Day 2: The Vatican

While we were planning our trip, a friend of mine mentioned that she was more impressed with the ceiling frescos at the Borghese Gallery than the Sistine Chapel. And, I was even more impressed with the ceiling frescos at Palazzo Barberini than the Borghese. If it’s just amazing ceilings in Italy you want to see, and you’re not really into the idea of visiting a place with a long history of persecuting the LGBTQ+ population (and even the neurodivergent population), you can completely avoid the stress and crowds and enjoy the ceiling frescos at any number of other places in Rome. Palazzo Barberini even provides beach chairs for your ceiling viewing comfort!

I’ll just say this out loud: you do not have to see the Sistine Chapel! It’s not actually a law or anything. If doing less and spending more time at fewer attractions means skipping the hardest to get into and most crowded places, then that’s fine!

However, if you have your heart set on seeing the Sistine Chapel, which is also fine, try to reserve tickets on a guided tour in advance, before you leave your home country.

To help eliminate the confusion I had before I visited Italy, the Sistine Chapel is only accessible via the Vatican Museums. You have to do both, which is another reason I think it is entirely skippable for people who get tired or overwhelmed easily.

If you are not deterred, our Intrepid Italian teacher, Michele, recommends the private early bird Vatican Tour by Viator. It is expensive, but it is hard to get into the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel — even the ticket resellers were not that active on the streets, relative to other attractions. If you experience neurodivergent symptoms that include heightened stress or anxiety in crowds, then it should be worth it to get private, early access. I’ve tried several other of Michele’s recommendations, and they have all worked out well. Viator is a well known quantity, so you will probably do ok with their less expensive “skip the line” tours too. Personally, I would ask if it’s ok to go at your own pace or if you have to stay with your tour guide the entire time. If we go back and get this done first, I will let you know how it goes!

With our family moratorium on tour groups at the time, we tried, but it was just not going to be possible to wait in line for tickets for three of us — and that was in March! We waited in line for about 30 minutes. The line for people without tickets / reservations, kept getting longer and longer, but did not move. Meanwhile, what seemed like thousands of people in tour groups moved right along and into the museums.

We finally decided it was a beautiful, sunny, spring day in Italy and we didn’t want to waste it standing in line for an attraction we probably were not going to get into without reservations, so we walked over to the St. Peter’s Basilica entrance instead. We still had to wait in line for security, but it moved much faster and we were out of what was becoming the hot sun and into the cool cathedral in about 25 minutes. I do not know how people visit in summer — I highly recommend spring or fall!

Once we were in the basilica, it was easy to avoid crowds and find quiet spots — it is a church after all!

Speaking of it being a church, there is a dress code that, among other things, includes: No shorts, no miniskirts, no tank tops, no hats (including (gasp) no kitty ears). I found it rather bizarre that I could wear jeans to a church but not a miniskirt and tights, but those are the rules. I am not a church official, so please check the dress code for each place of worship you want to visit before you leave.

If you don’t want to pay for a tour, your best bet is probably to go straight to St. Peter’s Basilica and make that your Vatican experience. We really enjoyed the Vatican City Necropolis, which is accessible from St. Peter’s Basilica. There are also more extensive tours of the underground catacombs. Overall, we felt like St. Peter’s Basilica was “enough” of a visit to a historically transphobic institution for our nonbinary family.

Other Vatican Survival Tips:

  • The bathrooms at the Vatican run out of toilet paper really quickly. I have read this is a common theme throughout the summer at all attractions. Before we left, I found individually wrapped, flushable personal wipes that you can carry in your bag or pocket. I actually had forgotten them at our vacation rental that morning and was regretting it as everyone was coming out of the bathroom saying this or that stall is out of toilet paper and other toilets were clogging from people using paper towels. Turned out, I got an unclogged stall with toilet paper, but that was pure luck. As soon as we got back, I put the wipes in my purse and did not leave home without them from then on!
  • Speaking of the bathrooms, they are binary-gendered and there was some consternation about Ami using the “men’s room,” but nothing of significance came of it. It had just been a while since we had to deal with it though. Sigh.
  • There is a mineral water fountain near the end of the security line for the Basilica, so you can refill your water bottle before you get in line. Some travel guides who have lived in Rome will say to “never buy water” but during the busy times, you may not actually be able to get anywhere near the mineral water fountains. And some uninformed tourists do not understand what they are and put garbage in them(??)! We used them as often as we could, but we also bought water when we needed to.
  • Getting there: since we were staying at Piazza Barberini, we used the Metro to get to the Vatican (at the Ottaviano stop). It was pretty easy and the Metro ticket machines have English translations.