If you’re embarking on a Europe trip for the first time, a stop in Rome is definitely going to be high on your list. It’s an iconic city – the amazing food, the romantic vibes and significant historic sites. However if you ask friends and family about Rome they might give you a few warnings – it’s hot, it’s crowded, it’s dirty, and it’s usually one of the least favourite stops on their trip.
When we were planning our trip, we got this advice a lot. But of course, you can’t really skip Rome – a trip to Italy just wouldn’t be complete without it. And really, we were pleasantly surprised by Rome – maybe because we’d had our expectations set quite low. Yes it was stinking hot (we were there in peak summer), it was dirty (apparently all the rubbish collectors were on holiday) and it was ridiculously crowded (full of tourists just like us!) but that didn’t take away from its unique charm, and the areas away from tourist hotspots were calm and let us enjoy the authentic Italian culture.
There’s no denying though that visiting the tourist hot spots can be a bit stressful on a hot summer’s day – so we’ve put together a few tips on how to make the most of it and hopefully free up some time for you to visit some more hidden gems!
Here’s our tips for visiting the Colosseum, the Vatican and St Peter’s Basilica.
A trip to Rome definitely wouldn’t be complete without visiting the Colosseum. It’s the largest amphitheatre ever built and could hold over 50,000 spectators in its prime (pre 100 AD!) But because it’s so famous, it can be crazy busy when you try to visit.
Booking tickets online
Our biggest tip for the Colosseum – book online! For other millennial travellers, this is sometimes a no-brainer, but I can’t recommend it highly enough for the Colosseum. On their website, you can book for a particular time slot for your visit. I usually don’t love doing this because I like to have a bit more flexibility in our day when travelling, but it’s definitely worth it.
When you get to the Colosseum there are two lines – the line for people who don’t have tickets, and the line for people who do. For us, the ticket holder line was completely empty. We rocked up about 10 minutes before our allotted time slot, and we were told to come back in 5 minutes. So we went for a quick wander around the area, then came back and walked straight through the empty line, walking past lots of sad, hot looking people waiting in the main queue. Once inside, we went through an almost empty security line and walked straight into the Colosseum.
So be one of those smug people too and buy your tickets in advance!
Right up front, I’ll be honest – I wouldn’t call our visit to the Vatican a success. I followed a few tips I found online but we found it to be so crowded we could hardly enjoy the experience. But I’ll share what we did and hopefully, you’ll have better luck than us!
Queues to get inside
So we booked tickets online for the Vatican, which was such a success for the Colosseum. But the Vatican has a two-step system where you book online, but you actually pick up the physical ticket from a ticket office when you get there. Annoying, but I figured it would still save us a lot of time.
When we got to the Vatican however, the entrance for ticket holders was a shared entrance with groups. So of course, it was PACKED! Luckily one of the guys at the start of the line encouraged us to run past the next group coming in and get closer to the front of the line, but it still took ages to get through the security clearance.
Once past security, we then had to pick up our physical tickets. And of course, the booth where we picked up tickets was the same as the booth for group ticket pick up, so it was also packed…. Not ideal. The line moved fairly quickly and we were able to get our tickets in about 5 mins and head on in. On our way to the entrance, we noticed that the booth for buying tickets had a much shorter line than the one we had to wait in to pick up our pre-booked tickets. I’m not sure if that was just bad luck for us on that day, but you might want to try your luck buying tickets on arrival.
Crowds inside the Vatican
So we finally get into the Vatican. We decide to head on the fastest route towards the Sistine Chapel, the highlight of the Vatican museums, figuring we can then work our way back through other sections until we’d seen enough. We ended up funnelled into a long beautiful hallway with the most intricate ceilings and painting on the walls. However, all of those groups we’d seen at the entrance were there too. This long hallway was completely full of people all moving together as one clump at a slow pace. Neither of us are fans of crowds, so this was absolute hell for us. We couldn’t enjoy any of the art along the way – we had to just to stumble through the throng of people on the way to the Sistine Chapel. Honestly, this was one of the worst tourist experiences on our whole trip!
When we got to the Sistine Chapel (which thankfully had air conditioning!) it was also completely full with guards pushing everyone along so they wouldn’t block the doorways. It was beautiful, but not the peaceful serene experience you’d expect.
So with this in mind, I’m not sure if you want to follow our tips for the Vatican… hopefully, you have better luck!
St Peter’s Basilica
While our plan for the Vatican didn’t go that well, our plan for St Peter’s Basilica was a complete success. And I’m glad it did – it’s such a beautiful church and well worth a visit!
A secret entrance
I had read a tip online that there was a secret way to get from the Vatican to St Peter’s Basilica. Usually, you need to finish your visit at the Vatican and leave that location, then walk around to the entrance of St Peter’s Basilica and do a separate security line and general queue to get in there.
However, there’s a special route set up for groups so that a tour group can easily move between the two locations. While in the Vatican when you get to the Sistine Chapel, the main exit from the chapel is at the back to the left. Howeve,r if you go to the back at the right, there is another exist with a sign that says “Groups only”. Ignore the sign and walk on through – no one was checking this exit when we were there, and there were so many tour groups that I doubt anyone would notice anyway. You go through a walkway following all the groups, and eventually, you get spat out at the front of St Peter’s Basilica, and you can walk straight in!
When we left the Basilica, we realised what a huge win this tip was – it was a hot, sunny day and there was a huge line of people waiting to get in to the Basilica, which we managed to skip completely.
So those are our tips for making the crowds at these tourist spots a little more bearable. Hope they’ve been helpful!