Vatican City is a must-see site in Rome. It can be daunting with the long lines and big crowds, but it’s definitely worth it.
I went to Vatican City on Monday morning, and through a combination of planning and luck I think the visit there worked out extremely well. And as it can be a bit of a mess to sort out the lines and plans, and is probably the single most crowded tourist attraction I’ve ever been to, I wanted to write up some advice and suggestions when writing about my visit. Specifically around managing guided tours, making sure you don’t miss the Raphael Rooms and what’s after it, and how to skip the lines for St Peter’s Basilica.
Vatican City is pretty famous for the long lines of people waiting to get in. But what makes it even more complicated, slow, and potentially confusing is the way the group tours work here. At many sites if you join a group tour you can get in faster, that’s part of what they’re selling. But here, as there is just one entrance while the individuals are standing in a long line to buy tickets, they just stand unmoving while tour group after tour group goes in past them. I heard a group of three people talk about just this from their visit a few days before, they waited in line and eventually gave up since they weren’t moving and so many groups were going in, so they paid to join a tour group at that point. But that was after they had already waited in line for over two hours! So the worst possible outcome, both waiting a long time and then spending more money, their regret was not doing that much sooner. I’m not saying you need to book a group tour at the Vatican, but you should be aware of how it works, because it’s nuts. There are plenty of sites that give good advice on this kind of thing, but wanted to share my experience.
My plan was to get to the Vatican about 90 minutes before it opened, but I ended up getting there a little under an hour before. Booking online wasn’t available for several days and I wanted to go ahead and go, but I was open to hearing guide pitches this time.
When I got near the Vatican Museum entrance, the line for tickets was most of the length of that first block, but I started talking to a guy who worked for one of the tour groups with a small ticket office right there, Caput Mundi. He offered me a pretty reasonable price (I had done some research ahead of time on the going rates) and there would be a guided English tour for part of the time as well, though one of my main interests was just getting in there. I got the ticket for around €45, which is still a lot, but they usually go for more like €55 at some places. And just buying a ticket in advance online is around €20, with the extra fees, while I believe it’s €12 at the door. If you want to save the most money, I’d suggest getting there a couple of hours early so you’re not too far back in line and plan on waiting. People near the front of the line were there with cane-chairs and things of that nature for their planned long waits. Within half an hour before opening time the line had turned the corner and was well down the length of the next block, so if you do just want to go for it in line, get there as early as you possibly can.
So for the guided tour, i bought the ticket a little after 8 and it was listed as an 8:45am start (the museum opens at 9). So I met a few other people that were on the tour, and chatted and waited. Around 8:30 the guide came out and started gathering people and doing an intro spiel. The guide’s name was Silvio, a pretty entertaining Italian who spoke good English but with an accent. I had no problems with it, but a few of the people who spoke English as a second language seemed to have a bit of difficulty.
Closer to 9 we headed over to the Vatican where we had to wait in line with other tour groups, though it was moving pretty quickly. But as everyone has to go through security there didn’t seem to be any way around this. As we neared the entrance, what I saw matched what I’d heard before, the line of people waiting to buy tickets was not moving at all. They were just standing there, watching all the groups go by. (Note, you can also buy skip the line tickets, both in advance and from some of the sellers nearby, those should be a bit cheaper than the guided tour tickets).
Once we got in, the place was jam packed with other tour groups, which made moving in large masses kind of nuts. But Silvio gave us some good information on what we’d be seeing in the Sistine Chapel, then walked us through the faster version of the museum to get there, stopping along the way to talk about some of what we were seeing.
Note: there is a shortcut to the Sistine Chapel that typically only the tour groups can do. There are signs showing the two routes, either directly there or through the Stanze di Raffaello (the Raphael Rooms). We went the quick way to the Chapel, which with that larger group made sense.
Inside the Sistine Chapel, you are not allowed to take photos. I saw some people surreptitiously doing so, and wanted to bust them to the people working there. Also, as with other churches in Rome, men should not be in shorts or wear hats and women shouldn’t have bare shoulders. I think it’s generally polite to respect that. I didn’t see them kick anybody out in shorts though. Though the Vatican does enforce the no selfie stick rule, once you get into the museums, so I actually enjoyed that. With the massive crowds of tour groups it is pretty necessary. So check the rules before you go, some are a bit different than at other sites in Rome.
At the point of the Sistine Chapel is where you have decisions for what is next, and is something to pay attention to regardless of how you got there. At the other end from where you enter, the primary exit is to the Left. This will take you down another hallway of art and then out. And if you want to go to St. Peter’s, you’ll have to walk over there and wait in line.
However, to the Right is another exit, only for tour groups, that goes right to St. Peter’s without having to wait in any more lines. But once you exit the art museum you can’t come back in.
Our guide explained this when I asked, so I went to the Left back into the art museum to go through the Raphael Rooms, modern art wing, etc. And I am really glad I did! There was some really amazing art there. Also not as crowded as many of the tour groups don’t go that way. And honestly I wouldn’t have wanted to go that way with a group, as there’s just too much to see and a larger group won’t be on a pace that makes sense.
To get back there, after leaving the Sistine Chapel through the door on the left, you’ll walk about halfway down this hallway with art (or all the way and double back if you don’t want to miss it). Midway down this hall you’ll see a small elevator with a sign next to it saying “Stanza di Raffaello”. Take this elevator and you’ll find yourself back in a hallway you’ll recognize with the tapestries before the map room. As you continue on, you’ll get to the fork between the Raphael Rooms and the Sistine Chapel. Head to the Raphael Rooms this time and through all the other interesting areas en route to the Sistine Chapel.
There’s a small cafe before going into the Sistine Chapel when you go this way. There’s also a restroom nearby that’s one of the nicer public restrooms I’ve seen. But importantly, there is a drinking fountain with a water bottle tap on it, so I’d recommend filling up your water bottle before you head out, if you choose to go to the top of St Peters, which you should, you’ll want some water for that.
Now, after going back into the Sistine Chapel, instead of exiting Left again, this time you’ll exit Right. This is the exit for Tour Groups. It will have a don’t enter sign, but clarify that it’s only for tour groups. If you were in a group, then you likely have a small sticker on your shirt, or something else. So you should have no problem going through. Especially on a really busy day like when I was there. Just move through when another group does, and you’ll find yourself at the entrance to St Peters without having had to wait in any more lines. This is actually a good tip for anyone at this point.
After spending time in St Peters, I do recommend going up to the dome. You can pay either €5 or €7 depending on if you want an elevator for the first part. It’s deceiving because it looks like the elevator saves you 220 or so steps, which you think might be worth it, but it’s not. Just pay the €5. That first batch of steps is quite easy, big, wide, and not very high, so they won’t give you much trouble. You’ll also get up to the top faster on a busy day than those taking the elevator. Why wait in a queue for the lift when you can just start walking up.
The second half is a bit steep and tiring at times. But it also gets hot in there, and the walls are slanted and walkways narrow at times. So a bit of an adventure. But, there is a separate set of stairs up and down, which makes it significantly nicer than other towers I’ve climbed, where you get gridlock on the narrow parts for the up traffic making way for the down traffic, and vice versa.
Once you’re up top, enjoy the view and the breeze. I found that if you go to the other side past the exit, it can be less crowded.
Here are a few photos from my day there. But really, you just need to go there.