One of the major attractions of Rome is, of course, the Vatican. The Vatican is known for having a tremendous amount of artwork as well as the Sistine Chapel, so obviously a big thing to do and see when visiting Rome. We booked tickets for the Vatican Museums for our first day in Rome. Little did we know that even during October, this would be a packed and still crazy place to visit.
We crossed the Tiber river at Ponte Sant’Angelo, and turned left, heading towards the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica. What I didn’t expect as we turned from the bridge towards the Vatican was the immediate assault of tour guides who line the path to St. Peter’s Basilica and around to the Vatican Museums trying to sell tours. They are paced about every 10-15 steps, and all start with the same line “It’s a 2 hour wait to get into St. Peter’s! Skip the lines!” This continues as you walk to Via della Conciliazione all the way until St. Peter’s Square.
Now, a couple of things we learned from this. They have badges that say “official” but they don’t work for the Vatican or St. Peter’s Basilica. They are official to their company maybe, but they aren’t employed by the church. Most of them use the same line, but sometimes, you’ll get one tour guide who will try a different approach. With us, it was “You know you can’t go in there dressed like that!” As far as we knew, our shorts and tops were fine, but the tour companies also make a mint selling souvenir scarves for 5 to 10 euros each and try to sell you their tour in that they can provide them to you with the tour or you can purchase the scarves from their shop just to the side.
St. Peters and the Sistine Chapel do have dress codes, so if you go, simply where a top that covers your shoulders and shorts or capris that cover your knees, and you won’t require any sort of scarf. We rebelled against the tour guides and purchased them from a street vendor for the same price. I will say that even with the scarves, we didn’t put them on in the Sistine Chapel and no one said a word. They were more concerned with the photography than my shorts or my daughter’s exposed shoulders.
When the Vatican and St. Peter’s were first built, Via della Conciliazione weren’t there. Instead, a bunch of old homes and windy roads led to St. Peter’s Square and Bernini’s amazing colonnade. Mussolini was the one who tore down those old homes and paved the road creating an impressive avenue and linking Rome more indelibly to Vatican City.
Now, the Vatican Museums are almost around the back of St. Peter’s Basilica, so you have to turn right before you enter St. Peter’s Square and follow the annoying tour guides still posted regularly, around the back to the entrance. We pre-booked our tickets, so we didn’t have to wait in line except to check in for our tour time because they stagger it to keep things from becoming too packed. We showed an hour early, but we still were able to enter and begin the tour.
The Vatican Museums are basically a crazy winding path through various old papal apartments, rooms, and porticos all decked in amazing frescos, tapestries, and both religious and mythological statuary. It takes several hours to get all the way through and at times you have to fight crowds to see particular pieces like Laocoön and His Sons in one of the small porticos, but it’s definitely worth it.
The security and guides become more rude as you approach the Sistine Chapel. We were told to hurry through some portions until we were packed into the Sistine Chapel. It is certainly a chapel and not large–especially considering the number of people standing inside to get a look. People are supposed to remain quiet in a show of respect, so security and a recording will tell people to be quiet. Security is also calling out for people to put away their cameras and not to take photos.
The frescos and the entire atmosphere is overwhelming really. While it was beautiful, I found it a little disappointing. We all stood and looked at the ceiling for some time and then the walls before we exited and moved on to the last little bits before we exited the museums.
Unfortunately, the lines were still extremely long for St. Peter’s Basilica, so we ate a late lunch and walked around before calling it a day with the plan to be at St. Peter’s first thing when it opened. If I had to do it again, I would’ve had us get up early and be at St. Peter’s within a half hour of opening and then book the Vatican Museums a few hours later. You could put lunch between the two viewings or you could simply walk down the Tiber until your viewing time.
Next… St. Peter’s Basilica!