Vatican Museums ★★★

The spiral staircase, Vatican Museums, Rome, Italy (Photo © Reid Bramblett)
The spiral staircase

Rome's Vatican Museums encompass some of the greatest art in the world, from Roman and Egyptian antiquities to paintings by Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael, to the Sistine Chapel with its amazing ceiling frescoed by Michelangelo

The Vatican harbors one of the world's greatest museum complexes, a series of some twelve collections and apartments whose highlights include Michelangelo's incomparable Sistine Chapel and the Raphael Rooms.

It's a good idea to get up extra early and be at the grand new monumental museum entrance (next door to the old one) before it opens—30 minutes before in summer—or be prepared to wait behind a dozen bus loads of tourists.

In fact, you should aim to do the Vatican Museums first, St. Peter's second, since they start shooing you out the museum doors at 3:30pm most days, 1:30pm many Saturdays (and, on the last Sunday of the month when it opens its doors for free, at 12:30pm).

Which is the best itinerary to take through the Vatican?

There are basically four itineraries you can follow, depending on your interests and amount of time (it would be nearly impossible to try to see it all in one day—though you could breeze through each section in six hours or so).

  • Beeline to the Sistine: The least rewarding route is also the shortest. The "Cappella Sistina—Corso Breve" makes a left at your first intersection, than loops around through the very corner of the Egyptian Museum to get to the long Gallery of Maps to the Sistine Chapel. This route is used almost exclusively by big bus tours and idiots who are only interested in checking "Sistine Chapel" off their list. It takes about 60–90 minutes.
  • The Michelangelo and Raphael quickie: Nearly as bad as the route above, this itinerary follows the same path to get to the Gallery of Maps, but instead of going directly into the Sistine Chapel, it takes a detour through the Papal Apartments—the Raphael Rooms and Borgia Apartments—and the modern art (not because anyone really wants to, but because you have to pass through it to get to the next part). Then you get to see the Sistine Chapel; then you leave. Again, this route is mostly designed for big tour groups and those list-checking chuckleheads. It takes about two hours.
  • ★ All the best bits: This is what I would do if you really don't have all day. At that first intersection, turn right instead of left so you can spend a good 45–60 minutes among the Old Masters in the Vatican Pinacoteca painting gallery. Then go back to the intersection and continue straight to follow the signs for the "Percorso Completo." This will route you through the ancient Greek and Roman treasures of the Chiaramonti Museum/Braccio Nuovo and the Pio Clementino, as well as the Etruscan and Egyptian collections, before heading down that long Gallery of Maps. 

    (Before you do so, I'd recommend overpaying for a cappuccino and a snack at the café off the Cortile della Pigna. You're art-appreciation energies are probably seriously flagging by now, and you need a breather to regroup because the best is yet to come.) 

    At the end of the Gallery of Maps, take that left detour to see those Papal Apartments (the Raphael Rooms and Borgia Apartments) and the modern art. Spend a few minutes inside the Sistine Chapel before embarking on another long corridor back toward where you started to exit. Give it at least 3.5–4 hours.
  • Everything: Nerd that I am, this is what I always do. Do everything just as above, only after the Sistine Chapel, instead of exiting, you continue on to to the modern buildings which house the remaining Vatican museums: The Profane (more ancient Roman and Greek goodies), Pio Christian (ancient Christian goodies), and Missionary-Ethonological (stuff from the rest of the world). Diehards will even take time for the Numismatic collection and the Pavilion of Papal Carriages. This will take you all day—five hours at least.

To any tour add 30–45 minutes for waiting in lines (unless you book tickets ahead of time).

Here are the Vatican's top sections (though note that the way they route you through, the Sistine Chapel comes near the end of all the main sections).

Sections of the Vatican

Inside the Sistine Chapel (Photo by Neil Howard)

The most famous fresco in the world: from Michelangelo's famous ceiling to his Last Judgment and the sadly overlooked walls by Perugino, Botticelli, and Signorelli

Room XII (17th century) (Photo by Petar Milošević)

The Vatican Museum's Pinacoteca is the best painting gallery in all of Rome

The Stanza della Segnatura is the most famous of the four Raphael Rooms (Photo by Lure)

The Vatican's Stanze di Raffaello (Raphael Rooms) are a series of papal apartments frescoed by Raphael with the School of Athens and other masterpieces

The Sala Rotunda is lined by colossal ancient Roman statues (Photo by Renato Grisa)

The Vatican's Pio-Clementino Museum is one of Rome's best collections of ancient Greek and Roman statues

Sala dei Santi (1492–94) frescoed by Pinturicchio (Photo by Photo Scala, Florence)

The Vatican's Appartamento Borgia (Borgia Apartments) were the private chambers of Borgia Pope Alexander VI, frescoed by early Renaissance master Pinturicchio

An ancient Greek floor mosaic of an "unswept floor" after a banquet (Photo by Yann Forget)

The Vatican's "profane" museum is filled with a potpourri of pagan art—mostly Greek

St. Stephen, lunette of the north wall, (1447–49) by Fra Angelico (Photo Public Domain)

The Vatican's Cappella Niccolina (Chapel of Nicholas V) was frescoed by Fra' Angelico

Mars of Todi (Photo by Jean-Pol GRANDMONT)

The Vatican's amazing collection of ancient Etruscan artifacts

Room III. Reconstruction of the Serapeum of the Canopus of Hadrian’s Villa, Tivoli (Photo by Darafsh)

The Vatican's collection of antiquities from ancient Egypt

Marble statue of The Good Shepherd carrying a lamb, c. 300-350, from the Catacombs of Domitilla (Photo by Carole Raddato)

The Vatican's Pio Christian Museum contains some of the oldest Christian art in the world, some dating back to within 150 years of Christ's death

Pilgrimage (2010) by Yvonne O’Neill, an Aboriginal Murri artist from Goodooga in northern New South Wales, Australia (Photo courtesy of the Vatican Museums)

The Vatican Museums "ethnological museum" is a collection of objects from cultures around the world collected by missionaries

The Matisse Chapel in Room 14 (Photo courtesy of the Vatican Museums)

The Vatican Museums's early and modern religious art

The Chiaramonti gallery (Photo by Jorge Cortell)

Loads of ancient Roman statues in the Vatican

The Cortile della Pigna, with Pomodoro's 1990 Sphere within Sphere (Photo by Gabriel Tocu)

The Vatican's public courtyard makes for a lovely museum break, offering grass and sun and a giant modern sculpture by Arnaldo Pomodoro

The Vatican Gardens (Photo by Stefan Bauer)

The Pope's private playground

Colombario VIII from the age of Nero, perhaps for members of a funerary collective (Photo by Sailko)

The Vatican Necropolis of the Via Triumphalis is a series of Roman-era tombs excavated under the Vatican Gardens

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How long do the Vatican Museums take?

Spend all day at the Vatican. Two days if you can swing it.

  • Even on a tight schedule, expect to spend at least 2–3 hours in the museums themselves, plus another hour St. Peter's around the corner. They're worth it.

Warning: The ticket office closes 2 hours before the museum, with the last entry at 4pm.

Book ahead

You can book Vatican entry tickets ahead of time to help avoid the lines, which can last for up to an hour or so in the summer. However, this adds a €4 fee to the already steep admission of €17. Or you can do it online via one of our partners:

Dress code?

Recently, the Vatican (or at least some guards) seems to have decided that you must dress "appropriately" to visit any part of Vatican City—including the museums—and not just St. Peter's, where a dress code has long applied.

Err on the side of caution and make sure you arrive with no bare shoulders, knees or midriffs.

That means: no shorts, no miniskirts, no sleeveless shirts or blouses, no tank-tops. Also, no hats.

(If it's hot and you want to wear a tank top around town that day, just bring a light shawl to cover your shoulders while inside.)

Also, you cannot bring into the museum any bag or backpack larger than 40cm x 35cm x 15cm (roughly 16" x 14" x 6")—there is a cloackroom where you can leave it.

» more on packing the right items for an Italy trip

Admission quirks: When the Vatican is free, closed, crowded, open late, etc.

Vatican Museum free days

The Vatican Museums are free on the last Sunday of each month, when they stay open until 2pm (last entry: 12:30pm). This, however, is no secret, so they are also intensely crowded.

On any other Sunday, however, the Vatican Museum are closed—and if that final Sunday of the month happens falls on a church holiday (see below), they also remain closed.

The Vatican is also free on Sept. 27 (World Tourism Day).

Vatican most crowded on Sun and Wed

The Vatican Museums are most crowded on Sundays (because they're free) and many Wednesdays (because in the morning St. Peter's itself is often closed for the papal audience in the piazza, so everyone who doesn't have tickets walks around the walls to kill time inside the museums, and by afternoon all the audience-goers join them).

Open late on summer Fridays

The Vatican has been experimenting with reopening the museums on Friday evenings spring through fall allowing a limited number of visitors—upon advance booking only—to wander the mooonlit galleries without the crowds.

To book:

Vatican closed on church holidays

The Vatican Museums are closed on all church holidays: Jan. 1, Jan. 6, Feb. 11, Mar. 19, Easter Sunday and Monday, May 1, June 29 (Feast of St. Peter and Paul—major Roman holiday), Aug. 14–15 (everything is closed in Rome on Aug. 15; head to Santa Maria Maggiore for mass with a "snowfall" of rose petals), Nov. 1, Dec. 25 (Merry Christmas!), and Dec. 26 (Santo Stefano—huge in Italy).

Last entry: 4pm

Note that the Vatican Museums close surprisingly early (last entry at 4pm, doors close 6pm).

So see the Museums first, then walk around the walls to visit St. Peter's.

How to get to the Vatican Museums

Cipro-Musei Vaticani is the closest Metro stop (on the A line, about 5 blocks northwest of the entrance; just follow the crowds).

Otherwise, bus 49 stops right in front of the museum entrance (you can catch it from Piazza Cavour, or anywhere along Via Cescenzio, which starts at the northwestern tip of the piazza, near Castel Sant'Angelo).

You can also take bus 490 or 492 to Via Candia (two blocks north of the entrance), or one of many bus lines to Piazza del Risorgimento, tucked into a inside corner of the Vatican walls a short walk east of the musuems entrance: 23, 32, 81,Tram 19, 81, 492, 590, 982, and 990.

Useful Italian phrases

Useful Italian for sightseeing

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
Where is?... Dov'é doh-VAY
...the museum il museo eel moo-ZAY-yo
...the church la chiesa lah key-YAY-zah
...the cathedral il duomo [or] la cattedrale eel DUO-mo [or] lah cah-the-DRAH-leh
When is it open? Quando é aperto? KWAN-doh ay ah-PAIR-toh
When does it close? Quando si chiude? KWAN-doh see key-YOU-day
Closed day giorno di riposo JOR-no dee ree-PO-zo
Weekdays (Mon-Sat) feriali fair-ee-YA-lee
Sunday & holidays festivi fe-STEE-vee
ticket biglietto beel-YET-toh
two adults due adulti DOO-way ah-DOOL-tee
one child un bambino oon bahm-BEE-no
one student uno studente OO-noh stu-DENT-ay
one senior un pensionato oon pen-see-yo-NAH-toh

Basic phrases in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) pro-nun-see-YAY-shun
thank you grazie GRAT-tzee-yay
please per favore pair fa-VOHR-ray
yes si see
no no no
Do you speak English? Parla Inglese? PAR-la een-GLAY-zay
I don't understand Non capisco non ka-PEESK-koh
I'm sorry Mi dispiace mee dees-pee-YAT-chay
How much is it? Quanto costa? KWAN-toh COST-ah
That's too much É troppo ay TROH-po
Good day Buon giorno bwohn JOUR-noh
Good evening Buona sera BWOH-nah SAIR-rah
Good night Buona notte BWOH-nah NOTE-tay
Goodbye Arrivederci ah-ree-vah-DAIR-chee
Excuse me (to get attention) Scusi SKOO-zee
Excuse me (to get past someone) Permesso pair-MEH-so
Where is? Dov'é doh-VAY
...the bathroom il bagno eel BHAN-yoh
...train station la ferroviaria lah fair-o-vee-YAR-ree-yah
to the right à destra ah DEH-strah
to the left à sinistra ah see-NEEST-trah
straight ahead avanti [or] diritto ah-VAHN-tee [or] dee-REE-toh
information informazione in-for-ma-tzee-OH-nay

Days, months, and other calendar items in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
When is it open? Quando é aperto? KWAN-doh ay ah-PAIR-toh
When does it close? Quando si chiude? KWAN-doh see key-YOU-day
At what time... a che ora a kay O-rah
Yesterday ieri ee-YAIR-ee
Today oggi OH-jee
Tomorrow domani doh-MAHN-nee
Day after tomorrow dopo domani DOH-poh doh-MAHN-nee
a day un giorno oon je-YOR-no
Monday Lunedí loo-nay-DEE
Tuesday Martedí mar-tay-DEE
Wednesday Mercoledí mair-coh-lay-DEE
Thursday Giovedí jo-vay-DEE
Friday Venerdí ven-nair-DEE
Saturday Sabato SAH-baa-toh
Sunday Domenica doh-MEN-nee-ka
Mon-Sat Feriali fair-ee-YAHL-ee
Sun & holidays Festivi feh-STEE-vee
Daily Giornaliere joor-nahl-ee-YAIR-eh
a month una mese oon-ah MAY-zay
January gennaio jen-NAI-yo
February febbraio feh-BRI-yo
March marzo MAR-tzoh
April aprile ah-PREEL-ay
May maggio MAH-jee-oh
June giugno JEW-nyoh
July luglio LOO-lyoh
August agosto ah-GO-sto
September settembre set-TEM-bray
October ottobre oh-TOE-bray
November novembre no-VEM-bray
December dicembre de-CHEM-bray

Numbers in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
1 uno OO-no
2 due DOO-way
3 tre tray
4 quattro KWAH-troh
5 cinque CHEEN-kway
6 sei say
7 sette SET-tay
8 otto OH-toh
9 nove NO-vay
10 dieci dee-YAY-chee
11 undici OON-dee-chee
12 dodici DOH-dee-chee
13 tredici TRAY-dee-chee
14 quattordici kwa-TOR-dee-chee
15 quindici KWEEN-dee-chee
16 sedici SAY-dee-chee
17 diciasette dee-chee-ya-SET-tay
18 diciotto dee-CHO-toh
19 diciannove dee-chee-ya-NO-vay
20 venti VENT-tee
21* vent'uno* vent-OO-no
22* venti due* VENT-tee DOO-way
23* venti tre* VENT-tee TRAY
30 trenta TRAYN-tah
40 quaranta kwa-RAHN-tah
50 cinquanta cheen-KWAN-tah
60 sessanta say-SAHN-tah
70 settanta seh-TAHN-tah
80 ottanta oh-TAHN-tah
90 novanta no-VAHN-tah
100 cento CHEN-toh
1,000 mille MEEL-lay
5,000 cinque milla CHEEN-kway MEEL-lah
10,000 dieci milla dee-YAY-chee MEEL-lah

* You can use this formula for all Italian ten-place numbers—so 31 is trent'uno, 32 is trenta due, 33 is trenta tre, etc. Note that—like uno (one), otto (eight) also starts with a vowel—all "-8" numbers are also abbreviated (vent'otto, trent'otto, etc.).



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