Updated: May 21, 2015

Vatican:The Holy See

Vatican City is the world's smallest state, yet at just 106 acres this capital of Catholicism is one of the most influential sites in the world. St. Peter was martyred here in AD 64 and buried (you can still visit his tomb) on site. Since that time the Vatican has become the home of popes. Within the walls of Vatican City: The Holy See, there are hundreds if not thousands of masterpieces done by some of the greatest artists. The Basilica of St. Peter is the overwhelming draw for the majority of tourists that visit the Vatican and it houses the famous Pieta sculpture, created by Michelangelo in 1499 when he as just 25 years young. There is also the Monument to Pope Alexander VII, Bernini's last work. The Dome of St. Peter's was designed by Michelangelo but it wasn't completed until after his death.


The Basilica is open daily 7AM-7PM (closed at 6PM from Oct-Mar) and the Treasury 9AM-6:15PM (Oct-Mar, 5:15PM). One of the most popular things to do is climb up the inside of the Dome (there is a small fee) where you wind up on top of the Basilica with an incredible view of the rest of Rome. As you walked around the inside of the Basilica take a look at the beautiful mosaics that are on the walls (they look like paintings until you get close). Also, be sure to view the Papal Altar that stands over the crypt of St. Peters tomb. Just out front of the Basilica of St. Peter is Piazza San Pietro where on Sundays and special occassions the Pope appears from a balcony to bless the crowds below. To get an idea of how Vatican City is layed out, see the map below.

Many of the visitors start in the Vatican Museums and make there way through the Sistine Chapel and out to the Basilica. We will delve into the idea of taking a Vatican tour down below, it's something that is highly recommended since the Vatican collection of art is so vast and can become an all day experience if you don't have a plan. On site are also the Vatican Gardens, which take up 1/3 of the entire property. There are guided tours available for the Vatican Gardens if you wish. The Vatican Radio broadcasts in over 20 languages worldwide and you can listen online at the official Vatican website located at Vatican.va. Visiting the Vatican online is a great idea before any visit since the site is loaded with information and you can view the Sistine Chapel and other great works right on your web browser. If you do choose to travel to Rome, make sure the Vatican and the Vatican Museums are on your "must see" list. Keep reading below to find out about the Vatican Museums and the tours offered.

Vatican Museums:

Over the centuries the Vatican has either acquired important art collections or commissioned them from great artists like Raphael, Michelangelo, Bellini, and Pinturicchio. The Vatican Museum has varying hours of operation and it's best to check on the Vatican website for the latest hours since our guide book was wrong about the opening times. If you sign up with a tour, they should state the hours as well. As of 2007 (March) the Vatican Museums were open at 10AM to the public and about 8:30AM for group tours that get first entrance. There is a special permit required for the Raphael Loggia, Vatican Library, Lapidary Gallery, and Vatican Archives. If you are going to see the contents of the museum on your own, make sure you have a good guide book that details each room and points out the most important pieces so you can eliminate wasted time. There are the Pio-Clementine, Egyptian, Etruscan, Pio-Christian, and Gregorian Profane museums that are loaded with quality pieces. The Gallery of Tapestries is a long corridor within the museum that has dim lighting to protect the tapestry from fading. The Gallery of Maps is another section of the Vatican Museum that has 40 maps showing the Church's territories throughout the years. The Raphael Rooms are actually Pope Julius II's private apartments that were frescoed by the great artist Raphael and his pupils. The 4 rooms are called the Hall of Constantine, Room of Heliodorus, Room of the Segnatura, and Room of the Fire in the Borgo. Raphael unfortunately died an early death before the work was all done, but the work he did do established him as one of the greatest artists of all time.

Sistine Chapel:

Perhaps the greatest work of art of all-time is the Sistine Chapel, done by Michelangelo from 1508 to 1512. In those few years he was able to create the frescoed ceiling that some say would have taken any other artist a lifetime to finish. Michelangelo works on specially designed scaffolding to do the work, often lying on his back looking up at the ceiling. The fresco shows the Creation of the World and the Fall of Man. The ceiling was restored in the 1980's and the restorers were stunned to find the brilliant colors that had been hidden all these years. Be sure to take your time in this room and fully take in the artwork that depicts the genius of Michelangelo. When your neck gets soar from looking upwards at the Sistine Chapel ceiling, look forward to the Last Judgement by Michelangelo. The Last Judgement is truly a masterpiece and it took Michelangelo 7 years to complete the famed piece (in 1541). He worked alone on the magnificent fresco and it shows "souls of the dead rising up to face the wrath of God". If nothing else, pay the entrance fee of 13 Euros and spend an hour in the Sistine Chapel just admiring the invaluable artwork that has stood for centuries.

Vatican Tours:

As we mentioned above, the one major advantage of taking a guided tour of the Vatican Museums is that the groups get into the museums almost 1 1/2 hours before the individual patrons. Group tours are allowed into the Vatican Museums often starting as early as 8:00AM which means you could be done with your tour by 11AM if all things go well. Otherwise you will be standing in line for hours just waiting to get in to buy a ticket. Guided tours of the museums also are a great way to hear the history and importance behind the prized pieces in the art collection. There are countless tour operators that offer their services, we saw at least 15-20 groups tours (50 people in some groups) going into the Vatican Museums the day we were there. Which Vatican Tour is the best? They all show pretty much the same things since once inside everyone has access to all the same rooms. Certainly finding a tour in your home language is important, but that shouldn't be a problem as we found Vatican Museum tours offered in Japanese, Korean, English, French, German, Chinese, Russian, Italian, Spanish, and several more. The real key is to find a tour service that will "guarantee" early entrance. We found several upset visitors who found out at the last minute that their group tour didn't have a reservation to get in early and they had to wait in line for an extra 2 hours just to get in with all the individuals. The Vatican only takes so many reservations for group tours each day and sometimes "tour companies" don't know until the night before if they got the reservation. It seems that the Vatican Museums are becoming more and more crowded and many of the Vatican Tour sites we visited said "you may need to have a flexible schedule when in Rome to get a guaranteed reservation" through their system. One site we found was HERE, they guarantee reservations for the Vatican Museums for bookings made over a month prior to your visit. Tripadvisor.com is another excellent resource when researching tours in Italy. You can check in their "forums" for answers and recommendations to tour and guide services that other travelers have used.