Why the Vatican Museum is so, so, sooo Astonishingly Terrible.

The Vatican Museum makes me feel like this.
The Vatican Museum makes me feel like this.

I know, I know. I’m an art historian. I should loooove the Vatican Museum. Because, let’s be honest, there are some insane, insane masterpieces there. But I hate it. HATE. I hate it more that the Met, and more than MoMA, and even more than the Louvre.

Why? Why do I hate it so much when there’s the Sistine Chapel and the Raphael Stanze and the Laocoon of all things? And the miles and miles of other world-class, one-of-kind, amazing art???

Oh, let me count the ways:

1. The crowd control. Because there is none. The line to get in can stretch from the entrance easily all the way 1/3 of a mile to Piazza del Risorgimento. There is no shade along that line. Mostly only crap to eat and it happens to be a rather busy thoroughfare. Standing in that line is a wretched way to spend one’s time in Rome. And don’t even get me started on the hawkers touting tours that would get you to skip those lines. Actually do get me started, because that’s number two.

2. The tour groups. Oh god, the tour groups. Groups larger than 6-8 should NOT be allowed inside. The structures that make up the Vatican Museum are mostly from the 15th c, which means, as grand as they are, they were not designed for the easy passage of groups of 40 people at a time. They just weren’t. Which means entrances and stairwells, hallways, even some rooms get clogged to the extent that your genuinely fear what would happen if there was a fire. I get it, most of you aren’t art history PhDs (lucky you). There is a ton of stuff there and you want a guide. I understand the impulse. But only small groups please (let me again recommend Context Tours, an ethical company focused on sustainable tourism whose guides are primarily PhDs like me).

3. The guides on most of those tours. I can’t even tell you how many times I have heard Vatican Guides tell their tour groups of 40+ people things that aren’t just mildly inaccurate, but rather COMPLETELY wrong. Let me tell you about the English-speaking tour guides in Rome (because I have met a LOT of them), most of them have no art historical/historical training. In fact, at most tour companies you need to have no background in art or history to become a tour guide. The only requirement is that you can speak English and can stand/walk with ease for a few hours. The knowledge imparted by these guides is either made up, or from the same books that you could buy and give yourself a self-guided tour. DO NOT GO ON THESE TOURS. Find a reputable company with legitimately knowledgeable guides. It will likely cost more, but the cheaper tours aren’t worth it. Buy a book instead.

4. Now the building. Oh, the building. There is one path through the Vatican Museum. One giant funnel that drops you eventually into the Sistine Chapel. There’s no meandering around to any old place. There is ONE PATH and EVERYONE is on it. That means it’s nearly impossible to choose your own pace and it also means that most visitors, who are primarily only interested in visiting the Sistine Chapel have 2+ hours to walk before they get there. Because that’s how long it takes. Even if you’re barely stopping to look at anything else it takes 2+ hours to walk from the entrance to the Sistine Chapel. Not great Bob.

5. The Sistine Chapel. It’s one of the world’s great treasures. It’s phenomenal. It’s also one of the most unpleasant spaces to be in that I have ever experienced. It’s insanely crowded– you have to jostle to get in the door, linebacker your way through the crowd to find somewhere to stand. And forget about peace and quiet. The room echoes and the dull roar of the huge number of people in there reverberates through your head. And then there’s the constant PA announcements: “Silence” in every language and “No Photo” over and over and over and over again. But NO ONE is paying attention. Everyone is taking pictures, blatantly, openly. The guards occasionally try to stem the tide, but there’s nothing for it. Everyone is talking, everyone is taking pictures, and no continual announcements of “This is a sacred space, silence please” will stop that.

6. Once you’re on the 2+ hour pathway there are no bathrooms, no snacks, and hardly anywhere to sit on that whole run. If you have need of any of those things you’re shit out of luck. A real emergency would of course be attended to by the guards, but otherwise you’re stuck sucker.

It’s such a shame. It could all be done better. The visitor experience there could be soooooo much better. When you’re in Rome, skip the Vatican. I dare you. And I’ll tell you where to go to have an actual enjoyable experience instead!

51 thoughts on “Why the Vatican Museum is so, so, sooo Astonishingly Terrible.

  1. thanks so much for the info 🙂
    having a tendency toward claustrophobia, this is very good info for me
    It’s a shame that all that great art isn’t presented better for the 21st century tourist to enjoy. I’m not sure the Vatican knows it is the 21st century…maybe…

  2. I never made it into the museum. I got to Vatican City and after fighting the masses for about thirty minutes and warding off about a dozen pushy tour guides trying to get us to take their tour I just called it quits since the friend that I was with had already seen it. It was just such a circus that I wanted to get out of there as fast as possible.

      1. Oh definitely! The great thing about ancient cities like Rome is that there is so much beautiful architecture and history everywhere! Vatican City was not my idea of a great time but Rome is an amazing city. My personal favorite places were the Colosseum and the shopping district around the Spanish Steps!

  3. Yeah, those guides were everywhere! I just avoided them, and luckily it wasn’t as busy as it was when you went. It’s still some astonishing art. You probably wouldn’t like my review of it haha.

    1. I’ve been, I don’t know, a handful of times (I forget how many) now and it has always been rotten for me. Though I do allow that most of my visits have been during the spring/summer months when it would be the most crowded. I have stopped going. And the thing is, while the collection IS amazing, there is less-famous, but equally amazing art (or near enough that you can’t hardly tell a difference– including ceiling paintings, ancient sculptures, and Renaissance rooms) that is way, way, way more pleasant to see. I prefer pleasant, almost always.

  4. Getting into the Vatican alone is a chore… no restrooms, though there is some shade. We skipped the Vatican museum on our last trip for a number of reasons, not least which is mentioned above. Plus, I wasn’t keen on spending money for the inconvenience. Same reason I have never been inside Westminster Abbey here in London. £18 ($24) a ticket? And for what, I ask you? No thank you… 🙂

  5. I visited the Vatican with my high school Latin class. Luckely our teacher was our guide, who knows so so much about (art) history, so that was a good thing. But I was so underwhelmed by the Sistine Chapel. There were too many (loud) people indeed that I just couldn’t enjoy it the way I wanted to.

    1. My dear companion was once lucky enough to be in the Sistine Chapel by himself. It is perhaps the thing that I am most jealous of when it comes to him! I would love to go with a Classicist though– I’m so Renaissance focused, a classical scholar would provide a great perspective!

  6. You have done a good job here Brenna. In some ways, a visit to the Vatican Museums is the archetype for an emerging problem in Europe. Actually, emerging is an underestimation; the problem has arrived. So far, my wife and I have experienced it in the entire old heart of Prague, indoors at Versailles, Sissi’s rooms in Vienna, Roman Hunting Lodge in Sicily, multiple sites in Florence, countless churches and cathedrals, Auschwitz, the quarter of Salzburg at the foot of the old fortress, etc. Millions of our planet’s residents want to visit Europe, with their number being swollen by the rapid growth of what is termed China’s middle class. The vast majority of visitors to Europe are drawn by its remarkable history, the physical evidence of that history and its rich cultural legacy. So many crowds, so little insight or self-discipline, so many money-changers and so-called souvenir shops, so many touts, way too many fast food joints – the goose that laid the golden egg is dying from obesity and clogged arteries. Despite all that, we have numerous memories of wonderful experiences but, yes, the Louvre can provide a much better experience than the Vatican, for the reasons you have given. Our totally satisfying visit to The Last Supper in Milan was in marked contrast to what you have described in your post: 25 persons at a time; exactly 15 minutes; expert, in-house guide/interpreter; air-locks and shoe-cleansing; standing at a safe distance from an ultra-fragile work. I’m not sure that this problem will be fixed; I expect it to get worse. Meanwhile, respectful would-be visitors to Europe need the likes of you to introduce us to alternatives. Guide books etc do mention such places but they mostly tell us too little that will help us decide to visit. Go girl!

    1. Thank you for the kind words! And you’re absolutely right that it’s not just the Vatican. Florence (almost the whole city) is similarly congested. I actually haven’t ever been to the Last Supper, but the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua provides a similar situation– small controlled groups, air locks etc. I don’t know if that’s a viable solution for the Sistine Chapel, but something really ought to be done. And guide books… well, guide books aren’t particularly good at being honest all the time. They usually only tell the half-truth: “this thing is so beautiful” but neglect to mention the less beautiful parts.

  7. An interesting post although I can confirm that there ARE toilets in the museum, admittedly not many, but they do exist! Plus if you book via the website you can skip the entire line and walk in at a time chosen by you which is heavenly! You need never queue again – I don’t understand why anyone queues when its not necessary! As for the Sistine Chapel, I totally agree – it is not a spiritual place or a place to admire the art as there are too many people and allegedly its a hotspot for pickpockets which doesn’t help! All in all, I like the Vatican museum although it could make some improvements!

    1. Thanks for the info! I only know of the restrooms near the Pinacoteca, are there really others on the path?? And you’re absolutely right– reserved times are the way to go if possible. I’ve never actually stood in the giant line when I’ve gone, but I think it’s good to be plain about its existence.

  8. You also forgot to mention that the 2+hr route by-passes several awesome galleries of Roman art that are just closed off. Yes, closed off for no good reason. The Vatican should at least throw us art-history types a bone and give us a few obscure art galleries to play in while the mob follows the track to the Sistine Chapel. 😦
    Definitely agree with you though, the crowds are ridiculous at the Vatican Museum.

  9. What you just described is a good analogy for the church as a whole – at least the church of the past. It’s also the present in the sense of trying to make the most of how the past has shaped it.

    1. Thanks so much! And I’m sorry the Sistine Chapel was ruined for you– the whole Vatican Museum experience is usually such a shame, because it really ought to be better. I hope you saw other amazing things that made up for it!

  10. I guess I have been lucky on both of my trips to the Vatican museum. The first was part of a cruise ship tour group (I know!) and we were the last ones in that day – and it was late October, so perhaps less busy. There were only 20 of us in the Sistine Chapel, which felt very private. However, they hurried us through the rest of the museum, so I had no real memory of being there.

    The second trip was just two of us and we booked the Friday night tour, which wasn’t crowded. However, we still didn’t have enough time to see even a fraction of the museum.

    Note: if they say they close at 10:00, that means you are out of the Sistine Chapel well before 10:00 because that is when they want the building to be empty. Not typically how they close museums in the U.S. My DH nearly got into a fight with the guard about what the closing time actually means.

  11. Thanks so very much for mentioning me in this classically great post. I was planning on visiting Spain over Italy anyway. Not for the art, but for the food.

    Here’s hoping my comments get me moved from in post bathroom talk to somewhere more dignified.


    1. It’s so famous and has such a high reputation and the art definitely lives up to that, but the visitor experience does not at all. I hope other Roman things exceeded your expectations!

  12. I couldn’t agree more. I blogged about this last year after I visited (it was really more of a rant) and I remember complaining about the same issues, especially the tour groups! The only thing I can recommend is booking a ticket online in advance of your visit. I booked one the morning of, and you get to bypass the line outside entirely and stroll right in whilst feeling smug. The smugness doesn’t last though, as you have to slowly shuffle through with the rest of the crowd once you’re inside.

  13. How refreshing to read your acutely accurate post. I thought it was just me who thought like that. It took me three attempts to see the Sistine Chapel and I mean three different trips to Rome from the UK. The third time an extremely savvy Italian told me to get there very early and then just head straight through the museum to the Chapel. My 10 year old daughter just loved racing past ‘all that old, boring art stuff”! Trouble is I missed Laocoön which I would have loved to see in the ‘flesh’ having admired Flaxman’s ‘The Fury of Athamas’ at Ickworth House in Suffolk. Perhaps a fourth visit to the Vatican and its awkward museum is in order!

  14. I found a toilet block and a cafe in the Vatican museum, built in a courtyard out of concrete blocks, the smell of the toilet was noticeable in the cafe built above it. I also found another path that the main crowds were not on, through the Vatican’s small modern art collection, not that I would recommend that for anything other than getting away from the crowds and seeing third-rate works by famous artist in media that they usually didn’t work in, ceramics by Picasso etc.

    1. Haha, well found! I’ve never managed to discover any there, and I would thoroughly believe they smelled. It sounds like you’ve done even more exploring there than I have. I commend your patience!

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