Inside the Vatican Museum: Highlights and Must-See Attractions

What do you first see among the 70,000 treasure pieces?
The art on the wall or the ancient map or the iconic timepieces. 
It's a task to decide where this tour should begin
 'Coz you really don't want to leave the highlights of the Vatican museum unseen. 

Discover the attractions that are a must see in the Vatican museum - especially if you are a first time visitor. Take this virtual tour inside the Vatican Museum, mark the key highlights on your map and preplan your visit to ensure you don't miss the best attractions. Included in this guide are practical tips to help you with your Vatican Museum visit - including the types of tickets and timings. 

Museums can be quite overwhelming, especially when they have eras of artifacts on display. The Vatican Museum is one of the most visited and well-known museums in the world. Walk inside the Vatican Museum and you will realize it is home to an extensive collection from various civilizations. Every wall, ceiling, nook, and corner of this place has something to tell and one can get quite dizzy with the plethora of exhibits here. Fortunately, the Vatican Museum is very well-cataloged and a visitor-friendly place with well-marked displays and a good audio tour. No wonder, it is one of the key places to visit when in Rome.

Just the highlights of Vatican Museum can take you over half a day
Just the highlights of Vatican Museum can take you over half a day

My first visit to the Vatican was mesmerizing and I found myself getting lost in the Roman and Greek history – recollecting the various stories I have heard. If you are an ardent fan of Dan Brown novels like Angels and Demons, you will find yourself equating each space with the ones from the book. Before my visit, the place fascinated me with its history of the Catholic Church and the famous Sistine Chapel. However, I discovered that this was just a few of the many highlights of the Vatican Museum.

In this guide to the Vatican Museum, I have put together the history of the place and what makes it special. I have included the attractions that are must see in Vatican Museum along with tips on when to visit, the ticket prices, various types of tours and how to get to this smallest country in the world.

Quick links for your tour of the Vatican Museum

Some of these links are likely to make your visit to the Vatican City and Museum easier and more enjoyable. Check them out.

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History of Vatican Museum

The Vatican museum history can be dated back to the 16th century and Pope Julius II. As the story goes, he acquired the iconic sculpture of Laocoön and His Sons, which he placed in the Octagonal courtyard of the Vatican building that housed the Vatican Library and the Sistine Chapel. This was the start of the fabulous collection owned by this epic museum. He then commissioned the famed Raphael to build the works of art. What it resulted in is now amongst the highlights of Vatican Museum – the Raphael rooms.

Some of the collection inside the Vatican Museum
Some of the collection inside the Vatican Museum

Over time, the Vatican Museum expanded as various popes and leaders contributed to its collections. Several galleries like the Gallery of Maps and the Etruscan Museum were added to the Vatican Museum. Today, as you embark on a Vatican Museum tour, you’ll encounter over 70,000 works of art. These exceptional collections reveal the history of the Roman Empire, the Catholic Church, and the birth of the Renaissance.

The layout of Vatican Museum (including the map)

Vatican Museum can really evoke frenzy – especially if you are a history or an art buff like me. I went absolutely crazy when I first saw the map of Vatican Museum. The sheer number of galleries and things to see made me realize that I should have planned my visit in advance. While I knew of the famous paintings and artworks of Vatican City, I did not know where exactly they would be located. The only place that I was sure of was the iconic Sistine Chapel – a masterpiece and a must-see highlight within the Vatican Museum.

The Vatican Museum Map
The Vatican Museum Map PC: Wikimedia Commons

If you are reading this guide to Vatican City before your visit, you are in real luck. For one, with my list of things to see inside the Vatican Museum, you can quickly make your own list. Once you mark them on this map, Vatican Museum is going to be a lot easier. You can even download the official Vatican museum map in pdf format from the official website. This is the same one that you will get when you enter the Vatican Museum.

Things to see in Vatican Museum

There are over 70,000 things to see inside the Vatican Museum. These include classic sculptures, statues, art pieces, and historical antiques that span various civilizations and cultures. What is more, they are placed in stunning galleries that will awe you with their décor and architecture. I cannot, of course, detail all of them – one big reason is that I left a lot unseen. However based on my experience and research, here are the must-see highlights of the Vatican Museum that you should consider checking out.

Let’s get going and embark on a virtual Vatican Museum tour.

Pinecone Courtyard (Octagonal Courtyard) – the start of the highlights of Vatican museum

Pinecone Courtyard - one of the parts that are must-see in Vatican Museum
Pinecone Courtyard – one of the parts that are must-see in Vatican Museum

Past the entrance of the Vatican Museum is a large courtyard that is termed the Pinecone Courtyard -easily recognizable by the giant pinecone sculpture that is along the staircase designed by Michelangelo. This courtyard is also, termed as the Octagonal courtyard.

The sphere within the sphere - one of the highlights of Vatican Museum
The sphere within the sphere – one of the highlights of Vatican Museum

 What greets you when you enter is the giant ball or globe called the Sphere within Sphere. Made by the Italian sculptor Arnaldo Pomodoro, this is one of the many spheres that he has made. A complex design with many spheres and a clockwork like working within the main sphere.

Explanation of the Sistine Chapel - one of the things to see in Vatican Museum
Explanation of the Sistine Chapel – one of the things to see in Vatican Museum
Description of the artwork in Vatican Museum's Sistine Chapel
Description of the artwork in Vatican Museum’s Sistine Chapel

Alongside the same, there is a detailed explanation of the paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. I recommend that you spend a little time understanding the same so that when you finally come to the grand finale of the Museum at the Sistine Chapel, you can better appreciate the 3D ceiling. Remember, once in the Sistine Chapel, you may not have enough time owing to the crowd as well and you will be unable to capture any pictures owing to the ban on photography within the chapel.

Laoccon and his sons - the Vatican Museum Statue that began the wide collection that this place has
Laoccon and his sons – the Vatican Museum Statue that began the wide collection that this place has

Walk around the courtyard and you will see numerous beautiful sculptures – some of which are recognizable, some a little alien. Amongst them all, let me point out one of the most important ones – the Laoccon and his sons. It is this beautiful ancient sculpture that started the entire collection of the Pope – that in turn prompted the start of the Vatican Museum.

I found myself captivated by the amazing muscular features and the anatomy captured in this Vatican Museum sculpture. This piece was once a part of Greek history and was considered to be a symbol of the Greek victory. Once the Romans defeated the Greeks, this sculpture was taken by the Romans. The precision and the art of this statue are said to have inspired many other Renaissance artists like Michelangelo.  

Apollo Belvedere Statue inside Vatican Museum.
Apollo Belvedere Statue inside Vatican Museum.

The other statue that you have to watch out for is the famed Apollo Belvedere sculpture. As you can see, I could not get too close to it. The 4th-century piece shows the Greek God posing after having shot an arrow from his bow. Or at least, that is what the experts believe when they see this pose.

Gregorian Egyptian Museum

This is a series of nine rooms that has an impressive collection of ancient Egyptian artifacts. Founded by Pope Gregory XVI in 1839, one of the highlights is the two steles dedicated to the Egyptian god Ptah. Ptah, the deity of craftsmanship and art, is depicted in stunning detail on these steles.

Another significant room is the one dedicated to reliefs and inscriptions from Assyrian palaces that go back to 883-612 BC. Then, there is the Book of Dead that was kept inside the pyramids to accompany the deceased in their afterlife. Of course, there are several mummies that you can see in this section of the Vatican Museum.

Sala Rotunda or the Round Room in the Pio Clementino Museum

Sala Rotunda - one of the galleries inside Vatican Museum
Sala Rotunda – one of the galleries inside Vatican Museum

Further on into the museum, while you admire the various other Vatican Museum statues, you should head towards the Pio Clementino Museum. Here you will see a peculiar red-colored room called the Round Room or the Sala Rotunda. As you can see in the picture below, it seems like an obvious name.

The most obvious attraction here is the massive Porphyry Basin that occupies the center of the room. This belonged to Emperor Nero and while you admire it, make sure you spare a look at the rich mosaic flooring of this room.

The Bronze Apollo Statue  in Vatican Museum
The Bronze Apollo Statue in Vatican Museum

The other significant highlight here is the Bronze Hercules. This statue, besides being unique from the marble statues, was discovered in Pompeii where it was struck by lightning and got buried. If you look at it from different angles, you can actually see the split made by the lightning near the head of the statue.

The Pantheon inspired ceiling inside the the round room of Vatican museum
The Pantheon inspired ceiling inside the the round room of Vatican museum

The Sala Rotonda is one of those rooms that will awe you with its architecture and décor. There are two unique things – the frescoed ceiling and the dome-shaped ceiling akin to the Pantheon.

The frescoed ceiling of Sala Rotonda
The frescoed ceiling of Sala Rotonda

The dome-shaped grand Pantheon-like ceiling was created to have a unique play of light and space in this room by one of the Popes. The ceiling is so stunning that you cannot, but help look up at it.

The Pinacoteca Art Gallery inside the Vatican Museum

This set of 18 rooms contains some of the best paintings of Vatican Museum – done by renowned artists like  – Raphael, Titian, and Da Vinci. The vast array of exceptional artworks was gathered over centuries and finally displayed in this art gallery inaugurated in 1932.

To be honest, I skipped this section as it was not a part of my Vatican City tour itinerary. However, I did get some key attractions that you should catch – in case you do visit this Vatican Museum section. These masterpieces include Giotto di Bondone’s Stefaneschi Triptych,  Ercole de’Roberti’s Miracles of San Vincenzo Ferrera and Leonardo da Vinci’s St. Jerome, an unfinished painting dating back to the late 15th century. Besides there, there are several of Raphael’s paintings like the Transfiguration and the Madonna di Foligno.

The Etruscan Section

Before the Romans, existed the Etruscans –  a civilization that was quite forward when it came to their way of living, their clothing, crafts and arts. This section of the Vatican Museum is sometimes not included in the regular Vatican tours but if you get a chance, you must pop in to see the 3 – 4 rooms filled with Etruscan vases, jewelry and statues.

One of the Etruscan Sarcophagus
One of the Etruscan Sarcophagus

Among the various artifacts from the Etruscan civilization is the famed statue called the Mars of Todi. This bronze Vatican City statue depicts a man toasting to the God of War- Mars. Dating back to the 6th Century BC, this one was discovered on the banks of the River Tiber and was added to the Vatican Museum collection later.

Besides this, you must keep an eye out for the various Sarcophagus. Each coffin has a beautiful sculpture attached to the top – possibly representing the body inside.

I would definitely include the Etruscan Museum as one of the sections that are must-see in the Vatican Museum for its bronze, terracotta, and gold objects that offer a fascinating glimpse into this ancient culture.

Gallery of Tapestries

There is no missing this 245 feet long gallery inside Vatican Museum. You have to pass through it on your way to the Sistine Chapel. The entire passage is lined with tapestries or carpets showcasing scenes from the massacre of the innocents, the birth of Jesus and his resurrection. Each tapestry is a work of art and all of them have been done by Raphael and his followers who sent their work to the Belgian tapestry makers. Most people scurry through this but here are the key pieces of art in the Vatican Museum that you must watch out for.

The large mosaic artwork  before you enter the Gallery of Tapestries
The large mosaic artwork before you enter the Gallery of Tapestries

First off, before you enter the Gallery of Tapestries, you will pass by this amazing mosaic on the floor. The piece makes an apt entrance to a Gallery that will literally make you gasp with awe. Then comes, the tapestry with the Massacre of Innocents. This one is quite brutal about the story of King Herod who attempted to kill all the kids who were 2 years old and below in an attempt to slaughter Jesus.

The Killing of the innocents depicted on one of the tapestries inside the Vatican Museum
The Killing of the innocents depicted on one of the tapestries inside the Vatican Museum
The tapestry where the eyes of Jesus follow you
The tapestry where the eyes of Jesus follow you

Watch out for the Tapestry with the image of Jesus shown in the picture. I could not capture the entire tapestry but let me explain why I have specified this particular picture. As you move along the tapestry, you will find that Jesus follows your movement. Stunning, right? And I actually freaked when I found out that really happens!

The ceiling of the Gallery of Tapestries in Vatican Museum
The ceiling of the Gallery of Tapestries in Vatican Museum

The Gallery of Tapestries also, captivated me with its ceiling. At first look, it felt as if they were lovely sculptures but here is the surprising part. They are just 3D paintings that feel like sculptures.

Gallery of Geographic Maps

The ornate ceiling of the Gallery of Maps
The ornate ceiling of the Gallery of Maps

The ornate ceiling is the first thing that you notice when you enter the Gallery of Maps. Alongside on either end of the gallery are frescoes of maps of Italy. The ceiling on the top depicts the land represented in the maps.

I personally found the gallery fascinating for its detailed and large maps of Italy dating back to the 16th century. These Vatican Museum maps display not only provide a historical perspective on the geography of the country but also showcase the skill of the mapmakers of the time.

Again, this is a gallery that you have to pass through when you are heading to the Sistine Chapel.

Raphael Rooms

The Raphael Rooms, named after the great artist Raphael, are another must-see for any visitor to the Vatican Museum. These are a series of 4 rooms that were decorated by Raphael and his pupils. The rooms were used by Pope Julius II and are quite ornate and colorful. The plethora of paintings can overwhelm you as well. However, let me point out one of the many paintings in Vatican Museum.

The school of Athens - one of the famous Vatican Museum paintings done by Raphael
The school of Athens – one of the famous Vatican Museum paintings done by Raphael PC: Pixabay

The piece above is a room called Stanza Della Segnatura. The painting is called School of Athens and it depicts a gathering of various philosophers. Aristotle and Plato are central to the painting while Socrates, Leonardo Da Vinci and Raphael himself make an appearance in the painting.

The Raphael Rooms are one of the key highlights of the Vatican museum – not just for these paintings but for the fact that these rooms were a part of the Apostolic Palace that was used as a residence by Pope Julius II della Rovere.

The Spiral Staircase – an unmissable part of the Vatican Museum tour

A must-see highlight of Vatican Museum -The Spiral staircase
A must-see highlight of Vatican Museum -The Spiral staircase PC: Pixabay

You just cannot miss the iconic Spiral Staircase in Vatican Museum. Designed by Giuseppe Momo, this architectural masterpiece is a double helix in form, with two intertwined staircases leading to the exit of the museum. The intriguing part here is that the ones who are going up cannot see the people going down.

 It is almost, the last of the things to see in Vatican museum before you the grand finale with the Sistine Chapel. Even if you cannot walk these Vatican museum stairs, make sure you see it. This Vatican museum staircase stands for the artistry and innovation of this place – the two facets that I found consistently displayed throughout my visit to the Vatican Museum.

Sistine Chapel – a must-see in the Vatican Museum tour

Undoubtedly, one of the most famous and awe-inspiring places within the Vatican Museum is the Sistine Chapel. To be honest, for many, including me, it is the reason to visit the Vatican City and its museum.

From the moment I stepped inside, I was left speechless by the breathtaking frescoes adorning the walls and ceiling, painted by the legendary Michelangelo. Along the walls is the famed masterpiece – The Last Judgement while the ceilings showcase the Creation of Adam and biblical scenes from Noah’s voyage.

However, though the main highlight are the Michelangelo’s work of art inside the Sistine Chapel, it was a the part that was added much later in the early 1500. The other pieces of art inside the chapel were created earlier in 1470s by artists like  Perugino, Pinturicchio, Botticelli ,Ghirlandaio and Rosselli.

Remember though that this is one section where no photography is permitted. So stay on and enjoy the distraction free moments of this lovely section of the Vatican Museum.

While your official museum tour ends here, a new one also begins. This one leads you to one of the most beautiful churches in Europe – St. Peter’s Basilica – which I have covered in a separate post. For now, just revel in the glory of the museum and check out rest of this guide to Vatican museum for some practical tips to plan a visit.

Common FAQs section of this Vatican Museum Guide

What are the hours of operation for the Vatican Museum?

The museum is generally open to visitors from Monday to Saturday, 9:00 am to 6:00 pm. The last entry is permitted at 4:00 pm. On Friday, the Vatican Museum opening hours is extended until 10.30pm and on Saturday until it is till 8.00pm.

It’s worth noting that the museum is closed on Sundays, except for the last Sunday of each month, when it opens from 9:00 am to 2:00 pm with the last entry at 12:30 pm. On this Sunday, the entry is free-of-cost.

What is the best time to visit Vatican Museum?

Every day, there are thousands of visitors to the Vatican Museum. You should aim to be here as early as possible to avoid the crowd.

How much do the Vatican Museum tickets cost?

There are various ticket options available at the Vatican Museum. These include skip-the-line tickets, combination tickets to the Museum, Sistine Chapel as well as other Rome attractions, guided tours and even tickets with transport from Rome. All these need to be pre-booked online either through the official Vatican Museum website or through sites like GetYourGuide.

The prices vary from USD 31.73 for just the entrance to the museum and Sistine Chapel to USD 140 for a combination ticket of Vatican and Colosseum.

How can I navigate the Vatican Museum using available maps?

Navigating the labyrinth-like halls of the Vatican Museum can be challenging. Luckily, there are maps and guides that were incredibly helpful. These Vatican Museum maps are available at the entrance of the museum or on their official website. You can even find an image in the Layout section of this Vatican City guide.

How large is the Vatican Museum collection in terms of artworks and exhibits?

With an extensive collection of approximately 70,000 artworks, the Vatican Museum is an art lover’s paradise. Around 20,000 of these works are on display, ranging from renowned paintings and sculptures to historical artifacts. This impressive display offers a fascinating experience for all visitors, and I recommend allocating ample time to explore the numerous exhibits thoroughly.

Where can I find the Raphael Rooms and their significant paintings?

The Raphael Rooms are located on the second floor of the Apostolic Palace. These rooms are adorned with significant frescoes created by the artist Raphael and his workshop. A few of the most well-known paintings in the Raphael Rooms include:
– The School of Athens
– The Parnassus
– The Disputation of the Holy Sacrament

What is the best way to reach Vatican City?

You can get to Vatican City from Rome via a bus, metro or a taxi. You can opt for a transport option when buying a ticket to the Vatican Museum. Alternately, you can just hop onto one of the many buses from Rome to Vatican City. Try to get off at the Museo Vaticani which is the entrance of the museum and not the St. Peter’s Basilica stop. The Basilica stop is around 15 minutes by walk from the museum and you cannot enter the Basilica and then go to the museum.

By Metro, you can get off at the Ottaviano stop on the Metro A line.

Practical Tips for Visiting Vatican Museum

When I visited the Vatican Museum, I found a few practical tips to be really helpful. Check them out –

  • First and foremost, know when to go. I realized that arriving early in the day can help avoid long queues and larger crowds – especially in the popular sections like the Sistine Chapel.
  • Dressing appropriately is essential while visiting the Vatican Museum, since it is a religious site. Be sure to wear clothing that covers shoulders and knees. Wearing comfortable shoes is also important, as there is a lot of walking involved in exploring the vast museum.
  • Be aware that you cannot see all of the 70,000 paintings, sculptures, statues, and other artifacts. It is just too overwhelming. Focus on the highlights, such as the Spiral Staircase, the Gallery of Maps, and the famous works of Renaissance art and you will enjoy your Vatican City tour.
  • A food plan is also crucial, as there are limited options inside the Vatican Museum. Carry some dry snacks and water to stay energized throughout the visit.
  • It’s important to note that while cameras or smartphones are allowed, tripods and selfie-sticks are not permitted inside the museum.
  • Avoid large backpacks or else you will have to keep it in storage. Carry just a small bag with your essentials.
  • If you are planning to visit the St. Peter’s Basilica, you will need to opt for the guided tour of the church to enter it from the museum. Alternately, you will have to exit the museum, walk for 15 minutes to the Basilica entrance and enter the same from there. The Basilica is free to enter.

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