Saturday, July 19, 2014

Vatican City & Museum

Fun fact. The Vatican is actually its own separate sovereign state located within Rome and governed by the Pope. Walled off from the city, the Vatican is the center of Catholicism and home to St. Peter's Basilica, The Vatican Museum and the Sistine Chapel - three of Rome's (and the world's) most iconic sights.

Fortunately, you don't need your passport to visit. And it's easily accessible by Metro from the center of Rome, but you should be mindful of a few things before visiting.

What the most important tip?
First (and most importantly), definitely buy tickets online well ahead of time and bring them printed out for your visit. Tickets cost €16/adult and €8/child (ages 6-18). Kids under 6 are free. They do charge a small €4/person online booking fee, but that will be the best money you'll spend in Rome after you see the line.

It's not a great website, but you can select the date and the entrance time for your tickets. I'm not sure how closely they track the exact entrance time, but we got in about 15 minutes before our 10:30AM stated time. I'm sure you'll be fine as long as it's reasonable, but your results may vary so don't try to game the system too much.

Of course, when making the online purchase, realize that they charge you in Euros. So be sure to use a credit card without any Foreign Currency fees like the American Express Platinum, Chase Sapphire Preferred, Citi Thank You Premier, or Barclays Arrival+. We used the Citi Thank You Premier, because it earns 3x on Entertainment (which we're hoping these tickets will qualify for).

How far in advance did we buy our tickets?
Well, my anal Asian father went bought them online (click here) about a month in advance, but I'm sure you could buy them closer to your date with out any issue. But please don't wait until the day before as they may sell out. Then you're stuck waiting in a massive entrance line with a bunch of tourists.

Checking online now, I see that I can still buy some tickets for later today, but the availability is limited and only for certain entrance times starting after 11:30AM since the 9AM-11AM slots are already sold out.

How do you get there?
We were coming from the Intercontinental De La Ville Roma which was right next to the Spagna Metro station by the Spanish Steps. From there, we just jumped on the metro for €1.50/adult (toddlers rode free) a few stops (towards Battistini) and got off at the Ottaviano station about 10 minutes later. The following stop Cipro is also labeled "Musei Vaticani" but the entrance to the Museum is pretty equidistant between the Metro stops. You can get off at either one.

As we got off the subway, you started seeing dozens of "tour guides" offering you a way to skip the line by signing up for one of their tours. While annoying, this may be a better option than standing in line in the sweltering Roman heat during July for 3-4 hours waiting to get in.

Of course, because we had our tickets in hand, my family just walked past all the tourists and went right up to the front entrance.

The large gate shown above is actually the exit. The entrance is to the left. You just have to find the signs for Online Tickets or Group Tours and show your vouchers. You'll walk right in past the people waiting in line. But before you go in, if you don't have any juice for your toddler, make sure you grab one from the vendors. Being ripped off for an overpriced bottle of orange juice is much better than having a screaming toddler who refuses to drink the bottled water you brought. Trust me on this one.

Then when you finally enter through Vatican walls, you feel like you're at the airport going through TSA security. There are metal detectors and x-ray machines for your bags. I suppose that makes sense since you are technically entering a new country.

Also, we knew in advance that backpacks were not allowed so we put everything in my mother's purse or under my stroller. Yes, we brought my stroller. There's a lot of walking in the Vatican for a little 2.5 year old!

After you collect your belongings and get through, you have to go to the ticket counters inside to exchange your printed paper voucher for actual tickets.

How difficult was it to have a stroller?
The Vatican Museum does have a lot of modern amenities such as elevators and wheelchair ramps for the most part, with the one exception as you get towards the Sistine Chapel. But to understand what I mean, I first need to explain how the museum is laid out. If you want to print something out, then click on this link here.

You enter the building at the bottom of this map shown here where you see the red arrow pointing left. Then you go upstairs to the start of the museum which is to the right of the green courtyard area shown. That's where you can pick up your audioguide if you wanted to use one. But note, you need to leave an ID or credit card to ensure you return the audioguide at the end. Luckily, my mother had her ID on her as my father left his wallet in the hotel.

From there, you walk up the stairs to the upstairs floor where the actual museum starts then follow the dark blue arrows down the long upstairs hallway where each of the rooms/exhibits are displayed. You end up heading towards the Sistine Chapel at the top of the map (the small grey rectangle in the top center of the map above). Then you come back downstairs along the dark blue path back to the beginning where you started.

Clearly, the Sistine Chapel is the big draw here. But if you're in a wheelchair or stroller, the access path to the Sistine Chapel is actually to go backwards against traffic starting from the end. Even then, there's a few short flights of stairs that my father needed to carry me down.

However, that meant that we were unable to see everything before the Sistine Chapel.

But here's a great tip. About halfway down the long downstairs hallway, you may find a sign for "Stanze di Raphael" showing an elevator sign. That hidden elevator will take you upstairs to the Galleria degli Arrazi where you can see the upstairs artwork - which are NOT to be missed!

However, as you get towards the Sistine Chapel, you'll encounter a fair share of stairs going up and you will need to carry your stroller as you merge with a lot of tourists all funneling into the single person entrance to the super crowded Sistine Chapel. Then inside, you're jammed in like sardines with everyone looking up (instead of ahead of them). Definitely had a few tourists bump into me accidentally. I would have had my father take photos of the famous Michelangelo ceiling, but no photos were allowed there at all.

Long story short, if we had to do it over again, we'd have still brought a stroller. During the few hours my family spent in the Vatican Museum, I definitely passed out for at least an hour, and it would have been cumbersome for my parents to carry 28 pounds of adorable in their arms.

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