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!