Vatican Museum Tours - How to pick the best one?

Wondering which of the many Vatican Museum Tours is right for you?

tour group inside vatican museumsTaking a tour is one of the best ways to get the most out of your Vatican Museums visit. Find out how to choose the right one for you!

There are so many options, so how do you decide which one to take?

Vatican Museum Tours - Why it's so hard to choose

One of the questions I get most often is "How do I decide which Vatican tour to take?"

I know there are a lot of choices.

There are early morning tours, small group tours, tours that include Saint Peter's Basilica, the Necropolis of Via Triumphalis or the Vatican Gardens . . . And even then, there are a lot of different companies that offer the same or similar tours. 

So how do you choose?

I'm going to break down the different TYPES of tours, and then give you links to book the best ones of each type.

On this page about Vatican Museums tours, you'll find:

Vatican Museum Tours - Is it Worth Taking a Tour?

I love to visit the Vatican Museums on my own because I can take as long as I want, and linger over a painting or a room if I feel like it.

But that is partly because I am lucky enough to live here and be able to visit often.

sitting in the Pinacoteca in vatican museumsIn low season, I love to visit the Vatican Museums and just spend time sitting and enjoying some of these masterpieces in the Pinacoteca.

I've also taken part in pretty much every Vatican tour out there, and love that experience also.

Now the question is, is it worth taking a tour to visit Vatican Museums?

In my opinion, absolutely yes.

Here's why:

  • Easy - Your tickets will be bought and ready, nothing for you to do but show up.
  • Focused - With the vast amount of art to see in the Vatican Museums, having a guided tour can help you to focus on just some of the most important sections and pieces.
  • Just the right amount of sight-seeing - On a guided tour, you will keep your visiting time to a limit, and won't overdo or exhaust yourself trying to "see it all."
  • Help with your questions - When you have a guide, there is someone to answer your questions as they pop up. This happens to me all the time and I find myself asking museum guards (who may or may not know the answer), or trying to look things up on my phone. It's considerably nicer to have a knowledgable guide who can tell you (correctly, and in person) just what you want to know.
  • Don't miss a thing! - On a guided tour, you will no doubt see things you would have overlooked on your own. This also happens to me a lot in Rome, and every time I take a guided tour with an expert, I learn something new. The first time I went to the Vatican Museums on my own (years ago), without a guide, I breezed past the Laocoön sculpture because I didn't even know what it was, let alone to look for it!

And if you take a more special kind of guided Vatican Museums Tour, like a private, small-group, out-of-hours tour, then it can make an even bigger difference.

laocoon group in vatican museumsDon't miss this amazing ancient Laocoon sculpture in the Vatican Museums

Vatican Museums Audio-Guide

You may also decide to skip the Vatican Museum tours, and visit on your own with an audio-guide.

This can be a good compromise, because you will get more information than you can from the little printed info-cards next to some of the pieces in the museums.

I still would recommend a human guide because they are better able to bring the whole thing to life for you, and are there to answer questions.

If you do decide to use the Vatican Museums Audio-Guide, you can book this when you pre-book your Vatican Museums tickets through the Vatican website, or, you can opt to get the audio-guide once you enter the museum.

Vatican Museum Tours - Which One is Right for You?

One of the most frequent questions I get is, which Vatican Museum tours do you recommend?

And of course, there is not one right answer: this depends on what you are looking for, how much time you have and want to commit to, and your budget.

All Vatican Museum tours include skip-the-line tickets, a visit to the Sistine Chapel, and a licensed tour guide (someone who is knowledgable and who is legally allowed to take you on this tour.)

Most tours are offered in English or Italian.

You can usually book a guide in other common languages too, such as Spanish, French, German, Japanese, Korean, Russian, etc.

the creation by michelangeloThe Creation of Adam by Michelangelo Buonarroti, 1508-1512

There are also a few options for pre-booking special tickets, without a tour.

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Tours through the official Vatican website

What happens when you book a tour of the Vatican Museums using the official Vatican Museums website?

First, you will pay less, as there is no tour agency or middle-man.

Second, you will be assigned a tour guide who is directly employed by the Vatican Museums.

What is the difference between booking a tour of the vatican through the vatican website and a tour agency?

All guides who give tours of the Vatican Museums must be licensed guides and they must have permission from the Vatican Museums to give tours there.

The difference between a Vatican Museums employee/guide and an outside guide may simply be in the quality of the guide.

I must say that I have taken tours with Vatican Museum employees/guides, and some of them have been fantastic.

But you just never know.

No matter what tour you book, unless you hire a private guide that you either know or who has been recommended to you, you have no way of knowing what that guide will be like.

Reasons to choose booking with the Vatican Museums or with a tour company

Sometimes, tickets and tours may not be available on the Vatican Museums website but you might find more availability for tickets and tours on a certified reseller such as Tiqets, Get your Guide, or Viator.

Or, perhaps you have heard about a specific tours company or tour, such as Walks of Italy, who offer two of the most popular tours of the Vatican Museums, Pristine Sistine, and the Vatican Key Master Tour in which you get to open the museums.

Read on to discover more tour options, and the differences between the different types of tours you'll find, both on the Vatican website and on outside tour company sites.

NEW FOR 2024!

The archeological area of the Vatican Necropolis of Via Triumphalis is now open for visitors.

This is an ancient Roman burial site that is within the Vatican walls and before now was very difficult to get access to.

You can only enter as part of an official Vatican tour group, and tickets need to be purchased through the official website.

This is an entirely separate visit, so you will not have access to either St Peter's Basilica or the Vatican Museums.

Click here to watch my YouTube video about it and see what it's like!

Vatican Museum Tours - Skip the Line Group Tours

One of the most popular of the Vatican Museum tours is the group tour.

You skip the line of course, and have a knowledgable guide so you don't have to think about what to see or where to go.

All of these tours include the Sistine Chapel, usually ending there.

St Peter's Basilica Shortcut

You can only take the shortcut from the Sistine Chapel to St Peter's Basilica if you are on a tour that INCLUDES the basilica.

The shortcut is open from 9:30 am - 5 or 5:30PM, and it's ONLY accessible to tour companies or private guides that you book OUTSIDE the Vatican Museums website.

The Vatican Museums does not have any ticket or tour that includes the shortcut.

This means that you won't have access to the shortcut during the KeyMaster tour, the Extra Time tour, or any other tour that does not specifically include the basilica.

If you book any tour of the Vatican Museums, you can check the details to see if it finishes in the Sistine Chapel or the basilica.

Click here to view a map of Vatican City (it will open in a new page.)

When you take a group tour, you will have what's called "whisper" headphones, so the guides can speak in a normal tone and you can easily hear them.

As of January 1, 2024, all group tours will be limited to 20 people.

The best part about this kind of group tour is the price.

This is the least expensive option of the Vatican Museum tours.

raphael school of athens in vatican museumsThis Raphael masterpiece, The School of Athens, is in the papal apartments in the Vatican Museums, right before you get to the Sistine Chapel

There are many options even for taking a group tour.

Click the below to book a group tour of the Vatican Museums that includes:

A word about "skip the line"

Of course one of the benefits of taking a tour is the possibility to skip the line.

You can skip the line even without a tour, simply by pre-booking your tickets.

HOWEVER, you should know that nobody can skip the line for security, and when Rome is really crowded, as it is nearly all the time lately, you may find a bit of a wait to get through security.

So prepare yourself for that, and also plan to arrive a bit earlier than your entry time to give yourself plenty of leeway in case of long security lines.

Vatican Museum Tours - Early Access

The Vatican Museums open at 8AM Monday - Saturday. (There can be different closing times depending on the time of year.)

However, it is possible to gain early access to the Vatican Museums.

There are two things you need to know about this kind of tour:

  • There are a LOT of companies doing this, so you will not have an exclusive visit (although of course there will be a lot FEWER people than during the morning rush.)
  • In order to get the advantage of seeing the Sistine Chapel before the crowds arrive, you will need to rush through the rest of the Vatican Museums on your way there, missing most of the major works of art along the way. Either the tour will go back through so you can see the rest of the museums at a slower pace, or, if the tour itself does not offer this, you can do it on your own. In either of these cases, you will wind up in the Sistine Chapel a second time before you finally exit.)

That said, it will still feel like a special experience to get in there before the crowds fill in.

Also, many people do want to "just" see the Sistine Chapel, so this helps to keep the visit short if you want to.

For a more exclusive experience, jump down to this section.

As of January 2024, it will only be possible to gain early access to the museums by booking a tour.

Previously you could book early access entrance tickets, but these have been removed with the extension of the opening hours from 9AM to 8AM.

Open the Vatican Museums and turn on the lights of the Sistine Chapel!

One of the most special tours I ever took was with the Key Master of the Vatican Museums.

We literally went through the museums and opened them up and turned on all the lights.

You can book this through Take Walks and I assure you it will be one of the most amazing things you've ever experienced!

Before Hours Vatican Museums Sistine Chapel and Basilica Tour

st peters basilica inside earlySt Peter's Basilica in early morning, without the crowds

With this 3-hour tour, you will go with group of around 15 people into the Vatican Museums before they open to the general public. 

Click here to book this Early Access Group Tour of the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter's Basilica.

The perfect 3-day itinerary in Rome

Trying to figure out how to organize your visit to Rome? I've got the perfect 3-day itinerary for first-time visitors (or those who have not been here in a while.) It works for a 2.5 day visit as well.

In my 3-day itinerary, you'll see all the major must-see Rome attractions like the Vatican, Colosseum, Trevi Fountain, Pantheon, Piazza Navona, Spanish Steps, Castel Sant'Angelo, and much more.

And if you have more time, or want suggestions for extra/other things to do, you'll find that there too.

Visit my page with the best 3-day itinerary in Rome for first-timers.

Speedy Express Tours of Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel

Maybe I should have put this one at the top of the page.

One of the most common questions I hear about the Vatican Museums is:

Can I just go see the Sistine Chapel?

I've answered this before (the answer is no) and even with a tour that guarantees this, you really cannot. 

There is an "express route" to the Sistine Chapel from the entrance of the Vatican Museums, which skips the Pinacoteca, the Pio-Clementine Museums, the Egyptian and Etruscan wings.

shortcut to sistine chapelSomehow it looks like you are supposed to slide down the stairs to take the shortcut...but just follow these signs to take the fastest route!

But you still have a lot of museum to get through before you make it to the Sistine Chapel, so even without visiting any of the above, and bee-lining to the chapel, it will still take you at least 30 minutes just to walk there quickly, without stopping to look at anything. 

the tapestries hall in the vatican museumsYou still need to go through the maps rooms and the tapestries room, among others, to get to the Sistine Chapel. But no stopping!

That said, there are tours that help you do this.

In the section just before this one, about Early Access Vatican Museum Tours, you have options for going in before opening hours.

In theory, these could also be considered as fast tours, since you do go directly to the Sistine Chapel.

But with the above, you are also given the chance to go back and take more time in the museums.

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Normally I would urge you to visit the rest of the museums, as they are chock full of some of the world's most amazing and beautiful art.

But maybe you have really limited time, or who have been to the museums before and want to re-visit just the Sistine Chapel.

So, you can book an Express tour:

Visit to the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel with option to add on St. Peter's Basilica.

Your guide will provide explanations of the Sistine Chapel, but as you are sort of speeding through the rest of the Vatican Museums, you won't get detailed explanations of what you're walking past.

Vatican Museums - Small Group Tours

In the section above, there is a link to a small group, exclusive tour.

That tour goes inside the Vatican Museums early, before they open to the general public.

It's an amazing experience and I highly recommend it! (More about this below.)

If you're looking for an excellent truly small group Vatican Museums tour, click here.

Their small-group tours are max 20 people, but when you go to choose your date, you can see they also offer even smaller groups or private tours (which costs a bit more but may be worth it.)

Vatican Museums - Private Tours

Taking a private tour is exactly what it sounds like: this is a fantastic option if you want a completely private, personal tour, with the guide focused just on you.

Of course, if you are a family or group of 4-6 people, it becomes more affordable.

Click here to book a private tour (minimum 2 people), of the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel.

Vatican Museums + Vatican Gardens Combo Tour

The Vatican is home to some amazing gardens, which are beautifully kept and landscaped.

But they are in two places: one is just behind St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City.

The other is in the summer residence of the Pope, Castel Gandolfo.

You can easily book the Vatican Gardens tour through the Vatican Museums website.

It includes entry to the Vatican Museums but no tour or guide.

If you want, you can book this through an outside agency so you get a more complete tour experience.

See below for options.

Tour of Vatican Museums and Vatican Gardens in Vatican City

With this small-group tour, you will first visit the Vatican Gardens.

After visiting the gardens, your group will head inside to tour the Vatican Museums, finishing inside the Sistine Chapel.

Click here to book a Vatican Gardens + Vatican Museums combo small-group tour.

Currently unavailable - stay tuned for the updates!

vatican gardens from aboveA visit to the Vatican Gardens is really worth doing. And it includes entry to the Vatican Museums.

Visit to Vatican Museums and Gardens in Castel Gandolfo

If you have a full day to dedicate to this, and want to experience something really special, a whole world of tranquility, quiet and beauty, away from the hustle and bustle of Rome, this is a wonderful tour.

It allows you to skip the line and visit the Vatican Museums, then walk through the Vatican Gardens and get on a train that will take you just half-hour outside Rome to the summer residence of the Pope: the stunning Barberini Gardens at Castel Gandolfo, only recently opened to the public.

vatican gardens at castel gandolfoThe Barberini Gardens of the Vatican at Castel Gandolfo.

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VIP Vatican Museum Tours with out-of-hours Viewing

There are a good selection of Vatican Museum tours that offer early morning entry to the museums (see above.)

This means that although your group is going in before the normal opening time, you will also be going in with all the other tour groups doing the same thing.

Which means it is not quite as exclusive as it sounds, even if it's definitely less crowded than going at opening time (which is why it's actually a pretty affordable tour, usually costing less than 100€ per person.)

If you're really looking for an exclusive visit to the Vatican Museums out of hours, here are a couple of options:

VIP: Sistine Chapel Private Viewing and Small-Group Tour of the Vatican's Secret Rooms

Visiting the Vatican Museums after hours and seeing the secret rooms was one of the best tours I ever took.

You can read more about it on my dedicated page.

VIP Vatican Museum Tours - After Hours Private Viewing of Sistine Chapel

ceiling of sistine chapel by michelangeloGod creates Adam, Michelangelo Buonarroti, 1508 - 1512

For a really special experience, book a VIP tour, that features after-hours viewing.

You really do have a much more exclusive experience than the groups going before the Museums open.

Most Vatican Museum tours do not offer this option, so you will have the Sistine Chapel almost entirely to yourselves.

Click here to book your VIP tour of the Vatican Museums with Sistine Chapel Private Viewing.

And for an even more exclusive, private, truly after-hours tour, you can book this one.

Tour the Vatican Museums and the Colosseum on the same day

While I normally don't recommend this, sometimes a day is all you have, and you really want to fit in these two Rome must-sees.

You can try to do this on your own, but if you want to make the most of this day, especially if you are doing this as a shore excursion, I really recommend doing it as a guided tour.

Click here to book visit my page about this, for more details.

Click here to book a guided tour of the Vatican Museums and the Colosseum in one day.

You can also book a night tour of the Colosseum at certain times of the year, so you could see the Vatican Museums during the day and then do this night tour.

Do it yourself - build the tour YOU want!

If you are still not sure which tour to book, you can visit this tour booking page where you can choose the length of the tour, the time of day, and the maximum group size you want (the smaller the group, the more it costs per person.)

Click the "filters" button and go through and check the boxes you want, and you'll see all the tour options available according to your criteria.

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