The Sistine Chapel Without The Crowds: An In-Depth Guide

Alastair Evans Exclusive Visits0 Comments

Alone In The Sistine Chapel Without The Crowds

Bodies twist, tumble and collide.

Directly above me, mankind’s first father is on the cusp of life.

Light is birthed from darkness as the sun and the moon rise for the first time. Paradise ends and floods soak the earth.

It is a complex, messy, beautiful scene. And there wasn’t a fancy pack in sight.

It was 8.13am and aside from the cleaners and another couple, I had the Sistine Chapel completely to myself.

“Take a photo” scolded my inner voice, interrupting my revelries. “Otherwise no one will believe you”.

“That’s right. No one.” I echoed smugly, surveying the empty chapel before me.

I was seated in the back left corner and since my view was unobscured by the usual melay of Adam’s apples and tangled audio guides, there was no need to strain my neck to take in the whole ceiling.

My plan had actually worked.

What had been just a theory 40 minutes before had birthed a replicable strategy for visiting the Sistine Chapel without the crowds and without paying $400+ or being anchored to a group tour. Best of all, it had only cost me the price of an advanced online ticket.

Guided by a set of simple principles, I had managed to conjure an experience shared only by celebrities and those with deep pockets.

“Take a photo.” The voice was back. Perhaps he was right. I should document this.

I found the widest lens I owned and took a series of furtive snaps.

With no herd to shep, the guards had yet to arrive to enforce the strict ‘no photography’ rule. Still, there was something clandestine about this whole experience. I felt like a chump who had arrived too early for an Illuminati meeting.

I would later discover that my covert photography skills needed some work. Most of the pictures were obscured by my thumb but the video I recorded although shaky, came out a little better:

Now that I had satisfied the voice I returned to the best seat in the house.

It was 8.31am and the Chapel was still deserted. I glanced over at the little door next to the altar, half expecting it to at any moment begin coughing and spluttering the early bird tour groups I had passed on the way here.

In fact, it was another 10 minutes before the next person arrived and that turned out to be my wife.

Gripped by a glorious selfishness, I had left her for dust as we marched the quarter mile from the Vatican Museum’s entrance to the Chapel.

I readied myself for an apology but as she approached I could see that it would fall on deaf ears. She too was caught up by the silence roar of Frescos which surrounded us.

“We did it” I whispered as she sat down.

She looked at me, stretched her cheeks with joy and then proceeded to state the bleeding obvious.

“This is a lot better than the first time we came”.

 

A Vatican Horror Show

Sistine Chapel CeilingPhoto: Alastair Evans

I have visited The Sistine Chapel four times now and the first was a day best forgotten.

It is an experience you might have shared. In peak season, a crushing 25,000 souls per day squeeze themselves into the Chapel’s four walls on a sticky afternoon in July I was one of them.

I live in Tokyo so am used to dealing with crowds in confined spaces. When you are trapped in a heaving mass of strange, sweaty flesh, bumping and jostling, the only thing which truly matters is whether or not you’re still able to breathe. This way when the next fanny pack rubs up against you or the hair from the back of someone’s head gets stuck in your mouth, you can catch yourself before your elbows turn to weapons.

Still, survival and avoiding pathetic squabbles with other irate tourists are not what should be front of mind when standing beneath the greatest artistic masterpiece ever created.

The Sistine Chapel in regular opening hours is more like a chicken coup than baroque temple.

I’ll spare you any further details other than to say it’s not worth it.

There are better ways to visit The Sistine Chapel and after this grim experience, I was on a mission to find them.

~ The Art Of Extraordinary Travel Guide To The Vatican Museums ~

I will shortly explain the steps I took to have the Sistine Chapel all to myself. However, I feel it would also be helpful to summarise the essentials and also outline your other options if you want to avoid the tourist swells, or at least visit at low tide.

If you have already done your basic research on opening and closing hours, best times to visit etc.. and are just looking for information on exclusive, early access and after hours visits you can skip the next section.

Photo Source: Antartis

The Essentials

The Vatican Museums (which the Sistine Chapel is part of) are open Monday – Saturday, 9am – 6pm. The ticket office closes at 4pm. Last entry is 4.30pm and the guards typically start moving people out at 5.30pm.

The exception is the last Sunday of the month when the Museums are open and free to enter from 9am – 2pm with last entry at 12.30pm. This is the busiest day and should be avoided at all costs, both in and out of season.

High season generally runs from around mid March to early November. During this period, there is no other way to skin it. The Museums are busy all day, every day.

While you might not be able to avoid the crowds (unless you follow my strategy below) you can avoid, at least to some degree, the wait to enter by booking a ‘skip the line ticket’ online in advance. For those who unwittingly turn up without a booking, this means waiting in line outside for up to 3 hours. Even for those who have opted to ‘skip the line’, you may also find yourself waiting with other advance ticket holders to go inside.

Photo: Alastair Evans

This is the fallacy of ‘skip the line’ tickets. While this was once a smart play which would allow you to avoid any kind of wait, too many people have now caught on. This is a common problem across most of the major attractions in Europe and often means you simply join your own exclusive line. Lucky you.

To boil it down, if you’re visiting in peak season and want to avoid any kind of wait outside, you either need to buy your ‘skip the line’ ticket online and arrive at the museums an hour or so before it opens (2+ hours for those without an advance ticket), attend one of the special night openings (recommended, details below) or join one of the tours listed in the next section.

Finding the booking portal on the Vatican Museums website can be difficult. Here is a direct link.

From mid November to early March the Museums are quieter.

Photo Source: lucidwaters

There are some exceptions (Christmas, New Year, national holidays etc…) but in general, ‘skip the line’ ticket holders should find you can turn up any day you want, at any time and walk straight in. Those without a booking will find the wait is much shorter and during the winter months you may even find there is no wait at all.

Of course, there will be plenty of other tourists inside the Museums and likely a couple of hundred people in the Sistine Chapel itself. But not the thousands which high season brings.

One final thing to note is, “can you buy a ticket just to visit The Sistine Chapel?” No you can’t.

That’s it for the basics. For more general information, this is a useful and comprehensive article.

 

Early Access & After Hour Tours

City Wonders Tour Sistine Chapel Photo Source: City Wonders

Now we’re getting to the meat of things.

If you want a more optimum and exclusive experience, you’re going to need to get smarter, break out your credit card or join one of the specialist group tours.

The Vatican Museums themselves have several options for early access / after hours entry to the museums at large, including of course The Sistine Chapel.

These have changed over the years and at the time of writing include early entrance to the museum and breakfast, night openings and after hour visits which start at a cool $2000.

Ignoring the prodigiously expensive after hour tours (there are cheaper options available from independent travel agencies if you want to arrange something similar), these direct booking options should not be dismissed.

In fact, I have used the tickets available directly off the Vatican website to arrange my private audience’s with Michelangelo.

 

Night Openings

One opportunity which has not changed over recent years are the night openings.

Every Friday starting mid April to the end of October (date change slightly year on year), the Vatican Museums are open after sunset, from 7pm – 11pm with last entry at 9.30pm,

Night openings are not a new concept. For instance, The Louvre in Paris has extended opening hours until 9.45pm every Wednesday and Friday throughout the year.

While these can’t be described as a ‘without the crowds’ visit, the museums are much quieter.

This makes the experience an attractive one as the evening setting creates a more relaxed and languid atmosphere.

My second visit to The Sistine Chapel was on one of these evenings.

The signs were good from the moment we arrived. Outside, there was no one. The steel pens used to contain the crowds lay empty.

Outside The Sistine Chapel Photo: Alastair Evans

We sailed through security, picked up our tickets and then proceeded to make our way to the Chapel.

It was a warm summer night and the windows which lined the corridors were open, allowing a gentle breeze to flow through the galleries.

The bustle and babble of earlier had been dialed back to a soft, background murmur. Now that the galleries could breathe they seemed larger and brighter.

The Chapel is one of the last rooms on the museum tour route and as you make your way there, you will pass countless rooms and works of art which demand your attention. In particular, The Raphael rooms whose frescos rival the ambition and splendour of the Sistine ceiling. Also the Gallery Of Maps (a 120 metre corridor decorated by large topographical maps of Italy) recalls the Renaissance spirit of discovery and exploration and is a sight to behold.

Photo Source: oxanatravel

People often pass through these rooms without stopping, hell bent on getting to the Sistine Chapel. After the debacle of my first visit, I too was on this track. We passed through room after room, weaving our way through the smattering of other visitors.

If you too are gripped by ‘Sistine fever’ and decide to make the Chapel the focus of your visit, be sure to tour the rest of the Museums after, or alternatively schedule a return visit to give the other parts of the museum the attention they deserve. They are well worth your time.

We arrived at the Chapel around 9pm. It wasn’t empty but it was far from crowded. About 60 people were milling around and there was none of the asphyxia which spoils a daytime visit. The place felt friendlier and more welcoming, as if we had been invited to a private gathering of friends.

I was able to take a few furtive pictures.

Sistine Chapel Night Opening

Inside The Sistine Chapel Blue Nuns Photos: Alastair Evans

This was a considerable improvement on my first visit. Still, it wasn’t enough. I wanted a more intimate experience.

 

Independent Group Tours

One way to do this is to join an early access or after hours group tour.

A number of independent tour operators have been granted access to the Vatican Museums before the doors open to the general public or once they have closed.

Full disclosure, I have not joined one of these tours.

This is not because I’m against group trips. If they are the best or only way to get access to a popular destination outside of normal opening hours or offer an unique opportunity to experience a major attraction from an alternative perspective, I’ll be there.

Photo Source: Walks Of Italy

Recently, I’ve enjoyed an after hours tour of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice, explored the Colosseum at night under the stars after the crowds had left, and skipped the priority lines and gotten access to a private viewing platform on the Eiffel Tower. All of these experiences were as part of an organised group.

The problem with group tours of The Sistine Chapel is that the early morning tours are far from exclusive and the after hours tours are expensive.

A couple of years ago, only a handful of companies offered early access. Now there are more than a dozen and this number continues to grow.

A single group can number up to 30 people which means that the Chapel will likely be as busy as it is during a night opening and without the unique evening ambience.

Early access group tours aren’t all bad. Particularly during high season, they are a much better option than visiting during regular opening hours, are relatively inexpensive and the tour guide is on hand to answer questions and provide context.

The situation is constantly changing but after digging through dozens of companies I would recommend the following operators:

Dark Rome
City Wonders
Walks Of Italy

After hour tours are much more intimate and personal. Group sizes are generally no more than 12 and in most cases, your group is the only one. But availability is limited and this all comes at a cost.

The following operators can arrange after hour visits:

Italy With Us ($400 per person)
Select Italy ($1,950 per person)
Walk Insider Rome (contact them for pricing information)

For people looking for a certain type of experience, group tours definitely have their place. However, for those who dislike being anchored to a guide there is a better way.

 

My Strategy

The taste of croissant and roasted coffee lingered on my tongue like a burnt memory.

It was 14 months on from my first private audience in The Sistine Chapel. I was back and once again I was alone. Or almost alone. This time 6 other people shared the space with me.

Once again, my plan had worked. On both occasions I visited in peak season and was successful.

Before I explain how I did this, it’s important to make one thing clear:

“Opportunity awaits for those who know where to look”.

Photo Source: zimmytws

I know you didn’t read this far to have a fortune cookie (literally) cracked open in front of you, but part of the thrill of this kind of exploration is in discovering new opportunities as old ones become obsolete.

Anyone who simply wants to be served up a exclusive experience without risk or adventure should book an after hour tour. If that sounds more like you, then you have my blessings.

If that isn’t an option or you share my excitement for this unique brand of luxury travel hacking, read on.

To really spell it out: by the time you read this, the exact steps I took may or may not be available.

If not, that doesn’t mean you should give up. There will be other ways to have the same experience. You just need to follow the strategy.

Follow the strategy not the steps.

You don’t need to be the ‘Leader Of The Free World’ to do this.

Photo Source: EFE

So what is the strategy? It is surprisingly simple:

– Book the earliest entry ticket available which isn’t part of a group.
– Arrive at least 60 mins prior to the entry time.
– Go straight to The Sistine Chapel via the shortcut.
– Enjoy.

Lets puts some flesh on those bones.

The first time I made this trip, the earliest entry ticket available which wasn’t part of a early access group tour, was a 9am booking on a regular advance ticket. Not ideal. However, I also had the advantage of knowing two critical things: the guards outside regularly let the 9am ticket holders in much earlier, around the same time as the tour groups. And these groups walk slow. Real slow.

And so it was, on a hopeful October morning I stood outside the Vatican Museums at 7.45am waiting for a “go” from the guard.

I knew there was no guarantee that he would grant us early access. But I had read enough anecdotal reports to know that the 9am entry time was far from fixed.

8am came and went and still we waited. A group of about 15 lead by a guide filed past us and through the entrance.

Vatican Museum Sign Photo Source: Alastair Evans

“If you don’t ask the answer is always no.” The voice had woken up to remind me of first principles.

So few people ask when they are worried the answer might not be the one they want. Whether it be at work, in a bar or when you find yourself stood outside the Vatican at 8am, we assume we already know the answer and so do nothing to avoid disappointment.

But if you can find the courage, you might be surprised how often the answer is “yes”.

This truth always accompanies me on my travels.

It’s how, among other experiences I was allowed to sit in on a private sparring session between the top Sumo wrestlers in Tokyo and explored the secret gardens of Venice, Italy.

Not by overpaying, bribery or knowing the right people (although in certain cases these can all be helpful).

I just asked.

“Can we go in?”

I smiled optimistically at the guard. He shook his head. Denied but not defeated I continue to wait.

And then moments later, in that surprising but inevitable way which colours experiences that others have told you are possible but you don’t believe yourself, the guard looked at his watch and then with a lazy wave of his hand gestured that we could enter.

It was 8.10am and we were inside the museums.

Once through security, we changed our vouchers for tickets and moved swiftly onto the actual entrance gate.

This was the last check point. Would we be held back and made to wait until our official entry time?

The ticket officer barely glanced at our tickets as she waved us through.

Ahead of me, I could see the tour group which had been let in just before us.

There are two ways to get to the Chapel: the regular route which takes about 30 – 40 minutes and a shortcut which shaves this down to 20 mins if you walk briskly.

In order to minimise the time it takes to get there and so maximise your time inside the Chapel, it’s important to take the shortcut.

“Which is the quickest way to the Sistine Chapel?” I asked.

“Follow the signs” the ticket officer replied, gesturing to the route the group had took.

A group can only move as fast as its slowest member. When you add to this the distraction of passing by the countless works of art which line the Museum corridors, even a tour which promises to take people straight to The Sistine Chapel is inevitably slowed down.

This was one of the factors I was banking on and it was only a matter of minutes before I passed them. My pace was brisk but not frantic. I arrived at the Chapel just as the cleaners were finishing up.

In the immortal words of Ricky Baker it was “majestical”.

 

Alone In The Sistine Chapel: Part 2

Although my plan had worked I was curious to find out if I had just gotten lucky with the guard.

Are 9am ticket holders always let in early as my research suggested?

So the next morning I returned to the Vatican, without a ticket to take the photos I had forgotten about the day before and to see what time the day’s first group were let in.

This time a family of 5 and an elderly Japanese couple were waiting patiently in line.

The guard was different and although no one asked, they were still granted early entry at 8.30am.

This wasn’t just a one off and I wondered if this was Vatican policy; an attempt to get ahead and ease the crowd flow throughout the day.

Since then things have changed as they do.

While this strategy still works, there are now more early access tour groups which means less chance that you’ll find the Chapel completely empty when you arrive.

This does not mean you should throw in the towel.

Remember, I didn’t say you should book a 9am advanced ticket. I said to book “the earliest entry ticket available”.

There is now (at the time of writing) an earlier entry ticket offered by the Vatican: Breakfast At The Museums.

Vatican Musuems Dome Photo: Alastair Evans

Ticket holders are granted entry at 7am and are served a buffet breakfast in the Pinecone Courtyard before being allowed access to the museums.

This opportunity is also offered by independent tour operators but booking through them means you are tied to a group.

How long this will last for I don’t know. But as of July 2017 it remains an option.

At €65, a breakfast booking is slightly more expensive than the regular advanced ticket.

But anyone who considers €65 to experience The Sistine Chapel in its native status too expensive (and will no doubt spend that and more on dinner later than evening)…well…lets just say we have differing opinions on what constitutes value.

And so, just over a year later I was back outside the Vatican, with a guaranteed entrance time and without having to rely on the whims of a guard.

This time my strategy was different.

Not only did I need get to ahead of the early access tour groups but there was the other breakfasters to consider. They numbered about 30 and I was counting on the distraction of food to slow them down.

I myself had grabbed a croissant and coffee on route to the Museums. My hunger already satisfied I was there for one reason only, to get to the Sistine Chapel.

Photo Source: lucidwaters

We were ushered through to the Courtyard where a breakfast spread was waiting. The others began to dig in. I gave it 5 mins then wandered back into the Museums and to the ticket gate.

“Can I go in?” I asked the guard.

“Not until you’ve finished breakfast.” She replied curtly looking up from her phone.

“That’s great because I’ve finished” I replied with a broad smile.

My father always said I was a cheeky little sod.

She shook her head. This felt familiar.

“I’ll just wait here then I said, positioning myself next to the entrance.

She shrugged her shoulders with typical Italian nonchalance and resumed her phone play.

A group of 10 arrived and were waved through. Then a smaller group of 3 accompanied by a private guide.

I continued to wait.

It wasn’t long before the absurdity of the situation began to stink out the corridor. Here I was on an ‘early access’ ticket waiting to be let in while others were granted entrance.

I could sense the guard felt it too and it wasn’t long before she looked back up and relented.

“Ok, go.”

This time I didn’t need to ask for directions. Just like before, I walked briskly passing both groups on route.

 

Epilogue

“But now you have shared this won’t everyone start doing it?”

This was a comment recently put to me about another article I wrote on how to visit a different popular site after hours.

I have a couple of things to say in response which apply to most “how to” exclusive visits you’ll find written about here.

Firstly, I’m flattered that anyone thinks this website has that kind of reach, but it doesn’t.

Right now, our audience is small. Very small and you are one of the few to stumble across our path.

If more people were to learn about this, even then the number of people actually acting on the information will be tiny. Twas ever thus as long as human nature has a part to play.

Moreover, if you take April to October as a time frame then there are roughly 150 possible days you can visit. That gives you a lot of rope.

When you combine all these things together, over saturation is not something you have to worry about.

The bigger question is “when are you going to have The Sistine Chapel all to yourself?”

I look forward to hearing your stories.

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