No visit to Rome is complete without seeing “The Big Two”: The Vatican and the Colosseum. The architectural bastions of the two Empires and the leaders that have defined Rome, the Caput Mundi: The pagan Emperors and the Catholic Popes.
But be warned, given that Rome is always in the top five tourist destinations in the world, the lines to both can be excruciatingly long (up to five hours) not to mention very hot. Often visitors don’t know this, and hope to be able to just “pop in”. This is definitely feasible in November, and possibly January and February… but for all the other months in the year, it is highly advisable that you get organized and clued up before you get there.
The Vatican Museums
I have countless enquiries from people who “just” want to see the Sistine Chapel, or the Pieta (without wanting to see the Vatican Museums or the Basilica: answer - impossible). Equally I get enquiries from people who want a 5-hour in depth day at the Vatican. With hundreds of tours to choose from, and millions of visitors per year, swarms of cruise ship day-trippers in vast groups wearing headsets and trampling over you, “doing” the Vatican can feel overwhelming.
The Museums have around nine miles of galleries and chambers and courtyards to explore. The Sistine Chapel is right at the end of the Museum complex; so it’s impossible to simply “pop in”. You have to go through the labyrinth of the museums to reach it. But there are short cuts! There are enough pieces of art inside the Vatican that if you gave 60 seconds of your attention to each piece, you’d be there for around 12.5 years.
Saint Peter’s Basilica: Tour Guides have special permission to exit the Sistine Chapel directly to the Basilica.
NB: Without a guide you have to exit the Museums, walk around the walls (25 minutes) and line up again for the security machines at St Peter’s (which can take 5 minutes to 5 hours). Michelangelo’s masterpiece, the Pieta, is located inside the Basilica on the right as you enter.
There are hundreds of different group tours to book for the Vatican – with several different companies who book skip the line access. The skip-the-line-line can itself take an hour in peak season and at busy times of the day.
Without a skip the line pass expect to wait for between 2-5 hours to get inside.
So, where to begin? Below I’ll outline how to get the most from your visit to the Vatican, at its least crowded (early morning or late evening) and depending on what you want: alone / guided, “in-depth”, “express” or “medium”! There are also discount codes that you can use with hand-picked niche tours, which I think are the only way to really experience the Vatican these days.
1) In-depth with Guide, private or small groups (4 hours)
If you’ve never been, it is very much worth booking a guide… not least to help you navigate! A private guide can also tailor your visit to your interests. Not everyone wants to see the picture gallery, or the Egyptian collection, or the carriage museum, but you might. You might want to see the iconic Apollo, Belvedere torso and the Laocoon statues, as well as the Raphael rooms (normally you have to skip the former to see the latter on a group tour).
The Sistine Chapel can get very crowded – sometimes as many as 1500 people in there at once, with stressed out guards bellowing “no photo!” “no video!” which is hardly the moment of epiphany you’ve been dreaming of!
A great way to see it as privately as possible is to book an early morning tour. I recommend Walks of Italy’s Pristine Sistine tour. This gets you into the museums an hour earlier than the general public, you power through the galleries to get the chapel to yourselves, and then go back through the museums at a leisurely pace for an in-depth tour that includes Saint Peter’s Basilica at the end too.
2) EXPRESS (2 hours)
A great option for those who simply want to whizz through the museums to get to see the Sistine Chapel and Basilica is to either book a private guide, or take Walks of Italy’s Vatican Express tour. This way you’ll see a lot as you power through the galleries to the Chapel, but without the detailed storytelling and explanations of all the other pieces inside the museums. You do have time to hear all the fascinating stories about the Chapel and the messages in Michelangelo’s art work, and you’ll be able to spend a good 30 minutes in the Chapel, drinking it all in without the hordes. Again, with a guide you are able to exit the Chapel directly into St Peter’s without the rigmarole of going through security again.
DISCOUNT: Use the code GeorgiaD10 for a 10% discount on all of Walks of Italy’s tours.
NB: Be warned that once you’re in the Vatican you will almost definitely want to linger and spend more time there rather than “whizzing through” to the Chapel. Countless artists were inspired by the collection inside the Vatican… not least the mighty Michelangelo himself. But if you are time-strapped on your visit to Rome then this is a really great way to experience the magic of the Vatican.
3) Medium, guided tours (3 hours)
For those who want to experience the Vatican but don’t want to feel overwhelmed with history then again it is worth booking a guide, either privately or through a company.
Joy of Rome is a really wonderful company that offers several types of tour and it’s very much worth checking out their website here. They clearly list the different Vatican tour offerings, showing time-length, what sites are included and price etc. They are also a very family friendly company and run “kid friendly” tours everywhere too. DISCOUNT: Use the code Georgia for a 5% discount.
4 ) Touring alone:
If you want to do the Vatican without a guide here’s what to do: First off… book a reserved, timed entrance ticket in advance. I would recommend 1pm or 4pm to avoid the masses, or you can push the boat out and spend a bit more for an evening viewing. The Vatican now offer several types of passes and tickets which you can view here
If that looks too overwhelming, then for a standard timed entrance, visit this link
What to do next:
You will receive a voucher, which you must download, print out and show to the guards at the reserved entrance line (underneath the exit gate with the statues of Michelangelo and Raphael). You will go through security (don’t bring a big bag, camera or umbrella as you will be asked to check it in). Once through security, you will see counters on the left hand side for groups and individuals. Take your voucher to one of these to get it exchanged into a ticket. Then you head up the stairs. You already have your ticket so don’t wait in the lines there but go straight to the turn stiles, through and up the escalator and you’re on your way!
Practical matters: Bring a bottle of water! There aren’t very many places to sit down or use the restroom inside the Vatican, and these are always crowded. There are restrooms at the entrance, by the carriage museum, at the end of the Raphael rooms and just before the Sistine Chapel. There are two cafes in the Vatican, one at the very beginning in the Pinecone Courtyard and one just before the Sistine.
The Vatican Museums house some of the greatest pieces of sculpture and painting in the world… It’s no wonder the whole world wants to see it! Be prepared, pre-book your tickets or tours online to avoid the stress of the crowds or disappointment that you can’t get in. Know that the Sistine Chapel is part of the Museums, and you can only enter the Basilica from the Chapel with a tour guide.
Relax, take a deep breath and be prepared to be WOWED!