By Rick Steves
Westminster Abbey, the Eiffel Tower, the Sistine Chapel — these are the reasons you go to Europe. They're also the reason millions of other tourists go. Nothing kills a sightseeing buzz like showing up to find tickets are sold out, waiting in line for hours to get into a popular sight, or being shoulder to shoulder in front of a masterpiece painting. But if you plan ahead, the sights you dreamed of seeing won't disappoint.
Crowds and lines are a genuine nuisance at top European attractions, and too many people spend big chunks of their vacation time queueing up to buy tickets at popular sights. More and more travelers are taking the 21st-century version of a Grand Tour, bringing especially heavy crowds to major destinations such as Paris, London, Rome, Barcelona, and Prague. Certain sights — especially those that weren't built to accommodate mass tourism — are almost always jammed, all day long, most of the year. And some sell out days or weeks in advance, leaving those who arrive unprepared disappointed.
To spread out visitors (and reduce time spent waiting in ticket lines), many popular sights now require reservations and sell tickets online, often for a specific time slot. At a few key sights, you can't get in without a timed-entry ticket bought in advance. And while at many busy sights you can drop in and take your chances, I wouldn't (unless it's the off-season).
As far as I'm concerned, there are two IQs for travelers: those who queue…and those who don't. Smart tourists do whatever they can to minimize hassles and maximize their experience. With the right information, you can avoid many of the lines that tourists suffer through. The following tricks aren't secrets. They're in any good, up-to-date guidebook. Just read ahead.
Reservations and Advance Tickets
Visitors who buy tickets online in advance (or who have a museum pass covering key sights) can skip the ticket-buying line and waltz right in (OK, you may have to wait in a security line). Advance tickets are generally timed-entry, meaning you're guaranteed admission on a certain date and time.
For some sights, such as the Sagrada Família in Barcelona, buying ahead is required (tickets aren't sold at the sight and it's the only way to get in). At others, such as St. Paul's Cathedral in London, buying ahead is recommended so you can skip the line and save time. And for some sights, like the catacombs in Paris, advance tickets are available but unnecessary: At these uncrowded sights you can simply arrive, buy a ticket, and go in.
Don't confuse the reservation options: available, recommended, and required. Check the museum website and use the advice in your guidebook to help decide. Note any must-see sights that sell out long in advance and be prepared to buy tickets early. If you do your research, you'll know the smart strategy.
Given how precious your vacation time is, I'd book in advance both where it's required (as soon as your dates are firm) and where it will save time in a long line (in some cases, you can do this even on the day you plan to visit). It's worth giving up some spontaneity. While hundreds of tourists are sweating in long ticket-buying lines, you'll show up at your reserved entry time and be assured of getting in. Check websites and guidebook listings for your must-see sights to see if reservations are an option.
In some cases, getting a ticket in advance simply means buying your ticket earlier on the same day. But for other sights, you should book as soon as your travel dates are set and tickets are released, even months in advance. Key sights to reserve long in advance include the Eiffel Tower, Rome's Vatican Museums, Leonardo's Last Supper in Milan, Giotto's Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, Barcelona's Picasso Museum and Sagrada Família, and Florence's famous galleries — the Accademia (Michelangelo's David) and the Uffizi (Italian Renaissance art). When you're ready to commit to a certain date, book it.
Reservations are required at some free sights as well, such as the Reichstag in Berlin. Check websites and guidebook listings for your must-see sights to learn if reservations are optional or mandatory.
Timing Is Everything
In many cities, several sights tend to be closed on the same day of the week (usually Sunday, Monday, or Tuesday). It follows that, in high season, any major sight that's open when everything else is closed is guaranteed to be crowded. For example, Versailles is very crowded on Tuesdays, when many of the biggest museums in Paris are closed.
Many museums are free one day a month — a great deal for locals. But for visitors, it's generally worth paying the entrance fee on a different day to avoid the hordes on the free day. In Rome, the Sistine Chapel feels like the Sardine Chapel when admission is waived once a month. Likewise, the Colosseum and Roman Forum are a mob scene on their free days.
At popular sights, it can help to arrive early or go late. This is especially true at places popular with cruise excursions and big-bus tour groups. At eight in the morning, a scenic walk atop the city walls of Dubrovnik, Croatia, is cool and easy, with no crowds; come an hour later and you'll find yourself amid the hordes. Of course, there are exceptions: On my last visit to the Acropolis in Athens, I went just after noon — which was perfect timing, since cruise-ship crowds tend to flock there first thing in the morning. They were heading out as I was heading in. A good guidebook will offer tips on the best times to visit a sight.
Many sights are open late one or two nights a week — another pleasant time to visit. For instance, London's Tate Modern stays open Friday and Saturday evenings, when you can enjoy Dalí and Warhol in near solitude. Very late in the day — when most tourists are long gone, searching for dinner or lying exhausted in their rooms — I linger alone, taking artistic liberties with some of Europe's greatest works in empty galleries.
Even at the most packed sights, there's often a strategy or shortcut that can break you out of the herd, whether it's a side entrance with a shorter wait, a guided tour that includes last-minute reservations, a better place in town to pick up your ticket, or a pass with line-skipping privileges. Check your guidebook for sight-specific, insider tips.
Sometimes getting in more easily is just a matter of picking the right door. Grand as the Louvre's glass-pyramid main entrance is, you'll likely encounter shorter security lines if you use the less crowded underground entrance.
A pricier option for skipping lines at a sight is to take a guided tour. At the Vatican Museums, joining a guided tour gets you right in. In Milan, you can sign up a week ahead to take a bus tour that includes an easy stop at Leonardo's Last Supper, which normally books up more than a month in advance.
At St. Mark's Basilica in Venice, if you arrive without a reservation, you can either snake slowly through an endless line or head to the "line-skipping" entrance and scan the posted QR code. If there are time slots available — either immediately or for later that day — you can buy a ticket on your phone on the spot.
Sightseeing Passes and Combo-Tickets
Many tourist destinations offer a citywide sightseeing pass or tourist card that includes free or discounted entrance to several sights for a certain amount of time (usually intervals of 24 hours). Such deals often include free use of public transit, a brief explanatory booklet, and a map. Plus, with a pass, you can spontaneously visit minor sights you otherwise wouldn't pay to enter.
In some places, passes can save you serious time and money; in others, you'd have to sightsee nonstop to barely break even. Do the math: Compare the price of the pass to the total of what you'd pay for individual admissions. Remember: Time is money. Even with a sightseeing pass, you'll often still need to make reservations for the most popular sights.
Combo-tickets combine admission to a larger sight with entry to a lesser sight or two that few people would pay to see. The bad news: You'll pay for multiple sights to visit one. The good news: You can bypass the line at the congested sight by buying your ticket at a less-popular sister sight. You can wait up to an hour to get into Rome's Colosseum or Venice's Doge's Palace — or buy a combo-ticket (at another participating yet less-crowded sight) and scoot inside.
Whether you have a combo-ticket or pass, never wait at the back of the line if there's any chance you can skip it. Don't be shy: March straight to the front and wave your pass or ticket. If you really do have to wait with everyone else, they'll let you know.