Time is of the Essence: Tricks of the Trade for Visiting the Vatican
West of Tevere, engulfed in Rome’s protection lies the smallest country in Europe and the greatest ecclesiastic symbol of the world. This beating heart of Christianity attracts over three million people every year from pilgrims to locals to tourists exploring the great works of art within. A great paradox since such masterpieces are not without hardship, sweat, and frustration, but are paramount to the Vatican's spiritual peace.
There are three ways to get into the Vatican: waiting in the general admission line, booking an online ticket in advance, or joining a tour. Unless you spontaneously decide to visit the Holy See, you should not – under any circumstances – use the general admission line. It takes an incredibly long time especially during peak season when the wait can last up to a few hours. In most cases you probably won’t have the luxury of spending a few hours in a line that can stretch out for several blocks. By booking online you automatically skip the line and go straight through the security check saving you both time and tears. The same principle of online booking applies to most major sites in Europe not just Italy, so planning ahead can spare you a lot of trouble.
For first timers I strongly recommend joining a tour, whether it be shared or private. It’s easy to miss important aspects of the Vatican so, if you do decide to visit on your own, research ahead of time what you want to focus on. A great example is the cupola, the inside of St. Peter’s Dome with what appears to be frescos on the basilica’s roof, but they're in fact mosaics - an assemblage of small pieces of stone and glass, executed with such precision that it can fool even the sharpest of eyes.
St. Mark’s Square is truly an architectural masterpiece and few people appreciate its splendor to the fullest, here’s the best way to soak up all that St. Mark's Square has to offer. Starting from the edge of the square, walk behind the columns towards the center while looking at the square. Bernini designed the two colonnades – “the maternal arms of Mother Church” as he used to call them – in a way that would prevent you from getting a complete view of the square. Once in the middle just stop and take it all in while your perspective adjusts to the square’s true grandeur.
I picked up these tips and tricks from the tour guide during my Vatican visit and needless to say, joining a tour was the right decision. There are plenty of sites you can explore with Rick Steve’s audio tour, but this is definitely not one of them. In the meantime, keep in mind the appropriate attire, do your research ahead, and stay excited! That’s the reason you went there in the first place.