The Vatican City is without question a highlight of Rome.  For Catholics and non, it is a mesmerizing maze of art, architecture, and the Catholic Faith.

Here, a guide is essential, but there are so many, and all tours are not created equal.

At PFI Travel, we recommend an Early Morning VIP Tour so that you gain access to the Vatican museums and Sistine Capel before they open to the public.

Over decades of educational tours in Italy, I’ve done several Vatican tours.  Most have left me a bit bewildered, slightly disappointed, and overwhelmed.  Until this one.

This tour is beyond comparison.

Many guides have a memorized speech and groups so large that there is no room for questioning and creativity.  Our tours are never over 12 people, so you get a very personal experience.

Our guide, Cecilia, was hands down the best guide I’ve ever had at the Vatican, and one of the best I’ve had anywhere in the world.

She greeted us warmly, got to know each of us as we were waiting to get inside.  Then, she used the time we were waiting on the early admission to begin to tell us stories and show us the highlights of what we would see inside.

There are some realities about the Vatican that no guide can avoid, such as the policy of silence within the Sistine Chapel.  No speaking is allowed, and if you’re there in high season it is crowded.

Guides like Cecilia prepare for this by telling you the fascinating history and a few secrets as you wait outside.

She had a book with pages focusing on details of the art, and as we went along, she would show us a picture, tell a story, and gently begin to connect the dots for us.

There are three sculptures from antiquity that Michelangelo adored.  We admired them as he once did, and Cecilia pointed out in the book, where we should look for these figures to be depicted in the Sistine Chapel.

It soon became clear to me that Cecilia was not just great guide, but a great art historian with passion and depth of knowledge for everything we were seeing.

Art becomes so much more interesting when you learn about not only the techniques, but also the inspiration, the conflict, and who these artists were.

Coming into the Sistine Chapel, we now knew that Michelangelo, not unlike Dante, had placed some of his critics in hell in his Last Judgement.  We could pick out the sculptures in the painted figures.

If you don’t leave the Sistine Chapel with a sore neck, you were rushed.  We were not rushed.  We were completely blown away.

Amazing as his talent was, other incredible artists were present around the same time. A contemporary of Michelangelo was the almost as famous Raphael, who was painting special rooms in another part of the Vatican.

The Raphael rooms are gorgeous, and the highlight is his “School of Athens”.

Cecilia pointed out interesting aspects including a figure inspired by the artist’s visit to the Sistine chapel to learn from Michelangelo.  You can witness his growth as an artist just looking at the knees of this man.

Other Renaissance artists are represented in the painting as thinkers of antiquity, we learn how to recognize each, as well as Raphael’s self-portrait.

Of course, no Vatican tour would be complete without learning about the Popes who created and commissioned the amazing things we’re seeing.

How conclave works, today’s unique situation with two popes living at the same time, the residence of Pope Benedict today, and how Pope Francis declined to live in the more decadent apartments in favor of simplicity; all incredible things we learn and see on this tour.

Among the most famous and important of the Popes, was Pope Urban VIII, thanks to his patronage of Gian Lorenzo Bernini.

Throughout the tour, Cecilia pointed out the image of bees on various sculptures and reliefs, and explained that he was Bernini’s greatest patron.  You see this image all over Rome in Bernini’s sculptures.

So, why the bees?

Because Pope Urban VIII was a member of the Barberini family, and the bee was the family symbol.  Since he employed Bernini, the bee is a sure sign that a sculpture with bees represented was a work of Bernini commissioned by that Pope.

We see this in one of its most magnificent examples in Bernini’s baldachin above the tomb of St. Peter, under the center of the dome.

Also, in St. Peter’s is Michelangelo’s expressive and beautiful Pieta`.

Cecilia pointed out the mosaics so impressive they seem painted, a wedding going on in a side chapel, and the size of the letters above, 6 feet tall.

Before concluding the tour, she is sure to point out the way down to see the tomb of St. Peter, the way up to climb the dome, the Swiss Guard wearing uniforms designed by Michelangelo, and gift shop where you can have your religious souvenir blessed by the Pope.

During our time together, she called us, “family” and, like family, we laughed and cried, and walked with mouths gaping open as she introduced us to these treasures and stories of the Vatican.

With an incredible guide like Cecilia, your time in the Vatican is sure to be an unforgettable journey.

Contact us to arrange your tour.

Lindsay Sinko,

PFI Travel, USA