The Vatican: Planning Ahead – A Necessity

A visit to the Vatican—mobbed, daunting, and overwhelming as it might be—is not to be missed, because, quite frankly, if you have traveled all the way to Rome and do not experience this place, you might as well have stayed home. For devout Catholics, the Vatican is a place of religious pilgrimage. For all of us, it is also a place of cultural pilgrimage. Because for centuries, the course of Western civilization was often orchestrated by the Holy See. To this day the Vatican stands as proof that the wealth and power of the Church was nearly limitless at some points in history, and that deep faith has always been the foundation of that power. The priceless art treasures amassed here over the many centuries when Popes were patrons of the arts are truly a wonder to behold.

“The Vatican” is an imprecise term: Vatican City is an independent city-state of just 110 acres within city of Rome. Seat of the Roman Catholic Church, it is completely enclosed by Medieval and Renaissance walls, except on the southeast where Piazza San Pietro (St. Peter’s Square) opens it arms to millions of visitors each year. (Except also for the fact that numerous “extra-territorial properties” are scattered throughout and beyond the city of Rome—from Basilicas and Palaces to Jesu Bambino Hospital, the Papal Palace of Castel Gandolfo, and the area of Santa Maria di Galeria where the Vatican Radio antennae stand.) Within these walls among vast gardens are the Papal Palace (where the current Pope chooses not to reside), various apartments and offices, the Vatican Museums and Library, reception rooms (Stanze Raphael) and residential suites (Borgia Apartments) that are open to the public, as well as a magnificent reception room (Sala Regia) and spectacular chapel Cappella Paolina) which are not. Most magnificent of all, the Sistine Chapel, famed for Michelangelo’s frescoes, and Saint Peter’s Basilica, largest church in the world.

Vatican City boast its own telephone system, post office, astronomical observatory, radio station, banking system, pharmacy, and publishing facilities. Its daily newspaper L’Osservatore Romano and the television programming that originate here have worldwide reach.

So much to see!

If you go online, as I did, and search for Vatican tours, your head will soon be spinning with all the options. Prices can range from $22 for a self-guided tour to, well, astronomical sums. A header that says “Private tour, Vatican Musems from $122 can be confusing. Watch out for that little word “from,” which is usually printed in very small type. It might mean $122 per person…if you book a guide to take you and several other people on a private tour. Or it could mean $411.19, if you want to go on the tour by yourself! I’m sure some of these tours might be quite wonderful. Many no doubt are. But, I feared that for Mr. Penfire and me, they could be budget busters.

By sheer chance (or was it Divine inspiration?), I decided to bypass all the tour companies and search for information directly from The Vatican, itself. Oh dear. Tricks abound on the internet. Luckily, I have learned a trick or two myself. When you search for “Vatican Tours Official Site,” what will pop up first are listings marked with a little green square surrounding the word [Ad] on the second line. Scroll past those. The first listing that’s not marked [Ad] will be the one you’re looking for. Some version of

As you investigate, you’ll one button to click for “Individuals” and on for “Groups” (among others). It’s interesting to note that all the tour operators must go to this very same place to purchase tickets for their groups, paying for each individual the same price that you will be paying for your individual ticket. From there, of course, they must add an additional fee when they set the prices for their customers; how else would they make any money? Hmmm. Doesn’t it make sense to bypass the tour operators, purchase your own ticket join a group led by “an educational guide authorized by the Vatican City State?

The only puzzle: Which tour? So many choices! Open tour? Guided Tour? Exclusive Guide? Breakfast, Early Entry? Night Openings? Happy Hour? (at the Vatican? Really?) Museums and Sistine Chapel? …including St. Peter’s Basilica, or not? Necropolis? Carriage Pavilion? Hidden Museums? Full day by train? Yikes!

I found an email address on the Info page and sent a query. What would be the best choice for first-time visitors? A reply came back promptly. A tour of the Museums, the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s would enable us to see the most. The only downside, once we left the Museums to enter the Basilica with our tour group, we would not be able to re-enter unless we purchased another ticket. Hmmm. Would we want to go back to the Museums after a 3-hour tour? Probably not. So I purchased advance tickets for a the guided tour of the Vatican Museums, Sistine Chapel and Saint Peter’s Basilica for Thursday morning, April 19 at 11 a.m. (allowing ourselves plenty of time to get there). And oh when Mr. Penfire and I arrived and saw the milling throngs jammed into queues that stretched to the end of the block…how glad we were to be clutching the computer printouts that would enable us to skip the lines.