Hello! I am heading to Rome next month and plan on visiting the Vatican/Sistine Chapel/St. Peter's Basilica. I am trying to decide if I should pay the extra money and go for a guided tour? Or take my chances and explore on our own? We will be in Rome for only 2 full days so I want to maximize my time and not waste time wandering around. If a guided tour is recommended, can you please suggest some guided tour companies that you have enjoyed and found good value in? Thank you!
I lived in Rome, I do not think you need to do a guided tour. If you know what you want to look at already (and you can figure that out by doing some research and reading online) then arrive early to the Sistine Chapel to cut down on the wait time, then go to theVatican City and finish with the Basilica. Guided tours will help you 'cut the line' but they are pricey and will take the whole day as they explain every single part of the works of art.
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Having visited both places more than once, and Rome 5 times, I'm still unsure why anyone would want to take a guided tour of either the Vatican Museums/Sistine Chapel or St. Peter's Basilica, though I appreciate that many people do.
Both places offer good audioguides as well as, obviously, guidebooks and leaflets....all in a variety of languages.
The only way to see the Sistine Chapel is by going through the Vatican Museums but to avoid queueing you can simply buy your Vatican Museums tickets online in advance from the official site:
The big disadvantage of an organised tour, for me, is that you are inevitaly forced to proceed at the pace of the tour and focus on the aspects chosen by the guide. Everyone stops at the same place at the same time. When exploring independently, with or without audioguide, you have the freedom to miss out aspects which don't appeal to you or to hang back for others to move on so you can have a better look at things which do interest you.
Exactly the same applies to St Peter's Basilica. With your own audioguide or hard copy guide you can explore at your own pace as it suits you best.
There is no entrance fee for St Peter's though you will have to pass through airport-style security scanning. For that reason it's generally best to go either fairly early (before around 9.30am, when tour groups start to arrive) or later in the afternoon.say, from around 4pm onwards. You don't need to worry about mass times as everyday masses in St Peter's are held in one of the side-chapels.
Note that the general public can only access a few small parts of Vatican City: the basilica, Piazza San Pietro in front of it and the excavations underneath it (organised tour only, see official site linked above), the Vatican Museums and the Vatican gardens (organised tours only, see website above).
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You're visiting during high travel season so there's a good chance you will run into long lines. One of the perks of a guided tour is that your guide can get you in w/o the lines.
If you're going to explore on your own, I would recommend trying to find some skip the line passes. If you want to book a tour, check out viator.com. They are very reputable and you can read reviews before you book anything. I would highly recommend booking an early tour for the Vatican. It's pretty chaotic once the door opens to the public at 9/9:30. A lot of rooms do not have air conditioning so it can get quite uncomfortable in the summer.
If you want to spend the money, a private guided tour will focus you on the things that interest you and go at a pace that suits you. Check ContextTravel.com.