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This year’s festivities for the celebration of the Immaculate Conception in Rome will be especially busy and festive. Normally December 8 sees a procession that goes to a piazza near the Spanish Steps in Rome, where crowds leave flowers at the base of a column. The conception they are celebrating, by the way, is that of Mary and not Christ. The other event on this same day in 2015 will be the inauguration of an extraordinary Holy Year. These special Holy Years are typically celebrated every 25 years, as they have been since 1300 with the most recent in 2000.

Pope Francis is not one to follow convention and has decided to celebrate an extra Jubilee in 2016 with the theme of “Mercy”. The intention is to reinforce the importance of mercy and helping the less fortunate, a central theme of his papacy so far. Catholic pilgrims from all over the world will most likely make the trip to Rome in 2016 to experience this unusual event as well as to receive the benefit of extra forgiveness.

So far, just in the few years that Pope Francis has been in office, tourism to Rome has increased exponentially. I spend weeks with my tour groups every year in Rome and the crowds lately at the Vatican are something I’ve never seen before. I was guiding in 2000 during the last Jubilee and the crowds in 2015 were far, far greater than in that Jubilee year. Nobody knows exactly what the crowds will look like next year but I think we can guess–it’s going to be packed.

What does this mean for the average, non-pilgrim traveler? Should you avoid the Vatican? Skip Rome or Italy entirely? Grit your teeth and carry on? That depends entirely on what is important to you, but I can give you my perspective, that of a long-time guide.

Most of Italy will not be affected by the Jubilee, but there will probably be special events all over Italy throughout the year at holy sites, as there were in 2000. That can actually be a perk if you enjoy religious festivals. I’m biased, but I think any time is the right time to go to Italy!

Rome will obviously see the biggest surge in visitors, but I don’t think that should keep you from visiting. If you don’t want to be near the crowds, there are plenty of places in Rome to stay that will be relatively normal. Rome is a huge city, it’s actually pretty easy to find your own quiet corner of it. Try staying in less popular areas, for instance near San Giovanni or Ostiense, and stick to visiting areas that pilgrims won’t be interested in, which is almost anything outside of Vatican City and the neighborhood immediately surrounding it.

As for whether or not you should visit the Vatican, that depends on you. When I brought my son to Rome for the first time a couple of years ago, I made the decision to skip the whole thing, preferring instead to stick to smaller museums, churches and general exploration (and copious gelato tasting). Rome is my favorite place on earth and I was desperate for him to love it as I do, and I knew that intense crowds would not leave a great impression on a 9 year-old. Will your trip, especially if it is your first and only trip, be ruined if you don’t see the whole Vatican? No. It won’t.

In the past few years the crowds in the Vatican Museum have grown to be so overwhelming that it is simply not an enjoyable experience. The art in that museum is amazing and unique, but few visitors walk away from seeing that art these days with any feeling other than extreme claustrophobia. Tour groups are stressed out from just trying to stay together in the madness. Individuals fare a bit better, but nobody escapes the march to the Sistine, shoulder to shoulder like a bunch of sardines. The reasons for the overcrowding are complex, but some of the biggest culprits are the short hours that the museum is open and the way that the museum over-packs itself. 

As a tour guide, I am always looking for strategies for making a trip more enjoyable, so I’ve spent a lot of time considering the Vatican Museum which I wrote about previously. Going early doesn’t help. Going late can, but then you are in rush to get to the Sistine Chapel before it closes. Wednesdays are great, but that means you have to miss the Papal Audience, which most aren’t willing to do. The crowds are going to be even bigger next year. So I’m going to suggest something radical. Vatican Museum 2016, skip it.

I know, I know, how can I possibly suggest skipping one of the greatest museums in the world? My goal as a guide is to give the best possible experience in the time allotted. Considering that Rome houses upwards of 30 percent of world art, it seems to me that you can find something else to see quite easily that you will enjoy more. I say ENJOY, because that is what you should be doing in Rome. Seeing something just to say you’ve been there is not enough in my opinion, I’d rather you enjoy, understand, and take a good experience away with you. Pleasure is a huge part of Italian culture after all.

If you’re still not convinced, consider this small list of other sites you can visit, all of them world-class and all of them with no crowds and no hassle. That’s what I call a pleasure.

Villa Farnesina- A beautiful villa that is frescoed by none other than Raphael, with one of his most famous frescoes, Galatea. Sorry to miss the School of Athens in the Vatican? This is the most lovely and intimate replacement I can think of, and the villa itself is set in a great neighborhood, full of Roman character. €6, Via della Lungara 230,

San Giovanni in Laterano- Want to get that pilgrimage feel without venturing to the Vatican City? Then go to Rome’s most important church. Yep, this is number one. The Pope is technically the Bishop of Rome, and the seat of that position is at San Giovanni. This was where the popes lived for centuries until the Papal Palace at the Vatican Hill was built in the 1400’s. The church itself is interesting to see, the original Saint Peter’s would have looked very similar. Across the street you’ll find the Holy Stairs, which Christ walked up to the cross and which now have pilgrims climbing on their knees. These sites will be busy, but nothing compared to the Vatican.

Borghese Gallery- If you feel like your art education will be incomplete without seeing the Sistine Chapel, the Borghese Gallery will make up for it in spades. This elegant villa in the Villa Borghese park is crammed with the best of art from the 1500-1600’s, the artists that come after and are greatly influenced by Michelangelo. The star of the show is Bernini, the great baroque sculptor that turns marble into flesh in a way that Michelangelo never dreamed of. His Apollo and Daphne is one of the greatest works of sculpture in history, and one that cannot be understood unless you experience in first-hand. The story behind how the collection came to be is just insane, it is a real-life soap opera. Tickets for this can sell out way ahead of time, book your ticket in advance. You’ll also only have 2 hours inside as the gallery is so packed with art that they control the number of people inside very carefully.€11,

National Museum of Rome Palazzo Massimo- Just in front of the train station lies one of the great museums of antiquities in Rome that most people miss. Strange, because almost every visitor passes it on the way in to town. The ancient art collection here is much more diverse and in depth than what you see at the Vatican. It houses jewelry, whole rooms of frescoes, an impressive coin collection, and some of the most famous sculptures- the Discus Thrower and The Boxer. Generally, this museum tends to be almost empty, but if there is a crowd they hand out timed entries to certain rooms, assuring a peaceful visit. €7, Piazza del Cinquecento,

Palazzo Doria Pamphilij- For an intimate look at the lives of papal families, this is truly unique. This palace faces Via del Corso, you’d probably walk right by if you didn’t look for it. Inside you’ll find a family palace, still owned by the Pamphilij family with an audioguide lovingly narrated by the current Prince. The walls are packed with masterpieces from Caravaggio, Titian and many more. It’s almost crazy to be in an elegant palace full of masterpieces…virtually alone. €12, Via del Corso 305,

Santa Prassede- This little church is one of the oldest and most lovely in Rome, and one that you’d never find if you didn’t go looking for it. The interior has centuries-old Byzantine mosaics covering the walls, like glittering, jeweled wall paper. The Vatican has nothing like this, as this church was built long before St. Peter’s.

Santa Maria in Trastevere- Instead of taking my son to St. Peter’s, I took him here. I am Catholic and I wanted him to see the soul of the Church, which is something I feel strongly inside of this ancient church. It is one of the very oldest in Rome and still has an active parish community, something that is becoming more rare these days in Rome. Writing a prayer on a small piece of paper to leave with a saint, looking at tombs and lighting a candle are all experiences that leave an impression of ancient spirituality, something more ancient than Christianity itself.

These museums are just the beginning. I’ve been visiting Rome constantly for more than 20 years and I have many, many things still on my to-do list. I’m not going to deny that the Sistine Chapel is one of the great works of art in the world, but I do think there are better experiences, many of them with no crowd, no hassle and often no cost. Whatever you choose to do, going to Rome is always a good idea, especially with a gelato in hand.  


AWS Staff

This post was published by the Adventures with Sarah team. Click here to find out more about the people that make everything at AWS happen.


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