I think most people can get by touring the Vatican Museums on their own without a guide. Simply using an audio guide or a guide book is all most need. Here’s why…
Nearly 30,000 people visit the Vatican Museums each day.
30,000 people. Every day.
Some of the best works of art are housed in the Vatican Museums. There are some amazing private guides. Despite this, the biggest complaint I hear about visits to Rome is how miserable the Vatican Museums were.
Plus, admiring beautiful art is a very personal thing. If you go alone, you can go at your own pace. You can sit and enjoy a work of art. You can venture off the typical tourist itinerary – there’s a reason it’s Vatican Museums and not Vatican Museum. There are lots of galleries in the Museums that most people never visit.
Go it alone
You can, and should, book a ticket to the Vatican Museums on their official website.
The Museums are nearly always packed, but later in the day the crowds start to thin out.
My favorite time to visit is during the Night Openings of the Vatican Museums. This is seasonal and a really cool and unique experience.
Another new(ish) option is to book breakfast at the Vatican Museums. You pay a little more, but get in before the crowds. If you go this route, go straight to the Sistine Chapel to enjoy it before the crowds. Then you can back track and visit the rest of the Museums.
If you feel you need a guided tour, you have tons and tons of options. I’ve listed some of the best here…
For a private guided tour, I recommend Agnes at Understanding Rome. She’s professional, fun, and engaging. You should let her know I sent you. You should also book early as she’s quite popular.
One of the best guides out there is Liz Lev. She’s often booked solid and also a bit more expensive than most other guides, but she’s worth the price. She’s a good friend, let her know I sent you.
If you have the means, I highly recommend becoming a Patron of the Arts for the Vatican Museums. The perks are amazing, the price probably isn’t as much as you’d expect, and the guides are excellent. In fact, the first time I took a Patron tour, my guide was the same woman who guided U.S. Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama – and it was just the two of us.
The official Vatican Museum tours are hit or miss. More often than not, it’s a miss. Once I had the Vatican assign an excellent guide to me. Once. Don’t get me wrong, there are a few great guides employed by the Museums, but you don’t get to pick.
What to avoid
Any of the big tour companies in Rome – especially if you are Catholic. I lived across the street from one of the biggest companies (even endorsed by the Vatican) for two years, I heard nonstop bashing of the Church. I currently live across from another one of the big ones, I don’t hear Church bashing every day, but the tours sound really lame.
Anyone who harasses you near the Vatican to “skip the line.” It’s a rip off. Just don’t.