It was 7:30 on a chilly winter morning in Rome and we were speed walking to the Vatican Museum entrance. Running slightly late, as always, but we had to stop for quick cappuccinos and croissants. We needed our energy for the next three and a half hours for a complete immersion in the amazing art and history housed in the Vatican Museums.
One of our favorite experiences during our Rome trip was a Privileged Entrance Vatican Tour with the Roman Guy. The tour begins at the entrance of the Vatican Museums a full hour before the Vatican opens. Privileged Entrance means that we can enter before the other tours get in! The Vatican sees almost 30,000 visitors daily on average, maybe 20,000 in the winter. Every minute in the hour before everyone else counts!
Our guide, Monica Carosi, wowed us with fun facts about Michelangelo even while we were in line for tickets. She continued to wow us during the tour by bringing us to each and every spot before the crowds hit. Her instincts were uncanny, probably borne out of her two decades of experience.
Monica introduced us to Gianni Crea, the head key-keeper of the Vatican Museums, responsible for opening the doors of the museums. Do you know how many keys he uses every single day? 2797! We also got to see and hold the keys to the Vatican! This was probably my favorite moment of the tour, an experience I would have never had without Monica and the Roman Guy.
We then made our way to the Fontana della Pigna, basically a large pine-cone from the 1st century BC in the middle of a courtyard. I probably don’t need to mention that we were the only group there so we could photograph it and admire it to our hearts content!
The modern globe across the courtyard which reflects St Peter’s Dome is a striking juxtaposition of ancient and modern.
After feasting our eyes on the pinecone, we walked from one beautiful room to the other, looking at the Vatican’s collection of statues, paintings, beautiful tapestries and ancient scrolls.
When you are at the Vatican, don’t forget to look up! Often, the most wonderful and intricate paintings are on the ceiling!
We learned that marble statues with extra art painted on them like the spots on this leopard are rare.
We also learned that there is only one statue which actually has eyes. They reused the the glass from the eyes of other statues to make the windows at the Vatican! ‘Reuse’ seemed to be the motto of the Romans, who also took marble from the Colosseum for the Vatican, a door from the Pantheon and scores of other materials from historical places.
Another interesting fun fact was that the ‘modesty fig leaves’ were added quite recently, so as not to offend the visiting Yasser Arafat thirty years ago!
As a travel blogger, I loved the room with the maps the best! Especially this map of the Italy of the past!
The corridor with hanging tapestries was amazing too, especially the particular tapestry of Jesus whose eyes follow you as you walk along. Monica explained that this magic has to do with the shifting perspectives due to the woven silk, wool, silver and gold. It catches the light from all angles!
The Raphael Rooms are also fun. On the walls are frescos by Raphael where he painted a scene with the faces of his buddies. The picture here shows his depiction of Michelangelo, who he seems to have looked up to as a mentor rather than a rival.
Monica also showed us a Jewish star on the tiled flooring. At the time, Jews and Christians lived in harmony in Rome.
The Sistine Chapel left me speechless. Even now, it’s hard for me to find the words to write about it. Complete silence is mandated in the Sistine Chapel. This is an amazing rule! It leaves you free to admire Michelangelo’s art in peace, even though there are thousands of other people there in reality. There are benches lining the sides. I recommend you sit there and just breathe for a few minutes. It’s the perfect meditation!
While you stare at the ceiling, which is Michelangelo’s masterpiece, think of this fun fact. Michaelangelo did not actually paint the underwear covering the private parts. Daniele da Volterra added it in later for modesty. This earned him the nickname of ‘Il Braghettone’ or pants maker!
Please note that you are not allowed to take pictures in the Sistine Chapel. Do not disobey the rules, I saw plenty of tourists who tried to sneak in pictures get reprimanded.
The Papal Conclave (election of the new Pope) has been held in the Sistine Chapel since 1870. Monica pointed out to us the door to the Room of Tears. This room earned its name because each new Pope who is led to the room after his election has burst into tears upon entering.
Our tour culminated in St. Peters Basilica. We could enter the Basilica from a private door behind the Sistine Chapel, by-passing the gigantic line outside. Monica showed us the Holy Door which the Pope breaks down and opens every twenty-five years. If you pass through the door, you can be cleansed of all your sins. Unfortunately for us, the Holy Door was not open so we entered through another one. As usual, we got to St. Peter’s statue just before the line started to touch his feet. Notice how his right foot is completely worn down from centuries of pilgrims touching it!
St Peters Basilica is majestic. There are so many beautiful things in this space, that I don’t think I could take them all in even if I spent hours there! However, my favorite was Bernini’s sculpture on the tomb of Pope Alexander VII. The details of the figure of Death with his hourglass and the beautifully folded stone are magnificent!
We regretfully said goodbye to Monica at St Peters. Even her goodbye came with a useful tip that the water from the water fountains all over Rome is completely drinkable! So carry your water bottle around with you and refill to your hearts content.
After the tour, you have the option to climb up St. Peters Basilica, or see other parts of the Vatican. However the 3.5 hours with the Roman Guy were comprehensive enough for us. They say that if you spend 1 minute in front of each art work in the Vatican Museums, it would take you four years to get through it! We were so grateful to have experienced and learned so much in 3.5 hours!
Our eyes, hearts and brains were completely satiated, so we set off to satiate our stomachs! Note that everything immediately around the Vatican is super touristy. According to Monica, some of those restaurants even serve microwaved food! Please save yourself from this disgusting trap, and walk a little further along.
On our way out, we saw the mile long line snaking along the entire courtyard. We felt even more thankful for the Roman Guy’s Privileged Entrance tour after seeing that!
We ate lunch at Pinsa m’ Po recommended by my friend Anja from The Mint Story. It’s a cute little pizza shop on a side street! The bread was probably the most delicious we’ve ever had. They also had fresh chilies to grind on to the pizza, rather than chili flakes. As a connoisseur of red chilies, I can attest that this was the best kick of spice! We shared a coke and reminisced on our favorite parts of the tour.
To summarize, the Privileged Entrance Tour with Sistine Chapel by the Roman Guy is a must-do in Rome because
- You can enter the Vatican one hour before anyone else and hence see most of the rooms crowd free
- The group sizes are small so you get plenty of 1:1 time with your guide
- The guides are amazing, ours was a trained art historian with twenty years of experience leading Vatican Museums tours
- You get to meet people like the key-keeper of the Vatican Museums and hold the keys to the museums!
- The guides share so many interesting tidbits you would otherwise never guess
- You get to skip the giant line to St Peters Basilica by going in through the side entrance right after the Sistine Chapel.
We were guests of the Roman Guy for this tour, but all thoughts and opinions are my own. I highly recommend booking the Privileged Entrance Vatican Tour with Sistine Chapel to beat the crowds and get the Vatican rooms to yourself for at least a few minutes!
I’ll post a detailed Rome itinerary soon, but meanwhile check out this guide to the Etruscan tombs of Tarquinia if you want to immerse yourself in more of the history around Rome!