The Vatican Museums are a must-do on most Rome lists.
We expected the Vatican Museums to be a knock-our-socks-off experience but it wasn’t. We’re still very happy we went though.
Our Impressions and Experience
We booked tickets in advance for 10:30am and got to skip the gargantuan line. Even in the morning, the museums were oppressively crowded. On top of that, the free map was pretty worthless, so we couldn’t tell if we had to shuffle through all the galleries or if we could skip ahead to what we really wanted to see. We didn’t want to accidentally miss anything so we shuffled along.
15,000 people visit the Museums every day. We wish they’d limit the size of the tour groups they admit. There were groups of 20-30 people all trying to move together through a tiny door or enclosed space — it was easy to get swept up in the wave.
It was difficult to stop and look at anything, both due to the crush of people but also the setup. Aside from the Pinacoteca Vaticana (more on that below), it’s not set up like a classic museum experience. There isn’t space to sit back and enjoy the art. It’s a set of galleries that you pass methodically through. The Louvre in Paris is far superior in terms of experience.
On that note, there weren’t as many showstoppers as we expected. The top 3 pieces for us were the Sistine Chapel (obviously), the Raphael Rooms (including the The School of Athens, below), and Raphael’s Transfirguration in the Pinacoteca Vaticana. Our next favorite after that was the map gallery but it was hard to enjoy due to the crowds. It’s very possible that we’re snooty/biased but we’ve been to Egypt before so their Egyptian collection wasn’t that impressive.
The Sistine Chapel was everything we hoped it would be. I was glad no photos were allowed because it made for a better experience.
Tips for Visiting the Vatican Museums
Buy tickets online early. I’m always stunned to see lines when tickets are easily available ahead of time. The lines here were particularly epic, so buy online!
Print online voucher, skip the lines, get tickets inside. After buying online, you get a voucher to print. You must redeem that voucher for the actual tickets when you get to the ticket hall. The good news is that you can skip the line to get to the ticket hall!
Get there early. Get the earliest time you can make. Hopefully it will cut down on the crowd issue. Our tickets were for 10:30am and we had trouble with crowds.
Get a tour book with a decent map. The free maps aren’t great.
Use the post office near the gift shop. If you’d like to send a post card from the Vatican, the one at the museum gift shop had a shorter line. Bring a pen, there are no free pens available (they’ll sell you one though!).
Get between the herds. Do your best to stay between the big tour group herds. It’s very easy to get stuck behind a group or swept up with them.
You can take photos, but no flash. Learn how to use your camera! No selfie sticks are allowed, and no photos are allowed in the Sistine Chapel.
Don’t be a jerk in the Sistine Chapel. No photos are allowed, don’t try it. I don’t think anyone wants to see the blurry picture you snuck with your phone to prove you were there. Keep your voice down.
Check out the modern art. The modern religious art after the Sistine Chapel was quite good and few were stopping to look at it.
Make sure to visit Pinacoteca Vaticana. We were shocked at how many groups skipped this. The Raphaels here (pic directly above) were easily top 3 of the whole experience.
Have you visited the Vatican Museums? Any tips for a great experience?