We were in Rome for a mere two days before embarking on an 11-day Eastern Mediterranean cruise and since it was my first time in the Eternal City, there was a lot I wanted to see.
At the top of my list was not only Vatican City, but a special part of the Vatican most tourists don’t get to see – the Scavi.
The Vatican Necropolis, or Scavi, is located directly beneath the immense St. Peter’s Basilica and contains everything from the Papal tombs to Roman cities of the dead. I first heard of the Scavi from a message board about Rome and knew right away that I had to find a way to visit.
The Vatican being the Vatican of course, did not make organizing a tour an easy process. Akin to what requesting anything from a Soviet-era bureaucrat must have been like, the Vatican has set up a very strict protocol that must be followed to the letter.
You can read about the full process here but in short, in order to participate in a Scavi Tour you must:
- Contact the Excavations Office directly via email. ONLY the actual people going on the tour are to request a tour. (no travel agents)
- You must give the names of participants, language desired, range of dates, etc.
- At some point prior to your visit, the Office will contact you letting you know whether or not you made it. If you made it, you will be given the exact time and date of the tour and you must pay for the 10 Euros immediately.
No children under 15 are allowed, no photography is allowed and only 250 visitors a day are allowed to participate.
Regardless of the odd ticket procurement process, participation is an absolute must for any visitor to the Vatican. I was a little early for my tour, but thought I would wait at the Excavations Office for my tour time. I went up to the Swiss Guard, showed him my ticket to which he said, no.
I was told that I would only be allowed in 10 minutes prior to the start of the tour. I glanced at my watch – it was 13 minutes until the tour. Not wanting to get into an argument with a Swiss guardsman in the Vatican, I sat down in front of him and waited. Sure enough, as soon as the clock hit 10 minutes before the hour, he motioned me in. In all honesty, I should have expected this Type A business model based on all of my experiences with the Vatican.
The guide led us into the basement of the Basilica, pushed past tourists and opened one of the doors that said “No Public Access.“ Cool. We walked down a staircase, past an oddly modern electronic glass sliding door and suddenly we were there. In the Vatican Necropolis. It was one of those travel moments that at the time you realize just how privileged you are to be in that particular place at that particular time.
The entire tour was an hour and a half, but it seemed like ten minutes. We wandered through all of the various levels of excavation, navigated uneven ground previously trod upon by Roman nobles. Included in the tour is an entire Roman city street and necropolis complex. It was incredible to peer through doorways and imagine the city two thousand years earlier.
Finally, our stroll in the musty, wet scavi, walking past long defunct fountains and buildings, ended at what the Vatican believes to be the tomb of St. Peter. The discovery of the Saint’s remains was an effort by an earlier Pope to be buried as close to the Father of the Church as possible. The tour guide gives the group a few moments of reflection before formally ending the tour.
After the tour, you emerge from the darkness into the middle of the Papal tombs and throngs of tourists. The effect is a little discombobulating at first, but in reflection is the perfect end point for the remarkable tour.
Regardless of one’s faith, the archeological wonders and veritable time capsule that is the Scavi is well worth the time and effort needed to visit this oft over-looked area of the Vatican.
For more information on the Scavi tour and to book your own, visit the Vatican Excavations Office site.
12 thoughts on “Vatican City Scavi Tour”
Wow, this sounds so cool. I’ll definitely have to try to remember about this tour if I ever make it back to Rome (which I certainly hope to!). I can only imagine how surreal it must be. The Vatican is an interesting place. History, beuracracy, and religion all meeting in a pretty stunning environment. I can still remember how cool it was to climb to the top of the dome of St. Peter’s and look out over Rome, seeing all the statues of the saints doing the same. This sounds just as good, if not better.
Quite honestly that sounds like a more interesting tour than the one I’ve read about of the Vatican complex. I would like the see the Sistine Chapel (and the other fiftine), but the idea of doing it with 1000 of my closest friends and having no silence to contemplate bothers me.
We went on an underground trip in Edinburgh called Mary King’s Close that was awesome. The preserved streets are cool. Will have to add this tucked away in my memory for Rome.
One of these days I’ll do a piece about my Sistine Chapel experience. I didn’t have much time since I had to be at the Excavations office at a certain time. I quite literally ran through the Vatican Museum in order to get to the Chapel and it still took me 45 minutes to get through it. So many people; it was mind boggling, but the Chapel was well worth it.
How cool!!! I went to the Vatican last summer and absolutely loved it, even though I have no connection to Catholicism (I actually recently published a photo essay of it on my blog). I heard there was a necropolis somewhere, but didn’t know it was something so exclusive that required special application! We went down into the crypt where they had the tomb of John Paul II and other deceased popes, and that was pretty cool, but I really wish I knew about that tour you went on! Next time…
Your St. Peter’s pictures are great. Can’t wait for my next trip to the Enternal City!
What an interesting article and experience! I can appreicate what you said about the Vatican Necropolis and how ” It was one of those travel moments that at the time you realize just how privileged you are to be in that particular place at that particular time”. Although I haven’t yet visited the Vatican (but hope to someday), I can relate that feeling of awe to other travel experiences. Wonderful, isn’t it?
My mother and I loved the Scavi tour back in 2004 – would love to go again some day!
I did the Scavi tour in December with about six other people in my group. It was totally awesome! Our tour guide was an American studying Latin in Rome. That came in really handy.
This sounds fascinating – do you need to buy any other entrance tickets to the Vatican or does this ticket allow you access into the City and then to the Scavi (assuming I could secure a ticket)? I’m going in September and I’m finding all the info on tours, sights and tickets a bit confusing! I am assuming I can walk into Vatican city and walk up to where I wait to enter for the Scavi tour…?? Any help is appreciated.
There’s no entrance fee to Vatican City itself, but you will have to pay for various tours. For the Scavi just visit the web site I’ve linked too and follow their directions. IF you do get a ticket, they will follow up with more directions for you on what to do, etc. Have fun!
Awesome, thank you so much Matt!
I CANNOT believe I missed this while in Rome *pouts* oh well, another reason to come back :) great post!
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