The Vatican remains one of the largest collections of art in the world, and is a must see on many peoples’ bucket lists. It is not only one of the most visited sites in Rome, but in the world. In this post we share some tips for how to visit the Vatican.
The beginnings of the Vatican start with the martyrdom of St. Peter in 67 AD, but it wasn’t until 1277 that it became the official residence of the Papacy. Each Pope added his own touches to the apartments, most famously in 1473 when Pope Sixtus IV commissioned the building of the Sistine Chapel hiring Perugino, Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, Rosselli, and Luca Signorelli to fresco its walls. It wasn’t until 1508 that Pope Julius II brought in Michelangelo to paint the famous ceiling, and a young Raphael to paint the frescoes of the Papal Apartments. It was this same Pope that began the collection of antiquities, which still forms the backbone of the Vatican’s collection. More than just the seat of Catholicism, the Vatican to this day remains a repository for artistic masterpieces.
Planning How to Visit the Vatican
The Vatican is generally broken down into two distinct entities: the Vatican Museums and St. Peter’s Basilica. While many people do visit both in the same trip or tour, they are both massive sites worthy of deeper exploration. Those wondering how to visit the Vatican should carve out some time to properly explore.
The Museums house the art collection within the walls of the Vatican City. More than six million people visit them annually, making it one of the most visited art museums in the world. There are 54 galleries ranging from classical antiquities and Ancient Egyptian pieces up to modern religious art. The most famous is of course the Sistine Chapel, which is famously the last gallery before exiting the museum. You could easily spend days lost in the many hallways and rooms filled with masterpieces when you visit the Vatican.
St. Peter’s Basilica started as a 4th-century church began by Emperor Constantine the Great over the site of St. Peter’s tomb. By the 15th century this building had fallen into disrepair, and Pope Nicholas V began plans for a new magnificent church to be built on the site of the previous one. It was in the end the same Julius II, who famously started the art collection, that decided to demolish the old basilica and commissioned Michelangelo to design the now famous dome. Construction continued for more than 80 years before the dome was finished in 1590, the last year of the reign of Pope Sixtus V. The adornments in and around the Basilica continue to be added, including Bernini’s baldacchino, Cathedra Petri, and Gloria. Still an active church to this day, Catholics can still attend mass in the largest basilica in the world.
To visit the Vatican, the museums are open from 9am to 5:30pm, with last entry at 4pm. Those wondering how to visit the Vatican should note, however, that tour operators are allowed in earlier. It is best to visit either first thing in the morning, with the 8:30am start time being ideal if you are touring, or early in the afternoon (around 1:30pm) when they tend to clear out a bit after lunch. Do keep in mind that museums are closed for all major Catholic holidays, so it is best to check your trip dates against the religious calendar if you wish to include the Vatican.
Tickets to the museum cost 21.50 EUR for adults, and 13.50 EUR for anyone under 18 years old.
St. Peter’s Basilica is open to the public from 7am to 7pm in the late spring and summer, and 7am to 6pm in the fall and winter. It is free to enter the main Basilica, though there are fees for some of the other sites within the church.
How to Visit the Vatican with Context
Arte Vaticana – This four hour seminar explores the collections of the Vatican Museums, including the Sistine Chapel, and St. Peter’s Basilica in the company of an art historian or theologian, and will explore the relationship between art and religion throughout the centuries.
Vatican Collections – This in-depth exploration of the Vatican Museums lasts 3-hours and includes the Sistine Chapel. It is a shorter version of the Arte Vaticana tour skipping St. Peter’s in favor of a greater depth to the survey of the art collections of the Vatican.
St. Peter’s Tour – Our comprehensive tour of St. Peter’s Basilica spends 3 hours looking at the architecture, art, and religious significance of this famous church.
Vatican for Families – A 3 hour walk which will children a basic introduction to art and religion without overtaxing anyone’s patience.
How to Visit the Vatican: Transportation
To get to the Vatican the nearest metro stop is Ottaviano on line A. This is the orange line that runs through the Flaminio (Piazza del Popolo), Barberini (Trevi Fountain), and Termini stations. Exiting onto Via Ottaviano, the entrance to the Vatican is just around the corner, less than a 10 minute walk.
OTHER CONTEXT WALKS YOU MIGHT LIKE
The Pope’s Elephant. by Silvio A. Bedini, 2000
In the Footsteps of Popes: A Spirited Guide to the Treasures of the Vatican. by Enrico Bruschini, 2001
Michelangelo’s Last Judgement: The Renaissance Response. by Bernadine Barnes, 1998
Lives of the Artists. by Giogio Vasari, 1998
The Renaissance in Rome. by Charles L. Stinger, 1998
baldacchino – an ornamental canopy on columns that rests over a tomb, altar, or throne.
cartoon – a preparatory drawing made to the scale of the final work.
chiaroscuro – the use of bold contrasts in light and dark to enhance volume.
fresco – a method of painting on plaster. In true (buon) fresco, pigment is painted directly on damp plaster. As the plaster dries the pigment becomes a part of the wall. In dry (secco) fresco, pigment is applied after the plaster has dried. This method is not as durable as true fresco.
How to Visit the Vatican: Additional Reading
The Pope’s Elephant by Silvio A. Bedini
Penguin Books 2000
In the Footsteps of Popes: A Spirited Guide to the Treasures of the Vatican by Enrico Bruschini
William Morrow & Co. 2001
Michelangelo’s Last Judgement: The Renaissance Response by Bernardine Barnes
University of California Press 1998
Lives of the Artists by Giorgio Vasari
Oxford World Classics 1998
The Renaissance in Rome by Charles L. Stinger
Indiana University Press 1998
High Renaissance Art in St. Peter’s and the Vatican: An Interpretive Guide by George L. Hersey
University of Chicago Press 1993
67 St. Peter martyred.
ca. 324 Emperor Constantine builds first basilica of St. Peter.
800 Charlemagne crowned Holy Roman Emperor in St. Peter’s by Pope Leo III.
1099 Pope Urban II launches the First Crusade.
1277-80 Nicholas III becomes first Pope to adopt Vatican as official residence.
1305-77 Popes take up residence in Avignon, France.
1378-1418 Papacy returns to Rome under Pope Gregory XI. After his death two popes are elected, creating a series of popes and antipopes. The schism ends in 1417 with the election of Pope Martin V.
1473 Pope Sixtus IV builds Sistine Chapel and then commissions Perugino, Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, Rosselli, and Luca Signorelli to fresco its walls.
1499 Michelangelo’s Pieta is placed in St. Peter’s.
1506 Laocoön sculptural group uncovered near the Domus Aurea. Pope Julius II acquires it for his growing collection of antiquities.
1517 Martin Luther writes his 95 Theses, criticizing the church and sparking the Protestant Reformation.
1527 Pope Clement VII’s support of France prompts Holy Roman Emperor Charles V to sack Rome. Clement takes refuge in Castel Sant’Angelo.
1534-41 Michelangelo paints Last Judgement for Pope Paul III.
1545-1563 The Council of Trent discusses the Protestant Reformation and inaugurates the Counter Reformation, engine of the Baroque.
1582 Pope Gregory XIII reforms the calendar. The Gregorian calendar is now the most widely used calendar in the world.
1590 St. Peter’s dome completed based on Michelangelo’s design.
1612 Carlo Maderno completes the facade of St. Peter’s.
1629 Bernini appointed architect of St. Peter’s under Pope Urban VIII, designs baldacchino and St. Peter’s Square.
1798-99 Pope Pius VI held prisoner by Napoleonic forces after refusing to give up his temporal power to Napoleon I. He dies under house arrest.
1870 Vatican incorporated into Italy, effectively ending the temporal powers of Pope Pius IX. He declares himself a prisoner in the Vatican.
1929 Lateran Pact establishes the Vatican City as a sovereign state.
1972 Michelangelo’s Pieta attacked and damaged. It is then placed behind glass.
1990 Restored Sistine Chapel ceiling is unveiled.