by Telegraph Travel, The Telegraph, June 20, 2018
As one of the world's revered religious and historical sites, the Vatican is by default also one of the most overcrowded, with some 25,000 visitors per day in peak season.
But there is now a way to sidestep the masses. A new tour of the artistic treasure trove – one of the biggest museums in the world – allows visitors to accompany the ‘Clavigero’, a Vatican key holder, at the crack of dawn as he unlocks the doors and turns on the lights.
Setting off at 6am, three hours earlier than usual, the group - a maximum of 20 per day - spend an hour on a guided exploration through main areas of the Vatican Museums before they open to the public, taking in the Sistine Chapel, Raphael's Rooms, and the Gallery of Maps.
Operated by TripAdvisor and priced from £280 a ticket, the group and their guide are, breaking with tradition, permitted to speak in the Sistine Chapel, a privilege not afforded during opening hours. The tour winds up at the Pinecone Courtyard, where breakfast can be enjoyed as the first tourists start to trickle in.
Not a morning person? There are other ways to gain VIP access to the Vatican, and indeed several other big-name attractions around the world, if you know where to look.
Read on for our pick of five cultural tours departing in 2018 and 2019...
1. Italian Intermezzo
A private celebration dinner in the Vatican is the highlight of this illuminating eight-day tour, which takes in the popular cities of Verona, Venice, Pisa, Florence, Assisi and Rome. Beginning with a stay on the shores of Lake Como, the itinerary includes some tempting activities along the way, among them an expert tour of the Accademia Gallery in Florence, a gondola ride in Venice and a wine tasting in Tuscany. Accommodation is in well-located four-star hotels.
Insight Vacations (0333 122 8671; insightvacations.com/uk) offers departures until October 2018, with prices from £1,625 including home pickup, flights, transfers and some meals.
2. Insider's St Petersburg
For almost 20 years, art historian and curator Dr Colin Bailey has been travelling to St Petersburg, where few westerners have ever been granted a permit to lead tours of the Hermitage Museum. Dr Bailey is one of them, making his private tour of the holdings of the State Depository the main selling point of the eight-day Art Treasures of St Petersburg itinerary offered by Ace Cultural Tours. There are regular lectures, plus informed visits to classic sights including Kazan Cathedral, the Fabergé Museum and Catherine’s Palace.
- Ace Cultural Tours (01223 841055; aceculturaltours.co.uk) offers a departure on Feb 11 2019, costing from £2,495, including flights, accommodation, excursions/admissions and some meals.
3. Venice Revisited
Led by art historian Dr Susan Steer, this six-day tour is best suited to guests who have already visited the city and its major sights. It includes an out-of-hours visit to St Mark’s Basilica and exclusive access to parts of the Doge’s Palace which are usually closed to the public, as well as a private visit to see the fine stucco work at the 16th-century Palazzo Albrizzi.
Martin Randall Travel (020 8742 3355; martinrandall.com) offers a departure on Nov 13 2018, from £2,710 including flights, transfer and most meals.
4. Land of the Pharaohs
This 11-day tour, accompanied by Egyptologist and lecturer Lucia Gahlin, includes exclusive out-of-hours access to Cairo Museum, home to Tutankhamun’s treasures. The itinerary also includes special access to the inner chambers and passageways of the Great Pyramid of Giza and the Great Pyramid of Khufu nearby. Visits to Luxor’s Valley of the Kings, the temple of Karnak and the temple of Edfu are also on offer.
Andante Travels (01722 567884; andantetravels.co.uk) offers departures on Nov 23 2018, and Feb 22 2019, from £3,395 including meals, flights and transfers.
5. Great Smoky Mountains
Newly introduced for 2018 is an eight-day itinerary that includes a visit to the Ali Childhood Home Museum in Louisville, Kentucky. There, guests can enjoy a private tour and dinner with Rahman Ali, who will share memories of his brother, Muhammad Ali, the legendary boxing champion. Starting in Atlanta, Georgia, the tour takes in Asheville, Gatlinburg, and Lexington with an option to add on Nashville, capital of Tennessee and home of country music.
- Trafalgar (0333 414 3653; trafalgar.com) is offering departures until October 2018, from £2,195 including transfers and some meals.