Vatican with or without tour?

Nov 17th, 2014, 09:01 AM
Original Poster
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Vatican with or without tour?

I plan to visit the Vatican museums on Friday January 9. I'm torn between signing up for a tour or going at my own pace (which I generally prefer). If I reserve a ticket through the Vatican, will the wait and crowds be significantly worse (bearing in mind that it's January)? Searching the archives I saw a recommendation for going at noon or 2:30 when it is less crowded. Most people here seem to take tours. Any thoughts on visiting on your own?
flwrjen is offline  
Nov 17th, 2014, 09:23 AM
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If you typically like to go on museums at your own pace I suggest you dont take a tour. Unless you take a very expensive "After hours" tour there will be throngs on people in the Vatican museum. I have had luck going without a pre reserved ticket around 1-2 PM and have not encountered a long line to purchase the ticket, but once inside it has been pretty crowded, specially once you get to the Raphael stanzas and the Sistine Chapel. I think its best if you purchase your ticket online for whatever time of the day works best for you.
cruiseluv is online now  
Nov 17th, 2014, 09:38 AM
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I really don't think the issue is waiting or crowds.

The Vatican museums are huge, even by the standards of the world's very biggest. There's not the remotest chance you'll see anything approaching all of it: I don't mean you won't see every artefact - I mean you won't be able to go into most of the rooms.

ANY tour means someone else's priorities. That might mean excruciating hours in areas you're not interested in - or hours ignoring stuff you really want to see. The ONLY strategy for this collection is to do a lot of research, then follow your own tour.

Incidentally, I also think there's a lot of nonsense - much of it either brain-dead or absurdly antisocial - about crowds inside these museums.

It's now just under 50 years since I first visited them. Not once, except in the Sistine Chapel, have I ever encountered real crowds inside. It needs a bit of self-assertion to push through the dawdlers in the endless corridors of religious art (most of it worse than the stuff of the convents I used to serve Mass in, which I'd previously thought impossible) leading to the Sistine Chapel. If you haven't prebooked, the queues to get into the Museums are a pain. But crowds have never got between me and anything I wanted to see.

Even in the Sistine Chapel when it's rammed.

Who cares? It's the ceiling you've come for - and those crowds can't fly. Better: as Catholicism gets ever more global, most other visitors are getting shorter (Thank God most Northern Europeans are Prods).

Like all major churches, the Sistine Chapel was designed to hold lots of people, and the system never lets more in than its architects intended. Michelangelo didn't paint for quiet contemplation: he was painting for a mass audience. If you find it noisy - welcome to the Catholicism of the counter-reformation. That's how it was meant to be. Just remember to take your binoculars with you.

If you really need silence to see the ceiling (can't understand why) download an app or buy a coffee-table book.
flanneruk is offline  
Nov 17th, 2014, 09:41 AM
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I've toured alone. I've toured with priests and religious scholars. I've toured with professional art historians, several who work for Context Rome. Doing the Vatican on your own can be a daunting experience. It's a recipe for brain freeze and navigation failure. The collections are huge. The museum is huge.

I'm a big fan of splurging on high quality services. Viewing art in the company of a great historian is like no other viewing experience. If you can't guarantee high quality, I would imagine any kind of guided expedition is better than no guide at all, simply based on years of experience.

As many times as I've been to the Vatican, I don't think I would enjoy finding my way around on my own. Having someone guide with an organized viewing experience frees your brain from having to focus on the where and the why, so you can remain focused on the art.
NYCFoodSnob is offline  
Nov 17th, 2014, 09:49 AM
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"ANY tour means someone else's priorities."

Not true, especially if you hire a private guide.

If you know a lot about art, any private guide will be happy to customize a tour to your viewing desires. If you know nothing about the Vatican's collection, most guides will introduce you to the most famous works, because that's what most customers desire to see, especially on a first-time visit.

I don't know what the protocol is for Vatican guides (free tours), but I highly doubt they are free to take customers on some kind of self-serving, esoteric tour, one that would bore people to death.
NYCFoodSnob is offline  
Nov 17th, 2014, 10:04 AM
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I don't know what the answer is, but I can say we had advance tickets for 11:30 on a Tuesday in Sept (2012). We didn't have to line up to get in, but once we got going, we were just swept along in a river of people. We couldn't do anything except get pushed along with the flow. We could't stop to see anything and everyone was trying to take pictures by holding iPads in the air. That was pretty much our view. We couldn't stop to look at the ceiling in the Sistine chapel either. We were just pushed through. If I ever get to go again, I think it will be in January!!!
jane1144 is offline  
Nov 17th, 2014, 10:11 AM
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We do the Vatican museums without a guide - but have been several times and know what we want to re-see and what we want to focus on that's new.

I think crowds - except in the Sistine Chapel - are in the eye of the beholder. Have never seen them as bad as Macy's at Christmas but some rooms do require persistence to get through.

We always buy timed tickets in advance to avoid waiting and generally go right after an erly lunch to avoid the worst of the tour groups - which seem to go i n the am.

Use guides only where required (Scavi, Vatican gardens, etc)
nytraveler is offline  
Nov 17th, 2014, 10:36 AM
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We've been there twice - once with a group tour and once with a private tour. The group tour spent too much time hearing about Castel San Angelo and as a result, ended up standing in line for nearly an hour to get into the Vatican Museum. So, unless you can get a tour that will guarantee you jump to the head of the line, skip it. Our second visit was with a private guide and I'll be happy to give you her name. She is an art history major, well respected and recognized by the other guides and museum staff alike. We spent three hours with her and could have spent more. She will tailor the tour to your likes and offers much more on the 'back story' of the art than you'll get from an audio guide or book. Its a huge place - if you spent something like 30 seconds on each piece, it would take years. If you don't want to spend the money, get a decent guide book (perhaps Rick Steves) that lists the most famous works in his description and you can just visit those.
cmeyer54 is offline  
Nov 17th, 2014, 10:57 AM
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I agree with cmeyer54 and NYCFoodSnob ~ try a private guide or one that limits the number in the tour to 6 or less. Usually someone like this will ask if you have any special interests.

The first time we visited the Vatican we had a tour. This past September, our second time, we again booked a tour. Both were very good, but different. Next June when we are there we will book a tour again. Maybe the time after that we'll go it alone!

Unless you are an Art Historian or History major yourself I think you would miss a lot going on your own the first time.
wrenwood is offline  
Nov 17th, 2014, 12:33 PM
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Having been to Rome twice within the last six months (and many times in the last few years) I have observed the HUGE increase of Vatican visitors since Pope Francis has arrived on the scene. He is attracting so many more people to the Vatican area then in previous years. It has reached rock star proportions. It used to be that if one did not have a scheduled tour, you could at least get into the Basilica, but now the wait to even do that is upwards of 2 hours. Our good friends, native Romans who live right near the Vatican have observed this new crowd situation and their neighborhood is MOBBED, especially on weekends. Therefore, I would urge you to get a tour, do the research, spend the $$ and don't look back.
Cinart is offline  
Nov 17th, 2014, 12:50 PM
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any way to "skip the lines" I would take. While Jan. should be better than many months with Asian tourists moving in large numbers and in winter too some places are really getting mobbed year round now. Some comments above about the Sistine Chapel indicating the crowds did not make any difference...well it did to was so mobbed that we took a quick look and could not wait to get out...and all the waiting to get in. Any advance research and reservations that you can make will be well worth it.
Lois2 is offline  
Nov 17th, 2014, 12:56 PM
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I agree with the huge rise in visitors to the Vatican since the election of Pope Francis in 2013. It used to be easy getting into the Vatican Museums or St Peter's Basilica in January. Not any more. While it's less busy than in the summer (when it's absolutely mobbed), there are lines everywhere. So book your Vatican Museums entry in advance, only for 4 euro extra. And try to leave the museums direct from the Sistine Chapel (to the right of the vestibule/narthex with your back to the high altar/Last Judgement) to beat the security line for St Peter's.
Alec is offline  
Nov 17th, 2014, 12:57 PM
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WE went on our own several years ago. This year we used Context tours and had a wonderful experience.....learned so much more and could appreciate the history associated with much of the art.
Judy is offline  
Nov 17th, 2014, 01:35 PM
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Ditto the recommendation for Context Tours. Outstanding and worth every penny
rncheryl is offline  
Nov 17th, 2014, 01:48 PM
Original Poster
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Thank you all for your counsel--I enjoy reading about your experiences. On balance I think I will get the most out of a tour.
flwrjen is offline  
Nov 17th, 2014, 02:21 PM
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If you like, contact Guia Bargigli at Her rates are reasonable and she will tailor the tour to your interest. Just tell her the Meyer's sent you!

[email protected] is her direct email.
cmeyer54 is offline  
Nov 17th, 2014, 02:23 PM
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Sorry folks, but there was no greater "rock star" than John Paul II during the Great Jubilee of 2000. I was there for a month, and the crowd numbers were unprecedented.

As the sex molestation scandals get further away, Pope Francis' popularity may reach the heights of JP2, but I doubt Pope Francis will get to experience a reign during a Jubilee Year, so perspective is needed when bloggers talk about rock star crowds at the Vatican.

Tourism in Rome seems to come to an abrupt end on January 7, the day after the Epiphany. I often don't leave Rome until January 12. As long as you don't visit on a "free" Sunday, I predict that Friday, January 9, 2015 will be one of the slower days for visiting the Vatican.
NYCFoodSnob is offline  
Nov 17th, 2014, 04:35 PM
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We visited the Vatican in June of 2007 with one of the Vatican guides on a private tour. We bypassed the huge lines to get in, which was fantastic. However, the tour was the most boring I have ever had the misfortune to experience. The guide's English was very hard to understand, and she was absolutely terrible.
Digbydog is offline  
Nov 18th, 2014, 09:46 AM
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The trouble with tours is that they are often least common denominator and usually have too many members.

If you actually want a experience worthy of the venue definitely do a small scale tour with an expert. And if you do a little reading in advance you will have a lot more AHA! moments and then pick up more than the very basics of what the guide is providing.
nytraveler is offline  
Nov 18th, 2014, 10:42 AM
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The audio guide was enough for me personally. The museums are really a lot of ground to cover, I was glad not to be in a large tour group unable to move on or linger when I wanted. A private, more personalized tour would be a different story, but perhaps cost prohibitive depending on your budget. If I could only afford a larger group tour or no tour I would go with no tour & pick up the audio guide.

If you end up going without the tour make sure that you buy entry tickets in advance to avoid waiting in potentially 2+ hour long lines.
limmy is online now  

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