The 10 Best Things to See in the Vatican

Visiting the Vatican is a once in a lifetime experience with literally hundreds of things to see and do. Visiting St. Peter’s Square, seeing the tombs of the Popes underneath Saint Peter’s Basilica, or Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s Baldacchino over the altar of St. Peter’s Basilica are a small selection of things to see at the Vatican. With so much to choose from, there are varying opinions about what really are the most amazing treasures in the church and the museums. Here are my picks for ten of the most important things to see inside the Vatican.

The Sistine Chapel
Many people come to see the Vatican just to see the Sistine Chapel, which is located inside the Vatican Museums. The Chapel was built by Pope Sixtus IV between 1480 to 1482 as a private chapel for the Pope. It was also destined to be where Conclave would take place, which is what happens when a Pope dies. This is where the cardinals meet to vote on who will become the next Pope.

In 1508 the 32-year-old Michelangelo Buonarroti was asked by Pope Julius II to fresco paint the ceiling. Michelangelo reluctantly painted stories from the Old Testament which took him four years in total. At the age of 60, he was asked to come back to paint the huge wall behind the altar which depicts the Last Judgment. It is Michelangelo’s fresco paintings that help draw the huge crowds to the Vatican today.

The Last Judgement Sistine Chapel

Caravaggio’s Deposition of Christ
This is one of my favorite paintings in the Vatican museums and also one of my favorite Caravaggios. This painting depicts the dead Christ being moved to his tomb after being crucified. The painting was painted by Michelangelo of Caravaggio or better known as just Caravaggio between the years 1603 and 1604. Caravaggio was famous for emphasizing what was called ‘chiaroscuro’ in his paintings which is the separation of light and dark. The technique can be clearly seen in this painting. The large Deposition of Christ masterpiece can be found in the Pinacoteca inside the Vatican museums.

painting on the wall in the Vatican Museums

The Dome of St. Peter’s Basilica
When it was first completed, the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica was the highest point in Rome. The dome was designed by Michelangelo Buonarroti when he was in his early 70s. He had already completed a number of works for the Vatican including Pope Julius II’s tomb, the Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and the Last Judgement also in the Sistine Chapel. It was Pope Paul III who asked the reluctant Michelangelo to design the dome in 1547 yet it was not completed until 1590, 26 years after Michelangelo’s death.

The diameter of the dome is enormous at 42 meters (138 feet). The inspiration for the dome came from the ancient Pantheon in Rome and Brunelleschi’s dome in Florence created over 100 years before. It is still possible to climb the dome today where you will find staggering views of the city of Rome.

Room of the Maps
The room of the maps or Galleria Delle Carte Geografice is arguably the most spectacular of all the rooms inside the Vatican museums. The room was designed by Ignazio Danti under Pope Gregory XIII between 1580 to 1582 with fresco paintings of all the Italian regions, Italian Peninsula, Italian Islands, and the Papal territories. At the end of the Room, you will see two maps of Italy as a whole and although this room is over 400 years old the Maps are said to be 80 percent accurate. You should also look out for the map of Venice at the end of the room because if you take a photo of it, you can essentially still use it as your map of Venice today. That little has changed in the city of canals!

The ceiling is also stunning and decorated with biblical scenes.

gallery of maps in the Vatican

Raphael’s Transfiguration of Christ
Raphael’s Transfiguration of Christ was one of the most important works of the painter’s short life. It was completed just before his death in 1520. This huge painting (405 cm x 278 cm) shows Christ being transfigured in all his glory in radiant light being watched by a number of his disciples with the prophets, Moses and Elijah by his side. The painting was commissioned by Cardinal Giulio de Medici and was intended for the Narbonne Cathedral in France. Today it can be seen in the Pinacoteca inside the Vatican museums.

Raphael’s The School Of Athens
This may be my personal favorite painting inside the Vatican. This fresco painting was completed when Raphael was just 28 years old, beginning in the year 1509 and completed in the year 1511. The School Of Athens tells the story of philosophy and science with Aristotle and Plato in the middle of the painting. The School Of Athens is in the Stanza della Segnatura inside the Vatican museums in what is today called the Raphael Rooms. The fresco was commissioned by Pope Julius II and is the first of all the frescos Raphael created for these rooms.

full school of Athens painting in the Vatican

The Laocoon
The Laocoon group is actually one of the main reasons we have the Vatican museums today. The statue is on display in the Octagonal courtyard inside the Vatican Museums and it depicts the Trojan priest, Laocoon and his sons being attacked by serpents sent by the Greek god, Apollo as punishment for warning the Greeks that the Trojan horse might be a trick.

The statue was discovered in 1506 and it was said to be so beautiful that Pope Julius II opened up the Vatican for the public to view the statue which eventually became the idea for opening up the Vatican museums. Michelangelo. who was working for the Pope at the time, was one of the first to see the newly discovered statue and many of his fresco paintings in the Sistine Chapel were influenced by this statue

laocoon and sons with snakes

The Belvedere Torso
The Belvedere Torso or the beautiful torso is a very interesting piece and one of the most influential statues in the world yet The statue is minus a head, arms and legs. We also know little of this statue. It is said it is either believed to be a statue of Hercules or theĀ  ancient figure of Ajax contemplating suicide. The torso is so wonderfully sculpted that artists such as Michelangelo, Rodin and even Picasso were influenced by it. Michelangelo was even asked to restore the Belvedere Torso but he refused believing it was too beautiful to be touched. It can be seen today in the Vatican museums in the Room of the Muses.

Pope John Paul II Tomb
Pope John Paul II was one of the most popular men of the 20th century. He became Pope in 1978 and died in 2005. Like a large number of the 265 previous Popes, you can still today visit their tombs underneath St Peter’s Basilica. However once a Pope becomes a Saint, as Pope John Paul II did on the 27th of April, 2014, their tomb is placed inside St Peter’s Basilica itself. Today you can view Pope John Paul II’s tomb on a visit to St. Peter’s. You must turn directly right as you enter into the Basilica where you will find Michelangelo’s Pieta and right alongside, about 30 feet (10 meters) up you will find the tomb for Pope John Paul II.

The Pieta
The Pieta can be seen inside St. Peter’s Basilica when you turn right as you go through the entrance. It is a statue sculpted by Michelangelo, completed when he was only 25 years old. The masterpiece is a depiction of the Virgin Mary holding Christ after he was crucified on the cross. The statue was originally commissioned by a French cardinal and was not placed in St. Peter’s Basilica until the 18th century.

When seeing the Pieta you will notice that it is behind bulletproof glass. This is because it was attacked on the 21st of May 1972 by an Australian/Hungarian man named Lazlo Toth fracturing Mary’s nose and arm among other pieces.