I’m just going to jump in and say it – if you go to the Vatican museums on your own, unguided, you’re wasting your time.
I’ve lived in Rome, on and off at first, for the last 20 years and had been to the Vatican only once. I suppose part of that is because it’s what happens to people when they live near a tourist site – you assume you can go anytime because it’s right there, and prefer to wait for a time when it’s less crowded, which never happens. That’s a good explanation for why I didn’t go for the first 5 years of living here. The reason why I’d never gone back in the following 15 years is because the experience, frankly, wasn’t enjoyable. I’ve had visits to the dentist’s office that were better.
Does anyone really enjoy the Vatican museums? I’ve wondered this often as I hear our guests recount the days they dutifully spend there, first in line outside, then being herded through the labyrinthian hallways to catch a glimpse of the Sistine Chapel. Despite it being on everyone’s must see list, I’d never heard anyone go on about how amazing it was and how they wish they could have more of it. For the art historian, I can see how it would be like a kid in a candy store. But for the average Joe, I always wondered what they actually got out of it.
When my wife said she’d booked us on a 5 hour tour of the museums and St. Peter’s with Through Eternity, I first felt that this would be a great opportunity to see if I could finally, with authority, substantiate my negative opinions of the museum. Then reality hit and I wondered how on Earth I was going to make it through 5 hours of anything. Then I just gave up worrying about it and went with it, as zen and open as possible.
Spoiler alert – the Vatican is pretty incredible. However, it’s not an easy museum, and it’s not optimized for its visitors in any way. And I’m 100% convinced that it wouldn’t have been worthwhile had I wandered through it by myself without a guide. In the end, we were there 6 hours, and all of it, except the overpriced food, was great.
A visit to the Vatican Museums is a big commitment and as is true with all big commitments, you should be well informed. For example – know that if you go on your own without booking ahead, you’re looking at a really long wait to get in:
Perhaps an hour? Maybe more? As the picture shows, these folks look like they’ve been there a while already, and this line stretches all the way down the street and around the corner. This is, of course, the line for those who decided to show up without tickets. If you buy your ticket online and print it before arrival, you can jump this queue and go right to the entrance. From there, visitors are divided into two categories: individuals and group tours. If you’ve booked a tour with a guide, then you get even further preferential treatment. We walked straight past the line for individuals and went right in. I don’t even think we came to a full standstill. For a museum that gets about 25,000 visitors A DAY, that’s pretty incredible.
Once inside, you’re part of a crush of humanity, all wandering slowly, trying to determine where to put your attention – because there’s so many options. Our guide, Mario, told us that if you were to spend a few seconds in front of each painting in the entire complex, it would add up to about 25 years.
Here’s the thing – there are some wonderful, beautiful paintings in the Vatican Museums and if you want to visit unguided, you can stroll around and look at lots of pretty paintings and sculpture on a variety of themes, like Jesus, Jesus and Mary, Mary by herself, the Apostles, Jesus being crucified, Jesus being resurrected… I think you get my point – Catholicism is the main attraction. For someone who’s not religious, and doesn’t recognize the characters in the paintings or the stories being depicted, there’s only so much you can take of this. Maybe I’m just shallow and uncultured, but in the 1500′s it would have been amazing to see a painting that was realistically portrayed of a biblical scene. It would have been amazing to see a painting of anything that you had never before seen in real life – like a certain city or an animal or maybe the seaside. Throughout history, paintings were the only way to really see into someone else’s imagination, or a depiction of something outside your reality.
In 2016… less so.
My point is that I think realistically and honestly, it’s hard for many people to get out of paintings what people got out of them centuries ago. We’re jaded. We’ve seen it all – and in full motion, in 3D, and Photoshopped to perfection. Seeing pretty pictures just isn’t that amazing anymore. What makes them amazing, and interesting, is to understand them and the time in which they were made and the history behind them. It’s the technique and how it evolved. It’s the politics and motivations that surround them. It’s the life of the artists themselves. It’s all about the context, and to get that, you either need to study art seriously, or you need a guide.
Mario, our guide, was not only well informed and passionate, but also theatrical and compelling. Our visit combined the history of art, and how artists cultivated different techniques in different periods, to the history of religion itself and how religion and politics were (and in many cases still are) inseparable.
The visit to the museum, at that point, became a lot more than about just art. I think to fully understand Western history, you need to understand Rome, and to fully understand Rome, you need to understand its relation to the church. To understand that, and even more, to see it, you need to visit the Vatican Museums.
Some other tips about visiting the Museum & Saint Peter’s Basilica:
* The food is terrible and overpriced, so bring a pack lunch. If you leave after the museum to go eat, and then want to visit St. Peter’s, you’ll have to queue again, whereas if you go from the museum to St. Peter’s, you don’t have to.
* Bring little kids – if you’re crazy, a masochist, and/or a glutton for punishment. It’s just too crowded, too slow going, and too complex for them to enjoy it (in my opinion as the father of 3 daughters).
* Get there by metro or bus. You could walk, but it’s exhausting to stand for hours in a museum. Get there on a full tank, because you’ll be leaving on an empty one.
* Don’t forget to wear something that covers or can cover your knees and shoulders. It’s a sacred place, and God is weird about knees and shoulders.
* You don’t need a passport. Yes, the Vatican is technically a separate country, but there’s no border patrol.
* Plan to go up the dome of St. Peter’s. You can pay to take an elevator from the bottom to halfway, inside of the dome, looking down into St. Peter’s, and then you climb up through the dome itself to the very top. If you’re into taking photos, this is a must.
* If you want to hear the Pope’s audience on Wednesday or Sunday, get tickets in advance online, come pick them up before, and them come super early to get a good seat (like 5:30 / 6 am). Francesco is a popular Pope. He fills the house.
* Most importantly, go by yourself, and you’ll just be spending hours looking at old, pretty pictures. Book a tour with a well informed guide.
Thank you to Through Eternity who hosted me on this tour. Through Eternity is one of only a handful of tour companies we have recommended over the years and if you are staying at our hostel, The Beehive, guests there get an additional discount using a promo code.