Now, Go Behind Locked Doors in the Vatican—And Visit the Niccoline Chapel

Niccoline Chapel in the VaticanEver dreamed of going behind the scenes at the Vatican? Walking through locked doors? Ducking under velvet ropes? Admiring the incredible art and rooms closed to the public, like the world-famous Niccoline Chapel (above) or Bramante’s staircase?

Good news. Now, your dream can come true.

Two tour operators now offer VIP access to the Vatican’s most hidden gems. Walks of Italy just launched its “VIP Access: Vatican Behind the Scenes & Sistine Chapel” experience, while Dark Rome offers the “VIP Vatican & Private Sistine” tour. 

(Update, 7/5/2012: You can also find this tour on Viator, where it’s named the “VIP Access: Sistine Chapel Private Viewing and Small-Group Tour of the Vatican’s Secret Rooms.” However, Viator is not a tour provider; it is an aggregator. There is no such thing as a “Viator guide” or “Viator tour.” In this instance, this tour is not Viator’s, but rather Dark Rome’s, tour [which makes it very misleading, and incorrect, that the Viator tour description says it is a “Viator exclusive”]; people who book with Viator will be put on a Dark Rome tour, with a Dark Rome guide, exactly as if they’d booked it directly through Dark Rome. Therefore, my description below of Dark Rome’s VIP Vatican tour should also be applied to Viator’s).

In both experiences, in a maximum group of 10, clients are led through the Vatican and behind closed doors by a Vatican guard (and their guide). That’s how they see such famed (but inaccessible) gems as the famous staircase of Bramante, the Gabinetto delle Maschere (with mosaics from Hadrian’s Villa at Tivoli and the “Three Graces,” one of the world’s most famous ancient Roman sculptures), and the terrace of the Loggia Scoperta, with its stunning view over Vatican City. (This blog post by Walks of Italy has lots of photos of what all these look like).

But the most exciting stop is the exploration of the Cappella Niccolina. This was the papal chapel frescoed by early Renaissance master Fra Angelico in the mid-15th century, before Michelangelo was even born. Filled with exquisite frescoes that happen to be some of the most seminal of the Renaissance, this chapel is almost always closed to the public. The chance to experience it, never mind in a group of just 10 people, is phenomenal.

So far, the only way to visit these spots is on one of these two tours. Not on your own. Not even with a Vatican guide. Just on the Walks of Italy or Dark Rome tour.

That’s not to say these two tours are exactly the same. Yes, they’re both 3 hours long. Yes, they both visit these hidden spots, as well as the Vatican’s more accessible (but unmissable!) areas like the Raphael Rooms and Sistine Chapel. Yes, they both include skip-the-line access to the Vatican museums.

The big difference is in the Sistine Chapel. Although both tours explore the Sistine Chapel, the Dark Rome version visits the Sistine Chapel for half an hour after it closes to the public. (The Walks of Italy tour visits it as normal, but does include skip-the-line access to St. Peter’s Basilica upon exiting).

That leads to the other big difference: the price. The Walks of Italy tour costs €79 per adult, while the Dark Rome tour costs €220 per adult. 

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Five Favorite Places for Food Near the Vatican

Pizzarium, great food near the Vatican

Wondering where to eat near the Vatican… especially when you need something fast? Don’t flop down at one of the osterie you see just outside the Vatican walls—I don’t care how pushy nice the host trying to lure you inside seems to be. And don’t (please, don’t!) go to the Subway that’s opened up in the area.

Look: There are tons of terrible food options in this touristy area. Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to avoid them.

As always, here’s help.

Here are the five best spots to have lunch on the go—in the shadow of St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Museums. (All are within a 10-minute walk of one sight or the other, if not both).


Fa-Bio, one of the best lunch spots near the VaticanIf a steady diet of pasta and pizza has left you craving a soup, salad, sandwich, or smoothie, then head to this hole-in-the-wall around the corner from the Vatican museums. Grab a quinoa or a pasta salad (€5-€5.50), or have a sandwich or salad made fresh from the long list of ingredients to choose from, including lots of vegetarian-friendly options. No matter how many ingredients, sandwiches are €4 and salads are €5, making this one of the best deals in town. (P.S.: My love for Fa-Bio and its super-fresh, organic ingredients runs so deep, I’ve even put them in the Fodor’s Rome 2012 edition, on sale from September!).

Via Germanico 43, a 6-minute walk from the Vatican museums entrance/exit and a 10-minute walk from St. Peter’s Basilica.

Duecento Gradi


Although Duecento Gradi has gotten pretty popular since its opening right at Piazza Risorgimento, the prices—starting at €4.50 for a huge panino—remain fair, and the ingredients pretty good. Make your own panino from a long list of toppings including fontina cheese, artichoke sauce, spicy salami, and more, or pick from the list of suggested creations. Salads are available, too, and for everything, you can either grab a table, eat at the counter, or take it to go.

Piazza del Risorgimento 3, a 5-minute walk from the Vatican museums entrance/exit or from St. Peter’s Basilica.


Best pizza near the Vatican
The best pizza you can eat near the Vatican, hands down, is served up at famed pizza chef Gabriele Bonci’s Pizzarium. Located right at the Cipro metro station, this foodie haven is renowned for its perfectly chewy dough (thicker than the classic, thin-crust Roman pizzas), high-quality ingredients, and creative concoctions. Can’t choose between the classic buffalo mozzarella and tomato, or something like the taleggio with zucchini and sesame? Have both: You always tell the guy behind the counter how much you want and you’re charged by weight, so you can try a bit of everything.

Via della Meloria 43, a 7-minute walk from the Vatican museums entrance/exit and a 15-minute walk from St. Peter’s Basilica.


Since its 1925 opening, this market has been a Prati institution. As well as meats, cheeses, oils, and other Italian delicacies you’ll be tempted to buy up and bring back home, Franchi has a number of good tavola calda options—suppli and arancini, fried baccala, porchetta, even roast chicken or lasagna. Eat at the counter, or take your goodies to go. This is a popular place, so don’t be afraid to be aggressive firm to get your order taken over the crowded lunch hour.

Via Cola di Rienzo 24, a 12-minute walk from the Vatican museums entrance/exit and a 9-minute walk from St. Peter’s Basilica.

Mercato Trionfale

Mercato Trionfale, a place to eat near the Vatican museums
For something really different—and at authentic as you can get—forgo all of the restaurants in favor of… a food market.

Located a 5-minute walk from the entrance/exit of the Vatican museums, Mercato Trionfale is the main market for the Prati neighborhood and, with some 275 vendors, one of the biggest markets in Italy. Vendors sell it all: fresh fruit and produce, cured meats, cheeses, breads… Grab a few items to make your own picnic to go (mozzarella di bufala? prosciutto? melone?), or have one of the sellers put a panino together for you (porchetta, perhaps?). Forget spending €12 for a small buffalo mozzarella and prosciutto antipasto at one of the area’s rip-off restaurants; here, that much money will get you the same food, and more.

Just remember that the market is open until only 2pm on Wed., Thurs., and Sat. (until 7pm on Tues. and Fri.), and is closed Mon. and Sun.

Via Andrea Doria, a 4-minute walk from the Vatican museums entrance/exit and a 14-minute walk from St. Peter’s Basilica. 

Also: six of the best trattorias in Rome, my favorite new gelato shop and 11 etiquette mistakes you won’t want to make.

If you liked this post, you’ll love The Revealed Rome Handbook: Tips and Tricks for Exploring the Eternal City, available for purchase on Amazon or through my site here! I’m also free for one-on-one consulting sessions to help plan your Italy trip.

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