Whether we like it or not, the Vatican Museums are one of those places you just have to visit. Although we may prefer the ethereal elegance of Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, the quiet views from the Fisherman’s Bastion in Budapest, or the quirky finds like the Fry Museum in Bruges—our traveling hearts are burdened with the responsibility to journey the path most traveled. Thus, as humble humans, we masochistically fold ourselves into the molds of sheep as we band together to inch closer to the world’s wonders, if only to glean those moments of universality, to be able to say veni, vidi, vici—why yes, I experienced this too.
And yet, there is that tiny voice of free-will asking “but is it worth it?”
This is what I was thinking about while squished between a bumbling tour group and the armpit of a man who was insisting on using my head as a tripod.
Don’t get me wrong, the Vatican Museums are worth it! Especially if you’re a history or art buff, or any shade of Catholic (in which case your guilt for not going may be crippling). They’re massive, displaying 20,000 of their 70,000 or so works, including Ancient Roman sculptures and Renaissance masterpieces. Here are our tips of how to get the most out of your visit.
Before you go:
I can’t say this strongly enough: get your tickets online ahead of time. We booked ours two weeks before with no issues and were able to go in at our selected time slot. The queue for those that did not buy prior tickets was unfathomably long. It makes no sense to waste precious pasta and gelato eating time when you can just plan your visit ahead of time. You can find all ticket information online, here.
While you get your tickets ahead of time, we advise looking into tours. I took one of the museum run tours the second time I went, and found it was definitely worth it to have a guide to help us sift through the copious amounts of art.
If you’re on a budget, download the Rick Steves Audio Europe Travel App. He not only has a map and audio tour of the museums, Sistine Chapel, and Basilica, but also guides for other Roman sites like the Pantheon and Colosseum. You can download these ahead of time!
Lastly, we suggest taking the second to research what you want to see. Unlike your familiar, modern art museums, the Vatican museums are 1) huge and 2) not curated in a sleek, boxy building that enables smooth pedestrian traffic. It is impossible to see and fully appreciate everything in one visit, so to avoid burn out, a little planning goes a long way.
While at the museums:
Dress code: cover your knees and shoulders. This is something I’ve known my entire life, probably carved into my brain from a childhood of being examined alongside my siblings on church Sundays. But I’ve heard a lot of people make it all the way through the line without knowing about the rule, then having to Macgyver a layer out of a souvenir tea-towel or oversized sweatshirt. I suggest always keeping a light layer (whether a cardigan, scarf, or loose shirt) in your bag throughout your Italy trip in case you ever duck into a church.
On the same line with dress code: wear comfy shoes! Lisa made the mistake of wearing her converse and was a sad lady that evening.
When you get off at the metro stop, follow the crowds to the museum. If you feel like you’re getting lost, there are usually people holding maps that can help you. Their staff badges didn’t look super professional so we thought they were selling additional tours at first, but they’re real employees there to help!
Once you get in, remember what you’re there for. Takes breaks, sink to the side of the room, and take your time.
All signs in the museum point to either the exit or the Sistine Chapel. Since it’s so popular, it’s designed to be one of the last things you see. I was both under and overwhelmed by the room. After seeing parts of the art reproduced in books and movies, it’s almost underwhelming to see it from far away on the ground. You are not allowed to take pictures or talk within the chapel (although the security guards will be yelling this information in several languages the entire time you’re inside). Yet, it is worth finding a place to sit so you can stare at the art for a while. I found this overlay graphic identifying the scenes on the ceiling to be super helpful. Relax, marvel—this is why you’re here, after all!
After the museums:
Explore the rest of the Vatican! We spent around two hours at the museum and then headed over to St. Peter’s Basilica. Our only tips for heading there is 1) make sure you’re dressed to code, 2) don’t bother to skip-the-line, their queue looked similar to ours, and 3) bring an umbrella in case the queue has you standing in the sun.
You can go up to the top of the dome. We didn’t do this (Lisa’s fear of heights and my developing fear of narrowing stairwells), but the view is supposed to be incredible! This article from RomeWise has all the details.
Mail a postcard! It’s a little pricey (around 2.30€ for a stamp to the US) but it’s a neat souvenir for a family member. You can save a few cents by getting a postcard elsewhere in the city instead of at the museum gift shop. The Vatican post is run by the Swiss, so it’s super efficient.
Have you been to the Vatican Museums? What was your experience like? Let us know in the comments below!