I think most of us know the image of the St. Peter's Square in Vatican City as filled with people, waiting for a new pope to be elected. It's not always as crowded on the square, but at the Vatican Museums… That's something else.
The Vatican Museums hold a huge collection of art, mostly sculptures and paintings, which is divided over 54 galleries. Counted as the last gallery is the famous Sistine Chapel, with a ceiling painted by Michelangelo.
There are almost always lines to visit the museums and so it's recommended to get skip-the-line tickets beforehand if you don't want to waste too much time waiting. Or you can take a tour, like I did.
Visiting the Vatican Museums with Walks of Italy
When I was in Rome I partnered up with Walks of Italy to visit the Vatican Museums one day and the Colosseum another. During the Vatican tour, our group of 12 could skip the lines and would spend the next three hours admiring art under the guidance of Luigi.
We started at the entrance square, which offers a great view of the St. Peter's Basilica. Luigi knew it would be crowded inside, so he already told us some things we needed to know before going in. He also gave us an elaborate introduction to the Sistine Chapel as it's not allowed to talk inside the Chapel and so he wouldn't be able to give us any information while we were in there.
I was happy to be out in the sun for another few minutes.
The Vatican Museums are huge and I think that if you visit the place individually, you should really plan what you want to see beforehand and make sure you have a map. It's so crowded inside that you have to pay attention to where you're going and not let yourself be pushed forward by the masses. Of course, the crowds are bigger in some parts of the museums than in others, but it's best to be prepared.
Luckily, we had Luigi. He kept a constant eye on us while telling us about the sculptures and paintings we saw around us.
I also liked how he didn't insist on spending too much time at a certain work of art when it was really crowded there. He always found us the better spots to stand and I had a feeling he could tell us something about practically everything in there. At least he never had to think twice before answering one of our questions.
The good thing about the Vatican Museums is that even when it's so crowded that you don't get a clear view of the works on display, you can always look up at the ceiling. The ceilings are really worth their own tour.
My favorite room, without a doubt, was the Gallery of Maps. Like many a traveler I love globes and maps, so this room was a real treat for me. I wish we could have spent a bit more time in here, preferably without all the other people around:-)
But with the Gallery of Maps, we approached the end of our tour. All that was left were the Raphael Rooms and then came the Sistine Chapel.
The Sistine Chapel
Like I said, you're not allowed to talk in the Sistine Chapel, but of course, noise is unavoidable when 2,000 people can visit the Chapel at the same time. I also thought it was pretty ironical that every five minutes or so, a man yelled through a microphone: “SILENCE PLEASE. SILENZIO PER FAVORE”.
You're also not allowed to take photos in there. I had no idea why, but someone later told me that a Japanese company has actually purchased the rights to the Sistine Chapel and that's why now nobody else can take photos in there. Pretty crazy, don't you think? I did some research, and apparently Nippon Television Network gained the photography and video rights to the Chapel in return for funding its restoration.
Was the Sistine Chapel spectacular? Yes, but at the same time, it was underwhelming. You're there in this gigantic room of which the walls and ceiling are entirely covered by paintings and you don't know where to look first. It's fantastic, but at the same time the experience is disturbed by those 1,999 other people in there who bump into you with their heads in their necks, trying to see as much of the ceiling as they can.
I can only imagine how wonderful it must be if you'd have the chance to visit this place all by yourself.
St. Peter's Basilica
The Sistine Chapel was the last stop of our tour, but not of our visit, because when you exit the Chapel you just have to take a turn and you're right in front of St. Peter's Basilica. Not in front of the long line there sometimes is to get into the Basilica, but literally at the front door.
We thanked Luigi for the many facts he'd shared with us and the skillful way he'd guided us through the Museums, before entering the church.
St. Peter's Basilica was my highlight of the tour. I found it to be more impressive than the Sistine Chapel and was happy that it wasn't that crowded inside. There were people, but the Basilica is so big that you could easily walk around without bumping into anyone.
I could have spent quite some time here to take it all in, but I have to say that after three hours of absorbing art facts, my brain felt a bit fried and so I only spent about 20 minutes at the Basilica. Don't let that stop you from staying longer, though!
St. Peter's Square
As I left the Basilica, the sun was starting to set on St. Peter's Square. I was cold and so I walked towards a spot still covered in yellow, hoping to get a good shot of the Basilica from there.
Of course, the sunlight shined directly into my camera and I had to do quite a bit of editing (not with Lightroom, that's a stage I'm not at yet) to make something of the photo, but it does have a bit of a special effect to it, don't you think?
Luigi did a great job of guiding us through the Museums and sharing facts with us. The Vatican Museums were a bit too crowded for me, but that has nothing to do with the tour. In fact, I'm happy that I visited them on a tour as I think I'd easily gotten lost or discouraged otherwise.
I visited the Vatican Museums, including the Sistine Chapel, with Walks of Italy. They offer several tours at the Vatican. The one I took is called the “Vatican Highlights Tour”.
Where to stay in Rome?
I spent three nights in the vintage Il Boom B&B in the less touristy Trastevere neighborhood. Click here for availability and prices.
How to get to Rome
I took a direct flight from Brussels to Rome in Italy and then got on the train to the city center.
I was a guest of Walks of Italy during my tour with them. Partnerships like these allow me to travel more and create new content for the blog. They'll never affect my opinion on related experiences.