Visiting the Vatican Museum, Uffizi or Alhambra?
|To avoid wasting your precious minutes in Europe standing in lines like these, take advantage of smart crowd-beating strategies.|
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Visitors to three of Europe's top sights — the Vatican Museum (and its Sistine Chapel) in Rome, Florence's Uffizi Gallery (packed with Renaissance masterpieces), and Granada's Alhambra (the quintessential Moorish palace) — are finding it more difficult to get in than they expected. Over the winter, the Vatican reduced its opening times, and advance reservations became harder to get at the Uffizi and Alhambra — making virtually every guidebook (including ours) out-of-date. Here's the latest:
Vatican Museum (Rome)
Local guides in Rome are predicting even longer lines than usual at the Vatican Museum this summer. The museum has drastically shortened opening hours: Instead of opening most days at 8:45, they're now open only to tour groups at that time. Individuals can't get in until 10:00.
This means that people with last year's guidebook who arrive at 7:30 to get a head-start find they've got a 2.5-hour wait ahead of them. Because of the crowds, even those who arrive closer to the 10:00 public opening time can face two-hour waits. And, because "last entry" times are at 12:30 on Saturday and 3:30 on weekdays, the door might shut just as you reach it. At this point, it seems nothing short of an act of God will get the average visitor through the Vatican's pearly gates any faster. In the meanwhile, keep these strategies in mind:
- The most crowded days are Saturday, the last Sunday of the month, Monday, rainy days, and any day before or after a holiday closure. Afternoons or Wednesday mornings before 11:00 are best. On days the museum closes at 4:45, arriving around 1:00 works well. Most mornings, the line to get in stretches around the block.
- Both private tour companies and private guides offer guided tours of the museum, allowing you to skip the long ticket-buying line. If going with a tour, look for the tour entrance (to the right of the individual entrance), which sometimes has a (shorter) line. These tours can be expensive — shop around for the best deal. Try www.contextrome.com, www.enjoyrome.com, www.romewalks.com, or www.romanodyssey.com.
- There are also English tours with a Vatican guide, but these are extremely difficult to join — they can book up as much as a year in advance (for details, see www.vatican.va). If you don't hear back — which you likely won't — it means they're full.
- For mere mortals, the only alternative to the long lines may be to skip the museum altogether, remembering that the Capitoline Museums and the National Museum at the Palazzo Massimo have equally great ancient art with far fewer crowds...and more reasonable hours (but unfortunately, no Raphael Rooms or Sistine Chapel).
Uffizi Museum (Florence)
A handy reservation system gets you an assigned entry time at the Uffizi — but getting through by phone is a becoming increasingly difficult. Still, a reservation is essential if you want to avoid the three-hour peak-season wait. Here are some options:
- The easiest solution: When you book your hotel room, ask your hotelier to get you an Uffizi reservation. Most hotels offer this service, either for free or for a €3–5 fee.
- Book online, using a ticket agency and paying a hefty fee, generally €5 or more (consider www.tickitaly.com or www.weekendafirenze.it).
- It's less expensive to reserve a time by phone on your own, but getting through to the often-busy reservation line is an exercise in patience. Even if you get through, you may be disconnected while on hold. Try again. And again. From the US, dial 011-39-055-294-883 during office hours (Mon–Fri 8:30–18:30, Sat 8:30–12:30, closed Sun — remember, Italian time is six/nine hours ahead of the USA's East/West Coasts). With the help of an English-speaking operator, you'll get an entry slot (15-min window) and a six-digit confirmation number.
- The all-day "Original Florence in One Day" tour offered by Walking Tours of Florence includes admission to the Uffizi and the Accademia (requires advance booking, www.italy.artviva.com).
- If you don't have a reservation, there's a small chance you may be able to get a same-day ticket for the Uffizi, depending on luck and availability. Try booking directly at the Uffizi's ticket office (enter the left side of door #2, pay cash for a ticket up front, same hours as museum). Sometimes, at the end of the day (an hour before closing), there are no lines and you can just walk right in.
Advance tickets are currently unavailable by phone or on the Web (from the US: 011-34-915-379-178, www.alhambratickets.com). Until these reservation issues are resolved, here are some options:
- See if your Granada hotel can obtain tickets. Ideally, ask when you book your room.
- Buy a Bono Turístico city pass, which covers admission to the Alhambra and Granada's other top sights, and includes a reservation for the Alhambra, scheduled when you buy the pass (€23, valid for a week). This pass is easy to buy near the Royal Chapel and the Alhambra entrances, but there are no guarantees that a time slot will be available (especially during April–June and Sept–Oct). Call ahead to purchase your pass by credit card, and it will be ready for you when you arrive at the vendor (12 percent commission; from the US, dial 011-34-902-100-095).
- Stand in line at the Alhambra to buy same-day tickets. The ticket office opens at 8:00 — people start lining up at about 7:30, but generally if you're in line by 8:15, you'll get in. On a slow day, you'll get in right away; during busy times, you'll get an appointment for later that day. The Palacios Nazaries, which is the most popular attraction, has the most restricted access. If it's booked up, get the €5 ticket that covers only the Generalife Gardens and the Alcazaba, and return to visit the palace at night.
- Visit the Alhambra in the evening, when you never need a reservation — just buy your ticket upon arrival. Tickets include only the Palacios Nazaries (not the Alcazaba fort or the Generalife Gardens). Locals recommend this option for a more ethereal visit at night.
- You may be able to buy a ticket at a BBVA bank in Spain. Stop by any branch and check.