the entry area of the Vatican Museums are vile.
I mean, I’ve seen queues before, but this queue beats it all. It simply is one of the best known and most interesting attractions in the world, and everyone around you is fully aware of that.
You are doing yourself a favour if you can plan ahead and pre-purchase your ticket online. It is money well spent. You can reserve a maximum of 10 tickets for up to 60 days in advance here on the official site but please note that they are not refundable.
3. Join a Vatican tour
Unless you are some kind of genius who has already read dozens of books about the subject, you will probably struggle to understand most of the things that you can see in the Vatican Museums.
You see, the Vatican Museums are a museum on steroids. The complex is huge, and it is home to such a variety of artworks and treasures that you will struggle to connect the dots or to make any sense out of what you are viewing, let alone identify the highlights and get some focus in your visit.
Unlike many other attractions and museums, I really do think that it pays off to visit the Vatican Museums with a tour guide. I am not a tour guide person, but in this case it did pay off to have a knowledgable and rather passionate guide with us who would explain to us the significance of the things in front of us.
You can hire tour guides directly from the Vatican or you can select one of the independent providers. We used GetYourGuide to find our preferred tour and were really happy with the outcome. If you want to have an exclusive experience, consider hiring a private tour guide for individual tours instead.
4. Dress appropriately
The Vatican dictates that visitors, even day visitors like you and me, need to adhere to certain dress code standards. In plain English, this means that you need to cover your shoulders and knees.
I really struggled with this as we were visiting in the middle of the Roman summer on a 30 degree day. Unfortunately, the current fashion is exposing rather than covering up, so in the end I decided to wear a light sleeveless summer dress which I stuffed inside my ankle-long pants for the duration of the visit.
Before entering the Sistine Chapel I donned also a cardigan over my bare shoulders, and this way I was able to get past the guards – unlike many other visitors who had to negotiate their way in some way or the other. There is no point fighting this rule, and out of respect I think we really shouldn’t anyway. But it helps to pack your suitcase accordingly.
A shawl might come in handy while you visit, as it will for any visits of churches in the Mediterranean region.
5. Avoid big backpacks
Travel light when you are in the Vatican Museums if you can. If your bag is bigger than 40 x 35 x 15 then you will need to deposit it in the cloakroom upon entering the museum. The same goes for umbrellas, tripods and selfie sticks. Yes, you may not take your selfie stick with you. The world is not fair!
There are a couple of other things that are not allowed in, such as firearms, food, drink, and alcohol. If you want to access the museums in a quick fashion make sure you don’t have to queue up in front of the cloakroom as well.
6. Pick your best shoes
And with this I don’t mean your most fashionable shoes. I would even stay clear of sandals in locations like this.
What you really want when you visit a museum the size of the Vatican Museums with their more than 7km of galleries is a good pair of sneakers. Imagine walking along the artwork without the pain in your feet, without the blisters. Yes, it may be a hot day, but you are doing your feet no favours if you don’t give them the support they need to do their job properly.
7. Don’t underestimate the time you will need
Don’t just skip everything in the beginning to head straight to the Sistine Chapel. Shame on you if you do. The loss is yours.
There is so much more to see in the Vatican Museums and if you think that a visit is just another tick on your itinerary then you are an ignorant fool. Sorry to say so.
Plan in at least half a day to see the highlights of the museum. Be selective about what you see but then take the time to really appreciate the awesomeness. It’s best if you can join a tour as this will help you get your time organised and see the most beautiful things on offer.
To get to the Sistine Chapel without any shortcuts you will walk for one hour without stopping.
8. Pay attention to the details
I am always amazed how people can fail to appreciate the little things around them.
Architectural features like staircases and vaulted ceilings are easy to ignore if you are confronted by some of the best artwork ever created by mankind, yet they still deserve our attention. Look up and down when walking though the corridors – notice the ceilings and the domes in particular. They easily outshine what is on display on eye level!
Look out the windows or through doors that are just opened just a crack. When the guards hush the visitors in the Sistine Chapel to keep their voices down, simply shut up and use your eyes instead.
Pay attention to the curious things about the Vatican, the life behind the scenes and the unusual: check out the ATM which also speaks Latin, find the radio tower of the local station, gasp at the employee carpark in the Belvedere Courtyard.
9. Don’t forget the other big attraction
The other big attraction is of course the St Peter’s Basilica.
This is the biggest church in the world, so after seeing the Vatican Museums which house some very confined spaces simply due to the fact that they were never intended to hold such big crowds, it is actually quite refreshing to end your visit in the light and airy space of this cathedral.
The St Peter’s Basilica is an absolute must-see as it is not only a beautiful church with a lot of elegant artwork such as the Pietà by Michelangelo, it is also built over St Peter’s tomb, a thought that sends several shivers down my spine, and I am not even a Christian. St Peter was one of Jesus’ twelve apostles, and whether he is actually buried on the Vatican Hill is highly disputed.
Nevertheless, descending down the stairs under the splendid baldachin by Bernini is an experience that is absolutely unmatched.
10. Buy the right souvenir
You may not know that the Vatican has its own postal system and mint. Euros with Vatican design are extremely rare in the Euro zone, and it is a good idea to get hold to some of the coins as a keepsake before heading home.
However, there are only few coins that you can find around the shops, so you may not be lucky when you visit. They are not in regular circulation.
Alternatively, buy some Vatican stamps for postcards home. They do work. Make sure you get the right value and don’t get cheated by the vendors.
Other great Vatican themed souvenirs include rosaries, crucifixes and books.