It's a country within a country, measured in acres, not miles, with less than 1000 residents, and according to Wikipedia, more than 5 million annual visitors. It requires a careful plan to visit!
The first thing to decide is if your plan is to see the Vatican as a tourist or a pilgrim.
Tips for Tourists:
The big sights to see in the Vatican are St Peter's Basilica, the Vatican Museums (where the Sistine Chapel is located, and St Peter's Dome, which affords a panoramic view of the Bernini designed St Peter's Square.
- Buy advance tickets, to avoid long lines to buy tickets. Pope's Museums There are also long lines for security.
- Dress modestly, shoulders and knees covered.
- If you'd like skip the line access, hire a good guide or go on a guided tour
- Consult the Popes website to check for times when the Vatican is essentially closed for holidays and special events. Avoid visiting on Sunday when many places are closed to tourists for worship.
- If you hope to see the Pope during his usual Sunday noon greeting and prayer with Pilgrims in St Peter's Square, it's worth checking the Pope's travel schedule to insure he will be in town.
- Be respectful of areas limited to the faithful for prayer, and respectful of photographing faithful during their worship.
The sheer amount of artwork in the Vatican Museums simply boggles the mind. Most interestingly, is the curation...unlike traditional art museums which might organize art by period, or subject or even medium...the Vatican museums are organized like a warehouse of art pieces. So there is a room full of animal sculptures, a roomful of candelabra, a room full of busts, a room full of maps, etc.
A river of humanity pours through the long corridors of the mansion, with small groups of guides and guests stopping to delve into an art work, creating eddies in the human flow around them. With little by way of explanation near the artwork, it's probably a good idea to tackle the museums with an excellent private guide or use an audio guide such as Rick Steve's audio guide to the Vatican Museum. While an audio guide would help make sense of the art work, it was our private guide who knew where to stand and wait (while being faux engaged in a piece of art work, because no one is supposed to pause too long) until a "short cut" to the Sistine Chapel opened up. Without that knowledge and expertise, we would have been pie eyed, snaking another 45 minutes through the galleries before arriving at the chapel! And did I mention that this wasn't even the "high" season!
We started with the Ancient works collected during various crusades.
Next we passed through the room of tapestries
We followed the crowd through the incredible map gallery, with the incredible ceiling depicting historic scenes in Italy.
After the map gallery, we entered some of the rooms with Renaissance paintings...where we waited a bit until we could take a short cut into the corridors leading to the Sistine Chapel. No photography is allowed in the Sistine Chapel. Guides are not allowed to "guide" or discuss the artwork in the Chapel, so she took time in the courtyard before we entered the museum, using photographs, to interpret what we would see at the end of tour and to point out things to look for. once we were in the scrum, er, i mean Chapel.
People are loud despite the ominous "shush" sound broadcast every 2 to 3 minutes, depending on how cooperative the crowd is being, it will settle for a minute or two before the roar rises and the "shush" comes again. People stand shoulder to shoulder (hang on to your valuables!) looking up, while guards, keep ushering the flow towards the exit. If you'd like more time, swim your way to the middle of the room where the currents are slower and you'll have more tome to explore the amazing Michelangelo ceiling and Last Judgment altar piece. Photography is not allowed, and our guide explained that being a soverign country, the guards are welcome to arrest and even detain you for a while if you don't follow their rules. We didn't see any heavy handed tactics, despite seeing some disrespectful folks not adhering to the rules.
After examining the Sistine Chapel for a while, we met back up with our guide who led us out of the Vatican Museum, giving us an opportunity to "peek" at the Simonetti Staircase.
Tips for Pilgrims:
To make a trip, you can choose to go with a religious group you are affiliated with or on your own.
- On your own, you can request an audience or to attend Mass with the Pope by visiting the Pope's website here.
- If you choose to go with a travel agent to plan your trip, be sure to explain that you are faithful and would like a tour that includes opportunities to pray and attend Mass. A good TA can even arrange fro you to have a faithful tour guide and pray or visit places that are meaningful to your faith journey.
- With a group, often the tour company arranging the tour will also arrange for daily Mass in a variety of Chapels or Churches, and possibly other special events or access (such as private visits to the Sistine Chapel, or a choir being able to sing at Mass)
- The Pope greets and prays with pilgrims gathered in St Peter's Square at noon on Sundays, if you can't secure an audience, you can join the crowds on Sunday, if the Pope is in town and doesn't have other special events planned. Angelus Blessing
- If you have connections to people who can enhance your experience in the Vatican, don't hesitate to reach out before you leave. One young couple I know had a private audience and lunch with an official in the Vatican Apartments because of a connection they had, and described it as one of the most incredible experiences during their honeymoon!
St Peter's Basilica
The Basilica more carefully controls the crowds allowed in, but also, it's huge and people can spread out a bit more. Photos are allowed in other areas, including flash photography, because all of the painted frescoes that could be damaged by flash, have been removed and replaced with mosaics!
There are several chapels and areas where the Blessed Sacrament is kept, as signified by the lit tabernacle lamp. These areas prohibit photography and are clearly marked as reserved for prayers by the faithful. There are several chapels where a small offering for the upkeep of the basilica can be made and candles lit to offer a short prayer.
Whether a trip to the Vatican is as a tourist or as a faithful pilgrim, or BOTH, there is a lot to see and learn in just a few acres. Spending time well before you visit, to prepare, and plan will make the trip more meaningful and manageable! For more on Rome see our trip reports here