Episode #098: Vatican Museums: Tips and Highlights for Your Visit

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In this episode, join us as we take a virtual walk through one of the most important and most visited attractions in Rome – the Vatican Museums. This huge complex holds a wealth of art and history and in pre-pandemic times would see over 20,000 visitors a day. Each one walking through the corridors, following the paths of Popes and some of the greatest artists of all time – such as Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Raphael, and Botticelli. 

Show notes
We talk to Stephen Oddo co-founder of Take Walks (formerly walksofitaly.com), a travel company well known for its engaging tours inside the Vatican Museums. Thanks to his time as a licensed guide, Stephen has visited the museums well over 1,000 times yet still finds unique and special places to see inside their walls.  We learn some tips of the best ways to experience the Vatican Museums and hear about their recently launched Key Masters tour which gives guests the opportunity to actually unlock the doors to the Sistine Chapel and switch the lights on in one of the spectacular galleries, well before normal tours begin. 

About our guest – Stephen Oddo

Stephen is a serial travel industry entrepreneur and co-founded multiple companies in the tours & activities sector since 2005. He co-founded Walks of Italy, a travel company for visitors to Italy focusing on unique and intimate experiences, in 2009. 

Walks has since launched tours in 14 cities around the globe, rebranding as Take Walks in 2018. Stephen was featured in a NatGeo/Netflix documentary about traveling smart in Rome and has traveled the globe to over 50 countries.

Visit Take Walks to learn more about Walks and the tours we offer. Also, check out the Walks of Italy blog where we cover everything Italian – from coffee to history and, most of all, helping you to make the most of your trip.

You can find Take Walks on these channels:

You can find Stephen on these channels:

What you’ll learn in this episode

  1. As the name suggests, the Vatican is made up of multiple museums and the area they cover is immense. It’s impossible to see everything in one visit, so it’s worth honing down what it is what you want to see/experience there 
  2. Going on a tour/using a guide, is well worth it – because not only do you get someone to direct you where to go, what little details to look out for but also give you the context. It’s not easy to get a lot of information inside the museums – they don’t have a lot of signage and descriptions to explain the works 
  3. Even if you go to see the famous site – the painting of Michelangelo ceiling in the Sistine Chapel you could find you miss out if you didn’t take the tour because you wouldn’t have the explanations of what you’re looking at, what the history is – it can all be a bit overwhelming without some direction. And it’s handy to have someone to point out the face of a Cardinal (Biagio da Cesena) who Michelangelo put into the Last Judgment painting in the figure of Minos, judge of the Underworld, after he’d been negative about the quality of Michelangelo’s work
  4. Along with Michelangelo, there are older paintings all around the walls of the Sistine chapel alone  –  Botticelli, Perugino, Pinturicchio, and Ghirlandaio 
  5. The Vatican museums are immense, and the Sistine Chapel is one of the major buildings in a collection of buildings that make up the museum. The museum was historically the Apostolic Palace of Popes that go back as far as the 14th century
  6. The Sistine Chapel was built by Pope Sixtus which is what gives it the name Sistine
  7. Stendhal Syndrome is a known condition where you can get overwhelmed by an abundance of art. Stendhal was a writer in the era of the Grand Tour, and he would talk about just being affected in a psychological way by the over-abundance of art. So don’t worry if at a certain point it’s starting to feel too much and your head is spinning – you’re suffering from Stendhal Syndrome. 
  8. Conclave. It means with the keys. So the keys both to the Kingdom for St. Peter is given the keys to the Kingdom by Christ. And so the Chapel is sort of the place where the passing of the keys takes place, as the Pope is the inheritor of that tradition of Peter. It could potentially refer to the fact they locked the Cardinals or did for some for a long time, locked the Cardinals in the Chapel to make that decision
  9. The Apollo Belvedere of the Laocoön and of the Belvedere torso sculptures can be found in artwork throughout the museum because the artists were ruminating about the artworks which had recently been discovered
  10. There are hundreds of figures inside of the Sistine Chapel – from different stories in the Bible as well as different things that were happening at the time
  11. The Gallery of Maps is full of incredible artwork but the maps themselves are of historical importance and commemorate a lot of things that took place in the world at the time and discoveries that were being made in the late 16th century when they were painted
  12. The Raphael rooms are easily missed in exploring the Vatican Museums. A lot of Take Walk guests have been for the second or third time, but had never seen them before and are blown away by the experience
  13. The immense collection of art in part down to these wealthy families who started to use the papacy as another way to extend their influence. Someone in their family would go into the Church, make their way up the ranks, and then that could help to extend the holdings of the families. So building the greatest collections, producing the greatest paintings went along with competing for who had the most lands and most sumptuous palaces
  14. When picking a tour, think about what it is you want to see – are the gardens important to you? Is the Church of St. Peters something you want to include? And if you are interested in getting off the beaten path, here are some kind of private/closed areas that are only accessible on certain tours – like the incredible double-helix Bramante Staircase – near to where Da Vinci’s apartment was, the Gallery of Masks, and the Niccoline Chapel
  15. When you’re in the Vatican Museums you are literally walking in the footsteps of many greats who came before you – Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Raphael and in some ways it is a time capsule – if you see the Swiss Guard in the paintings in the Raphael rooms, you’ll find they look pretty much similar to the Swiss Guard as you see them now – as their uniforms have changed very little over time.
  16. The Vatican Museums, pre-pandemic would get over 20,000 people a day, which it is likely to be the case again pretty soon. So it gets incredibly busy – most visitors, however, are all heading for the same places, so there will be empty corridors that a tour could lead you to that you might have missed
  17. For a large part of the year, Friday evenings are an interesting time to visit when fewer things open and so it’s far less crowded 
  18. Even if you or someone with you is not so much an art lover, there are still some fascinating sides to the Vatican Museums – there are the newly opened Borgio apartments (a must for anyone who’s seen the TV show The Borgias), there are intriguing myths and legends to hear, there are crypts and catacombs underneath, the Dome climb for incredible views

Top Tips:

  1. Don’t get caught out – not all entrances are found in St Peters Square – check before you go to avoid missing your tour
  2. Because the Vatican Museums are closed on Sundays, Mondays and Saturdays are the two busiest days to go. So if you’re going to go in the summer – if time permits try to visit Tuesday – Thursday
  3. It’s more comfortable if you can avoid the summer months for your visit as virtually none of the Vatican Museum has air conditioning and especially with all the crowds, it gets pretty hot in there

Why Take Walks?

  • Approachable style with carefully picked guides – they pride themselves on being story-tellers rather than lesson givers
  • Well thought out and researched itineraries
  • Their aim is to improve the experience for the guests wherever they can – from smaller group sizes, to avoid the crowd where possible, to specific tour topics
  • Knowing how to time tours so that you get an immersive experience but it doesn’t all become a bit too much – with tours anywhere from two hours on the shortest way to visit the museums to 5 hours
  • There are some incredible special access tours where they partner with the Vatican – like the Key Masters tour. In this unique tour, you get to access the museums when they still haven’t fully opened yet. You actually get to hold the keys, some of which are hundreds of years old. Somebody in the group opens each different door or turns on the lights – perhaps in the Hall of the Maps or the Sistine Chapel. This tour starts at 6am so by the time you finish the tour, the museums are just opening to the first groups – so you’ve been in there the whole time on your own, much of it in the dark, turning on the lights
  • The Pristine Sistine tour is another unique tour where you access the Sistine Chapel an hour before it opens to the public, before going on to do a full tour of both the Vatican Museums and St. Peter’s Basilica – all while using a restricted access door to gain instant access without the lines
  • Take Walks are continuously looking for unique ways and unique opportunities for our guests to see things the best possible way and there will be some exciting new experiences coming in 2022/23

Places, Museums & Artworks mentioned in the show

  • Niccoline Chapel – chapel you can visit on special access tour to the incredible, well-preserved painting by Fra Angelico of the early Renaissance
  • Santa Maria Maggiore –  the largest Catholic Marian church in Rome
  • Hall of Maps – a gallery containing a series of painted topographical maps of Italy based on drawings by friar and geographer Ignazio Danti
  • Pinacoteca – art gallery, inaugurated on October 1932
  • The School of Athens – famous Raphael painting
  • Stanza della Segnatura – the Room of the Signatura was the first to be decorated by Raphael
  • Bramante Staircase – built in 1505 to a double helix design by Donato Bramante
  • Pinecone Courtyard – the Cortile della Pigna, is the first main courtyard you pass through on your way to the Sistine Chapel with the Fontana della Pigna, a former Roman fountain 
  • Castel Sant Angelo – initially commissioned by the Roman Emperor Hadrian as a mausoleum for himself and his family
  • The Borgo – medieval district in Rome near the Vatican
  • Prati – area near the Vatican with great restaurants
  • Pizzarium – if you love pizza then one of Rome’s most famous stores is found behind the Vatican Museums


  • Stendhal Syndrome – a condition where people become physically overwhelmed when individuals feel over-exposed to artworks of great beauty
  • Conclaves – meaning ‘with the keys’, conclaves are what are now some of the more famous imagery we get from the Vatican every once in a while when a Pope is chosen after the passing or abdication in the very rare circumstance of the previous Pope. So passing the baton to a new Pope while still being in office.
  • MichelangeloSandro BotticelliPerugino, Pinturicchio and Ghirlandaio – master painters all found in the Vatican Museums
  • High Renaissance – a short period of the most exceptional artistic production
  • Mannerism – a style in European art that emerged in the later years of the Italian High Renaissance
  • The Agony and the Ecstasy – a 1965 American film about Michelangelo and Pope Julius II
  • Cardinal Biagio da Cesena – a 16th-century official who served as Papal Master of Ceremonies
  • Apollo Belvedere – Roman marble sculpture found in the Cortile del Belvedere
  • ClavigeroVatican keymaster
  • Laocoön and His Sons – one of the most famous ancient sculptures ever since it was excavated in Rome in 1506 and placed on public display in the Vatican – thought to be from between 27 BC and 68 AD
  • Raphael – High Rennaisance painter 
  • Swiss Guard – guard the Pope
  • The Borgia family – a Spanish-Aragonese noble family who rose to prominence during the Italian Renaissance – including Lucrezia Borgia and Cesare Borgia  
  • Pinturicchio – Italian painter during the Rennaisance
  • Della Rovere – competing family to the Borgias 
  • Beatification – is a recognition accorded by the Catholic Church of a deceased person’s entrance into Heaven and capacity to intercede on behalf of individuals who pray in their name

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