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Best Way to Visit Vatican Museums

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!

Visit Vatican Museums - Top 10 Tips

Don't let your visit to the Vatican be exhausting or a disappointment.

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

  1. Know when to go (below)
  2. Don't over-plan your day - allow more time (and energy) than you think to your visit to the Vatican
  3. Dress appropriately, or you risk being turned away
  4. Wear really comfortable shoes
  5. Make a food plan
  6. Bring your camera or smart phone, but leave the tripod and selfie-stick at home!
  7. Don't bring a large backpack
  8. Be ridiculously vigilant of pickpockets
  9. Don't get stuck waiting in the long lines
  10. Don't come on the free Sunday

Want my tips on How to Visit Vatican Museums on your own, without a tour? Jump down to this section.

1. When Is the Best Time to Visit Vatican Museums

I think what people really want to know when they ask this question is how to avoid the lines, and how to avoid the crowds at the Vatican Museums.

crowds in the vatican museumsCrowds and tour groups in the Vatican Museums - and this is not even the Sistine Chapel!

Well, if you are here from March through November, it's very difficult (but not impossible) to avoid crowds any time of day. But avoiding the lines is another story.

What is the Best Time of Year to Visit Vatican Museums?

The busiest time of year in Rome, and hence also at the Vatican Museums, is from about mid-March through early November. 

From mid-November to early March, other than at Christmas and New Years, Rome, and the Vatican Museums, are quiet and wonderful to visit. No lines. No crowds.

wall of the vatican museums in winter - no linesThis is what the wall around the Vatican Museums looks like in winter - no lines at all

There may be times even during low season that it will be more crowded than you expect at the Vatican Museums.

This may include moments right on the edge of the season, like early March, or mid November; unusual events in Rome like a beatification or canonization of a popular figure; a crowded weekend in Rome such as during Valentine's Day or Six Nations Rugby matches.

Another relatively busy week/weekend in Rome is wherever December 6-8 falls. December 6 is a national holiday in Spain (which means we see a lot of visitors from there), and December 8 is the Immacolata, or Immaculate Conception.

But if you come in really low season, you can visit Vatican Museums just about any time of day you want, without reserving in advance. You just walk right up to the entrance, go in, get a ticket and enjoy.

And, my favorite thing about visiting Vatican Museums in low season is the lack of crowds. 

You can spend all the time you want, gazing (sometimes alone) at masterpieces. And you can sit. And gaze some more. 

What is the Best Day of the Week to Visit Vatican Museums?

The Vatican Museums are open Monday - Saturday, 9am - 6pm. The ticket office closes at 4pm. Last entry is at 4:30pm, and the museums must be vacated by 5:30pm. On Sundays and Catholic holidays like Easter Monday and Christmas Day, the Museums are closed.

The Vatican Museums are open the last Sunday of the month, and it's free to visit this day. The hours are very limited: 9am - 2pm, last entry at 12:30. I would avoid this at all costs unless you have no choice or are on a really tight budget. Free Sunday is the most crowded day of the month to visit Vatican Museums.

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 will 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.

Bottom line:

The best time to visit Vatican Museums to avoid crowds and lines depends mostly on the season.

In mid and high season, the Vatican Museums are crowded and busy every day they are open.

What is the Best Time of Day to Visit Vatican Museums?

As I said above, 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.

There is a way to visit Vatican Museums and see the Sistine Chapel before they open to the public, if you take this exclusive tour with Viator, which begins at 7:30am.

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 many large and small 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.

vatican museums entry at 3:30pmThis is the entry to the Vatican Museums in spring, a busy season. It's 3:30pm, half hour before the ticket office closes. No lines.


I advise people to take the secret passageway from the Sistine Chapel into Saint Peter's Basilica, so you avoid queuing again. (More on this below.)

Plan on about 2 hours to visit Vatican Museums. Time your visit so that you have enough time afterward to ALSO visit Saint Peter's Basilica. And this means getting into the Basilica.

Saint Peter's closes at 7pm from April 1 - September 30, and at 6:30pm from October 1 - March 31. Last entry is at 15 minutes' prior.

But, the entry to the Basilica FROM the Sistine Chapel closes by about 5pm. This means you need to be finished with your Vatican Museums visit and the Sistine Chapel by 4:45pm to be sure to enter the basilica from there.

Having said all that, if you do not plan to visit Saint Peter's Basilica, 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.

2. Allow for more time than you think

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.

And some can be longer, up to 5 hours. And even if you go on your own, without a guide, 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 and up), and climb the dome (another half hr at least), and then check out St. Peter's Square, even if it's just to walk out of 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!)

3. Dress appropriately

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

  • NO Bare knees - skirts and shorts should cover your knees. If they just come to the top of your knees, you may risk being told you cannot enter if you get a strict guard. 
  • NO Bare midriffs
  • NO Bare shoulders - this is easy, just carry a light sweater or scarf when you sightsee in hot weather.

Visit my page about What to Pack for Rome for ideas about what to wear in Rome

It is perfectly fine to wear jeans, t-shirts and open-toed sandals (Jesus wore sandals, remember?) 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:

4. Wear comfortable shoes

I said above that it's fine to wear sandals. This is from the guards' point of view. 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. 

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.

5. Make a Food Plan

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.)

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.)

Want to know where the bathrooms are in the Vatican Museums?

Find out here.

6. Taking Pictures inside Vatican Museums

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.

Why aren't you allowed to take photos inside the Sistine Chapel?

So the short answer is that in 1980, to finance a huge restoration of the Sistine Chapel and in particular Michelangelo's frescoes, the Vatican accepted a bid by Nippon Television Network Corporation of Japan, in which they would pay for the restoration, in exchange for exclusive image rights. And the short followup to that is that those rights have expired.

However, a Vatican guard I spoke with told me that the Vatican still enforces this no-photos rule, in part because it is a CHAPEL, a holy place, where sometimes (private) services are held for the Pope. Also, this is where the conclave is held to decide on a new pope. So for the Vatican, this holy place should not be desecrated by picture-taking. 

You may or may not see a lot of people flouting this rule. Sometimes the guards are more lenient, or more strict. And so it is up to you if you want to abide by their rules.

7. Don't bring a large backpack

As I said above, about tripods and selfie sticks, 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.

8. Watch out for pickpockets

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.

9. How to avoid the long lines

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.

10. Don't come on the free Sunday

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.

Best Way to Visit Vatican Museums on Your Own

Having visited the museums several times, 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:

See the Spiral Staircase first

Do you want to beeline to the Sistine Chapel?

Decide if you have half an hour to an hour to visit the Pinacoteca

Decide if you want to visit the Pio-Clementine museum

Shortcut to St. Peter's Basilica

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