Vatican City: Art Comes to Life

Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.

Thomas Merton

Thomas Merton, we couldn’t have said it better ourselves. We were standing in front of the works of two of the best known artists of the world – Michelangelo and Raphael. We had learned about them in school, but seeing them up close was unreal. Every color and brush stroke told a story. To see these masterpieces in real life breathed life into them.

Christmas Eve landed during the weekend and we decided to explore another part of Italy. Our first choice was Vatican City and it did not disappoint!

Cute alleyways on the same street as our hotel.

If you’re traveling from Naples to Rome (Vatican City is inside Rome), we recommend booking the fast train. It should only take about an hour. In Naples, there are two train station options: Napoli Garibaldi (located downtown) or the Afragola. We left out of the Afragola train station and had to drive to get there (luckily, it currently has free parking).

As the train sped down the tracks, we overheard a lady telling another family that when she visited Rome a few years ago her passport was stolen. Rome is known for being the number one place for pick-pocketing, so be on your guard. It’s a good idea to invest in some locked backpacks or purses to be on the safe side.

We got off the train and were happy to see that it was connected to the metro station so we could head straight to our hotel in Rome. There are no hotels inside Vatican City itself, but ours was only a couple blocks away. Hotel Della Conciliazione had the charm and feel of a boutique hotel. It also was in the best location on a pedestrian walkway and near a lot of great restaurant options. Plus, we loved all the Christmas decorations.

We walked along the lit up, beautiful street that night and decided on Da Romolo Alla Mole Adriana for dinner. The inside of the restaurant was so unique, with high windows looking right at the Passetto di Borgo. The Passetto was built in 1277 as a passageway for pope’s to escape from the Vatican City to the Castel Sant’Angelo and played a big part in Dan Brown’s book, Angels and Demons. It assisted Pope Alexander VI in 1494 when there was an invasion of the city by Charles VIII and, in 1527, it helped Clement VII escape the wrath of Emperor Charles V. The emperor’s troops slaughtered almost the entire Swiss Guard and pillaged Vatican City. To many people, it looks like nothing more than a wall, but to these popes it was a way to get to their safe haven.

Our first appetizer was called Carciofi alla Romana: artichokes stuffed with garlic and wild mint, then braised in olive oil and white wine. Then we had Carciofi alla Giudia: deep fried artichoke. Each leaf was like a potato chip. The second one was our favorite because we liked the crunchiness.

We tried two dishes for our main course, both signature Roman dishes. Spaghetti alla carbonara, which is pasta with cheese, eggs, and bacon and Tonnarelli cacio e pepe, which is a pasta dish with a spicy cheese sauce. Both dishes were super decadent and delicious.

We woke up early the next day to get to St. Peter’s Square to see St. Peter’s Basilica, the Christmas tree, fountain, and sand-made nativity scene (this was something special they had this year). We recommend getting to Vatican City early so you can take some great pictures before the crowds show up! Everything was so spectacular and intricate.

We signed up with a tour group so we could skip the line into the Vatican Museum. Make sure you either go with a tour group or some other way that you can the skip the line. We got to the Vatican Museum early and there was already a line forming. Click here to go to the main Vatican Museum web-page to get your ticket. You can also look into Viator or GetYourGuide for a skip the line option/ tour group. That way you don’t feel rushed or like you missed anything. You’ll want as much time as you can to explore. We spent the whole day reading everything, listening to our audio guide, and gazing up at the wonderful works of art.

The nativity scene made of sand was so spectacular.

The Vatican Museum takes you on a journey through art and time. We started in Egypt with their sculptures of the gods and mummies in their sarcophagi. Then fast-forwarded to Greek and Roman sculptures of their gods and emperors. Each sculpture was made for a reason and had a story behind it. We felt drawn to each piece and every detail that was etched into the stone and marble.

The room was covered with sculptures and marble from top to bottom.
A dramatic sculpture that looks like it’s draped in real fabric.

As we walked into each room, we never knew where to look first. The wall…the floor…the ceiling… There was something amazing to take in around every corner. We stumbled upon the Gallery of Tapestries and it was amazing to think that a bunch of colored thread could be transformed into a vivid story. Then we came across the Gallery of Geographical Maps, which holds paintings of maps of Italy from 1580-1585.

A tapestry of the “Resurrection of Christ.”
Floor-to-ceiling wall art showing the Napoli Map during 1580-1585.

One of the highlights was toward the end. We got to see Raphael’s paintings along with his pupils’ works. One of our favorites was “The School of Athens.” We had read about it, but to see it in front of us made the image come to life. It gave us more of a perspective on how amazing this work of art truly is.

Raphael’s “The School of Athens”
The stage after the “The Last Judgement: Michelangelo and the Secrets of the Sistine Chapel” ended.

Our excitement only increased when we stepped foot into the Sistine Chapel. It beamed with color and life – not just from the people shuffling around the room with wide open eyes, but from the room itself covered from top to bottom. Just a note that you are not allowed to take pictures when you are in there and you must whisper if you are talking. There are people that will call you out if you try to disobey either of these rules.

Once we were done at the Sistine Chapel we headed back to our hotel to get ready to go out that night. Our first stop was to attend the play of “The Last Judgement: Michelangelo and the Secrets of the Sistine Chapel.” It was an hour-long performance of how the Sistine Chapel was created through the eyes of Michelangelo, created with the help of the Vatican Museum. It was a great way to immerse ourselves and understand the thoughts and feelings that went into each painted section. After seeing it in person, it was helpful to get a closer look at and detailed descriptions of what we saw. The whole room was transformed to look like the Sistine Chapel with Michelangelo at times flying around as he painted his masterpiece.

After the show, we decided to go back to the St. Peter’s Square to see the basilica, the fountain, and the tree all lit up at night. It was beautiful and gave the place an entirely different vibe. Then we made our way down the road to get gelato before dinner (the restaurant where we had dinner wasn’t opened yet… that was okay with us)! We went to a place called Gelateria Del Monte. We got the Zabaione flavor, which was described to us as a “creamy, almost eggnog-like that’s sweetened with marsala wine.” It was very delicious if you enjoy both of those flavors!

St Peter’s Basilica and Square are magnificent even at night.

Finally, our restaurant, Ristorante Inferno 92, opened for dinner. The inside was so quaint and made us feel like we were in a wine cellar. We ordered potato chips (made from real potatoes), grilled eggplant with zucchini, and a steak that keeps cooking on the pan. If you get the steak and it looks too pink for you, then keep it on the pan and flip it every so often until it is the doneness that you desire. The seasoning on all the vegetables and meat were so flavorful.

The next morning we headed off to St. Peter’s Basilica before it became too busy. We went straight over to pay to take the elevator up to the dome part of the church. We got very lucky because the weather was perfect and it was so clear. We recommend to make sure you pay for the elevator ride, unless you are fine with walking a lot of stairs. And when I say a lot of stairs, I mean A LOT. We took the elevator to the dome, but we still had to walk quite a few stairs to get to the top part. Before you take a bird’s-eye views of Rome, you first get a glimpse from above of the interior of St. Peter’s Basilica. It was nice to see every angle of it. We made friends with this Italian couple going up the stairs. Neither of us could speak the same language, but we all agreed by gesturing that we were now tired! Not only do you get a workout, but the views are out of this world.

View from the top of St. Peter’s Basilica dome.

We made our way back down and went into the St. Peter’s Basilica interior part. Since it was a Sunday, they held mass at different parts of the church every hour. We decided to go to one of the masses and it was so gorgeous and said in three languages: Italian, Spanish and French. It was also nice to see how the light was hitting inside the church and making it look so angelic.

Beautiful light shining through.
We couldn’t take our eyes off Michelangelo’s Pieta sculpture.

Once the mass was over and we walked around the church, we noticed some stunning works of art. One of our favorites was the “Pieta,” which is a sculpture by Michelangelo depicting the scene after Jesus was crucified and his body was laid on his mother Mary’s lap. This sculpture was so full of emotion and it’s a must-see.

By then it was almost noon and we got excited. This is when Pope Francis comes out from his window to say a prayer over the sea of people. He is one of our favorite popes, so we were elated to get this opportunity. He gave the prayer in both Italian and Spanish. It is one of those once-in-a-lifetime experience and if you get the chance, then make sure you go and witness the prayer.

After the pope left his window, our stomachs started to rumble and we knew it was time to get some food. We made it back to the pedestrian walkway and went to Rione XIV Bistrot. Make sure you get there before the rush of people at 1 PM, aka Italian lunchtime. There is not a lot of space in there. It was very cute though with wooden beams, stone walls and chandeliers.

One of the squares inside Castel Sant’Angelo.

We ordered two appetizers: slice of bread with olive oil, salt and pepper and a slice of bread with soft cheese, walnuts and honey. Then we ended up sharing eggplant parmesan, baked ziti with tomato sauce, and meatballs. All these items were separated on different plates, which is customary in Italy because they like to make the pasta and the meat option two separate meals.

We had a little bit more time, so we headed over to Castel Sant’Angelo. We learned that it was built as a tomb for Emperor Hadrian. Then there was a time where a lot of Roman families were fighting for possession of it. As the years went by, starting in 1367, the castle was given to the pontiffs and it’s where the popes would hide from danger.

The castle has so much history and as a result there’s so much to see within its walls. Make sure you take time to look around and go all the way to the top where you can see some unforgettable views.

On top of the Castel Sant’Angelo taking in some of the sights.

We were happy that we got to take our time and see what Vatican City has to offer. Our train inches father and farther away and Vatican City becomes harder and harder to see. However, the sculptures and paintings will forever be as vivid and lively as if they were still right in front of us.

Vatican City fading into the distance.

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