What is the Castel Sant’Angelo?The Castel Sant’Angelo (or Castle of the Holy Angel) was built between 134 and 139 A.D. as a tomb for the Roman emperor Hadrian and his family and was used as a burial place for the emperors who followed him until at least the death of Caracalla in 217 A.D. The tomb was disturbed, and much of the original interior looted or destroyed, when the building was converted to a military fortress in 401, and then in the subsequent sacking of Rome by the Visigoths in 410. Material from the tomb was also taken away to build churches as Christianity became more popular in Rome. Its present name refers to the legend that Archangel Michael appeared with his sword at the top of the castle in 590, as a sign that the plague outbreak was coming to an end. An alternate version tells of Pope Gregory I’s attempt to persuade Romans to stop worshipping a pagan idol - when his procession arrived at the church the idol miraculously fell to pieces, and on the walk back to St Peter’s the Pope had a vision of Michael wiping blood from his sword. In honor of the legend, a marble statue of St Michael was added to the castle in 1536 before being replaced by a bronze version in 1753. By this point, the tomb had been converted to a castle used by the popes and connected to St Peter’s Basilica by a secret passageway. It was used as a fortress during wartime, and also as a prison. In 1901 the castle was mostly decommissioned as a military base and some areas were opened to the public, paving the way for the tomb and castle’s current use as a museum.
What’s there to see inside the museum?The Castel Sant’Angelo has 7 floors to explore, with several exhibitions on different themes. You’ll be able to see the Hall of the Urns, where the emperors’ remains were interred, the prisons and the yard where executions were carried out, then the armory and an exhibition of weaponry, and the Papal Rooms where the popes lived. These last rooms are decorated with frescoes and house paintings and sculptures. Finally, visitors should make sure to go all the way to the Terrace of the Angel, which offers one of the best views of Rome and especially of Vatican City. You’ll also get to see the bronze statue of the Archangel Michael up close. There are guided tours available which take you to some areas of the castle not open to other visitors, such as the Passetto del Borgo (the Pope’s private passageway to St Peter’s Basilica), areas of the historic prisons, and the elaborately decorated Stufetta (or bathroom) of Clement VII.
Should I take a guided tour?Guided tours in English leave twice a day, and there are also two daily tours in Italian, so if you’d prefer to take a tour then make sure to reserve a spot in advance! Groups are small, made up of a maximum of 15 people, and visit several locations in the castle which aren’t on the main itinerary. If you have the time and are able to book a guided tour then you’ll definitely have a great time! Alternatively, you can download the audio guide app, which is available in 7 languages and provides more context for the exhibits.
How long should I plan for a visit?The regular tour takes about an hour before giving you time to explore by yourself, and if you’re only going to be exploring by yourself (or with the audio guide app) then you should expect to spend about 2 hours inside the castle.