Have you ever wondered what’s in the Vatican Secret Rooms?
Not sure what I’m talking about?
These are very special rooms, normally not open to visitors - but I'm going to tell you how to visit them!
The Vatican Museums contain one of the world’s largest collections of art.
Certainly not during a typical visit there.
In order to keep the crowds and tour groups flowing, there are several set routes you can follow.
Whether you visit on your own or on a tour, you will go through some of the same rooms, like the Octagonal Courtyard, the Maps Galleries, the Candelabra Room, and of course, the Sistine Chapel at the end.
If you go on your own, you can also choose to visit some other parts of the Vatican Museums, like the Etruscan wing, the Egyptian wing, the Pinacoteca, or the New Wing.
I love all of these sections.
Or if you're pressed for time, you could also take the fastest route to the Sistine Chapel, seeing the bare minimum and keeping your visit to under an hour.
But there are some Vatican Secret Rooms you cannot visit on your own.
You have to book a special tour to see them.
I’m guessing there are many rooms we don’t even know about inside the vast Vatican Museums.
But there are 3 that you can access if you plan and book ahead.
The 3 Vatican Secret Rooms you can see are:
In 1505, famed Renaissance architect Donato Bramante completed his design for a staircase that would connect the Belvedere Palace to the outside.
The staircase was also a way for the Pope, his horse, and other pack animals to go up and down inside the palace.
Long before the structure of DNA was discovered, Bramante came up with the idea of a double helix (although he was surely not the first.)
This would allow people (and animals) to ascend and descend without running into each other.
So, the staircase is really made up of two staircases, just like a DNA molecule.
Located in a square tower, the Bramante staircase, Scala del Bramante in Italian, offers gorgeous sweeping views of Rome from the top.
Just 3 years after its completion, in 1508, Michelangelo would begin using this staircase to access the Sistine Chapel he’d been ordered to paint.
When I visited this staircase the first time, I shut my eyes for a moment and pictured Michelangelo going up and down, tired from his work, yet committed, dedicated as he was to anything he did.
I could almost feel him there on the staircase with me.
Today, many visitors to the Vatican Museums are familiar with a similar staircase, designed by Giuseppe Momo in 1932.
This staircase is based on Bramante’s original design and is also a double helix.
It’s the exit of the Vatican Museums (but not the entrance. In fact, when you descend this staircase, note that you will not see anyone on the other half, the up-side of this staircase.)
The Cabinet of the Masks, Gabinetto delle Maschere in Italian, is another one of the Vatican Secret Rooms not visitable on a normal entry or tour of the Vatican museums.
The Room of the Masks, also called the Cabinet of the Masks, is a small square room that's named for the tiny mosaic tiles in the floor, which came from Emperor Hadrian’s Villa at Tivoli.
The mosaics depict theater masks.
It’s amazing to think how they would have gotten these mosaics from Tivoli to the Vatican!
For me, one of the things that makes a visit to the Cabinet of the Masks so special is being able to enter, and pass through, the animal room, sometimes affectionately nicknamed “The Stone Zoo”.
Even the Animal Room offers a lot to see, including a gorgeous ancient Roman mosaic floor, showing scenes of foods the Romans ate.
I love the carved animals even if some of the scenes are pretty violent.
To get to the Hall of the Masks you get to pass through another hall containing gorgeous sculptures.
The hall is noteworthy for its layout and sense of perspective space.
There is also a wonderful sculpture of Ariadne sleeping, which is set in its own showcase with red background, providing even more drama for the piece.
Once inside the Room of the Masks, there are some other fascinating things, such as the reproduction of the Three Graces, a statue of Aphrodite, and, most strangely, a chair used to determine the gender of a newly-elected pope.
Supposedly this is due to a (possibly untrue) story of a woman, Pope Joan, who fooled everyone into thinking she was a man, became pope, and was killed on the spot when she gave birth during a procession.
The Niccoline Chapel (Cappella Niccolina in Italian) is a chapel in the Apostilic Palace (where the Pope is supposed to live) inside Vatican City.
The chapel is a small jewel, in part because of the stunning, well-preserved frescos by Fra Angelico (1447 – 1451.)
Pope Nicholas V had it built for use as his private chapel.
The chapel is located in the Tower of Innocent III, which is the most ancient part of the Apostolic Palace.
The wall paintings show images from the lives of two of the earliest Christian martyrs – Saint Stephen and Saint Laurence.
Stephen was a Greek-speaking Jew who was stoned him to death for his teachings of Christianity.
Laurence distributed alms to the poor from the Church’s treasure, and was martyred by being grilled (burned) to death.
The frescoes by Fra Angelico are the only remaining works by the artist from his 5 years in papal service 1445 and 1449.
Fra Angelico died in Rome and was buried in the church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, where you can see his tombstone.
Usually the first thing I suggest when it comes to tours and tickets is to book directly with the entity in question (in this case, via the Vatican Museums website).
However, when it comes to these special rooms, booking on the Vatican website is not easy or straightforward.
When you visit the Vatican Museums ticketing page, you'll first have to select a date and number of people (you can modify both of these after you search if you need to.)
When you arrive at the search results page, click "show only bookable visits" to tighten up the options.
The Vatican Secret rooms are usually not visible on the first page as there are other ticket types that are more popular and more common.
Click "Show more visits" to see more options.
When you click that, you will see the different options. You can choose 1 – 2 hidden rooms to see on one visit, but not all 3 together.
But here’s the kicker.
If you try to book this on the Vatican museums website, you will see that the cost is very high.
You will pay 300 Euros to see just one room, plus 180 Euros for a Vatican guide, plus your entry ticket to the museums, 21 Euros (17 Euros plus the booking fee.)
If you choose two rooms, the price goes to 500 Euros, plus 180 Euros for the guide, plus 21 Euros per person to enter.
Granted, if you have several people going, that price per person becomes more manageable.
Even with 2 people, the price per person comes down considerably.
This might be a good way to go if you have a small group.
If there are 5 of you booking to see one room, you’d pay 300 Euros + 180 Euros, divided by 5, so 96 Euros per person, plus 21 Euros per person to enter the museums.
So for 5 people to see one room will cost 117 Euros per person.
In my opinion, booking via the Vatican Website is not an easy way to see one of the Vatican Secret Rooms, especially if you are 1-2 people.
It turns out that a few of Rome's best tour companies offer tours that allow you to see one or more of these secret rooms.
The price varies depending on what else is included with the tour.
I've been to the Vatican Museums often and have taken a lot of tours there.
It's already one of my favorite places to visit in Rome.
But seeing these hidden rooms is really the cherry on top.
I've been able to see these rooms on different tours and it's an amazing feeling.
Besides the beauty of the room you are seeing, there is also the sense of getting in on a secret that most visitors will never even know about, let alone see.
One of my favorite tours ever is the Key Master Tour - Waking up the Vatican Museums.
This tour is exclusive because unlike the early-bird tours that give you access to the Sistine Chapel “before the crowds come in”, this tour really is the only one going at that hour (it starts at 6 AM.)
So we were the only group in the Sistine Chapel after we literally opened its doors and turned on the lights.
They had us leave around 7:30 AM when the other (many) "early-bird" tours would start streaming in.
On this tour, we were able to visit the Bramante staircase, AND get to see the sun rise from there.
There are several other tour agencies that offer tours that allow you access to one or more of these hidden rooms.
Not all of them offer you the experience of seeing the Sistine Chapel alone.
You can use one of our trusted tour agency partners to book a small group, private, or semi-private tour that includes just one or some of the Vatican Museums Secret rooms.
Every one of these tours also includes a visit to the Sistine Chapel.
If you’re looking for more traditional Vatican tours, visit my page all about this here.
If you'd just like to book a special tour of the Vatican Museums after hours, but without the secret rooms, you can book one of these with our trusted tour agency partners:
Vatican Museums Friday or Saturday night small group tour (this is not an exclusive visit. The Vatican Museums are open later from March 2024 on Friday and Saturday nights.)
Another way to enjoy visiting the Vatican Museums and getting to see the Sistine Chapel without the crowds is to go early morning.
Just above, I listed an early morning tour that includes one of the Vatican Secret Rooms.
You can also book an early morning tour that does not include these rooms:
It will open in a new window.