Holy Days in the Holiest of Cities: Good Friday and Easter in the Vatican City

Holy, Holy, Holy: Panic in Vatican City

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The first time I went to Vatican City, it was Good Friday in 2000, 16 long years ago. At the time, it was only my second trip overseas, I was accompanied by some of my best friends, and every moment was new and exciting. Plus, let me just tell you, if there’s a time to visit the smallest state—and holiest city—on Earth, it’s during Easter Week.

Holy Days in the Holiest of Cities: Good Friday and Easter in the Vatican City

The second time I visited was the heat of the summer in 2014 with my family. Let me just tell you if there is a time NOT to visit the walled enclave deep within Rome, it’s on any day of the week in July. Or June. Or August.

Holy Days in the Holiest of Cities: Good Friday and Easter in the Vatican City

We were on the final day of our two-week vacation in Italy and the Mediterranean and felt we simply couldn’t be in the Italian capital without dropping by to see the Pope and his fancy digs. So we booked a tour with Viator (side note: you have to book a tour guide in order to visit certain parts of the complex—and it’s often recommended you don’t go through the official Vatican website).

Holy Days in the Holiest of Cities: Good Friday and Easter in the Vatican City

Before I tell you how awful our guide was, I’ll just say this: a tour booking agency like Viator partners with local tour companies all over the world. So while we had a beyond amazing experience with them in the Amalfi Coast (seriously, our guide was lovely), the company used for Vatican tours was less than stellar.

Holy Days in the Holiest of Cities: Good Friday and Easter in the Vatican City

Our tour guide yelled at us if we dared to look off at one of the intricate sculptures lining the edifice while she talked. She briskly walked over and shooed us back in line if I deigned to try to take more photos than her brief stops allowed. She had zero bedside manner and was making me hate the entire experience.

Holy Days in the Holiest of Cities: Good Friday and Easter in the Vatican City

Holy Days in the Holiest of Cities: Good Friday and Easter in the Vatican City
Holy Days in the Holiest of Cities: Good Friday and Easter in the Vatican City

At least I’d been before when I was a less jaded 17 year old, armed with a gaggle of friends.

Then there was the matter of crowds, which just escalated my feeling about the whole day. Here’s the thing: I’ll probably never go back to the Vatican again. Not because of this particularly negative experience with a rogue guide and not because the buildings themselves aren’t spectacular, but the heat, the throngs of sweaty tourists, the tight, crowded corridors, the fact that you can’t walk around without a tour guide watching you like a hawk?—as an extreme claustrophobe, it is, quite simply, my version of Hell.

Holy Days in the Holiest of Cities: Good Friday and Easter in the Vatican City

I’m not going to sugar-coat things: I was on the verge of a full-blown panic attack for much of the afternoon. Uh, why did we PAY to do this again? I felt like Katniss Everdeen in the final installment of Hunger Games when the crush of bodies rushes at the Capitol, leaving human carnage in their wake.

Holy Days in the Holiest of Cities: Good Friday and Easter in the Vatican City
Holy Days in the Holiest of Cities: Good Friday and Easter in the Vatican City

To make matters worse, we were there on SVV’s 40th birthday—a Fourth of July baby—and that’s how we I chose to spend his big day. I’m sorry, SVV. I promise to make it up to you every birthday for the rest of your life.

Holy Days in the Holiest of Cities: Good Friday and Easter in the Vatican City

Holy Days in the Holiest of Cities: Good Friday and Easter in the Vatican City
Holy Days in the Holiest of Cities: Good Friday and Easter in the Vatican City

Holy Days in the Holiest of Cities: Good Friday and Easter in the Vatican City

And while perhaps it was his big day, we mainly went for my mom. She’s a huge history buff who studied European history when at Vanderbilt, and she could legitimately spend an entire day in a museum.

You’re welcome, Mom.

Holy Days in the Holiest of Cities: Good Friday and Easter in the Vatican City

I, on the other hand, have an hour shelf life, max, inside a museum of any sort, so I clearly did not inherit that trait of hers.

Holy Days in the Holiest of Cities: Good Friday and Easter in the Vatican City

At least in the Vatican, as opposed to other historic structures of similar age, you can take pictures. I spent three hours clicking away on the shutter to distract me from the fact that I felt as if I was slowly being suffocated as the bodies closed in around me. I looked for an emergency exit on more than one occasion; weird how they didn’t readily install those back in ancient Rome.

Holy Days in the Holiest of Cities: Good Friday and Easter in the Vatican City

Holy Days in the Holiest of Cities: Good Friday and Easter in the Vatican City
Holy Days in the Holiest of Cities: Good Friday and Easter in the Vatican City
Holy Days in the Holiest of Cities: Good Friday and Easter in the Vatican City

Holy Days in the Holiest of Cities: Good Friday and Easter in the Vatican City
Still, the Vatican is one of the most iconic complexes in the world. Should you go see it at some point in your life? Absolutely. Just do better research on your tour options than I did—or get personal recommendations for a qualified guide who’s not going to slap your hand if you want to pause a long moment to admire your surrounds—and go armed with a healthy supply of Xanax.

Holy Days in the Holiest of Cities: Good Friday and Easter in the Vatican City
Holy Days in the Holiest of Cities: Good Friday and Easter in the Vatican City

And maybe eventually they’ll do a better job with crowd control. Then again, maybe not.

Holy Days in the Holiest of Cities: Good Friday and Easter in the Vatican City

Have you been to the Vatican City? Were you overly panicky like me the entire time? Most importantly, would you ever go back?

COMMENTS
  • March 25, 2016

    I think, eventually, I’d love to see the inside of the Vatican….but not in the summer, and not when it’s hot, or so crowded….so, maybe February? Yes. February sounds lovely. 🙂

    xox

    • March 25, 2016

      I know you and I do think you’d love the Vatican and all its artistic beauty! And yes, February sounds perfect (birthday month after all!) =)

  • March 25, 2016
    Nicole

    Is the mandatory guide a relatively new thing? I’m certain I didn’t have one, but I went during study abroad, which was over a decade ago. We ended up picking a day when the Pope held mass (JP II), which was neat at first, but then he repeated it 4 more times in various languages. We felt like it was rude to leave after English, so we sat there for 2 more hours burning in the June sun. By the time we got to the museum, my friend, who also isn’t that into museums, was totally over it. We flew through, so I never really felt overwhelmed by the crowds except for the Sistine Chapel. I would totally go back, but I would go with a more like-minded person, who actually enjoys museums.

    • March 25, 2016

      That’s a good question. I think it’s required to go into certain parts of the chapel and museum. I’m sure there are some parts you can wander on your own, but not all.

      There was no flying through the chapel for us as it was SO packed we sort of had no choice but to move along against our will with the fellow chapel-goers in one massive amoeba (thus adding to my mounting panic!).

  • March 25, 2016
    Nikki

    We visited Vatican City when I studied near Venice for a semester back in 2010. We didn’t hire a tour guide. We climbed to the top of St. Peter’s one day, then did the museum and Sistine Chapel the next day. If we had hired a tour guide, we’d have gotten through the museum much faster. Instead, we waited in line for hours, then walked through the entire museum (also took hours, even if we were just glancing at the many works of art) just to spend a scant 5 minutes in the Chapel. At that point I was feeling overly claustrophobic and needed OUT of the tons and tons of people. Also good to note that along with few/no emergency exits, there is also only one set of public restrooms. If you need them when you’re in the middle of the museum, you’re kind of out of luck. You either have to wait, or get out of line and start over at the beginning of the museum tour.

    Overall, yes, it’s a place everyone should visit at least once if able. Would I go back? I’d climb St. Peter’s again, but I’ll be avoiding the museum. Once is enough for me.

    • March 25, 2016

      Now I’m regretting not climbing St. Peter’s! I think we *might* have done that in high school but it was 16 years ago so I can’t be sure. I’m definitely better suited for outdoor activities than I am for cramped experiences in!

      Also, misery loves company, and you’re making me feel better that I’m not the only one who felt that way =) As we were descending the stairs to go into the Chapel, I suddenly had that tearing-at-walls feeling where I almost DID make use of the lone emergency exit I saw—but then I feared I wouldn’t be able to find Scott and my family on the other side as we didn’t have our cell phones enables. I’m seriously getting hyped up just reliving that experience now. Never again.

  • March 25, 2016

    I also went during Holy Week, about 17 years ago. It was hot in April, so I can’t imagine July. As a claustrophobe, it nearly did me in. But it was worth it to stare up at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel with my own two eyes. I wouldn’t trade that one experience for anything … but once was enough.

    • March 25, 2016

      Our first trip was relatively cool. I remember wearing a cardigan or the random jean jacket I picked up in Venice (Versace because I was in Italy, ha) in every single picture. I also remember having a lot more space to admire the chapel ceiling. This time, it was seriously so crowded that you couldn’t really pause to ponder for risk of getting trampled (it felt like Simba with the wildebeest in the gorge!).

  • March 25, 2016

    i’m having a panic attack just looking at all of the people in these photos. ha! we also had a terrible viator guide once. totally hit or miss i suppose.

    • March 26, 2016

      Bummer! I was hoping it was just a one-off thing.

  • March 25, 2016

    The Vatican really is such a wonderful place, but I’ve got such a shelf life when it comes to museums of any kind! Maybe except for fun interactive science ones. 😉

    It’s such a pretty building and the art inside is pretty insane, but I had a terrible experience touring too. I was studying abroad and my art history teacher took us in. He was the. most. boring. person in the world. You know. One of those professors that talks to his hands and doesn’t actually acknowledge that you are in SUCH A COOL PLACE. He took so long through the rest of the place that we had 20 seconds in the Sistine Chapel. 20 seconds!! Plus all of the people? Ugh. Just. Blech. Not a good time.

    Watching the sunset at the top of St. Peter’s Basilica was more my speed. 🙂

    • March 26, 2016

      Same! Photography exhibits or crazy modern art or interactive science-y things I can do, but classical art and sculptures…meh. I whirl through them and am ready to go within the hour.

      Next time I’ll know the trick about the sunset from the basilica! We had to “rush” off (er, after our three-hour tour and the hour we had to wait prior to that, that is) as we had dinner reservations for Scott’s big birthday.

  • March 25, 2016
    Brandy

    I visited the Vatican on a Friday night in mid October, and it was pretty quiet, which was awesome. I don’t do well in crowds, either, so I probably wouldn’t have lasted long if I’d been there when it looks like it does in your pictures!

    So, that’s my suggestion – anyone thinking of visiting the Vatican should try to go on a Friday evening outside of the summer months. I don’t think it’s open in the evenings year round, though.

    • March 26, 2016

      Someone else told me that about Venice. We had an equally horrific experience there in July, so I’ve pretty much decided I will only return to Italian cities in October or, like, the dead of winter 😉

  • March 26, 2016

    I visited Italy in July and definitely it’s hot and humid but the sights were worth the inconvenience although I’m from So Cal so it was familiar minus the humidity. Your indoor photos of inside Vatican are gorgeous what lens did you use mine were dark couldn’t get much light in ugh! Any tips would be so much appreciated!

    • March 26, 2016

      I mean, to be fair, it was no different than Tennessee in the summer (cooler, if anything). The big difference, though? No air conditioning! That really sets my panic attacks off when I’m in such a crowded space.

      Do you shoot in manual? I think I actually had mine on P back then but I now shoot exclusively in M with my ISO and F-stop as low as I can go, and then I adjust my shutter speed accordingly. I find my pictures are a lot less grainy that way!

      • March 27, 2016

        Thanks for the tip! I mostly shoot with Aperture and haven’t taken the dive into Manual yet. I’ll remember about the ISO and F-Stop did you need a tripod or monopod with you? I guess it depends on the f-stop of your lens and if it’s a wide angle like 20 or 24mm I haven’t invested in a prime wide-angle although it’s a thought 🙂

        • March 27, 2016

          I *think* I probably had my wide angle on for half of these. I used to use the Sigma 10-20mm before I got a full-frame camera. Now, my primary lenses I use with my 6D are the 24-105mm (which I’ve actually had for six years since my Rebel days) and the Canon EF 16-35mm.

          For reference, here’s the difference with the 16-35 interior shots:

          https://www.camelsandchocolate.com/2015/10/liverpool-cathedral-architecture/

          • March 27, 2016

            Wow! Wide-angle shots with the 16-35mm are phenomenal! I just got a 24-105mm for Valentine’s day and am loving it but lugging it along (on my years-old Rebel T3 and next goal is the full-frame Canon 6D) recently this Spring Break with my teens at Walt Disney World Orlando is so uncomfortable I didn’t realize how heavy it would be! Half the time my hubby was lugging the camera bag and the other times, my teen son after I couldn’t continue carrying the weight. We averaged over 4 miles each day at WDW and 8 miles our last day! Did you have a backpack-type of camera bag because I had a shoulder sling-type and my shoulders hurt after awhile. I’m booked a summer Europe trip next year with my High School Senior and am trying to figure out what lenses to bring. I’ll bet that 16-35mm is heavy too!

            • April 8, 2016

              The 16-35 is about the same weight-wise as the 24-105. Not super heavy, but yes it definitely feels that way when you’re carrying it around at Disney all day! I only take my GoPro and my iPhone when I do the parks for that very reason 😉

  • March 26, 2016

    I have been to the Vatican City a few times now and every time I find something new to discover. It was fun reading about your adventure in this “small” place.

    • March 26, 2016

      Yes, so tiny, isn’t it? 😉

  • March 26, 2016
    Jo

    So sorry you had a bad time. We went in August, and it was hot and crowded, but what wasn’t? What was amazing was our guide. Erick with a K, who did the whole tour as a description of the political ramifications of the art and museums. Everything make so much sense now! I totally loved it!

  • March 27, 2016

    I’ve been to Rome four times: October, December, April and May. May is my limit, but it is already hot and crowded at that time. I visited on my first trip there (the May one) and will never go again. The crowds are awful, I don’t like how they organize things, and I find it not worth. Now from a history and architecture perspective there is no doubt it is magnificent, but if you begin to think about why it is magnificent, my mind wanders to corruption, etc. I am not a fan of the institution. I will say that when I was in Rome for Christmas, I did see the Pope speak live on St. Sylvester, the day after Xmas and I couldn’t help feeling like I was seeing a rock star! I totally agree that the summer is the absolute worst time to go to Rome, so weird given how awesome Paris is to visit at that time!

    • April 8, 2016

      It seems Rome is ALWAYS crowded no matter when (or where) you go. And yes, Paris in summer is just the best!

  • March 28, 2016

    I visited the Vatican in 2007. I don’t remember crowds at all; maybe that’s because I visited in October. I had a lovely walk through the museum and I got caught taking a picture of the Sistine Chapel. I don’t like tours in museums because they take too long for my taste too. I’ve actually reached a point where I prefer to go on museum visits by myself, so I can race where I want to race and linger where I want to linger. Museums make a loner out of me! 🙂

    • April 8, 2016

      Maybe I need to go October next time! That sounds dramatically different than my experience. And yes, I’m with you on only wanting to visit museums solo 😉

  • March 29, 2016

    You’ve been to Italy, all the people around tend to be… “vocal”, let’s say that. So no wonder that in Vatican, quite a touristy place, you are going to find nasty guides.

    I’ve been in Rome twice, I was never interested into the Vatican city. The older vestiges on the city were more interesting that a big chapel.

    • April 8, 2016

      Hahaha, “vocal” is a great way to put it (politely) 😉

  • March 31, 2016

    My parents are visiting me in the UK and this is at the top of their list!
    I usually keep away from touristy places but looks like there’s no getting away from this!
    Loved your reference to Katniss 🙂

    Loved your pictures, gonna show the article to the hubby 🙂

    Cheers!

    • April 9, 2016

      Ha, well I hope you have a less crowded experience than I did 😉

  • April 2, 2016

    I enjoyed reading your post and looking at the photos. The Vatican has never been high on my bucket list and after watching the movie Spotlight, I’m amazed it’s still so popular!

    • April 9, 2016

      Ahhh I’m dying to see Spotlight. I’m sure it will just fuel my dislike for the Vatican experience more 😉

  • April 8, 2016

    Oh no! How simply awful. It must have been a nightmare! I feel so bad for you, just reading your post.

    I’ve been to the Vatican City, but it was during Easter Week and sometime at the end of April, as I rememeber leaving Rome on May 2nd, as I had heard that MTV were organising a live concert with Avril Lavigne. Yeah, it wasn’t her, it was some political demonstration concert instead!!

    I don’t remember having a guide either but having said that, my queue was so long that I managed to tag along with a school group and once I got in, scooted off to do my own thing!

    It was a little crowded but not music-festival crowded!!
    Would I go back? Probably.

    The guides there were nice enough and I do love history, art and culture. It was inspiring and I felt really happy to be there.

    So sorry that it was awful.

    • April 9, 2016

      It wasn’t THAT bad, just the crowd and the heat part was the panicky bit 😉 But unlike you, I probably wouldn’t do it again—been there, done that (twice) and whatnot. Plenty more to see in such an ancient city!

  • April 14, 2016

    Ugh…crowds and heat… my two least favorite things! I would love to visit, but definitely a winter trip! Lovely photos, though!

  • May 27, 2016

    Great article. We are going to visit this place soon. Thank you!

  • December 5, 2016

    What a horrible experience! Always feel free, in as nice a way as possible, to tell the guide YOUR expectations about a tour. YOU are the driver….not the guide. I’m sorry yours was lousy! Boo hiss!!

    The trick to seeing any new place – but especially museums is to know a little about what you will see. This makes anything more interesting and also explains why your mom was so fascinated – she had studied a lot about what she was looking at!

    I travel with the kids and as a former teacher can tell you that you CAN see things like the Vatican and have a great time doing it. The key is to learn about it. I write travel guides for kids and one on Rome was my first so we could have a family vacation full of wonder and excitement and NO whining!! 🙂

    Love your photos…they make me want to go back.

    • December 8, 2016

      Our guide was not exactly amenable to suggestions =/

      Thank you for the tips! I can definitely tell you were a great teacher (and still are)!

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