The crowds that pack the major museums are growing bigger all the time. Nick Trend finds out how to avoid them.
ON A packed London tube train I was contorting my neck, trying to see through the crowd and check which station we had arrived at. The experience reminded me of something but I couldn't put my finger on it. Then I remembered – it was visiting the Sistine Chapel and the Raphael rooms in the Vatican Museums.
The same feeling of frustrated claustrophobia had overwhelmed me a few years ago as I shuffled along with the tide of tourists, waiting for a gap to open so I could steal a glimpse of Raphael's frescoes or find an unencumbered vantage point from which to view Michelangelo's ceiling.
I've suffered too in the Basilica San Marco in Venice where, much of the time, the press of visitors is so great the attendants won't let you stop to look properly at the mosaics. Rather like policemen at the scene of an accident, they insist you keep moving. There's a similar system in the Tower of London, though it is automated – a moving walkway runs past the Crown jewels display case to prevent a scrum developing.
A few institutions are attempting to deal with the problem of overcrowding; most recently the National Gallery, London, announced it will limit the number of visitors able to enter the Leonardo exhibition when it opens in October. And Giotto's Scrovegni chapel in Padua limits entry to 25 people every 15 (sometimes 20) minutes.
But it's hard to avoid the feeling that the greater battle is being lost. As tourism grows and tens of millions more first-time visitors fly into Europe from India, China and the Far East with the Mona Lisa, The Creation of Adam and St Mark's Square at the top of their wish-lists, surely the problem can only get worse.
I have some good news, however. The more creative cultural tour operators and tourist agencies offer an increasing range of tours that allow you to visit some popular sites out of hours.
What I hadn't realised, until I was contacted by a small tourist agency in Rome, was that you don't have to sign up to a package tour lasting several days to beat the crowds.
I joined a private Vatican tour run by Italy with Us one Saturday evening in April. Rolling up to the great bronze door of the museums an hour or so after closing time we were admitted to the cavernous ticket hall, which normally swarms with tourists. Our group was nine strong – all American – led by our art historian guide and escorted by a museum attendant.
While the cleaners dusted and polished around us, we were whisked through the ticket gates and glided up the empty escalators into the heart of the museums. I know the place very well but I'd never seen it like this: devoid of people and so quiet, almost melancholy. With a strict two-hour time limit, this was very much a highlights tour, taking in, for example, the sculptures of Apollo and the Laocoon in the Belvedere Courtyard, the great Roman porphyry bowl from the baths of Caracalla, the gallery of tapestries and so on, but the best was left for the last half-hour.
Raphael's fresco The School of Athens is a trompe l'oeil composition – Plato (portrayed as Leonardo da Vinci) and Socrates are the central personalities among about 40 artists and thinkers from the ancient Greek and Renaissance worlds who have gathered on the steps of an architectural tableau.
It's a complex scene that recedes into the distance through a series of Roman arches and your eye can only truly be deceived if you take it in from the opposite side of the room. Normally, the only way you could do that would be to set off the fire alarm and hang back as the room emptied. After hours, I had the room to myself.
The feeling in a deserted Sistine Chapel is different. Obviously, the frescoes are visible no matter how crowded it becomes but compared to the usual whispering tide of tourists, there is a stillness that entirely changes the mood.
You relax and look at the paintings differently. Staring up, with no distractions, I noticed that the central panel is not the celebrated Creation of Adam but the Creation of Eve. But before I had time to work out the significance of that, our time was up. Reluctant to leave, I lagged behind the group and, for just a minute, I was alone with Michelangelo. Not many people can say that.
The bottom line
For the tour I did, a single ticket costs €275 ($373) and even though that includes the normal entry ticket of €15, you are effectively paying a premium of €260 a head for the privilege of peace and quiet.
There is a much more affordable alternative; Italy with Us also offers a "VIP" tour, which gains admission to the museums at 8am, an hour before normal opening time. This means you can visit the Sistine Chapel first, before the hordes descend. The two-hour guided tour with a group of about 20 costs €50 a head.
Italy with Us also offers a private, 8am tour of the Vatican Museums for €350 for two, which includes St Peter's Basilica. And in Venice it offers a two-hour visit to the Doge's Palace after it has closed to the public, for €150 a person (group of 10 or more). It can also arrange a private visit to St Mark's Basilica. The price depends on the number of visitors but is less than that charged for the Doge's Palace tour. +39 06 3972 3051, italywithus.com.
Six other crowd-beaters
Avoid free entry
Many museums that usually charge for entry open their doors free for one day a month. If you want peace and quiet, avoid it.
As long as you dress appropriately and attend until the dismissal, you will always be welcome to attend a church service and it can be a moving and evocative way to see and appreciate the great cathedrals.
Enter the Louvre at the Porte des Lions
This door at the extreme south-east corner of the museum is generally unburdened by queues. It also happens to be the quickest way to get to the Mona Lisa.
For example, the great tombs in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt's Luxor, pictured, are often deserted during the hottest part of the day, when tour buses whisk their charges off to lunch. Endure the heat and you can visit the tombs in peace.
Go underground and topside at the Colosseum
For a supplement of just €1.50 ($2) on top of the entrance charge, you can escape the crowds and visit the newly reopened basement and top tier of the Colosseum — otherwise closed to the public — in a guided group. Book several weeks in advance on +39 06 3996 7700. Ask for a tour in English.
Book the Vasari Corridor at the Uffizi
Lined with an exceptional collection of portraits. You won't avoid the crowding in the rest of the museum but you will enjoy a fascinating respite. www.polomuseale.firenze.it.