The Vatican Museums: Look Up!

Papal audience – can’t you see the pope?

I had a great Wednesday planned for Al, Mitch, and me. We were going to see St. Peter’s, and then we were going to the Vatican Museums to see the Sistine Chapel and so many other glories. I chose Wednesday because it was going to rain and we would be indoors all day, and I saved the catacombs for Thursday, when it was supposed to be sunny all day. Ha! Best laid plans . . .

Because we would be walking so much of the day, we took the 23 bus to St. Peter’s and got there around 10:45 or so. I had forgotten that at 10:30 on Wednesday, the pope blesses the crowd that gathers in front of the basilica, and the basilica itself is closed during the papal audience. We were too far away to actually see anything but a miniature pope, but screens set up around St. Peter’s Square broadcast him and his message.

St. Peter’s from the Vatican Museum

I had made reservations for the museums at 2 p.m., so after a horrid lunch (so rare in Rome), we walked past hundreds of people standing in the line to buy tickets and walked right into the museums, where we showed the e-reservation, quickly collected our tickets, and hit the road. I don’t know why more people don’t use the online ticket system. It’s so easy! You pick your date and time, enter your credit card info, print your receipt, and enter the museums via a separate, usually short, line. Unless you’re going to have a guided tour, I recommend that you visit the museums in the afternoon. The crowds in the morning are horrendous. The crowds in the afternoon are pretty horrendous as well, but you can usually take a step forward from time to time. Maybe I should be glad that more people don’t reserve online!

According to Rick Steves, the tour book writer, the Vatican Museums have four miles of displays. I believe that we walked at least half of those miles because the Sistine Chapel is at the far end—next to St. Peter’s. You can take pictures in the museums but not in the Sistine Chapel, although we saw lots of people trying to surreptitiously snap a few, the bums! I find the Sistine Chapel glorious and worth fighting the crowds to see, but almost every ceiling (and wall and floor) in the museums is beautiful, and I took picture after picture after picture of the ceilings.

Gallery of Maps

Of the 54 galleries in the Vatican Museums, my favorite after the Sistine Chapel has always been the stunning Gallery of Maps. The walls are hung with 40 massive, frescoed maps of the regions of Italy, painted between 1572 and 1585. Brilliantly colored frescoes also cover every inch of the barrel ceiling—a dazzling display! Even the window frames are highly decorated, as you can see in the photo. It’s hard to leave this gallery, but we eventually pressed on.

After walking for about two and a half hours, we descended another of my favorite parts of the museums, the gorgeous double-helix staircase by Giuseppe Momo (in 1932), which inspired Frank Lloyd Wright to build a similarly styled ramp in the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. We then walked back to St. Peter’s and waited about 15 minutes in the security line to get into the basilica. It was beautiful as always, but I prefer it in the morning when the rising sun lights the interior more brightly than does the setting sun.

We were all dog tired when we left the Vatican, so we headed for the taxi stand in front of the basilica and hopped in a cab (don’t try to catch a cab on the streets of Rome because they won’t stop—you need to go to a taxi stand). We’d had a great day, but wouldn’t you know, it rained about two drops the whole time and poured so much on Thursday that the streets in Rome flooded and we never made it to the catacombs. Never trust weather forecasts in Rome!


P.S., The gilded bronze statue below is Hercules, probably made in the 2nd century BC. I can’t get the caption to load with the photo.

Burial vault

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5 Responses to The Vatican Museums: Look Up!

  1. Charlie Gehringer says:

    Hi Sue and Michael: Another great post – teriffic pictures. Thanks so much, we really enjoy readiong and looking. Charlie and Trudy

  2. Meredith Prock says:

    I LOVE the staircase, which I unfortunately missed when I was there. I, too, loved the Gallery of Maps. (BTW, Momo is my family nickname.)

  3. Eileen says:

    Hi Sue – It’s been a treat for me to follow your adventures. I especially like the photos. Thanks for sharing your amazing time in Rome! Eileen

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