What's the best time to visit Vatican Museums? How can I avoid the crowds at the Vatican Museums? Can I JUST visit the Sistine Chapel? (Hint: NO)
Find out the answers to these questions, and more!
Don't let your visit to the Vatican be exhausting, confusing or disappointing.
If you plan it right, you will have a fabulous time visiting one of the most beautiful and important sites in Rome. Here are my Top 10 Tips to Visiting the Vatican Museums:
Want my tips on How to Visit Vatican Museums on your own, without a tour? Jump down to this section.
Want to know how to avoid the lines, and how to avoid the crowds at the Vatican Museums?
You can visit the Vatican Museums year-round. But the busiest time of year in Rome is from about mid-March through early November. Which means visiting with thousands of other people.
The Vatican Museums are open Monday - Saturday, 9am - 6pm. On Sundays and Catholic holidays like Easter Monday and Christmas Day, the Museums are closed.
On Wednesdays when there is a Papal Audience in Saint Peter's Basilica (most of the year), the Basilica is closed until noon. So this may be a factor in planning your visit, although if you visit Vatican Museums from 10am onward, you should get to the basilica in time for it to open.
So, you may wish to avoid Wednesdays, and of course Sundays when it's closed (and even when it's open!) Saturdays and Mondays, being close to the weekend might be a little busier than Tuesday and Thursday but really, in high season, there is not a quiet day of the week to visit Vatican Museums.
If you come in low season, this is less of an issue if it's about avoiding crowds and lines.
But if you are coming in high season, or even mid season, you can count on the Vatican Museums as being pretty crowded all day long. And this includes early morning.
In fact, there is a misconception that if you go early, you will "beat the line."
But that is what everyone thinks, so guess what? You are going to run into a LOT of people with this idea, and it will be packed right when it opens. Also, many tour groups go early, also for this reason.
Believe it or not, the later in the day you go, the less crowded it MAY be.
So I'd say sometime between 1:30-3:30 is a good time to arrive.
Having said all that, if you do not plan to visit Saint Peter's Basilica, or do not need at least 2 hours in the museums, then you can do what I love doing: arrive at 3:45pm and breeze right in. Then I head for the Pinacoteca where there is next to nobody, especially at that hour.
This kind of visit is of course ideal if you've been to the Vatican museums before, or simply have very limited time and don't mind having a quick/shorter visit.
Take a look at Vatican City on a map of Rome. It's vast. It's its own state! And a large part of that vastness is the Vatican Museums. If you walk through all of them, it's 7.5 km, or 4.5 miles. Maybe you won't walk through all of that but you will walk A LOT.
Most tours of the Vatican museums are about 3 hours long. Some are shorter, for those with limited time, or who just want to fast-track to the Sistine Chapel. But even then, it's doubtful you can spend less than 2 hours total, between getting there, getting in, visiting, and getting back out.
Even if you go on your own, you still have a lot of walking to do.
Considering that to visit Vatican Museums is only part of your visit to the Vatican, and that you may also include visiting St. Peter's Basilica (half hr or more), and climb the dome (another half hr at least), and then check out St. Peter's Square, even if it's just to walk through it, is another 15-30 minutes.
All told, I'd say average time it takes to spend visiting Vatican City is 3-4 hours. But it can easily become a full day. Even if you decide to only dedicate a half-day to this, try to avoid planning another major or museum visit on the same day (skip Colosseum and Borghese Gallery, and do those another day!)
Dressing appropriately to visit the Vatican Museums (and any other site in Vatican City, including Saint Peter's Basilica, the Vatican Gardens, The Necropolis etc), means not showing a lot of bare skin.
Specifically this means
It is perfectly fine to wear jeans, t-shirts and open-toed sandals. You do not have to be dressed UP. You have to be dressed modestly.
And beyond that, my strong advice to you is to dress comfortably. Which brings us to:
I said above that it's fine to wear sandals. But I'd urge you to forego flip flops and any other flimsy shoes. This is in fact true for most Rome sightseeing. You will do more walking than you think.
Shoes that are not sturdy, and not broken in, will do more to kill your sightseeing joy in Rome than just about anything else.
When you visit Vatican Museums, you are faced with nearly 7.5 kilometers (4.5 miles) of rooms full of art. Of course, many people do not visit all the rooms, but believe me, you will be doing a LOT of walking. A typical time-frame to allow yourself to visit Vatican Museums is 2-3 hours. Even if you do the bare minimum and fast-track to the Sistine Chapel, you will still have at least one hour's worth of walking to do. Just in the museums.
And this does not include the walking you may do to get there. And, a visit to Saint Peter's Basilica. And then perhaps some more walking around Vatican Square afterward. And then there is the walking you might to do find food, and get a taxi, bus or metro back to your hotel.
So comfortable, sturdy walking shoes are absolutely key. I cannot stress this enough.
In my family, we are always thinking about food (maybe you can tell how much I love thinking and talking about food on my pages about food in Rome!)
I am a big believer in avoiding low blood sugar and debilitating hunger pangs in the middle of sight-seeing.
First, you should decide if you are eating a meal before or after your visit, or both. Second, bring some kind of snack with you: a bar, a piece of fruit or candy, or even small tramezzino (little sandwich.) I also recommend stopping at a pharmacy and picking up some power-bars.
My suggestion is to arrive at the museums well-fed. Even if you spend the least time possible, you are likely to still be at least 2 hours without any food or drink, unless you visit one of the Vatican Museums cafeterias (I've tried it and it's blah, but at least it's there just in case.)
You may take photos without flash everywhere at the Vatican, including inside St. Peter's Basilica.
The exception is the Sistine Chapel, where NO photos are allowed.
Tripods and selfie-sticks are not allowed anywhere in the Vatican Museums or St. Peter's Basilica.
If you bring either of these, you will have to check it at the coat-check area right at the entry to the Vatican museums.
This is not a big deal unless you are planning to visit St. Peter's Basilica directly from the Sistine Chapel, because you have to go back to the Museums entrance to collect your belongings.
If you bring any large bags or backpacks, you will have to check them. Same with large umbrellas. Wheelchairs are of course permitted inside the Vatican Museums.
For a complete list of items allowed/not allowed inside the Vatican Museums, visit their website.
If you were a pickpocket, wouldn't you choose the easiest targets? The people not paying any attention to their surroundings, and to their own belongings? And can you imagine what easy pickings they have in very crowded places, like the Sistine Chapel, when everyone is jostling each other, and just concentrating on looking UP?
Sadly, I know of many instances where people have been pickpocketed without realizing it at all, until they get back to their hotel room. Your belongings should be secured on your body or in a locked purse or backpack that you can keep control of.
I don't want to scare you, but I want you to avoid being a pickpocket victim. It puts a huge damper on the whole experience. So be vigilant.
The best way to avoid waiting in line to visit Vatican Museums is to buy your tickets in advance. And the only way to do this is online. You can do it through the Vatican website, or through an online vendor.
This does not mean you won't find crowds inside. It also does not pertain to entry into Saint Peter's Basilica, which is a different building altogether.
To avoid the line to visit Saint Peter's Basilica, see my tip above about short-cutting into the basilica from the Sistine Chapel.
It sounds like a great idea to be able to visit Vatican Museums for free. And you can, on the last Sunday of the month (unless this falls on a major holiday like Christmas.) But should you?
Well, you cannot pre-buy tickets, so you just have to show up and wait in line like everyone. And since visiting anything free is a popular thing to do, you can imagine how long the lines can get! So you will need to show up long before they open at 9am if you can.
The museums on this day have limited hours, closing at 2pm, with last entry at 12:30. This means you are pretty limited in when you can go, and how long you will have to see them.
I strongly recommend not visiting the Vatican Museums on the free Sunday unless it's the only time you can go, and/or you are on a tight budget. And if you do go on the free Sunday, get there by 8am.
Having visited the museums often, in the past as a tourist, and many times since I live here, my recommendation if you are a first-time visitor to Rome is to take a Vatican Museums tour. There is just so much to see and absorb, and a lot to navigate, and doing it all on your own is a bit daunting . . . plus I think you will miss a lot.
But if you have a lot of time in Rome, or have visited the museums before, or really just want to go on your own, because you are not a tour person, this is my advice:
The first thing you do when you visit Vatican Museums is come up an escalator (the second one, after scanning your ticket). When you get to the top, you will see in front of you a lot of options for things to see and places to go (Sistine Chapel this way!) So Exciting!
But, if you turn around 180 degrees, you will see (one of) the Vatican Museums gift shops. This is the way you exit the museums if you DON'T take the shortcut into St. Peter's Basilica from the Sistine Chapel. And since you probably WANT to take that shortcut, you will likely not exit this way, but rather from the basilica after you visit it.
But in the middle of this bookshop is the staircase everyone wants to photograph when they visit Vatican Museums. So just go there first, take a peek, take your shot, and do NOT go down the staircase (you cannot come back up).
Then continue your Vatican Museums visit.
If you are in a hurry, have been before, or simply just want to see the Sistine Chapel and nothing else, you can follow the signs, and go straight through the museums.
You WILL see a lot of other art and rooms on the way.
And it will take you nearly an hour to get to the Sistine Chapel but if you truly beeline and do not stop at all, you could probably make it there in about half an hour.
Most people who visit Vatican Museums skip the pinacoteca. I think it's because it's off to the right, not in the same direction as all the signs pointing the way to the Sistine Chapel. Most tours skip this gallery too, as there is just not usually enough time to fit it all in.
But if you are on your own, or decide to go with a tour that includes it, the pinacoteca offers the chance to see some of the most extraordinary paintings in Rome.
The only painting by Leonardo da Vinci in the whole museums is in this gallery.
Raphael's Transfiguration is one of his most important works and one of the most important pieces of art of the time.
The Caravaggio painting of The Deposition alone is worth visiting this gallery for.
To visit the pinacoteca, walk straight towards the outside space right when you come off the escalator that brings you to the Vatican Museums. Look to your right and you will see a sign for it.
The Braccio Nuovo, or "New Wing" of the museums was actually there before. But it was closed for years and has only recently re-opened, and re-done.
It's truly spectacular but many people miss it when they visit Vatican Museums, because, again, it's not directly on the route to the Sistine Chapel.
To see this beautiful section when you visit Vatican Museums, walk past the Pinecone courtyard, and take a right. You will walk down a long corridor of neo-classic design, with statue after statue (many of which are worth a closer look!)
You will see the Braccio Nuovo on the right. If you time it right, you can sometimes have this wing, or parts of it, all to yourself!
As I've mentioned on other pages, one of the best tips I can give you for when you visit Vatican Museums is to take the shortcut to St. Peter's basilica right from the Sistine Chapel. The Sistine Chapel is at the end of the Vatican Museums, and there are two exits: One to the left that says "EXIT" and one to the right that seems as if you CANNOT GO THERE (the big red circle with the white line through it is sort of the international sign for DO NOT GO HERE.)
That is where you go. It is meant to be used only by tours and groups, but the guards don't usually pay close attention and frankly they are looking out for other transgressions. You may be stopped but just tell them you are trying to catch up to your tour group.
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