Road trip update: An abbreviated tour of the Vatican

I didn’t think it was possible to see the Vatican in half a day. But after hitting the highlights of Rome in just seven hours yesterday, I shouldn’t have been so skeptical.

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Yes, it can be done.

If you arrive early enough (before 8 a.m., which for a busload of jetlagging Americans was not easy) and enter the Vatican Museum, cut through the exhibits to the Sistine Chapel, and then hit St. Peter’s via a shortcut used only by Vatican insiders and tour groups with special permission, thereby avoiding a long line, it’s possible.

Should you do it? Maybe.

Before I go on, a disclaimer: I’ve tried to keep this site as religion-free as possible. I have a personal reason for doing that. I come from a religious home, and over time have come to believe that arguments about matters of faith are counter-productive and ultimately, unwinnable.

But the Vatican happens to be one of the most sacred sites on the planet, so it’s hard to keep the religion out of it. I’ll try to remain as neutral as possible.

The Vatican Museum contains some of the most impressive works of art and artifacts anywhere. If you go, spend at least a day to admire its treasures. Sadly for me, we only had a few minutes to see some statues and tapestries. (Our kids were delighted – you’ve seen one marble bust, you’ve seen ‘em all, according to them.)

I have mixed feelings about the Sistine Chapel. Were it not for the remarkable painted frescoes, it would be an ordinary chapel. But Michelangelo’s paintings make the walls come alive with scenes from the Bible. The kids wanted to point and talk about what they saw (“Where’s God?” Iden asked).

The guards, who walked around hushing everyone up, and their silly “no photographs” policy, really put a damper on what would have otherwise been an amazing, if not spiritual experience. How about a little understanding for the littlest patrons who are seeing one of the world’s greatest works of art?

Since we were visiting the Holy See on a Saturday, St. Peters was crowded to capacity. Everything in the world’s first megachurch is larger than life, from its statues to its altar. It is an altogether mindblowing experience, even when you’re sharing it with thousands of others.

The most emotional moment came when we passed the tomb of John Paul II, who was recently beatified. Many had come to pray in front of the tomb, and you could tell this pontiff was still missed by many in the church.

I liked the level just below the church – the catacombs – the best. Many of the popes are buried here, and next to St. Peter’s tomb, there’s a simply altar and a few wooden pews. Although I am not Catholic, and would never be mistaken for a saint, this is where I came closest to having a religious experience.

“What did you like best about the Vatican?” I asked my youngest daughter afterwards.

“The chapel,” she said, without hesitating.

“Shhhhhhhh!” she added, imitating the guards that tried to quiet an exuberant four-year-old from admiring Michelangelo.

Oh well. Maybe next time we’ll come here in the winter – and take our time.

16 thoughts on “Road trip update: An abbreviated tour of the Vatican

  1. When the GF and I went to Rome, we hired a local art expert (who spoke English as well as Italian) to take us to the major sites. The GF loves art and art history. I started out more like your kids, but the longer I listened, the more I became interested in it. There’s some pretty fascinating stuff there, not just the art, but the stories behind it. We didn’t get a chance to go to the catacombs, but if we ever go back, that’s high on my list.

    One thing that happened to us in the Sistine Chapel might be worth noting for any future visitors…

    There was huge crowd in the Chapel that day, and the guards were pretty rude. Even though it was library-quiet, they were loudly shouting in a few languages for people to shush. My GF was looking up at the ceiling when someone in the crowd jostled her and she fell off the small riser/sidewalk thing in there. She called out for help because she gave her ankle a good twist and had felt a hand in her pocket. Though, when she turned around, the pickpocket was gone. Two guards came over to her and berated her for making noise as I helped her up. They brought us out of the Chapel and our guide explained in Italian what had happened. (Even though it should’ve been obvious…) 

    Fortunately, all the pickpockets stole was a shopping list and phrase card that my GF had in her back pocket. The guards talked in low tones amongst themselves, occassionaly giving us “the eye” and then agreed to let us back in. 

    While we were in there a second time, the same thing happened to another person, but his wallet was stolen. He was shouting in French that he had just been robbed. What happened after that, I don’t know. I saw the man and his family leave with two of the guards.

    So…when you go the Sistine Chapel, beware of the pickpockets!

  2. As an American living in Rome, I have taken visitors to the Sistine Chapel at least 5 million times, or at least it feels like it.  I totally agree, the barking about “no photos” and “shhhhh” can be extremely abrasive.  BUT I’ve also seen countless cruiseships-full of tourists in there chatting away like they’re sitting in the Hard Rock Cafe, and have even been treated to some loud, virulent anti-Christian diatribes by persons standing near us (and you were forced to come in here, maybe?).  Silence is golden, especially in a chapel.

    As for taking photographs: there is a private company that paid for the multi-zillion-dollar, 14-year cleaning project back in the 1980’s and 90’s–the Vatican didn’t pay a dime.  In exchange, the Vatican agreed that that company has sole rights to ALL photographs of the Chapel for a certain period of time–I believe it’s 20 years but am not sure.  They get a cut from the sale of any postcard, poster, or cheesy souvenir with The Creation of Adam on it.  Anyone who photographs the chapel without authorization is therefore violating the accord between that company and the Vatican, so the museum-staff are obliged to prevent it from happening as best they can.  Unfortunately, the way in which they do that indicates that they tend to forget that Mussolini is long gone.  Vatican City may be an independent country, but believe me, the museum staff are all very much Italian (as am I, for the record)… 

  3. Might be annoying, but aside from the property rights Clare mentioned on the photos, flash photography can damage the frescoes in the Sistine Chapel.  Too many tourists don’t really care.

    I realize people like photos of their trips (look at me in front of the fill-in-blank), but sometimes the great part of travel is just knowing you been somewhere and seen something amazing.  You don’t need proof to show to others.  Just enjoy the being there.

    And as for the quiet environment… well, it’s the church where the popes have been elected for thousands of years.  I’ve been in mosques and removed my shoes and been respectful of those who are there to pray.  I’ve been at the Western Wall in Jerusalem but remained far away from the Jewish people praying at the wall out of respect for their worship.  You can admire a heritage site and stand in awe without being loud about it.

  4. When my husband and I took our 13-year old granddaughter to the Vatican 5 years ago the guard was worse than rude.  He said she couldn’t come in, because she was wearing a spaghetti-strap top, then turned his back on us.  We had been standing in line at least an hour.  My husband walked all the way out to a street vendor & bought her a shawl to cover up with.  We went back to the same guard, he took one look at her and said “her skirt’s too short,” and turned his back again.  We cringed in a corner, not knowing what to do.  Mind you, the guards were not consistent; we saw grown women in halter tops and less being let in!  After a while we saw the nasty guard leave his station.  So we walked up to another guard, and got waved in, no problem.

    Regarding shoplifting — we are in Paris now, and our nephew was here with us for a few days.  The other day when we were out I took off my ring when I was in the toilette and pinned it to the inside of my bra, because I felt a little nervous about wearing it.  The nephew laughed at me and said I was over-reacting.  Less than an hour later he saw a pickpocket on the metro reach into a woman’s backpack, grab something, then jump off the metro just before it pulled way.  The nephew is still kicking himself for not doing something to stop the thief.  You can’t be too careful, you should always be aware of your vulnerabilities, especially when you’re in unfamiliar territory.

  5. Sounds like you saw/experienced a lot, especially with kids in tow.  I would  side with others here who feel the “silencers” there are a better alternative than the talkers, cell phone users and unethical photographers. 

  6. Chris, I agree, first with your claim about the universality of religion, the
    importance of the Vatican and that it can be seen in less than a day. In 1976 I joined with a group of strangers on a plane to visit Rome & the Vatican.  We visited the Vatican on St. Michael’s Day.  The Pope gave the many assembled in the grounds a blessing that all could hear. We saw some of the many statute including David.  We viewed Michaelangelo’s magnificent work. We also sat in a huge audience with people from all walks and ways of life, to hear the Pope deliver a message in different languages.  It was
    memorable, perhaps more to some than others. There were two ladies with me.  One, a very religious person had waited all her life to come here.There were Nuns, Priest, Brothers of many religions. Our friend stumbled a little walking out of the church. But she was in heaven. She seemed so blessed
    We helped her a bit back to the bus.  A few months after returning home to the US, we learned she had passed away. She passed away with the love of God deeply in her soul and all around. We helped just a little and she got to clearly see/feel/hear the one place, one person in the world that her heart had called.

  7. Chris…I was in Rome this time last year.  I took 2 tours of the Vatican; one was on a Friday night called the Art and History tour, the other was the next day called the Art and Religion.  Both were spectacular though the one on Friday night allowed the Sistine Chapel to be seen at a much slower pace.  The ceiling is amazing.  The one on Saturday was actually led by a nun from England and was hilarious.  Of course the Vatican was extremely crowded and you could hardly move while in the Chapel.  Lots of “shhhhh” and “no photos” being told to everyone.  The guards would shhhh the crowd and they would grow silent for a bit until a new group would come and get loud again.  Overall, I am glad I took the tour.  One of the big highlights of my time in Rome.  The only thing that could have topped it off was to actually see the Pope (he was out of town in the Italian Alps on vacation).

  8. I’ve given up on Italy because of the crass commercialism and the hypocrisy. The churches, especially in the Vatican City, are strictly a money-grab and the sexism is beyond belief; I once saw a young couple, both in shorts and tank tops, be told that he could go in but she couldn’t.  He grabbed the guard by the throat, slammed him up against the wall, then in they went.  And you know?  The crowd was entirely on their side. No one called the police and by the time the guard knew which end was up, he couldn’t find them.  It’s not worth it – there are better places to visit in Europe.

    1. Is Italy really more “commercial” than other European countries? I have been to all and could not say one is more commercial than another. I don’t think there is any country more interesting from an architectural/art/musical and historical perspective.

      As far as the guy in shorts, I just hope he was not from the USA or he truly would have lived up to the name of “ugly American”….

      1. Yes, Italy is way more commercial than any of the other European countries
        I’ve visited (which is most of them), and far more sexist too.  As for the guy
        in shorts, that was my point – normally, I think any crowd would have been on
        the side of the guard who was being slammed around by the young guy.  But in
        this case, because the man and the woman were dressed exactly the same, even the
        locals could see the guard’s sexism and sided with the tourists. I saw this kind
        of thing once before (pre-9/11, obviously) when a man arrived for a Laker
        Airways flight and was told he’d been bumped.  He objected, saying that it was
        the third time that day that Laker had bumped him; it was someone else’s turn.  When the agent still refused to
        put him on the flight, he grabbed the agent by the throat, lifted him into the air and said that he _was_ getting on the plane.  And the entire – and I do
        mean entire – crowd of people waiting for the flight applauded!  The police
        were not called and yes, he got his seat on the flight. I’m against violence,
        but it was impossible not to sympathize. Even back then, the airlines were evil and public sympathy tended to be with the underdog!

        1. OK, we’ll continue to disagree. You say it is, I say it isn’t.

          But this discussion does bring up what I think are more important points about travel.  The lesser issue is what “ethics” do we bring with us or expect from a visit that would effect where/how/when we travel?  I would not forgo visiting a country that is chauvinistic (and most are) if there were freedom in the country and a lot to be gained by going there. 

          More importantly, what “behaviors” do we bring to or expect from places we travel to?  It’s not called Vatican City for nothing.  The Vatican has separated itself from greater Rome in any number of ways including having its own police force.  Everyone knows that a dress code is going to be enforced and that there will be lots of rules not necessarily implemented at other (dozens and dozens) treasures of Rome.  This thug who manhandled the guard was SO wrong and if he had attempted that in other locales (countries that are extremely strict with their dress codes, laws and rules), he would have been chased and jailed.  If we don’t like the restrictions on where we are traveling, then we don’t have to go, do we?

    2. Your mathematical calculations are certainly interesting.  “The churches, especially in the Vatican City, are strictly a money-grab,” and yet there is no charge whatsoever for entering a church, including St. Peter’s.  The Vatican spends oodles each year on cleaning, maintenance, security, etc. etc. so everyone can enter the Basilica of St. Peter, for free.  The Vatican Museums charge an admissions fee just like any other museum does, and from what art conservationists and curators have told me, they sure ain’t making any profit–far from it. 

      Perhaps you were one of those I mentioned in an earlier post, standing next to me in the Sistine Chapel loudly criticizing religion? 

  9. Hey Chris, if you didn’t visit the excavations (located UNDER the catacombs where the popes are buried) you missed the best part of going to the Vatican.


    There are a series of Etruscan tombs (including the tomb of St Peter) that can only be seen as part of a special group at the Ufizi Scavi office. There you will find the tombs that original populated Vatican hill and were burried when the basillica was built.

    Reservations are required months+ in advance and are limited to 300 people per day. It’s truley a site to see.

  10. After spending much longer than you visiting the Vatican back in 1999, I needed to find “The Facilities.”  My reaction to them:  Too bad the Pope didn’t hold back a few lire from the Museum’s art fund to buy seats for the commodes — the cost-savings on one less marble bust would have “covered” the toilets.

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