This Is How T+L's Editor in Chief Sees the Best Sights in Italy Without the Crowds — and How You Can, Too

On an “after-hours” tour of one of the world’s greatest museums, T+L’s editor in chief learns that beating the crowds doesn’t always have to mean waking up early.

View to St Peter's Basilica and Vatican City at sunset
Vatican City at sunset. . Photo:

iStockphoto/Getty Images

It was my son’s first trip to Rome, a city I find exhilarating and exhausting — especially in August, when the sun is relentless and the air-conditioning weak. The tiger mom in me felt that at seven years old, Bobby was ready to do the Vatican Museums. But I didn’t want to slog it in the midday heat with him and my husband.

It’s a bit of a secret, even among seasoned travelers, that the Vatican Museums typically stay open until 10:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday from April to October. So we decided that, rather than join the seemingly endless lines that form at the entrance every morning, we’d push the limits of our endurance and do an “after-hours” tour. Our flight from New York City landed first thing in the morning, as so many from the U.S. do, so we passed the day by having a leisurely lunch at Pierluigi Restaurant and visiting the Spanish Steps.

To make things even easier, we enlisted the help of Access Italy, a local operator that counts time-strapped stars such as Oprah Winfrey and Penélope Cruz among its clients. Our guide, Simona Manzoni, picked us up from our hotel at 7 p.m. on the dot, tickets in hand. By 7:30, we were at the Vatican, breezing through the entrance. As the sky turned a brilliant amber, we stopped for an Aperol Spritz at the open-air café in the lovely Cortile della Pigna, the museum’s courtyard. (Who knew the Vatican had a restaurant that serves Spritzes?) As Manzoni set the stage, showing us diagrams of the galleries and explaining papal history, we got our second wind, because it was only midday back home.

Two photos from the Vatican museums, both showing ornate hallways filled with art
From left: The Gallery of Maps, inside the Vatican Museums; Bobby, the author's son, in the "Braccio Nuovo" or "New Wing" of the Vatican's Chiaramonti Museum.

Courtesy of Jacqueline Gifford

The tour was a visual delight for Bobby, and we took it at our own pace. The deep reds of the Raphael tapestries, it turns out, are magnificent when you only have to compete with a handful of others to see them. As are the golds in the frescoes that line the Gallery of Maps, where Manzoni could point to Italy’s many regions without a gaggle of iPhone-wielding selfie-takers crowding us. And it’s easier to appreciate the blues of "The Last Judgment" — and imagine Michelangelo painting it while as high as 68 feet in the air — when you can find a seat to take it in.

The era of COVID-19 has taught me to embrace travel on the fringes: staying over a Sunday night; booking that hot restaurant table at 5 p.m. instead of 8 p.m. Now I know that, rather than hitting an iconic attraction first thing in the morning, it’s worth waiting until after dark.

A version of this story first appeared in the March 2023 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline “Timing Is Everything.”

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