Although it hardly needs introduction, the Sistine Chapel does bear a bit of explanation (you'll get this on any of our Vatican tours). The ceiling is Michelangelo’s vision of history before Christ: A collection of almost comicbook-esqe panels, depicting famous scenes from the Bible. The scale alone is nearly unbelievable: 5,900 square feet all painted by one man, lying on his back atop giant scaffolding. And the result? Divine.
It took Michelangelo 23 years to recover from the strain, but he eventually came back to the chapel to paint the altar wall with a fearsome ‘Last Judgement’. In the intervening years, Rome had been sacked, the Renaissance had begun to sputter, and Michelangelo was not in the best of places emotionally. What he painted was one of the grimmest and most terror-inducing images of his day. It continues to haunt scholars today for not only its dark view of human fate, but for the fact that it heralded the end of the Renaissance and the beginning of darker times to come.
*The Sistine Chapel is the highlight of all of our Vatican tours but a few do it even greater justice with special entrance visits: Our Pristine Sistine Vatican Tour gets you inside the Museums and the Chapel an hour before the general public with a full tour of the Museums & St. Peter's Basilica; while our Early Entry Sistine Express Service enters 30 minutes before the public and goes straight on to St Peter's Basilica without a full tour of the Vatican Museums.
Although these rooms contain only the second most famous frescoes in the Vatican, they are actually a favourite stop for many visitors. The great Raphael Sanzio and his workshop painted a series of frescoes across four rooms of the papal apartments in the 16th century and they are still widely considered his masterpieces (even if he didn’t live to finish the final rooms).
The most celebrated of the frescoes his ‘The School of Athens’, which is often seen as an ode to Renaissance views on learning and philosophy. Raphael inserted his own heroes into the frescoes in the roles of great philosophers like Aristotle and Plato. Visitors today can pick out likenesses of Leonardo Da Vinci, Donatello, Michelangelo and even Raphael himself, albeit in a much more modest role. As you visit, keep an eye out for Sylvester Stallone, whose Renaissance doppleganger makes an appearance in the ‘School of Athens’ room.
*The Raphael Rooms are visited on all of our Vatican Museums tours, including the Pristine Sistine Tour, the Complete Vatican Tour, the Vatican at Night Tour and the Vatican Highlights Tour; although not the Early Entry Sistine Express Service. *
Not technically part of the Vatican Museums, St. Peter's Basilica is nonetheless an inclusion on many Vatican tours. The reason for this is a secret door that leads from the Sistine Chapel down a short path and into the Basilica, skipping the long general access and security lines for the basilica. This entrance is only open to certain tour groups, making it a special perk of Vatican tours.
Once inside you'll see that St. Peter's Basilica is just as beautiful as the Sistine Chapel - but on a much grander scale. Designed by Michelangelo, housing one of his most beautiful scuplptures, with an incredible altar and stained glass window by Gian Lorenzo Bernini; St. Peter's Basilica is a phenomenal collaboration by the greatest minds of the Renaissance. It's also the biggest church in Christianity, although technically it's only second the most important. But you'll learn more about that on any of our Vatican tours.
We cover St Peter's Basilica in detail on our special access St. Peter's Basilica Tour with Crypts & Dome Climb. We include a 1-hour tour of the Basilica on our Pristine Sistine Tour, our Complete Vatican Tour and our Early Entry Sistine Chapel Express Service; with just skip the line access and an introduction on our Vatican Highlights Tour. The Vatican Night Tour does not include St. Peter's Basilica.
Michelangelo and Raphael may get top billing at the Vatican Museums but in seven miles of art there is a lot more to see here. For many visitors, the classics are the big surprise of a visit; you wouldn't believe how beautiful really, really old art can be.
Two must-sees are the 'Laocoon Group', whose orgins are unsure but which is likely an Ancient Greek work dating to before the 1st century, depicting the ultimate human agony. The second is the 'Belvedere Torso', again dating to some time in the 1st century AD or even BC. Its favour amongst visitors is nothing new though. Michelangelo himself was said to spend a lot of time studying this piece, which inspired sculptures like his'David'.
The Gallery of the Maps is a great example of the unexpected treasures found in the Vatican Museums. This long hallway is filled with wonderful, hand painted maps by Ignazio Danti - a Dominican and one of the more celebrated monks in church history for his studies of geography, cosmology, math, and painting.
The maps are gorgeous views of the entirety of Italy and were actually the Vatican’s official maps until the 19th century. Although they are impressively accurate for their time, you wouldn't want to use them for navigation today. One notable absence is Pompeii, which was thought lost at the time of painting.
The Gallery of the Maps is included on all of our regular Vatican tour itineraries, including the Complete Vatican Tour, the Pristine Sistine Tour, our Vatican Highlights Tour and the Vatican Night Tour.
Can I bring a bag with me to the Vatican Museums?
Only small bags can be brought inside the Vatican Museums. Handbags and small backpacks (no larger than 40cm x 35cm x 25cm) are allowed but anything larger than that or large umbrellas, must be checked at the cloakroom. Items may be left at the cloakroom without charge but please note that you must return to this spot to collect your belongings before 5pm or return the following day. As our tours mostly end at St. Peter’s Basilica this is quite inconvenient, as you will be required to walk about 20 minutes from there back to the entrance of the Museums.
In the case of our Vatican Highlights Tour, guests may have to leave the tour early to reach the cloakroom before it closes and will not be able to visit St. Peter’s Basilica.
What should I wear to the Vatican Museums?
As with all churches in Rome, it is requred that all visitors cover their shoulders and knees while inside the Vatican Museums. This is a rule very strictly upheld here, and guests who do not do so will not be allowed inside. Men should therefore be careful to wear long shorts, while women should wear skirts beneath the knee or trousers. If you are wearing a sleeveless top, please bring a cardigan with you.
Where does my Vatican tour start and end?
All of our Vatican tours start at an easy-to-find location near the entrance to the Museums. In the case of our Pristine Sistine, Complete Vatican and Vatican In A Day tours, you will end at St. Peter’s Basilica, which is a 20-minute walk from the entrance to the Museums. For our Vatican Highlights Tour you have a choice. Your tour ends inside the Sistine Chapel where you are welcome to stay or continue exploring the Museums. Alternatively follow your guide for special skip the line access to St. Peter’s Basilica.
Do your Vatican tours include Skip the Line Access?
Yes. All of our Vatican tours include skip the line access as standard. This means that we use the special group entrance with pre-reserved timed-entry tickets, so you’ll never have to wait in long general access lines. For extra special entry, check out our Pristine Sistine Tour. Any of our group tours that visit St. Peter’s Basilica also include skip the line access there.
Do your Vatican tours include St. Peter’s Basilica?
Most do – our Pristine Sistine, Complete Vatican and Vatican In A Day tours include guided tours of St. Peter’s Basilica and, although our Vatican Highlights Tour doesn’t include a guided tour, you can follow your guide for special skip the line access, getting you inside the basilica to explore on your own. Please note however, that St. Peter’s Basilica is a functioning church and is often used for religious ceremonies. The basilica is therefore closed on occasion without previous warning. In these cases, we do endeavor to warn you in advance and your guide will provide you with a longer tour inside the Vatican Museums. Please note that St. Peter’s Basilica is closed most Wednesdays, when the Papal Audience takes place in St. Peter’s Square.
Can I take photos inside the Sistine Chapel?
No, non, ne, nee, absolutely not. And the Sistine Chapel guards are scary, so we don’t recommend trying it.
I, or someone in my group, require a wheelchair. Can I take a group tour?
Unfortunately there are a lot of stairs within the Vatican Museums and wheelchairs must use a different route, not open to non-wheelchair users. We therefore cannot facilitate wheelchair users on our group tours. We can, however, follow this route on a private Vatican tour. Just be sure to leave a note in your booking at the time of reservation and get in touch with our team to confirm before you travel.
Do you sell Papal Audience tickets?
We don’t – nor should anyone else! Tickets to the Papal Audience are provided free by the Vatican, if you fill in this form and fax it to +39 06 6988 5863. Tickets are sometimes available from the Swiss Guard at the entrance to St. Peter’s Basilica, by the bronze doors, between the hours of 3pm and 8pm the day before. Tickets are limited to only 10 per person however and are not guaranteed.
Do you provide tours of the Vatican Scavi?
No. Tours of the Vatican Scavi (a.k.a. the Vatican Necropolis) may only be booked directly through the Vatican authority responsible for caring for them. Access is limited to only a few groups a day and tours are in huge demand though, so we recommend booking a few months before your trip where possible. For reservations email email@example.com.