Jun 9, 2024 7 min read

Ultimate Travel Guide to Rome, Italy - The Vatican Museums

Let's talk about the Vatican Museums in the order you can visit them by following the suggested tourist route.

Vatican Museums Rome, Italy

Of course, once inside, you can choose to go wherever you want and spend as much time as you like in any of the museums. However, to avoid missing anything, follow the indicated route, which you can also find here.

The entrance ticket costs 20 euros. I recommend checking the museum's schedule on the official website because around 3 PM, I realized it also closes early, and I hadn't seen even half of what I had planned. Also, plan your visit to include at least an hour of waiting in line. Once inside, head straight to the "Pinacoteca."

The Pinacoteca

Reading a few lines in a tourist guide and thinking you can enter these museums without a guide is not enough. Many works of art will surprise you at every step, and you'll find out much later that some of them were there (when other site members talk about them, and you'll realize you missed them).

The current Pinacoteca was commissioned by Pius XI (Pope from 1922 to 1939) to be used as an exhibition for his collection of paintings and those of his predecessors. In the 18 rooms of the Pinacoteca, you will find the paintings displayed in chronological order, from the 12th century to the 19th century. Giotto, Beato Angelico, Perugino, Raphael, Titian, Leonardo da Vinci, Veronese, Sanssferrato, and Caravaggio are just some of the most famous artists whose paintings you will find here.

However, the number of artists whose works are displayed is much larger, making it impossible to admire each painting individually (there are around 460 paintings in total).

You should reserve between 1-2 hours for the Pinacoteca, depending on how interested you are in painting. Don't miss:

  • Room 2: Giotto's "Stefaneschi Triptych," a fresco painted on both sides between 1315-1320.
  • Room 8: Displays works by Raphael, including the famous painting "The Transfiguration of Christ," created between 1518-1520. Here, you can also find some tapestries made after Raphael's drawings, tapestries stolen by the lancers who vandalized the Vatican, which ended up in the hands of pirates, arrived in France, and miraculously returned to the Vatican.
  • Room 9: The sensational unfinished painting "St. Jerome," created around 1480 by Leonardo da Vinci.
  • Room 10: Features works by Titian and Veronese.
  • Room 12: Houses works by Caravaggio, including "Deposition from the Cross," a painting the artist worked on between 1602-1603.

At the exit, you will be greeted by Wenzel Peter's "Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden," a surprising painting that seems to include every animal and bird on Earth... lions, horses, rabbits, dogs, turkeys even, ostriches... a seemingly famous kitsch.

Missionary Ethnological Museum

Move to the adjacent Missionary Ethnological Museum to see a collection of religious objects and relics donated by missionaries who traveled all over the world, grouped by origin from four continents: Asia, Oceania, Africa, and America.

Initially founded by Pope Pius XI in 1927, the museum was inaugurated in the rooms of the Lateran Palace, where it remained until 1963. Pope Paul VI decided to move the more than 40,000 pieces to the Vatican.

Over the years, the initial collection has been enriched through donations or new acquisitions, and today the number of exhibited objects exceeds 100,000. Among them, many pieces are non-Catholic and perhaps the most interesting.

These come from Beijing, Nara – the ancient capital of Japan, Tibet, Indonesia, India, and the Far East, Mexico, Guatemala, or Nicaragua. Particularly interesting are the bas-reliefs of some temples displayed outside (you can see them through large windows).

Gregorian Profane Museum

The Gregorian Profane Museum houses exceptional objects from Ancient Greece to the end of the Roman Empire, the results of archaeological excavations in the papal states.

The museum was founded at the request of Gregory XVI Cappellari and was opened in 1844 in the Lateran Palace. In 1960, all collections kept in the Lateran Palace were transferred to the Vatican, where a new wing dedicated to exhibitions was inaugurated in June 1970. Those who have not yet seen the Pantheon in Athens can find some fragments of its facade here.

Besides the statues or fragments housed in this museum, you will see a section displaying copies of Greek works. In addition to many Roman-era bas-reliefs, you will find many sarcophagi or funerary monuments.

Pio-Christian Museum

In the Pio-Christian Museum, you will find another impressive collection of sarcophagi, most of which depicted a "he" and a "she," meaning the deceased husband and wife.

On one sarcophagus, however, there were two men, and the explanatory inscription suggested they were two brothers. That might amuse you. As in modern times, no one dared to write on that inscription something that was not a moral issue back then.

Spend about an hour in this museum, but you might only manage to see most of the exhibits in a rush.

Carriage Pavilion

Find the Carriage Pavilion, a museum founded in 1973 at the request of Pope Paul VI. Few people know that this museum was moved from the Lateran Palace to the Vatican on October 16, 2013. From the entrance, you will find a television where you can watch a film showing very old images from the periods when papal carriages amazed everyone with their grandeur and brilliance.

This carriage was drawn by 6 horses, as you will see in its display. In 1931, papal carriages were replaced by automobiles. The license plates of the Holy Father's or high dignitaries' cars have the number and abbreviation SCV (Stato della Citta del Vaticano) in red letters on a white background, while the license plates of other Vatican residents have black numbers and letters on a white background.

This exhibition hall might become one of your favorites because, as I said, some people are passionate about painting, others about sculpture, and you might discover a new passion: popemobiles.

In the Gallery of Tapestries, you will find a series of Flemish tapestries (which differ from those displayed in the Pinacoteca). These belong to Pieter van Aelst, made after Raphael's paintings, and covered the lower parts of the Sistine Chapel.

The Gallery of Geographic Maps is another major attraction of the Vatican Museums. In the 120 meters of these galleries, many maps are displayed, seemingly mirrored in the ceiling decorations. The maps were drawn between 1580-1585 by Antonio Dantifresce, guided by his brother, the geographer Ignazio Danti. And don't forget to look at the ceiling!

Pope's Apartments and Raphael Rooms

Slowly, reach the few apartments open to the public. The first is the Apartment of Pope Pius V, Pope from 1566-1572. People might start to crowd, groups might seem to multiply suddenly, and each guide might speak in their language. So from here, a cord might begin to form, which might be hard to pass. You have to go at their pace, tiptoeing to see anything.

The Raphael Rooms are four reception rooms, the public part of the papal apartments, painted by Raphael at the request of Pope Julius II. Perhaps it is interesting to know that you can't enter the Vatican just like that... or rather into the Pope's good graces. Raphael was a close relative of Donato Bramante, the architect of St. Peter's Basilica. Probably Bramante put in a good word when Raphael, at only 25, arrived at the Vatican, in the good graces of Pope Julius II.

The Sobieski Room is named after the painting that dominates it, a work by Polish painter Jean Matejko representing the victory of King John III Sobieski of Poland against the Turks in 1683... a very busy painting that requires time for analysis. Of course, no one might have the patience for it... the Raphael Rooms and the Sistine Chapel are next. After the Immaculate Conception Room in the Borgia Tower, Raphael's Rooms follow.

The Room of the Fire in the Borgo was painted between 1514-1517. Borgo was a district near the Vatican, and Pope Leo IV is depicted praying to extinguish the fire that had started in this district. Besides the stunning walls, mostly painted by Raphael's students, don't miss the ceiling paintings by Perugino.

The Room of the Segnatura is perhaps the most beloved of all the rooms. This room was painted between 1508-1511, and Raphael showed his full talent, especially in "The School of Athens," a fresco measuring 500 cm x 770 cm. Among the characters, you can find Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and even Raphael (according to those who have closely analyzed the fresco).

The Room of Heliodorus was painted between 1511-1514, and in the Room of Constantine, painted between 1517-1524, Raphael's students represented, based on the artist's drawings, the victory of Christianity over pagan cults and some of the victories and events in the life of Emperor Constantine I.

The Sistine Chapel

The icing on the cake is the Sistine Chapel. But before that, you still have to visit the Borgia Apartments, apartments you might have higher expectations for. These belonged to Pope Alexander VI, or Rodrigo Borgia, as a place for spending his leisure time.

Much is known about Rodrigo Borgia, and almost all lead to anything but a pope. These rooms initially housed the Vatican Pinacoteca, moved to the New Pinacoteca (the current one) in 1932.

Anyway, knowing you are so close to the Sistine Chapel, you might not waste any more time and enter the room where you expect to be stunned, speechless, amazed.

But if you want to see the paintings on the ceiling, you might need to buy an album to study at home. They seem to be at a height where it is impossible to admire them (about 21 meters distance).

Closer and easier to admire than the ceiling is the "Last Judgment," the painting unveiled by Pope Paul II on October 31, 1541, for which Michelangelo was accused of immorality, obscenity, and blasphemy. After his death, Daniele da Volterra, one of his students, was commissioned to cover the genitals of the over 300 characters. Between 1981-1994, the Sistine Chapel underwent a rigorous restoration process, and some of the garments or vine leaves were removed again.

Don't forget the "Last Judgment" and the other chapel walls, for which almost all the artists of those times worked: Perugino, Botticelli, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Cosimo Rosselli, Luca Signorelli, Pinturicchio, Pietro di Cosimo, or Bartolomeo della Gatta.

These paintings were divided into three major important periods of Christianity: from the Creation of the World to the giving of the Ten Commandments, from Moses to the birth of Jesus, and the period of Christianity after Jesus Christ. The first service held in the Sistine Chapel was officiated on August 9, 1483, and the chapel remains today the place where meetings are held to elect the next pope.

Great! You’ve successfully signed up.
Welcome back! You've successfully signed in.
You've successfully subscribed to The Traveler.
Your link has expired.
Success! Check your email for magic link to sign-in.
Success! Your billing info has been updated.
Your billing was not updated.