The Best Guided Tour to Take at the Vatican

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“There was just too much to see at The Vatican.”

This was a common complaint I heard from people who were traveling in Italy the same time that I was. And it's true — the Vatican Museums are massive, and have a HUGE collection of everything from classical sculptures to Renaissance masterpieces. If you're on your own, this amount of stuff can become overwhelming quite quickly. There's too much to see, too much to take in, and you're never sure if you're missing the really important bits.

Which is why I highly, highly recommend doing a guided tour of The Vatican — especially the Museums.

The Vatican Museums

While in Rome, I booked a spot on a guided Vatican tour called Pristine Sistine with a company called Walks (formerly Walks of Italy). This tour promised early access to the Sistine Chapel, as well a small-group guided stroll through the Museums and St. Peter's Basilica.

Compared to my half-remembered visit to the Vatican Museums 8 years earlier on a college trip, this one was especially memorable — and extremely interesting.

Vatican Museums

The Pristine Sistine Vatican Tour

We began early.

Before 8 a.m., in fact, in order to make our way to the Vatican Museums to ensure that we were the first group in line for the day. Once the doors opened (doors that up to 25,000 people can pass through per day during the high season), we quickly got our tickets and made a beeline for the Sistine Chapel. This beeline actually included a brisk 20-minute walk through the quiet Museums, from one end to the other (yes, that's how BIG the Vatican Museums are!).

Vatican Museums sculptures

The speed walk paid off, however, because when we entered the Sistine Chapel, we had it virtually to ourselves. Even the strict “NO PHOTO” guards were sparse so early in the morning.

Today, the Sistine Chapel is only used as a chapel by the pope (and for the papal conclave, when new popes are chosen). Despite what you might have thought previously, the chapel takes its name from Pope Sixtus IV, who had the chapel restored between 1477 and 1480. But it was Pope Julius II who famously hired Michelangelo Buonarroti to re-paint the chapel ceiling between 1508 and 1512. (Before that, it had been painted to mimic a night sky.)

Sistine Chapel
Photo from Wikimedia Commons, since I didn't break the “no photo” rule.

Some fun facts about the masterpiece that Michelangelo completed:

  • Michelangelo did not want to paint it; he was a sculptor, and considered painting ceilings to be beneath him.
  • Originally, he was supposed to paint the 12 Apostles, but ended up being allowed to paint whatever he wanted. In the end, Michelangelo painted 9 stories from the Book of Genesis (with The Creation of Adam being the most famous), along with 12 prophets and various other figures.
  • It took Michelangelo nearly 3 years to complete the first half of the fresco. After that, he sped up, and you can actually see how the figures get larger and less-detailed in the second half of the ceiling.
  • Contrary to popular belief, Michelangelo did NOT paint the Sistine Chapel while lying on his back atop scaffolding. He DID paint on scaffolding, but did it standing up. This actually led to neck and back issues later in his life.
  • The muscular, powerful bodies that Michelangelo painted here would inspire his contemporaries and basically change the style of Western art.

This massive work is AMAZING and well worth craning your neck at for half an hour (which is exactly what we did), but the Sistine Chapel is actually about more than just the frescoed ceiling. There are also works by Botticelli and Perugino, among others, along the walls. And, of course, there's Michelangelo's other famous work: The Last Judgment.

Located behind the chapel's altar, The Last Judgment was commissioned by Pope Alexander II in 1535 and took Michelangelo nearly 5 years to complete. Michelangelo's use of nude figures in this fresco has always been a point of contention, most notably between the artist and members of the Church. The pope's Master of Ceremonies, Biagio de Cesana, called the work-in-progress “disgraceful” — so Michelangelo painted Minos, judge of the Underworld, in his likeness. When de Cesana complained directly to the pope about this, the pope apologized, saying he had no jurisdiction in hell and could therefore do nothing about it. Ha!

Last Judgment
Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Sadly, though, after Michelangelo's death, artist Daniele da Volterra was hired to cover up the genitals on the Last Judgment fresco. Thankfully, he did not get to cover up anything on the ceiling.

After spending ample time in the chapel (getting sneaky tidbits of history from our guide through our Walks-provided headsets), it was off to see more of the Vatican Museums.

Vatican Museums

Even with a guide, it was still impossible to see everything. Highlights of what we did see, though, included:

Long hallways like the Gallery of Maps (topographical maps of the whole of Italy, commissioned by Pope Gregory XIII in the late 1500s and painted by Ignazio Danti). This long hallway has one of the most gorgeous 3-D ceilings, too.

Gallery of Maps, Vatican Museums

Vatican Museums

Rooms full of everything from busts to mosaics to sarcophagi.

Vatican Museums

Pieces from the Vatican's extensive sculpture collection, including the famous Laocoon and His Sons, depicting the death of this Trojan priest.

Laocoon, Vatican Museums

And, of course, the famous “Raphael Rooms.”

The Vatican Museums

These four rooms — the public part of the papal apartments — were painted in fresco-style by Raphael and his students between about 1508 and the 1520s (Raphael's students finished the rooms after the artist's death in 1520). The rooms were originally commissioned by Pope Julius II (the same one who commissioned Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel), and were completed under Pope Leo X.

The most famous frescoes within these rooms are found in the Stanza della segnatura (“Room of the Signatura”), the first room that Raphael painted. On one wall, you have the Disputation of the Holy Sacrament.

Raphael Rooms, Vatican Museums

And, on the opposite wall, you see the famous School of Athens.

School of Athens by Raphael, Vatican Museums

This fresco is easily Raphael's most famous, and stars philosophers like Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates. It's also believed that Raphael painted himself a cameo in the fresco, in the right-hand corner as the man in a black cap looking out of the painting (not seen in the above photo).

The man sitting in the front of the scene, resting his cheek on his fist, is said to be Michelangelo — even painted in the artist's distinct muscular style. Raphael would have been painting this fresco at the same time that Michelangelo was working on the Sistine Chapel, so this is a nice little homage to the painting style that would change everything.

Our 4-hour tour ended with a brief circle around St. Peter's Basilica, one of the largest and grandest churches in the world.

St. Peter's Basilica, The Vatican

St. Peter's Square, the Vatican

You could probably easily do another 4-hour tour here, learning about the building of the church (it took more than 100 years), the popes, the Swiss guards, and all the artwork and sculptures.

Michelangelo's Pieta sculpture is housed here behind glass (the only work that the artist “signed”), and — fun fact — he's also responsible for designing the church's massive dome.

The dome of St. Peter's Basilica, The Vatican

St. Peter's Basilica, The Vatican

This tour should really just be called the Michelangelo Tour (With Some Raphael Thrown In).

In all seriousness, though, this is definitely the way I would suggest seeing the Vatican Museums. You can do St. Peter's on your own (and in fact that's where we were left at the end of the tour, to head down into the crypt or up into the dome), but the Museums are just too big and filled with priceless artwork to truly be able to appreciate without a guide.

I don't usually have a very long attention span in art museums, to be honest, but this tour held my interest for the entire time (and I hope this post did the same!).

IF YOU GO

The Pristine Sistine tour with Walks of Italy that I took is 84 Euro per adult (about $115 USD). This includes the 3.75-hour tour with an expert guide, as well as entry into the Vatican Museums. Tours begin at 7:35 a.m. with a meeting point near the Museums.

The tour ends in St. Peter's Basilica, where you are free to keep exploring the church on your own. I highly suggest going up into the dome, which will cost 6 Euro ($8.15 USD) if you're up for climbing 500+ steps, or 7 Euro ($9.50 USD) to take the elevator to the roof and then climb the remaining 320 steps inside the dome. It's tiring, for sure, but the view is SO worth it.

You could add on this tour to see more of St. Peter's: St. Peter's Basilica from Top to Bottom

A note about St. Peter's: You MUST have your shoulders and knees covered in order to enter the basilica. This goes for women AND men. And yes, there ARE wardrobe checkpoints before you enter the basilica, and the guards have no problem turning people away.

OR, do both the Vatican Museums and St. Peter's in this combo tour: The Complete Vatican Tour

Would YOU take a tour at the Vatican?

 

Pin it for later:

Why you should take a tour of the Vatican Museums
Pristine Sistine Vatican tour review

 

*Note: I received this glimpse into the Vatican as a guest of Walks of Italy. As always, though, opinions are completely my own.

 

"It's a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and, if you don't keep your feet, there's no telling where you might get swept off to." - JRR Tolkien

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34 Comments on “The Best Guided Tour to Take at the Vatican

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  1. Although I’m not much into history and museums, I quite liked this post. It did hold my attention for some interesting insights and colorful mosaics. Yeah, I’d like to take a tour at the Vatican.

    I don’t know as much about art as I’d wish I did, but I do realise when something just catches my eye for its beauty – and the Vatican is one of these places. I visited many years ago and regret not spending more time admiring the art and architecture in silence. It’s one of these places where you can stare at a corner for half an hour and still want to absorb more of it!

      Totally. The Catholic Church has always had money, and you can almost taste it when you see how opulent everything is in the Vatican Museums and St. Peter’s. Despite not being very religious, The Vatican has been the highlight of both my trips to Rome.

    I’ve visited the Vatican once before, but didn’t take a tour… I’d love to, but I’m always so shocked at how expensive tours are in Italy. I’m not sure that with two of us we could afford to spend $230US on a visit to ANYWHERE. All this time in Asia has spoiled us!

    I’m going to hope that since my husband studied art history at college that he can be my own personalized tour guide! 😉

      Yeah, tours in Italy are NOT cheap. And the country doesn’t allow “free” tours of any sort, not even in the big cities. It IS kind of a hefty price tag, but if you choose the right tour and company, it can be worth it if you’re really interested in the history and artwork.

      Though, I suppose if you’ve spent a lot of time in Asia (or, hell, even Eastern Europe), anything tour-related in Italy would be a turn-off!

    we took this tour Sept 2011, and it was my favorite, such detail and so intimate it was wonderful. Thank you for the reminder in this post, it’s hard to remember everything you see. Walks of Italy were wonderful to us, they provided our airport and cruise port transportation, We did the Colosseum Underground/Third Tier Tour and the Twilight Tour around Rome, which our guide was great and took us to some unexpected places to see little known treasures. It was a wonderful trip and have recommended them ever since. Thank you again for the memories.

      So glad to have brought back some fond memories for you, Becky!

      I did the Colosseum tour with Walks of Italy, too, and it was fantastic. The Walks of Italy folks really know what they’re doing! I’ll certainly be suggesting their Vatican tour to anyone going to Rome from now on.

    I had a massive half remembered experience in the Vatican, it was a dreaded day of being hungover and tired, as you can imagine not the best way to view such an amazing place. However reading this has made me realise I really should get the chance to go back and take it up – on tour would probably be best so I know what im looking at and admiring!

      I’m not really very knowledgable about art; try as I might, I just don’t usually enjoy art museums and the like. So, for me, going on a tour like this was the only way I knew I would truly appreciate all the amazing artwork and architecture.

    I found the Vatican and Rome in generally truly mindblowing. It’s amazing to think about what the world was like for early Romans and how much of a seat of world power Rome was.

      I know!! Just walking into St. Peter’s really makes you realize how rich and powerful the Church once was, too. So much fascinating history!

    Great review of this tour. I love art history so did my own tour for my husband but I agree it adds a whole new level to the experience. The guided tour at the Colosseum is really worth it. It’s only an extra 5 euros and you get to skip the ticket queues. Just head straight past the line to the front ticket window for the guided tour window.

      I did a Walks of Italy tour at the Colosseum as well (one where you get to go to the underground portion as well as up to the highest level) and it was AMAZING. Again, well worth the money and so so interesting.

        was this sponsored as well, or paid yourself?

          The Colosseum tour? Does it matter?

          I did receive a comped tour at the Colosseum, too, but I was already planning to book it when I reached out to Walks of Italy. 🙂

    Glad you had a great experience there. I really disliked my Vatican museum tour guide (we spent WAY too much time on unimportant things!) and ended up leaving the group and wandering around myself. Not idea but the place is certainly spectacular!

      Ah well I’m sorry to hear you got a bad guide! That’s unfortunate. But I’m glad you found a way to enjoy it anyway. I remember on my first visit to Rome I was in a huge college group going through the Vatican. It was SO crowded, and by the time we got into St. Peter’s, we had lost out guide completely. So I became the guide, and we ended up going up into the cupola and having an amazingly memorable afternoon!

    I wish I had a tour guide during my visit to the Vatican! It would have made me appreciate what I was looking at a lot more. There really is too much to see. I remember that hallway of maps being absolutely stunning especially with that ceiling!

      Yes, having a good guide definitely made all the difference for me!

    Really Beautiful photos! How did you get your photos to come out so bright? Surely you weren’t using a flash inside?

      Nope, no flash (I don’t even have one for my main camera!). I just took lots of shots using different settings and lucked out with some good ones! Glad you liked them.

    Wow, this bring back memories of when I visited in 1993. You are right there is just too much to see! I’m also amazed at how expensive it is now for those tours! No wonder the Church is so rich!

    Thanks for all the pictures they bring great memories for me.

      Haha, well, Walks of Italy is a private company, so the Church isn’t getting anything more than the admission price to the Vatican Museums (16 Euro, I believe). Walks of Italy DO charge a bit more for their tours, but I think it’s worth it – I took a poor tour my first time at the Vatican and didn’t remember much about it. After this one, I probably won’t ever need to do a tour there again!

    I visited the Vatican about 20 years ago and barely remember it. I’ll be doing a lot of European travel soon and would definitely consider taking this tour. For a place so massive, it’s nice to have someone focus your attention on the really key things. Thanks for sharing!

      Yup, it’s certainly something to consider so you make sure to catch all the most important parts!

    I feel quite sad that my one trip to the Sistine Chapel came many years before i started to get interested in Renaissance art. Alas, it’s an excuse to go back again soon and follow in your own footsteps! Some great photos here, the last one really captured the size of some of the architecture during this period.

    This is still on my list and that tour sounds great. Will make a note of it!

      I highly recommend the tour, especially if you love art and want to learn more about the masterpieces inside the Vatican!

    […] don’t care if you’re religious or not — visiting St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City is a MUST in Italy. The massive church is filled with marble and gold and precious stones (most of […]

    […] the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa, or buy a ticket to the Accademia in Florence to see David. Sure, I’ll go every once in a while, when architecture is on display as much as art. But going to a museum just to see one or two […]

    Nice recommendation. I’m pretty lost choosing between viator or walks of Italy, as the early entrance access equal to the entrance ticket (eur 16) ticket too?

    Can I ask how did you get there before 7:35am? I’ll be staying nearby Rome Termini station, wondering how can I get there before the bus service even starts which is at 8:30am.

    Thanks in advance!

      Everything was included in the Walks of Italy ticket, including the early access.

      And I actually was staying near the Vatican, so I was able to just walk to the meeting point in the morning. But, I’m pretty sure the Metro should start running early in the morning. You could hop on from Termini to San Pietro, which is right near the Vatican.

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