Vatican Museums Key Master Tour - You can unlock the Sistine Chapel!

Can you imagine standing in the Sistine chapel alone? 

Gazing at the masterpieces all around you, taking it all in without any distractions?

This is what it's like when you take the VIP Vatican Key Master tour.

vip open vatican sistine with few peopleYes, you really CAN see the Sistine Chapel this empty!

How can you take this tour and what is it like? That's what this page is about!

Waking up the Vatican - 6 AM tour of the Vatican Museums

With this exclusive tour, you'll 'wake up' the Vatican Museum buildings by going around with the Key Master and literally opening doors and turning on lights.

On this page we'll go over:

What are the highlights of the Vatican Key Master's tour?

This is truly one of the most special tours of the Vatican Museums I know.

And I've taken every Vatican Museums tour there is, and even some tours they don't offer any more.

Nothing compares to how amazing this guided tour is.

And I use the word "amazing" in the truest sense of the word.

A VERY early start!

While the start time can be a bit rough, especially for the jet-lagged or those looking to relax on vacation, the 6AM exclusive entrance to the Vatican Museums feels oh so privileged.

The tour meeting time is 5:45AM and it will be dark.

We had a full moon overhead when I recently took this tour.

Do not be late, you will be denied entry if you do not arrive on time!

What to expect

Your meeting point is outside the main entrance, where you will be welcomed by the official Vatican tour guide.

The doors to the museums are shut tight.

All of a sudden, a crack of light appears, as a guard opens one of the doors.

As you enter the museums, you'll be mostly in the dark.

If you've ever visited the Vatican Museums before, you will be astounded by the quiet.

The tour has a maximum of 20 people, so it's an intimate group and you'll easily be able to follow along with the official Vatican guide.

Just a small group goes when they run this, so the 20-person maximum is the true maximum.

(Other "VIP" or "early-bird" Vatican museums and Sistine Chapel tours are run often concurrently by several different agencies, so while you will find smaller crowds, and the museums will be emptier, they are less exclusive than this one.)

One of the first things you'll do is visit the terrace where you can see Saint Peter's dome.

The Vatican Gardens spread out below you and it's so dark and so quiet.

And peaceful.

early morning on the Vatican terraceSeeing the dome of St Peter's Basilica lit up in the early morning is an added bonus of the special Key Master tour

Who are the Key Masters?

Next, you'll go meet the Vatican Key Master, called the "clavigero", where you'll see all the keys they use for opening Vatican museums every day (except Sundays, although the Vatican Museums are open the last Sunday of every month.)

vip open vatican - elyssa with key masterImpressively each Vatican key master knows the purpose of every one of these keys!

There are 2,797 keys that open around 300 rooms in the vast museums.

Gianni Crea is THE clavigero, and he oversees a team of 10 others, 5 who open the museums each morning and another 5 who close them.

The teams regularly alternate so they do both shifts.

You'll follow Gianni and another key master, and hear explanations from your guide of various important works as you move through the rooms.

The key masters will allow one person to open a given door, and with only 20 people on the tour, everyone will have a chance to open a Vatican Museum door.

When I took this tour recently, I was allowed to open the Sistine Chapel!

vip open vatican - key to sistine chapelHolding the actual key to the Sistine Chapel in my hands was a very special moment!

Clavigero comes from the Latin word "clavis" which means "key."

You may have heard of the word "conclave" which is when the cardinals are locked inside the Sistine Chapel to vote on a new pope.

Conclave is from "con clave" - with the key, i.e. under lock and key.

What will you see on this guided tour?

The group tour route is the typical itinerary you'd follow on most Vatican Museum visits.

But you may see some additional things depending on the Vatican tour guide and/or key masters accompanying you.

It also may depend on your own interests.

Main route through the Museums

Most Vatican Museums tours, including this one, take you through:

  • The Octagonal courtyard (where you can see the famous sculptures of the Laocoön and Belvedere Apollo.)
  • The Rotunda room
  • The Greek Cross Room
  • The Tapestries Hall
  • The Gallery of Maps
  • The Raphael Rooms
  • The Sistine Chapel

But it's not so much that you get to see these rooms, it's how you see them.

When you go into the Octagonal Courtyard, it will likely still be dark out, perhaps with the beginnings of dawn.

A huge benefit of having exclusive hours inside!

The quiet here is truly wonderful, but the best part is that the guides allow you to walk AROUND the sculptures and see them (and photograph them) from all angles, in all their majesty.

During regular visiting hours, you cannot get this close to these sculptures, nor can you walk around them.

The Gallery of Maps is a particular highlight for many people.

vip open vatican - elyssa in hall of mapsBeing in the Maps Gallery without the crowds was a very different experience to regular museum visits

The tour guide will make this tour even more fun by having you walk into the Gallery of Maps in the dark, I mean nearly pitch black, and then telling you to get your cameras ready for when the lights come on.

It will give you chills!

Then you get to go through and open all the windows as your guide gives you a tour of the empty galleries.

And of course, the most amazing part is opening the Sistine Chapel door, going inside in the dark, and watch Michelangelo's frescoes flicker as THOSE lights come on.

Just wow.

You will never forget this moment.

The Sistine Chapel is such a sacred place, somewhere art historians have studied for centuries, so to enter completely alone and see one of Rome's most sought after spaces without the normal crowds of people is indescribable.

vip open vatican - sistine with guide explainingListen to the tour guide explain the wonders of the Sistine Chapel without being surrounded by crowds of people

Exciting extras

Because they have to open up all the rooms, as you go along on this Key Master's tour with the Clavigero, you may be treated to exclusive access to some rooms and sights normally not available to regular visitors.

bramante staircaseThe famous Bramante staircase - this tour utilizes multiple areas normally off limits

These extra special spots might be included on your tour but it may also depend on the tour guide and the timing.

You might also ask the guide if there is something specific you want to see as you go along.

On this tour, you may be able to also visit:

  • The Bramante staircase (with the best sunrise views!)
  • The animal room(s), also known as the stone zoo
  • The terrace overlooking the Pinecone courtyard (which is accessible from the Egyptian wing which you will also see)
  • The room of the Biga
room of the bigaThe Room of the Biga

If you've ever visited the Vatican Museums on a regular visit or as part of tour groups, you'll know how special and unusual it is to be able to see these spots.

Or perhaps you'll visit the museums at a later date, and you'll note how these areas are all off limits and you'll think to yourself, wow, I got to see that.

Want to visit the Vatican Secret Rooms separately, including the Bramante Staircase, Room of the Masks, and Niccoline Chapel?

Visit my page here.

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What's not included?

This is a very particular tour in which much of the focus is on the ooooh-factor of opening Vatican Museums doors and turning on lights.

Yes, you will get to see the museums and many masterpieces, and the guide that accompanies you (not the key master) will give you an excellent tour full of anecdotes and explanations.

But because you are opening rooms and have to get to the Sistine Chapel at a certain time (before they open for the "early morning" groups), you have to keep to a schedule and won't be able to explore certain parts of the museums.

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!

Some wings not included

vatican museums pinacotecaIn the Vatican Museums pinacoteca, you can view these stunning paintings by Raphael, among other important works. But this wing is not included when you take the Key Master tour.

There are a few things not included on this tour that are not necessarily included in most tours anyway, such as:

  • The Pinacoteca (paintings gallery)
  • The Braccio Nuovo (New Wing)
  • The Etruscan Wing
  • The Gregorio Profano Wing

In any case, after the tour ends, you remain inside the Vatican Museums and may stay as long as you like.

You can take advantage of the fact you haven't had to go through a huge security line and that there will still be few other travelers around and go back and visit any of the above sections if you have time, energy, and interest.

(Personally, I was ready to head out to a nice big breakfast!)

Breakfast not included

Don't get caught out with hunger pangs!

Those with low blood sugar, or taking this tour with kids may want to bring a few protein bars with you.

Speaking of breakfast, it is not included with this tour.

As the meeting time is so early, you likely won't have had breakfast before the tour and might be hungry by the time it finishes.

Again, you will still be inside the Vatican Museums at the end and can have breakfast at either the café downstairs or in the Pinecone courtyard.

Or, if you are ready to leave, you could go elsewhere for breakfast.

sunrise from bramante staircaseSunrise over the Eternal City

Saint Peter's Basilica not included

Finally, the main thing not included in this tour is a visit to the basilica next door.

(The shortcut is open and available to people on an official tour which includes the Basilica later in the morning but not this early.)

If you want to visit, you could go right after your tour ends, but you'll still have to leave the museums and walk to Saint Peter's Square, and go through Vatican City security checks to enter the basilica.

Here is a map so you can see the walk (it will open in a new window.)

But at this early hour, you should not have much of a wait in line.

Or you could visit the basilica later or on another day.

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.

Is it worth taking the Vatican Key Master's tour?

Most visitors to Rome want to see the Sistine Chapel and to do that, you must go through the Vatican Museums.

There are many options for tours, including fast-track, early morning, semi-private, and so on.

You will find plenty of less-expensive tours that still offer a more "exclusive" experience (see below) than regular Vatican Museum tours.

So is it worth the price to wake up so early and take this tour?

In my opinion, absolutely yes. The amazing experience is magical and unforgettable.

That said, if this is your first time visiting Rome, and if you have a strong interest in art, you may wish to plan a separate visit where you can take more time to explore the Vatican Museums.

You may also want a visit that includes going inside the basilica.

Is the museums key master tour unsuitable for anyone?

Due to the route taken through the Vatican Museums, this particular tour is unfortunately not wheelchair accessible.

There are plenty of stairs and some non-wheelchair accessible surfaces involved.

There is a wheelchair accessible and limited mobility route through the museums, and tour providers who offer specific tours tailored to these needs which you can book.

The Key Master tour is also not suitable for strollers, and I would not recommend bringing young children along.

There are some excellent tours of the museums aimed at children available as an alternative.

What are some alternative Vatican tours?

Take Walks is a well-respected tour company offering high-quality tours.

They offer this tour regularly, but if you don't want to take this tour or can't find availability, there are some excellent alternatives:

How can you book the Vatican Key Master's tour?

Take Walks is the only tour company that offers this tour on a regular basis so you are most likely to find availability by booking directly on their site.

Other tour companies can also offer this tour on a case-by-case basis, usually as a private tour upon request.

If you have trouble with their site, you can write to them and ask for availability.

You may be using a booking site to book all your tours. You will find this same tour offered by Take Walks at the same price on our other trusted affiliate GetYourGuide.

But I'd always suggest booking directly with Take Walks if you can for their excellent customer service team.

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