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!

21 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 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.

  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!

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