No matter why you travel, there are some locations that you are simply expected to see when visiting a given locale. Why would you, for example, go to London and not at least walk by Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament? Everyone back home is going to ask, and expect to see pictures and selfies, so how can you disappoint them?
The Sistine Chapel in Vatican City is one of those places. Famous the world over as the room where Popes are chosen, and as the location of some of the most famous artwork of the Renaissance, everybody wants to see it. And trust me, when you go there, it feels like they all came on the same day you did. Squeezed in like sardines in a can, trying to squint upwards at Michelangelo Buonarotti’s famous Ceiling while guards shout “No talking!’ and “No pictures!”, a visit to the Chapel can be frustrating and even disappointing despite the sheer joy of having made it there at all. (The “No pictures!” policy arises from the fact that when the frescoes of the walls and ceiling were cleaned and restored in the 1980’s, the work was paid for by a Japanese television network in exchange for exclusive rights to all images of the restored work.)
Fortunately there is another way. Through a number of online tour providers (including my favorite, Viator), you can pay a modest fee for skip-the-line early access entry to the Chapel about an hour before it opens to the public for the day. You meet with your tour guide on the public steps across the street from the entrance to the Vatican Museums on Via Vaticano, and after checking in you are smugly escorted into the museum entrance while the three-hour ticket line begins to form outside. Your guide moves you quickly through the maze of the Museums themselves with brief commentary, and then you enter the Sistine Chapel with only your small group of 20 people or so.
I was able to stand in the exact center of the room, unmolested and un-bumped, and take in the full glory of Michelangelo’s masterpieces, the Ceiling and the Last Judgment. Whispered questions to your tour guide are permitted, and you can feel the artistic and historic impact of the space as a unified whole. Even the intricately designed and inlaid marble floors, normally hidden from view, can be fully appreciated. At this point your tour guide makes a discreet exit, and you are free to return to the Vatican Museums themselves for the rest of the day.
You should know that, as your wind your way through the Vatican Museums, at some point there seems to be no way out but forward. The crowds build as the day progresses, becoming thick near the Raphael Rooms and slowing to a standstill in the Map Gallery as you approach the Chapel. Even if you have already been there today, it seems like your only choice is to keep going forward to get squeezed back into the Chapel with everybody else. But this time you can give a last wistful glance upward and just work your way back to the exits, beyond the screen wall near the back of the room.
Lesson Learned: There are two exits from the Sistine Chapel. As you stand looking away from the altar, the exit to your left puts you back into the Museums through a series of gerbil tunnels, and the exit to the right is marked “Tour Groups Only.” If you take the right-hand exit (as a scofflaw, but nobody cares at this point), you come out on the north side of St. Peter’s Basilica and can now enter the church itself without standing in any more lines. This is a way to combine both heavily-visited sites into a relatively easy day.
- Viator Early Access Sistine Chapel Tour, www.viator.com
- City Wonders Early Access Sistine Chapel Tour, citywonders.com (Note: City Wonders also offers this tour under the brands My Vatican Tours and Dark Rome).
- Before you go, read up on the Sistine Chapel here. Or watch some videos, like this. For maximum appreciation of the Chapel, don’t go unprepared.