Answers from Our Experts (3)
Recently, my favorite way to see the Vatican is by night visit. Every Friday evening from now through October 25, the Vatican Museums are open to public viewing and are often accompanied by musical programming. Visitors walk through the collection and Sistine Chapel from 7 to 11 pm. There are less crowds, making the experience far more intimate and definitely less hot than during the daytime.
For a daytime visit, I suggest reserving a guided tour of the Vatican gardens, where you are led behind-the-scenes of Vatican City learning the history of the Vatican state and its gardens, and then return to the museums and Sistine Chapel.
The Vatican offers several types of tours-- individual and group, standard and exclusive, and Vatican museums and St. Peter's Basilica. Tours are conducted by guides, but I personally enjoy visiting St. Peter's Cathedral on my own and in late afternoon, just before the 5 pm Vespers mass begins- if you are lucky, they play great music.
The Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel were visited by more than 5 million tourists and pilgrims in 2012 and therefore it's the second site per number of visitors in Rome (although the Vatican is to be considered a different state) behind the Colosseum; you may do this visit in many different ways and the following gives you an overview:
1) Explore by yourself: This is the right option in case you just want to get an impression or want to have a look at masterpieces like the ones of Raphael, Michelangelo and all the other important painters of the Rennaissance period you may find inside the museums and the Sistine Chapel; the important thing is that you have a reservation for the entrance to the Museums ahead of time in order to avoid long waiting lines at the entrance. You may do this directly through the website of the Vatican; if you go for this option you may also take the time to visit the section of the painting galery 'Pinacoteca' that usually is not included in the standard visits or tours but where you may find masterpieces like Raphael's 'Transfiguration'.
2) Tours: Group tours or individual tours with professional tour guides are very popular and give you the oportunity to get an explanation of the highlights — during a 2- to 3-hour tour you can get an overview of the most important artworks and usually this type of visit also includes St. Peter's Basilica.
3) After-hour tours: If you want to try this very exclusive option to have the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel just 'by your own' (at least for a short while) you should plan this visit as soon as you are sure about your dates — usually it's necessary to make this request months ahead of time.
4) St. Peter's Basilica: In case you go by yourself you enter the Basilica from St. Peter's Square (while the tour arrangements usually bring you directly from the Sistine Chapel to St. Peter's) once you have passed the security check; if you want to avoid the crowd of people during the day go there early in the morning when they open (around 7 a.m.). You will be able to walk inside quickly and you will find a complete different and quiet atmosphere — and you might attend a small mass in one of the many side altars.
But for visitors the Vatican does not always mean just the Museums, Sistine Chapel and St. Peter's Basilica — you may also try to get a visit of the Vatican Gardens or the excavations of St. Peter's (that have limited access to the public and reservation ahead of time is required), or climb up the Dome of St. Peter's.
And last but not least you might want to see the Pope while you are in Rome. The newly elected Pope Francis will keep for sure the tradition for the different appointments between the Pope and the public:
-General Audience: On Wednesdays and of course when the Pope is in the Vatican he gives the general audience to the public — either in the Audiance Hall (usually during the winter period) or in St. Peter's Square; if you obtain a ticket (not to be paid) you have a better chance to get a seat.
-Sunday Blessing: At noon on Sundays the Pope usually gives his Blessing from the window of his office above St. Peter's Square.
-Special celebrations: For example, the very popular midnight mass on Christmas Eve inside St. Peter's Basilica or the different celebrations during the Holy Week are celebrated by the Pope; for some of them tickets are required (not to be paid).
-Castel Gandolfo: During the summer period the Pope stays in his Summer Residence roughly 30km south of Rome where he usually gives the Sunday Blessing; the area of the 'Castelli Romani' is also nice for half-day excurision.
For any of these occasions the concierge of your hotel will be pleased to give you the correct advice and make the apropriate arrangement.
The most popular places within the Vatican walls are the imposing Saint Peter's Basilica and the Vatican Museums, with its Sistine Chapel being the main tourist draw. While both of them teem with tourists every day, the Vatican's huge size allows everybody to enjoy its artwork properly and stare in awe at its vast sample of human creativity.
Christmas, Easter and the summer months are the busiest times to visit the Vatican, and during the day late morning and early afternoon are the times when crowds concentrate, but if you go early morning or later in the afternoon it will be calmer and you will have the basilica almost to yourself. Almost.
The Vatican Museums are also always packed with tourists, but don't let the long queue at the entrance put you off as their ticket system is very efficient and the line gets sorted out pretty quickly. Visiting times are Monday to Saturday 9am to 6pm, while ticket office closes at 4pm. Sunday is closed, except the last Sunday of every month when entrance is free. Full ticket costs 16€, reduced 8€ and for schools 4€. To skip the queue you can buy the ticket online.
You can visit the Museums either independently or with a tour guide. Vatican Group Tours conducted by official Vatican guides cost 32€, while the reduced ticket is 24€. Tickets include admission to the Museums, guided tour and rental of audio-guides. Apart from the Sistine Chapel, the tour will show you also other artwork, such as the Pio Clementino Museum (classical antiquity), the Gallery of the Candelabras, the Gallery of the Tapestries and the Gallery of the Geographical Maps (Renaissance Art) and the Raphael Rooms. You can choose different itineraries, depending on what you want to visit with the aid of a guide, including the Vatican Gardens, the Basilica and archaeological areas.
Along with the Vatican Museums, the Basilica and the gorgeous Dome (Cupola), it's also possible to visit underground Saint Peter, beneath the Basilica's central nave, where lie previous popes' tombs and Saint Peter's relics, placed right underneath the main altar. Near the tombs, visitors have also access to the Museo Storico Artistico where religious ancient artwork is kept. Access to the Popes' Tombs and the Museum is free of charge and follows the same opening hours than the Basilica.
The Vatican organization offers also other types of tours and educational activities, such as Animated Educational Tours, Didactic Labs, Family Tours, Tours for the Visually Impaired, Tours for the Deaf and Educational Tours with the possibility to choose specific itineraries.