You can’t go to Rome without seeing the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica, but make no mistake, the Vatican Museums are difficult to tackle, with or without kids. With over 2000 rooms and nine miles of art, these vast and imposing buildings within Vatican City are overwhelming on the best of days…on the worst, you’ll be wading through crowds that make Disney World on New Year’s Day look like a ghost town. During our most recent visit during the Christmas holidays, we often felt as though we were wading through a sea of humanity. Needless to say, this is not the best way to appreciate priceless art.
Guide to surviving (I mean enjoying) the Vatican Museums with kids:
Families should be prepared to deal with significant crowds, lines, and tired feet when visiting the Vatican Museums, but there are steps you can take to minimize these discomforts and enjoy the experience. The following are our five best tips for a day in the Vatican.
Get a guide.
Don’t even think about trying to navigate the Vatican Museums without one. While you can save money with a large group tour, I recommend a small group tour of ten people or fewer. It’s easier to stick with your guide in a small group, you can enter some of the smaller passageways and rooms that big groups skip, and the tour can cover more ground. We took this tour with Viator. With it, we skipped the line to buy tickets, which is absolutely essential when touring the Vatican Museums. We went through a very short security line, got our headsets so we could hear our guide on the tour, and we were off.
Our guide showed us the essentials; on a three hour tour, there isn’t time for more. But since we’re not art historians and were there for the biggies, like the Raphael rooms and Sistine Chapel, we were very satisfied with all we saw.
Plan to spend 3/4 of a day for a 1/2 day tour.
Plan plenty of time to arrive at the Vatican…it’s a large complex. For our Viator tour, we met with our guide at their tour office instead of at the entrance to the museums, so check your reservation carefully to know where to go. You also need to build in time to eat lunch after a morning tour, plus budget time to look through St. Peter’s Basilica if it’s not included in your tour. If you want to climb the dome, there is a separate line. It may be worthwhile to your group to do this, but I’d take a break and eat something between visiting the Vatican Museums and the dome.
Skip the gardens.
Someone will probably tell me I’m wrong about this (and if so, please do comment), but our tour guide advised that we could see the gardens from the patio/terrace of the museum, and it wasn’t necessary to get a tour there as well. We’re glad we used our time in other ways.
Dress correctly for St. Peter’s.
Remember that to enter St. Peter’s Basilica, you’ll need legs and shoulders covered. This means no shorts in the hot summer months. In winter, it’s easier to be wearing the right clothes, but in warmer months, you may need to make a note to wear long pants and take a scarf or light shirt to put on when needed.
Prepare kids ahead of time.
It really helps to prepare kids (and adults!) ahead of time with some information about the major works of art they’ll see. We looked at pictures of the Raphael rooms, some sculpture, and Michelangelo’s masterpiece before we left home, and learned a little bit about each piece. This way, when the kids actually saw these works of art, they meant something personal to them. Even with this preparation, there were moment of boredom as we went through room after room. I don’t blame the kids; after awhile the frescos start to look the same. Thanks to our guide, we were able to find differences between them and stories to go with them.
Lastly, don’t eat at the cafeteria directly down the street from St. Peter’s, below the square. We were very hungry after our tour and this place and a McDonalds were the first restaurants we saw. We decided the cafeteria must be better than McDonalds. We were wrong.
Yes, still smiling at the end of the tour. Mostly.
If you decide to tour the Vatican Museums on your own (don’t do this!), you’ll need to queue up early to get in. Tickets are €16 and €8 (adult and child). If you want to buy tickets online to avoid the queue, but not have a guide, it’s possible to buy tickets here.
What are your best Vatican tips?