Beat the Crowds – Sistine Chapel, St Peter’s and Vatican Tour

The Vatican Museum holds so many treasures, including the world famous Sistine Chapel and the breathtaking Gallery of Maps and Raphael Rooms. We wanted to beat the crowds and make the most of our time there, so we chose a pre-opening tour of the Sistine Chapel, St Peter’s and the Vatican with The Roman Guy.

Vatican Museum entrance
I’m quite an independent traveller but there are so many advantages of doing a tour of the Vatican. For one, only tours can enter before 9 am when the general public are admitted, plus you get so much more insight into the history of the site. The Privileged Entrance Tour starts at 7.30 am so you have a huge head start on the crowds and will get to see the rooms in much greater detail. We were handed headsets which meant that we could clearly hear our tour guide but didn’t have to stand right next to them at all times, allowing us the freedom to move around as we wished. The Gallery of Maps is a breathtaking sight – 40 maps painted between 1580 and 1585, representing the Italian regions and papal properties at the time of Pope Gregory XIII.

Vatican Map Room detail
We headed briefly outside to catch a glimpse of the Dome, the tallest in the world, which we’d be looking at in greater detail from the inside later.

View towards St Peter's from the Vatican
Moving on, we were surprised to find such a large green space inside the Vatican – but apparently this is just one of three – the Courtyard of the Pigna or Pinecone, with a modern sphere sculpture by Arnaldo Pomodoro.

Vatican courtyard
The Sphere within a Sphere is an impressive bronze statue also known as Sfera con Sfera. Its huge fractured surface can rotate around with a bit of a push, as you’ll see our guide doing on the right in the second photo.

Sphere within Sphere Vatican
There are four Raphael Rooms, renowned for their frescoes and painted by Raphael and his workshop. Originally intended as apartments for Pope Julius II, he commissioned the young artist Raphael to redecorate the interiors and once completed this room was used for private audiences with the Pope. This vibrant ceiling detail is from the Stanza di Eliodoro  or Room of Heliodorus.

Vatican ceiling fresco
This scene depicts the coronation of Charlemagne the Stanza dell’Incendio del Borgo or Room of the Fire in the Borgo. It is thought that Raphael made the designs for this fresco, but that it was probably painted by Gianfrancesco Penni.

Vatican ceiling Rome Italy
You are not permitted to take photos inside the Sistine Chapel, which whilst annoying for some, might be a good thing in that you can really concentrate on the work itself rather than trying to get the best photo angle. Reluctantly painted by Michelangelo, who considered himself a sculptor rather than a painter, it is nonetheless one of the finest Renaissance artworks you’ll ever see. When you visit before general admission, you’ll get a peaceful moment admiring the chapel, but come back again a few hours later as we did and you’ll see quite a difference! We took a  sideways peek at the magnificent Scala Regia or Royal Stairs, which is not open to the public, as it’s the formal entrance to the Vatican. It was restored by the famous artist and architect Bernini from 1663, who found a novel solution to the dark, awkwardly shaped tunnel staircase, by vaulting the tunnel, supporting it with columns and narrowing them at the end of the vista in order to exaggerate the distance.

Vatican main staircase
And just after that we caught our first glimpse of a Swiss Guard – they’re responsible for the safety of the Pope and the Vatican.

Swiss Guard Vatican - copyright Luxury Columnist
Entering St Peter’s Basilica, you’re struck by the sheer scale of it. One of the two largest churches in the world (the other is in Brazil), it’s widely regarded as the best example of Renaissance architecture. It isn’t a cathedral, as you might think, and it isn’t the mother church of the Roman Catholic church, which happens to be San Giovanni in Laterano. Due to its location next to the Pope’s residence, most of the Church’s major ceremonies are held here nevertheless. The gold coffered ceiling of the nave, created by Maderno, is flooded with natural daylight.

Vatican architecture
The dome was completed in 1590, and cracks started to appear in the mid 18th century so iron chains were installed to strengthen it.

St Peter's Rome interior
The way that the light pours through the cathedral is stunning, and since a new LED system was installed in 2014 it’s light throughout the cathedral. You can take photos of the interiors and even the paintings, since they are all actually mosaics!

St Peter's Cathedral Rome fresco
Bernini created one of his most famous works, Baldacchino, a bronze canopy indicating that directly below it is the Tomb of St Peter.

Luxury Columnist Rome
Outside, the Piazza di San Pietro or St Peter’s Square was designed by Bernini in two sections. It was being set up for visitors to attend a Papal Mass when we visited.

St Peter's Cathedral audience
The Egyptian obelisk was already there when Bernini accepted the task of remodelling the square. Known as The Witness, it’s the second largest standing obelisk at 25.5 metres.

Vatican fountain
Don’t forget to go and find the Swiss Guards that I mentioned earlier, especially if you are a single lady – according to their job description they have to be tall, single, handsome and Swiss of course. They’re allowed to talk to visitors and are very friendly.

Swiss guards Vatican
I’d highly recommend the Privileged Entrance Vatican, Sistine Chapel and St Peter’s Tour by The Roman Guy, you’ll save a lot of time and get to see the sights in style. Remember to cover shoulders and knees and to take comfortable shoes for the tour. The next day we did another of The Roman Guy’s tours to The Forum, Palatine Hill and the Colosseum, where we saw the deadly new machine that had just opened…

  • I visited Rome two years ago and also took a tour of the Vatican and love it! One of my favorite things that I did though was take another tour through the catacombs/excavations below St. Peter’s Basilica. Super cool!

    • I’d have liked to fit the catacombs in too, definitely will if we go back!

  • Swati Sharma

    beautiful pictures….thanks for sharing….

  • Angie SilverSpoon

    We didn’t do the early entry just the queue jump and it’s so necessary, it was so crowded we would have been queueing for hours!
    Lots of love,
    SilverSpoon London

    • Yes I forgot to mention that I went a few years ago without the queue jump and we were indeed queuing for hours

  • I am an independent traveler too! However, I also try mingling with the tour groups whenever I visit the museums lol

    • I’ve occasionally eavesdropped on the nearest tour group too 😉

  • AdventureHan

    Wow, so beautiful! all that attention to detail is stunning!

    • You’re right, the detail is fantastic – so much to look at!

  • love&limoncello

    It looks so stunning, can you believe I have never been to Rome! xx

  • hadas aharon

    I have yet to visit the vatican but it’s on my list 🙂

    The Fashion Matters- Fashion & Travel Magazine

    • It’s very impressive, you could easily spend a whole day there!

  • This is one of my only regrets when visiting the Vatican! I arrived perfectly on time, as in early in the morning and no lines really but I didn’t purchase tickets ahead of time, so I couldn’t go visit the museums and so on. Super huge bummer but reasons enough now to return!

    Naomi in Wonderland

    • When I went the time before, it was like you, I arrived quite early but still couldn’t get to see much because so many people bought their tickets in advance. Definitely a reason for you to return!

  • Paola

    Wonderful pics, great job my dear!!!
    Kisses, Paola.


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    • Thanks very much Paola, it’s such a stunning place, there’s beauty everywhere you look

  • love this 🙂

    kisses from dubai ♥

  • ♫ Alison M ♪

    What a great idea. When we visited it was really packed and hot. There was no escape from the crowds and it was a bit overwhelming.

    • Yes it was when we went back round an hour later, couldn’t believe the difference!

  • Wow- this looks incredible! The interior of the Sistine Chapel is so detailed and colourful and those Raphael paintings are just stunning

    Rachel xx

    • Well I couldn’t actually photograph the Sistine Chapel but the rooms nearby and the Raphaels were stunning

  • Fashionbyjeje Welcome to my ur

    love Rome the capital of my Italy

    beatiful photos…

    new post


    have a nice day

    • You live in a beautiful country! I’m coming back in September to visit the Amalfi Coast. Looking forward to checking out your blog

  • One of the most amazing places in the world!

    Le Stylo Rouge

  • The place looks stunning, love the architecture <3

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  • Marinella Rauso

    this is about my fabulous city of Rome – I never get tired of it and the beauty she oggers me everyday.

    • You’re very lucky Marinella to live in such a historic and fascinating place!

  • K.

    Thanks for the tip Suze :). I definitely can’t wait to go to Rome and see this for myself. And that Swiss guard does look a bit funny but very colorful. Loved your photos :).

    Kia / The House of KTS

    • The Swiss guards costumes are a bit funny but they have the confidence to carry them off! My husband is actually from the same area as the guard we chatted to

  • I have visited the Vatican once and it was overwhelming!

    • I know what you mean Anouk, the details are amazing and there is just so much to see – hard to know where to start so we were glad to have a guide pointing out the highlights

  • I found a peek inside the Vatican even more fascinating than I imagined it would be. High’y recommend a beat-the-crowds early morning tour. It was heaving by the time we left.

    • Same here Kathryn, and they had to keep doing automated announcements in the Sistine Chapel telling people not to take photos, which they don’t for the early morning tour – a lot more peaceful!

  • I visited Vatican once and I was so inspired by the history and the architecture! Beautiful place!


    • The architecture is amazing isn’t it, and I was impressed by the courtyard too, wasn’t expecting such a big place

  • I was utterly lost in the Stanza della Signatura frescoes…

    • I’ve been once before but you see new detail each time, fantastic

  • I will definitely keep the early tour in mind! I’m headed to Rome in a few months, so I can use all the inspiration and recommendations I can get 🙂 Thanks for sharing!

    • You’ll have an amazing time Maaike and I have some more Rome blog posts coming up on the Colosseum, Trastevere and more

  • Lucy

    As someone who stood out for over three hours in the baking Italian heat I too would recommend the privileged route. The crowds at peak times are hellish and you certainly wouldn’t get georgeous pictures either as you are constantly shunted along Lucy x

    • i did that first time around – the heat is strong enough when you’re not in a queue and you’re right, it was amazing to get crowd free photos

  • Fantastic photographs! It felt like I was there X

    • Thank you very much, will look forward to checking out your blog

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  • I loved The Roman Guy, excellent way to discover Rome 🙂

    Lovely post, I love Rome and it’s fantastic History!

    Laura xo