The Vatican museums are the fifth most visited museum in the world with about 6.4 million visitors a year. It’s one of the main destinations for travelers coming to Rome, the culmination of artistic and religious pilgrimages alike. But don’t let the term “museum” make you think this will be like any other museums you have visited. As a tour guide who crosses over the threshold from Italy into Vatican City on a regular basis, I can tell you that most people don’t expect what’s coming and perhaps if they did, they might not have gone. Read on for the top fifteen questions I am asked about the Vatican from whether there is a short cut to the Sistine Chapel to what you can see for free to how crowded is crowded…
1. How crowded are the Vatican Museums?
During general admission, they aren’t just crowded, they are packed. The first thing to remember is the Vatican Museums were not designed as museums. The Vatican was originally the Pope’s palace, not meant to be its own city let alone a museum. They never imagined that about 20,000 people a day would be trekking through the halls. I know guides who won’t even go to the Vatican any more, it’s gotten that bad and I’m sorry to say that I am (almost) one of them. I often hear: “We just want to go for an hour,” but the thing is, it’s hard to even walk through the museums in that amount of time due to their sheer size and also the amount of people visiting them.
At worst it’s a shoulder to shoulder shuffle down long corridors… which brings me to my next point:
There’s no air conditioning.
That’s right. There are two rooms with temperature control to protect the art (the tapestry gallery and the Sistine Chapel) otherwise it’s just open windows and in the summer when it can reach up to 100 degrees Fahrenheit, you can really feel the heat! Also, there are hardly any benches. It’s not a “relax at the museum” kind of place. During general admission (9am to 6pm) it is very possible to be shuffling shoulder to shoulder with other people down long hallways that you can’t deviate from. They didn’t design short cuts in the 16th century (or at least ones that are open to the public). As one friend of mine has said: the Vatican is kind of like Ikea. There’s a track but then there are all these other rooms you can veer off into or just pass and simply wonder – what is in there? And if I go to find out, will I ever get back?
Don’t worry, there ARE ways to avoid the crowds as I explain below.
2. Can I see the Sistine Chapel without visiting the Museums?
Short answer: No. To see the Sistine Chapel you need an entry ticket to the Vatican Museums and you have to walk through the museums to get to the Sistine. There are shorter and faster ways to do this but no direct shortcut.
3. How do I get to the Vatican?
There are two entrances into the Vatican. One is the entrance to the Museums on Viale Vaticano and the other is to Saint Peter’s Basilica. Tell your taxi driver “Vatican MUSEUMS” and not just Vatican, otherwise they are likely to take you to St. Peter’s Basilica. The walk between the two is about 15 minutes. Coming by public transportation? You can take the subway and museum entrance is about a ten minute walk from the Ottaviano Stop on Line A.
4. Should I book my tickets to the Vatican in advance?
Yes! Stop reading this and book right now before it’s too late. The Vatican sells out and while you can wait in the line outside, you really don’t want to (see picture below). I’ve heard people say they waited one to three hours to get in.
5. What if I forgot to get tickets, can I still go to the Vatican?
Yes. You can book a group tour or there might be a chance of a special access tour or re-sale tickets through tour vendors. Or … you can wait in the line!
6. How can I avoid the crowds at the Vatican?
- Do an early access tour (see below).
- Special Friday night entrances during the summer (in 2019 these run from April 26 to October 25th) are usually better than general admission (and cooler).
- Or come in the off season (December through March) and enjoy them at any time of day!
7. What is the difference between an Early Access tour or a General Admission tour?
The early access tour has a meeting time of 7:15am and the tickets are twice as expensive as general admission skip the line tickets. You most often have to go with a guide though there are some ticket providers out there that will arrange for you to be taken inside and then left to explore on your own. Skip the line tours at general admission are available from 9am to 4pm when the doors close (though you can stay in the museums until 6pm after which you can still visit St. Peter’s Basilica). These two pictures should help you decide which you’d prefer:
8. What parts of Vatican City are open to the public?
This is actually something that causes a lot of confusion. What IS the Vatican? What are in the museums? Here is a list of the areas of the Vatican are open to the public:
- You can visit the Museums (which include the Sistine Chapel). For a list of what this entails, see below.
- You can also visit the square in front of St. Peter’s Basilica, the interior Basilica itself (this is free) and you can climb the dome (which costs about €10).
- You can also visit the excavations under St. Peter’s to see the tomb of Peter but for this you’ll need to book in advance (look for the “scavi tour”).
- You can take the train from the Vatican Gardens out of town to visit the Papal Summer Residence in Castel Gondolfo. Saturday Mornings only.
Here’s a list of some of the things that are located in the museums:
- Michelangelo’s frescoes of Genesis and the Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel.
- The Raphael Rooms: Frescoes done by Raphael for the rooms of Pope Julius II
- The Borgia Rooms: The rooms decorated by Pinturrichio for the hated pope Alexander VI, otherwise known as Rodrigo Borgia
- A lot of ancient Statues that began the collection in under Pope Julius II in the early 1500s. It was the Renaissance. Ancient art was back in vogue. Highlights are Laocoon, Apollo Belvedere, Torso Belvedere, Canova’s Perseus and Medusa, the Augustus of Prima Porta
- The Pinacoteca or Painting Gallery. Paintings are displayed in chronological order by Giotto, Raphael, Caravaggio, Guido Reni and the one Leonardo da Vinci painting in Rome
- Papal carriages and Pope-mobiles hall
- Etruscan art: jewelry, statues, pottery, every day objects
- The Egyptian Wing
- Jewish lapidary museum.
- Modern Art usually with a religious theme (Dali, Van Gogh, Botero, Chagall, and many more)
- I’ll stop there but there is MORE. For more information visit the Vatican website by clicking here.
9. That’s a lot of stuff. What will I see on a “general tour” of the Vatican museums?
- The Sistine Chapel
- Ancient Roman and Greek statues
- On a longer tour: Raphael Rooms, Borgia Apartments & Contemporary Art
- Usually you then visit St. Peter’s Basilica or your guide leaves you to visit the Basilica on your own (skipping the line). Check whether or not this is included in your tour.
10. Can I see anything for free in Vatican City?
Yes! You can visit St. Peter’s Square and also the Basilica itself. There is just a security line to get through so I’d advise going as early as possible in the morning (around 8am) or as late in the day as possible without risking getting left out when they close the line. The Basilica opens at 7am and closes at 6:30pm from the 1st of October to the 31st of March or at 7:00pm from the 1st of April to the 30th of September. They usually stop letting people in half an hour before these times.
11. Should I take my kids to the Vatican?
If you are traveling with very young children, I would suggest an early access express tour that can cover the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s and then heads to Castel Sant’Angelo. Kids can definitely enjoy the Vatican but because it is so crowded, it can be hard for them (and for you parents) to cope with the crowds and heat during general admission. If you think they’d appreciate ancient statues, I’d recommend the Capitoline Museums as a great alternative!
12. Can you visit the Vatican with a wheelchair?
Yes! You can get a wheelchair when you arrive at the Vatican or you can show up with your own. Because the museums were not built as museums and much of the structure was made circa 1500, they weren’t thinking about wheelchairs when they put it all together so there will be some rooms you can’t access unless you can walk up a number of shallow steps. You can definitely still see the Sistine Chapel. However, you won’t be able to take the short cut to St. Peter’s but will go out the main entrance. To gain entry to St. Peter’s you should go around the museums and you (plus another person accompanying you) can skip the line.
13. What about Food? Should I eat lunch at the Vatican? Is the early morning breakfast worth paying for?
You can have lunch in the Vatican Museums but I wouldn’t recommend it. The best thing in the Vatican is the coffee and it’s not any better than what you can find outside (though the Vatican milk is only available in Vatican city. They have their own cows. They are special.) At the beginning there is a caffe and at the end before the Sistine there is a caffe. There’s also a lunch court with some of the lowest quality food I have had in Italy but if you there at lunch you can at least find sustenance.
As for the breakfast, you are ushered to an American style buffet breakfast (eggs, pancakes, yogurt, pastries, cold cuts, etc.) in the Pinecone courtyard and you can’t leave there until 8am when the early access groups start coming in. In my opinion, it’s not worth the money or early start time, better just to book an early access tour!
14. Should we see the Colosseum and the Vatican in one day?
It can sound like a good idea to hit all the big sites in one day but, if possible, I’d try to split these two popular sites up and go on separate days. They are both hot during the summer and very crowded so it can be exhausting.
15. Where should I eat before or after my Vatican tour?
My go to restaurants in the area are:
Bonci Pizzarium: For phenomenal pizza by the slice (eaten standing up) with constantly changing seasonal toppings. This is closer to the Cipro metro so would be a good place to stop before entering the museums or if you plan to take the museum exit but not exit through St. Peter’s. Address: Via della Meloria, 43.
Il Sorpasso: A restaurant with wine, cheese, meats, cocktails and a full menu. Yes. Address: Via Properzio, 31/33.
Ristorante La Zanzara: A bit more upscale and trendy, this is one of my favorite post Vatican spots because it’s quiet and peaceful at lunch (and has air conditioning). They have an extensive menu so you can find something for everyone. In the evening they have an aperitivo so it usually gets pretty packed. Address: Via Crescenzio, 84.
Ristorante L’Arcangelo: Book in advance for this cozy and delicious restaurant with unusual menu items prepared by the chef whose name is actually Arcangel (only in Italy). Address: Via Giuseppe Gioachino Belli, 59.