The Best Guide To Visiting The Vatican Museums

Visiting the Vatican Museums is quite simply a must for any art lovers during a trip to Rome, especially if it is your first time in the city. Not only this is an impressive art gallery, but also the only way visitors have to access the Sistine Chapel.

While the decision of visiting the Vatican Museums is fairly easy – there’s no way you should not go! – deciding how to actually visit the Vatican Museums can be a bit more complicated. First of all, you need to book a time slot; then, you need to consider whether you want to join a guided tour. You need to find the best way of getting there and also – quite importantly – what to wear for your visit.

Don’t know where to start? Don’t worry! In this post, I will tell you everything you need to know when visiting the Vatican Museums, with lots of practical information that will help you plan your visit. Let me start by telling you how the museums came about, and then share their main attractions.

Make sure to also read my posts The Best Museums In Rome, The Most Interesting Facts About The Vatican and The Best Things To Do In Vatican City.

visiting the Vatican Museums

The History Of The Vatican Museums

Though the Vatican Palace is an earlier structure, the Vatican Museums themselves date back to the 16th century. Its origin starts with the acquisition of just one single sculpture – namely, the statue of Laocoon and his Sons. This was discovered on 14th January, 1506, in a vineyard close to the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore. The statue is ancient, over 2,000 years old; it was even mentioned by Roman historian Pliny the Elder. Naturally, its discovery caused a stir.

Pope Julius II sent Michelangelo and Giuliano da Sangallo to study the new discovery. The two recommended that the Pope acquire the sculpture from the owner of the vineyard. The month after the discovery, the sculpture was put on display in the Vatican to showcase the artistic prowess of the ancient world.

But the museum didn’t take off right after the Laocoon statue, which the Pope had put in the present-day Cortile Ottagono (currently in the museum complex at the Vatican). The museum has instead developed over time, with various Popes over the years opening sections of their property for the public to see their art collections – some of the first sovereign rulers in the world to do so.

Popes Clement XIV and Pius VI began the first main section of the museum, which is today known as the Pio Clementino Museum. Pius VII later expanded on the collections of classical antiques, adding the Chiaramonti Museum and the Braccio Nuovo Gallery; he also developed the epigraphic collection.

Later in the 19th century, it was Pope Gregory XVI who set up a museum in the Vatican exclave of the Lateran Palace in 1844. Before that, in 1837 he set up the Etruscan Museum, which displayed many archaeological finds in Etruria; he then established the Egyptian Museum in 1839. The Lateran Museum was greatly expanded in the 1850s by Pope Pius IX, with a number of ancient sculptures and ancient Christian art added to the collection; later additions included Jewish history, too.

Vatican City

However, these Lateran collections were transferred from the Lateran Palace to a building within the Vatican itself in the 1970s. The Lateran Palace instead has become the Vatican Historical Museum, part of the Vatican Museums, which was first moved to its present location in 1987 and opened to the public in 1991. As its name suggests, this section is a journey through the history of the Papal States.

However, this is nowhere near the most famous section of the Vatican Museums. That would be the Sistine Chapel, which forms part of the visitor route through the museums. This world renowned chapel, part of the Vatican Palace, began life in 1473 on the orders of Pope Sixtus IV (whom the chapel is named after). The architect in charge was Giovannino de Dolci. On completion, the chapel was decorated with ornate frescoes created by the most prominent artists of the High Renaissance: Sandro Botticelli, Pietro Perugino, Domenico Ghirlandaio, and – most famously of all – Michelangelo.

The 15th August, 1483, marked the first mass to take place in the Sistine Chapel. Since then, important ceremonies have taken place ever since at this beautiful part of the Vatican. Not only that, but the Sistine Chapel is also the location of the Conclave of the College of Cardinals – in other words, this is where new Popes are elected.

A couple of decades later, Pope Julius II commissioned Renaissance all-star Raphael and his studio to redecorate his personal apartment rooms. The intention is assumed to have been for the rooms to be better than the apartments of his predecessor, Pope Alexander VI (who was also Julius II’s rival). With its ornate tiles and vibrant frescoes by Raphael, the aptly named Raphael Rooms certainly stand out for visitors as they amble through the museums.

Mosaics in Rome

What To See When Visiting The Vatican Museums

Museo Pio-Clementino

Originally, this museum contained an array of artworks from Antiquity and the Renaissance. However, it has since developed over the centuries to house many examples of ancient Greek and Roman sculpture.

To house it all, there are a number of different galleries located at the Museo Pio-Clementino. The original collection here is that of Pope Julius II, who is considered to have founded the Vatican Museums. This part of the museum is Cortile Ottagono, or Octagonal Court. The most famous pieces here are the Apollo of the Belvedere and the original piece that sparked the museum’s existence, Laocoon and his Sons – both of which have stood here since the early 16th century.

In the latter part of the 18th century, the collections were expanded extensively and today they spread across several large halls. One, the Sala Rotunda – shaped like a mini Pantheon – boasts ancient statues and mosaics. Another is the Greek Cross Gallery, which plays host to the Sarcophagi of Constance and Saint Helena, the daughter and mother of Emperor Constatine I respectively.

Elsewhere, the Sala delle Muse displays a group of statues representing Apollo and the nine Muses, which were discovered near a Roman villa at Tivoli in 1774. At the center of the gallery is the Belvedere Torso – an influential marble statue with no limbs or head that played a part in inspiring Renaissance artists like Michelangelo and others.

Vatican City facts visiting the Vatican Museums

Bramante’s staircase

Located inside the Pio-Clementino museum you’ll find one of the most admired sights when visiting the Vatican Museums: the Bramante’s staircase. This was commissioned in 1505 by Pope Julius III to Donato Bramante, a Tuscan architect. The staircase was built in a double helix shape inside a square tower and connected the Belvedere Palace to Rome. The staircase didn’t originally have stairs but just a paved ramp: this was done so that the pope could easily access his apartments by carriage.

One thing you may not know is that there is another staircase that is built on the model of Bramante’s one – it was designed by architect Giuseppe Momo in 1932 and is very similar in style to the original one, also having a double helix shape.

visiting the Vatican Museums

Museo Chiaramonti

Founded by Pope Pius VII at the beginning of the 19th century, this museum takes its name from the Pope’s family name before he was elected. This collection is set around a large gallery which showcases a number of statues, friezes and sarcophagi. Part of the Museo Chiaramonti is the Galleria Lapidaria, which showcases over 3,000 stone tablets and inscriptions from Antiquity.

Museo Gregoriano Etrusco

This part of the Vatican Museums was founded by Pope Gregory XVI in 1837. Particularly interesting for those who want to find out about the history of the Etruscans, it showcases an array of archaeological finds relating to the ancient civilization. Here you’ll find vases, bronze statues and everyday objects; the different styles that the Etruscans used really stand out from the Greco-Roman pieces elsewhere in the Vatican Museums (and in Rome as a whole).

Vatican Historical Museum

This is one of the more modern additions to the Vatican Museums, having been moved to the main floor of the Lateran Palace in 1987. It is a fascinating insight into the history of the Papal States, the Cardinals and the Popes themselves.

There are colorful tapestries on display, gilded carriages and even “popemobiles” (including the first car that was used by a Pope). There’s also a unique collection of portraits of Popes from the 16th century to the modern day. It’s a good place to go to learn more about the history of this influential heart of the Catholic Church.

visiting the Vatican Museums

Pinacoteca Vaticana

This is an art gallery that was first housed in the Borgia Apartments in the Vatican, until Pope Pius XI decided that it needed its own dedicated building. The museum was inaugurated in its new (and current) position in 1932. The collection was initially based on a collection of 180 artworks that had been amassed by Pope Pius VI around 1790, but it grew over the years thanks to various donations and purchases by the Papacy. Now there are around 500 paintings.

There’s a selection of important works on display in this gallery, all painted by a smorgasbord of well known artists and Renaissance masters. Notable names to look out for include Titian’s Frari Madonna, Caravaggio’s The Entombment of Christ, Leonardo Da Vinci’s Saint Jerome in the Wilderness, as well three standout pieces by Raphael: Madonna of Foligno, Oddi Altarpiece and Transfiguration.

Stanze di Raffaello (Raphael Rooms)

The Raphael Rooms make up an apartment in the Apostolic Palace at the Vatican. Dating to the early 16th century, under Pope Julius II, today they form part of the Vatican Museums and are a particularly popular place of interest for visitors. Mainly, these rooms are famed for their frescoes, the handiwork of (a then young) Raphael and his workshop.

Alongside the frescoes found in the Sistine Chapel, the frescoes that adorn the walls and ceilings of the Raphael Rooms are considered a landmark in the development of High Renaissance painting.

The rooms are named according to the frescoes and other decorations found in them. There’s the Sala di Constantino, the Stanza di Eliodoro, Stanza della Segnatura, and the Stanza dell’Incendio del Borgo. The last of these is the largest (and also not painted by Raphael), and represents the victory of Christianity over Paganism.

Don’t forget to read my post Where To See The Works Of Raphael In Rome.

Visiting the Sistine Chapel
Photo courtesy of anitasstudio @depositphotos

Sistine Chapel

Last, but not least, is the Sistine Chapel. Arguably more famous than the Vatican itself, this iconic piece of architecture and artwork is a must-visit on a trip to Rome. The frescoes that decorate its interior draw crowds from around the world, and though several Renaissance artists worked on them, it’s Michelangelo’s handiwork that is best known.

In 1508, Pope Julius II commissioned the artist to repaint the ceiling of the chapel. Michelangelo was initially intimidated by the scale of the project – he, at this point, believed himself to be more of a sculptor than a painter. Nevertheless, he got to work and created his masterpiece using bright colors to paint stories from the Book of Genesis, standing on scaffolding to do so.

He then painted the Last Judgement, an epic piece of art that spans the wall behind the altar of the Sistine Chapel. This depicts the second coming of Christ on Judgement Day, taken from the Book of Revelations. At the time of its creation, the Last Judgement caused more than a stir; Michelangelo’s depiction of nude figures led to him being accused of immorality and obscenity.

Make sure to read my posts A Guide To Visiting The Sistine Chapel and Where To See The Works Of Michelangelo In Rome.

visiting the Vatican Museums

Practical Info About Visiting The Vatican Museums

The Vatican Museums opening hours

The Vatican Museums are open Monday to Saturday, 9:00 am to 6: pm. The last entry is 4:00 pm.

From April to October, there are extended opening hours on Fridays and Saturdays, with the museums open till 10:30 pm (last admission is at 8:30 pm).

Though usually closed on Sundays, on the last Sunday of every month the Vatican Museums are open from 9:00 am to 2:00 pm, with the final entry at 12:30 pm.

Best time to visit the Vatican Museums

The best time to visit the Vatican Museums, if you want less in the way of tourist crowds, is between November and February. That’s when there are fewer tourists in general, but make sure you don’t visit over the Christmas holidays as it will be busy.

If you are visiting during the peak months in the summer – or in general from April to October – you will see a high number of tourists. If you want to avoid the crowds, I recommend heading over to the Vatican Museums very early before the official opening time (you will need a guided tour for that); in the afternoon hours; or at night during extended opening hours.

Saturdays are when you see the most crowds; the fewest crowds are seen Tuesday and Thursday.

The audience with the Pope is on Wednesday at St Peter’s Basilica, around 10:30 am, and usually draws large crowds especially in high season. The museums are best avoided around this time, unless you want to combine your visit with seeing the Pope bless the crowds in St Peter’s Square.

Head over to my post The Best Time To Visit Rome.

visiting the Vatican Museums

Vatican Museums tickets

A full price adult ticket for the Vatican Museums is €17. Tickets for children aged between 6 and 18, and students up to 25 years old, are €8. Visitors with certified disability can visit free of charge. There is a €4 reservation fee, so the total price of an adult ticket is €21.

Visiting the Vatican Museums is subject to time slots, so if you have a particular time in mind for your visit, make sure to book well in advance.

You can buy tickets to the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel directly on the official website here.

Another option of getting tickets is via third party booking sites such as Tiqets. In this case, you can expect to pay a bit more but there is more flexibility in case of cancellations. You can get your tickets here. For last minute tickets, click here.

Make sure to also read my post How To Get Vatican Tickets.

visiting the Vatican Museums

Should you get a guided tour when visiting the Vatican Museums?

You don’t need to get a tour guide when visiting the Vatican Museums, but having one will make your life much easier – guided will walk you through the security checks and will have tickets ready for you. Most importantly, a qualified guide will be able to provide insightful information about the art and architecture of the Vatican Museums, making your experience much more memorable!

Guided tours of the Vatican Museums normally last around three hours and always include a stop at the Sistine Chapel. Some also go to St. Peter’s Basilica. The cost varies depending on what type of tour you opt for (private or group, for example).

Last time I visited the Vatican Museums, I opted for an early morning tour that started at 7:00 am and included breakfast. This tour is available on Walks of Italy and you can book it here.

Walks of Italy also runs an after hours tour that starts at 3:30 pm and lasts about four hours, and includes aperitivo inside the Vatican. You can book it here.

For a more budget friendly tour, click here.

For a tour that also includes St. Peter’s Basilica, click here.

Security checks

You will have to go through airport-style security checks when visiting the Vatican Museums. Any sharp objects, such as knives or scissors, as well as large bags, umbrellas, tripods and selfie sticks are not allowed in the museums and you will have to drop them at the museums’ cloakroom (which if free for visitors). Walking sticks are allowed.

Dress Code

Observing the dress code is pretty important when visiting the Vatican Museums. The dress code is strict and it must be adhered to, otherwise you won’t be allowed entry.

Only “appropriately dressed” visitors may enter. This means that sleeveless and low-cut garments, as well as shorts or anything that shows the knees, and even hats, are not permitted. Other things to note regarding dress code is having any personal object on show that may offend Catholic sensibilities; for example, tattoos, which may be deemed inappropriate.

Make sure to read my post The Vatican Dress Code.

Vatican Museums

Is photography allowed?

Photography is permitted in all of the Vatican Museums, apart from the Sistine Chapel. Photography has to be for personal use only, and no flash photography is allowed at all. Tripods or stands of any kind may not be used.

If you are tempted to snap a pic inside the Sistine Chapel, and you’re spotted, you’ll be escorted out of the Museums. They’re serious about this!

Also note that the use of phones throughout the Vatican Museums is discouraged, while using a phone is completely forbidden when you’re in the Sistine Chapel.

visiting the Vatican Museums

Toilets and other services

There are a number of toilets, disabled toilets and baby changing facilities dotted around the Vatican Museums. You will also find a cafeteria and souvenir shops inside the museums.

Disabled Access

There is disabled access at the Vatican Museums. Mainly, ramps are used to first gain access to the museum. Once inside, it’s a matter of elevators and wheelchair lifts positioned where needed. There’s also enough room to maneuver a wheelchair, and there are smooth floors.

The Sistine Chapel must be entered up two flights of stairs, and you’ll have to use a wheelchair lift if you need it. There are several wheelchair accessible bathrooms located around the Vatican Museums, too.

Guide dogs are allowed to enter the museum.

Visiting the Sistine Chapel

How to get there

The official address of the Vatican Museums is Viale Vaticano. If you want to get there by metro, you will need Line A. Get off at either Ottaviano or Cipro, both around a ten minute walk from the museums. Many people get off at Ottaviano and follow the crowds from there; otherwise it is well signposted.

Various buses will take you to the Vatican Museums. Bus number 49 stops in the square right in front of the Vatican Museums, for example, while buses 32, 81, and 982 stop at the nearby Piazza del Risorgimento. You could also opt for the number 492 or 990 bus, which stops at Via Leone IV and Via degli Scipione respectively.

Trams number 19 stops at Piazza del Risorgimento.

If you are thinking of walking from the historic center of Rome, you are looking at around 30 minutes walk. The Trevi Fountain, for example, is around half an hour away on foot, while from the Pantheon, the walk is around 25 minutes.

For all visitors, however, it’s important to note that – on arrival at St Peter’s Square – the entrance to the Vatican Museums is still another 15 minutes on foot.

Check out my posts How To Use Rome Metro and How To Use Public Transport In Rome.

St Peter's Basilica

Nearby attractions

There are many attractions you can visit that are very close to the Vatican Museums, and it’s easy to spend an entire day in the area. Not many people know it, but you can actually access the Vatican Gardens and the cost of the visit is included in the tickets to the museums. Keep in mind, however, that they can only be explored on a guided tour that you must book in advance.

A 15 minutes walk from the main entrance to the Vatican Museums you will find St. Peter’s Square and St. Peter’s Basilica, where you can admire more works of Michelangelo and Bernini. From the Basilica, you can access St. Peter’s Dome for a fee and enjoy the most impressive views of the city. Finally, if you want more impressive views – this time also of St. Peter’s Basilica Dome – you should consider visiting Castel Sant’Angelo, a short walk from St. Peter’s Square along Via della Conciliazione.

You should also read my posts A Guide To Visiting St. Peter’s Basilica, A Guide To St. Peter’s Square and A Guide To Castel Sant’Angelo.

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