I couldn’t possibly leave Rome without visiting Vatican City, a country that’s only 110 acres with just under 1,000 inhabitants. Despite the hoards of tourists that visit each year, this was something I refused to pass up. It would be like going to Paris and not seeing the Eiffel Tower. Touristy sights are popular for a reason, right? I always try to find a balance between visiting the top attractions while still traveling off the beaten path. But that’s a post for another time!
I’m always so overwhelmed in giant museums, like the Louvre, and I knew the Vatican Museums would be no different, especially since the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica were on my list as well. Having a guide show me the best of the best was important to me so I chose the City Wonders No Wait Access: Vatican Group Tour. I had heard great things about their tour guides and they also promised small group sizes and audio headsets so you can hear your guide at all times. For someone like me who is always taking photographs and lagging behind, I liked the idea of being able to still hear my guide while I’m further behind in the group.
We were beyond lucky to have Tiffany McIver as our tour guide for the afternoon who had received the honor of being crowned Best Vatican City Tour Guide a couple years ago. She had a more official title than that, I promise, but it’s escaping me at the moment. In other words… we were in good hands! She started off explaining that the Vatican Museums we see today used to be a 15th century palace, with over 2,000 rooms, that each pope would reside in. However, the current pope does not live in the palace today.
Remember when I mentioned how overwhelming museums can be? Fun fact: If you were to spend 60 seconds looking at each work of art in the Vatican Museums, it would take you 12 years. That’s right, TWELVE. If that’s not reason enough to visit with a guide (at least for your first time), I don’t know what is! A favorite room of mine was the Gallery of Maps filled with, you guessed it, maps. In 1580, Pope Gregory XIII commissioned geographer Ignazio Danti to decorate this room of the Vatican that is 120 meters long! It took him three years to finish 40 panels that are large scale frescoes depicting the entire Italian peninsula. The results are absolutely stunning.
We ventured into the Raphael Rooms next which were commissioned by Pope Julius II who wanted to redecorate his apartments. These rooms were already covered in frescoes which Raphael and his team painted over and didn’t finish for 10 years. After seeing the incredible detail and artistry in each fresco, 10 years sounds incredibly short! Thanks to Tiffany’s incredible knowledge and obvious passion, I really enjoyed listening to her describe the frescoes to us. Not only did we learn a lot about Raphael’s style and background, but also about his colleague (or rival…!) Michelangelo, who was commissioned that same year to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
Unlike Raphael, Michelangelo absolutely hated painting, calling it woman’s work and initially refused to paint the Sistine Chapel. Even after he agreed, he fought with the church over the subject matter but eventually won. Despite his hatred for painting, he clearly had a gift which he claimed was divine inspiration. His style was very different from other painters of the time, as he painted free hand, with no drafts to help guide him. He would also paint for up to 18 hours a day which led him to finish the ceiling in only four and a half years whereas people expected it to take him 10 years! Unbelievable.
Tiffany shared all of this with us (and more!) before we actually entered the chapel since you are not allowed to speak once you’re inside…or take photographs! Also, most tour groups only let you stay in the chapel for about 10 minutes but we were allowed 20 which I was grateful for as there was just so much to take in. For once, I enjoyed not being able to take pictures, that way I could simply sit and enjoy my surroundings. If you can only see one thing while visiting Vatican City, let it be the Sistine Chapel. I almost cried. If it weren’t for the guards yelling at chatty school groups to keep quiet, I probably would’ve had a good cry. It was that breathtaking.
Last but certainly not least, we made our way over to St. Peter’s Basilica. With over 40 altars and 11 domes (!!!), there’s really no surprise that it’s the largest church in the world…located in the world’s smallest country. Go figure. I knew this before stepping inside but that still didn’t prepare me. The scale of it is just so large and SO incredibly grand I literally stopped in my tracks.
Tiffany took about 20 minutes to explain everything we needed to know about the church but then left us to explore on our own for as long as we wished. Honestly, I can’t even imagine visiting Vatican City without Tiffany. My one regret is not hiring her to take us all around Rome. She is that good. I’m looking forward to trying more tours with City Wonders in the future as she set the bar pretty high!
Our tour lasted three hours which is the perfect amount of time, in my opinion. We spent the rest of our afternoon thoroughly exploring the Basilica and St. Peter’s Square which was being set up for the Papal Audience the next day. Before tearfully saying goodbye to Tiffany, we asked her if there were any good pizza places to eat nearby and she recommended Alice’s! It was delicious, cheap, and only about a 5 minute walk from the main square so I’d highly recommend it to you guys as well! Thanks, Tiffany!
Have you been to Vatican City before? Do you prefer taking tours or exploring on your own? I’d love to know in the comments below.
*Note: I did receive a complimentary Vatican City Tour with City Wonders. However, opinions are entirely my own. I would only ever recommend something that I enjoyed and support!