In case you missed it, here are the previous and upcoming posts about our summer trip to Italy:
- United Airlines To Rome
- St. Regis Rome
- Osteria 44
- Photo Essay of Angels & Demons
- A Quiet Meal At Cul de Sac
- Trevi Fountain (Semi) Closed For Business
- A Fast Train To Venice
- St. Regis San Clemente Island
- Hotel Danieli
- Antico Pignolo
- A Quick Trip To Murano
- How To Ride The Vaporetto (Water Bus) In Venice
- Getting Lost In Venice
- British Airways 787 Flight Home
I’m trying something different with the pictures of this post. They’ll all be in a gallery at the top. Let me know if you like it or hate it. I’m hoping it improves readability of my long posts, but I’m still fiddling with the settings.
I don’t consider myself the most religious person in the world, but the Vatican is one of two places I’ve visited that has the ability to give me a little “come to Jesus” (Sagrada Familia is the other one). We’ve visited before a couple of times, but Catherine was now old enough to understand some of the significance and Charlie would likely enjoy the view from on top of St. Peter’s Cathedral.
For those looking to see the Vatican, there are two main parts, the Vatican museum and St. Peter’s Cathedral (and the semi-secret third part, the Necropolis). There are separate entrances and queues for both. The first thing to know is that even though it’s the Vatican, there are ways to cut the line, and some don’t even involve spending extra money.
First, the Vatican museums. Unlike when Michelle and I first visited there roughly a decade ago, they have an online ticket portal now. Not only can you reserve a time to show up by paying for your tickets in advance, you’ll find a number of other tours that might be of interest to you.
If you stay at a nice hotel or walk to the Vatican, you’ll likely have the opportunity to buy a guided tour of the Vatican museum. Unless you really want to know a lot about Vatican history, you don’t need one of these tours. There are audio guides for rent inside and most of the art has detailed explanations of its history. However, do buy your admission tickets ahead of time. Waiting outside the walls of the Vatican cannot be described as either a short activity or a fun one.
St. Peter’s Cathedral has some interesting options, but your best bet here also is not to book an outside tour guide. Why? The Vatican provides their own guided tours for a fee and they are only available at St. Peter’s Cathedral. Trust me when I say that even a prestigious hotel like the St. Regis Rome couldn’t get us a leg up here.
It was a bit of dumb luck that we even found out about these options. We did the first part of our Vatican visit (the museum), purchasing tickets ahead of time. We were doing it mostly for Cappela Sistina (the Sistine Chapel), which is a must-see if you’re going to the Vatican. As we got done, our kids were hitting a wall due to the time difference and the dreaded body clock adjustment.
We had made the decision that we were going to take the kids back to the hotel for a nap and a reboot for later in the day. Side note: this is something I never believed was necessary when we just had Catherine. I was a go-go sort of guy on vacation but have realized that pushing children too hard when they’re tired means no fun for everyone. So, I take a more laid back approach to vacations than I used to. Too bad for Michelle it took a decade.
We knew there was a bathroom nearby, so we headed over that way to take the kids for a potty break before finding a cab back to our hotel. Leaving Sistine Chapel, you can pull a u-turn to the right, bypassing the line of metal detectors to enter the cathedral. There is a small hallway at the base of the steps to the cathedral with an information booth right before you get to stroller parking and the bathrooms. As we walked by the info booth, I saw a very plain sign indicating there was a “Cupola Tour”. This came as a big surprise to me as “equality above all” had been stressed in previous visits (i.e no cutting the line).
You can walk up the stairs to the top of the cathedral or take an elevator for a fee. Either way, the line can be quite long, with the elevator line sometimes stretching as long as 2 hours and still costing a reasonable fee (12 Euro, iirc). The Cupola tour avoids this line completely and also gives you a guided tour of the dome. It was 40 Euro per adult and the kids were free. A bit pricey, but for an extra 60-ish Euro over just the elevator ride alone, we were still able to squeeze both activities in to the trip even despite the last-minute decision to nap. The tour was exceptionally interesting as well; the guide was very educated.
Once you take the elevator up to the roof of San Pietro, you’ll still need to climb a healthy amount of stairs to get to the top of the dome. It’s one of the cooler climbs of its kind (along with the Statue of Liberty), in that the staircase actually curves as you’re climbing, and at one point there’s no room for railings so they supply a thick rope to hold onto as you hoist yourself up small stairs. The views are astounding. You can see the now-defunct Vatican train station as well as “Pope Radio”, the Vatican TV and radio station headquarters. And, just a bit of Rome and St. Peter’s Square as well. There’s a souvenir shop on the roof as well as bathrooms and a snack shop. If you’re looking for cool souvenirs to collect, you can actually buy Euro coins with the picture of the Pope on them. They are legal tender, and according to the folks there, this is the only place you can purchase them. And, at the base of the elevator, you’ll find one of those oddities for folks who spend their lives in suburbs and cities across the US. There’s a sizable fountain that people use to fill their bottles with cold water. Maybe not Holy Water, but refreshing for the body if not the soul.
Inside St. Peter is just awe-inspiring for its size. And, you’ll definitely get a sense of how passionate Catholics are and just how long the cathedral has been there. There’s a statue of St. Peter sitting on the left-hand side of the cathedral, about 1/3 of the way towards the front as you enter. It’s made of bronze and thought to be 1500-ish years old. So many folks have rested their had on his sandal-clad foot over the years (or kissed it, as pilgrimages of old indicated) that all the detail of his toes and the sandal have been rubbed smooth. Uh, yeah. That was pretty incredible for me.
If you believe you’ll be interested in the museum, you should plan at least a half day for it. It could easily take the full day. St. Peter’s Cathedral is a half day if you do everything and get there early in the morning.
Do yourself a favor and get there early in the morning, even if you have to break the Vatican up into two days. Or, pay for the cut the line tour if you want to go to the top of the dome.
Lastly, there’s a pretty cool optical effect in St. Peter’s Square. Bernini obviously had a handle on his geometry hundreds of years before computers when he designed the wide-open piazza. You’ll see a semi-circle of massive Doric columns, 4 in a row, on either side of the square. From most everywhere you stand, you can see all the columns in most of the rows. But, there are two small marble plates buried in the piazza where, when you stand on them, all the columns line up symmetrically and you can only see the first column in every row.
I’ve been to the Vatican a handful of times and I’ll be back again. While I’m not a devout Catholic, the history and architecture are something that give me a real sense of the arc of history.
Is the Vatican on your list?
Did you like the new picture format at the top? Hate it?