Every day over 25,000 people visit the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel, making it the number two most-visited attraction in Rome. During my previous visit to the Vatican we were short on time and beelined through the entire museum, not taking in a thing, to get to the main attraction…the Sistine Chapel. Once again, I learned from my mistakes and this time we wanted to see a bit more so we signed up for a tour of the Vatican Museum and Sistine Chapel with Overome. They did such a good job on our Ancient Rome tour that we knew we would be in good hands.
Overome Vatican Museum Tour Review
The first thing to do is pick a good day and time to visit the Vatican Museum. The museum is closed on Sundays and therefore Mondays tend to be the busiest. We picked to go on Wednesday morning, while the Pope was giving his Papal Address next door in St. Peter’s Square. While thousands flock to hear this popular Pope each Wednesday, they are occupied from the time they line up to get tickets in the early morning until sometime after 11 when the Papal Address concludes.
While this means the museum and St. Peter’s will be crowded later, if you get in during the morning you might find the museum at one of its least busy times. But don’t be too optimistic — even though our guide remarked about it being a “quiet morning at the Vatican Museum,” from my view it was still pretty crowded, especially as you get closer to the Sistine Chapel. (See these other tips for visiting the Vatican Museums.)
My only experience with museum tours is renting the audio guide at art museums so I really wasn’t sure what to expect, but I knew that we wanted to learn more about what is one of the largest art collections in the world. We met our guide Eleonora outside the entrance to the Vatican Museum and she quickly shepherded our small group inside, purchased tickets in the tour group line, and equipped us with listening devices so we could hear her over the din (very helpful!) Eleonora has a background in archeology and was absolutely bubbling with excitement to share the treasures of the Vatican with us.
To kick things off, we stepped outside for an awesome view of St. Peter’s dome. What I never thought about is that you can’t see the outside of St. Peter’s dome from the square. The facade of St. Peter’s is so tall it blocks the view of the dome so you only see it from the inside unless you visit the Vatican Museum or other parts of Rome with a view. We picked a good day to visit since it wasn’t as crowded but also because it was a rainy day, perfect for spending inside — except when we needed to be outside in the courtyards.
Eleonora was so full of information that she had facts, dates, and names buzzing by our ears so quickly it was hard to process it all, yet alone retain it. I think it is helpful to start with a good idea of the history of the Catholic Church and some familiarity with Renaissance artists.
We learned about the beginnings of Christianity under Constantine in 312 AD and the founding of the Catholic Church. Before we got too far into the museum itself, we stepped into the courtyard. We didn’t have much time to enjoy the view and sculptures before we were dodging raindrops again. What I didn’t realize was that all tour guides are required to discuss the Sistine Chapel outside in the Courtyard, even though we still had to go through the entire museum before we saw the fabled ceiling. I think this is because it is so crowded inside and there is no talking inside the Sistine Chapel so we needed to learn the history before going in.
I definitely got a lot out of Eleonora’s description of the chapel and how it was commissioned. Since there is so much emphasis placed on Michelangelo’s Ceiling, I never really thought about who or what was painted on the walls. It was really amusing to learn about how disgruntled Michelangelo was to have been roped into painting this ceiling and how he insisted on doing it his way, despite the Pope’s wishes. To get back at those who criticized him, Michelangelo painted them in hell, with a snake biting his private parts and wearing donkey ears. Pretty harsh — there was a guy with an ego.
If you want to get a sense of how much Michelangelo hated painting the Sistine Chapel, just read a stanza of the sonnet Michelangelo wrote, which Eleonora shared with us:
I’ve grown a goitre by dwelling in this den —
As cats from stagnant streams in Lombardy,
Or in what other land they hap to be —
Which drives the belly close beneath the chin:
The further into the museum we went, the more crowded, noisier, and stickier it became as the weather, closeness and lack of air conditioning began to take its toll. We learned about Greek and Roman statues of goddesses, heroes, and muses and visited the Egyptian room with its sarcophagi made of porphyry.
From there we made our way through the map gallery, tapestry gallery, and other grand hallways on our way towards the Sistine Chapel.
Our last stop before the Sistine Chapel was the Raphael Rooms. These rooms were nearly as crowded as the Sistine Chapel but not as strict on talking and picture taking. Actually they were so filled with other tour groups that it made it hard to stay together and hear Eleonora. Smaller kids would definitely have a tough time in these rooms. If not on a tour you might want to take a quick glance and move on through.
Inside the Sistine Chapel, there is no talking and no cameras. They are quite strict about this so be prepared. I was really glad that Eleonora had shown us close ups of each panel of the Sistine Chapel because it was actually easier to take in the contents of the scene on paper than when craning your neck up at a darkened ceiling in a crowded room when you are exhausted from a couple of hours of touring the museum.
Once we exited for Chapel, we got lucky in that the side door connecting the Vatican Museum and St. Peter’s Basilica was open since the Papal Address was finished early. This was great news as tour groups can exit this way and get directly into St. Peter’s without having to queue up outside. Eleonora secured our entrance and then told us about the door at St. Peter’s that is sealed with concrete and only opened every 25 years when the Pope breaks the concrete on the inside.
We finished our Overome tour with a quick overview of the Basilica including Michelangelo’s Pieta, the chapel of John Paul II, and the altar. After that we said our good byes to Eleonora and we were able to stay inside and explore on our own as long as we liked. Our original plan was to climb the Dome (ok, maybe not my husband), but after the tour we were hot, tired and in desperate need for something to eat. Our options were to leave St. Peter’s to eat and come back to climb the Dome…but that would mean having to join the very long queue outside to get back in. Despite really wanting to see that magnificent view, I knew our tired legs weren’t up to the climb and our patience was exhausted and standing in line later wasn’t going to work either so we headed out to Piazza Navona for lunch and tartufo. Next time!
This tour was quite good and informative but I think it would be tough for many kids, especially those under 10. It is crowded and loud in the Museum, and the content can be quite overwhelming. For adults, your head will be spinning from the information you learned and the amazing art you saw. One thing that really stuck with me throughout Rome, is the blending of the ancient pagan and the Catholic. You might expect to see only Christian art at the Vatican but there is such a variety of ancient, Egyptian, Renaissance, sculpture, architecture, and tapestry — there is something to capture the interest of everyone.
Tips for Visiting the Vatican Museum with Kids
If you decide to take the kids to the Vatican Museum, here are some tips:
- Wear comfortable shoes. Not only it is a lot of walking, it is a lot of standing and shuffling, which you feel more than hours of walking through the Colosseum and Forum.
- Book tickets in advance. If you aren’t going with a tour, you can book your timed entrance online to avoid the long queue.
- Go during the off season. Most of the museum isn’t air conditioned and on the day we were there it was extremely humid, making it pretty unbearable at times.
- Take breaks. You don’t need to see everything and you certainly don’t need to see everything all at once. Take advantage of the cafe, sit in the courtyard for a while, and try to find some pockets of space to decompress.
- Get something to eat before going into the Sistine Chapel. There is a “secret” passage that connects the Vatican Museum and St. Peter’s. It is located just outside of the exit of the Sistine Chapel. Generally this is only open to tour groups and it is sometimes locked (definitely during the Papal Address.) However, if it is open and you are either in a group or can sneak through with one, it will save you a long walk back through the museum and around to St. Peter’s but it will also save you from queueing up in the long line outside waiting to get into St. Peter’s. But if you are also visiting St. Peter’s, you’ll need a snack first.
- Cover yourself. Just like St. Peter’s, the Sistine Chapel is a chapel and to enter you will need to cover your knees and shoulders.