The Vatican

Our first day in Rome was spent in Vatican City. If we needed a shock out of the peaceful calm that we were feeling after Tuscany, the Vatican was it.

A few facts — Vatican City is the world’s smallest country and is fully contained in the heart of Rome. The .2 square mile country makes its own euro coin, and has it’s own police force and postal service. While we didn’t see the Pope, we did get the chance to visit the Vatican Museums, St. Peter’s Square and St. Peter’s Basilica.

St. Peter’s Square by day
St. Peter’s Basilica by night

The Vatican Museums

I know there might be a special place in you-know-where for me after saying this, but we hated did not enjoy our visit to the Vatican Museums. The Vatican Museums are where centuries of Popes have collected and stored some of the world’s most significant artwork, including works by Michelangelo, Raphael, Leonardo di Vinci, Lippi, Van Gogh, Dalí, and Picasso (just to name a few that even art novices like us would recognize). Everyone said it was a “must do” when in Rome, but all we kept thinking as we were doing it was “how do we get out of here?”. Let me explain.

The gorgeous Gallery of Maps in the Vatican Museum, and the hoards of tourists plowing their way through. 

Even though they pre-sold timed tickets for entry and we had tickets for the first time slot of the day — 8:30am, they still packed it with so many people that you couldn’t walk yourself through the rooms to enjoy the artwork. The hoards of people behind you pushed you through to the next room. When you reached doorways that separated one room from the next, people elbowed and pushed. Forget taking in the sights around you or pulling your camera up to snap a photo. Instead it was about survival, one room to the next, and praying to God that there wasn’t a fire or emergency.

It was torture to rush by such beauty. 

By the time we made it to the Sistine Chapel, which is historic and breathtaking and overwhelmingly beautiful, we were spent. The guards were yelling “Silenco” every 10 seconds (the irony) and corralling everyone in to the middle so they could fit the maximum amount of people in. We really wanted to enjoy this amazing masterpiece, and instead we couldn’t wait to get outside. We lasted about 10 minutes in the Sistine Chapel before the pushing and the yelling got to be too much and we had to leave. It was a huge disappointment.

Not the Sistine Chapel (no photos allowed in there), but another beautifully painted fresco. 


St. Peter’s Basilica

St. Peter’s Basilica made up for the nightmare that was the Vatican Museum. The moment we walked through the door and saw the immense space with the beams of sunlight shining down from the gilded ceilings, we both felt an overwhelming wave of awe and calm. Our reaction was a quiet and simultaneous whisper of “Wow“.

St. Peter’s Basilica, view from the entrance

Seriously. There was mass in progress somewhere and we could hear the choir vibrating off of the walls. We’ve seen a lot of churches and basilicas on this trip and St. Peter’s was by far the most breathtaking. It was so immense, gorgeous, and serene and we just felt like we could stay there a while. So we did.

St. Peter’s Basilica, view from the middle

We attended the tail end of mass, sat in awe of Michelangelo’s emotional sculpture, “Pietà”, of Mary holding Jesus, climbed the 551 very narrow stairs to the top of the dome (also designed by Michelangelo), took in the view of Vatican city from the top, and then walked through the papal tombs on our way out.

A close-up of Pietà, by Michelangelo
View of Vatican City from the top of the cupola (or dome)

Overall, our experience at St. Peter’s more than made up for the half-day panic attack that was the Vatican Museums. Our advice, and something that we have to often remind ourselves, is to take a step back when you are told something is a “must do” and make sure it is a must do for you. Do your research, set your expectations, and spend your time doing those things you enjoy. (I guess that applies life in general and not just to travel, but that is another blog post entirely.)

Pontifical Swiss Guard

Next up, Ancient Rome. We were part of the precious few that got to walk the arena floor and (spoiler alert!) we both made it out alive. Good thing they didn’t make us battle, because we all know who would win…

Love from Italy,

Cathleen & Christopher



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