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Essential Tips for Visiting the Vatican Museums

posted by Julie September 11, 2017 0 comments
Vatican City, vatican museums, st. peter's basilica

A panoramic view of St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City

The Vatican Museums

Viale Vaticano, 00165 Rome

GRADING
Overall Score: A
Cost: € 16 for adults, € 8 children 6- 18, plus € 4 online booking fee, check their website if you’re traveling with groups or want to book a tour/audiotour
Fun Potential: C (incredibly educational, but I wouldn’t categorize the museums as ‘fun’)
Hours: Generally Monday – Saturday 9am-6pm (last entry at 4pm), the last Sunday of the month (free tickets) 9am-2pm (last entry at 12:30pm), closed all other Sundays, click here for the complete 2017 calendar.
Recommended?: Yes

A trip to the Vatican, during anytime of year, can be an amazing, yet stressful visit. Thousands of visitors flood the halls of the Vatican Museums and St. Peter’s Basilica each day. Many have made pilgrimages from all over the world to visit one of the most sacred places for Christians, especially those of the Catholic faith.

Vatican museums, vatican city, St. Peter's basilica

Part of the wall that surrounds Vatican City

Vatican City is a small independent city-state within Rome that is surrounded by a large wall; however, there is a large opening in the wall in front of St. Peter’s Basilica. Entry to Vatican City is free, open, and requires no visas or passports. Expect a high amount of security in and around St. Peter’s Square.

What exactly are the Vatican Museums?

With 54 different galleries, multiple buildings, and over 70,000 total works of art (20,000 of which are on display), the Vatican Museum as a whole, is one of the largest museums in the world (wikipedia.org). Some of the most famous paintings, frescos, sculptures, and Renaissance masterpieces can be found here. This includes Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, as well as Raphael’s rooms, works by Da Vinci, Salvador Dali, Caravaggio, a gallery of maps, ancient Egyptian artifacts, classic Roman and Grecian sculptures, and much more.

Finding the entrance to the Vatican Museums

When touring the Vatican Museums, the entrance is NOT by St. Peter’s Square, the infamous area in front of St. Peter’s Basilica. In fact, the entrance to the museums is off of Viale Vaticano, on the north side of Vatican City. Note that when you enter the museums, you will enter into the walled area of Vatican City. Check out the view of the entrance on Google street view to get the complete scope of the area.

 

Because of the popularity of the Vatican, tourists find that:

  • Lines everywhere are long.
  • Crowds are impossible to escape.
  • People all around are trying to sell you “skip the line” tours.
  • Air conditioning is minimal.
  • Touring the Vatican Museums can be stressful.

I wanted to give my readers some helpful information to minimize your time waiting in line and get the most out of your time within the Holy City. So here are the best tips I learned from my touring experience:

Vatican Museums, St. Peter's Basilica, Rome, Vatican City

Photo of the line at the Vatican Museums (wikipedia.org)

Here are my BEST Vatican tips:

 

Buy your Vatican Museums tickets ahead of time

Buying tickets ahead of time allows you to skip the VERY LONG line that wraps around the building at 9 am. Bite the bullet on the online transaction fee of 4 euros and buy your tickets early! However, as most online purchases are easy, this is not always the case for buying tickets to the Vatican Museums. For some reason, the combination of using American credit cards in an Italian banking system makes for a difficult task.  I tried numerous times to order Vatican Museum tickets online prior to my trip and my transactions always failed. I did a little research on the web and found two solutions that worked:

  • Use a MasterCard – For whatever reason, using a MasterCard resulted in less difficulty for many. I finally purchased my tickets with a MasterCard that was my bank’s ATM card.
  • Call Visa – Using a Visa credit card didn’t work for me because Visa believes the transaction is a fraudulent charge. You have to call Visa, ask for the Verified by Visa or fraud department, and tell someone you are trying to buy tickets in Italy.
  • If these options don’t work, or you don’t have a credit card that works, you can always buy tickets from another online retailer, but expect to pay more due to the reseller’s markup.
Vatican City, vatican museums, st. peter's basilica

My daughter and I within the Raphael Rooms.

Get to the Vatican Museums EARLY

Click here to get the official opening and closing times for the museums, but the usual opening time is 9am. Try to get there as early as possible before 9, especially if you did not buy tickets online. When you see the line of people snaking all around the buildings, waiting to enter and without tickets, you’ll be glad you took the time to buy online. Note that all of the tour groups and people who already purchased tickets online get to enter the museums before those without tickets. Also be prepared for security screenings when you enter; security lines can be long.  Lastly, if you are fortunate enough to get in right at 9:00 as I did, be prepared to be walking with the large masses of tour groups which are incredibly hard to walk around.

 

vatican museums rome St Peter's Basilica

One of the Raphael Rooms within the Vatican Museum. This piece is titled “The Fire in the Borgo” and can be found in the Stanza dell’Incendio di Borgo.

Know what you want to see ahead of time

The Vatican Museum has multiple wings, buildings, and sections. There’s no way to see everything in one day. If you are touring on your own, you need to do a little research to know what is there and what you’re interested in seeing. Also, you’ll likely see tour groups standing around a sculpture or painting and wonder what it is they’re looking at. You likely won’t be able to hear the tour guide since most tour groups use headphones to better hear the guide. Signs and explanations of the objects are small and minimal. Know what’s there at the museums, what’s well-known and popular, and where to find them in order to maximize your time and efforts. It also helps to print out a map of the museums and mark which rooms and areas you should be stopping at.

Be patient

The crowd can be huge at the museum. Even though we entered the museum by 9, there were numerous group tours around. These tours walk slowly. When these large groups assemble around sculptures and paintings, it’s very hard to see around them. Try to be patient. You can only move and divert yourself from the masses so much. Wait for your chance to get around them, but you may just have to go with the flow and walk with the crowd. This is when you take a deep breath, remember why you are at the Vatican, and recall that this is supposed to be fun, educational, and a once in a lifetime trip!

Download an audio tour on your smartphone

If you’re not taking part in a group tour, it’s a good idea to download an audio tour onto your smartphone. These tours will tell you what’s interesting, where to go, and what to see. I downloaded my audio tour from the Rick Steves Audio Europe app that can be found at the iTunes store. My family and I found it very helpful, giving us more information about the exhibits than what was just displayed. Remember to bring headphones!

Be sure your shoulders and knees are covered upon entry to the museums

For both the Vatican Museums and St. Peter’s Basilica, it is important that you dress appropriately. This means no low-cut or sleeveless tops, no shorts or miniskirts, as well as no hats. The general rule is to keep your shoulders and knees covered. Plenty of tourists have been turned away due to inappropriate dress, so be sure to plan accordingly. Be respectful, as this is a holy place.

Dress for heat (if visiting in the summer)

There is some air conditioning in the Vatican Museums, but not much. Even though popular areas are air-conditioned, due to the amount of people who are present, it can get warm fast. I even found myself sweating during parts of my visit at 9:30 in the morning. Dressing for summer but following the Vatican Museum’s rules can be tricky; you can get by wearing lightweight pants, capris, or a long skirt and wearing a lightweight, short-sleeved shirt. I also recommend bringing a bottle of water with as well.

Vatican Museums rome St. Peters basilica

My daughter and I in front of the Sarcophagus of Helena, the mother of emperor Constantine the Great.   Museo Pio-Clementino – Vatican Museum

 

Keep your children close

Because of the labyrinth-like hallways and rooms of the museums, it’s very easy to lose young children. Crowds can be large and overwhelming. Groups of people stop to look at artifacts and the flow of the crowd changes all the time. Trying to walk through crowds with a young child is very difficult and potentially upsetting for little ones. Be sure to always hold your child’s hand and keep them close to prevent them from getting lost.

And for my BEST tip…

How to skip the line at St. Peter’s Basilica, if also visiting the Vatican Museums

If you are visiting the Vatican Museum first and then visiting St. Peter’s Basilica, follow this next tip to save you HOURS of time. When you are done viewing the Sistine Chapel and are ready to leave, there are two exits: one for tour groups and one for everyone else. FOLLOW THE SIGNS FOR THE TOUR GROUPS. Tour groups leave the Vatican through the door on the right, follow a hallway, and then go directly into St. Peter’s Basilica, bypassing the huge line outside.

Why is there such a long line to get into the basilica? Security. Being that you already went through security at the Vatican Museums, there is no need to go through security again. Simply try to blend in with a tour group and follow as they exit the Sistine Chapel. This will probably save you HOURS of time, not having to wait in the security line outside St. Peter’s Basilica.

Vatican Museums Rome St Peter's Basilica

A statue of Pope Pio XI in the Vatican Museum – by Adolfo Wildt

Other tips

  • As if women didn’t know, lines at the Vatican Museums bathrooms can be long.
  • Most famous items aren’t on prominent display so do your research.
  • Be wary of pickpockets in the museum, especially in large crowds. Pickpockets take advantage of tourists being distracted.
  • The Sistine Chapel is smaller than most people expect. It will be crowded.
  • I don’t think there are any food or drink options in Vatican City, other than within the museums. You must walk outside the walls or past St. Peter’s Square to find food and drink.
  • The gift shop within the Vatican Museums (not within the same building, but next to St. Peter’s Basilica) is extremely small. You may have better luck with pricing and selection looking outside the city.
  • Be prepared for pushy tour sellers on the streets, promising that you can ‘skip the line.’ ‘Skip the line’ tours are often overcrowded, rushed, and not as comprehensive. It’s always better to book ahead with a reputable touring company.
  • Don’t try to see it all in one day. It won’t happen. Be realistic up front about what you want to see to make it a worthwhile and fun trip.
  • For being such a holy place with religious artifacts, I was amazed at how rude people could be here. Try to not let other’s behaviors ruin your trip.
  • If you take the Metro to the Vatican Museums before they open, be prepared for packed subway cars. Not only do you have people heading to work, but you also have numerous tourists headed to the same place you are.
  • Pace yourself. Looking at everything in the museums is mentally exhausting, trying to take in the significance and the meaning to all of the many ancient and important things you are seeing. In addition, you’re dealing with large crowds, possibly the heat, being hungry and thirsty, and your own fatigue. You will be spending most if not all of the day touring here, especially if you are visiting St. Peter’s Basilica as well. Allow time for physical and mental breaks, as well as bathroom and meal breaks.
Vatican Museums Rome St Peter's Basilica

My daughters and I outside St. Peter’s Basilica.

Do you know why photos cannot be taken in the Sistine Chapel?

When renovations of the Sistine Chapel began in the 1980’s, the Vatican looked for outside financial help, due to the high price of renovations. The highest bidder, offering $3 million, was the Nippon Television Network Corporation of Japan. In return for their donation, Nippon was allowed exclusive rights to all photos and videos of the chapel;  they also produced numerous videos, books, and programs of the restoration. The photo ban was not supposed to apply to tourists, but the Vatican chose to simply make it a rule for everyone. All photography and video rights were to expire three years after the final restoration (1994), leaving Nippon without exclusive rights. Nevertheless, because camera flashes have been known to damage art, officials within the Vatican decided to keep the ban of photographing and filming the infamous art within the Sistine Chapel.

Vatican City, vatican museums, st. peter's basilica Rome

A large basin made from one piece of red porphyry stone, found at Nero’s Domus Aurea. In the Sala Rotunda in the Museo Pio-Clementino in the Vatican Museums.

 

I hope this information helps with your planning for the Vatican Museums. Have you visited the museums in Vatican City? How did you navigate through the crowds? Let me know in the comments!

Happy Travels!

Julie

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Vatican museums rome st peter's basilica

 

 

source: wikipedia.org, mentalfloss.com, museivaticani.va

 

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