You should get a Roma Pass for each person. It’s 20 euros but pays for itself quickly. It’s valid for 3 days and covers public transportation and free or discounted admission to major sights. In those 3 days, the first two sights are free, so choose the priciest ones. It’s available at the Tourist Information (TI) booth in the Termini train station. Remember that the Vatican is closed on Sunday; the following are closed on Mondays: National Museum of Rome, Borghese Gallery, Capitoline Museums, Catacombs of Priscilla, Museum of the Imperial Forums (includes Trajan’s Market and Trajan’s Forum), Castel Sant’Angelo and Ara Pacis, so plan accordingly. The Ancient Rome sites are open seven days (Colosseum, Roman Forum). We were in Rome Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, so we ended up using our Roma Pass and arranging the schedule so that the museums were on the last three days. The Vatican is not part of the Roma Pass.
We got into Roma Termini train station around 9, dropped our bags in the lockers, and rode the metro up to the Vatican. Rome doesn’t have a big underground Metro system, only 2 lines, but the buses are extensive (and unfortunately the schedules are tough to figure out). Most of the things you’ll want to see are near a metro line though.
Since it was the off-season, we only had a 15-minute wait to get in the Vatican. I recommend seeing the Museum first and then St Peter’s; Rick says “The nearest Metro stops still involve a 10-minute walk to either sight: for St. Peter’s, the closest stop is Ottaviano; for the Vatican Museum, it’s Cipro.” You probably have the book but here are his tips for managing the line:
- Avoiding Lines: The best entry time is 12:30 or later, since tour groups tend to come to the museum early in the morning or right before lunchtime. Another good time to go is during the papal audience on Wednesday after 10:30, when many tourists are at St. Peter’s Basilica.
- The museum is generally hot and crowded, especially on Saturdays, the last Sunday of the month (when it’s free), Mondays, rainy days, and any day before or after a holiday closure.
- There’s little advantage to arriving early in the morning, as the place is already mobbed with early-bird tour groups when it opens—which keeps the whole line moving slowly. Most mornings, particularly if you arrive before the opening time, the line to get in stretches around the block.
- Stuck in the line? Figure about a 10-minute wait for every 100 yards. If the line stretches all the way to St. Peter’s Square, count on waiting nearly two hours.
- If you do arrive before the museum opens, be sure to line up against the Vatican City wall (to the left of the entrance as you face it); the other line (to the right of the entrance) is for guided tours. To skip the long line for individuals (and just wait in the sometimes shorter line for groups), consider taking a guided tour offered through a tour company.
There are 2 exits to the Vatican Museum, one near the entrance and another that leads directly from the Sistine Chapel to St Peter’s. If you do rent the audioguide, you have to walk 15 minutes from the Sistine Chapel exit to the museum exit, then another 15 minutes back to the entrance to St Peter’s. We did the shortcut path so that meant we couldn’t rent an audio guide. There’s also another mini-museum called the Pinacoteca, if you want to see it, do it first before going into the Vatican (or see it on the way out if you do the audioguide thing).
The Museum is, as you can guess, unbelievable. It’s got art by the great masters, and lots of Greek and Roman artifacts. It’s tough to describe other than you can spend all day in just the museum if you want. When you get to the Sistine Chapel, the guards will escort you out if they see you taking pictures of Michelangelo’s ceiling, especially if you use a flash. The trick is to hold the camera at chest level facing up, so the guards can’t see it (that’s what I did).
The Chapel exits into a small courtyard that is right next to an entrance to St Peter’s. On your way there you pass a closed gate from which you can look out into St Peter’s Square and see all the people waiting to get in. And again, seeing St Peter’s is astonishing (I ranked it as the most impressive one that I saw in all of Europe, followed not too far behind by the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona), and of course it’ll mean something different to you as a religious site than it did for me. Rick Steves’ map and audioguide were very helpful in describing what we were looking at. Michelangelo’s Pieta is in here, behind plexiglass. For 7 euros, you can take an elevator up to the roof level, which also puts you at the base of the dome itself. On the roof, you can see the Rome skyline as well as the backs of the statues that loom over the front façade of the church from in front (only the backs are unfinished). At the base of the dome, there’s a thick mesh fence to prevent you from dropping things onto the people below, but it also makes it tough to take pictures from there. For an extra 5 euros, you can walk up 323 steps to the top of the dome, but we skipped that. We went into the Vatican about 11am, saw the Pinacoteca, grabbed lunch, saw the Museum, then St Peter’s, and were out into St Peter’s Square about 5pm, so we spent 6 hours in the whole complex. You could spend more or less time, depending on your schedule and what you take the time to see (or not see). We walked around the Square and hung out with everyone else for a while. The sun started going down around 5, so we stayed to watch the changing colors. We went to a place that we had been told was the best pizza in Rome, Da Baffetto (it’s near Piazza Navonna - in one of the corners of the piazza, you'll see a huge blue-and-green flag in front of a building, that’s the Brazilian Embassy. Exit the piazza at that corner and stay on the street for two blocks. You'll run right into Da Baffetto); it was good, but not as good as Naples.
Since we were right near the Campo de Fiori, we had a quick change of plans. Rick Steves has a walking tour called “Night Walk Across Rome” that is really good. It’s only a mile long, and you get to see some major sites all lit up (which look very different than in the daytime) and it’s great for people-watching, a nice pastime in Rome. From the Campo de Fiori you go to the Piazza Navonna with its central fountain by Bernini (the artist who remade Rome in the 1600s). Grab a dessert from Tre Scalini (famous for its chocolate ice cream) and make your way to the Pantheon, the Piazza Colonna, and to the Trevi Fountain. If you throw a coin over your shoulder into the fountain, then you will return to Rome someday (and the Mafia probably collects the money). Finally, you’ll make your way to the Spanish Steps. Conveniently, there’s a metro stop right there. The whole Night Walk took us about 90 minutes, a nice stroll after dinner. We took the metro back to Termini to get our bag and then we tried to figure out where our room was.
When I booked the room (which was really a 3-bedroom villa with a kitchen, bathroom, w/d, and patio) I apparently didn’t look closely enough at the map, I saw it said it was near the Vatican so I figured that was decent. Actually (and it was my fault for not paying attention), it was way out past the Vatican – far enough that it was a 10-minute metro ride from the Vatican, then we exit the metro station to wait for a bus, which was a 20-minute ride and dropped us at the bottom of a hill, and it was a 15-minute walk up the hill to get to the villa, or a good 45 minutes plus however long it took to wait for the bus. It was my only real room screw-up on the trip, and it was pre-paid so we couldn’t back out without losing about $150 per night for 4 more nights. That first night, I didn’t have a way to get in touch with the landlord except when I stopped into an internet café to email her. I got the address and phone number but I had no way to make a call. Finally got a cab to talk to her, and he drove us there for something like 60 euros. She met us at the villa and explained how everything worked (including the bus schedule to get to the metro station), but it was like 2 am before we got to bed.
(Originally posted 5/13/14 at 8:45pm, Houston)