The best way to see the Vatican – our tips

Visiting the Vatican tips

What’s the best way to see the Vatican? A trip to the Vatican can be a daunting prospect, especially for a first-time visitor to Rome, bringing to mind crowds and queues and enough art to lead to a severe case of Stendhal Syndrome. However, when planned correctly a Vatican tour can be a highly enjoyable experience – an immersive journey through centuries of art and religion. From getting your timing right to choosing a tour guide, here are our tips for visiting the Vatican.

Planning a day at the Vatican

  • Firstly, don’t even consider arriving at 10am. This is the time that most big tour companies start their Vatican tours, when the queues are never-ending and the Vatican Museums resemble the metro at rush hour. The best time to arrive at the Vatican is first thing in the morning.
  • If your main aim is to enjoy Michelangelo’s frescoes, go straight to the Sistine Chapel, instead of following the usual route through the Vatican Museums and visiting the Sistine Chapel at the end.
  • Keep in mind, however, that if you choose to visit the Sistine Chapel first, by the time you go back to the museums they’ll already be crowded, so it depends on what your priority is – an empty Sistine Chapel or empty museums? If you go to the Sistine Chapel first, it’s probably best to go straight to St Peter’s and skip the museums.
  • We recommend visiting the museum first, on the way to the Sistine Chapel, joining a “Good morning Vatican tour” with Roads to Rome Tours. You’ll get to see the Vatican Museums before the crowds arrive, enjoying the magnificent Raphael Rooms – usually packed – in peace and tranquillity. It’s a rare occasion to experience the rooms when they’re virtually empty. The Sistine Chapel will also be very quiet at this time. Having avoided all the usual crowds of the museums and the Sistine Chapel, you’ll then continue your tour in St Peter’s, entering the basilica directly, without having to wait in line.
  • If an early morning tour isn’t option, the second best way to see the Vatican is arriving after 3pm. Many of the large tour groups will have left by then, and you’ll still have a good few hours to explore the museums.
  • When you’re planning your visit to the Vatican Museums you should also consider the sheer size of the collection – 9 miles of art. No one has the stamina for that much art in a single visit, so read up on what’s there and decide what you’re most interested in seeing beforehand.
  • Although there are cafeterias inside the Vatican Museums, we don’t recommend them. The food is mediocre and the queues are long at lunchtime. It’s probably better to fortify yourself with a snack and have your main meal before or after your tour of the Vatican.

To tour or not to tour?

Without a doubt, the best way to see the Vatican is with a tour guide, especially if you have limited time in Rome. By booking a private tour you’ll get to skip the line and explore the Vatican Museums and St Peter’s Basilica in the company of an expert. Not only do you make the most of your time at the Vatican, avoiding long lines and aimless wandering, but you’ll also gain valuable insight into the historical and cultural context of the artworks.

Although the standard Vatican prices are reasonable, booking a tour is excellent value. Your personal guide will show you all the highlights (as well as some hidden treasures of the Vatican Museums) and help you to understand the artwork in context. While Michelangelo’s frescoes never fail to amaze, they become even more extraordinary when you learn the story of their creation, discovering fascinating details that are often overlooked.

The best way to see the Vatican

When it comes to the Vatican, planning pays off. Other parts of your Rome trip, such as strolls around the historic centre, are more enjoyable when they’re spontaneous, but don’t make the mistake of visiting the Vatican on a whim. For the perfect day at the Vatican, book a private tour with Roads to Rome Tours and let your guide take care of the rest!

Read more: Touring the Vatican (New York Times)