Visiting the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel when they're closed to the general public is an unforgettable, once-in-a-lifetime experience. My first impression upon entering the Museums after hours was how quiet it was. On my previous visit to the Vatican Museums during regular visiting hours, I was in a huge crowd of people and it was difficult to see or really appreciate any of the exhibits.
On my specially arranged after-hours tour with The Roman Guy there were only 12 of us inside the Museums, including our guide.
Brandon, our excellent guide and co-owner of The Roman Guy, led us through the exhibits pointing out items of special interest as he gave us interesting background information. The highlight of the tour was being inside the Sistine Chapel with only our group (and one guard). Our 2 hours inside flew by and the tour was truly an amazing experience.
The Roman Guy Vatican and Sistine Chapel Tours:
A small group Vatican Under the Stars Evening Tour with The Roman Guy is available on Friday evenings. The 3-hour tour starts with Saint Peter's Basilica, then continues to the Vatican Museums, where you'll take a guided journey through art history, and on to the Sistine Chapel. There may be other small groups inside but it will be much less crowded than during the day.
The next best option is the Privileged Entrance Vatican and Sistine Chapel Tour that starts one hour before opening time, starting with the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel and then continuing into Saint Peter's Basilica.
Crowds will be smaller than during regular day time tours although it will get more crowded toward the end of the tour.
The only tour guides who are allowed to lead before or after hours tours are those who are Vatican City accredited tour operators so not all tour companies can provide VIP access. Brandon is one of only a few officially-licensed, native-English Vatican tour guides.
Tours have a maximum of 12 people but The Roman Guy also offers a Private Privileged Entrance Tour that goes straight to the Sistine Chapel one hour before opening time, beating the crowds, and then continues with the Vatican Museums tour.
The Vatican Museums average 20,000 visitors per day so taking a privileged entrance tour is definitely the best way to visit. These tours should be booked at least 7 days in advance. Note that the Museums and Sistine Chapel are part of the Catholic Church and proper dress is required - knees and shoulders must be covered.
The Vatican Museums:
With more than 1400 rooms, the Vatican Museums is the world's largest museum complex. Pope Julius II who was a patron of the Renaissance opened the first museum, housing his sculptures, in the early 16th century. New popes added their collections and now there's an amazing amount of art, spanning 3,000 years of art history, displayed in the pontifical museums and galleries.
The Sistine Chapel:
The famous Sistine Chapel was built from 1473-1481 as both the pope's private chapel and the venue for the election of the new pope by the cardinals. Michelangelo painted the famous ceiling and altar frescoes, with the central scenes on the ceiling depicting creation and the story of Noah, a task that took him more than 4 years.
Painting frescoes was a new experience for Michelangelo and he applied his knowledge of sculpting to his painting, making figures appear more life-like and creating a new style of painting.
Saint Peter's Basilica:
Saint Peter's Basilica, built on the site of a church covering Peter's tomb, is one of the largest churches in the world. Entrance is free but there's a lot to see so having a guided tour is very helpful. Many important art works, including Michelangelo's famous Pieta, are in the church. You can also visit the Pope's tombs. See Photos of Saint Peter's Basilica
Getting to the Vatican Museums:
The Vatican Museums entrance lies between the Cipro and Ottaviano stops on the metro line A (red line). Bus 49 stops near the entrance and tram 19 also stops nearby. Follow signs to Musei Vaticani.
If you take a taxi, be sure to say Vatican Museums to be dropped off near the entrance, which is not on Saint Peter's Square.
Where to Stay Near the Vatican:
For before and after hours tours, it may be convenient to stay in a Rome hotel or bed and breakfast near the Vatican. See Top Places to Stay by Vatican City.
As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with a complimentary tour for review purposes. While it has not influenced this review, About.com believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest. For more information, see our Ethics Policy.