There are a few iconic places that come to mind when you think of Rome. The Colosseum, the Pantheon and of course, St. Peter’s Basilica. The church is in Vatican City, a papal enclave within the city of Rome. You do not have to be of Christian faith to appreciate all that St. Peter’s, or this wonderous city, have to offer.
When planning our trip, this was a must see for us. We dedicated an entire day to explore the Basilica and Vatican Museums. Keep in mind this is the Pope’s Church and he does perform mass here quite often. His schedule is available online. This schedule is subject to change and does change frequently. The Pope generally gives a blessing from his apartment on St. Peter’s Square on Sunday and from the canopied platform on the square on Wednesdays. This alters in summer and winter months during non-pandemic times.
St. Peter’s Square
Our morning was to begin by wandering the area of St. Peter’s Square and then St. Peter’s Basilica. St. Peter’s Square is a large plaza directly in front of the grand church. At the center is an ancient Egyptian obelisk that has been in that spot since 1586. The famous Bernini designed the square that surrounds you in massive colonnades. His intention was to make you feel embraced by the mother church and he accomplished this task perfectly. The two fountains on either side of the obelisk pull everything together.
As with everything in life, be prepared for changes. Sometimes those unexpected interruptions end up being the highlight of your day or maybe even your trip. We chose Wednesday to visit Vatican City and St. Peter’s, with the far-off chance of catching a glimpse of the Pope. It was June and entering his summer schedule, so we did not dream of the possibility.
Picture it; Rome 2016, Craig and Jen walking hand in hand down Via della Conciliazione, smiles beaming for the world to see, when all of the sudden a familiar voice speaking in Italian can be heard over the sound system. We stop in our tracks, look at each other and at the same time say, “Is that the Pope!?”
Recognition dawns on both of our faces as we start to run ahead, fearful of missing our shot at seeing him, even from a distance. We reach the entry and go through security to make our way to the edge of the roped off section. There he was; a vision in white on the canopied platform. They had large monitors placed along the square, as well as speakers, so you could see and hear him. We stood in the silence absorbing the experience.
We have been to concerts and sporting events where large crowds chant or scream to their idols. This was different. This was a crowd gathered to embrace something good. They were listening to someone that inspired them. Perhaps they were coming to the end of their personal pilgrimage, in search of a life changing experience or simply looking for positive change. All walks of life, converging together in one place in peace. No one was shouting or shoving. Not a soul was angry that someone was closer than they were. Everyone was in a sense of awe and appreciation.
We snuck glances at each other to say Holy S*#T with our eyes (obviously not out loud, you cannot swear here.) We can tell you that we have stumbled upon some incredible things in our travels, but this by far was the most impactful and memorable. Be prepared for unexpected changes.
After the Pope gave his blessing (yes, we were blessed by the Pope-still cannot believe that) the crowd slowly dispersed. We chose to sit under the colonnade and take a minute to fully absorb what we just experienced. We were not able to go into the Basilica because it was closed due to the Pope’s formal audience, but we were more than happy with the upgraded morning.
We walked around the Plaza taking in the great work by Bernini and grabbed what came to be Craig’s favorite go-to lunch in Rome; a fresh panini from a food truck. When in Rome, try one!
The Vatican Museum
Now, on to the Vatican Museum. We have so much advice on this one! First and most importantly, make reservations. Go to the Vatican reservation website to reserve your day and time of entry. They will email you confirmation, you print out your voucher-so easy! If you skip this part, you will be in line for hours awaiting entry in the hot Italian sun.
Second, wear comfortable shoes. Jen chose this day to wear her “cute errand” shoes. Not the day to do this. The museum itself is four miles of displays, plus your walk to and from. Remember our Be the Tourist advice- wear your “I’m a tourist” shoes. You will thank us.
Third, do not forget the dress code. Modest clothing and no bare shoulders. It would be terrible to get there and be denied entry because you had a sleeveless dress on. Jen brought a light scarf with her everywhere to throw over her shoulders when necessary.
Lastly, if there is a certain statue you MUST see, make sure it is in this museum and not somewhere else… (more on this later.) It is not fun to go through this immense place twice in search of a sculpture that is not there. Don’t worry, he made up for it.
With tickets in hand, we made our trek from St. Peter’s Square to the Vatican Museum entrance. This is a fifteen-minute walk along Vatican City Wall. During your walk, you can admire the craftmanship of the 39-foot wall constructed in 852 and expanded upon in the 1640’s. All of Vatican Hill is encircled by this two-mile wall.
If you headed in the right direction (ahem), you would only have to walk just over a half a mile to the entrance. Depending on the day, you will quickly encounter the line for the tourists that did not make reservations. There is a rope in the middle of the sidewalk. Left for non-ticket holders and right for ticket holders. We zipped right past everyone, shocked to see how few people took the time to plan for their day. We flew to the entry doors, showed our passes and went right in.
The museum holds the finest art of Western civilization and is the location of the famous Sistine Chapel. It can be a bit overwhelming so plan accordingly. Maps are available to work out what you want to see and skip the parts that can be seen another time. We opted to see it all and it took about four hours. For a small fee, audio guides are available or you can book a guided tour. There are also plenty of guidebooks out there for you to do your own self-guided tour at your own pace.
We began with the Egypt and Mesopotamia section, the start of civilization. You will have the chance to see the Belvedere Torso, a 2,000-year-old torso that had a great impact on Michelangelo’s work. You will see a 4th century porphyry sarcophagi that were tombs meant for Royal Emperor Constantine’s mother and daughter. Both were made in Egypt with a tempering technique lost to the ages. You will then go down long halls of hanging tapestries, ancient maps and statues ruined by fig leaves covering what many thought at the time, inappropriate parts. (See Pope Pius IX and The Great Castration.)
For many, the highlight is the four Raphael Rooms that form a suite of reception rooms in the Apostolic Palace. It is famous for the frescoes, mostly painted by Raphael, and was originally made to be the apartments for Pope Julius II. After Raphael’s death in 1520, the rooms were finished by his assistants. The most famous of the frescoes is the School of Athens.
The great pre-Christian thinkers are honored; Aristotle and Plato, along with artists Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. Every inch of the room is a reflection of art. We spent time gawking at the attention to detail that went into a design for a Pope’s personal apartments. Craig should hire a famous artist to paint frescoes all over our house, it seems only fair.
The Sistine Chapel
From here, follow the crowd flow directly to the Sistine Chapel. Take in the sights along the ride. Our favorite was the Ceiling of the Gallery of Maps. In 1580 Pope Gregory XII commissioned Ignazio Danti to decorate the long hallway between the Papal Palace and the Sistine Chapel with maps of Italy. It is breathtaking in its grandeur and beauty. We both wish we could have lingered at this part, but that “flow” to the Sistine Chapel literally does not stop or even slow down. It is almost like being on a speed ramp at the airport, so don’t stop!
You are rushed through staircases and hallways, thinking you might possibly be on the wrong tour and are being led to a dungeon (or maybe we have watched too many movies.) Finally, the doors are within sight and staff members usher you in and encourage you to keep moving. We use the term encourage lightly here. Shouts of no photography are repeated on a constant track. We will admit that is not what we expected.
This is the Pope’s private chapel and the place where a new Pope is elected. We anticipated a certain calmness or serenity to take over. Unfortunately, due to the crowds, you are not quite able to achieve that feeling of peace. We did take the time to gaze upon Michelangelo’s greatest work. If you wish, you can book a private tour of the Sistine Chapel through Viator. We would like to try that next time to be able to appreciate the holy space with less commotion.
Jen could not help but notice how many people disobeyed the orders of no photography…..her husband being one of them. In his defense, he did get a great shot, the Creation of Adam. (Trust us, it’s a great story.) The overwhelming crowd forced us out quicker than we would have liked.
We continued our tour of display cases of previous Pope’s rings, place settings and the wealth owned within those walls. We took the opportunity to sit on the patio outside their cafeteria with a cappuccino. Every part of the Vatican Museum holds some part of a grand history of the world and we were so grateful to get a small glimpse.
While relaxing with our refreshment, Craig was baffled that we somehow missed the Pieta, the famous statue of Mary with the body of Christ. After some reluctance, Jen convinced Craig to go through the museum one more time to try and find it. This was the one and only sculpture that was on his must-see list and we would regret not trying one more time.
Back on our feet, we began our journey again. Oh look, another Madonna and Child as we raced through halls we had already seen. We joined the river flow back to the Sistine Chapel, to look up once and exit. As we got closer and closer to our beginnings Craig started to wonder where this thing was. Guess what? It is at St. Peter’s Basilica. Face palm. Totally fine.
St. Peter’s Basilica
It was already important for us to find time to get back to visit St. Peter’s Basilica, and now add on the infamous misplaced sculpture. We scrapped our Saturday plans of another museum and headed back to gain entrance to the Basilica. Words could never capture the grandeur of this building. Photos do not do it justice. The size is not something you can wrap your head around, nor is the meticulous detail something you can imagine.
The dome within is 448 feet high, the tallest in the world. Plaques on the floor show you where other grand churches would end if they were placed inside. The church can hold 60,000 celebrants on its six acres. There is more to it than the size and grandness. Please do not forget this is a sacred, holy place and as with any religious house, should be respected. Many ignore the dress code and use selfie sticks in front of famous Pope’s tombs. You do not have to believe in this religion to feel the depth of the meaning of this pilgrimage to many. Their faith is a physical force you can feel within the church and brings many to tears.
Ah, the Pieta, Michelangelo’s statue on Craig’s must-see list. It sat in all its glory behind bullet proof glass to the right of the entryway. I think we would have walked the Vatican Museum five times in order to see this just once. It’s hard to believe he sculpted this at just 24, or at any age for that matter. You can feel the pain emitting from the marble. The statue was so lifelike it was as if it were shimmering. Incredible.
This is on our must-see list for our return trip to Rome. When you feel a pull to a location, do not ignore it. We hope to take in the Vatican gardens next time and possibly take the hike up to the top of the dome to get a view of the city.
We hope we offered some helpful hints and maybe even some inspiration for your next trip! Have you been to Vatican City? What was your experience? Is to on your bucket list? Leave your comments in the section below. And remember to #NeverStopPlanning.
Jen and Craig