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How to do the Vatican differently

With a wealth of museums, chapels, gardens and crowds to navigate, planning a trip to the Vatican can be a little overwhelming. But if you know where to go and when, this diminutive treasure box of a city offers an unforgettable experience.

Published 27 Oct 2021, 06:00 BST, Updated 27 Oct 2021, 10:19 BST
St Peter's Basilica looms over the bustling Via della Conciliziaone. Around 25,000 people visit the Vatican ...

St Peter's Basilica looms over the bustling Via della Conciliziaone. Around 25,000 people visit the Vatican Museums every day, though they’re mostly going for a handful of things.

Photograph by Francesco Lastrucci

A city within a city, the Vatican is one of the world’s most soul-stirring destinations. Unparalleled for its grandeur, it’s been the nexus of Christianity for the best part of two millennia. It’s rightly become one of Rome’s most-visited attractions, too; around 25,000 people visit the Vatican Museums every day, though they’re mostly going for a handful of things. The Sistine Chapel, for example, can be packed. If that’s all you want to see, try arriving as soon as the museum opens, at 8.30am, and going straight through; or for a general wander, visit as late as possible, when the rest of the museum starts emptying as people rush to the chapel. Friday nights are a good bet — it closes at 10pm, and even by around 7pm, you’ll find most people are hurrying through to see the main sights, leaving the rest of the galleries quiet. By around 9pm,

Of course, while everyone is craning their necks to gawp at the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling, there are thousands of artworks without anyone in front of them, whatever time of day you go. There are 26 museums within the Vatican, and guide Agnes Crawford of Understanding Rome suggests the Gregorian Etruscan Museum for its “2,700-year-old bling of the Regolini-Galassi tomb, the elegant [bronze] Mars of Todi plus the fabulous vase of Achilles and Ajax playing dice. There’s never anyone there.” Mountain Butorac, aka The Catholic Traveller, who leads Rome church tours and pilgrimages, suggests the Pinacoteca, which is home to works by Raphael, da Vinci and Bernini; despite this, most tour groups skip it. Don’t miss the Gregorian Egyptian collection, either — astonishing Roman-era portraits sit alongside the mummies, miniscule, lovingly carved animal statuettes and, perhaps most intriguingly, a fascinating room of mummified cats.

More sightseeing lies underground. Book the Scavi Tour under St Peter’s Basilica and you’ll be guided down into an underworld of perfectly preserved streets and buildings, complete with doorways and windows. The area was later used as an early Christian necropolis, and the tomb of St Peter himself is said to be down there. Whether or not you’re a believer, it’s a powerful visit.

For St Peter’s Basilica itself, go at 7am, says Butorac. It’s closed to groups before 8.30am, so the atmosphere is much quieter. Speaking of atmosphere, he also loves the Friday night happy hours in the Vatican Museums, usually held from spring through to autumn. For €34 (£28), you get entry to the museums plus a glass of fizz and a charcuterie board in the magnificent Pigna courtyard, with the mammoth cupola in the background.

And if you want to get a glimpse of the Pope? His weekly audiences are at 9.30am on Wednesdays, usually in St Peter’s Square (although inside in winter and August). Just turn up; tickets were abolished in February 2020.

If all that culture and religion has been overwhelming, unwind nearby over a drink at Chorus Café, a superb cocktail bar with marble-clad walls and great views of the city. It’s run by Massimo d’Addezio, who used to own Co.So. in the trendy area of Pigneto. Alternatively, head to nearby Mama Shelter for trippy design, rooftop tapas with mind-blowing views of the city and surrounding hills.

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