Rome – Prime Experience Vatican Museum Tour

Hi friends, welcome back to my Italy series! If you take away one thing from my Italy posts, I hope it’s this tour of the Vatican we did, it was worth EVERY penny! The Vatican Museum is a must visit for the priceless art and a look at the jaw dropping Sistine Chapel. It’s on everyone’s list which translates to MASSIVE CROWDS no matter what time you go. I was perusing the Vatican’s website because I usually prefer to book through the actual museums/sites and not a third party, and I saw the “Prime Experience – Vatican Museums” tickets. They included breakfast and a tour that began one hour before the museum opened for 68 euros a person. I found one blog about this experience and it sounded pretty promising, so I booked two tickets for a tour starting at 7:30am. I booked these three months in advance and would recommend booking early because they sell out pretty fast. You should also book these directly through the Vatican, it seems like third party companies don’t actually get in any earlier than the general public.

We took a cab and by the time we got to the museum a little after 7am, there was already a decent sized line outside the museum. We walked right in and through security in a few short minutes. There were a few groups of these tours, but they staggered the times by a few minutes so that there were only about 25 people in an area at one time. Our tour started upstairs through the Candelabra, Tapestries, Maps, Raphael Rooms, and ending in the Sistine Chapel. We got to cut through areas on our tour that aren’t accessible to the general admission, so this gave us some buffer time too.

The Vatican Museum was originally the pope’s palaces and was turned into a museum in 1506 by Pope Julius II, and opened to the public in 1771. No pictures could do this incredible museum justice, but I tried my best. Some highlights on our tour:

Candelabra Room

Diana the Huntress was the Roman goddess of hunting.

Artemis of Ephesus was a goddess of fertility.

Bacchus has his original glass eyes, but originally didn’t have a fig leaf. The Vatican added them from 1550-1800 because they thought the statues were obscene. The leaves are made of plaster and can be removed at any time.

The coat of arms of Pope Leo XIII made with lapis lazuli. Back then lapis lazuli could only be found in Afghanistan, so it was as expensive as gold.

This is how the hall was the second time we walked through around 11, we could hardly move!

The Tapestries Room shows the life of Christ from a baby in the manger to the Resurrection. In the Resurrection, Jesus’s eyes seem to follow you. Raphael and his students created the paintings for these to be weaved into tapestries. It’s pretty incredible how they could weave such detail onto such a large tapestry.

The Maps room was stunning, especially without the crowds blocking all the maps. These served as the pope’s personal maps from roughly the late 1500s until the 1800s.

The room later in the day…

The Renaissance Wing was where the pope’s living quarters were and are decorated by some of the most famous painters of the Renaissance times. Liberation of Vienna by Jan Matejko depicts Vienna defeating the Ottoman armies and King Jan Sobieski is on the horse in the center.

The next room has a bookcase with the doctrine of Immaculate Conception that says Mary was born without sin.

The next few rooms were all done by Raphael. In the Constantine Room, Raphael painted Constantine having the vision of the cross before battle. This was finished after Raphael’s death by his students.

Constantine’s army with the cross on their shields in battle.

Constantine getting crowned king and being baptized.

On the ceiling a Roman statue is shown broken with the cross prevailing.

The Liberation of St. Peter by Raphael shows an angel rescuing Peter from a jail in Jerusalem. The picture is broken up into three scenes: the guards getting reprimanded, the angel undoing the chains, and the angel guiding Peter out of the jail. This painting highlights Raphael’s mastery of light and darkness, and realism.

The School of Athens depicts many famous scientists including Plato (shown as Leonardo da Vinci) pointing up while Aristotle gestures down. Socrates is on left in green, Euclid (shown as Donato Bramante the architect of St. Peters) is bent over the slate doing equations, Raphael included himself in the black beret and the scene is depicted in an early St. Peters. Raphael was working on this at the same time Michelangelo was painting the Sistine chapel down the hall. He was so impressed that he added Michelangelo to his painting, the figure leaning on a block of marble.

Across from The School of Athens, La Disputa depicts Christ overseeing a discussion of the Eucharist.

After the Raphael Rooms we headed straight into the Sistine Chapel where pictures are forbidden. We were in the Sistine Chapel with only about 75 other people because of our tour and it was just incredible. Usually the room is jam packed, but we got to sit and admire all of Michelangelo’s work in such a peaceful atmosphere. Originally, Michelangelo declined to paint the Sistine Chapel because he considered himself a sculptor, but the Pope made it so he couldn’t say no. If you haven’t seen the Sistine Chapel yet, I hope you make it there one day. It’s truly one of those sights you just have to see in person. (the picture below is from the Vatican website)

After our tour ended it was time for breakfast in the courtyard and I was pleasantly surprised. They bring the food, but you can choose what coffee you would like. For a plated mass-produced breakfast, the food was a lot better than others we’ve had. It was nice to sit down and get a little extra caffeine before going back through to see some of the rooms we missed.

This pineapple in the courtyard is 2,000 years old and was originally created to honor the fertility god Isis near the Pantheon. It was moved to outside Old St. Peters and then moved again to be in the courtyard of the Pope’s palace.

The sphere in the center of the courtyard is from 1990 and represents a new world emerging.

While eating we could see how busy the museum was getting, but we had no idea how bad it would be once we went back inside. We went back for round two at 10:45 and it was a bit miserable trying to navigate the museum. I think if we didn’t have our tour earlier we wouldn’t have enjoyed visiting this museum, the crowds were just too much. I had a list of some sculptures we missed on the tour so we tried to get from piece to piece as painlessly as possible.

In the Greek and Roman Sculpture area we first found Laocoon, the high priest of Troy who warned everyone not to let the Trojan horse in. He and his sons are being attacked by snakes because the gods wanted the Greeks to win. This sculpture was estimated to be created in 40-30 BC but was lost until 1506 when it was unearthed near the Colosseum. It was paraded through Rome before ending up at the Vatican and being the first piece of the museum.

Belvedere Torso dates back to the first century BC, but little is known about it except it was one of Michelangelo’s favorites.

The Round Room was modeled after the interior of the Pantheon and built around the giant purple porphyry marble bowl. The bowl was originally at Nero’s palace and it’s made from a single block of marble that was imported from Egypt. (I wasn’t exaggerating about the crowds)

After this room we were essentially back to where we started and went through the rooms we saw and a few more we skipped on the tour. It was such a different experience going through after the museum opened. We just had to shuffle along with the big tour groups and try to get around them when we could. We made it back to the Sistine Chapel one last time and soaked it all in, this time shoulder to shoulder with everyone else. Once we felt ready, we were able to exit right to a corridor that took us to the entrance of St. Peters bypassing security. We used this opportunity to climb the dome and walk around St. Peters again. Stayed tuned for our climb up St. Peters dome.

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36 thoughts on “Rome – Prime Experience Vatican Museum Tour

  1. Great tour and post, Lyssy. The Vatican Museums contain vast amounts of art and history. You were wise to take the prime tour. Dealing with those crowds would spoil the whole thing. When we visited in 2007, we entered general admission, but there were fewer tourists. I think there have been some changes since then. I don’t remember the modern area and I took photos in the Sistine Chapel. Seeing the Vatican Museums was the highlight of our time in Rome. Thanks for sharing your experience.

    1. Thank you! It is amazing how much beautiful artworks and pieces are in the museum. I’d never seen crowds like that, it was insane! I wonder when they stopped allowing pictures. Maybe now that everyone has cell phones there’s more risk of flashes. Sometimes it’s nice not being able to take pictures because then you can focus. It was a highlight for us too 🙂

  2. Oh my gosh you weren’t kidding about the crowds. Yikes. That doesn’t look fun at all, I think it would totally ruin the experience. Whenever we visit the Vatican we will definitely be doing the tour you did!

    1. I knew it would be busy, but those crowds were the most I’d ever seen! This tour was one of the best things I did when planning our trip, otherwise we would’ve had a miserable time at the museum.

  3. Wise move! As you know, I hate overcrowded museums and love nothing better than wandering around on my own. Fabulous gallery of photos btw

    1. Thank you! I think these were the worst crowds I’ve ever seen. I was so happy I found that tour.

  4. I recognized “The School of Athens” immediately and of course, the Sistine, but otherwise I remember very little about the Vatican Museums. I find the floors and barrel-vaulted ceilings in the corridors almost as captivating as the art itself. I have to believe the crowds are a function of how much money the museums can bring in; otherwise they’d make it a less claustrophobic experience. And I loved how you added a few pictures of your tour’s breakfast offering. I mean, it wouldn’t be a Lyssy post without the food, right? 🙂

    1. It really is an incredible museum, no detail is left unfinished. That must be the case, I’m sure the maintenance fees are pretty expensive for St. Peters. My friend was going to take a tour and bring her baby along and she quickly changed her mind after I sent the pictures of the crowds. She also went end of August so I’m sure it’s even more crowded. Yes, the food pictures are very on brand for me 🙂

  5. What a lovely idea to combine it with breakfast – the visit is a major event in itself but brekkie thrown in adds to the occasion…

    1. We were so happy with our tour! You’re right, maybe they were going for a hash brown type side.

  6. That definitely seems like the tour was well worth the money! I would have had a hard time with the crowds too.

  7. Booking a guide tour is a must for the Vatican! I’ve visited twice both with guided tours, and I can vouch it saves a lot of time and headache…the Gallery of Maps is my favorite room I’ve visited, as well as the Sistine Chapel (evidently, of course). The crowds were enough for me just to want to do one round, but kudos to you for going a second time! The Vatican is that beautiful to want to soak it all in for hours!

    1. I agree, we learned so much! I’d never be able to point out the most famous pieces without a guide. The Gallery of Maps is really beautiful and the Sistine Chapel is just awe-inspiring. The second round took a lot longer than expected, but we loved being able to see the Sistine Chapel again.

  8. So glad you managed the guided tour, looking at the crowds, Lyssy. This museum should not be missed and you did it in detail. It was outside this museum that Patty almost got robbed by 2 juvenile girls in 1984. We have seen 2 other spheres in this series by Arnaldo Pomodoro, one at UC Berkeley when our son went there for his Masters and the other in Trinity College Dublin. Thanks for the tour. Have a great evening. Allan

    1. That tour was one of the best decisions I’ve made, it made such a difference. Oh wow you’d think people would want to be on their best behavior near the Vatican. Very cool, I’ll have to be on the lookout if I am ever in those areas. They’re very unique spheres.

  9. How great was this tour ! You were right to book soon with a breakfast. All the rooms and clichés are amazing but I hate overcrowded museum.
    Thanks a lot for sharing your experience. You have got a great gallery !

    1. We were so happy to have avoided the crowds the first time around, it made such a difference in our experience! I hate overcrowded museums too, it really makes it hard to enjoy.

  10. I had no idea such a tour existed. I would gladly fork over the money to take a tour before the museum opens. Sounds like a great way to get the full experience without having to battle through the crowds. Plus you get breakfast!

    1. I was so glad I stumbled upon that tour, it made such a difference! We were happy to have some more coffee before going back into the madness!

  11. Wow! What a special experience to beat all the crowds. It looks so worth it. I’m visiting Versailles in December and decided to splurge on a room in the hotel so I can get a private after hours Hall of Mirrors tour 🙂

  12. Fabulous post, Lyssy! I would definitely take your advice to book an early morning tour. I wouldn’t be able to handle those kinds of crowds. Your insights are greatly appreciated because we intend to go to Rome one of these days.

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