On Saturday, our first full day in Rome, we took the metro to the Vatican museum around 10 am (stopping along the way for a chocolate espresso and pastry, of course). Our tour was led by City Wonders, (booked through Viator) and had about 20 other people in attendance. That seemed like a lot at first, but everyone sticks super close together and we were given headsets to easily hear our guide (a Rome native). I was immediately impressed with how knowledgeable she was, but she also kept it light and conversational.
Within the first 10 minutes of the tour, I knew it was money well spent. We skipped the line entirely, and over the course of three hours we saw a portion of the museum (including the Gallery of Maps–Lee’s fave), the Pinecone Courtyard, Rafael’s Rooms, the Sistine Chapel, and St. Peter’s Basilica.
If I had to choose my favorite part, I would definitely say it was the ceilings in the Vatican museum. Everywhere we walked, I just wanted to keep looking up! The detail was incredible, the variation was fascinating, and trust me when I say this: no expense is spared in the Vatican. If you see gold, it’s real gold.
Something else I was enamored by was the tour of Raphael’s Rooms. I was amazed at how vibrant the paintings were, and I was fascinated to learn about the Fresco painting method–combining the paint with wet plaster and rushing to complete it before the plaster dried. Can you imagine how frustrating it must’ve been to fix a mistake?
Unfortunately, the environment of the Sistine Chapel left something to be desired. The view was incredible, and just the shock of actually standing in it sent chills down my spine, but nobody was observing the rule of silence. Imagine 300 tourists crammed in a room that amplifies sound, and they’re all talking at a normal conversational level. And, on top of that, every 10 minutes a guard shouts “NO PHOTOS! SILENCE!” over a loudspeaker. You’re not helping, guy. I was disappointed by everyone’s lack of respect and discipline. A lady in our tour group said exactly what I was thinking: “Geeze. I expected it to be more holy.”
Something that left me scratching my head was the reason why you can’t take photos in the chapel: a Japanese television company owns the copyright. They paid for the restoration that was completed in 1999, and I guess that was the trade off! The experience of seeing it in person, and getting to stare at it for 20 minutes straight, was way more valuable than any photo I could’ve taken. In summary: it’s impressively colorful and vibrant (except the small patches that were left unrestored, for comparison), every last inch of the interior is covered with paint, and there were many details in the paintings that revealed how sarcastic and vengeful Da Vinci was towards those who were critical of his work. You’ll just have to see it for yourself.
St. Peter’s Basilica was something else entirely. I thought I had seen my fair share of big churches, but this one is in its own league. There are markings on the floor that show you at which points you can fit entire churches and cathedrals inside of the Basilica. The entire Statue of Liberty can fit inside the main dome. Including the pedestal. With room to spare. Google “Things that can fit inside St. Peter’s Basilica,” and you’ll be amazed.
There were many things to see inside the church, including the Holy Door that is only opened by the Pope for one year every 25 years. Underneath the Basilica is the Vatican Necropolis, which you can’t get into without booking in advance. It’s believed to be the location of St. Peter’s tomb. We were, however, able to see the Vatican Grottoes, which is located right under the main floor and contains dozens of tombs of past Popes. It’s creepy, but really interesting to see.
Once our tour concluded, we spent some time basking in the sun on the Piazza San Pietro before venturing off to find a place to eat lunch. A short walk down Via della Conciliazione is the Castel Sant’Angelo on the River Tiber–a sight not to be missed if you’re in the vicinity of Vatican City.
All in all, booking a tour in advance was worth every penny. If we had self-guided ourselves, it probably would have taken an entire day to see everything that our tour guide showed us in three hours. We wasted no time standing in lines or stopping to figure out where we were supposed to go next (the Vatican Museum is a maze!) and learned more of the historical details that we would’ve missed by simply reading plaques.