Rome: Skip the line with a private tour of the Sistine Chapel
'Little can prepare you for the feeling of awe...' - Our reviewer takes a private tour of the Sistine Chapel.
Set the mood
I'm standing in the Sistine Chapel. Everyone has heard of this place. Most have seen photographs or reproductions of Michelangelo's most famous work. But little can prepare you for the feeling of awe the first glimpse of this ornate ceiling and its exquisite surrounding walls inspires.
Visitor numbers are capped at 20,000 per day, but I've found a way to beat the crowds... by taking a private tour.
Standing here, I can see how Michelangelo's incredible talent for texturing gives a 3-D appearance to the figures overhead. The intensity of colour makes it hard to believe the work is 500 years old. Given the importance of the art and the sacred surroundings, visitors are asked to refrain from talking and taking photos - while not everyone respects these rules, it does help to preserve an air of reverence.
Beneath the famous ceiling, the detail in the frescoes has to be seen to be believed. Art aficionado or not, it's overwhelming.
Vatican City, Rome
Our private tour guide, Tonia, is an incredibly knowledgeable art historian whose passion and interest really enhance the visit. Millions of tourists take to the Vatican every year, and queues for the Sistine Chapel can be up to three hours long, but Irish company Italy With Us (italywithus.com), organises private and group tours so visitors can enter either early in the morning or late in the evening to savour the ambience in comfort.
If you're prepared to stand in line and don't mind being one of a very large crowd, then it is of course possible to visit the chapel for €16pp. This is a lot cheaper than the €60 I paid for the guided tour, but in my opinion, what you save in cash, you definitely lose out in experience.
Although the Vatican is technically a separate state, when in Rome, one must do as the Romans do - and this often involves copious amounts of food and wine.
Isola della Pizza (isoladellapizza.com) is a short walk from the Sistine Chapel and the perfect spot for a long, lingering lunch of antipasti, bruschetta and an array of delicious pastas.
In the evening, we enjoyed a spectacular Michelin-starred meal with a panoramic view over the Eternal City at Imago (imagorestaurant.com).
Tasting menus from €120 are a real gourmet treat.
No visit to the Vatican would be complete without exploring some of the highlights of Rome.
We stayed in the sumptuous Hassler Hotel (hotelhasslerroma.com), located right at the top of the Spanish Steps - accommodation, food, location and service were impeccable.
We also spent a night at the nearby Eden Hotel (dorchestercollection.com) which also offers a top-notch Roman experience. For a value stay, try Airbnb (airbnb.ie).
Yes, Rome can get uncomfortably hot in summer months. Yes, the traffic is appalling, and the crowds can grate. But thanks to our wonderful guide, our tour was faultless.
The only downside for me is the lengthy wait for unaccompanied visitors in the blistering heat. Don't underestimate the Vatican queues!
Get me there
Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) and Ryanair (ryanair.com) both fly from Dublin to Rome. See mv.vatican.va for more.
If you visit the Sistine Chapel without a guide, do a little research beforehand. We've all seen the photos, but knowing Michelangelo's background - as well as the nature of Pope Julius II, who commissioned his work - will really enhance your experience.