I’ve just finished a delightful weeklong tour of Rome for Rick Steves. We had a great group, perfect weather and good times. In our week we visited the Colosseum and Forum, Ostia Antica, Borghese Gallery and toured the small nooks and alleyways while sampling local food specialties. It was an immersion in Roman culture. We dedicated an entire day to the Vatican, of course, seeing Pope Francis in the flesh and admiring all of the Vatican treasures.
To be honest, the Vatican isn’t easy. It’s crowded. We love our new pope, but his enormous popularity has increased tourism in Rome to a point that feels unsustainable. The masses of tourists and pilgrims clog the streets around St. Peter’s Basilica all day and night. Public transportation in Rome limps along with just residents aboard but really groans under the weigh of all the additional visitors.
It won’t get any better any time soon, though. On December 8 of this year, the pope will start a year of Jubilee celebrations and I imagine the tourist load will double or more. The Jubilee allows pilgrims to receive a special indulgence, a kind of blessing, if they visit within the year. It’s important to devout Catholics, and with a popular pope in office you can see where this will go. Crowds. Enormous crowds.
I recall the days of few crowds in the Vatican Museum when I started this job, especially if you went in the afternoon. St. Peter’s has always had plenty of room for everyone. But it’s not true today. The Vatican Museum crams as many visitors in as they can everyday and as an architect familiar with exiting requirements, I’m alarmed by how unsafe the museum is. This is a pretty normal experience these days, and my groups even have special reservations that skip the lines. As a tour guide, I want my clients to have a great experience but that’s really hard under these circumstances. So I offer to you a few hard-learned tips on how to do the Vatican better.
The best moment to see St. Peter’s is when it is empty. It is arguably the most important church in Catholicism, so those visiting from the faith will have a much better experience of the spirituality of it without the hoardes of tour groups and selfie sticks. The church opens at 7, be there at 6:50. You won’t regret it, you can always sleep on the plane. At the opening, it will just be you and the nuns and priests, with a mass on each altar and the sound of singing. The downside is that you can’t climb the dome immediately and some of the things you may want to see will be unavailable due to the masses. But the experience of the building like this can’t be beat.
I could tell you to make a reservation, and you should, but that will only help you skip the line (www.biglietteriamusei.vatican.va). The main thing is choosing a time to go. When the pope is in town, he gives an audience on Wednesday mornings, which means everyone is there and nobody is in the museum. That is the very best time but that means you miss the pope. Other times that we tour guides have observed to be better are Tuesday afternoons and Friday evenings, if they are available. Afternoons are generally better than mornings as mornings are often crowded with groups.
Taking a tour is nice, but this may be the rare exception when I would suggest you go alone. Staying together is a tough job, and if you get claustrophobic you don’t have the option to go your own way. I’d suggest getting the audio guide or downloading Rick Steves’ excellent audio tour (free, ricksteves.com). The worst time to go? Saturday or Monday all day. The museum is closed on Sundays so the days on either side are jammed.
On the day I went, we did do the papal audience, a thrill for everyone involved. We ordered our tickets from Santa Susanna church in Rome (santasusanna.org) and I picked them up the day before. If you go, I find that arriving at 7am as suggested is not necessary. I don’t want the good seats, I want the worst ones. The reason is, the pope does a cruise around the square on the Popemobile before he begins the audience. Pope Francis really interacts with the crowd and takes his time. If you’re at the back, stay against the barriers and he will come to you, within a few feet… a real thrill. I took this on Wednesday with my IPhone, from the worst seats!
Hopefully if you’re heading to the Vatican anytime soon you can make use of my strategies. It won’t take away the crowds but it may be easier on you. And may the Lord be with you.