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Vatican Secret Rooms

Have you ever wondered what’s in the Vatican Secret Rooms?  

Not sure what I’m talking about? 

fra angelico fresco on ceiling of niccoline chapelFresco on the ceiling of the Niccolina Chapel. "Four Evangelists" by Fra Angelico

Vatican Secret Rooms – a Special Way to visit the Vatican Museums 

The Vatican Museums contain one of the world’s largest collections of art.

And there is almost no way to see it all.

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. 

vatican rotunda roomOn just about every visit to the Vatican museums, you will pass through this room, the Rotunda Room. It's full of sculptures, mosaics, and art from Ancient Rome.

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.

vatican egyptian roomI really love the Egyptian Wing of the Vatican Museums. Sometimes it can be very uncrowded because it's not on a typical walking itinerary through the museums. It's not one of the Vatican Secret Rooms but it's still a special place to visit.

But there are some Vatican Secret Rooms you cannot visit on your own.

You have to book a special tour to see them. 

What are the Vatican Secret Rooms? 

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:

Jump down here for how to book tours of these rooms.

The Bramante Staircase 

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. 

bramante staircase vatican museumsThis double-helix staircase was designed by famed Renaissance architect Donato Bramante in 1505. You can only see it if you take a special Vatican Secret Rooms tour.

Long before the structure of DNA was discovered, Bramante came up with the idea of a double helix.

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. 

bramante staircase side viewIt's a very special treat not only to see Bramante's staircase inside the Vatican, but also to be able to walk up and down it, and to observe it from every angle.

Located in a square tower, it offers gorgeous sweeping views of Rome from the top. 

rome city views from bramante staircaseWhen you visit the Bramante Staircase in the Vatican Museums, you will be treated to sweeping views of Rome's skyline.

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.) 

vatican spiral staircaseThis famous spiral staircase is the exit of the Vatican Museums. It was designed in 1932 by Giuseppe Momo and is based on Bramante's original design - it is also a double-helix.

Click here to book your Vatican Museums Hidden Secrets tour, and visit the Bramante Staircase!

This is a wonderful tour because it also covers one of my favorite places in the Vatican Museums, the Pinacoteca.

Most tours don't include the Pinacoteca and you will see some very special things in here, such as Leonadro Da Vinci's only work in the entire museums!

The Cabinet of the Masks 

The Cabinet of the Masks another one of the Vatican Secret Rooms and 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

cabinet of the masks mosaicsThe Cabinet of the Masks is one of the Vatican Museums Secret Rooms, and is named for these floor tiles depicting theater masks.

The mosaics depict theater masks. 

It’s amazing to think how they would have gotten these mosaics from Tivoli to the Vatican! 

cabinet of the masks mosaic closeupIf you take a good look up close, you will see that the floor mosaics are tiny and intricate - true masterpieces from Ancient Rome.

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”. 

Lion's Sculpture at Room of the AnimalsA real treat for me was being able to go through the Room of the Animals on our way to the Cabinet of the Masks.

Even the Animal Room offers a lot to see, including a gorgeous ancient Roman mosaic floor, showing scenes of foods the Romans ate. 

Mosaic at Romm of AnimalsVatican Room of Animals

I love the carved animals even if some of the scenes are pretty violent. 

Mithra and the BullVatican Room of Animals Mithra and the Bull

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. 

Gallery of the Statues and BustsClemente XIV and the room of the Busts

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. 

Sleeping AriadneSculpture of the Sleeping Ariadne of hellenistic inspiration

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.

Marble replica of the Three GracesThree Graces. Replica. Inspired by the original marble group of Antonio Canova

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.

Room of the Masks Chair of the PopessPorphyry Chair. Between myth and history

The Niccoline Chapel 

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.

Niccolina Chapel fresco detailFresco by Fra Angelico in the Niccolina 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 still see his tombstone.

The perfect 3-day itinerary in Rome

Trying to figure out how to organize your visit to Rome? I've got the perfect 3-day itinerary for first-time visitors (or those who have not been here in a while.) It works for a 2.5 day visit as well.

In my 3-day itinerary, you'll see all the major must-see Rome attractions like the Vatican, Colosseum, Trevi Fountain, Pantheon, Piazza Navona, Spanish Steps, Castel Sant'Angelo, and much more.

And if you have more time, or want suggestions for extra/other things to do, you'll find that there too.

Visit my page with the best 3-day itinerary in Rome for first-timers.

How can you book visits to these rooms? 

Booking via the Vatican Museums Official Website 

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. 

If you visit the Vatican Museums online ticket page you will see an option for booking Hidden Rooms.  

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 170 Euros for a Vatican guide, plus your entry ticket to the museums, 21 Euros. 

If you choose two rooms, the price goes to 500 Euros, plus 170 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.

So if there are 5 of you booking to see one room, you’d pay 300 Euros + 170 Euros, divided by 5, so 94 Euros per person, plus 21 Euros per person to enter the museums. So for 5 people to see one room will cost 115 Euros.

In my opinion, booking via the Vatican Website is not an easy way to see one of the Vatican Secret Rooms.

Booking Vatican Secret Rooms with a Tour Agency 

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 recently had the fortune of visiting all three of the Vatican Secret Rooms on an exclusive tour with Roma Experience.

Marble statue depicting ApoxyómenosApoxyómenos. Sculpture dating back to the Julius-Claudius period (from 44 BC to 69 AD) with inspiration from the Greek bronze sculptor Isippo

I’ve been to the Vatican Museums on my own and with tours many times and I can say that this was one of the most fantastic tours I’ve ever done. 

If you are a Renaissance art lover like I am, this is a feast for the senses.

It’s also got some ancient Rome stuff thrown in (another area I am very interested in as you may gather from my many pictures of the Colosseum!).

But the cherry on top of this tour is that after all that sumptuous beauty, you get to enter the Sistine Chapel right as the last visitors are exiting.

You get to be ALONE in the Sistine Chapel. Yes, you read that right. 

There were 10 of us plus our Roma Experience guide, plus our Vatican guide.

And we were able to sit or stand and gaze and gaze and gaze. No crowds, no noise, no crush.

Just Michelangelo and us (well there were a few other artists in there too). 

Sistine Chapel exclusive tourSistine Chapel. Exclusive tour with a limited number of participants

This tour is exclusive because unlike the early-bird tours that give you access to the Sistine Chapel “before the crowds come in”, there is only one tour group at a time that can have after-hours access.

So we were the only group in there after closing. 

Add on the special access to the Vatican Secret Rooms, and you have one very amazing tour. 

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. 

If you’re looking for more traditional Vatican tours, visit my page all about this here

Links for booking a tour like the one I took

Here is the link for booking a Special Vatican Museums Tour like the one I took, where you get to see all of the Vatican Secret Rooms AND you get to be alone in the sistine chapel after it closes:

Links for Booking Tours that include some of the Vatican Secret Rooms

You can use one of our trusted tour agency partners to book a 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.

Vatican Museums tour including Bramante's staircase

Vatican Museums private tour including the Cabinet of the Masks

Vatican Museums early morning small group tour with Cabinet of the Masks

Vatican Museums group tour including Cabinet of the Masks

Vatican Museums private tour including Niccoline Chapel

Vatican Museums private tour including Niccoline Chapel and Bramante staircase

Links For Booking a tour with Exclusive After Hours Access to the Sistine Chapel

If you'd just like to book a special tour of the Vatican Museums after hours, but without the secret rooms, you 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 usually open March - October on Friday and Saturday nights.)

Vatican Museums VIP private after-hours tour. (This is a very exclusive tour and allows you to see the Vatican Museums after they close.)

Links for booking an early morning tour and having early Access to the Sistine Chapel

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:

Vatican Museums early entry + breakfast in Pinecone Courtyard

Map of Vatican Museums and Vatican Secret Rooms 

Click here to visit my interactive Google map showing the Vatican Secret rooms and where they are inside the Vatican museums.

It will open in a new window.

pin vatican secret rooms

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