“Get up at 5:30 AM! On vacation?” My brother looked at me like I was crazy. I was serious. I’d experienced long 2-hour lines on previous trips and wanted to beat the crowds at Rome’s most popular destination.
There are many tours available to see the Sistine Chapel and nearby St. Peter’s Basilica. The earliest, called Before Hours, meets at 7:00 AM in front of the Vatican Museum. We were there at 6:50 AM. That turned out to be a good thing, because we ended up in the first group of fifteen people to enter the museum (which was eerily quiet, just the security guards and one person at a ticket window).
Our guide, Guiseppe Porso of City Wonders Tours, gave us a map and brief description of the history of the painting of the Sistine Chapel ceiling as he hustled us through the museum on a mad dash up stairs and past art galleries towards our destination, Michelangelo’s masterpiece. We walked through the beautiful Gallery of Maps (pictured above) and were the only people in sight. Guiseppe turned to us and said, “We are the first to enter the chapel this morning.” I felt like I’d won the Lotto.
The stillness and serenity of the room was incredible. It felt so intimate, as if we were part of the Vatican staff or among the cardinals when they convene in the Sistine Chapel for a Papal Conclave to elect a new Pope. It’s estimated that 25,000 people per day visit the Cappella Sistina to marvel at Michelangelo’s scenes from the Book of Genesis frescoed onto the ceiling, including the Creation of Adam, the most iconic section (depicted above, top middle of the photo). Decades after the ceiling was unveiled in 1512, Michelangelo was commissioned to paint The Last Judgment wall fresco (bottom of the photo). We had as much time as we wanted to soak it all in. Eventually, other people trickled in, but it was still a very small crowd compared to regular hours.
Visitors that are part of a tour group are permitted to exit the Sistine Chapel at the back right and go directly to St. Peter’s Basilica next door. The normal exit from the Sistine Chapel (middle left) takes you back to the Vatican Museum. That gives you the opportunity to visit the museum’s amazing art collection afterwards, but then you then need to walk all the way around Vatican City to enter St. Peter’s Basilica (and get in that line). We chose the exit directly to St. Peter’s, so we could see the ‘largest church in the world’ while it was still relatively empty (photo above shows the view of St. Peter’s Square from our behind-the-scenes walk to the Basilica).
St. Peter’s Basilica was designed in the 16th century to be the most impressive church in the world. When Michelangelo was in his seventies, he was brought in to create a grand vision for the rebuilding of the church and to redesign the dome (the tallest in the world, at 448 feet high). Pictured above is the interior of St. Peter’s Dome (towering above Bernini’s 94 foot, four-poster, bronze canopy over the main alter, also known as the Baldacchino). It was a fitting finale to our morning with Michelangelo.
After all that art and history, I was ready for an Afternoon Tea break. My place of choice in Rome is Babington’s English Tea Room next to the Spanish Steps. Established in 1893, it’s survived World Wars and economic downturns and is a lovely oasis in that hectic part of town. I had a delicious club sandwich and glass of iced tea, while the couple at the table next to me was toasting their honeymoon with coupes de champagne. There’s always something to celebrate in Rome.
Sistine Chapel, Before Hours Tour through Viator (they carry City Wonders Tours, same price):
The full story of Michelangelo’s travails on the Sistine Chapel is told in fascinating detail in this book by Ross King, Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling:
[Note: These are solely my opinions and experiences. I did not receive any compensation for my comments.]
CAROLINE O’CONNELL is the author of five guidebooks on Paris and southern California, and she has written numerous travel articles covering Ireland, the United Kingdom, France, and Italy, among others (website, www.CarolinesTravelTips.com).