Visiting the Sistine Chapel
Something was missing…deliciously, conspicuously, happily missing. The paintings glowed rich and vibrant in the low light of early morning. The walls still whispered the secrets of a million souls past. A handful of people stood underneath Creation of Adam, contemplating Michelangelo’s genius.
This was a vastly different experience than the one I here many years before. My memory of that visit to the Sistine Chapel was being pressed against a mass of slippery, sweat-soaked tourists shuffling through the Chapel while guards periodically scream-whispered “Silenzio!” at sudden and terrifying intervals. Hardly the makings for a profound or spiritual moment in one of the world’s greatest treasures.
Photo credit: wikimedia
Take A Walks of Italy Tour
But this…this was indeed a “Pristine Sistine Chapel” experience and a highlight of my trip to Rome. I don’t usually book tours, but our time in Rome was limited, and Walks of Italy offered three very appealing things,small groups, knowledgeable guides and an experience I could not arrange on my own…entering the Sistine Chapel and Vatican Museums one hour before they opened to the public.
This “privilege” meant a very, very early start to a day in Rome. We met our Walks of Italy guide near the Museum and found ourselves waiting at the Vatican Museum entrance at 7:45 am, tickets in hand. A nod from the guard and we were through the gates, briskly walking through the sumptuous halls and galleries of the Museum on the way to the Sistine Chapel. It was agonizing to rush past the maps, tapestries, sculptures and paintings, but I knew we would have a chance to gawp at those masterpieces later.
As we came to the Chapel entrance, our guide shared she could not speak inside the Chapel (nor could we) and instead gave us a small, color guide to the artwork and interesting background information. She stepped aside and waved us through the Chapel doors.
We had 30 minutes to stand, stare and wonder in that grand and sacred space.
The most difficult part was deciding where to stand to take it all in. Do you stop in the middle of the marble floors and spin around slowly, head back, mouth open, staring at the ceiling like a child on a cloud-watching afternoon? Do you sit on the benches along the chapel walls where the Papal conclave prayerfully sits to choose the next leader of the Catholic Church? We did both. Twice.
Eventually, we moved on, back through mile after mile of corridors lined with some of the world’s greatest treasures. I don’t know much about art and but I knew the 9 miles of Vatican Museum had the potential to overwhelm and contribute to mid-morning museum fatigue and I appreciated having someone else guide us through the collections and explain the highlights I would probably miss on my own.
We walked through the Inner Gardens and the Gallery of Maps, admiring the sculptures and paintings along the way…
Our last stop on the four-hour tour was the magnificent St. Peter’s Basilica. By then, crowds were gathering in front of Michelangelo’s Pieta and the crypt of St. Peter and it was getting more difficult to maneuver through the masses.
We left the group near the gates before doubling back to climb the 491 steps to the top of the Basilica’s dome.
photo credit: wikimedia
It was a perfect way to end our morning at the Vatican, high over the city of Rome. I smiled to think I had one of its greatest treasures almost to myself on this glorious, sunny spring day in Rome.
Things to Know About Visiting the Sistine Chapel
Walks of Italy has a number of tours in Rome. The Pristine Sistine tour costs 84 euro (reduced rates for seniors, students, and children) and can be booked online. The tour takes about 4 hours.
You can not re-enter the Vatican Museums at the close of the tour, but you can linger in the Basilica.
Dress modestly on the tour (covered knees and shoulders) as you are entering sacred spaces within the Vatican. If your grandma wouldn’t approve, don’t wear it.
Photography is not allowed in the Sistine Chapel.
The climb to the top of the Dome is moderately difficult. You can purchase tickets to climb at the window along the right side of the Basilica. There are two ticket options, walking the full 491 steps or by taking an elevator part way and walking the remaining 320 steps. The views from the top are spectacular and well worth the climb.
If you have to choose one tour in Rome, choose one of the early entrance guided walks through the Vatican. At peak times, the Museum and Chapel host up to 20,000 visitors a day. You don’t want to spend hours in lines shuffling through the museum when you can visit early and spend the rest of the day eating gelato and drinking cappuccino.
If you can’t leave to see the Sistine Chapel right away, the Vatican made an interesting virtual reality tour, which you can watch here…
Have you been to the Sistine Chapel and the Vatican? Do you have any tips or questions for me? Leave them in the comments below…
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