Skip the Sistine Chapel? Alternatives for Avoiding Crowds in Rome

Tourists are fainting inside the Vatican Museums. Literally, about 10 times each day, someone drops to the ground from heat and exhaustion. It’s crowded — with up to 40,000 daily visitors. It can be sweltering — with temperatures soaring to over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. And everyone is squeezed through the pope’s sumptuous halls in one vast, slow-moving mosh pit of humanity…like hot toothpaste slowly moving through a tube. While home to some of the greatest art of human civilization — including Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling — the Vatican Museums are also, for anyone claustrophobic or simply pooped, one of travel’s most unpleasant experiences.

On my recent visit to Rome, I talked to several Romans who, on a daily basis, interact with visitors (and specifically Rick Steves guidebook readers and tour members): hotel owners, local tour guides, restauranteurs, and so on. When I asked what was new, every single one of them mentioned the crushing crowds at a handful of world-famous sights — the Vatican Museums and the Colosseum topping the list. Every day, they see travelers exhausted, frustrated, frazzled, and demoralized after trying to see these great sights. Those poor visitors retreat home with their tails between their legs, feeling bruised and disillusioned and not liking Rome.

And in my informal straw poll, about half of these Roman experts propose (and strongly endorse) an unconventional solution — one that’s as revolutionary as it is infuriating to purists. Hear us out, now.

Skip the Sistine Chapel. Skip the Colosseum. Instead, experience a less famous, less trampled corner of Rome. Because that way, you will truly experience Rome — not just tick off an item on your bucket list.

What Is Your Purpose?

The Romans I talked to are sad. They’re sad that their grand city is getting a bum rap because visitors are forcing themselves, as if on a forced march, through the same three or four sights on a short visit — leaving themselves with not nearly enough time, money, or patience to experience all the rest of what Rome is about.

If you have dreamed your whole life of seeing the Sistine Chapel, then by all means, go to the Sistine Chapel. (Just be sure to use a good guidebook to do it smartly: Reserve ahead, ideally first thing in the morning or — even better — during their new Friday night opening hours.) But before you assume that you simply “have to” go there, ask yourself: Are you sure? And also: Why?

To put it another way: Why are you coming to Rome? Is it just to see the great sights, period? Or is it to have a transformative encounter with the art and history of the Eternal City? Are you determined to see the Sistine Chapel only because it’s famous — or is it to have a personal encounter with an artistic masterpiece?

If it’s the latter, I have some good news: Rome has more great art than perhaps any place on earth. They have a ridiculous bounty of world-class art. They possess such an embarrassment of cultural richness, it’s bursting out of their attics and basements.

If you could stand under the Sistine Chapel ceiling in a moment of tranquility and centered awareness, and take the time to simply be still and take it all in — to let Michelangelo speak to you — then yes, that would be a lifetime experience worth any amount of toil and tribulation. But that is, most likely, not what’s going to happen when you get to the Sistine Chapel.

First, you’ll already have had your patience stretched to its limits, after traversing a half-mile of congested hallways. You’ll be sweaty and flushed. And you’ll have been bumped and jostled and rubbed against by a thousand different art lovers, from every corner of the globe.

Then, once you finally reach that majestic space, as you crane your neck to make out the details, you’ll hear not the voice of God (or even the voice of Michelangelo), but the voice of an impatient security guard shouting “Si-len-zi-o!” again and again.

Within a few minutes, you’ll feel the need to leave…no, to escape. And so, having squinted at some great art — briefly — you’ll squirt out the exit door and finally take a deep breath. At long last, your vacation-turned-ordeal is over. When you get home and people ask what you thought of Michelangelo, you’ll say, “Michael who? Was he the guy who kept jabbing me with his selfie stick?”

Try Something Different

Instead of the Vatican Museums, go to the Borghese Gallery — a beautiful, concise art gallery that fills a grand old villa tucked in a verdant park, with exquisite works by many of the great artists you’ll see at the Vatican: Raphael, Titian, Caravaggio, Bernini, Canova, and much more. If you’ve seen Michelangelo’s David in Florence, head to the Borghese and stand toe-to-toe with Bernini’s David — carved about a century later — and contemplate the differences…without some stranger’s elbow in your ribs.

Or hop on a train for an hour to visit Orvieto, where you can stroll its relatively undiscovered cobbles, enjoy intoxicating views over the Umbrian countryside, and ogle the glorious, vibrantly colorful frescoes by Luca Signorelli in the town cathedral. Signorelli may be no Michelangelo. But gazing up at his masterful scenes of the Antichrist, the dead rising from their graves, and the Last Judgment…you might just not care. As a bonus, the chapel is uncrowded — and you can linger as long as you want.

Rome’s Colosseum is an astounding feat of engineering. It’s also — if I’m being frank — pretty dull inside. And, again, it’s crowded. Not quite “cramming two pounds into a one-pound bag” crowded, like the Vatican Museums. But still unpleasant.

My visit to the Colosseum earlier this summer was just fine…mostly. But when it was time to leave, things took a turn for the worse. From the upper-level cheap seats, I reached the exit staircase at the same time as a huge school group, which poured down the steep, vertiginous steps alongside the usual flow of tourists. It was a little scary; while I’m sure on my feet, I saw other visitors who looked a bit panicked as the crowd effectively swept them up and hurried them down the steep, unforgiving stone stairs.

So here’s your alternative plan: Walk all the way around the outside of the Colosseum. Twice, if you want. It’s free, and it’s so big that crowds are not really a problem. But — unless you can’t live without seeing the ancient Roman equivalent of the concourse in a football stadium where you buy nachos and use the bathroom at halftime — skip the interior…and the long, slow-moving security and ticket lines to get inside.

Instead, after doing your loop around the Colosseum, walk 15 minutes to the Baths of Caracalla. This gigantic, communal bathing complex — dating to the third century A.D., back when almost nobody had a bathtub at home — could wash 1,600 sweaty Romans at the same time. This is where plebs would come to scrub up and to socialize, in lavish tile tubs under vaulted marbled ceilings. While admittedly about one-hundredth as famous, the ruins of this bath complex are every bit as impressive — from an ancient engineering and architecture perspective — as the Colosseum.

At day’s end, let yourself be tempted to join the passeggiata — that wonderful late-afternoon Italian custom of strolling around aimlessly, perhaps licking a gelato or pausing for an aperitivo cocktail, while bumping into old friends and catching up. Just don’t do it where everyone else does it.

The classic Roman passeggiata route meanders between Piazza Navona, the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain, and the Spanish Steps. But it’s been eons since everyday Romans actually spent time in that area. While the landmarks are sumptuous, the streets are entirely given over to tourists. Don’t get me wrong: I love this part of Rome. The Pantheon is my favorite of Rome’s many great sights, and only the most hardened cynic could manage to not be just a little enchanted by the majestic Trevi Fountain. (The appeal of the Spanish Steps has always eluded me, but you get my point.)

However, don’t mistake this area for “Rome.” This is a theme park filling some old Roman streets. If you stroll here, you’ll see not Romans out and about, but grotesquely tacky souvenir stands, hacky restaurants with interchangeably uninspired menus, street performers singing opera arias or playing pop songs on the violin, and lots and lots and lots and lots of tourists.

Sure, check out the Pantheon and toss a coin into Trevi Fountain. But then head to a more local neighborhood for your evening stroll. Just a few minutes’ walk away, the tourists melt away and are replaced by actual Romans…just enjoying their city.

For example, wander Via dei Coronari, a little street with a few touristy shops and lots of local ones, which stretches west from Piazza Navona to the river. Being here at 5 or 6 p.m., you can watch Romans emerge from their apartments and prowl their characteristic streets. Earlier this summer, I got one of the best gelati of my trip at Gelateria del Teatro (their fruit flavors are explosively flavorful) and leaned against a pillar in the piazza at the Church of San Salvatore in Lauro. Neighborhood kids were out playing in the square, doing three-legged races and jumping rope. Their parents were trading gossip and enjoying the cool of the evening. Tourists are tolerated, but this part of Rome is decidedly not for tourists. And that’s a good thing.

Or go to Monti. My favorite little corner of central Rome, the Monti neighborhood hides a few minutes’ walk from the major archaeological sites. On my recent visit, I left the Forum at closing time, crossed Via dei Fori Imperiali, angled left to avoid the busy Via Cavour, and walked no more than three or four minutes through deserted cobbled streets. I popped out at Piazza della Madonna dei Monti, a humble Roman square with a too-big fountain alongside a narrow, traffic-choked street.

In the late afternoon, the fountain swarms with the après-work crowd: Romans who buy an aperitivo at the nearby bar, or a cheap bottle of beer at the convenience store. They’re all simply hanging out, catching up, flirting, and laughing. It’s a wonderful cross-section of Rome: well-dressed office workers, grungy young people, older folks from the neighborhood, American students, and just a handful of tourists.

The streets of Monti aren’t even in the running to be named Rome’s most glamorous, or most historic. This is simply a real neighborhood, a very short walk from the rushing river of tourism. Its streets teem with hip restaurants and hole-in-the-wall shops where you can grab a panino, a slice of pizza, or a cone of gelato. And yet, spending the evening here instead of around the Pantheon, you’ll come away with a stronger impression of having actually been to Rome, the living, modern city, rather than Rome, the touristy stage set.

The Bottom Line: Take the Time to Let Rome Breathe

I know, I know: It’s very easy — condescending, even — for someone who’s already seen the Sistine Chapel or the Colosseum to advise someone else to skip it. But honestly, seeing what I’ve seen recently, if I were going to Rome for the very first time, I really would skip them. Ultimately, I’d rather have an “A+ experience” at a lesser known sight than a “C- experience” at a famous one.

Of my Roman contacts, about half suggested skipping the biggies altogether. The other half felt that, despite the crowds and the stress, it really would be a shame to miss these great sights — just be aware that they will be crowded. But unanimously, the Romans agreed that it’s essential to complement the big sights with some time spent simply strolling the lesser-known corners of Rome: parks, piazzas, streets, and neighborhoods where Romans outnumber visitors.

A similar debate is going on at the Rick Steves’ Europe home office. In the age of overtourism, everyone still has the right to see the great sights. But that doesn’t mean the great sights are right for everyone. We would never give blanket advice to simply avoid the Sistine Chapel, but it’s important for travelers to recognize that it’s a choice — not an obligation. It comes down to an individual decision: balancing your personal desire to see the Sistine Chapel and Colosseum against your threshold for crowd headaches.

Big-picture, the crush of crowds has an impact on your itinerary planning. My Roman friends have noticed a trend: People come to Rome for a very short time. “We’re here for two days,” they say, “and then we’re going to Tuscany to rent a villa for a week.” Most visitors seem to take the “strategic strike” approach to Rome: Get in, tick off those bucket list sights as quickly as possible, then get out fast. They do this partly because they’ve heard that Rome is intense and grueling. Ironically, it’s visiting Rome in this way that fills their trips with the aspects of Rome that are intense and grueling (its major sights), instead of the many, many aspects of Rome that are exactly the opposite.

So, even if you do insist on doing the big sights — s-l-o-w d-o-w-n. Take your time. Stay longer, and for every big sight you tour, offset that by watching the sunrise or sunset from an uncrowded park, or kicking around a soccer ball with neighborhood kids on a street with no English signs. Or, if time is short, be selective about which sights you see — and build in opportunities to take a deep breath and experience the true essence of Rome. Linger a bit, and you’ll find out why they call it the Eternal City.

What do you think? Sistine Chapel or no? Colosseum or any one of a dozen other great sights from ancient Rome? What has your experience been — and if you were (or are) going to Rome for the first time, would you skip the Sistine Chapel?

If you’re heading to Rome, and you do want to see the great sights, our Rick Steves Rome guidebook is an essential tool — with up-to-date advice on minimizing the impact of crowds.

If you’re heading to Rome, and you plan to skip some of the biggies — well, our Rick Steves Rome guidebook  is also perfect for you, since it includes detailed coverage on lesser-known, underappreciated sights right along with the biggies.

If you’re not going to Rome…to be honest, that’s really the only situation where our Rick Steves Rome guidebook  could be considered a bad purchase. Sorry!

67 Replies to “Skip the Sistine Chapel? Alternatives for Avoiding Crowds in Rome”

  1. Timely article, thanks. We leave for Italy next week. Most of our time will be in Venice and Ravenna with one full day in Rome before flying home. We are planning on visiting the Borghese gallery.

    According to google maps, Orvieto is more like a 2 hour train ride, not one hour.

    1. Make reservations for your visit to the Borghese Gallery. We didn’t on our trip at the end of this June, and when we got there the first available tickets were in two weeks time! We enjoyed the grounds, but missed the art. Lesson learned!

    2. I did a quick search and the trip from Roma Tiburtina to Orvieto was as quick as 1 hour, 3 minutes. Many were less than 1:15.

    3. This is a great article from Cameron Hewitt. I sometimes do a talk at the travel center called “Rome Beyond the Basics” and these are my recommendations as well.

      Orvieto is a great place to visit and my train trips there are about 1 hour 15 minutes (not two hours). Consider going to Ostia Antica just south of Rome. Ostia is the former port of classical Rome and has many buildings, structures and a great theater. If you can’t make it to Pompeii then Ostia is close and a great alternative.

      The Palazzo Farnese, which is the French Embassy, has frescos on the ceiling that are considered some of the most beautiful in the city. Consider this as an alternative to the Vatican.

      Between the Coliseum and entrance to the Roman Forum on the Via dei Fori Imperiali is the church of St. Cosmas and St. Damian. A beautiful mosaic dome over the altar and it is free and NOT crowded.

      Check out the church of Sant’ Antonio dei Portoghesi – near Piazza Navona. On many Sundays they have free concerts; also not crowded. Consider going to the church of Santa Sabina and wedged between a park and the compound of the Knights Hospitallers. Look through the keyhole at the entrance to the compound for a great view of St. Peters. The compound is on the Aventine Hill. Rome has many hidden gems and the Rome travel guide is a great source.

  2. I visited the Vatican Museums/Sistine Chapel on a Friday night with the Rick Steves VFR tour in October 2017, and it was crowded, but not unbearably so. Making a reservation at that time is a very wise option. And while it is beautiful, I much prefer Michelangelo’s sculptures over his paintings, so I don’t think I would need to see it again. I think it helped a lot that I travelled in shoulder season when the heat and the crowds are a bit diminished—it really makes a difference.

    We also went inside the Colosseum, and I enjoyed it as our local guide, Francesca, was an amazing storyteller, it was a beautiful sunny day, and I got
    a lot of great photos. But again, if you don’t know what you are looking at, it is probably just as well to stay outside. However, I did make a point to see the Borghese Gallery during my free time, and THAT was indeed my favorite sight in Rome. I circled Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne, mouth agape in awe, at least thirty times! Everything in the Borghese is magnificent and it operates on time-slot reservations, so there is never a crush of people. I found it easy to make my reservation online about a week ahead of time. Thanks Cameron—l really enjoy your blog!

  3. third visit to Rome next week, 4 days each time. Planning for a tour of the Jewish Ghetto and Trastevere, walk down and explore Testaccio and market. A big yes to Galleria Borghese, the time slot reservation system works to keep the crowds down. Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne is magnificent. I’ve seen the Capella Sistina twice ( wish I could lay on the floor and look up !)
    Rome has so many wonderful little streets, churches, fountains, that “doing ” Rome in two days is bordering on ridiculous. It’s like “doing” Paris in two days. People need to slow down, enjoy the city and the people, hang out and enjoy the art in the churches everywhere and not just look to take a selfie in front of something.

  4. It’s been 10 years since my husband and I started our honeymoon in Roma. We made reservations for an English guided tour at the Vatican and a Galleria Borghese. We had Roma Pass and skipped line to enter the Colosseum. I researched and read your guidebook, and I was glad that you packed so much valuable information throughout your book. Ever since, we have been making any excuses to go back to Italia. I even make an occasional solo trip to Roma whenever my husband is not available. It’s more relaxed to be in my terms. In that way, time is always on my side. We were in Roma in early May this year after finishing the part one of our 10 year anniversary trip back to Greece. And in a month we will be back in Roma for the part 2 of our grand anniversary. We’ve seen the top sites already in the past, so we always look for something different which are often not included in your guidebooks. I would love to revisit the Vatican museum in less crowded off-season. I would love to spend more time viewing and appreciate the priceless collections without being rushed.

  5. I usually send visitors to the church of San Clemente near the Coliseum. The church itself has lovely mosaics and is a good representative of its type, and then there’s a small catacomb and a bonus Mithreum below. You can see a lot in one place and it’s not usually busy.

    1. Yes on San Clemente! And yes on Francesca! She could make a trip to anywhere an enchanting experience. We enjoyed the Coliseum and the Forum with her as well as the Villa Borghese on another day. We have been back to Rome several times to wander, eat, people watch and soak in the city on our own. With the inexpensive airfares between cities in Europe we have always tacked on some days in our favorite places to revisit after a RS tour somewhere new.

    2. Me, too! I always recommend people see San Clemente first because it gives such a wonderful view of the time span of life and art in Rome.

  6. Since it was my wife’s first visit to Rome I arranged early before opening tours of both the Vatican museum and Colosseum. We went directly to the Sistine Chapel to spend some wonderful time almost alone with Michelangelo then returned to the beginning of the museum, already crowded. It was grand but I would not go to the added expense again on my next visit to Rome.

    I spent more time circling outside the Colosseum and was more fascinated by the grandeur of the architecture than what was left inside.

    Our favorite memories were made out and about Rome’s neighborhoods and less visited museums.

  7. I agree wholeheartedly! My first trip to Rome We visited the Sistene chapel.amd Colloseum/Forum in the sweltering July sun. It was interesting and our guide was excellent but that said, it felt like an ordeal and a day to be endured.
    The most enjoyable part of our trip was after our tour was over and stayed just outside of Rome at a lovy beach town called Ostia where we could relax at the ocean and enjoy lively evenings with locals along the pier and enjoy fabulous meals at the restaurants and cafes in the very walkable area.
    We them took a short train ride to Ostia Antica, which was nothing short of magical. I’m this former port city, you can find ruins from structures which predate the Colloseum. We learned a lot about ancient commerce aa well as pagan eligious customs which were practiced there at that time. A short walk from the ruins is a lovely little village inside of a large stone wall where all the charm of medieval times have been lovingly preserved and maintained. The buildings are being utilized today by a restaurant, businesses and residences. We met a couple who is renting an apartment in one of the very old buildings who shared with us how wonderful it is to live within the walls of a medieval village but still have WiFi!
    After a hectic and busy tour I highly recommend unwinding for a few days in Ostia!

  8. Great advice Cameron. Rome is far too amazing to be experienced in two days. My minimum stay is four days and I’ve visited six times. There is an endless itinerary of neighbourhoods, narrow streets, piazzas and tucked away courtyards to see. Trastevere at dusk is magic and happy hour is an institution in so many of the bars and restaurants in the city now. If you are an early riser you can enjoy the uncrowded streets, duck into a bar for a cappucino and a bomba and wander to your hearts content. There are some beautiful churches that are blissfully uncrowded, quiet and always so cool in the heat of the summer too. If you’re not careful the touristy Rome can grind you down pretty quickly but it doesn’t have to be that way at all.

  9. Our fourth trip to Italy was in December of 2017. It was chilly to walk outside as much as you do in Rome. (I had to buy some extra wraps to be comfortable.) But the city about 1/5 as full as in October or June. Our next trip is in January. One does give up the lovely flowers decorating the streets, and dining outdoors. But the place is nearly empty, and that is worth the sacrifice

  10. Absolutely agree! On our first trip there we DID do the Sistine Chapel (taking Rick’s advice to book a tour which let us in prior to regular opening and went directly to the Chapel so there were a “mere” 100 people there. And we DID see the Colosseum (and your description is on point). But what I MOST remember about Rome, were neither of those major attractions. What I most remember was the afternoon and evening we spent walking the streets of Testaccio (working class neighborhood), sitting on the Piazza there, watching the children play ball and skate, and wandering through the amazing “Protestant Cemetery” there where Keats and Shelley are buried.

  11. Definitely go in the off season when it is cooler and less crowded. Have been to the Vatican twice, both times arriving about 1:30. No line to get in! Walked right up to the ticket booths. Yes the main hallway is crowded, though not too bad in March. Almost no one goes into the galleries off to the sides. We did and saw fabulous Egypian, Etruscan exhibits, and many other wonderful things. If you wait a bit, even the main hallway will clear and you can get great photos. Always look at the ceilings and floors, because they are works of art, too. Yes, the Sistine chapel is always crowded. We stood to the side and waited for a spot on a bench to open up, so we could sit and admire the ceiling as long as we wanted. As for the Colosseum, get tickets in advance, or take the underground tour, to avoid the long line. We found the interior fascinating, and walked around twice, taking dozens of photos, and imagining what it was like when it was new. I can’t imagine going to Rome for the 1st time and not visiting these 2 places. Of course, do the other things Cameron suggests, too.

  12. Made my first European trip in my 53 year life this year by taking your 7 day trip to Rome. Like many before I love the city and look forward to a return trip. Personally I was blown away by the Colosseum. The vatican was 45 minutes of excitment packed into 4 hours. My return trip will not include either. Would love for your group to consider a Rome 2.0 trip that skips those two events and goes a little deeper in Rome history art and culture. Love what you guys do!!! Thank You

  13. After four trips to Rome I am all about the lesser-known sights. Last time it was the Capitoline Museum, which is chock-full of great art and history and features a great view over the Forum. Still have not seen the Borghese; that will be a priority next time.

  14. I couldn’t DISAGREE more with your article, and times it infuriated me. The places you are tell people not to go, are the very places that are truly amazing and inspiring…that catch your emotions off guard.

    That being said, thank you for providing alternative places. I will look into those for my next trip to Italy..

  15. We rec’d fantastic advice prior to our trip to Rome, which was to pop in small cathedrals/churches as we strolled through the City…art and architecture are everywhere, ancient and amazing. We had two small children with us and the Vatican/Sistine Chapel was simply something to endure due to the noisy, shoulder-to-shoulder crowds. The key was to relax, enjoy a cappuccino or glass of wine at one of the many sidewalk cafes, absorb the culture, walk everywhere and just take it in. I will forever crave the pistachio gelato, and that is what has me wanting to go back!

  16. We spent four days at the end of November. While there were crowds they weren’t overwhelmingly. We probably spent half an hour in the Sistine and did not feel pressured. Part of it is your attitude towards such things. I would also suggest San_Pietro_in_Vincoli where you can see Michelangelo’s Moses and the other pieces he did for the unfinished tomb of Pope Julius. We spent two weeks in Orvieto and found new things to do each day. It’s also a good place from which to make day trips.

  17. I am in Rome as I write this, cooling off after a hot morning at the colosseum. We booked an 8:30 am guided tour, when the crowds were “light.” I don’t think I would do it again, but I’m glad I did go and see it. Yesterday, I walked the “heart of Rome”self guided audio from the Rick Steves app. Very nice couple of hours. Then I continued onto the Borghese gallery where I had booked an English tour. The guided tour was a great way to really understand and appreciate the amazing art in the small gallery. Plus walking in the park with a pistachio gelato was wonderful

  18. I agree about Vatican Museums and SC. The way we spent time in SC was we found two immediate seats on the perimeter walls. My friend whispered into my ear very quietly reading from RIck Steves guidebook about all the sections of the ceiling. We spent over 30 minutes doing this. She has seen it many times but this was my first visit. Truly magnificent altar and ceiling. The museum has no AC was sweltering, overcrowded, and many selfie sticks. I was getting sick. We walked around the Colleuseum and viewed the ruins from elevated plaza across street. Complete view. The Borghesi Gallery – never again. Hot, crowded, no elevators, no AC, unhelpful attendants to the max. Someone needs to take a long hard look at how Rome does tourists and figure out how to do it better and friendlier. Loved my visit but crowds are overwhelming. Going to Paris and I am skipping inside the Louve, will look at Eiffle from Tocadero in evening and d’Orsay in very late Thursday afternoon. Otherwise it’s gardens and cafes for me. I must think and do differently as a traveller in 21st century in order to counteract the disorder of overtouristed cities. Rick Steves Team, love your site, podcasts and articles. Thank you for keeping us informed and all that you do.

  19. We visited Rome for 5 days last summer with our 9 & 6 year olds and my limited mobility mother in law. I was concerned that if we kept a frantic pace we would all be miserable. Instead, I booked private guided tours that specialized in kids for the Vatican and Colloseum. . It was perfect. We visited the Colloseum at opening and the Vatican on a Wednesday afternoon (skipping the lines). The Vatican was much more crowded than I remembered it being on my previous visits, but the Sistine Chapel was worth it, especially for my Catholic Mother-in-Law. . We spent the remainder of those days meandering around the old town, eating gelato and delicious meals. It was magical. I knew it would be crowded, but thanks to tips in Rick Steve’s books, and finding guides that would work with our pace, we were able to see “the biggies” but enjoy la dolce vita!

    1. Caroline Rausch: We did private tours, too, when we were there in June/July this year. We had been to all the places before with a Rick Steves tour, but the private tour guide just for our family of 4 was absolutely wonderful. We had so much fun!

  20. A word of advice, don’t purchase a combined Hop On Hop Off Bus ticket and a “beat the queue” Colosseum ticket from Trip Advisor/Viator. Firstly, you have to print them (difficult if you are not at home). Secondly, we were herded away from the Colosseum entrance to an office 10 minutes away where we waited 45 minutes to be escorted by a sales-rep to the Colosseum …..then back into another queue where we waited another 45 minutes. Finally after seeing the Colosseum we were told to be back in another 45 minutes if we wanted to be guided through the Palatine Hill/Forum. That 45 minutes wait became 75 minutes wait!
    As for the Hop On Hop off bus make sure that you avoid wet weather – even with the top roof on there are no side windows and the roof had holes so you will get wet!

  21. I totally agree. I just came back from Italy and spent the last 5 days on my first trip to Rome. I did most of the biggies, and tried to do them the smart way – early morning tour to the Vatican, hitting most of the others in the morning, but they are crowded and exhausting. I agree about walking around the Colosseum, but then suggest people do a night-time tour of it. Much cooler in both temperature and ambience, and hardly anyone there. I did it both first thing in the morning and at night, and much preferred it at night.

    And the Vatican is going to be frustrating no matter what. Even the early tour you have to dash through the museum and see almost nothing. And the Sistine Chapel is just as you described it. Listening to Rick’s audio tour of St. Peter’s helped to block out some of the noise and bother of the hoards of disrespectful tourists taking selfies, but my favorite part of that day was strolling down the Via dei Coronari and poking my head into little shops and finding a fabulous hole in the wall pizza takeaway place solely because of the amazing smells coming out of it. And my other favorite was walking around Monti where my hotel was located. I stopped in that same piazza to hang out and rest, and I got to know some of the artisans who make what they sell and the baker who told me I should have the apple strudel because it was still warm from the oven. I loved that side of Rome so much, and I’m glad I didn’t miss it.

  22. I wholeheartedly agree with Ricks article. I have been to Rome twice and visited the “sights”. They were crowded, hot and miserable- he describes the scene to perfection. On one stay we booked a hotel room overlooking the Trevi fountain. On our arrival we found the fountain closed to renovation. That did not stop the crowds- It would have been such fun to toss Mardi Gras beads out of our window and brought much fun to the tourists who were looking at a dead fountain. He described the area very accurately- thronged with tourists and terrible restaurants. Sadly both visits made me never want to return to Rome. If I do return, I will follow his advice and skip the tourist sites!

  23. Maybe Rome needs to build replicas of sites like the Sistine Chapel, in the same way there are replicas of the caves from France and Spain.

    I think the crowds do depend on the time of year. So, another option is to try to go in the slower season if the ultra famous sites are really important to see.

    One other comment: the heat of the summer, and the strikes that can happen, can be a problem no matter what sites you are going to see. So, having more than two days in Rome is good no matter what. I will never forget finding out there was a bus and metro strike, and the only way we could get back to our hotel was via a very pricey taxi. But, we were glad we could get there at all.

  24. We have visited Rome 5 times, each for at least 5 days, and never in the summer. October, March, even April are not very crowded at all. We have been to the “main ” sites, and enjoyed our visits. We go back to the Pantheon and the Borghese each time, but really like to wander and always find something or some place that speaks to us ! We take buses ( many interesting experiences ! ) and walk and always hate to leave our favourite city .

  25. The best bit of advice I got on my first visit to Roma was from the man who ran a boutique hotel (which I found in the RS guidebook). He said, “Don’t Do Rome, let Rome do you.” I have since stayed twice in Monti at Casa Il Rosario (also located via RS) and could not agree more about being centrally located to many sites and immediately adjacent to the subway system. I do hope to go back again and apart from the pinoteca at the Vatican Museums (where during previous trips I dodged the crowds by hiding out in the Egyptian and Etruscan wings) I intend completely to visit smaller places I’ve not seen before. I can’t tell you how enchanting it was during earlier trips to quietly and respectfully walk into neighborhood churches and simply let it soak in (including in Monti). I also try to find more local restaurants and eat there several nights in a row – it doesn’t make you a local – but you come to be recognized as not being a tourist either. Huge difference in the quality of service and connection that gets created….

  26. On our second visit to Rome we were with friends who are Italian including a Roman. We visited the Coliseum but it was in October and not too bad. Then we let them guide. We saw amazing stuff with almost no crowds, had an amazing dinner and just loved the city.

  27. Done valid points, but the coliseum and Vatican are too amazing to miss. A better solution, other than the early AM, is a night tour. General admission tickets are limited/non existent so the only people there are part of a specific tour

  28. I’ve been to the colluseum two times. I would not go inside of it again. I would go to Vatican again with a tour or reservations. I agree with San Clemente, and Borghese museums.

    If possible, don’t go at the height of tourist season.

  29. I have been to Rome multiple times, and I wholeheartedly agree with this article’s suggestions. My friend and I (on our last trip there in 2018) made arrangements for the earliest “tour” we could get at the Vatican Museum. By the time the bus picked us up at our hotel and then took us to a transfer point where we then boarded the real bus that would take us to the Vatican Museum and then we walked the few blocks to the museum entrance and then (thanks to being a tour group) entered almost right away, and then spent 30 minutes of a 1.5 hour “tour” walking very crowded hallways (even at that time in the morning!) with a guide who seemed to be in a hurry and was virtually unhearable in order to get to the Sistine Chapel that was already so crowded that we had to squeeze along the walls to fit in and, if we even opened our mouths to comment (almost in a whisper) about the magnificence of the ceiling, the booming voice of the security guard reminded us to BE QUIET (even though HE was the noisiest person in the room), before finally escaping out the “special exit” that took us directly into St. Peters where there were more selfie sticks being used than candles in the votive racks where we were once more hustled through the “main sights” before being escorted barely 20 minutes later out the entrance/exit doors of the Basilica and then being hustled across the square to the bus that was waiting to take our guide back to the main office while leaving us to fend for ourselves (we ended walking six blocks to the closest Metro station where we took the subway back to Termini Station and our hotel that was three blocks from there. And we did this all for the “wonderful” price of $45 per person! In short, if you want the best experience (new visitor or repeater), take the advice in the article. There are plenty of good maps available showing you where all the “sights” are in Rome–and Rome is very walkable. Just take your time, as mentioned, enjoy the PEOPLE, the food, and the many 1st Century Roman buildings tucked in between more modern 16th Century apartment buildings. And by all means, take the time to go to Ostia Antica. The Metro system gets you there in about a half hour, it’s all walkable (after paying a reasonable admission fee)–and there are NO crowds but LOTS of antiquity AND history (and is FAR better than Pompeii, too). You can even sit on the seats in the theater there and imagine you are watching a play on its still-used “stage.” The key to enjoying Rome is to take it slow–and explore. If you’re afraid you’ll get lost, just listen for the closest sounds of traffic–and then walk that direction for the next major thoroughfare.

  30. Rick Steve’s guidebooks are awesome. In 2010′ our family went to several Eruopean countries and we planned our visit to Rome around very specific dates because Rick’s advice was this: the last Sunday of every month, admission to the Vatican museums is free. So it is incredibly crowded! Go to the Coliseum that day instead as no one will be there and go to the Vatican on the Monday, as everyone went on the free Sunday. Well, guess what? We were literally the only people at the Coliseum on that Sunday and the next day, the Vatican was mostly deserted. Thanks to Rick, we had a fantastic time. and I just checked and the Vatican is still free on the last Sunday of the month.

  31. Skip the Sistine Chapel crowds. But, take Rick Steves’ advice and visit the Colosseum late in the day, just before closing — no lines, and you can stand inside imagining what it was like to be an ancient Roman who attended the events that took place there. It was a powerful experience for me. Loved the Borghese Gallery — a hugely memorable and meaningful experience.

  32. Love this timely article. I am taking my 18 yo son in May for 3 days and have been torn about taking him to the major sites. He has said he has no desire to go into the Colosseum, he would rather see the Roman Forum. We are also doing a tour that is taking us into the Sistine Chapel really early in the morning and we are hoping to avoid a major crush at that time.
    I told him we could skip the main museums and just walk the streets and go into the churches and see just as much art. He loves history and culture, so I’m trying to plan a good mix between the two. Your article has helped ease my mind about maybe skipping some sites.

  33. We went to all the big sites and took a tour including skip the line at the Vatican Museum and Sistine chapel. It was horrible, like being in a sea of cattle. I would skip it all together. Although my daughter studied in Rome and says in January and February it’s not crowded at all and it’s quite enjoyable . The Borghese gallery, you’ll need reservations and they are strict about when you can enter and when you need to leave, but it is wonderful. You can wander and see everything with ease. Loved it! The park it is in is pretty too. I liked the coliseum and all the other big tourist sites, but we were there in late May so perhaps not as crowded. We always use Rick’s guidebook to find the many neighborhoods that are off the beaten path and that is where we dine, shop and soak in the culture. I like Rome, but prefer Florence or smaller towns like Sorrento even more.

  34. The guards in the Sistine chapel are far louder and annoying then the tourists. They spoil it. I’ve been to the Sistine chapel numerous times: 1x before they restored it, 1x when it was half finished & a few times since it was finished. It’s amazing! WOW!!Nut the guards are AWFUL!!

  35. We returned from Rome 2 days ago, having spent 5 nights in Trastevere. Thanks to Rick we made reservations at Borghese, and saw people turned away because they didn’t know reservations were required. So many other things to see; St. Peter-in-Chains, St. Ignazio( my favorite), Satanta Maria in Trastevere, ride a bike on Appia Antica, eat a pizza at an outside cafe and have an accordian player play for tips. Loved it and glad we stayed longer. Thank you Rick for your GREAT guide book. We started in Warsaw, then Krackow, Prague, Budapest, Bratislava, Vienna, Verona ( please add Trento to a great see), Bari, and finely Rome.

  36. We returned last week from a late October visit to Rome. On a previous trip we were unable to visit the Sistine Chapel due to the use of the chapel for the election of Pope Francis. We had seen the museums before so after being admitted at 9am we hurried past the tour groups and ended up in the chapel before much of the crowd arrived. While sitting along the side of the chapel we watched one of the chaplains for the Sistine Chapel talking to people and providing blessings near the front of the chapel. We then went upstairs and found another of the chaplains reading at a desk located some distance before the gift shops. We bought two rosaries for our grandchildren and then took them back to the chaplain for him to bless. He explained his role with the chapel, asked about our grandchildren and then inquired about us, our marriage and our visit (and then blessed both the rosaries and our family). The chapel was impressive, but the connection to it through the chaplain was at least as moving to me.

  37. We went to both the Vatican Museum/Sistine Chapel & the Colosseum, September 2015. I was really happy with all of my research and the methods we used for a fairly easy and crowd-free experience.
    We had breakfast at the Vatican, which you can book directly on their site. We arrived there for dawn and a lovely 7am breakfast in the beautiful courtyard. There were about 50 people at the breakfast, and we were the among the first people into the museum. By the time we had meandered to the Sistine Chapel, there was still plenty of room to walk around, room on the benches, to take it all in, and I never heard any “shushing”. When the throng started to grow, we continued on our way. We nearly fell over in horror, on our way out, when we saw the throngs waiting in line!
    As for the Colosseum, we bought tickets for the Underground Tour, through the Colosseum website. We had a timed entry (2pm) and a small group, maybe 10-15 people. We walked past the lines, and got to see the underground workings, the general areas and special entry up onto the upper level. Our guide was fantastic, and, again, we had a completely uncrowded experience.
    I highly recommend both methods if these sites are “must see”!

  38. Amen to all that has been said. You could spend a year in Rome and not see/experience all that it has to offer. Time to enjoy just “being in Rome” is a luxury many simply do not have, but if you can swing it, spend more time in Rome not less. And, however long you stay, do not over commit or obsess about seeing X or Y famous site; just let the sights, sounds and smells of the city surround you and seep into your pores. You’ll love it and you will leave relaxed and fully satisfied.

  39. Rome cannot be enjoyed in one trip. First visit in November or December. The crowds fade away even at the major sites. You can walk right into the Vatican if you go early. Get the Roma Pass and use the Hop-on buses. Never visit more than two sights a day and enjoy a nice lunch in between sights. We’ve been 3 times in the last 5 years and we want more.

    Ditto for Florence!

  40. We just got back from two weeks in Italy and we did exactly what you described in your blog, 3 days in Rome, first thing, to get the angst out of the way. We stayed at an a-b-b with a view of the Colosseum, hired private tours for the Vat and the Col visited the Parthenon and Spanish Steps. We would not have missed those biggies, but we were more interested in getting to Cinque Terra and our villa in Tuscany for the remainder of our time. We threw in a couple of days at Florence which we really enjoyed, too.
    We would go back to Rome to experience the rest of what’s there and skip the biggies we have already seen. I would say the crowds may not be as bad st the end of October and the weather was ideal!

  41. We visited Rome for the first time in mid-September for 5 days. We studied and followed Rick’s advice on seeing the big attractions, as they were on our list, but we were led by private guides on the 3 days we toured. It was the only way to go for our group of 4 and very reasonably priced! We toured the Colosseum and surroundings, Ancient Rome (Trevi fountain, Spanish Steps, etc) and the Vatican/Sistine Chapel, on our 3 tour days. Each guide was educated in their specialty area we toured and very knowledgeable and importantly, “passionate” about the topic, their city and culture. The guides mirrored what the author writes about the feelings of local Romans, and made Rome the best experience for us. We have talked about whether we’d return to Rome, but after reading this article and the suggestions of our Tourguides, it’s likely we would, before setting off to explore southern Italy. By the way, on our way to Assisi (our 2nd leg) we stopped in Orvieto for a few hours. What a delightful and beautiful town! A return is in order and possibly a longer stay to immerse in the culture.

  42. I could not agree more with your assessment of the Vatican and the Sistine Chapel. It was so overcrowded and unpleasant. I looked forward to seeing the Sistine Chapel and it was a horrifying experience. We had to line up against the back walls and the guards were yelling silence in Italian the entire viewing. What was supposed to be a beautiful and sacred sight was horrible. Visitors were also to blame because some people either tried to take pictures or were talking despite the constant yelling by guards. I was very upset by the experience and not being able to enjoy this historic and gorgeous work of art. I would tell anyone visiting Rome to avoid the Vatican completely. It does not need to be this way. They could manage this much better. It’s greed that creates the overcrowding and unpleasantness.
    We had no problem at the Colosseum and enjoyed the rest of Rome very much. We did see the Trevi Fountain and the Spanish steps and went to the non-touristy areas too. We loved Rome and would love to return there. It’s magnificent.

  43. I agree with Cameron’s assessment of Rome, one of my favorite cities. Fortunately I had chance to visit the Sistine Chapel and the Colosseum in less crowded days. I would still visit St. Peter’s Basilica despite the crowds and layers of security because it an awesome place, and if not too crowded, going to the top of the dome. I still enjoy the Pantheon and make an effort to visit every time I am in Rome. I made the mistake a couple years ago in visiting the Spanish Steps and Trevi Fountain since I had not been to those sites in several years. There were wall to wall people, especially at Trevi fountain (Cameron’s picture if you look closely gives a hint of that). The Borghese Gallery (with advance reservations) is a must, but there are so many other sites that are not on first or second timers’ lists that are worth visiting: Capitoline Museum, Palatine Hill and Museum, San Pietro in Vincoli, Piazza Navona, San Luigi dei Francesi, St. Maria Sopra Minerva, the Scala Sancta, Basilica of San Giovanni in Laterno, Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria, the Via Margutta, Trastevere, the Jewish Ghetto, the Great Synagogue, the top of the Victor Emmanuel II Monument, etc. You can see so much in Rome just walking around, which can be done to all the above sites. Stop in any open church and be prepared for a surprise. Wear your money belt and enjoy!

  44. Visited Rome on a five day jaunt over President’s Day. I opted to visit “lesser” sites: San Giovanni, St. Paul’s Outside the Walls, Santa Maria, the catacombs, Villa Farnesina. All were amazing and I had nearly every site to myself. One of my favorite things is to stop and visit a church not on the tourist map. So inspiring and so amazing. I always think to myself that this empty church would be a show stopper everywhere else in the world.. I do however disagree with the author and do not consider Borghese to be an alternative site. When advising first time visitors it is a top three place along with Colosseum/Palatine/Forum as well as St Peter’s/Vatican. But I do agree with the idea that alternative sites are interesting and a great vacation can be had in Rome without flocking to the well known. The author is also spot on about The Spanish Steps.

  45. We took a tour to Norway and it was striking. Big bus tours would unload and overwhelm a museum. The tour would see one or a few “tourist draws” and then leave the museum. The sad part was they missed a huge amount of really cool stuff while ruining the major draw for the rest of the paying visitors. To add insult to injury, many people in a tour aren’t interested in all the stops, so they hang out in front of exhibits just to bide time until the bus leaves.

  46. Noooooooo. Don’t skip those. They are incredible and mind boggling and can stir up a lot of awe and emotion. You just need to plan it well and follow the recommendations from people like Steves. Hiring an english speaking tour of St. Peter’s will make it 1000x more interesting. I still, 25 years later, recall fantastic pieces of information from our tour guide. Same for the Sistine Chapel-having someone to explain what you’re seeing made it just incredible. We lingered for a long time. There’s a reason all of these things draw crowds-they are really awe-inpsiting. INCLUDING the inside of the Colosseum. The tours to explain what you’re looking at bring it to life. And then, explore. The Borghese park was a great afternoon just hanging out and watching Roman families enjoy a nice day. Scoping out new neighborhoods for fun cafes and ruins is fun. And, go in the off season. Take your time no matter where you go so you can absorb what you’re seeing and experiencing.

  47. Several years ago, I was reading the Rick Steves site, and discovered a secondary site that was a walking tour of the four Roman Forums. Fabulous! It was like actually being there–the walk was narrated as it moved along, including showing pictures of what the buildings originally looked like. The tour showed the forums better than actually being there! I’ve never been able to find that site again.

  48. Recently returned from Rome and had an amazing time with the exception of the Vatican tour. I felt like I was being herded in a cattle drive. Great tour guide “skip the line”. But it was claustrophobic. St. Peters Basilica was closed and the Sistine Chapel was wall to wall people with 1 (one) single door exit. Very unsafe and unhealthy. I will return to Rome, but never the Vatican!

  49. I’m in Rome now with my sister and friends, they are here for the first time and I definitely skip the Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel. But I took them to Colosseum and walk the Heart of Rome. The pages of stick Steve’s Rome are wrinkled and worn.

  50. I was in Rome with my daughter two weeks ago and if I had read this article, I would have definitely skipped the Colosseum. But even with the incredible crowds, we were so happy to see the Pope and visit the Sistine Chapel. I lived in Rome as a college student (about 40 years ago) and remember being in the Sistine Chapel with it was uncrowded with soft angelic music playing. With those days gone, it was still powerful to see the art in the Sistine Chapel. We did follow many of Rick Steve’s walking tours — Heart of Rome, Trastevere, Jewish Ghetto — which were lovely, uncrowded and so much fun!

  51. Aah Bella Roma! After a few exhausting days sightseeing, a last minute decision to visit Trevi Fountain at midnight with our 3 grown daughters created memories to last a lifetime…. firstly, our taxi driver was so excited we were seeing Trevi Fountain for the first time, he insisted on giving us coins to throw in the fountain! Then as we rounded the corner, there it was in all its stunning magnificence. The sight took our collective breath away …. and would you believe, it was totally peaceful with no tourists only a small German Choir who magically started singing just as a kind passerby was taking our family photo! Ten years later, that framed photo still hangs on our wall – all five of us have tears in our eyes!

  52. The first time I was in Rome was 40 years ago when I was in college. Definitely saw a difference in crowds when my husband and I visited 6 years ago and I’m sure it is worse now. We really enjoyed the Borghese Gallery and the reservation system made for a great uncrowded visit. One lesser known site I have not seen mentioned is the Catacombs of Priscilla. They are in the city so easier to get to than the ones out on the Appian Way. The afternoon I went, there were no other English speakers there, so I got my own private tour with a little Italian nun. One of my most favorite travel experiences!

  53. I am lucky enough to have visited Italy at least two dozen times. The first time was 45 years ago, and I feel fortunate to have been there before Rome became so crowded. The Vatican and the Colosseum are worth the effort on your first trip, but… I do think that most travelers would do well to go south. Southern Italy with Puglia, Basilicata and Calabria are truly beautiful places to visit. The food and the people are amazing and the prices are so incredibly reasonable. I wish the Italian government would promote this part of the country. It would help the economy of the south and take a little of the strain of heavy tourism off of the holy trio of Roma, Firenze and Venezia.

  54. I would pay for “skip the lines” tour guide to get in and a general orientation to the Vatican City, Sistine Chapel experience and just rented ear phones to tour it myself. Had a tour guide throughout, but the guide spent a lot of time trying to keep group together and waiting to go into the next “room”. Would have liked to spent more time in some rooms and less in others. Maybe some day I can go back.
    Borghese Gallery is a must – my favorite site in Rome! Arrange for tickets ahead of time.
    A friend who lived in Rome several years told me to “follow my nose” when looking for good places to eat. She was absolutely right!

  55. Perhaps the best compromise is to see the “must-do” sights, but in the off-season. We were in Florence at the end of October a few years back. We got tickets for the Uffizi on an evening when they were open late. We practically had the place to ourselves. Plus, after dark, with the dramatic lighting and the views over the Arno, the whole effect was magical! Last year we had an unexpected bonus of one day in Rome. My husband had never been before ( unlike me), so I let him choose. He picked the Sistine Chapel. It was June, and yes, it was crowded. We made reservations in advance. We made the best of it, and he ended up thrilled to have seen it with his own eyes. It would have been preferable to have seen it when it wasn’t so crowded, but better to have seen it under these circumstances than not to have seen it at all.

  56. One of my favorite places to see near Rome is Villa D’ Este, with it’s incredible display of fountains! Haven’t seen it mentioned anywhere in this article

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