The Worst Way to Visit the Vatican

St. Peter's Basilica

A visit to Vatican City is a must for any tourist in Rome and not without reason. There is no need to go into the rich history, art and architecture of this tiny country, suffice it to say it is a remarkable place to visit. Not everyone though knows how to visit the Vatican properly and most will either miss out on unique experiences or spend most of their time waiting in line.

It’s not difficult to transform a simple trip to the Vatican Museum into a miserable travel experience. Most of the visitors to this massive institution aren’t there to see priceless statues or reliquaries, they are there for the chance to spend a few moments admiring the remarkable beauty of the newly cleaned ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Getting in to see this marvel of fresco design though is sometimes easier said than done. At almost any time of the year, but especially the peak tourist times, the queue for the museums can be hours long – hours long. Since you know you’re going to visit, the best way of avoiding the line from hell is to buy tickets ahead of time. Simply go to the museum site, select how many people, the date and time and purchase tickets online. You will be able to print off your tickets at home and you are done! That, however, is only half the battle.

St Peter's

When I visited, I arrived at the Vatican Museum entrance, printed ticket in hand, and was ready to go. However, I was met with a line that wrapped around for blocks and no clear indication of what I was supposed to do. There were no signs indicating that people with tickets can skip this queue, which they can. I brazenly went to the front of the line, showed the guards my ticket and they ushered me in. No problem. However, it was a very confusing process and I was met with a lot glares from waiting patrons. Even if it doesn’t seem like the right place, if you have a ticket receipt in hand, you can skip the mammoth line and proceed directly to the ticket booth marked “advanced sales” where an attendant will print off your actual ticket. From there, entry is easy and doesn’t take nearly as long as it would have had you not  planned in advance.

Now that you are in, all you really want to see is the Chapel. Before I hear a lot of comments about how great the other pieces are, I don’t disagree. However, the Museums are HUGE and frankly you need a day to devote to them alone and in all honesty, not everything is worth the time. I was under an extreme time crunch and walked as quickly as I could through the labyrinthine museum and it still took me 45 minutes to reach the Sistine Chapel, battling slow moving visitors along the way.

Leaving the Vatican Museum is an equally confusing process, but you should easily find your way to St. Peter’s, the next destination on your tour. A stroll through this amazing structure and a walk to the top of the basilica is well worth the time and will give you an amazing view of the city.

At the top of my to-do list was a special part of the Vatican most tourists don’t get to see – the Scavi. The Vatican, through its Excavations Office, holds tours daily of the Vatican catacombs.

Swiss Guardsman
Swiss Guardsman

This tour is amazing and was the best activity I did while in Rome. 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.

Scheduling the tour, however, can be a bit challenging. In order to get tickets, you must contact the office by email well in advance of your travel dates and let them know which dates and times you are available to take the tour. Then, either a few days or weeks later, they will send you an email letting you know if they can accommodate your request and if so, you must purchase the tickets right away. Tour groups are limited to around 10 people per group, so advance planning is key. Even though the Vatican does not make this an easy process, it is absolutely one you should try to do if at all possible.

Visiting the Vatican is a remarkable experience, but can be ruined for many by impossible lines and inexplicable rules. With a little forethought, you can make your experience a memorable one for all the right reasons.

2014 EDIT: When writing this post in 2011, I didn’t realize that many walking tour companies make this process a lot easier. They in NO WAY have asked me to do this, but based on my previous experience I strongly recommend using Walks of Italy as a great way to streamline your Vatican tour experience.

What are your best tips for Vatican City?

By: Matt Long

Matt has a true passion for travel. As someone who has a bad case of the travel bug, Matt travels the world in order to share tips on where to go, what to see and how to experience the best the world has to offer.

43 thoughts on “The Worst Way to Visit the Vatican”

  1. I went to the museum twice andwalked right in, no lineup. Just go after 3 pm. This was in October so may have benefitted from slightly smaller crowds too. Thanks for the tip on the excavations. Will definitely do on my next visit!

  2. Thanks for the tips. We are planning a trip to Italy in July. That tour sounds amazing. But, you can’t bring kids under the age of 15 :(

  3. I’ve never done the Scavi but will make a point of planning it in advance next time. Thanks for the tips on getting the tickets. Nice post. – Beverly

  4. I definitely recommend climbing up to the top of the dome of St. Peter’s. The views are fantastic – easily my favorite thing I did in Vatican City.

    Though, the Scavi is definitely on my list for next time!

  5. Great post about the Vatican, I am visiting Rome with my boyfriend in August and was unsure what way to approach visiting the Vatican, I see you didn’t take a guided tour around the museums? Would you recommend skipping a tour?
    Also how much did the Scavi tour cost? It is something I would be interested in but don’t want to send off a request and then find out I can’t afford it. Thanks!

    1. I think the fees are on their site, linked from the article, but it’s only $10 or $15 for the Scavi tour. As far as the museums go, I was under a horrible time crunch. If you have the time, absolutely go for the tour and enjoy! I plan on spending more time there when I next visit.

  6. My trip to the Vatican was not the best. I had two days before flying back out of Rome. My last tourist day I want to the Vatican only to be turned away because I had on shorts. Shorts on Women was not allowed. I noticed a guy coming out and on the steps taking off his jeans with shorts underneath. I approached him and asked to borrow his jeans for 15 minutes. I raced through the Cistine Chapel and gave him his jeans back. I was determined not to leave Rome without seeing but mostly I remember how I was blocked from truly enjoying and appreciating a Sacred work of Art.

  7. Things have changed so much since the first time I went in the 60s! Then there were so few people we were actually able to sit and admire the ceiling and artwork in peace. It was 30 yrs before I returned, and the crowds were a bit of a shock! The third time we didn’t even wait, the queue was so long, so these tips are incredibly useful, and I’ve bookmarked them for my next visit. Despite the increase in crowds, Rome remains one of my very favorite destinations. To some extent, it can’t change because it’s almost a living museum. I fell in love the first time, and nothing has ever changed.

    Back in the 60s, not only were shorts not acceptable, but women had to cover their heads too. In the 90s when I visited St Peter’s I went prepared in a long, shirtwaister dress, which covered most of me, except my arms! And guess, what!!!!! Yep, had to whip my shirt out of my bag and cover my arms. Personally, I think it’s a nonsense, but I suppose you have to respect the rules. That said, it’s common knowledge that shorts aren’t accepted in many places, whether for religious reasons or other, travelers should always be prepared for that.

    1. Wow, I bet it has changed quite a bit since your first visit! And you’re right, it’s just smart to leave the shorts at home. When I travel overseas I usually never wear them, unless at a resort or something, and instead have a pair of very lightweight, hiking pants that I use almost exclusively. They’re cool and are a great replacement for shorts.

  8. best advice i have about visiting Vatican City is to go with priests. They are treated like 5-Star generals there. I accompanied my Uncle and his classmates to Rome for the 40th anniversary of their ordination and they had great insight to all things Roman. From places to eat, the best sites to see and when to go there, it was a once in a lifetime experience, especially as my uncle passed away about a year later.

  9. Thank you for the advice! I toured the Vatican two summers ago and had no idea that a tour of the Scavi was available. I will be back in Rome with my parents this summer (their first time in Italy) and this is right up my dad’s alley. I just e-mailed the Vatican and am hoping this works out. Thank you again!

  10. Great post-I’ve been to the Vatican many times but only heard about the scavi a few years ago-think maybe in a guidebook? We made the request and were very disappointed to be turned down, but my sister was persistent and e-mailed a “pretty please?”- and to our surprise they granted the tickets! (there were only 3 of us and Simone had cancelled) the tour was just amazing and I loved every minute. Want to go again!

  11. Matt, thanks for your tips! so I am going to Rome with my mum mid february, which is sooon. I really really cant let my mum wait in long lines…so what do you suggest is best to do, book the tickets and print them out at home here, or maybe better book a tour with Angel Tours ? Also, what is the best sight seeing there, the chapel and the museum? (plus scavi if we have time and if there are no queues!!) My mum cant stand up for too long… :(
    Please email me [email protected]

  12. I like your info. Want to know if better booking with Vatican directly or with a tour group. Some say vatican guide is not as friendly and rushes you? We would like to try the Scavi though. We are going 1st of sept. which tour group do you recommend? Thanks for great info, Eva

  13. We are going to Rome in July 2013. I would like to book tickets to the Vatican Museum but the website doesn’t allow bookings past saturday 6 July at the moment.. Hoping they open up the other days.

  14. Hey! So I see you bought your ticket off the Vatican website. It looks like it is 16 euros when you click on admission ticket, but then goes on to ask which tour you want. There are no other options that I can see. Do you if the 16 euro one which is the only that comes up when you hit admission tickets, is for self guided tour only?

    1. I don’t have any knowledge about the standard Vatican tours, sorry. This post is about my general experiences, and the link I provide is to the Scavi tours.

  15. Thank you so much for the informative tips. I will be arriving in Rome airport (FCO) on a Tueaday just before 11:00 and have confirmation to go on Scavi tour at 13:00 that day. My concern is the line. I am staying about 3 blocks away from the Vatican Museum entrance. Is there a line going into Vatican City or just for the Museum itself? I plan to also buy museum tickets so I can skip the line that afternoon but the date cannot be booked on the Vatican website yet.

    1. Well there’s a few different questions here. Vatican City is a country, so you can just walk into the city. The Scavi Tour and the Vatican Museum tours are two separate things. If you have Scavi tickets, then follow the directions they gave you. Same goes for the museum tickets. Just follow their instructions and you should be fine. have fun!

  16. Thanks Matt for the insights. I will be in Rome in April and have prebooked on line the Vatican and Coloseum tickets. Looking forward to the experience amidst all the cautions received from well meaning friends but as I always believe go with an open mind / stay vigilant and enjoy the journey ..:)

  17. Hi Matt,

    First, thanks for the advice. I stumbled upon this blog this morning while preparing to take my wife, mother and aunt there (I’ve been a couple of times already). Confirmed my thoughts as we head there this morning, tickets in hand. After I read the blog I recognized your name and was wondering if you grew up in Southern Saskatchewan (Mortlach)? Again, thanks for the information.

  18. I have two days in Rome and I reach on a Saturday morning. I realized that the Vatican museums will be closed on Sunday hence Saturday seems to be the only day to visit. I am still a little confused about the sequence of these attractions. Is it Museums -> Sistine -> St Peter’s ? or the other way round ? I was told that entrance to St Peter’s is free so are the tickets only for museums and Sistine Chapel ?

    Also do you recommend buying the combined ticket for Colloseum + Palatine Hill + Roman Forum ? Or only the Colloseum ? I will be accompanied with an 11 year old

  19. Hey Matt,
    THANK YOU! This was fabulous advice, and both my mother and I are delighted with our plans to go to the Vatican tomorrow due to your excellent article :)

  20. Matt, do you happen to know another guide by the name of Matt? He gave the most impressive narrative of the panels on the ceiling. He was a scholar in my mind and I’m wondering if he has a blog online that has his ideas in print. He must have been american, spoke perfect English with no accent and had a beard.

Comments are closed.

I help you experience the best the world has to offer!

Please enter a valid email address.
Something went wrong. Please check your entries and try again.