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!