Alright, the Vatican Museums, a roll up your sleeves endeavor to visit or write about. It’s the mother of all museums in Rome and certainly one of the preeminent museums in Europe. According to Wikipedia it cracked the 5 million visitors a year mark in 2011. The Museum houses many, many of the world’s finest and most valuable pieces and visiting is a modern day pilgrimage for many tourists around the world.
Vatican Museums. Photo courtesy of Forbes.
For such a heavy weight, the Museum finds it origins in the discovery of a single sculpture. In 1506, the Laocoön was dug up from the Oppian Hill and purchased by Julius II and brought to the Vatican. Today it can be seen in the Pio-Clementine section along with many other equally impressive works of antiquity.
Visiting the museum is on many to-do lists and is easier if you plan accordingly. First, the Sistine Chapel is located within the Museum. A ticket to the Museum will enable you to see the famous Chapel. Also, the entrance to the museum is not through St. Peter’s Basilica. It’s on the north side of Vatican City. From the center of the Square, walk through the colonnade on your right and you’ll see a medieval looking gate. Follow the crowd of people through the gate and walk, keeping the huge wall on your left hand side, as you make a loop around the city. As you walk, note the vastness of the wall. Just because you hold the keys to heaven and hell doesn’t mean the Pope was free from enemies.
If you plan on visiting, I highly recommend purchasing a ticket online. There are two designated lines at the entrance, one to buy a ticket at the counter and one for the online prepaid. If you have a confirmation printed out for prepaid ticket, show it to a guard and they should direct you in the right direction. Make sure you’re standing in the right line. The line for prepaid tickets should be much shorter. The line to purchase tickets at the door will probably wrap around the city walls.
I snapped a quick picture to help illustrate.
Here is the entrance to the Vatican Museums. The line on the right of the entrance, is for on line reservations and would file through the barricades seen here. The line to purchase your ticket at the counter is on the left.
The Museum is primarily self-guided and is broken up into several sections. Here’s a quick list of those sections along with what they designate. Click the links for more detailed information.
Translated as “New Wing” the Braccio Nuovo was built as a response to the French returning many of the pieces Napoleon had, er, borrowed. No slouch when it came to choosing the best artwork, the Braccio Nuovo is home to terrific Roman sculptures of emperors and gods all dating back to antiquity. Highlights include Augustus from Prima Porta and The Nile.
Named for the two Popes who oversaw the foundation, this section is a grouping of large rooms that house Greek and Roman Sculpture. Some of the best Greek and Roman sculpture.
Vatican Picture Gallery – Pinocoteca
The art wing of the museum and perhaps the quietest area in the entire museum. It’s a pleasure to remove yourself from the hustle and bustle just outside and take your time perusing this collection.
Garden and Courtyard
The Vatican Gardens offer tours if you book in advance. The courtyard also has some interesting features like the Pine Cone, Sphere within Sphere, and base of the Column of Antoninus Pius and Faustina.
Raphael Rooms and the Sistine Chapel
The last two sections come packaged together, as you may pass through the Raphael Rooms to reach the Sistine Chapel. You’ll be directed to the Sistine Chapel from every nook and cranny of the museum so don’t worry about missing it. The Sistine Chapel does close fifteen minutes before the museum though!
And here’s the problem. I suspect, although I haven’t asked, many people visit just to see the Sistine Chapel. Once you fall into line to see Michelangelo’s ceiling it’s a Hotel California situation, you can check in any time you like but you can never leave. The path directs the crowd down the Gallery of Maps and through the ins and outs of the Raphael Rooms. Here you will see some terrific tapestries as well as the Room of Constantine.
The museum offers a “Long Way” and a “Short Way” to the Sistine Chapel. I’ve never taken the short way, but I can say that by the time you complete the “long” tour, it’s a biblical odyssey in itself. The length of the gallery and the ins and outs leading up to the Sistine Chapel are can be tiring so plan ahead.
The Creation of Adam, from smithsonianmag.com
Perhaps this was simply my experience, but I first visited the Museum on a busy Monday in June. Rome can be famously toasty during the summer, so plan accordingly and keep hydrated. Seeing the Sistine Chapel can take a while from beginning to end, so just to be sure, sip some water before you begin. You might consider taking a pause in your visit to visit the cafeteria, where you can find a terrific array of sandwiches and salads, or do as I did and grab something at the vending machines just inside the main entrance. Once you’re refueled and given your feet a break, start your trek to the Capella Sistina!
Because the Vatican Museum is such a large job to tackle, I would just advise to take your time and enjoy more than just the headliners. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the crowds and the number of pieces, so I would start a short list of what you personally want to see, then track them down when you get there. Maybe pick up a guidebook, or down load an app on your Ipad to really explore the Museum, maybe even before you get there. You can purchase audio tours at the entrance, as well as guidebooks before you start your quest.
When you visit:
Here’s a link to the Museum website that provides an interactive guide to the museum. I always find it helpful to get a layout before I travel.
Also on the page is a link entitled “Not to be Missed works online.” Consider it a solid cheat sheet for those that want to make a personal list of things they want to see.
Be advised that there is a metal detector and security to pass through, just as there is for St. Peters Basilica. Don’t panic. This isn’t an airport or a Swiss border. They just want to make sure no one is going to harm the artwork. And considering how close they let you get the to the pieces it’s probably a good idea. So gents, leave your pocket knives behind. The museum is wheel chair accessible and staff are fluent in many languages. Don’t forget that although this is a museum and the dress code shouldn’t apply, at the Vatican it does. The Sistine Chapel is still a holy space so make sure your knees are covered as well as shoulders. Gentlemen will get called out on this too.
Hours: FOR THE MOST PART the museum is open Monday through Saturday, 9am to 4pm. Check with the official website, because the Vatican observes many religious holidays as well and will be closed on those dates. You can find the official site here.
(Good days to visit: There probably aren’t slow days per se, but on a day where the Pope has a service, such as Wednesday, might not be the most opportune time. And while a Monday might seem convenient since many other museums across Rome are closed on Monday everyone else is aware of that too. Thursday, Friday, and possibly Saturday might be your best bet.)