A group of tourists converges in front of the altar...

A group of tourists converges in front of the altar at St. Peter's Cathedral in Rome. Credit: StPetersCathedral.org

The moment was hardly spiritual, not with 200 people crowded inside, the drone of hushed conversations and the incessant bellows of "no pictures" and "shush" from the security guards.

Yet my chest tightened as I stepped inside the Sistine Chapel for the first time. The scene stretched above me with the brilliance and awe-inspiring intensity of a fireworks display, but also with an emotional wonder that is more subdued.

Since taking a college art class nine years earlier, I had hoped to see the Sistine Chapel for myself. A love of religion or art or history or just plain curiosity have drawn visitors to Vatican City in Italy for more than a century. I came partly because of my Catholic upbringing but mostly because I wanted to see Michelangelo's masterpieces -- the vault, or ceiling, and "Last Judgment," which, combined, took almost a decade of the artist's life to complete.


BEATING THE CROWDS

Usually I visit places on my own, preferring to set my own pace and follow my own itinerary. That's a bad idea when visiting the Vatican during high season, when a cruise ship is in port or the pope is making an appearance. In any of these scenarios, your best bet is to join a tour or hire a guide.

We encountered the nightmare trifecta on our visit in May. Not only were three ships' worth of passengers visiting the Vatican, but its museums and St. Peter's Basilica had closed that morning while the pope held his weekly general address at St. Peter's Square.

That afternoon, about 40 of us arrived with our guide, Stefania Andreani, and breezed through security in less than 10 minutes. Meanwhile, outside, the public waited in line for three-plus hours to access St. Peter's Basilica. Front-of-the-line privileges go to visitors accompanied by official guides.

Plus, Andreani was like a walking Vatican encyclopedia. Her tidbits of knowledge really enhanced the experience, such as how Michelangelo depicted himself as skin in purgatory in the "Last Judgment" and how the Tapestry Room ceilings looked like carvings but were actually frescoes. Who knew 3-D art had roots in the 14th century?


PLANNING A VISIT

The Vatican may be the world's smallest recognized country, but, at 109 acres, it is a massive undertaking for any visitor trying to see the sights. You would need several days to see everything. Because I was on a Royal Caribbean cruise, I had only one day.

Here are a few highlights worth checking out for single-day visitors. These six stops provide only a glimpse into all the Vatican has to offer, but each is awe-inspiring in its own right.


1. ST. PETER'S BASILICA

The 275,000-square-foot basilica with 44 altars took 18 centuries to build to its present state. It is said that St. Peter was crucified and buried between 64 and 67 A.D. A chapel was built on his tomb, later replaced by the basilica.

Inside, beneath the canopy of the Cattedra Altar, is the Tomb of St. Peter. Recent archaeological findings support the belief that the apostle was buried here.

Above the altar is the Cupola, designed by Michelangelo and finished by his student Giacomo Della Porta. The Cupola inspired future domes, including London's St. Paul's in 1675 and Washington, D.C.'s Capitol Building in 1794.

Equally grand is the nave Donato Bramante, continued by Michelangelo and finished by Carlo Maderno. The massive space is decorated with mosaics, 39 statues of saints and Baroque stuccowork. It also features large fluted pilasters.

One of the most famous works of art sits in the first chapel.

Michelangelo's "Pieta" is one of his earliest sculptures, showing a resigned Mary holding the limp body of her son, Jesus.

Visitors stream toward a bronze statue of St. Peter that depicts the apostle holding keys to the gates of heaven. Many pause to kiss or touch his right foot -- so many, in fact, that the statue's toes have been worn down to nothing.

General admission to St. Peter's is free -- climbing 300-plus stairs or riding the elevator up to the Cupola costs $8.50-$10 (saintpetersbasilica.org).


2. COURTYARD

Before entering the museums, check out the Courtyard of the "Pigna," with its giant bronze pinecone, which once stood near the Pantheon. Also see the much more recent concentric spheres by sculptor Arnaldo Pomodoro.

 


3. SISTINE CHAPEL

Seeing himself as a sculptor, Michelangelo initially declined the commission to paint the ceiling, but later relented when Pope Julius II gave him free reign to highlight any biblical scenes. The result showcases 300 scenes, including the world's creation and the Great Flood.

Michelangelo may be the star, but the chapel also is a showcase for many Renaissance artists, including Raphael, Bernini and Botticelli. The chapel is best known as the site where each pope is elected.


4. GALLERIES

To reach the Sistine Chapel, visitors pass through a series of galleries. Arguably the most impressive is the Gallery of Maps. The walls are covered by 40 maps painted between 1580 and 1585 to highlight the major Italian cities and the papal properties at the time of Pope Gregory XIII.

Even more stunning is the 394-by-20-foot barrel-vaulted ceiling, covered entirely in brightly detailed frescoes.


5. EGYPTIAN MUSEUM

A sandstone head of Mentuhotep II is the oldest portrait in the Vatican Museums and located here. Historians also will enjoy the Egyptian mummies, sarcophagi, hieroglyphics and statues. One of the most notable statues is of Queen Tuaa, who was the mother of Ramses II.


6. ETRUSCAN MUSEUM

Here you will find one of the world's largest collections of Etruscan art, including the Regolini-Galassi tomb. Also on display is an impressive chariot, as well as bronzes, urns and jewelry.


IF YOU GO

The Vatican Museums

011-39-06698-81349, mv.vatican.va

Open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. with the last entry at 4 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays and 9 a.m.-2 p.m. (last entry 12:30 p.m.) on the last Sunday of each month (with free admission). Also open 7-11 p.m. Fridays through July 15, but admission must be booked online in advance.

 
ADMISSION About $21.50 ($11.50 ages 6-18), includes museums and Sistine Chapel.

Two-hour tours led by an official guide, which include the Sistine Chapel, are available for $44.50 for adults ($36 kids). Other tour options incorporate the Vatican Gardens or St. Peter's Basilica.


DRESS CODE Visitors must adhere to a strict dress code for admittance to St. Peter's Basilica and the Sistine Chapel. Not allowed are shorts, skirts above the knee and sleeveless shirts. Security will turn you away.


TO SEE THE POPE

General audiences with the pope are usually held at 10:30 a.m. on Wednesdays. Locations vary and include St. Peter's Square, the Paul VI Hall (Aula Nervi) and St. Peter's Basilica. Free tickets are available from the Pontifical Household (write to Prefettura della Casa Pontificia, Palazzo Apostolico, 00120 Vatican City State). Also request them through the Church of Santa Susanna (the American Catholic Church in Rome) at www.santasusanna.org or through the U.S. Bishops' Office for Visitors to the Vatican at the Casa Santa Maria on Via dell'Umilta (30, 00187 Rome, Italy; nacvisoffrome@pnac.org).


READER TIPS

We booked a three-hour walking tour of the Vatican Museums and St. Peter's through Viator online (viator.com). This turned out to be one the best things we did, since it guaranteed that we would not have to stand in line for tickets. St. Peter's Basilica was a real eye-opener, a beautiful church, it is huge inside. Our guide was full of info. After the Vatican, we took in the nearby Castel Sant' Angelo. It was late in the day, so there were no lines to get in and the view from the top is magnificent (about $11.50). -- SUBMITTED BY Douglas Koudelka, of West Babylon

I toured Rome a few months ago and could not believe the line that forms around Vatican City -- miles of lines! I took a chance and called an agency named Secrets of Rome (secretsofrome.com) and a guide met us near a little store across the street from the Vatican and we followed him to the front gate. For about $80, we received a three-hour tour with lectures along the way. This was the best deal I got in Italy. -- SUBMITTED BY Pauline Lamia, of Sayville

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