I’ve read that it would take ten years to view every item found in the Vatican Museums.
They would surely be worth a trip in themselves if you had the time and the interest, but if you’re travelling with kids, the odds are high you’ll only get one afternoon to absorb all of the magnificent history, art and architecture. Here are our top five tips on maximizing your visit to the Vatican Museums in Rome.
Book a Tour
Make the most of that one afternoon and book a guided tour of the Vatican Museums. The scope and sheer size of the collections are simply overwhelming (remember that ten years timeline?). You really don’t want to spend your nose in a guide book reading about the bust of Augustus Ceasar when you could have a real, live art-history grad student telling you all about it instead.
There are a number of excellent tour companies and guides that you can book ahead of time. We pre-booked (and pre-paid) our Vatican tour with Angel Tours Rome, a locally based tour guide service with native English-speaking, highly-trained and licensed guides.
We were a small group, and met our guide at a gift shop in St. Peter’s Square at the appointed hour and day. By booking with a licensed guide, we were able to bypass the regular line-ups (which were long for a Wednesday) and get right into the Museums and started on our tour. As an added bonus, your kids may actually listen better to a stranger telling them interesting historical stories, than you trying to resurrect your art-school class history.
After a brief history of St. Peter’s Square, we proceeded directly into the first section of the Museums. We viewed priceless Greek and Roman sculptures, including the incredibly detailed ‘Laocoon‘ (above) and many busts and sculptures of the various Roman emperors. From there we continued through open courtyards into a long hall to view huge maps frescoed on the walls of the Gallery of Maps, depicting all of Renaissance Italy. On a personal note, we found the frescoed map which included the small village in northern Italy where my father was born; it was a very moving experience.
The Gallery of Tapestries holds intricate 16th century tapestries depicting the life of Jesus Christ. There is one in which the eyes of Christ seem to follow you down the hall as you move. You may be amazed, and a little disturbed, by the sensation of being followed by Jesus himself.
Linger in the Sistine Chapel
Our Angel Tour included the Sistine Chapel, which is part of the vast Museum network. It was a privilege to stand underneath, look up and marvel at all of the magnificent works of Michaelangelo, and learn more about the interesting and curious history of the man himself. Apparently, Michaelangelo didn’t like women, and his art was prone to including people he didn’t like in his artwork in very unflattering poses and positions.
I never would have known any of this fascinating information without the benefit of our Angel Tours Guide, and it really added to the high quality of our Museum visit. We were able to stay for a long time in the Chapel, before exiting to the final part of the Tour, St. Peter’s Basilica. I highly recommend drinking in this famous scene as long as you can. It’s not often we’re able to experience such historic and artistic beauty!
Spend time in St. Peter’s Basilica
St. Peter’s Basilica is the largest Christian Church in the world, according to most estimations. There are many works of art to see, including paintings and sculptures such as the ‘Pieta‘ by Michaelangelo, as well as mummified remains of previous popes. Such curiosities may be of particular interest to your kids if they like the morbidly fascinating things like mine do. The impressive ‘baldacchino‘ by Bernini, is made entirely of bronze and stands below the dome and above the alter. It is a focal point in the church as its sheer size dwarfs everything else around it. If you’re a person of faith, the large confessionals are open and there are priests of every culture and language present to hear your Vatican confession. Our ten-year old was moved to take advantage of this unique opportunity and stroke of good timing, as we visited right before Easter.
Climb to the Dome of St. Peter’s
If you’re feeling brave, think about climbing up to the viewing area on the Dome of St. Peter’s. The stairway is narrow, steep and winding, and at one point you cross the interior of the dome to access more staircases – this can be pretty hair-raising if you’re afraid of heights like I am. Luckily, our kids had no problem and practically raced up the stairs. The view of Rome from the roof is spectacular and absolutely worth the climb to get there. You can walk all around the Dome and on a clear day view the entire city and seven hills – perfect for photo opportunities and teenaged selfies.
Visit on the last Sunday of the Month
The Vatican Museums are free to the public on the last Sunday of each month. The line-ups are long, but if you don’t mind the crowds, this is the day to rise and shine early!
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Photo Credit: C. Laroye
Have you visited Rome and the Vatican Museums? What did you enjoy most? Share your comments below.