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.
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.
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?