Vatican free Sundays: stay far, far away

Flickr freeparking sistine chapel


Most of the time, my clients take my advice. And one of my standing pieces of advice is to never visit the Vatican on free Sundays. But on one recent occasion, I was designing an itinerary for a family with only one specific day to see the Vatican, which just happened to fall on the last Sunday of the month. Because they had no other option, I tried very (!) hard to make it work for them, and in the process realized there was no way I could in good conscience send them to the Vatican on a free Sunday. So I gave advice I have never previously given: I told them to skip the Vatican and save it for their next trip to Italy. Here’s why:

  • Expect to wait in line at least an hour and realistically, two or longer. And remember, entry is only between 9 am and 12.30 pm, so it’s risky to get in line after about 10 am.
  • Once inside, expect shoulder-to-shoulder crowds. These are not your holiday shopping crowds. People have said they have not actually been able to see the art properly because of the crowds.  
  • It’s noisy inside. Yes it’s the Vatican, home of the Pope and pious art all around. But it’s not a peaceful, contemplative atmosphere, even in the Sistine chapel. As you’d expect with crowds in any other space, it’s loud.
  • Listen to the experts: Rome tour guides will not touch free Sundays with a 10-foot pole. Nobody can get a reservation on free Sundays, so there’s no way to avoid the gigantic line, and the reputable tour companies won’t actually take your money. (And I had never, ever heard this in Italy before. This is actually what convinced me that it was better not to go at all.)
  • Once you’re in, you can’t get out. You’ll be shuffling along with the crowd, so forget about needing to be somewhere. Don’t assume you’ll make it back to St. Peter’s square for the noon hour Pope’s blessing. You can make it if you’re out by 11.15 or 11.30 at the absolute latest.

Still think you can make it work? Read this tripadvisor post, in which people who have visited the Vatican museums on free Sundays explain why they’d never do it again. And if, after reading all of this, you’re thinking “well I’ll just get in line at 6 am and bring my Bose noise-canceling headphones”, then good luck, have fun, and at least you know what you’re in for. 

Photo of Sistine Chapel detail by Michelangelo taken by freeparking 


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Posted by on Feb 15, 2010 in Art, Museums, Rome | 5 Comments


  1. Don Holcomb
    February 15, 2010

    Agree 100% with avoid free vatican sunday ! Been there done that ! Also be sure to watch out for pick – pocket thieves as you stand in line to Vatican !

  2. Madeline
    February 15, 2010

    Thanks Don, and good point about the pickpockets! Though I don’t think they specialize only in free Sundays do they 🙂

  3. Jessica
    February 16, 2010

    I wholeheartedly agree! The 15 euro (or 19 euro if you’re making reservations on the website) that you will save in entry will most likely be lost with your time waiting in line and a sub-par experience while in the museums. Much better to go in the afternoon on a different day.

  4. Cherrye at My Bella Vita
    February 16, 2010

    “Listen to the experts.” That is so funny, Madeline, I wrote the same thing in my post today about common trip planning mistakes.
    Great minds, eh??

  5. Madeline
    February 16, 2010

    thanks Jessica! (everyone else reading this: Jessica is one of the experts, and deserves a lot of credit!)
    Cherrye – it’s always good when trip planners give consistent advice isn’t it! Great tips in your post today.


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