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 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 are a genuine nuisance at top European attractions, and too many people spend big chunks of their vacation time queueing up in long ticket-buying lines at popular sights. Smart tourists do whatever they can to minimize hassles and maximize their experience.
As far as I'm concerned, there are two IQs for travelers: those who queue…and those who don't. It always amazes me how the vast majority of people waste literally hours in line when, with a little advance planning, they could waltz right in. With the right information, you can avoid nearly every line 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
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 early in the day, leaving those who arrive late disappointed.
To deal with lines, many popular sights sell advance tickets that guarantee admission at a certain time (often with a small booking fee that's well worth it). Many museums offer convenient mobile ticketing. Simply buy your ticket online and send it to your phone, eliminating the need for a paper ticket.
Given how precious your vacation time is, I recommend getting reservations for any must-see sight that offers them — it's worth giving up some spontaneity. While hundreds of tourists are sweating in long lines, those who've booked ahead can show up at their 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 may need to book weeks or even months in advance. These include places such as the Eiffel Tower, Rome's Vatican Museums, 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). As soon as you're ready to commit to a certain date, book it.
Some sights require reservations, such as the Reichstag in Berlin, Leonardo's Last Supper in Milan, Giotto's Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, and the Borghese Gallery in Rome. For some of these, the reservations system is aimed not so much at coping with vast crowds, but toward moving people in and out efficiently.
Timing Is Everything
In many cities, a number of 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 a museum's free day. In Rome, the Sistine Chapel feels like the Sardine Chapel when it's free to visit on the last Sunday of the month. Likewise, the Colosseum and Roman Forum are free…and mob scenes on the first Sunday of the month.
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 8 in the morning, Germany's fairy-tale Neuschwanstein Castle is cool and easy, with relaxed guides and no crowds; come an hour later without a ticket and you'll either wait a long time, find that tickets are sold out, or both. On my last visit to the Acropolis in Athens, I went around 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'll 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.
Sometimes getting in more easily is just a matter of picking the right door. Grand as the Louvre's main entrance is, that glass pyramid stops looking impressive as you wait — and wait — to get through security. You can't bypass security checks, but you'll encounter shorter 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 (this also works at other places, such as Versailles or the Colosseum). In Milan, you can sign up last-minute to take a bus tour that includes an easy stop at Leonardo's Last Supper, normally booked up more than a month in advance.
The Eiffel Tower comes with long lines for those who don't book online in advance. With my reservation in hand, I went directly to the elevator, while this long queue of tourists waited…and waited. (None of them had my guidebook.)
Self-service ticket kiosks, like those at the Louvre, Versailles, and Madrid's Prado, are becoming common — and can provide a faster way in. On a recent trip to St. Petersburg, I bought my ticket to the Hermitage at a kiosk and walked right past the ticket line bulging with cruise-ship travelers — and within minutes was enjoying the czars' grand art collection. Similarly, if you buy your ticket for the Tower of London at a souvenir stand on your way to the Tower, you can skip the long line at the sight itself.
At St. Mark's Basilica in Venice, you can either snake slowly through an endless line, or go instead to a nearby church to check a large bag or backpack — then walk right to the front of the basilica's line, show your bag-claim tag, and head on in (go figure). Check your guidebook for sight-specific, insider tips.
Sightseeing Passes and Combo-Tickets
Many tourist destinations offer a citywide sightseeing pass (or "tourist card"), which includes free or discounted entrance to many or most sights for a certain amount of time (usually intervals of 24 hours). Many of these deals also include free use of public transit, a brief explanatory booklet, and a map.
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. But remember: Time is money. These passes are almost always worthwhile if they allow you to bypass long admission lines. For instance, Paris' Museum Pass covers many top sights (the Louvre, Orsay, and Versailles) and allows you to skip ticket-buying lines. The Madrid Card may not save you a lot of money, but it can help you avoid high-season lines at the Royal Palace and the Prado. Plus, with a pass, you can spontaneously visit minor sights you otherwise wouldn't pay to enter.
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 have to 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.