Top 10 Things to See Inside the Vatican Museums

Besides the Colosseum, the one thing I was looking forward to the most on our trip to Rome was getting to explore inside the Vatican Museums. The Vatican Museums, along with the Louvre in Paris, have been on my to-see list for almost two decades now. Due to an unfortunate stroke of bad luck, we missed getting to go inside the Louvre on our trip to Paris, so I wasn’t about to let the same happen in Rome. The first morning after we arrived in the city, we woke up bright and early and were standing in the queue to enter the museums over half an hour before the doors even opened. And I’m certainly glad we were because I’ve never seen crowds in a museum like those inside the Vatican Museums!

Displaying over 20,000 works of art collected by several popes over the past few centuries, the Vatican Museums are made up of several different museums, galleries, and rooms, each featuring vast collections of world-renowned paintings and sculptures. There’s so much to see, it’s easy to get overwhelmed, but don’t let that deter you from visiting. Even though you won’t be able to see everything on a single visit, if you plan it right and give yourself enough time, you’ll still be able to see quite a bit. The key is to determine ahead of time the things you absolutely must see inside the Vatican Museums, and then make sure to work those particular pieces or places into the path you take through the museums. (Don’t worry, there are free maps at the entrance to help you navigate the maze of galleries!)

So, what are the must-sees at the Vatican Museums? Naturally, the answer to that question will vary depending on who you ask – what I consider to be the top things to see inside the Vatican Museums may be different than yours. I’m more of a sculpture girl, myself, but you might think the only things worth seeing are paintings by the masters of the Renaissance. (In which case, you’ll appreciate the Raphael Rooms far more than I did!) That being said, I believe there are several highlights within the Vatican Museums that no one should miss (ahem, Sistine Chapel) and you’ll find these below, along with a few of my personal favorites!

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Top 10 Things To See Inside The Vatican Museums

Top 10 Things To See Inside The Vatican Museums

The Gallery of Maps

The Gallery of Maps is one of the most visually stunning rooms within the Vatican Museums. Stretching down a long hallway, it’ll be a contest to see what grabs your attention first – the highly decorative ceiling or the 40 geographical frescoes depicting Italy and its provinces lining the walls. Take your time as you walk through here to check out the detail in these maps painted from drawings by Ignazio Danti, a famous geographer in the 16th century.

Top 10 Things To See Inside The Vatican Museums

Top 10 Things To See Inside The Vatican Museums

Museo Chiaramonti

The Museo Chiaramonti is named after Pope Pius VII who founded the gallery in the early 19th century. Containing over 1,000 ancient sculptures, the Museo Chiaramonti is important not only because of the striking portrait busts and statues you’ll find here, but also because this gallery represents many of these sculptures’ return home. Having been seized by Napoleon and taken to France in the late 1700’s, it wasn’t until several decades later that these pieces were recovered and brought back to be displayed in this gallery. Be sure to check out the New Wing (Braccio Nuovo) before leaving this area, too.

Top 10 Things To See Inside The Vatican Museums

Cortile della Pigna

Also known as the Pinecone Courtyard, the Cortile della Pigna gets its name from the gigantic bronze pinecone that sits at one end of the square. The thing I find most interesting about the Pinecone Courtyard, however, is not the pinecone so much as the unusual gold sphere found opposite it known as Sfera con Sfera, or Sphere within a Sphere. Looking slightly out of place surrounded by its much older counterparts, Sfera con Sfera is actually just one piece of a series by Arnaldo Pomodoro found in many locations around the world. (We were lucky enough to find another at Trinity College in Dublin!) Representing the fragility and complexity of the world, you won’t want to miss this one!

Top 10 Things To See Inside The Vatican Museums

Top 10 Things To See Inside The Vatican Museums

The Octagonal Courtyard

Located in the Museo Pio-Clementino, the Octagonal Courtyard is a beautiful open-air space featuring several of the museum’s most famous sculptures. One of my favorites here is Laocoön, a sculpture dating all the way back to 40 BC depicting Laocoön and his sons being killed by sea serpents during the Trojan War, an event which ultimately led to the founding of Rome. Another, the Apollo Belvedere, is famous for representing what the Romans once considered to be the perfect male form. While not quite as notable as the others, the elegant statue of the River God, once part of a fountain dating back to the times of Emperor Hadrian, is also worth a look.

Top 10 Things To See Inside The Vatican Museums

Top 10 Things To See Inside The Vatican Museums

Sala Rotonda

Also located in the Museo Pio-Clementino is the Sala Rotonda, or Round Hall. Designed with the Pantheon in mind, the Sala Rotonda makes quite an impression from top to bottom. While certainly smaller in size, you won’t be able to miss the similarities in the ceiling of the Sala Rotunda and the Pantheon (e.g., the round oculus in the center and the square notches surrounding it), but there are differences, too, like the addition of the small rosettes that give the Sala Rotonda’s ceiling a much more delicate look. The floor in this room is made up of colorful ancient mosaics originally laid in the town of Otricoli back in the 3rd century. (How things like this survive so long amazes me!)

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Top 10 Things To See Inside The Vatican Museums

The Spiral Staircase

Another highlight of the Vatican Museums modeled after something else, the museum’s legendary spiral staircase is actually designed after another staircase inside the museum that is no longer open to the public, the Bramante Staircase. You’ll find the newer spiral staircase, designed by Giuseppe Momo, near the main exit. This staircase, like the original, is a double spiral staircase made up of two staircases shaped like a double helix allowing people to ascend without meeting people descending. If you’re visiting the Vatican Museums on your own, you’ll likely exit this way, but if you’re part of a tour, you might have to make a side trip to check it out!

Top 10 Things To See Inside The Vatican Museums

Top 10 Things To See Inside The Vatican Museums

Hall of the Chariot

The Hall of the Chariot is a gallery that probably interests me more than it will the average museum visitor, but if you’re in the Museo Pio-Clementino anyway, you might as well drop by and check it out. Featuring statues and other sculptures depicting scenes from athletic games and competitions, this room of the museum is a fun departure from the usual busts and statues you’ll find throughout the Vatican Museums. The two-horse chariot in the center of the room is the most noteworthy piece in here, but you’ll also find a copy of the famous Discobolus out on display.

Top 10 Things To See Inside The Vatican Museums

The Papal Apartments

So named because the popes once used this area as private residences, today the Papal Apartments are where you’ll find a large collection of rooms featuring some of the most famous frescoes in the Vatican Museums. The most well-known of these rooms are the Raphael Rooms, four separate rooms collectively known as Stanze di Raffaello and painted by Raphael and his school in the early 1500’s. The most famous piece here is the School of Athens, found in the Room of Segnatura. While I thought the frescoes in the Raphael Rooms were incredible, my favorite room in the Papal Apartments was actually the Room of the Immaculate Conception (pictured above) painted by Francis Podesti, which probably proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that I know nothing about art.

Top 10 Things To See Inside The Vatican Museums

The Museum Itself

Isn’t it funny how the places we build to hold our works of art, often end up becoming one themselves? Walking through the Vatican Museums is a lot like walking through one gigantic 460,000 square foot masterpiece. As you’re making your way through the many rooms and galleries, don’t forget to look past the pieces displayed and see everything that surrounds them. You never know when you might be walking on a floor that was once a part of an ancient villa in central Italy! And definitely don’t forget to look up. The ceilings throughout the Vatican Museums are magnificent, which leads nicely into the absolute most important thing to see inside the Vatican Museums…

Top 10 Things To See Inside The Vatican Museums

Top 10 Things To See Inside The Vatican Museums

The Sistine Chapel

The Sistine Chapel hardly needs an introduction, but just in case you’re not aware, the Sistine Chapel is where you’ll find one of the most famous works of art in the entire world – nine scenes from the book of Genesis painted onto the ceiling by none other than Michelangelo himself. The most iconic of these scenes is the Creation of Adam, but they all work together to create a pièce de résistance that you’re probably going to need some time to completely appreciate. The walls also contain some pretty impressive paintings, including The Last Judgement by Michelangelo, so make use of the benches along the chapel walls and take your time. This room stays busy, but there’s no limit on how long you can stay.

Speaking of that, besides buying your tickets online and being in the queue to enter before opening time, my only other piece of advice for visiting the Vatican Museums is simply not to rush. A visit to the Vatican Museums will be infinitely more enjoyable if you aren’t racing through to reach the Sistine Chapel so you can head to the next stop on your Rome itinerary. Guided tours are available, and while I personally didn’t feel it was necessary to take one, there are some that start before the museum opens to regular visitors, so it might be worth it simply to avoid the crowds! Entrance tickets can be purchased directly from the museum here. For more information about guided tours, please visit the website below.

Vatican Museums: Website
Address: Viale Vaticano, 00165 Roma

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Top 10 Things To See Inside The Vatican Museums

Share this post:

  • Olga
    November 18, 2018 at 5:55 PM

    Thank you for your post and very helpful links to buy tickets ! Very helpful

    • Sarah Shumate
      November 19, 2018 at 7:54 AM

      I’m so happy to hear it was helpful! Hope you enjoy your visit to the Vatican Museums!

  • rafa
    June 20, 2018 at 7:36 AM

    Thank you for this post! i love Rome

  • Allison
    March 21, 2018 at 3:20 PM

    Were you able to take photographs inside of the Sistine Chapel? I thought that I read online that there is zero photography allowed there. Just curious as we will be visiting in June for the first time. I can not wait to see double helix staircase! Your blog is fantastic!

    • Sarah Shumate
      March 21, 2018 at 8:50 PM

      Technically, no, you’re not supposed to. Museum staff are standing around and if you’re being obvious about it, they’ll tell you ‘No Photos!’, but you see a lot of people still taking photos anyway. The important thing if you do decide to take a sneaky photo is not to use flash. In great amounts, it could damage the art within the chapel.

  • Lukhi Diamond
    February 27, 2018 at 3:31 AM

    hey dear,
    I’m best fan of you, your post Are so wonderful,and really useful in my life,thanks dear for awesome sharing…

  • Dannielle @ Chicadeedee
    February 20, 2018 at 10:52 AM

    I so wish we’d had more time to see all these things! I feel like we were in the museum forever and didn’t see everything. Good enough reason to go back. I love the sculptures too but Adam’s more into the paintings, so we tend to spend an equal amount of time in each.

    • Sarah Shumate
      February 22, 2018 at 6:17 PM

      Well it is enormous, so I’m pretty sure no one sees everything unless they come back a couple more times. :) Sculptures are my favorite, but I can appreciate paintings, too. Not always the really old ones, but definitely the more modern and contemporary styles I can get into!

  • Jennifer Schlueter
    February 17, 2018 at 8:11 AM

    Lovely images!

  • Kacie Morgan
    February 17, 2018 at 6:09 AM

    The roof in the Round Hall, and the winding staircases, are almost hypnotic. I never knew they kept so many works of art here!

    • Sarah Shumate
      February 17, 2018 at 6:17 PM

      I honestly didn’t either until I started researching things for our trip. All I knew before that was that the Sistine Chapel was here! There’s so, so much more, though!

  • Summer
    February 17, 2018 at 4:06 AM

    These pictures are absolutely amazing! I love your photography. It makes me want to go back to the Vatican and view these things all over again

    • Sarah Shumate
      February 17, 2018 at 6:16 PM

      Thank you!! I feel that way, too, when I read blogs that tell stories and share pictures from places I’ve been. It’s so fun to relive your own memories through others’ experiences! :)

  • Rosie Kerrigan
    February 17, 2018 at 3:17 AM

    Oh, Sarah!! This is so lovely <3 I'd LOVE to snap that gorgeous staircase, it's so amazing! And your photos are just stunning, made me feel like I was there!!

    • Sarah Shumate
      February 17, 2018 at 6:16 PM

      Thank you so much! :) I hope you get the chance to visit the Vatican and photograph it all yourself!!

  • Ashley | Domestic Fashionista
    February 12, 2018 at 8:16 AM

    Gosh do you ever pinch yourself thinking about the amazing places you’ve been able to visit? This might be weird to say but I see so much of myself through these pictures – I find myself really drawn to capturing people amongst beautiful places. And you captured it perfectly. It feels like I’m actually there seeing these things myself. Anyways, your photos moved me this morning. Lovely friend.

    • Sarah Shumate
      February 12, 2018 at 7:31 PM

      All the time! But especially in Rome and other places where I’ve got the opportunity to see places in person that I’d only previously seen pictures of in history books. It’s pretty amazing!

      What a compliment. I honestly don’t think I’ve ever been given a better one in regards to my photography. THANK YOU!