During our travels it is hard for us to find something that we are overly eager for. By its nature, our long-term trip is full of so many amazing moments every day that it is hard to rank one experience over another. They’re all incredible and make us excited to wake up each morning. But on our recent visit to Rome we had one that stood out above all others, an after hours tour of the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel with Walks of Italy. We’ve never been on a closed door museum tour before, and this particular tour only is authorized on select nights of the summer, adding more to its exclusivity.
When you market it like that, you know I’ll be excited.
We don’t want to give away the secrets of the Vatican museum in this post, those are for you to get on your visit. Instead, we want to take a look into why an exclusive after hours tour may be right for you on your next trip. There are many pros and cons, much like any itinerary, but you’ll soon see why a guided tour at this particular museum should be on your wish list the next time you’re in Rome.
Pro – An Experienced Guide
The absolute treasure of an after hours walking tour at the Vatican Museums is the guide. A good guide can take any simple work of art and turn it into a detailed lesson in history in artistic style. For a museum as vast as the Vatican, a good guide truly has their work cut out for them.
Our guide on the Walks of Italy tour was Guido, a Roman who is absolutely captivated by all the history the city of Rome, Vatican, and country of Italy has to offer. While telling us a story about a particular sculpture, he’d remember another anecdote or piece of history that coincided and would tell us about it with even more excitement than the last. He fed off our enthusiasm to learn more and gave us everything we wanted, and then some.
But where a knowledgeable guide is one thing, it is important to know whether they are licensed as well. In Italy all guides must be licensed to give tours and to do so they must take rigorous coursework and testing before they are allowed to start working. After passing their exams they are like walking libraries and can be independent contractors at any company they please.
Try finding one of those with any of the street side tour guides that offer you a guided tour of the Vatican.
The good ones don’t need to pander for work.
Con – Limited Duration
Our after hours tour of the Vatican lasted just under 3 hours, the typical amount of time most tours are scheduled for. While we would easily have blasted through the museum far under this time frame on our own, we were so enthralled with the stories our guide was sharing that the 3 hours just flew by. We saw everything we wanted, and more, but we really wished the tour did not have to end (and we even went over the time by 20 minutes)!
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Perhaps I can convince Walks of Italy to increase the tour duration by a few hours. You won’t mind, right?
Pro – Detailed Explanations of the Best Pieces in the Museum
Have you ever wondered about the origin story of a sculpture you are looking at in a museum? Most placards only give information about the year it debuted and the sculptor, but never a background into why it was made.
This is the level of information a guide provides on a tour of the Vatican museums. Why was the piece built? How did it survive? Where was it discovered? Who is that charming face staring back at you? (Most of the time it is a real person, or stolen from another statue). A 15 foot tall statue is impressive in its own right, but it becomes even more grand when you know the trials it went through just to get to where it is today.
In fact, our guide was so good at the history of the sculptors that he claimed he could recognize the historical figure immediately on any sculpture. He then proved it to us by pointing at a set of busts with two dozen figures and named them all in order with no signs or help.
Apparently it is easy when you live in the history every day of your life. We approve.
Con – Some Wings Are Closed
On my first trip to the Vatican in 2008 I was thrilled to walk around the halls that were full of some of the finest marble statues in all of Europe. While many are still able to be seen on the after hours tours, we found that many of these magnificent wings were closed during our stay. Other popular wings, like the tapestry and map rooms, were opened, much to our delight.
The trouble with pinpointing which wings will be closed on any particular tour is that it is up to the Vatican’s discretion. You never know what you’ll be able to see, but this is also true during day tours as the museum is always renovating and liable to close a wing at any time.
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But while some wings are closed during the after hours tours, this also means that others can be opened! On our particular tour the private apartment of Pope Pius V was opened in which we got to see some relics from the 1500s, most of which were made in the finest mosaic style we’ve ever seen. To give you an idea of why this is a treat, our guide mentioned he has only be in this particular set of rooms 4 or 5 times (ever) and it is hardly ever opened during normal business hours.
Pro – Up to 75% Reduction in Visitors Around You
Imagine that you’re in the world’s best museum, surrounded by the most beautiful art on the planet. But while you are trying to appreciate the art you have to deal with thousands of other visitors running into you, taking bad photos, and in most cases acting incredibly rude just because they too paid the price of admission.
An after hours tour gets ride of this issue almost entirely as the concentration of visitors can be reduced by up to 75%! So where there may have been over 100 people in a room enjoying the art before, you may only see 25 or less at any given time.
Sometimes the best beauty is being alone.
Con – Visitors Are All in Groups, Too
The only trouble with the reduction of visitors in an after hours tour is that most everyone who is there is a part of the group. So while there are fewer people, they are now traveling as a pack, which can have its moments of equal annoyance when they are moving between the works of art. Your group of 10 wants to see the same statue as the other group of 10 and a collision may soon happen. They’ll move pretty quick, but someone may inevitably run into you along the way.
The perk about this is that most all the guides know each other, and tend to work well in moving along when another group comes by. Another plus for experienced leaders!
Pro – A Lead Up to the Sistine Chapel
The interesting thing we noticed about our tour is that everything always seemed to go back to the Sistine Chapel. From the introduction at the beginning of the tour to the descriptions of the paintings and sculptures along the way, every major topic always led back to the works inside the chapel.
After about 2 1/2 hours of touring the museum, the energy was at its maximum when we entered the famous hall. We knew the history, the meaning of the fresco, and even learned a great deal about the restoration work in recent decades. All for this one moment.
And it didn’t disappoint.
My previous visit to the Sistine Chapel was almost a let down because of the crowds and the relatively small size of the room. With very little build up from the signs at other exhibits, the chapel felt like another room with a beautiful painting. But on this tour, it was magical.
Con – The Chapel is Still Crowded
As we mentioned above, an after hours tour includes the benefit of reducing the crowds by about 75%. As the Sistine Chapel is the highlight of most everyone’s visits to the museum, the crowds will always build up in this particular spot.
Even though the chapel was still quite full of people, it felt nearly empty when compared to memories of my last trip. And while the guards still acted as obnoxious as ever (telling people ‘no photo’ and ‘silence’ in very loud voices), it was in lesser frequency than during the day to the point where you may only hear it once or twice during your entire stay in the chapel.
During the day? Well, several times a minute is more appropriate. But I can always appreciate the irony in that the ones tasked to keep the peace are the ones who always disrupt it the most. If you’ve been, you understand.
Pro – Artwork After Dark
In what is perhaps the biggest perk of visiting the Vatican on an after hours tour, it is also one you may be surprised we haven’t mentioned yet. You get to see the museum at night! The floor to ceiling windows that normally let in light during the day for the museum are almost completely black, and the interior lighting is all that remains to guide your way.
In some rooms, such as the maps and tapestries rooms, the lighting is no different at night than during the day. But in the outdoor squares and halls with some of the magnificent statues, the night time lighting provides an ambiance that is almost too unreal to believe.
I’m just sad we had to leave.
For more great topics from Vatican City, why not check out my recreation of my grandma’s European adventure on top of the Cathedral!
Looking for more Italy stories? Why not check out why we couldn’t bring ourselves to photograph Carnival in Venice!