Getting the most out of a visit to the Vatican Museums

By Elliot Williams

VATICAN CITY — If you plan on visiting the Vatican Museums, one of the most visited attractions in all of Rome, and one of the most visited art museums in the world, it is important to have some valuable information beforehand.

A school group enters the Vatican Museums. (CNS/Paul Haring)

A school group enters the Vatican Museums. (CNS/Paul Haring)

With 4.4 miles of exhibit halls that display some of the world’s most famous masterpieces, this is an admittedly exhausting, but must-see location on your trip to Vatican City. You will want to eat a big breakfast — perhaps three cornetti (Italy’s version of the croissant) — beforehand to make it through the museums, which spread throughout two Vatican palaces.

Here are the basics:

— First and foremost, the museums are open Monday to Saturday from 9 am to 6 pm, but the ticket office closes at 4 pm. The museums are typically closed on Sundays.

However, on the last Sunday of each month — except when a holiday falls on a Sunday — the public can enter for free from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. On the free Sundays, the museums close at 2 p.m. It must be noted that the queue on these free Sundays extends almost to the Colosseum (I’m exaggerating, but you will be waiting quite a while) so plan accordingly.

In addition, the Vatican Museums have seasonal night openings. On Friday evenings from April 24 until Oct. 30 from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. (except during the month of August) you can visit the Vatican treasures and, perhaps, be lucky enough to catch some live music. To visit the museums at night, it is obligatory to purchase the tickets online in advance.

— For a calendar of the Vatican Museums’ opening hours for 2015, holidays and special events, you can click here.

— Of course, the wise pilgrim wants to know how this visit will fit into the budget. The basic prices are:

General admission: € 16,00

Children (up to 18 years of age): € 8,00

— You can — and really should — purchase tickets online in advance so you can skip the line. You cannot purchase these tickets more than 60 days in advance of your visit.

There no doubt will be ladies and gentlemen throwing tour offers your direction if you are walking toward St. Peter’s Square wearing anything remotely touristy. Do not be alarmed. With any tour agency you are taking a chance. These experiences get mixed reviews -– some participants wait for hours on a coach bus, leaving them with little time to see the museums themselves, while others have a great time and learn plenty, getting their full money’s worth.

My advice is to do your research well in advance, and read plenty of reviews. Your overall best bet is to book an official tour through the museums website, either with a group larger than 16 people, individually or with an exclusive tour guide for groups of up to 15 people.For an extra fee, there also are guided tours with options to see both the Vatican Museums and the Vatican Gardens, or the Santa Rosa necropolis, also known as the necropolis of Via Triumphalis.

A detail of the Santa Rosa necropolis. (CNS/Vatican Museums)

A detail of the Santa Rosa necropolis. (CNS/Vatican Museums)

Whatever you choose, you are going to need plenty of time to see the museums (at least two hours); it took me three hours to go through all the exhibits by myself with an audio guide (which costs € 7).

The Sistine Chapel alone makes the whole visit to the museums worth it. This 15th-century masterpiece is certainly the most famous building in all of the museums. It served as a private chapel for Pope Sixtus IV, with frescoes by the reluctant Michelangelo who didn’t consider himself a painter when Pope Julius II commissioned him for the work in 1508.

The Sistine Chapel. (CNS/Paul Haring)

The Sistine Chapel. (CNS/Paul Haring)

Yet, if his “Creation of Adam,” the ceiling’s centerpiece, doesn’t expand your belief in what is humanly possible, nothing will. Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment” on the wall behind the altar is just as awe-inspiring; it took the artist five years to complete (1536-1541) and covers 200 square meters with 391 figures. The frescoes that adorn the other walls were completed by famous painters Perugino, Sandro Botticelli, Domenico Ghirlandaio and Cosimo Rosselli in the late 1400s and depict scenes from the lives of Moses and Christ.

If you’re looking for a quiet place to pray, however, the Sistine Chapel is not the place for you. As the museums’ main attraction, one can imagine why this chapel becomes packed quicker than you can say Giovannino de’ Dolci (who was involved in the actual construction of the chapel). Despite the attendants shouting into a microphone, “SHHH, Be quiet!” every few minutes, the chapel is so beautiful that most visitors (including me) can’t keep their spiritual reflections to themselves. You also will be kindly, or sometimes unkindly, reminded that there is no photography allowed in the chapel. But don’t worry, pictures don’t do the paintings justice, so hopefully your aunt back home won’t be too upset if you can’t send a ‘Sistine-selfie’ to her.

By the time you reach the stunning ceiling frescoes in the final and longest gallery of the Vatican Museums, the Gallery of Maps, you will most likely be craving a large bowl of carbonara and quite possibly a nap. Luckily for you, you’ve just seen some of the world’s greatest artistic achievements.

For more Vatican Museum Tips, click here.

Elliot Williams is a Communication major at Villanova University. He is originally from Abington, PA, and is studying abroad at Roma Tre University, while interning for Catholic News Service’s Rome bureau. Elliot is an avid Nutella fanatic.

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