Discovering the Vatican Museums

Vatican Museums Museus do Vaticano entrada

The dome of St. Peter’s Cathedral in the Vatican reached out through the roofs of the buildings I could see from the balcony of Castel Sant’Angelo.

Going to Rome and not going to the Vatican is unthinkable.

When I was younger I thought it was just another monument, a big cathedral in the middle of the Italian capital. As I grew I understood that it is a sovereign state, a city within a city. Where in the world have you seen another place like this?!… seriously, if you know such a place tell me about it in the comment box.

In the castle, looking at the entrance of the Vatican, I was aware of these two very distinct places. I left Sant’Angelo and walked along the avenue that leads to the doors of the highest representative of Christianity in the world.

Vista sobre a Basílica de São Pedro

As I said before, I’m not a Catholic — nor of any particular religion — so my interest in a visit to the Vatican was purely cultural. I wanted to see the museums that hold remarkable works of art.

For some, seeing the Pope is crucial; for me, not visiting the Sistine Chapel would be unthinkable.

Before my three-day trip to Rome, I prepared the visit to the Vatican so I wouldn’t face the long queues. I entered the site and, still in Portugal, I bought the access tickets.

Confident, I made my way to St. Peter’s Square, and that was when I saw the longest queue. “I don’t believe it! It can’t be… there has to be another way in for visitors that have already bought a ticket. “

I stood in line as Nuno went to see if there was an alternative way in. He came back: we were in the wrong place! The access to the museums isn’t through the square, next to the cathedral, but on the other side of Vatican City!

With scheduled entry time, we rushed up the street, but the path was still long and the beads of sweat began to drip down my back.

Once at the door, now at the Musei Vaticani, we went to a security guard who immediately indicated us a direct entrance. Success! It was well worth buying tickets in advance.

Wandering through the Vatican Museums

The first contact we have with this place is a magnificent staircase that takes us to the top floor. There’s an elevator, but starting to do that spiral climb creates a growing expectation of what is to come.

There are those who prefer to visit museums with a tour guide or even without any company. Personally, whenever there’s audio guide available I opt to take one. It allows me to get information about what I’m seeing while discovering the place at my own pace. That’s what I did in the Vatican Museums.

With the audio guide in hand, we followed left. To tell you the truth, I wasn’t sure where we were going… I prepared myself by buying the tickets early, but I should have spent some time researching the route I wanted to take.

Museo Chiaramonti Museus do Vaticano

Entering the Museo Chiaramonti, we could see a long corridor with an immense repository of statues and sculptures. More than a thousand, I learned later. Here I found that by pressing the number indicated next to each piece of art in the small audio guide I would know a little of the history behind them.

The room continued to the Galleria Lapidaria, the richest collection of tombstones in the Vatican. Then, we decided to go back and discover the Museo Pio Clementino. Slowly, trying to absorb everything we saw, we walked through the vast exhibition halls. Sometimes stopping, curious about a certain statue, but shortly afterward going forward through the rooms and the Octagonal Patio, a place of open air.

Museo Pio Clementino Museus do Vaticano
Museo Pio Clementino Museus do Vaticano

Speaking of the exterior, next stop: the Cortile della Pigna. This 300m2 of open space, next to the corridors and rooms of the museum, is named for the large bronze pine cone that occupies the north side of the patio.

Did you know that the pine cone is often used as a symbol of immortality and rebirth?

Still in this place, the old crosses with the modern, with a large and curious sphere placed in the center, donated to the museum, in 1990, by the artist Arnaldo Pomodoro.

Cortile della Pigna Museus do Vaticano

It's Napoleon's fault

After wandering the Cortile della Pigna, taking a deep breath and recharging energy, we returned to the interior, this time to discover the New Wing of the Vatican Museums, which has quickly become one of my favorite places.

The Braccio Nuovo is an extension of the Chiaramonti Museum and was built after the return of art pieces previously confiscated by Napoleon.

The building, which runs between the galleries of the Chiaramonti and the Vatican Apostolic Library, is considered one of the most important references of Roman neoclassical architecture.

Braccio Nuovo Museus do Vaticano

I went through the 28 niches that hold imposing statues of emperors, using the audio guide to learn a little more about those figures, as well as the Greek statues that are also there.

I don’t know if it was for the beauty of the pieces, the amazing floor, the marble work or the high ceilings, but this is one of the spaces that still populate my imagination when I remember this visit to the Vatican Museums.

Braccio Nuovo Museus do Vaticano

Towards the Sistine Chapel

By this time I’m completely lost, not knowing what the next destination is. But the waves of people moving around us seem to know where they’re going. When we started the visit we realized that the Sistine Chapel is one of the last stops on this trip, so we just have to go with the flow and we’ll certainly find the way.

On the 2nd floor, there’s the Gregorian Etruscan Museum, which houses artifacts from the ancient Etruscans, a group of people who came to live on the Italian peninsula. From there, followed to the Salla della Biga, the Galleria dei Candelabri, the Galleria degli Arazzi (Gallery of the Tapestries) and, another of my favorites, the Galleria delle Carte Geografiche.

The Maps Gallery, as it is commonly known, is just that: a corridor lined with ancient geographic charts that put us looking at the ceilings and walls and traveling through giant maps that drew the world hundreds of years ago.

Its size, the crossing of the strong blue with the gold, the details, learning how it was before, as we know how it is today. Everything makes that space a very special one in the Vatican Museums.

From this gallery a few more followed, but the legs throbbed, the fatigue began to take over and the waves of visitors guided by raised flag tour guides allowed little space to give due attention to what was to see.

By this time, everybody there just had one thing in mind: to reach the Sistine Chapel.

All just for a ceiling

I have never visited the Louvre — yes, a serious fault of mine — but when I hear the comments about the first impression when I someone sees the Mona Lisa, I think perhaps that’s what I felt when I saw the Sistine Chapel.

The place is much smaller than I imagined. Or, maybe the fact that it’s packed makes it even smaller than it actually is.

As soon as we enter, we are reminded that we are in a religious and prayerful place, and therefore, silence is requested (and constantly remembered through a microphone!).

Pictures are also prohibited. Of course, this doesn´t stop countless people from trying to covertly capture an image with their phone. For me, I agree with the ban. If this weren’t so, we would see thousands of flashes pointed at one of Michelangelo’s most important and famous paintings.

Around the chapel, there are places for visitors to sit and contemplate the beauty of the frescoes. Of course, they are always occupied and we hardly see one free. Those who can’t rest their legs have to content themselves with standing up, with their noses in the air and the audio guide translating some of the scenes portrayed there.

Soon we realize that we have to leave to give space to a new wave of visitors. The time was little, too little to give due attention to that emblematic work of the fifteenth century.

Hats off to the art made by the master, with all the detail, colors and expressions. But it lacked… magic. Perhaps this is the misfortune of great artworks. They were made to be admired, but in a sea of people, we lost ourselves in incomprehension.

Saída dos Museus do Vaticano

I leave the Vatican Museums with the sense of mission accomplished, but knowing that much remained to be seen. The afternoon dedicated to the visit wasn’t enough to go through all the nooks and crannies and absorb so much culture. But for me, a whole day would be unimaginable, such would be the fatigue of body and spirit. If you are really keen on art and history, a worthy visit to the Vatican Museums should be done in two half days, calmly and patiently.

Basílica de São Pedro Vaticano

We return to St. Peter’s Square. Since we’re in the Vatican, maybe there’s time to see the interior of the Cathedral.

The queue we had found in the beginning, that led into the cathedral, remained the same size. No more, no less. Only the faces had changed. With tired legs, I no longer had the strength to stand for a more couple of hours.

We left Vatican City, back to the Roman streets. Not to return to Sant’Angelo, but towards our own “castle” that during those days in Rome was an Airbnb in the center of Trastevere. On the day dedicated to the Vatican, there was still room for two more art forms: to take a nap and to eat una bella pizza at dinnertime.

Learn from my mistakes...

  • Buy tickets online in advance, and be sure to confirm where the entrance to the Vatican Museums is.
  • Study the layout of the museums and the route you'll want to take
  • If you want to see all the museums calmly, try to predict more than half a day to do so.
  • Use lightweight footwear and comfortable clothing (I didn't go wrong here, but it's never too much to remember)
My Vatican Museums tour
  1. Museo Chiaramonti
  2. Galleria Lapidaria
  3. Museo Pio-Clementino
  4. Cortile Ottagono
  5. Cortile della Pigna
  6. Braccio Nuovo
  1. Museo Gregoriano Etrusco
  2. Salla della Biga
  3. Galleria dei Candelabri
  4. Galleria degli Arazzi (Tapestry Gallery)
  5. Galleria delle Carte Geografiche (Map Gallery)
  6. Sistine Chapel
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Strolling through thousands of works of art, wandering with our eyes in ceilings and filling the spirit with culture and history that has no end. A trip to Rome isn't complete without a visit to the Vatican Museums.
Comments

  • Christopher Rudder

    I think every Roman Catholic should go to Vatican and visit these museums. It could uplift any soul who is looking for reassurance of their faith. I also love the part of your blog that says “Learn from my mistakes” instead of mixing those on the blog post. This way, it is easier to remember 🙂

  • Juli

    I missed seeing the Vatican museums on my visit to Rome. I love how you describe how it made you feel walking the corridors. Amazing architecture.

  • Claire

    Actually when I went to Rome I decided not to go to the Vatican – it was a hard decision but I think the best for me. I’m not religious either and much preferred the food and drink and Colosseum! But I think if I go again I would go, and make sure to plan ahead, the queue was a big reason why I didn’t go!!

    • Marlene Marques
      Claire

      Hi, Claire. I guess it all depends on the time of the year you’re in Rome. But in this case, queues are definitely expected. I highly recommend booking your ticket online. It can save you same time. 🙂

  • Debbzie Leksono

    Honestly I’m not really a museum person. But the Vatican Museum is an exception because I spent almost half a day there, admiring their awesome collection and architecture. Just like you, I was happy that I booked the ticket in advance. It was indeed well worth it. I also thought that Sistine Chapel is much smaller than I expected and too crowded too! Perhaps I will give it another visit next time I’m in Vatican City. You shot really stunning pictures by the way 🙂

  • Rosemary

    Actually, in addition to the Vatican, Monaco and Singapore are also city states. They are only three in the world 🙂 Great write up about the Vatican. I remember visiting about 15 years ago and was surprised by the cramped space. You captured some amazing shots!

    • Marlene Marques
      Rosemary

      Hi, Rosemary! So cool the information about Monaco and Singapore. I love to learn! Thank you for that! As for the Vatican, I guess is still as cramped as 15 years ago… 🙂

  • Linda (ld holland)

    So good to hear that buying tickets in advance helps to get you right in. But finding the proper access spot is always a bit challenging. We had the same issue with the Forum. Thanks for the tip about the audio guide. And about planning your route in advance. That way you get to see the things that are most important to you. Sometimes I wing it and wish I didn’t. I did not know that the pine cone was a symbol of immortality!

    • Marlene Marques
      Linda (ld holland)

      Hi, Linda! So glad you liked the post! I guess I was lucky in Rome: I found the Forum without knowing in advance were the entrance was! LOL Totally beginners luck! Thanks for your kind comment and happy travels!!

  • sherianne

    When I visited Rome I was on a tour and didn”t get to wander the museums as much as I would have liked. Your photos remind me I wan t to go back.

    • Marlene Marques
      sherianne

      Hi, Sherianne. That’s the thing with tours – you always have your time and route controlled. If you go back one day I highly recommend the audioguide. You can do the visit at your own pace and still have all the information about what you’re seeing. Happy travels!!

  • Astrid Vinje

    I heard that Rome gets a ton of tourists. We’re planning on visiting there in the summer, and I’m really not looking forward to the crowds. We do intend to visit the Vatican, so this post has been really helpful in prepping us for what to expect.

    • Marlene Marques
      Astrid Vinje

      Hi, Astrid! Glad I could help! I went in the end of September, so the crowds were manageable. Hope you can find in you some patience to face the tourist sites. Some will be worth it 😉

  • Ami Bhat

    Like you – for me too, visiting Vatican was just something I had to do. The gems in that museum are just so gorgeous. From the ceilings to the exhibits, each one has a story. Glad you spend time here.

  • Medha Verma

    I love your pictures, you’re a great photographer! I am not catholic either but I agree with, visiting Rome and not going to Vatican would be a crime. Especially for all that art, its so admirable. Sistine chapel’s ceiling is a masterpiece in itself.

    • Marlene Marques
      Medha Verma

      Thank you so much, Medha. I love these museums! I only wish I would have a little more time to enjoy the Sistine Chapel. But it was totally worth the visit. 🙂 Happy travels!