In peak season the Sistine Chapel receives as many as 20,000 visitors per day. That’s more than 1/2 million visitors per month, lining up to view Michelangelo’s famous fresco-ed ceiling.
After they’ve toured the Vatican Museums, that is.
It’s a disappointment to many people that they can’t just pop into the Sistine Chapel, have a peek and go about their day, but in order to maintain some semblance of control over the millions of people arriving each year, Vatican officials implemented a system in which visitors must tour at least some of the extensive Vatican Museums before earning their look at the Sistine Chapel.
The advantage to the Vatican Museums tour is two-fold. It cuts down on the sheer number of people who wish to only see the Sistine Chapel (since those who aren’t truly interested won’t bother with the museums) while at the same time exposing those who do tour the museums to the extraordinary wealth of treasures housed in the Vatican.
Highlights of these artistic treasures (contained in more than 2,000 rooms of the enormous papal palace!) are the typical tour circuit of the Vatican Museums. This means you don’t tour the entire palace, but about 53 salons (galleries) containing Greek and Roman statues, Renaissance masterpieces (including the incredible Rafael rooms), the jaw-dropping Gallery of Maps and Gallery of Tapestries, the Sistine Chapel and much, much more. Honestly, the rooms that hold these collections are in-and-of-themselves worth the visit!
Of course these extensive collections of artistic treasures are also overwhelming and mind-boggling. And that’s an understatement.
So, taking my best off the beaten strada approach (in a place that is front and center on the strada) here are 10 tips for making the most of your visit to the must-see, Vatican Museums:
- Book a small-group, guided tour. A small group, skip-the-lines tour is a must for a Vatican Museums visit, and if you book through the internet ahead of time, you’ll be all set once you get to Rome. Naturally, there are many companies that offer skip-the-lines tours. Our guests have always had good luck with the highly rated Viator Dark Rome Tours. The small group tours are capped at 20 people, listening headsets are included (a wonderful addition in recent years!) and tours are hosted by knowledgeable, English speaking guides. If this is your first time visiting, we recommend Dark Rome’s 3-hour, Vatican Tour with Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica.
- Allow plenty of time, ahead of time. Arriving at St. Peter’s Square (the “center stage” of Vatican City) for the first time is an incredible experience. Most tourists don’t allow time to take a breath and take it in. We recommend arriving well before your designated tour time so that you can roam the famous Square and get a sense of this awe-inspring place.
- Tour in the morning. The Vatican Museums get crowed fast, so opt for a morning tour, if you can. (I like the 3-hour tour that begins at 9:00am.) Plus, temperatures in the morning are cooler (especially important in summer months) and your feet are well rested – a must for walking and standing through a 3 hour tour.
- Study up – at least a bit. It’s nearly impossible to appreciate the collections of art in the Vatican Museums if you don’t have at least some sense of what you’re viewing. Studying up ahead of time (thank you, Google) is easier than ever before. In fact, Wikipedia is a great place to begin because you can click on links for details about specific art collections and masterpieces that you’ll be seeing. Fun!
- Look at a map. Sounds simple, I know, but most tourists don’t bother, and it’s an enormous help to wrap your mind around the size and layout of Vatican City before you arrive. Once again, you can just Google it.
- Choose one special thing per gallery. The first time I ever visited the Vatican Museums, my head was spinning afterwards – and not in a good way. I felt so overwhelmed! Since then I’ve learned to sip Italy’s art – and try not to gulp. The sheer magnitude of priceless treasures inside the Vatican Museums is staggering, so my favorite strategy is to choose one special thing (perhaps in a room or gallery) and to intently focus on it amidst the sensory onslaught of countless other beautiful things. Plus you’re more likely to vividly recall that detail later – a smiling cherub, that lifelike dog sculpture or a particularly touching Madonna and child.
- Watch for your favorites. A big benefit to studying up ahead of time is anticipating your favorites. Perhaps you read up about Leonardo da Vinci’s St. Jerome in the Wilderness, and there it is! Or maybe you learned that the Gallery of Maps contains the world’s largest pictorial geographical study – all painted in the 16th century. When you enter that salon, you’ll be filled with awe! Looking for favorites is a winner.
- Bring a little mirror. Craning your neck to look up at all those decorated ceilings can be … well … a pain in the neck. One of the handiest items to keep in your purse or pocket when visiting the Vatican Museums is a little mirror that you can hold in front of you from time to time. You can still view the elaborate ceiling while giving your neck a rest.
- Plan on eating lunch immediately afterwards. One of the reasons I prefer the 3-hour, 9:00am tour at is that it ends near lunchtime, and eating regularly while sightseeing is a must. Nothing makes travelers crabbier than hunger, right? Fortunately there are a plethora of restaurant choices within a block or two of St. Peter’s Square. Venture up side streets and you’ll find those that are less touristy.
- Ignore the ignorant. It’s not uncommon to find yourself surrounded by disrespectful people at the Vatican, or any number of famous sites in Italy – or in the world, for that matter. As difficult as it might be, try focusing on the beauty all around you, instead of their bad behavior. This is particularly the case in the Sistine Chapel where most visitors don’t obey the rule of silence. In spite of the distractions, take a deep breath, shut out the noise and gaze up at Michelangelo’s breath-taking masterpiece. Even he had plenty of distractions. But he sure pulled if off, didn’t he?
Pamela Haack is the founder of Off the Beaten Strada, where she creates and hosts small group tours that are a combination of the very best of Italy: the exciting and the peaceful, the popular and the secret, the talked about and the never-heard-of-before. From art experts and operettas to authentic cooking classes and ancient Etruscans, Pamela helps visitors experience the spectacularly beautiful, endlessly interesting cities and countryside of Italy in an up-close and personal way.
She is also the author of Top 10 Favorite Etruscan Sites, as well as her popular blog, Off the Beaten Strada in Italy.
Pamela lives with her husband, Lou, in Umbria, Italy.