Welcome to another edition of our Italy roadtrip recap! Today I am sharing with you one of my favorite places in Rome, which is infact another country in and of itself, the Vatican! I have been to the Vatican Museums three times over the last 15 years and while some special exhibitions would make this list, from the permanent exhibitions here are the things I would make sure to see in this massive museum. It’s 4,000 rooms is one of the largest buildings in this very small country (though do not worry, you do not need to bring your passport) and it is important to arrive with a plan. That said, even with this list though I would suggest going with a tour as it is so large but after the tour make sure you do not leave without taking in these Vatican Museum Must Sees. And so you don’t stop reading at number one, the top attraction, the Sistine Chapel will be last:
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1 | The Gallery of Maps – This room, located on the west side of the Belvedere Courtyard, contains a gorgeous series of painted 16th century topographical maps of Italy. The maps vary in the scale but all show different regions in Italy and knowing that arial photography was hundreds of years in the future it is astounding how accurate the topography is! Oh, and while it will be hard to miss, make sure you take in the gorgeous golden ceiling!
2 | Papal Apartments – While many museums have residential areas closed off at the Vatican you can see the rooms the popes used to live in! The Papal Apartments are comprised of a dozen rooms but the the four with Raphael frescos are the highlight. I do wish they were still furnished but the space are quite busy even with an empty floorplan and you do need to move around to see the walls and ceilings properly.
3 | Courtyard of the Pigna, The Pinecone Courtyard – Who knew a 13-foot pinecone could be so pretty? While in the pictures from the pinecone courtyard show a sculpture that could only be described as green it is actually made of bronze one and dates back to the 1st century BCE. The pinecone was once a giant fountain and was found in Central Rome by the Pantheon. It was thought to have been a part of a pagan temple, dedicated to Isis – so interesting it is now in the Vatican! This courtyard also continues the modern art bronze sphere by Arnaldo Pomodoro which is likely one of the most photographed things in the Vatican Museums.
(Throwbacks from my visits in 2005 and 2011)
4 | Spiral Staircase – While on our tour I mentioned to Mark that I wanted to see the spiral staircase before we left he asked me why it was famous. To be honest, I had to look it up. It turns out the staircase you can walk down today only dates to 1932 but modelled on the original double spiral staircase, the Bramante Staircase. With COVID regulations traffic is one way, serving as the exit of the Vatican Museums, but the double helix design of the staircase ensures people going down don’t meet the ones climbing up. After walking down it the next day we saw a framed photo in our hotel and after returning, even a photo of this spiral staircase on our Chormecast screensaver.
5 | Laocoon and His Sons – For being nearly 2,000 years old the sculpture group Laocoön in remarkably good shape. It was made for and resided in the palace of the Roman Emperor Titus and depicts a scene from the Battle of Troy with Laocoön and his two sons losing a battle with two sea serpents. (I pretty sure that never made it into the Brad Pitt / Eric Bona remake.) According to our guide it is considered one of the highest-quality sculptures in the world though the artist is unknown. This is located the Octagonal Courtyard in the Pio-Clementine Museums and if you are on a fast track to the Sistine Chapel you might miss it so make sure to take the detour!
6 | Tapestry Hall – This is one space you will not miss as it is on the way to the Sistine Chapel. Make sure not to work through so quickly though because there are gorgeous hangings to admire. Half of the tapestries were made in Rome in the 17th century for Pope Urban VIII depicting scenes from his life and these are located along the right wall. However, the Flemish tapestries on the left wall are of particular note. These tapestries were made in Belgium originally for the Sistine chapel in the 1500’s and each took on average nine years to make. They are made of wool but also silk, and gold and silver thread and the most notable is the The Resurrection of Christ, seen below.
7 | Sala Rotonda – My Rome posts are still to come but number seven on my Vatican must Sees closely resembles and was inspired by the Pantheon. Though on a smaller scale the similar ceiling is remarkably similar, though on a smaller scale, though the rotondas roof is no longer open to teh sky . But what is on the ground was my favourite – a of a black and white mosaic floor (originally from an ancient Roman villa) and a 40-foot basin made from porphyry rock from the bath of the Emperor Nero.
8 | Belvedere Torso – Right before you get to the Sala Rotonda there is a massive statue in the middle of the room and you actually have to walk around it to get by – make sure you stop for a look though. It may only be a fragment but this statue dates back to the first century BC and according to our guide an example of how the ancient world helped shaped the 16th century style sculpture made famous by artists like Michelangelo.
9 | The School of Athens by Raphael – – While I already mentioned the Papal apartments this gorgeous mural in one of the rooms deserves it’s own place on the lsit. This massive piece of art depicts fantasy gathering of the greatest philosophers, mathematicians and thinkers from classical antiquity. If you look closely you can see depictions of Plato, Aristotle, and Euclid along with Renaissance masters Leonardo Da Vinci’, Michelangelo, and Raphael himself.
10 | St. Peter’s Basilica– The approach to the Church is almost as impressive as the basilica itself. Which ever way you approach it make sure you check out St. Peter’s Square either before or after your visit inside. This structure is absolutely enormous and from the minute you step inside you can easily see how St. Peter’s Basilica is the largest church in the world. On your visit make sure you walk to the nave and take a look up into the gorgeous dome and also go down into the papal crypts where you can even find the tomb of St. Peter himself.
11 | The Dome of St. Peter’s Basilica – When you are done visiting the Church head out and to the left to the ticket office for the dome. For €10 you can take the elevator and then climb 320 stairs or for €8 you can just climb all of the stairs – 551 in total. We took the stairs the whole way and when you reach the top there is sign that says “Welcome to the dome of St. Peter Basilica. Here the impressive majesty of Michelangelo’s architecture where the sky seems so close, the view of the Vatican hill, sanctified by the blood of the apostle Peter and numerous other martyr, offer an occasion for profound medication.” And it really is quite a view.
12| Sistine Chapel – There is a reason Michelangelo’s frescoes of The Creation of Adam and The Final Judgement are some of the most famous and most replicated pieces of art in the world – they are spectacular. What I find even more remarkable is that this was Michelangelo’s first attempt ever at painting (previously he had only sculpted, works like the David). It took him four years to complete and he did it completely alone. When you are inside make sure you check out the floor too. You can not take photos in this chapel and I love the reason why – it was restored by Nikon in 1980s (yes the camera maker) no photos as they bought the rights. And if you are Catholic the room holds extra significance as it is the place where new popes are elected and crowned.
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Hopefully I will have given you some ideas here with this extensive list of Vatican Must Sees – places you will have likely heard of before and ones that hopefully will be new to you. As I mentioned on the start I would still recommend a tour (this is the one we did) and then either before or after add on some of these Vatican Must Sees on your visit to the Eternal City, the only country in the world that shuts down at night! Ps. The picture below was not actually taken from the Vatican but from the rooftop of the Castel Sant’Angelo where if you time your visit right, you will get a gorgeous sunset over the Vatican.
What do you think of these Vatican must sees?