Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Italy: Early Entrance into the Vatican City with Livitaly Tours

Vatican city is the smallest state in the world walled within the marvelous city of Rome. It is certainly one of my must-sees during this trip, but before I go, my friends warned me about the long lines, enormous crowd, and the scorching sun in June do no help either. 
Vatican City Early Entrance
The halls were almost empty when I visited, and that was in JUNE, the high season!

Luckily before I even boarded my plane to Italy, I learned about some companies running private or small group tours that get visitors inside the Sistine Chapel before the general public! I am a person who absolutely hate overly-crowded places (it's suffocating and I think it loses authenticity) , hence I did not think twice (turned out, I don't even have to think twice) when I contacted Livitaly, a local family owned business that prides themselves in providing high-quality tours throughout the country! 

Booking with Livitaly was straight forward. They only have early entrance tours scheduled every Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. On a sunny Friday morning after a good night sleep in my B&B, I hop onto a metro to reach "Ottaviano" ("Cipro" is also a metro station nearby), and after 5 minutes of walking, I reached the meeting point in front of Cafe Vaticano

Right at the meeting point!
You simply can't miss it. 
The founder of Livitaly, Mr. Angelo was already there holding the "Livitaly" logo. He was not our tour guide for the day but he was there to greet every one of us. Since it was still early, I manage to grab breakfast at a cafe nearby. Exactly at 7.20am, participants were distributed to their guides. There were exactly 6 people (the maximum number) in my group: 2 from New York, 3 from Scandinavia and then, me. Our tour guide, Mr. Francasco was terrific. Before going into the Vatican Museum, he explained to us the wonder of the Sistine Chapel in details, including how Michelangelo completed the project in only 4 years singlehandedly after he sent his helper home! A book was used for illustration and the meaning of every painting was discussed, QandA sessions were encouraged, with conversations flowing well.

There is one thing every visitors to the Vatican City have to be aware of, is the strict dress code. I've heard stories of people being turned away at the gate due to inappropriate clothing. Remember to cover your knees, shoulder, and back! I saw some men trying to pass the wall with pants, just to get their access denied.. not a good way to start a day, isn't it? 
vatican city

One of our group members asked for her passport to be stamped since we are in a different state now. However, the guide explained that there is no passport check at the "Border", everyone holding a ticket is able to visit the Vatican City (the parts that are opened to public). 

As soon as the door opened, Mr. Francasco led us directly into the Sistine Chapel, passing marvelous art pieces and collection halls on the way. The moment we walked in through the little side door, I was awestruck by the beauty of the famous ceiling Fresco Paintings. It left me speechless, after holding my head up for a whole 15 minutes (or longer... I do not know), I only looked down when I realized my neck was aching... yes, it was THAT breathtaking. From the separation of light and darkness to the iconic "Creation of Adam" until the powerful illustration of the "Last Judgement Day" adorning the back wall... It was an unforgettable experience admiring the dedicated work of Michelangelo in peace and serenity, with only a few people in the Sistine Chapel with us. Photography was not allowed in the Chapel, if not, I would have filmed the entire place. We were not allowed to speak in the Chapel, there were 2 guards at the entrance and the exit (or maybe more) to remind everyone to keep silence (they don't have to do it often). We stayed there for quite some time, just taking our time to savor this special experience: to sink in and look for every little detail of Michelangelo's iconic masterpiece which our guide had explained to us just now. 
Vatican Museum
roaming one of the empty galleries. 
After going out from the Sistine Chapel, we got the chance to explore the Vatican Museum. Mr. Francasco led us through all the highlights in the Pinecone Courtyard, Vatican Garden Terrace, Muses Room, Belvedere Torso, Octagonal Courtyard, Belvedere Palace, Lacoon Priest of Troy, Apollo Belvedere, and many other Galleries. My absolute favorite hall was the Gallery of Maps. Where the maps adorning the walls are not merely breathtaking artworks, they are precise maps used back in the days. The many treasures lining the halls of the Vatican Museum were there for us to admired, up close and personal. 
Vatican City
Isn't it lovely in the Vatican Museum?
Finally at 9am, in front of our very eyes (to my horror), tourists from all over the world surged into the halls rushing towards the Sistine Chapel. That was the time all of us in the group let out sighs of relieve. We were all glad that we weren't in there, I'd most probably drowned.  
Vatican City Crowded
This is what it looks like after 9am (in the halls/ walkways)... and don't get me started about the Sistine Chapel.  Believe me, you wouldn't want to get in there.
We went back to the Sistine Chapel again towards the end of the tour before entering the St. Peter's Basilica and stayed a little bit as one of us had questions about the dark shoot-stained corners of the paintings. It was disastrous in there, such strong contrast if compared to the situation in the Chapel at the beginning of our tour. The crowd went out of control, exchanging remarks quite loudly, there were people taking photos on their phones (ignoring the warnings that it is strictly forbidden), the guards have to sternly warn everyone "Silence" from time to time. There was too much shoulder rubbing happening in the chapel and barely any space to walk without running into somebody... I couldn't wait to leave the place. 

There was another long line (blocks long!) right in front of the St. Peter's Basilica but we managed to bypass it. Inside the Basilica, Mr. Francaso explained to us that it is an active church and sometimes wedding ceremonies are held here. Someone even asked whether funerals are also held here. In the Basilica, Mr. Francasco told us quite a lot of lesser known stories about the Saints and the Popes. I think it is more enjoyable and it is pretty cool to know about things rather than to wander around without a clue. 

HF Scoring System:

Information: 20
Flexibility: 16
Communication: 16
Safety: 20
Comfort: 18

Total: 90
Stars: 5

Tourist started surging in after 9am and despite the great effort of our guide to keeping everyone together, it was simply impossible when the fact was, all we can see in front of us were heads moving, people wall-to-wall. We eventually lost 2 person in the Basilica at the end of the tour. It was actually not a problem because the tour ended anyway, or maybe the two-person just wanted to go their own way, however, I feel that it is very hard to keep a group together (even a small one) in an overly packed space like this. Hence, a walkie talkie should be helpful for more effective communication (and in the case of people getting lost mid-tour). 

As for the Flexibility, let's face it, it is a small group tour, not a private tour so despite my high hope to spend more time in one of the Galleries, we have to keep on going. There is nothing to do about it. 

Vatican Museum Floor
I have a thing with floors... 

General information about the tour:

The tour last 3.5 hours.
Adults pay 99 Euro for the tour, while students with a valid student ID, teenagers and children are entitled to special discounts. 
Check the price on the Livitaly website

To get a general idea of what it is like on this tour, watch the official Youtube video: Early Entrance Vatican Small Group Tour
Visit Livitaly Facebook, Instagram and Twitter here! 

Would I recommend it? 

Yes! The tour provides us with exclusive early access, which enable visitors to enjoy the enchantment of the Sistine Chapel in tranquil. For me, it is a far better experience than if we were to compete with everyone to rush into the overly crowded Sistine Chapel, just to be bothered by people discussing things right next to us. Like they said, "Early birds get the worms", it is totally worth it to wake up early for this, I guarantee. 

"Skip the line "feature was certainly one of the best thing in this tour. This saved us hours standing under the scorching sun!

The tour guides working for Livitaly speak perfect English and according to my experience, his knowledge about the Vatican City is incredible. He is able to answer all questions we had besides telling us some little-known fun facts about the place, the Pope and the people living inside the walls. Questions are encouraged and he is able to keep everyone engaged and interested. 
Vatican Museum
Loving the super small group we had.
I love how small the group was. During the tour, we interacted with each other and shared our thoughts about the place as if we knew each other for sometime. One of them was really fascinated by my XiaoMi Yi action camera so I helped her to note down the brand name. After the tour, I had a coffee break with 3 of them before going my way. Besides, before the tour started, we were given a highly comprehensive map with good recommendations printed by Livitaly. Using that map, I managed to locate the most famous pizza house in Rome-- Angela's Pizza... By now you should know that my priority is always on food! 
Vatican Museum

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My experience with Livitaly's Early Entrance to the Vatican City back in June 25 was fully sponsored. However, all opinions are as always, my own. 


Rachel said...

Thank you for your beautiful review! We were honored to have you as our guest on this tour and glad that our small group size improved your visit to the Vatican City. We look forward to seeing you in Rome again soon!

Andrew Boland said...

breing able to bypass queues must make such a difference! I remember visiting in 1999 (yes a long time ago!) and the waits were just so frustrating!