I visited Vatican City on a Saturday in the summer during my study abroad program in Orvieto, Italy. While it was incredibly crowded, it was entirely worth the hype – to me, at least. Some people might disagree, but I stand by what I wrote after my visit in 2018: “The only disappointing thing about Vatican City is that, despite being its own country, they do not stamp your passport upon entry. And I really wanted a stamp from Vatican City. Besides that though, it’s basically the most amazing thing you can imagine.”
So with that as an introduction, this blog post will now become a guide to how to visit the Vatican based on my experience there (which means there will also be some obsessing over Renaissance art and a few tangents about historical details).
During my weekend in Rome (discussed in detail here), my roommate and I decided that we would devote Saturday entirely to the Vatican. This meant that we weren’t terribly concerned about getting there early and were able to take the whole day at our own pace. For reference, St. Peter’s Basilica opens at 7 am, while the Vatican Museums open around 9, though if you want to be one of the first into the museums, you’ll need to arrive well before that. Due to our casual schedule and a public transit mix-up (AKA detours due to Republic Day celebrations), we ultimately ended up taking an Uber to the Vatican from our Airbnb and getting there around 10:30. This was different from our original plan of taking a bus, but we had stressed enough over trying to figure out the detour route and paying for an Uber was worth it to just get there and get in line. For those traveling in the future, be advised that June 2 is a holiday, and that that might throw off some of your planning.
Once we arrived, we stood in line to enter the Vatican for about two hours. Although this seems pretty long, it’s just as long as the wait for some rides at Disney World, and those only last for about 5 minutes once you are in. We were expecting to spend the whole day here, so it was worth it to us, and we had expected it. We had water in our purses, and I had a few episodes of a podcast downloaded on my phone. Though you can get in faster with a tour, and though a lot of hawkers will try to get you to buy a tour ticket while you wait in line, this will set you back a lot – the one we were offered was 60 euros a person. That was a lot more than I wanted to pay, and, honestly, the worst part of waiting in line was the people constantly approaching to try and sell you a tour ticket or a bottle of water or other random things that you don’t want. Other options if you want to skip the line or go with a tour guide include booking a tour ahead of time (much cheaper than the in-the-line tour options) or booking your individual skip-the-line tickets online before you go. Honestly though, if you have the time and can’t plan ahead for one reason or another, the wait isn’t terrible.
On a return trip, I still probably wouldn’t pay for the tour; I’ve already studied the art in depth, and the advantage of a tour, to me, is learning something new. The Vatican tours can be very expensive, and it wouldn’t be worth it for me. Instead, I would plan ahead and arrive early to see St.Peter’s which opens before the museums. I would then spend the morning elsewhere and reserve online tickets to enter the Vatican in the late afternoon. Though the museums close at 6pm, final entry is at 4 pm, so I would enter around 3 and take my time in the gardens before visiting the museums and and ending with the Sistine Chapel at the very end of the day.
When you first pass through the stone walls into Vatican City, you don’t immediately enter the Renaissance. Actually, it’s a lot more like entering an airport. You put your bags on the conveyor belt, and they go through a scanner as you wait to step through the X-ray machine and pick up your bags on the other side. It moves at a decent pace though, and we were so excited to finally be in that this did not bother us at all. However, by this time it was about 12:30, so we hit up the bathrooms and the cafeteria before making our way to see everything else the Vatican had to offer.
So at this point, you may be wondering what exactly you’re seeing when you visit the Vatican. There are four main things: The Vatican Gardens, The Vatican Museums, The Sistine Chapel, and St. Peter’s Basilica. You can visit the main part of St. Peter’s for free, but you’ll need a ticket for the other portions. You also can’t visit the gardens or the Sistine Chapel separately from the museums; you’ll have to buy a museum ticket to see either/both of those (you’re paying for both so see both). An unguided tour of the Vatican is about $20, and an audio guide will, of course, come with an extra fee. The other big thing to see at the Vatican is a Papal Audience, which is where the pope will address the public. Assuming the pope is in Rome, these audiences happen at 10 am on Wednesdays outside of St. Peter’s. However, while I was in Italy, I had class during the week, so I did not attend one of these audiences. After lunch, we mostly followed the crowd to see, the Vatican Gardens followed by the Vatican Museums, the Sistine Chapel, and finally St. Peter’s.
The Vatican Museums are extensive, and the map was not entirely helpful in my experience. I’m not actually sure what route we took to see everything because we were basically just pushed along through a crowd of tour groups. The crowds did take away from my experience slightly since the halls were just stuffed with people, but I still enjoyed the experience overall. It was pretty amazing to pass through these rooms that are all filled floor to ceiling with priceless artifacts and works of art from all periods of history and from all around the world. One of my favorite parts was a place I didn’t know to expect – a long hallway lined with tapestries twice my height that show in detail each province of Italy and at the end a map of Italy itself. They’re absolutely amazing, both in terms of the technical skill and time needed to make them and the detail and accuracy of the maps themselves.
At some point, we entered the Stanza della Segnatura, AKA the Raphael Rooms. Back in the days of Julius II, this was the papal library. He’d hired several well-known painters of the day to decorate the rooms, but when Raphael came to Rome, a few painters lost their jobs because Raphael was basically the painter of the time. (Michelangelo was also a big deal, but personality-wise, most people preferred the wunderkind Raphael.) Although the multitude of art that surrounds you in the Vatican is all splendid, there’s something really special about stepping into a room and seeing, in perfect Renaissance style, Raphael’s fresco Disputation of the Holy Sacrament and then turning around to see, larger than life, the actual School of Athens. It’s a picture that I’ve seen I don’t know how many times in various history classes, but seeing it not five feet away was indescribable. We spent several minutes there, studying the painting and trying to pick out all the figures we could. I, of course, posed in front of Raphael’s depiction of a moody Michelangelo.
Not much later, we entered that pinnacle of the Renaissance, the Sistine Chapel. The actual Sistine Chapel! Above us, in vibrant colors, spread Michelangelo’s paintings, all so far away and yet so big as to be seen in (mostly) clear detail. On the walls, Perugino’s Delivery of the Keys to St. Peter stood big as day. You aren’t allowed to take photos in the chapel, but for magnificent art like that, sometimes it’s almost better to just experience it and try not to cry. (For the record, I did not actually cry here, but I did get close). I really can’t describe the Sistine Chapel except to say that it is overwhelming in its magnificence. Michelangelo may have been reluctant to paint it, but he certainly put a lot of effort into that work.
Past the chapel is St. Peter’s Basilica, and since we had to read an entire book (Basilica by R. A. Scotti) about its construction for one of my classes, passing that up wasn’t really an option. From Michelangelo’s Pietà to Bernini’s Baldacchino and his work on St. Peter’s chair, the whole room is just incredible. It’s not surprising that it took 120 years to build. We were in there for a long time gaping at the art and wandering between the altars to see everything the basilica had to offer. Seeing so much marble and gold, it’s really fascinating to have the dual realization that 1) this entire building is a masterpiece and 2) this building is a big part of the Protestant Reformation. Because all this beauty came from a lot of corruption and a lot of ordinary people starving. Both for art and for history, St. Peter’s is a really fascinating building to study. For art history, it basically sums up the Renaissance from beginning to end – big ideas, fantastic art and wealth, and the eventual realization that such a period can only ever be temporary.
Upon leaving the Vatican, we were actually pretty lost. We had no idea where in Rome we were relative to anywhere else, so we decided to just walk a bit and see what was nearby. As we left St. Peter’s Square, I saw a round building that I recognized from Roman Holiday – the Castel Sant’Angelo.
This was originally part of my itinerary for the next day when I planned to visit sites from the movie, but since we were apparently already there, we decided to go ahead and cross the Tiber so I could take a picture facing the castle. (In the movie, the castle is in the background of the scene where Audrey Hepburn as Princess Ann goes dancing on a barge.) Though originally built as a mausoleum for Emperor Hadrian, the Castel Sant’Angelo was reconverted into a papal fortress in the late 14th century.
Though we didn’t go into the museum, adding this area to our itinerary was an excellent add-on to the day. For one thing, we got to walk across the Ponte Sant’Angelo, which is adorned with ten amazing Baroque statues of angels holding the instruments of the crucifixion. But the best part of this little detour was the park across from the Castel Sant’Angelo. Though there were a few people there, after the Vatican, it felt deserted. It was a wonderful, quiet place to just sit, catch your breath, and watch the water flowing in the Tiber River.
After a day of overwhelming art and grandeur, it felt necessary to have some time for reflection away from everything else in the bustling Italian capital. Because of its cultural importance, the Vatican is basically always crowded, and though I loved visiting it and would probably go again, it felt, in a way, more like an amusement park than a religious site. There is a very different feel to entering the Vatican with its crush of people and soundtrack of overlapping tour guides and entering a less-famous church like the old mission at Tumacácori National Historical Monument in Arizona. The quiet of the ruins there makes it a place that welcomes contemplation, something that is not really possible within the Vatican in the middle of the day.
Similarly, the art in the Vatican is phenomenal, and it entirely captures the Renaissance and Baroque ideals of majesty, and though I really loved seeing all the art, it didn’t induce a religious experience for me. What stood out to me the most was viewing the Vatican as part of a much longer history in which it does have incredible historical importance and is filled with priceless and culturally-important art, but this history also takes into account the fact that the Renaissance frescoes of the Vatican are not the be-all and end-all of art or religion. Rather, they are a moment in time and a part of traditions that continue to this today. For me, a day at the Vatican is best completed by sitting in a park and watching a painter recreate the Castel Sant’Angelo on a canvas, while the Tiber flows just the same as it has since antiquity.