One of the big challenges for groups or individuals traveling in Italy is to handle the mob scenes at the Vatican Museum. There are a few sights in Europe (Versailles and the Vatican Museum come to mind) where there's almost no way to experience it without a constant and raging commotion of tourists. Even in the worst of crowds, these sights are correctly considered "must-sees." It's up to a smart tourist (or tour guide) to do whatever is possible to visit away from peak times or get reservations in advance when possible. Even with the crush of crowds, I find the Vatican Museum one of the most exciting in all of Europe. And the adjacent St. Peter's Basilica is so big, it can handle the crowds (once you get through the security line to actually get in).
There is just one relatively small entrance to the Vatican Museum. You can find it by looking for a long, long line snaking around the towering fortified walls of Vatican City--still an independent country. Only sanctioned Vatican guides are allowed to take groups through the museum, and the tour must use sanctioned whisper systems. You'll see boxes of these sets--each with a transmitter for the tour guide and 30 or so receivers for each tour member--ready for groups with reservations as they enter.
In this video clip, I'm surrounded by a cacophony of tour guides explaining one of the highlights of the Vatican Museum's collection, Raphael's "School of Athens." This is the last stop as they muscle their way through all the art to get their gangs to the coveted Sistine Chapel--just around the corner from here. In the video, I'm talking softly as to not disturb all the guiding going on...so you can barely hear me (turn on YouTube's captions for subtitles). With emerging economies (China, India, Russia) and more cruise groups than ever, must-see cultural attractions like the Vatican Museum are jam-packed with tourists at all hours. Still, of course, these attractions are great experiences. This clip gives you a feeling of the crush of tour groups as we see the Raphael Rooms, which were done at the same time Michelangelo was creating the Sistine Chapel frescoes a few steps away.
Thankfully the great art is higher than the tallest tourist. After the grand halls showing off some 15 centuries of art collected by the popes--and before the climax of the experience at the Sistine Chapel--you pass through a series of rooms frescoed by Raphael. The Raphael Stanza (or Raphael Rooms) are a great example of how the Renaissance popes embraced the classical, pre-Christian art and philosophy of the ancient world. Here in Raphael's "School of Athens," the great Greek thinkers from about 300 years before Christ are celebrated (and are portrayed with the features of the greatest artists of the Italian Renaissance from Raphael's generation--around the year 1500).
Museums across Europe are doing their best to handle the crowds. This sign, with "silence" in Russian and Chinese in addition to English, Spanish, and Italian, is a reminder of a big change in the last few years: Lots of people from emerging economies are tourists, too. Even if most people in Russia or China are too poor to travel, there are huge numbers of economic elites who can and do.
Thankfully, the Vatican lets tours (and slippery individuals) slip from the Sistine Chapel out the back and down this grand staircase directly to St. Peter's Basilica without needing to retrace their steps way back to the museum's entry. From that entry, you must literally walk around the country (which is not so small when you're on foot) to get back to St. Peter's. Slipping from the Sistine Chapel directly into the basilica is a huge time-saver if trying to visit the museum, Sistine Chapel, and basilica in one go. Thank you Vatican officials for offering this!