If you've ever battled through the crowds at Paris' Louvre, you've no doubt felt a mix of irritation and disappointment when you finally came face to face with the gallery's crown jewel, the Mona Lisa. The most famous portrait in the world is smaller than you might expect; with massive crowds swarming, she's utterly dwarfed. Mona may be mysteriously smiling but countless tourists leave with a frown.
Visitors who make the pilgrimage to see Da Vinci's other masterpiece, The Last Supper, thankfully have the opposite experience in Milan. Guaranteed viewing times with a maximum of 30 guests keep things organized. The viewing is peaceful, even serene. The painting's exquisite use of light, colour, and perspective shines through its fragility and decay. It is utterly arresting when seen in person and my group audibly gasped when we entered the room. In short, The Last Supper does not disappoint.
There's just one small catch. You have to get tickets, and that's like winning the lottery.
In theory, the system is very straightforward. You purchase a ticket by phone or online a few months in advance for a mere €12. For an extra €3.50, you can even add on a guided tour. What could be easier?
In reality, it's a bit more complicated. First, it helps to familiarize yourself with the official ticket website, Cenacolo Vinciano. It is the only place to directly buy tickets. Make note that in the top left-hand corner of the website you'll have the option to translate the page into English.
In the center of the website is a calendar with presale information. This reveals the upcoming release dates for blocks of tickets. In general, a block of two months is released at a time, with the corresponding release date taking place 6-10 weeks beforehand. And an extra 1-3 weeks prior to that, you'll learn when the actual release date will occur. I started my quest for October tickets in mid-summer. It was announced in mid-July that the tickets for October and November would be available starting July 24.
While travelers clamour for a regular schedule, the timing is always a bit vague. There's no one set date to mark on your calendar. You have to bookmark the page and return to it on a daily basis. Come release day, set your alarm to Italian time and prepare to wake up EARLY. The competition will be fierce. You'll want to work the phone and website simultaneously, doing everything you can to get through. If you've ever tried to get coveted tickets for hockey playoffs, Comic-Con, or Taylor Swift, this is a process you know well!
And it's 100% worth it.
The Last Supper is too spectacular to miss. However, there's a very real chance the regular ticket process may fail for you. Perhaps you're hoping to visit on an extra busy day or maybe you booked a last minute trip and tickets are long gone. Or maybe -- if you have my bad luck -- you go camping and come home to see that the release day has passed and every ticket for a two month period is gone. (Yup. After endless research and preparation, I was foiled by our annual woodland retreat!)
Thankfully, tour operators and third-party tour resellers offer a plethora of options for seeing The Last Supper as part of a larger tour of Milan's main attractions -- all at a generous markup. Many tours combine a visit to The Last Supper in conjunction with other sites like the city's famous Duomo. But if you only want to see The Last Supper, you'll have to purchase a "package" that consists of admission bundled with a guidebook. This combination is a popular one, as it allows tour operators to work around rules regarding ticket resales.
At €40+, it was highly aggravating but certainly better than being left high and dry. If you go this route, know that it's common for resellers like Viator to tell you that they will confirm your ticket availability after you make your purchase. Don't panic!
If your interest in art is lukewarm, you may be left wondering if all this is really worth it. When your only two choices are to stalk a website or pay huge markups for a tour, you may begin questioning just how much you care about Da Vinci.
If you're on the fence, consider this: In the very same room as The Last Supper, dozens of Da Vinci preparatory sketches are on display -- likely ignored by the rest of your group. With a bit of luck, you'll be left alone to enjoy them yourself. In the absence of jostling crowds or even other people, just mere inches separated me from the hand of history's most famous Renaissance man.
Unexpectedly, my admission gave me what felt like a private audience with Da Vinci himself -- an experience well worth tracking down a ticket.