With some 6 million visitors per year, the Vatican Museums is one of the busiest attractions in Italy. Not built as a museum but as a Papal residence, it’s huge and somewhat dispersive, but the most exciting rooms get really crowded. I recently found out about a trick to get in before the crowds and took advantage of this and a spare morning in Rome to revisit a museum that I last went to some 15 years ago. So without further ado, here’s my personal Vatican Museums survival guide, with my tips to avoid the crowds and spot the most important works of art.

The best Vatican Museum tip ever

When I used to work as a teaching assistant on the Syracuse University study abroad program in Florence, one of the highlights of my professor’s Michelangelo seminar was an after-hours visit to the Vatican Museums, when we were alone in the Sistine Chapel for an hour, able to lie on the ground and learn about these world-changing frescoes. A few years before, in a summer traveling program with the same university, we also had one of these private visits, so actually, I’ve never been in with the crowds (I really hate crowded museums). While that’s ideal, not everyone has a few thousand euros to book out the Vatican. So I was really surprised to learn from my friends at Musement, an online ticket and tour platform, that there is a relatively inexpensive way to have a similar experience.  The VIP skip-the-line pre-entrance ticket to the Vatican Museums is a game-changer. The only kicker: you have to get up really, really early!

A piazza inside the Vatican museums, from which you can see the cupola of St. Peter's, still totally empty when we get in
A piazza inside the Vatican museums, from which you can see the cupola of St. Peter’s, still totally empty when we get in

I set my alarm for 6am and rolled out of my extremely comfortable bed at The Sweets private rooms by The Beehive, a friendly hostel near Rome’s main train station (owned by my friends Linda and Steve!). Pick up a quick coffee and cornetto on your way, because near the Vatican the bars are total rip-offs. Being a short walk to the metro is a bonus, because in 20 minutes I was already at the station near St. Peter’s. The meeting time for my special tour was 7:15am; a group of about 20 people were greeted by a hilarious and enthusiastic guide with a PhD in archaeology. The ticket works as such: the doors to the ticket area of the Vatican Museums open at 7:30 only for this one tour company that has exclusive access. We are led to the ticket area and then inside. While most of the museum’s rooms aren’t open yet, the walk is so long that we’re amongst the first people inside the Sistine Chapel when it opens at 8:30! On the way, our guide stops for a concise explanation of the ceiling’s iconography, and in a few key points stops to show us important works or decorations. The Vatican’s interminable hallways provided brilliant vanishing points for photos with nobody in them, a real privilege!

One of the many empty hallways we walked down before anyone else
One of the many empty hallways we walked down before anyone else

Our guide leaves us at the entrance to the chapel (where he can’t speak and we can’t photograph), with instructions on how to double back to visit the rest of the museum should we want to. This is the best fast-track tour ever if you just want to see the Sistine Chapel, but it’s also really great if you want to spend a long, undisturbed time in there and then go see the whole building “con calma”. When I was in the chapel there was just a handful of people and all the seating along the walls was available so I could lean back and take it all in. It was amazing! I then walked all the way back to the Pinacoteca (painting gallery) and did the whole museum path again.

What to see in the Vatican Museums

So now let’s look at the main works of art to note in the Vatican Museums, since it’s possible to miss some of them if you don’t know where to go. First off, before following signs for the “monumental rooms”, take a right into the glass doors to visit the Pinacoteca, if only just for one thing: Raphael. So that’s where we’ll start.

The Raphael tapestry and altarpiece room

This room in the Vatican Pinacoteca houses three large altarpieces that are basically a summary of Raphael’s career. The works represent three stylistic moments and make an excellent comparison because they all require a vertical composition representing something celestial and something on Earth.

Three Rapahel altarpieces in the Pinacoteca
Three Rapahel altarpieces in the Pinacoteca

On the right is the Oddi Altarpiece from 1502-3, which Raphael painted for a church in Perugia representing the Coronation of the Virgin. He was only 19 years old, which makes me feel like a total failure!  There is a very clear division of vertical space, and the cherubim surrounding the Madonna are, to say it plainly, “kinda fake”. It’s a beautiful altarpiece, but when you see what he did later you realize he could do better!

On the left is the Madonna di Foligno, circa 1511-13. Raphael here reduces the number of figures in the panel, so that those remaining can be bigger. There is a beautiful sweetness to this work that is very typical of the artist. This work, commissioned by a cardinal whom we see in the painting, is contemporary to the Raphael rooms we’ll see later in the museum.

The style of the central altarpiece of the Transfiguration is nonetheless closer to what we see in one of those rooms, the Stanza dell’Eliodoro (Heliodorus), in my opinion. Here, strong chiaroscuro – the contrast between light and dark, emphasized by the dim lights of this room – make for a dramatic scene in which action is expressed through poignant gestures.

Do take a moment to also look at the tapestries that hang in the darkened cases around this room; these were designed by Raphael and woven in the 16th century to be hung on the lower part of the walls of the Sistine Chapel.

The Octagonal Courtyard (Museo Pio Clementino)

This courtyard is the nucleus of the popes’ ancient sculpture collection. Its historic layout puts the four most important statues at four cardinal points. By important, I mean that these works were discovered and “restored” (i.e. integrated, often with much imagination) during the Renaissance, so they were studied by Renaissance artists and therefore influential for later art.

The Laocoon
The Laocoon

The four works to look out for are: the Laocoon (a multi-figure group found in Rome on the Esquiline Hill in 1506 representing Laocoon and his sons struggling against giant snakes); the Apollo Belvedere, a Roman model of male perfection, brought to the Vatican by Julius II and that influenced Renaissance sculpture; Venus Felix, which was in this collection by 1509 and represents female perfection; and a sarcophagus cover representing a River God (the Arno).

The River God
The River God

When you leave the courtyard, you’ll find yourself in a long hall full of smaller ancient pieces (sarcophaghi, little statues etc), and you’d almost miss the Belvedere Torso placed in the center of one of the openings. This armless, legless figure’s twisting position may well have influenced Michelangelo, so keep it in mind when you get to the Sistine Chapel.

The Belvedere Torso
The Belvedere Torso

Two other major works in this area that you might want to check out are as follows. If you like Egyptian art, deek into the Egyptian museum (which can also be skipped), where one major highlight is a black marble statue of the Nile from the first century. Both this and the porphyry sarcophaghi of Constantine’s wife and daughter, Helena and Costanza, are notable for being carved in particularly hard and valuable materials. When these sarcophaghi were moved to the museum in 1790 from piazza San Marco in Rome, they were dragged on a cart pulled by 40 oxen.

On the left and right of this room, note the large porphyry sarcophaghi of Constantine’s wife and daughter
On the left and right of this room, note the large porphyry sarcophaghi of Constantine’s wife and daughter

The Hallways

You’ll be walking down numerous highly decorated hallways on your trek to the Sistine Chapel. Two that you’ll want to pay attention to are the Tapestries Hall (with 17th-century weavings based on cartoons by Raphael) and the Map Hall.

The Map Hall - still empty!
The Map Hall – still empty!

The amazing maps in the Galleria delle Carte Geografiche reflect the topography of Italy by Ignazio Danti frozen into the years 1580-5, with some fanciful decorative elements. If you’ve got Italian ancestry or have visited other parts of the boot, it’s fun to search for some small towns you know and observe how things have changed. For example, we have a home in a small hilltown called Sticciano in the Maremma area of Tuscany, which I found on the map and am finally able to visualize something I knew about but couldn’t imagine – that not even a few hundred years ago, this town was practically on the sea, with a body of water that extended inland almost all the way to our little hill.

The Sistine Chapel

Photos aren't permitted inside the Sistine Chapel | credit: http://www.museivaticani.va
Photos aren’t permitted inside the Sistine Chapel | credit: http://www.museivaticani.va

While writing this, I almost forgot to include the most famous work of art in the museum, perhaps one of the most important of all time! The Sistine Chapel is the Pope’s private chapel and the place where all the higher members of the clergy regularly gather. While notable for Michelangelo’s ceiling and the wall representing the Last Judgment, one can almost not notice the other frescoes that line the side walls, although they were painted by all the best artists of their time: Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, Cosimo Rosselli, Signorelli, Perugino and Pinturicchio. It would be much too lengthy to get into a detailed explanation of the ceiling’s iconography here; I’m sure you are familiar with the most famous scenes. The nine central panels represent the stories of Genesis – three of creation, three of Adam, and three stories about Noah. I suggest heading for a seat, tilting your head back, and trying to read the main scenes as well as observe the many figures in the other spaces. Observe how Michelangelo’s style changes – most would say improves – as he works from the entrance towards the altar wall: legend has it that this is because he started working at the entrance and then, stepping down, noted that his figures were too small to properly appreciate from below. You can see greater speed of execution and motion of the figures as time moves on, as if the artist and the figures themselves have come into their own.

The Raphael Rooms

When you think you’ve seen it all, you move on to the series of rooms frescoed by Raphael and his school for Pope Julius II and and finished under Leo X. They are: Room of the Segnatura 1508-1511, Room of Heliodorus 1511-1514, Room of the Fire in the Borgo 1514-1517 and Room of Constantine 1517-1524. However, the museum route means that you obligatorily see them out of chronological order.

The School of Athens by Raphael
The School of Athens by Raphael

The Room of Constantine, which you see first, was painted mostly by Raphael’s pupils, and is less famous than the Stanza della Segnatura, whose main scenes are, I think, extremely memorable. The School of Athens, one of the two larger frescoed scenes, is a brilliant composition made to represent all the greatest philosophers of ancient times, many of whom are in the guise of Renaissance contemporaries, all in one place – kind-of absurd, if you think about it, yet rendered with an elegance and ease that only Raphael could pull off.

There is a good multi-language totem in the middle of each room that identifies the iconography of each of the main elements, about which volumes have been written. I’d suggest you take an overall look and then focus on a few details that appeal to you, and try to figure out how Raphael composed this part in particular so that you’d be drawn to it. Things like colour, volume, gesture, gaze, position and relationship to the scene all play a role in making these some of the most spectacular frescoes ever.

The Fire in the Borgo is actually one of my personal favourites
The Fire in the Borgo is actually one of my personal favourites

And finally… the staircase on your way out

On your way out of the Vatican Museums, you’ll go down a beautiful double-helix stairwell designed by architect Giuseppe Momo, made in 1932, but loosely inspired by a helical Renaissance staircase by Bramante.

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By the end of my visit to the Vatican, I’d walked 6km, so the final tip I’ve got for you in my Vatican Museums survival guide is this: wear your running shoes!


Disclaimer: This article is sponsored by Musement, who tipped me off to the early-entrance ticket and provided it for purpose of review. My absolute enthusiasm for this method and the whole museum reflect my honest opinion and experience.

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