For families with a limited time frame (i.e. kids with limited attention spans) we run the Sistine Express Tour and the Vatican Highlights Tour, both of which will get you in and out before the crowds while still showing you the best that the Vatican has to offer.
The Vatican is (in)famously large and crowded. Depending on your love of art and tolerance for hordes of fellow visitors it can either be the highlight of your trip to Italy or one of the most grueling days of sightseeing you ever undertake. Traditionally, bringing kids to the Vatican – especially in high season, when the entrance line runs over two hours and the galleries are shoulder to shoulder – was one of the last options on the list of things to do in Rome for kids. Even if you come in the low season and your little ones have a budding interest in art, the sheer size and scope of the Vatican Museums can be overwhelming. This is even true for seasoned artists and critics so the Vatican, for kids, can seem like guaranteed boredom.
But it doesn’t have to be like this. There are actually plenty of things to do in the Vatican for kids, the secret is preparing them for the visit and engaging them when they are there. In order to find out keys to having a successful visit to the Vatican with young people we went to the experts – our guides – for tips. They have years of experience leading tours through the Vatican and in that time have become old hands at helping their youngest guests enjoy and appreciate art. Here are their top tips for the best things to see and do in the Vatican for kids.
Teach them the stories behind the art
If you don’t know the story of Hercules this just looks like a old, broken statue. But if you do, it looks like the torso of one of the world’s greatest heroes.
The Greek myths, which are the basis for all Roman mythology, make up one of the finest bodies of storytelling in the world. While the original versions include a fair amount of sex and violence, there are various kid-friendly anthologies, like the classic D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths that introduce youngsters to the colorful characters and gripping dramas of this world while softening the more adult themes. With a grounding in the Myths children will feel the thrill of recognizing a statue of Hermes/Mercury, feel the pang of tragedy in the contorted limbs of Laocoon, and marvel at the physique of the Belvedere Torso (which probably belonged to Hercules). Instead of seeing old statues and paintings, they will see stories, and if you read up on your myths along with them so will you. The best part about learning the myths is that they aren’t useful only the Vatican. One of the best things to do in Rome for kids to is move through the city identifying all the various references to the Myths, and there are tons. From the temple of Vesta in the Roman Forum to the depiction of Oceanus in the Trevi fountain, a knowledge of Greek Mythology will make the city come alive.
An early start is the best start if you want to see the Vatican with kids. Photo by Bruno, via Flickr.
Getting children out of bed may not always be easy but if you’re hoping to teach them something, the best time to do it is the morning. On any given day there are plenty of distractions in the Vatican for children so getting in when the doors open and out as soon as the crowds begin to ramp up is an important part of any fruitful experience. Ideally, make sure they get a good sleep the night before so they aren’t drowsy or tired. Even if the finer points of fine art sail over their heads – let’s face it, it happens to the best of us – the colors of the Raphael Rooms and the Sistine Chapel, as well as the mythic stories of derring-do represented in many sculptures, are sure to strike their fancy. The key is making sure that they are feeling fresh and excited to experience these things — something you’ll have the best chance of getting in the morning.
Give them an assignment
Who’s taking notes? Yes – there will be a test later.
We know – no young person in their right mind likes homework when they’re on vacation but this is an old tour guide trick that works for children and adults alike. Before you enter the Vatican Museums set your kids the task of compiling a “favorite list”. It can be very general, or based around a certain theme, e.g. sculptures, paintings, animals, gods, monsters, heroes, villains, you name it. If you are familiar with the Vatican Museums already you could also set out a game of “I Spy” and give them certain sights that they have to tick off during the visit. It helps to give them a notepad and a pencil so they can take notes or even sketch if the inspiration strikes. They don’t have to be artistically talented to play at being an artist for a day. Great art inspires people of any age and a visit to the Vatican, for kids, is the perfect way to fire their creative juices.
Pro tip: List making isn’t just an activity for kids in the Vatican. If you keep your own, not only will you be leading by example, you’ll be surprised how much it enhances your own experience.
Remember, they’re just kids
It can take a lifetime to develop an appreciation for great art and even when you do, it might not all be to your taste. Don’t expect young people to be as enthralled by the Vatican Collections as you are. Consider your first visit an introduction to art and a chance to teach them a few things about what goes into a masterwork. If you focus on stories, colors, and what they like, as opposed to what the art critics say they should like, you can’t go wrong.