I have several reasons to be critical of the Vatican. Besides centuries of corruption, child abuse scandals, and myriad other unholy deeds, the Vatican loves money.

Let’s push this aside for a moment—if we can—and focus on the magnificent trove of art that the Holy See sits upon. Indeed, this art is practically invaluable in term of monetary worth; but we agreed not to think about that.

If one wishes to wait in line, he or she can visit the Vatican without any payment and with no border controls. St. Peter’s Cathedral, the focus of Catholicism is open to pilgrims and the public alike.

The Vatican museums however, take a little planning and entrance fees. Or you could just join a tour with Walks of Italy. They invited me to join one of their Pristine Sistine tours and I couldn’t say no. It was a chance to see the famed Sistine Chapel in near silence, with few others: a real rarity.

The Vatican City State

The Vatican City State is a sovereign city-state completely surrounded by Italy. It has enjoyed this status since 1929 but has existed in a different entity for centuries before that. The Vatican is both the smallest and least populated country in the world. Its land area is 44 hectares (110 acres), and has a population of just over 800. The population is made up of 95% men.

old entrance to Vatican

old entrance to the Vatican Museum

The Walks of Italy Pristine Sistine tour highlights the following sites:

  • Sistine Chapel—before the general public may enter
  • Vatican museums
  • St. Peter’s Basilica
  • Michelangelo’s Pietà
  • Ancient Greek and Roman sculptures
  • Raphael rooms
  • Renaissance galleries and collections

The main advantage of this tour would be to get the VIP early entrance an hour before the Vatican Museums open to the general public. This allows the group into the Sistine Chapel before the masses arrive.

view of the Vatican

view out the window to the Vatican gardens

The Sistine Chapel

The truth of the matter is the Vatican has seemingly few regulations to the number of visitors it lets into the museum. A delicate indoor environment like the tiny Sistine Chapel can’t withstand this high volume of tourists. The humidity from the breathing alone takes a toll on the precious frescos.

However, the Vatican doesn’t seem to mind selling as many entrance tickets as possible. During normal hours the Sistine is literally elbow-to-elbow packed. We saw for ourselves when we walked through the Sistine a second time during our tour. It’s also supposed to be silent, but no one seems to care and a number of what I call “professional shushers” stand on guard shushing people on cue  every 30 seconds. All this takes away from your magical Sistine moment.

Sistine Chapel fact: Michelangelo painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel while standing up, not on his back like urban legend tells us.

The Tour

The tour is a phenomenal run through the art, sculpture, and architecture of the ages. From the Greek and Roman sculpture rooms to the Baroque interior of the world’s largest church. And it’s vital having a guide next to you compressing a lifetime’s worth of art in this miniscule 3 hours 30 minutes.

The Vatican has some 65,000 pieces of art on display and another 50,000 in storage. There are five miles of galleries attracting some four million visitors every year.

I’ll show you some of the highlights in the photos below:

 

St Peters dome

view of the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica from the Vatican Museum

in the Vatican museum

a statue from the Greek and Roman galleries

in the Vatican museum (2)

a statue from the Greek and Roman galleries

in the Vatican museum (4)

a statue from the Greek and Roman galleries

The School of Athens

Raphael’s splendid The School of Athens

facade of St Peters Rome

the facade of St. Peter’s Basilica

inside St Peters (2)

the interior of St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican

St Peters altar

St. Peter’s baldachin by Bernini

pieta close

Michelangelo’s moving sculpural masterpiece: pieta

Full disclosure: I received a complimentary tour of the Vatican Museums. All opinions expressed here are entirely my own.