A visit to the Vatican, specifically the Vatican Museums, is a popular activity for visitors to Rome, and for good reason. These museums, opened over 500 years ago, showcase the massive collection of treasures that the Catholic Church has gathered over the centuries. These range from ancient marble statues to Egyptian mummies to modern art paintings, and everything in between.
In fact, there are over 20,000 works on public display across 1,400 rooms of galleries, which span an impressive nine miles. These include some works by some of the world’s most well-known artists. It’s also where you’ll find Michaelangelo’s incredible Sistine Chapel, one of the world’s most famous works of art.
The fact that the Vatican Museums are a must-see activity does of course come with a downside. They can be extremely busy and crowded!
The good news is that there is a way to entirely skip the crowds, and have the place to yourself. Which is what we did on a recent trip to Rome, thanks to Take Walks, who invited us to experience their VIP Vatican Key Master’s Tour.
In this review, we’re going to explain exactly what this tour is, what it isn’t, who it might be for, and whether or not you should consider taking it when you visit Rome. We’ll cover the pros and cons, our personal experience taking the tour, and what to think about when booking it.
This won’t be a detailed guide to visiting the Vatican, as we’ll be talking about in a separate guide, but will focus specifically on this early morning VIP tour. First, let’s start by answering some questions.
Take Walks are a walking tour company specializing in relatively small group (usually 20 people or less) walking tours and day tours, in destinations around the world.
They originally launched as Walks of Italy; however, they have since expanded to offer tours in multiple destinations around the world and so became Take Walks. In 2021 they became a part of the City Experiences group.
We have taken multiple tours with Take Walks in cities around the world, including in Rome, New York and Venice. We have always enjoyed their walking tours, they have knowledgeable and fun guides, the price is reasonable, and they are a great way to learn a lot about an attraction or destination.
The VIP Vatican Key Master’s Tour is, at time of writing, the most exclusive tour of the Vatican that you can take. The tour, which lasts for two hours, has you accompanying the official Vatican Museum’s Key Master as they walk through the Vatican. As you walk, you will actually help them to unlock the doors and turn the lights on.
The tour visits many of the highlights of the Vatican, usually including the Gallery of Maps, the Gallery of the Candelabra, and the Raphael Room, amongst other locations. It culminates with a visit to the incredible Sistine Chapel, which you will unlock, and thus experience with no-one else around.
Following the two-hour tour itself, you will then have breakfast in the Vatican Museums in the Pinecone courtyard, after which you are free to explore the Vatican Museums at your leisure.
The itinerary on the Vatican Key Master’s Tour can vary slightly. However, generally the following locations are visited:
Additional locations may also be visited, depending on timing. For example, when we visited we also visited the original Bramante Staircase and watched the sun rise over Rome; however, this is not always included.
I’ll now go through our experience doing the VIP Vatican Key Master’s Tour with Take Walks, after which I will cover some pros and cons of this tour as well as alternatives to consider.
The tour starts very early, so we had to be up early. Our alarms were set for 4:30am. Entrance time to the Vatican is at 6:00am, and we met our guide outside the main Vatican Entrance at 5:45am.
Our guide, Julia, introduced herself as our group of 9 people arrived and gathered. She had over a decade of guiding experience in the Vatican Museums as well as a degree in art history, so we knew we were in good hands. She also had an excellent sense of humor, which helped liven us up a bit given the early start!
Someone was also there to take down our names and confirm our details for security reasons. You need to have pre-booked the tour to join, it’s not something you can just turn up for.
At 6am, the doors were opened and we were allowed inside. It’s important to note that this is not a tour you can be late to join. Whilst some tours might wait around a few minutes if you miss the start time, the Key Masters have a job to do and they don’t wait around! The tour starts promptly and then the entrance door is closed.
In fact, one person didn’t wake up to his smartphone alarm and missed the tour. If you are not used to getting up early, we recommend having a couple of alarm methods (e.g., phone alarm plus hotel wake up call for instance) to ensure you wake up on time.
We entered the Vatican and went upstairs in a nifty old elevator. Here we met two of the clavigeri, or Key Masters, including the head Key Master Gianni Crea.
The specific Key Masters who will be on your tour will vary. There are 10 Key Masters working in the Vatican, five of whom open up the museum in the morning and five whom close it up at night.
Between them they are responsible for opening up and locking up 300 rooms every day the museums are open. They have a collection of almost 3,000 keys to manage!
Our tour was primarily with two of the Key Master’s, including Gianni, the head Key Master. Following introductions, we got to see and hold some of the massive key rings that we would be taking with us. Then, we were off!
As we walked, the Key Master would hold up a key and choose a participant. Our group was made up of nine people, and we opened 20 – 30 doors between us, so everyone got to open up a few doors.
There were also sometimes window shutters to open or lights to turn on in various areas as well.
We had the opportunity as we walked to ask our guide questions, and she pointed out various highlights of what we were seeing as we walked.
We also had occasional pauses on the route, so she was able to give us more in-depth explanations. Photography was permitted everywhere except in the Sistine Chapel.
We also got some special treats as we walked. For example, in the Belvedere Courtyard we were allowed on the terrace of the Pinecone statue, which is normally off limits.
We were also allowed behind one of the most famous ancient statues in the Octagonal Courtyard, Laocoön and His Sons, to see a unique angle of it that isn’t normally visible. Our guide took some time here to tell us a bit of the history of this statue.
Another highlight was the detour we took to climb the original 1505 Bramante Staircase. This area is not normally open to the public, and is not always included on the tour depending on the timings and route.
So we were very appreciative of this experience, and also that we got to see the sun rising over Rome from the top!
From here we continued on through iconic rooms. Perhaps one of the top highlights of the tour was watching the lights come on in the stunning Gallery of Maps, one of my favourite rooms in the whole museum.
Then we entered the Raphael rooms. Our tour guide Julia was a huge fan of Raphael it turned out, and we had around 15 minutes here while she gave us a quick rundown of the beautiful art in these rooms.
Finally, our tour culminated with us going down a somewhat nondescript corridor to a rather plain-looking set of wooden doors. One of our group members was chosen to open the door itself, after a short quiz, and then we were inside a darkened Sistine Chapel.
Here we stood alone in the quiet darkness, before the Key Master flipped the light switches and Michaelangelo’s masterpiece was revealed to us. No matter how many times you see this work, it still leaves you speechless.
We had around 20 minutes here with our guide, who spent time going over the main highlights of what we were seeing.
And then, just like that, the Key Master part of the tour was largely over. We exited the Sistine Chapel and headed through the Vatican Museums, stopping briefly at a museum gift shop which opens early for the chance to buy some souvenirs. We also said goodbye to our Key Masters at this point.
Our guide then took us outside to the Pinecone Courtyard and gave us some info about the courtyard and asked if we had any further questions. Julia then left us around 8:00am to have our included breakfast at the courtyard restaurant. We had been inside the Vatican Museums for almost exactly 2 hours.
The breakfast was served family style to each table of the group. It included cold meats and cheeses, streaky bacon, sausages, scrambled eggs, and fried potatoes, as well as a selection of pastries and breads. Note that sometimes the breakfast food may be served buffet style.
There was also a pancake station where you could get freshly made pancakes. We were also given a bottle of water and choice of coffee or tea.
The breakfast food was OK, neither great nor bad. It tries to cater to a variety of American and European tastes. If you like pancakes, I definitely recommend heading to the pancake station since they are freshly prepared.
There was plenty of food and we were certainly full up by the time we were done. We were happy it had been included as it was way too early for us to attempt to try to eat before the tour. It also gave us a nice chance to chat with the other group members and relax a little after our tour.
We spent about 45 minutes at breakfast, finishing around 8.45. The tables are only available for a period of time as they have a number of services, so you can’t relax here for too long. At this point quite a few other tours were starting to enter the Museums and it was already starting to get busy.
After breakfast, we had the opportunity to further explore the museums if we wished. As part of the tour, you have entrance to the Vatican Museums and can spend as long as you wish inside. Just be sure not to exit the Museums before you are finished (if you exit, you will need a new ticket to re-enter).
Having visited many times before we decided to just head to the gift shop as Jess wanted to write and post a postcard to her grandmother from the Vatican post office. After she did this, we decided to head out, as it was already getting pretty busy and warm inside the museum. We exited via the lovely modern Momo designed double helix staircase.
Note that the tour, like most tours of the Vatican Museums, does not include a visit inside of St. Peter’s Basilica. The famous basilica is located just a short walk from the museums and is free to visit. However, the lines can get long so we recommend getting in line as soon as you are finished with your time inside the Vatican Museums if you want to visit.
If you decide to visit St. Peter’s Basilica, you will need to be meet the church’s dress code guidelines (shoulders and knees covered for both men and women, no low-cut tops, etc.) to enter the church. You can pay extra to climb the famous dome (tickets are normally on sale once you enter St. Peter’s Basilica) or go underground to the necropolis. So dress and plan accordingly!
By far the best thing about the Vatican Key Master’s Tour is being able to experience the Vatican with no other people. Watching the lights come on in the Gallery of Maps and Sistine Chapel, and having some time to appreciate these sights without the crowds is a remarkable experience, and one that truly feels once in a lifetime.
I believe that at least for most of our tour time, there were no other tour groups in the Vatican. And this is the same sort of experience given to celebrities who visit, as Russell Crowe and his family had actually done the morning before our visit. Reading about his experience (which he details on Twitter), it is almost identical to our own. So if you want that VIP celebrity experience, this is as close as you are going to get without actually being one!
It also feels quite amazing to actually open up the doors of the museum rooms, some of which are hundreds of years old. The Vatican Museums recently celebrated their 500th year, and some of the doors and keys feel that old as you try to coax them open under the watchful gaze of the Key Master.
The Take Walks guide who accompanies you is also a certified Vatican Museums expert who will be able to give you a run down on what you are seeing as you pass through, and also helps instill a sense of wonder as you pass through the rooms and corridors. Our guide, Julia, was absolutely brilliant, and helped us understand and really appreciate what we were seeing, even in the relatively short amount of time we had in each room or area.
If you are visiting the Vatican in the summer, not only do you get to beat the crowds with this tour, but you also get a chance to beat the heat. Rome in summer can be miserable (it was about 104 F/40C the day we visited!) and most parts of the Vatican Museum are not air-conditioned. Starting your visit early like this means you get a chance to visit the museum before it gets hot out (and in!).
The included breakfast and coffee at the end was also a nice touch. It gave us a chance to take a break and get some energy before carrying on with our sightseeing that day after such an early start to the morning.
Finally, we appreciated that following the tour we were free to wander the museum at our leisure. So if this is your first time in the Vatican Museums, you can go back and explore areas you missed or want to see more of after breakfast on your own.
Whilst we do think this tour is an incredible experience, there are a few things to be aware of before booking.
The first thing is that this tour is quite expensive. At almost $400 per person, it’s one of the most expensive ways to see the Vatican Museums.
Of course, it is a very unique experience and only a handful of people take this tour, which is only run a few times a week. So we feel the price is justified. However it is definitely a premium experience and is not within a lot of travelers’ budgets.
The second thing, which is important to understand before booking this experience, is that this is a bit different from a traditional tour. There is not a lot of time spent on individual artworks or even individual rooms. Some exceptions to this during our tour were some time spent in the Octagonal Courtyard, the Raphael Rooms, the Map Room, and of course the 20 minutes in the Sistine Chapel.
We have taken other tours of the Vatican, including the excellent Pristine Sistine Tour also offered by Take Walks. That is a more traditional tour where you visit the main highlights of the museums, and the guide stops often at various highlights to explain what you are seeing.
The Vatican Key Master’s Tour is not a tour like this where you spend longer periods of time at key highlights. Instead, it’s an opportunity to experience and take part in the ceremony of opening up the Vatican Museums.
As such, you have to keep pace with the Key Master, and whilst the guide will point out highlights as you go, you have to move with the Key Master because they have to get the Vatican open!
Whilst we did stop for short periods of time at various locations, including some spots which are normally off limits to visitors, the tour was more about the wonder of wandering the Vatican Museums with no other visitors in sight. We opened up dark and quiet rooms and corridors, and had the thrill of knowing that we were experiencing something that only a select few have had the privilege of doing.
It was truly a remarkable feeling, but it’s just important to remember that this is different from a normal tour.
Finally, if you have never visited the Vatican Museums before, then it might be difficult to fully appreciate how unique and special this tour is. Jess and I have been lucky enough to visit the Vatican multiple times, including in the middle of the day when it is very busy. So seeing locations like the Gallery of Maps with no-one else in sight was just incredible to us.
However, if you’ve never visited before, this thrill might just seem normal to you. So that is something to keep in mind.
We very much enjoyed our experience taking the Vatican Key Master’s Tour, however it is obviously not the only way to visit the Vatican. We also recognize that it is not going to be the best choice for everyone or within everyone’s budget.
Here are some other ways to visit the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel that you might also consider.
Just note that however you choose to visit the Vatican, be it on a guided tour or on your own, you will want to prebook. This applies to both guided tours and normal Vatican tickets.
That’s it for our review of the VIP Vatican Key Master’s tour. We also wanted to share some more guides we’ve put together for Rome, based on our many visits to the city.
We’ve also visited many other parts of Italy, and we’ve included some of these posts below as well, as well as some other resources we think you’ll find useful.
And that’s the end of our review of the Key Master’s Tour with Take Walks. We hope you found it useful. As always, if you have any questions or feedback on this post, let us know in the comments below!
So you know: We were provided complimentary tickets for the VIP Vatican Key Master’s Tour by City Experiences. Our opinions remain our own, and we always adhere to our code of ethics when creating content.