29 September, 2011 13:12

A caramel coloured marble lion in the Vatican Museums


Travel tips: the Vatican city


Dress code and photography

Everything is different in the Vatican, it’s a foreign country after all, so what works in Rome may not work over there.

If you are planning a visit there prepare yourself to go through security checks as you leave the country! (Italy)

No sharp objects (pocket knives, scissors and the like). Water is allowed as long as it’s in plastic, positively no glass bottles.

You should bring your camera, pictures are allowed (with a few restrictions) but no tripods.

There will be a dress code:  shoulders and knees must be covered so no tank tops, mini skirts or shorts. Sandals, flip-flops are fine, no restrictions for the shoes.

To make things more complicated, (this is its own country but the people who work there are Italians after all) the rules in the Museums (and the Sistine Chapel) differ from the ones in the Basilica of S.Peter’s. This can be quite frustrating at times but it’s the way it goes. You can bump into security guards every step of the way and each one of them can tell you their own version of the rules.

Here’s an example:

pictures are allowed  on the outside with no restrictions, while inside the Museums cameras and videos are fine without the flash. In the Sistine Chapel positively no pictures or filming whatsoever. In St. Peter’s Basilica pictures are fine with the flash, while down the Vatican Grottoes pictures are again not allowed. Confused? So are we.

So if you are told off by the security don’t say “but your colleague told me it was all right to…” it will only make matters worse, smile politely and pretend you don’t speak any Italian.

As everybody knows it gets sweltering in Rome in the summer with temperature always in the high 90’s. The humidity (and the heat index) make things worse especially when walking through the Vatican Museums.

A way around this problem is to wear pants (natch) and bring a pair of slacks as well.  Because  shorts (as long as they are knee high) are allowed in the Museums. then before you enter the church you can put on long pants and walk past the knee and shoulder checkers. The dress code is strictly enforced in St. Peter’s, especially when the Holy Father is in residence.  It is also true that recently men were allowed to wear shorts (always knee lenght) but to play safe we always recommend wearing long pants in the Basilica. Rules may change quickly with no advance warning.

There is actually something all the Vatican guards agree upon: flip flops are fine throughout the Vatican City!

Best time to go. Prepurchasing tickets or not? This is the question…..

Museums are generally busier on Saturdays and Mondays since  they are normally closed on Sundays.  On Tuesdays and Thursdays are much slower. Most of the people still like to go there in the morning, so if you go there around 2 pm, you will probably walk right in. The Museums close at 6 pm from Monday through Saturday so that’s plenty of time to cover the highlights, unless you are a museum bug.

On the last Sunday of the month the Museums are open and free but from 9 to 12,30  only so the lines are generally very thick ! Inside there is a lot of noise and confusion which is the reason why I’d avoid a visit to the Vatican Museums  on Sunday unless you have no other possibility.

What about Wednesdays? In springtime, summer and fall the Holy Father gives a morning  audience in St. Peter’s Square and the Basilica won’t be open to the public until the end of the audience (approx. 1 pm). So if you intend visiting the museums there won’t be large crowds  since many will attend the papal audience but if you want to see the Basilica exiting from the Sistine Chapel it will be closed. In the  early afternoon instead a lot of the groups attending the papal  audience will go to the museums.

When planning your tour I always suggest  to check the Vatican official calendar to decide whether or not making a ticket  reservation: if the museums are closed for 2 days in a row because  of a religious festivity when they’ll reopen  there will certainly be  a long line, if that’s the case I would surely book my tickets.

But how long are the lines really?

Back to the good old days before internet came around the longest line I had to stand in my career as a guide was some 2 hours. But this was before the Vatican introduced the reservation system via web.

Now when I give tours I normally enter with groups and individuals with ticket reservation but I’d say that very  long lines are rare, it happens only  when the museums are closed for a couple of days in a row.  All the other days I think that 1 hour  is the worst that could happen to you!

It is true that it is difficult to predict lines (on a cruise day for example there will be  busloads of visitors from the cruiseships) but very often on some of  the websites selling Vatican tickets and tours  you read those tall stories about humongous line-ups. That is I can say is a thing of the past (unless coming on December 24th or Easter).

Check this post as well for the Vatican tickets reservation:


Are you visiting Saint Peter’s? (during the busy season)

If  you decide to visit Saint Peter’s Basilica only, without the museums, expect to wait in line in the square if you get there too late. I suggest going to the Basilica before 9 am or after 4 pm. Normally guides can give tours in the Basilica from around 10 am to 4.30 pm so this is when the line in Saint Peter’s square gets very long.

Do you want to see Raphael’s Rooms?

Well then don’t do the mistake many do!

When you exit the Gallery of the Maps, there is another short gallery with some tapestries and then if you turn LEFT you’ll go to the Raphael Rooms. If instead you’ll go STRAIGHT you’ll take the stairs that lead directly inside the Sistine Chapel. At that point once you get in the Sistine Chapel  it will be impossible  to climb up the same  stairs and go to Raphael’s Rooms since it is a one way stairway. So if you do not want  to miss Raphael’s masterpieces in the Vatican remember to turn left (there is a small sign). After  the Raphael Rooms you’ll be able to reach the Sistine Chapel with a rather long itinerary  through the collection of Modern Religious Art in the Borgia Apartments.

Vatican crowds…are you ready?

Yesterday (Saturday, April 3) was one of the worst days in my entire career as a guide inside the Vatican Museums! In the afternoon the crowds were awful and the Vatican museums  wardens had to stop people in the halls because it was impossible to go on.

Here are a couple of pictures taken with my cell phone when I was stuck for some 20 minutes with my group in the Greek Cross room! And this was not the only time we were stopped!

The Vatican Museums  will reopen on Tuesday after 2 days being closed so other crowds are expected…

I am looking forward to the end of  this Easter week so the situation will go back to normality. What made things worse yesterday was that Saint Peter’s Basilica was closed for a Pope’s  Mass and there was only one exit open  from the Museums.

Vatican museums Sistine Chapel tickets

If you plan to visit the Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel in the busy season you may like to prepurchase tickets to avoid long lines.

Normally worst days for linewise are Saturdays and Mondays since on Sundays the Vatican Museums and the Sistine chapel stay closed (except the last Sunday of the month when the’re open and free). Though it is sometimes difficult to predict lines.

To prepurchase tickets I always recommend the official Vatican website (www.vatican.va ) where you can buy your admission tickets (http://biglietteriamusei.vatican.va/musei/tickets/do) from 60 days before the date required. Sometimes tickets are sold out, but do not get discouraged, try again some days after since  other tickets are often avaialble.

With  other companies offering the same service tickets will  be more expensive.