What are some strategies for beating the crowds at the Vatican Museums?

Katie Parla
Raphael's The School of Athens on a typically jam-packed day

You ask, we respond.

Slipping into the Vatican Museums for an after-hours visit is an awesome experience—and easily accessible to those who have the cash. The museums reopen at 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. nearly every night of the week for specially arranged, two-hour small-group tours. Participants get to bypass the notoriously long entry lines and stroll through the Pio Clementino collection; Raphael Rooms; the Galleries of the Candelabra, Tapestries, and Maps; and the Sistine Chapel in an almost magical silence.

Companies such as Italy With Us arrange these after-hours tours for €275 ($375) per person. That's already a hefty price tag—too hefty—but it takes a truly staggering €2,000 ($2,728) plus €50 ($68) per person for the privilege of ditching the tour operators and organizing your own independent after-hours visit.

A realistic game plan is to monitor the Vatican Museums website. You can reserve a timed entrance through the online ticket office for €19 ($27), which allows you to skip the lines upon arrival. Print out your voucher and exchange it for tickets at the Group Tickets office just past security on the ground floor or at the second-floor ticket office (biglietteria).

In fall 2009, the museums also began extending their hours to the general public on some weekend nights and advertising the dates on their home page. After the regular 6 p.m. closing, the museums reopened to guests who had reserved an after-hours, self-guided visit for €19 ($27). Expect new dates to be announced when the high season gets under way this spring.

You don't really have to visit the museums after-hours to have the Sistine Chapel almost to yourself. Many afternoons from November through February are fairly slow, especially Tuesdays and Thursdays, in my experience. If you show up and wait in line, you'll pay the general admission fee of €15 ($21).

Time your visit to begin at around 2 p.m., stroll through the galleries, and plan to arrive at the Sistine Chapel at around 5 p.m. This will give you a full 30 minutes (provided the guards are kind enough to respect the 5:30 p.m. closing time) in which just dozens, rather than hundreds, of visitors will be milling around.

What to pack Binoculars for the Sistine Chapel, and water and snacks to keep you going during the visit.

What not to pack Luggage, large umbrellas, and oversize backpacks must be checked, and you'll have to trek all the way back to the entrance to pick them up rather than exiting the museums at the Sistine Chapel. If you can, leave these items at the hotel.

General admission hours Monday–Saturday, 9 a.m.–6 p.m. (last entrance at 4 p.m.); entrance is free on the last Sunday of each month, open 9 a.m.–2 p.m. (last entrance at 12:30 p.m.).

Rather go with a guide? Consider the Vatican Museums' guided tours or audio guides available for €7 ($10), or try a tour operator like Through Eternity, whose 3.5-hour daytime tours are about €37 ($51), plus admission, with a 15-person maximum.

Katie Parla is a Rome-based writer and tour guide.

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