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Vatican and Castel Sant’Angelo - with Kids

It wasn’t for love of the Catholic Church that I’d always wanted to see Vatican City. As staunch atheists we had niggling doubts about propping up the regime at all – but the draw of the art and artifacts, especially the Basilica, the Sistine Chapel and the statue of Michelangelo’s Pietá has it placed firmly on the list! Throughout my travels to 50 countries or so, I’ve had the privilege of visiting hundreds of some of the world’s best museums, all of which inspire and delight in their own unique way. But as the Vatican is one of the best, busiest (depending on the year) and biggest museums in the world, its ranked highly for years and we couldn’t wait to have a peek!

 

Being massive Dan Brown/Da Vinci code I’d taken a keen interest in mysterious catholic dogma since my late teens. But I had read all over the place that the sheer size and volume of the 54 galleries would be too heavy for kids. After much deliberation we decided to go for it, and as long as we could stop daddy Mudie from pointing and screaming “Illuminatus” and random people in St Peters Square, we knew it would be worth it (with a bit of prep!).  



 

How to Visit:

 

The first thing that becomes clear on the research is the 6 million visitors per year and the queues they form. Busy is an understatement. Booking in advance is a must – and your online Vatican museum ticket (purchased here) IS your skip the line ticket – don’t be fooled by paying extra for a “skip the line” affair. As with all our ticketed attractions in Rome, its difficult to find the official sites and easy to get caught with unofficial tickets, costing literally hundreds of pounds more. It gets booked up quickly in advance, so grab your tickets as soon as you can in your plan. Ours were £9 adults and £7 for children over 4 (£32 all together for our 5). We went for a 9:30am entry to get the most out of the day – I kid you not, the queue was literally a mile long, snaking all the way around the ancient city walls. Thankfully we bypassed the lot, walking around to the museum entrance and walked straight in with a queue of around 5 people for the security scanners and nothing more. The museum entrance is on the opposite side of the city to the square and basilica entrance.

 


You’ll want to decide early in your plans whether you want a guided tour. The internet would have you believe that this is the best way to digest the volume of stuff in the area with kids – and they might be right to bring the heavy going artifacts and artwork to life. However, this is genuinely around £400 for a family and well out of our price range - we had a great time without.

 

Also bear in mind its best to avoid “free Sundays.” While the Vatican Museums are closed most Sundays, they provide free entry from 9 am-12:30 pm on the last Sunday of the month. Talk about rammed. It’s hard to view the treasures on display as you make your way through the throng, let alone appreciate them, especially for kids who can’t see over anyone’s head. Bottom line, the cost savings aren’t worth the hassle.

 

Another tip is to dress appropriately. Vatican sites require modest clothing that covers knees and shoulders. Little kids may have a bit of leeway, but older ones are expected to adhere to the dress code. In the summer heat, convertible trousers are a lifesaver — just zip off the legs when you're done! Carry a thin shawl or scarf to throw over a sleeveless top.

 

One other bit of info to understand early on is that children under 7 are not permitted in the Vatican city gardens. This was a great shame as it was a wonderfully sunny 18 degrees in February, but maybe one day!  

 

Finally, the advice online as to whether to bring a stroller was mixed. We decided to go for it and glad we did – we found there were lifts operated by Swiss guard kindly instructing us on the best way to get to our destinations, and the massive area is tiring for little legs!

 

What to see?

 

Established in 1506, the collection of museums houses with over 70,000 artworks across 1,400 rooms, as well as being home to St Peter’s square, the Sistine Chapel and St Peter’s Basilica, the largest Catholic church in the world. It is truly overwhelming, and requires a bit of prep. Take a look around the MANY tour websites to decide what you and your family would be most interested to see (and then plan it yourself)!

 

For us, we felt the highlights would be the Gallery of Maps, the ancient Egyptian collection and the papal carriage museums:

 

The Gallery of Maps:

 

Of course, our kids love maps, so this was a must. Commissioned by Pope Gregory XIII to provide an expansive visual representation of the Papacy's reach, the Gallery of Maps stands as a breathtaking masterpiece of geographical art. Spanning the walls of the 120-meter-long corridor on the third floor of the Belvedere Courtyard, the frescoes depict various sections of the map of Italy and the ceiling features significant historical events associated with each map location, such as the Siege of Malta and the Battle of Lepanto. Renowned artist Ignazio Danti completed these works in a remarkable 18-month period.



Gregorian Museum of Ancient Egypt

 

Our 5-year-old and 8-year-old are both huge ancient Egyptian fans, and once we read that they had several sarcophagi and some real-live-juicy-mummies, we were keen. The relationship between Rome and Egypt is fascinating and you’re hard pushed to find a better glimpse into it than here in the Vatican. Don’t miss some of the slabs of Cuneiform on the way out of this one. Cuneiform is the earliest known writing system and was originally developed to write the Sumerian language of southern Mesopotamia (modern Iraq). 


Papal Carriage Museum

 

Welcome to a hidden gem within the Vatican City - the Papal Carriage Museum! Tucked away beneath the grandeur of St. Peter's Basilica, this museum offers a fascinating journey through time on wheels. We actively sought this out based on our prior research, (lucky we did as we would have missed it!) and so glad we did as it was dead quiet, with only a handful of other patrons in the gallery.


Sistine Chapel

 

The Sistine Chapel can only be visited by entering through the Vatican Museums. Its known for its frescoes, including famous The Last Judgment by Michelangelo. We were a little worried having read online that visitors are strictly limited, that you must maintain absolutely silence inside and you’re not permitted to take photos at all. However, all this proved to be total crap and the throngs of Chinese tourists, rammed with selfie sticks and loudly chatting away meant we felt less worried about our kids, and maybe even a little smug that they were much more respectful in there than most.

 

St Peters Square

 

During Nero's reign and the subsequent centuries of persecution, many Christians were tortured, and executed for their faith. Over 2 million in the first 300 years of Christianity in fact – many of the in St. Peter's Square. As part of the broader Vatican City complex, it holds historical significance as a place where early Christians suffered persecution and martyrdom.

 



We actually missed the Basilica and dome themselves, owing to the fallout we were suffering from the day before. A real shame! But we really enjoyed snacks, drinks, more pigeon chasing and hopping back and forth over the line that divides the country of Italy and the country of Vatican City. We were up early enough to hear and see the Popes morning address, which was a nice touch!

 

Where to eat:

 

We read in advance that the Vatican café wasn’t great, and usually totally rammed full. We had other plans, and headed to Lunch at Bonci Pizzarium, near the Cipro metro line A. When Googling “best pizza in Rome” this place came up quite a bit, and I’m pleased to say, it didn’t disappoint! It was choc-full with patrons, but well organised. You pop in, grab a ticket and order when called. This actually gave us enough time to try and decide on the various flavours, suppli and other bits available. We took it in a cardboard box to a strip of green between the Vatican and our next stop for the afternoon, Castel Sant’Angelo!

 



Castel Sant’Angelo


I was quite keen to pop into Castel Sant’Angelo, a short walk from the Vatican and even closer to Bonci Pizzarium. I got the feeling from our research that it was underrated and overlooked. And I was right! Dating back to AD 123, it has evolved from mausoleum to medieval fortress, to a prison, then a palace, and then later used for defence of the bridge to the Vatican and as a refuge for popes and eventually a museum!


Get your tickets from here. Prices are decent at 3 per child (all ages), 11 per adult BUT 15 in fees, which was disappointing (46 in all). Again, this gets booked up fast so be sure to book in advance as soon as you’ve got an idea of your dates!


It looks and feels totally different from anywhere else we visited during our 5 days in Rome. Different areas are themed according to the phase in which they were built/used. Guards and knights armour, shields and swords line the walls in the earlier sections, and higher up you can tour through the papal rooms decorated for the popes who hid out here over the years. On the upper levels, kids can run along the fortress walls, checking out battlements, catapults, arrow holes and cubbies from which to shoot arrows! The kids really enjoyed it and without the usual crowds, they had plenty of space to run around pretending to be medieval warriors.



The highlight is certainly the spectacular 360 views from the top. We were lucky to have a clear and warm day, making it very easy and enjoyable to pick out several of the places we’d visited over the past few days. Close second is the fact that Castel Sant’Angelo is the burial place for emperor Hadrian himself. Burials of the rich and famous continued for most of the High Empire. Successive emperors and their wives were interred here, including Marcus Aurelius and the notorious Caracalla. Scholars still debate, however, how all of these sarcophagi could have possibly been arranged in the single known tomb chamber; perhaps, like the Pyramids of Egypt, other sealed rooms are still waiting to be found.


We spent about 2 hours here, and we all enjoyed the cool shaded interior and the freedom to run about and explore at our own place. Strollers aren’t really possible here, we bought the carrier for our two year old. They allowed us to check the stroller in for free at the entrance, which we great as it was useful when wandering the gardens after the castle was complete. Consider bringing a packed lunch/tea to eat in the shady and pleasant grounds.


In Summary:


We loved our day at the Vatican and Castel Sant’Angelo, both beautiful and steeped in history. We had reservations after reading several family travel blogs about young kids, the Vatican, rules and being bored. But, armed with research and preparation, it was easy to bypass the bustling crowds, the mile-long queues and keep the kids happy with stories of the art and history. Book tickets at the official sites listed here and you’ll be sure to get the best price and the easiest trip!

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