You cannot possibly leave Rome without visiting Vatican City, a country that is only 110 acres with just under 1,000 inhabitants. Do not let the hordes of tourists deter you from enjoying this place. It would be like visiting Paris and never seeing the Eiffel Tower. However, I know it can be overwhelming to visit giant museums, and the Vatican Museums are no exception.
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Having a guide to show you the best of the best is essential when it comes to not only the Vatican Museums, but the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica too. Whether it’s a group tour, private tour, or an early entrance or evening tour, I highly recommend hiring a guide to help you appreciate these historic places. On my recent visit, I enjoyed having a local tour guide from Get Your Guide spend an afternoon with us in Vatican City.
To start off, we learned that the Vatican Museum rooms we see today used to be a 15th century palace with over 2,000 rooms, and also the official residence of the Pope. However, the current Pope chooses not to reside here permanently.
Remember when I mentioned how overwhelming museums can be? Fun fact: If you were to spend 60 seconds looking at each work of art in the Vatican Museums, it would take you 12 years. If that’s not reason enough to visit with a guide (at least for your first time), I do not know what is! A favorite room of mine was the Gallery of Maps filled with beautiful and colorful maps that are hundreds of years old. In 1580, Pope Gregory XIII commissioned geographer Ignazio Danti to decorate this room of the Vatican that is 120 meters long which is almost 400 feet. It took him 3 years to finish 40 panels that are large scale frescoes depicting the entire Italian peninsula. The results are absolutely stunning.
We ventured into the Raphael Rooms next which were commissioned by Pope Julius II in the 16th century who wanted to redecorate his apartments. These rooms were already covered in frescoes which Raphael and his team painted over and did not finish for 10 years. Thanks to our guide’s incredible knowledge and obvious passion, I really enjoyed listening to her describe the frescoes to us. Not only did we learn a lot about Raphael’s style and background, but also about his colleague (or rival!) Michelangelo, who was commissioned that same year to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
Unlike Raphael, Michelangelo absolutely hated painting, calling it woman’s work and initially refused to paint the Sistine Chapel. Even after he agreed, he fought with the church over the subject matter but eventually won. Despite his hatred for painting, he clearly had a gift which he claimed was divine inspiration. His style was very different from other painters of the time, as he painted free hand, with no drafts to help guide him. He would also paint for up to 18 hours a day which led him to finish the ceiling in only four and a half years whereas people expected it to take him 10 years!
Our guide explained all of this to us before entering the Sistine Chapel as you are not allowed to speak once you are inside, and photos are not allowed either. These strict rules actually allow you to fully take in this magnificent space without any distractions and I so appreciated that. It is absolutely breathtaking. The guided portion of our tour ended after 3 hours which was the perfect amount of time. I then recommend taking time to explore St. Peter’s Basilica and St. Peter’s Square on your own. But do not leave Vatican City without getting a famous slice of pizza from Alice Pizza, a favorite amongst locals which our guide shared with us.