… and I’m not just talking about the Sistine Chapel.
The Vatican is the smallest country in the world and it is surrounded entirely by Rome. It must have one of the world’s highest densities of attractions, with St Peter’s Basilica and square, the Vatican Museums and the Castel Sant’Angello being the main tourist draws.
I am the kind of person that likes to read up on the places that I will be visiting. I therefore had a good idea how busy the Vatican was likely to be and so I worked out a plan of action which I thought would allow Jim and I to get the most out of the day.We decided to kick off with the Vatican Museums, which houses the Sistine Chapel. The queues to get into the Vatican Museum are legendary, so Jim and I pre-booked our tickets online and picked the second entrance slot of the day (9.30am) to allow us enough time to get there without rushing.
This was without a doubt the best decision that we could possibly have made.
Nothing prepared me for the sight of all of the tourists queueing to get into the Vatican Museums. Sure, I had read about it, but nothing I had read came close to describing the thousands of people stood lining the streets waiting to get in. It was absolute bedlam.
We had to arrive 15 minutes prior to the time on our ticket for entry, so the Museums literally would only just have opened as we were walking past. But still, the queue stretched back as far as the eye could see. For those arriving to join the back, I reckon they would have had up to 2 hours to stand in line to wait. We passed one old lady who was standing patiently leaning on two walking sticks, slowly shuffling her way forward as the queue inched along.
Like any large body of prey, the predators hang around the edges to pick off the weak, or in this case the impatient. Touts lined the street with their flyers and clipboards offering tours, and considering that joining a tour was the only way to escape the line, business was brisk.
We Brits like nothing better than a good queue. However, this particular one was utter chaos. Nothing was signposted, there were no one on hand to point people in the right direction and there was not a local in sight. Jim and I walked past knowing that our pre-booked tickets allowed us to skip the line, however we had no idea if we were doing the right thing or not. Even when we were at the entrance, it wasn’t clear how exactly we were supposed to get in – people were milling about everywhere and tour leaders were trying to round up their followers. We saw some other people clutching their printed out emails and just stood with them.Once through the entrance, the chaos continued. First of all, we had to queue to go through security. Then we had to queue to exchange our email confirmation of booking for an actual ticket. Then we had to queue to go through the ticket barriers. Then there was a real bottleneck – after going through the ticket barriers you have to go up an escalator (and there are only two to serve the hundreds of people entering at any given moment) to get to the actual entrance to the museums.
I tend to think I prepare well for visiting new places – I’m so excited about going wherever I have booked that I obsessively google my destinations up until the point that I leave. However, I was not prepared at all for the chaos of the Vatican and we didn’t even visit in the peak tourist season.
Here are my top tips for visiting the Vatican Museums:-
1. Pre-book tickets online here.
It costs €20 per adult, which is €4 more than it would cost to buy the tickets on the door, however you will be glad of having spent the extra when you see the queues to get in.
2. Consider joining a tour.
I don’t necessarily mean quitting the queue and joining with one of the touts, but there are loads of organisations offering tours and you can even pre-book a tour direct through the Vatican Museums website. I don’t tend to like to join organised tours as I prefer to go at my own pace, however they will provide information that may not be in the guidebooks and it is another way to skip the line.
3. Pick an early entrance slot
All of the people standing for 2 hours in the queue will eventually make it into the museums. The museums are going to be crowded at any time of the day, but going early is the best way to try to see everything with a more limited crowd.
4. Get a map
These are available from the information desk at the top of the escalator after entering. There are a number of different routes that you can take around the various rooms and a few short cuts too. The Vatican Museums are huge and you will almost certainly get museum fatigue, so it is sensible to plan what is most important to you and work out your route on the map before entering the museums proper.
For anyone visiting the Vatican in the future, my best advice is to just be prepared for the bewildering chaos that the visit will entail. Was it worth it? Probably yes. I will post more about this soon.