If you are heading to the Vatican City this year, you might consider hopping on a guided tour. Of course, visitors are not required to be part of a tour but the Vatican Museums' outstanding art collection and the sheer size (stretching over 9 miles) of the Vatican Museums really does require a bit of guidance.
There is a plethora of options for touring but keep in mind that the quality of tours can vary immensely. The tour company you choose can make or break your trip so be sure to do your research in order to find the tour company that best fits your requirements.
A few suggestions on creating a memorable visit at the Vatican:
Ask about the content of the tour. The Vatican collection is one of the largest in the world so the itinerary of the tours could vary greatly depending on which company you tour with. In fact, the reason that 'Vatican Museums' is plural is because there are several mini-museums that make up the 'Vatican Musuems'. (To take a peek at the collection visit Sections of the Vatican Museums) . Most all tours will visit the Sistine Chapel but check to make sure that St. Peter's Basilica is included, an architectual masterpiece in itself.
Inquire about group size. If you would like the opportunity to ask questions throughout your tour or to converse with your guide it is a good idea to choose a company that specializes in small group tours. Many groups are 30 people or more which makes the visit a bit impersonal and difficult to follow....but you need to ask in advance to find out the specific company's maximum group size. Presto Tours and MyVaticanTour are two companies that specialize in small group tours and have had positive reviews on the travel forums)
Make sure your guide speaks great English (or your preferred language) with little to no accent. This can be a major deciding point in whether you enjoy your tour or not. Then again, just because your guide is a native English speaker doesn't mean they're a great guide. Inquire about guides' qualifications. Are they teachers, art historians, students, academics? Have they simply memorized a script? Do the guides have a broad education or is their knowledge limited to the Vatican in itself? Are they personable?
Find out if the company has tours that are catered to children or if the tour is recommended for children. (Sometimes you can even make a special request for a guide who is exceptional with small children)
Check to see what past guests have said about the tour company. Tripadvisor is a great place to start. Or, sometimes the tour company will provide you with references and you could call or write to their past guests.
Don't choose a tour company just because they skip the line. Quality is more important than the amount of time you spend in line. However, if you find a quality tour company and would like to avoid the long lines make sure that your company skips the line in an ethical way; the Vatican Museums has a limited number of travel agent partners who are preapproved for using their special entrance. Beware that there are also companies who claim to skip the line but merely cut in front of someone when you arrive--a bit unethical especially since other travelers sometimes stand up to 2 hours in the same line.
If you or a member of your group has physical difficulty with stairs you may want to use a wheelchair (which are available for free use in the Vatican Museums lobby). Keep in mind that oftentimes wheelchairs are not welcome on group tours because the Vatican Museums' layout is such that one in a wheel chair would need to take a different path through the museums due to lack of elevators. Check in advance.
Walking Tour or Bus Tour?
Some tour companies advertise their tours without mentioning that the first half of the tour will be spent on a bus and that the actual time spent admiring the Vatican's treasures will be very limited--an hour or less. Once you reach the Vatican City, no buses are allowed entry-all tours will be walking tours. Be sure to get the facts straight. Rome is very small so hotel pick-up is rather a nuisance if it means losing 1 or 2 hours of indulging in art, when, in reality, you could get to the Vatican on your own just as easily using public transport.
Prepare yourself before you leave for your trip to Italy, read a book that is related to the Vatican's history, its artists, its Popes, and its religion. That way, you will be able to engage in the tour and pose questions to your expert guide.
Compare prices and find the best deal for a quality tour. Just because the price is high does not mean the quality is high.
Extras. In addition to the Vatican Museums, Sistine Chapel, and St. Peter's Basilica there are also some lesser known attractions of the Vatican City: the Vatican Gardens, the Scavi Tour, the Papal Audience, the Pope's tombs, Michelangelo's Dome (which you can climb until the late afternoon), and the Vatican Historical Museum. Give yourself plenty of time to explore and book in advance to ensure you get to see all of these areas as the crowds tend to fill up spots very quickly.
The Creation of Adam. Michelangelo. 1508-1512.
Learning while traveling is a real joy so hopefully you will choose to reap the benefits of joining a guided tour. Whatever your decision, have a wonderul visit, remember the dress code in the warm months (women must cover knees and shoulders and men must wear long pants-no shorts or tank tops allowed), relax, and delight in the Vatican City State!