Feb 23, 2024City, Europe, Italy0 comments

The Vatican Museums are definitely one of the bucket-list attractions for any visitor to Rome. But not everyone enjoys the visit as much as they had hoped – the museums tend to be incredibly crowded and there is so much to see that it can be hard to know where to start (or stop).

Even worse, there is a huge number of different tours and tickets offered so it can be hard to know which is the best choice. I was in exactly that position on a recent trip to Rome.

After a less than ideal first visit of the Vatican Museums some years ago, I wanted to make sure that my second attempt would be a better experience. So even though I am fairly tight with my money, I finally decided to splurge on an early access ticket on my last trip. But was it worth it?

Read on to find out how it went, what I learned, and what I recommend for your trip to the Vatican Museums.

Bramante Staircase

The famous MOMO staircase is one of the highlights of the Vatican Museums

My Experience visiting the Vatican Museum with Early Access

Why splurge on early access?

My first visit to the Vatican Museums was not a great experience. I was travelling with my children so you might think that caused the problems. But no, it wasn’t touring with kids that caused the issues – Rome is great for a family vacation.

The museums were just too busy. I had of course heard before that the Vatican Museums get crowded but had thought it wouldn’t be too bad early in the season. I mean, I have been to Walt Disney World – how much worse could it be?

Well, this was on another level. My kids were trying to do/listen to the family audio guides but that was impossible. There was such a squeeze we had to stop the audio guide. None of us is very sensitive to crowds but even I was close to a panic attack.

And the Sistine Chapel was far from the serene experience one would hope for. The funny part is that while the tourists were kind of noisy the worst part was the guards constantly shouting: Silencio!

Anyway, this time I was going to do better and I decided to book the Early Access to the Museums offerd by the Vatican Museums themselves (i.e. not through an outside vendor).

What did early access include?

I booked my visit with a specified time slot of 7:30 am several days ahead online. The visit included entrance to the museum, a tour led by one of the Vatican Museum guides, and breakfast. Total cost was €52.

Unfortunately, this early access ticket is not being offered at the moment. However, I will go ahead and give a short run-down of the experience (in case it gets reinstated) as it has taught me some important tips and tricks for enjoying the Vatican Museums that I want to share with you.

Line for entering the Vatican Museums

On a rainy October day the line was short

Visiting the Vatican Museums with Early Access

Checking-in at the Vatican Museums

I was only in Rome for a day prior to taking a Royal Caribbean Med cruise so had to book my Vatican Museum visit for that day. As I dragged myself out of bed, I wished I hadn’t booked it. I am not a morning person to start with and my flight hadn’t gotten in until late in the evening.

So after going to sleep after midnight getting up around 6 am was not easy! But you do what you have to do so I made my way by subway and foot to the entrance.

If you have a choice I recommend booking your early morning visit on a day on which you will be well rested!

Finding the entrance to the Vatican Museums wasn’t difficult using Google Maps. It was a slightly rainy day and Rome was still very quiet. But there were already a couple of people lined up at the entrance so I joined the queue.

My visit was in October 2021 and COVID was still a thing. Consequently, there was the usual checking of immuniziation records before we were allowed into the building.

Once in the building, we had to check in again at a counter (the confirmation email was pretty clear though on how to proceed). There we were assigned to various tours.

Vatican Museum Tour

The tour was run by one of the official Vatican Museum guides. I had heard before that they do a very good job and our guide was no exception.

She had brought a poster of the Sistine Chapel Ceiling paintings along and explained the meaning and history in the main entrance hall of the Museums. Guides are not allowed to talk/explain anything in the Sistine Chapel itself.

During the tour we wore earphones to make it easier to hear our guide. We visited some of the more famous pieces, like the Gallery of Maps and the Raphael Rooms.

Along the way there were a number of chances to look out the windows into the Vatican Gardens. They looked stunning! The official website also offers a tour of the gardens and on my next trip to Rome I will definitely put that on my list.

View of lush Vatican Gardens with palm trees through window

The Vatican Gardens looked very inviting

Visit of Sistine Chapel

The highlight of the Vatican Museums (and the main reason to splurge on early entry) was of course the Sistine Chapel.

Bonus: On the way we got to skip some lines/go through closed off hallways which was pretty cool. It is always nice to be treated special!

Once at the Sistine Chapel, our guide stayed at the side while we were given some time to admire the ceiling.

It definitely was a much better experience than on my previous visit. There were just a handful of visitors in the large room and the guards had no need to constantly shout.

In addition, I felt the ceiling was much more interesting after having our guide show us the poster at the beginning of the tour.

Courtyard of Vatican Museums in the rain with small restaurant in the middle

An umbrella would have been helpful to get to the restaurant for breakfast

Breakfast included

After touring museum and chapel we braved the rain to run to the small restaurant set up in the courtyard.

I believe in the past breakfast was a buffet but due to COVID everyone was served their own plates. While understandable it did lead to quite a bit of waste as you would get the dishes even if you didn’t want to eat them.

The food was tasty but nothing out of the ordinary. But to be honest, I am not much of a breakfast person and only booked it for the early access.

Small table at Vatican restaurant with breakfast (pastries, cold cuts, cheese, English breakfast) and capucchino

The breakfast wasn’t exciting but filling

Free time

After breakfast our tour had concluded but we were free to return to the museum and spend as much time as we wanted looking around.

Leaving the Museum/Basilica

Many visitors combine a visit to the Vatican Museums with touring St. Peter’s Basilica. I highly recommend a stop at the Basilica as it is stunning (and much more impressive than I expected)!

There are two “secret tips” for visiting Saint Peter’s Basilica after the Sistine Chapel:

Tip 1 (but read Tip 2 as well):

There are two doors at the end of the Sistine Chapel. One of them leads straight to the entrance of the Basilica and you will not have to go through security to enter the church

Apparently, this “short-cut door” is intended for tour groups and it may not always be open. However, if it is it will save you quite some time and I don’t think there is any checking on whether someone is part of a group.

Tip 2 (do not skip):

Do not use the “short-cut” door if you have rented an audio guide or deposited anything in the lockers at the entrance! Once you pass that door you will leave the museum and won’t be able to easily return.

Be careful which door you use – on our first visit to the Vatican Museums we had rented the family audio guide and had left my passport behind as a deposit.

Now, I knew all about the “secret door” and I also knew that we wouldn’t be able to use it as we had to pass by the entrance to return the audio guide and pick up my passport.

However, I expected the “secret door” to be secret and we just followed the crowds that were all going through one door. Picture my surprise when after a couple minutes walk we were standing at the entrance to Saint Peter’s, outside the museum.

As we couldn’t very well go on a cruise with a stolen audio guide and without a passport, we turned right around and I managed to get the security guards to let us back in. But it was a scary moment for sure!

So if you need to return (or pick up) anything at the entrance, double-check that you aren’t accidentally leaving the museum!


Saint Peter's Basilica in the rain with long lines for entering on the side

Lines for visiting Saint Peter’s Basilica were on the right side of the square

Was Early Access necessary?

This is a difficult question to answer. My experience was definitely much better than on my previous visit.

However, given that it was October and the pandemic was still ongoing, the museum would probably not have been very crowded later on either.

On my visit, paying more for early access probably wasn’t necessary. But during busier times it would be a life-saver. And all in all, at €52 the early access ticket wasn’t too expensive as it also included a meal.

So if they bring back the early access ticket at a similar price in the future I would recommend booking it!

Huge pinecone monument framed by peacocks at Vatican Museums

Pinecone Courtyard at Vatican Museums

Best way to tour the Vatican Museums in 2024

Like I said at the beginning, the Vatican Museums do not at this time offer the Premium Experience with early access. .

The early access ticket may return but for now  be aware that no early access is offered!

That means all the tours you see on Viator, GetyourGuide etc. will not have early access either. Do consider this when deciding whether you want to pay the high cost of a third-party tour.

My recommendation for touring the Vatican Museums

If you want to see the museums and the Sistine Chapel is NOT your main priority:

I would book the first time slot (8:00 am) at the official Vatican website together with a guided tour for a total price of €40 (as of 2/2024).

This should be a pretty similar experience to my visit (without the breakfast). Obviously, the museum is likely to be busier (October 2021 was about as quiet as it gets) and if your tour ends in the Sistine Chapel around 9:30 am it may already be getting crowded.

If the Sistine Chapel IS your biggest priority:

Again, book the 8:00 am time slot but without a tour (€20 as of 2/2024). Instead go for the audio tour (€8) or study up ahead of time.

Once in the museum, head straight for the Sistine Chapel. You should be one of the first visitors in the Chapel and can enjoy it before it gets crowded.

Then, when you have looked your fill, tour the rest of the museum.

Town of Portofino with quaint pink and orange buildings lined up along a bay dotted with white boats and yachts.

What about third party tours of the Vatican Museum?

Based on the above, you’ll see that in most cases there is no need for a third party tour. They don’t offer anything that you can’t get much cheaper by booking directly.

There is no point in buying an overpriced ticket (without a tour) from a third party – just get your ticket on the official website!

However, there are a number scenarios in which third-party tours may be the best choice:

  • You were too late to get a ticket for an early morning time slot. If money isn’t tight, splurging on a tour that does offer 8 am entry may be the way to go
  • You have very specific interests. I have heard good things about the Vatican guides and was very happy with my guide. However, if  you are very interested in a specific aspect (e.g. archeology, art history, Church history etc.) it may be better to go on a tour specifically geared to that interest
  • If your time in Rome is very short (especially if you are there on a cruise) and want to cover several attractions, a tour may be best

If you do decide on an outside tour make sure you understand exactly what will be covered:

  • Will you have free time to look around?
  • How large is your tour group?
  • Does it have a special focus (e.g. art history)?

Final Thoughts about the Vatican Museums

The Vatican Museums are huge and offer a stunning variety of art works. However, they can be confusing and very, very busy.

I strongly recommend to go at a time of low (relatively speaking) attendance as it will make your visit of the Vatican Museums much more enjoyable. Unless you are a true art lover, a tour or audio guide may be necessary to appreciate what you see.

The rules of the Vatican Museums are strict so make sure to follow them!

My Top Tips for visiting the Vatican Museums

    • Book ahead so you can avoid standing in long lines
    • Book as early as possible so you can get the time slot you prefer
    • Try to visit at a time with low attendance (off-season/first thing in the morning) 
    • If you are visiting early in the day, try to book for a day when you will not be exhausted
    • There is a dress code similar to the one at most Italian churches
    • The museums are huge – wear comfortable shoes
    • You can save money by booking your own ticket as opposed to taking an organized tour
    • There is no Wi-Fi in the Vatican Museums
    • To make the most of your visit either study up before your visit, rent an audio guide, or take a tour
    • Do not take the secret exit if you have an audio guide or left your belongings at the lockers
    • You may not take any photos in the Sistine Chapel

Hi, I am Kitty and I love to travel! Welcome to my blog, where I share all I have learned on my trips - good and bad - to help you have a better, cheaper, and more perfect vacation!


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