When we started planning our trip to Rome, a trip to Vatican City to tour the Vatican Museums and St. Peter’s Basilica was on the tip-top of the list. After I hadn’t been able to secure a visit to see the Last Supper in Milan, I wasn’t taking any chances when it came to tours for the Vatican, and I booked well in advance. In fact, I booked a tour of the Vatican Museums/St. Peter’s Basilica as well as a tour of the Vatican Gardens and planned to trek up into the Dome at St. Peter’s Basilica.
I booked our tours out over two days – both in the morning. Our first day we had tour tickets to see the Vatican Museum and St. Peters. It was a Monday and we had tour tickets for 9:30am. It was a pretty morning and the air was crisp so we decided to walk along the Tiber from Travestere to Vatican City. Our first sighting was the Castel Sant’Angelo (below, left). It’s an imposing building (which I still haven’t been inside), which you see right before you cross the bridge into Vatican City. From there you have an almost clear shot to St. Peter’s Basilica (bottom, right). What’s interesting to point out is how empty the square was at 9am (this was NOT the case on Tuesday). We made our way up and realized the Museum tours were a bit of a walk away (to the left in the photo and around). The line here was pretty deep (if you go, get tickets ahead), and we were happy to take the fast track lane to security and onward to the group tours section.
Once inside we picked up our audio devices and met up with our tour guide. We exited the main building and made our way into the museums. As you can see from below, I have a thing for the ceilings in the Vatican museums. Everywhere you look there is amazing artwork and even painting that looks like plasterwork or marble carvings. I think one of my favorite hallways might be the one with Jim in the photo. I believe that is the hall of maps (interesting tidbit – our guide told us the maps on the wall are near identical to those on Google maps…what precision), but I found the ceiling that just went on and on for days to be unbelievably stunning (it’s leading up to the Sistine Chapel, which you’ll be able to see this long hallway in upcoming photos).
In addition to amazing ceilings, I’m also quite the fan of the near floor to ceiling tapestries, many of which were designed by Raphael. The first tapestry below involves an optical illusion. Essentially, Jesus is always looking at you whether you’re on the left or the right of the tapestry. I tried to get a photo to showcase this, but only 1 turned out (the other ways too blurry).
We also crammed into the Raphael rooms where Jim’s favorite painting was on display, School of Athens. This painting represents an idealized gathering of scholars and artists from the classical world, the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance, and constitutes one of Raphael’s greatest achievements. Raphael himself is said to be in the lower left (with the long hair, just behind the man in yellow) while Michelangelo is said to be the gentleman in the bottom center in purple. Leonardo da Vinci’s face is also said to represent Plato (in the top center, purple & red). It’s fascinating how many people are brought together in this painting and how many other faces given to those people. More on that here.
Photographs are not allowed inside the Sistine Chapel, so I have no photos from there, but this was the second time I had seen it and somehow it felt smaller this time. I’m not sure if the room was packed more tightly or if it took on a more wonderous quality when I was 12 years younger and far less traveled. Regardless, it is still an amazing sight to see. Our guide told us that any Vatican employees (like herself) could have their children baptized by the Pope in the Sistine Chapel. Neat.
After the Vatican museum tours, our guide led us into St. Peter’s Basilica. This is the second largest church in the world (the first is a replica of St. Peter’s in Africa’s ivory coast) and it feels like the largest church in the world. And every inch of it is covered with marble, paintings, or mosaic work. It’s a stunning sight to see. Unfortunately, the Pieta is hidden behind bulletproof glass (below, bottom right), but it is still one of the most remarkable sculptures I’ve ever seen. Not surprisingly, it is a work of Michelangelo (also of The David in Florence) and the only work he ever signed. It’s so wild to think Michelangelo was the architect for the church, painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and the Last Judgment on the alter wall, and sculpted the Pieta. Amazing.
As we walked around we came to the Statue of Saint Peter where Jim touched his foot (as is customary), asking that he be merciful and open the gates of heaven for him if he died during the pilgrimage. As you can seen from the photo, his foot has been worn down by all the visitors. Jim was instructed to simply slide his hand across. In the photo on the bottom left you can also see St. Peter’s Baldachin, or bronze canopy that sits directly under the dome and marks the burial place of St. Peter.
At the end of our tour, we opted to take the hike up into the Dome. It is something like 500 steps up, but you can take an elevator the first 250 or 300. We took the steps, which we joked was the most comfortable we’d been all day as it was surprisingly empty (there was a long line for the elevator). After the first set of steps, we were at the top of the dome on the inside of the church. Remember I said the church was much larger than it appeared. The letters in the photo below are 8 feet tall. 8 feet tall! That helps to put the entire building into perspective. What I also found amazing was all of the mosaic work (my favorite) throughout the interior. It’s gorgeous.
From there we walked up the remaining 250 or 300 some-odd steps to the outside of the dome. This is where I recommend you do this if you have a chance. The walk up is cramped (and hot) at some points, but it’s over before you know it and then you’re rewarded with amazing views of the city and the best shot you’ll ever get of St. Peter’s square. In the photos below you can see parts of the Vatican gardens (Pope Benedict lives just in front of that radio tower) as well as the long hallways leading up to the Sistine Chapel, but my favorite is definitely St. Peter’s Square. You can easily see the key formation (one of the keys to heaven). Once outside there is a cafe and bathrooms. The walk back down is also quite swift.
Once down, Jim insisted we get a look at the Swiss guards and their outfits also designed by Michelangelo (below, right). I’m a tad bit surprised no one has updated the outfits, but also glad they have not.
The following morning we took a similar route to Vatican City for our Vatican Gardens tour. The gardens have only been open to the public since Pope Francis succeeded Pope Benedict back in 2014. You see, apparently Pope Francis is not big on gardening and wanted to share the gardens with the world. We were excited to do something that not many people have ever done before and might never do again.
The fountain above has some famous turtles and serves as the side of the Science Center within Vatican City. In addition to gorgeous buildings (and perfectly manicured everything), there are also gorgeous fountains like the Eagle Fountain below.
Pope John Paul II was an avid gardener and spent a lot of time in the gardens. The above photo on the bottom right was his favorite spot in the gardens. In fact, there is a little tree stump that has been transformed into a chair, which is where he often sat.
I mentioned Pope Francis was not much of a gardener, but he does appreciate art and had the below cross commissioned. I believe it takes recycled materials and the work is completed by those in need.
Probably my favorite spot was the Italian and French gardens (below) as they’re what I’d expect when I think of a fancy garden. Just beyond the Italian Garden is the Vatican train station (which only goes to the Pope’s summer home).
At the end of our tour we were told our tickets were good for the Vatican Museums and we could go back in to see the Sistine Chapel, if we wanted to return. After much contemplation, we decided it’d be better to head out and get some lunch and rest up before our epic anniversary dinner.