As the time grew near for our first tour with The Roman Guy (now known as The Tour Guy), I grew increasingly excited. I’ve found tours to be a great way to learn—as long as the guide is knowledgeable, experienced, and passionate. The Roman Guy guides were all of the above. As a history professor with over a decade of teaching experience, I know that the deepest level of learning occurs when the person conveying the message is enthusiastic and impassioned. Our guides, Jowita, Leah, and Raffaella, showed a true love for the city’s sites that made our Rome sightseeing memorable, fun, and educational. Both our Colosseum and Vatican tours, although briskly-paced, gave time for photos and to rest periodically. Thanks to our awesome Rome guides, I saw some of the world’s greatest treasures and best things to do in Rome while not wearing myself out.
For 3 1/2 fun-filled hours we toured around the ancient epicenter of Rome where we saw the Colosseum, the Arch of Constantine, Palatine Hill, and the Roman Forum. Our primary guide was Jowita, but at the Colosseum we were joined by Leah and each led us through various areas of the stadium where their particular expertise was useful. Colosseum tour goers get to descend into the underground area of the arena (hypogeum) and see how animals and gladiators got to the stage and how the arena was flooded for naval battles. We were able to go on the arena floor where I imagined how scared gladiators must have felt standing on this vast stage surrounded by tens of thousands of bloodthirsty spectators cheering for their demise. The piece de resistance was our trip to the restricted top level where we could survey the entire amphitheater. Our guides used our camera to take pictures of us with the stadium as our backdrop. I was ecstatic to have someone I trusted take our picture! Jon and I often leave our vacations with few pictures of us as a couple and it was a joy to have someone provide us with a visual souvenir to accompany our memories.
We passed by the impressive Arch of Constantine on our way to the peaceful and picturesque Palatine Hill. Originally home to the palatial estates of Roman nobles, their gardens and some structures still exist. Always knowing the best place for a photo opportunity, Jowita led us to a viewing area that provided aerial context of the Roman Forum. We then descended to the Forum where our guide’s experience and knowledge proved invaluable. Along with a book showing us the way ruins looked in their heyday, Jowita made the Forum come alive as she verbally reconstructed ancient Rome to us. She reminded us how colorful it would have looked with different hues of marble and paint. As there are very few placards or markers in the Colosseum, on the hill, or in the Forum to denote what you are seeing, a guide frees the traveler from stumbling around the stone streets with their nose in a guidebook. Jowita contextualized everything we were seeing and told us fun stories that brought the past to life. Having been to all of these places, I found the tour really elevated my experience and made seeing them even better. And I didn’t think that was possible, as I adored them the first time! Once you are inside the Forum or Palatine Hill you can go back and forth between the two. I would suggest bringing a snack in your bag if you want to keep exploring. Also, make sure that you bring a bottle of water—there will be opportunities to refill it and you will likely get thirsty as this tour features a lot of walking and numerous steps.
Having been to the Vatican Museums before, I knew just how crazy entry lines could be (and that was with a reservation). I also knew how packed the Sistine Chapel could get (not that any amount of people could deter from its breath-taking beauty). I was incredibly excited, therefore, to skip the lines and get dedicated time in the Sistine Chapel—before the masses arrived. Using visuals, our guide, Raffaella, explained some of the more notable parts of the paintings we would see. Then, our group went hurriedly…but thoughtfully…through the Hall of Maps and Tapestry Gallery to have twenty minutes in silence in the Sistine Chapel. I didn’t think that anything could make the Sistine Chapel better, but having the place devoid of the crowds upped the ante and enhanced my experience. After the Sistine Chapel, we went back through and toured the museum. The Vatican Museums are vast and filled with treasures. It was nice to have Raffaella curate the museums for us and show us some of her favorite highlights. After a couple of hours, we cut through the Sistine Chapel (it never gets old) to get to St. Peter’s Basilica. With general entry having started, we could see how privileged indeed we had been. The chapel was filled with people.
Our tour ended in St. Peter’s Basilica where Raffaella took a nice photo of my husband and I in front of Bernini’s canopy under Michelangelo’s dome. St. Peter’s Basilica is one of the largest churches in the world and is filled with beautiful objects of art from Renaissance and Baroque “greats.” Raffaella showed us around the church and offered to stay after the tour to answer more questions. She also helped me find the Swiss Guard—their whimsically colored Renaissance uniforms contrasted their sometimes violent past and serious position as papal defenders. The vastness and richness of the Vatican can almost overwhelm, but Raffaella made it manageable and, more importantly, explained the significance of what we were experiencing. Side note: you’ll be walking over a lot of marble so wear cushioned shoes.
Favorite Aspects of the Tours
There were many great aspects to both tours, but three of my favorites were the guides’ knowledge, the camaraderie created within the group, and the insight into Rome that The Roman Guy provided.
Knowledge—I pride myself on being a life-long learner and, boy oh boy, did I learn. From the special little details that were shared—did you know that Michelangelo used lapis lazuli to create the vivid blues in the Sistine Chapel?—to broader narratives, the guides showed a mastery of their domain. The tours put the sites into historical context, especially important for the Colosseum, Roman Forum, and Palatine Hill tour where so much of what we explored was in ruins. Although I had visited these places before and have studied ancient Rome fairly extensively, I learned a lot more from listening to Jowita. I was never quite sure if what I thought was a specific ruin was actually the structure I thought it was. The Roman Guy freed me from the guesswork and enriched my travels. Our guides seemed to know an answer for every question. And I think I asked some pretty obscure ones!
Camaraderie—Our guides creating a sense of camaraderie by asking us where we came from and having us introduce ourselves. We were no longer strangers. In one of our tours, it so happened that two of the tour goers lived about an hour and half away from us in Michigan. The rest were from outside the States. Traveling can feel quite solitary! Even when part of a couple, it can be difficult not speaking the language fluently. You may feel left out of the conversation…wondering where to eat and what to do. You might start to crave interaction with people other than your partner, but find that the language barrier obfuscates your efforts to make friends. The Roman Guy tours gave us the chance to be part of an intimate group with an “insider.” Our guides were able to navigate difficult waters for us by talking to site officials on our behalf. They gave us tips on their city—it was obvious they didn’t want us to have a bad experience in their beloved Roma. Raffaella taught me how to spot an artisan gelateria and gave me the name of one by my hotel. It was nice having a friend to help me out.
City Insight—Another invaluable aspect of The Roman Guy is the city insight they provide. After we booked our tours, The Roman Guy sent us a list of restaurants to eat at so we could avoid tourist traps and savor all the wonderful delicacies that Rome has to offer. I was frequently in touch with Lorna—their “social butterfly”—who answered all my tour questions and seemed genuinely excited about making sure our Roman vacation was perfect. This meant answering questions beyond those strictly related to the tours. She even provided logistical advice about how best to get from our hotel to one of the tour starting points and how long it would take. When she realized that we would be traveling by train from Florence on that day, she even suggested what time our train should arrive in order to give us enough time to get settled at our hotel, grab a bit to eat, and sight-see on a leisurely walk to the Colosseum. The Roman Guy wanted my time in that city to be as pleasurable as possible.
Some Memorable Things I Learned about Ancient Rome and the Vatican
- Although the Colosseum was free, everyone had to have a ticket and the numbers above the gates (you can still see their faint outlines) denoted where to enter. The passages, called vomitorium, could spew out attendees (between 50,000 and 80,000) quite quickly.
- The colorful marble that had decorated the Roman Forum, Colosseum, and Palatine Hill was looted over the centuries…some of it was “borrowed” by the Vatican where one can see it now.
- There are no paintings in St. Peter’s Basilica. Instead, all the “paintings” that you see are mosaics. Travelers can purchase mosaic souvenirs from the Vatican Mosaic Studio.
- Raphael (quite the ladies’ man) often painted himself into his works, as well as other greats that he admired. Although other Renaissance artists were originally portrayed in his “School of Athens” fresco, he wasn’t going to include Michelangelo (quite an introvert), but after he saw the beauty of the Sistine Chapel he gave him a prominent and powerful character.
- Falling is prohibited! Signs around the Vatican portray prohibited actions, such as showing too much skin, taking pictures in the Sistine Chapel, and…falling!
I found booking the tours to be a breeze through their nicely laid-out and easy to navigate website. The website shows each tour’s duration and level of difficulty, which is handy for those who may not want a lot of exercise or those who are looking for more activity. The Roman Guy hosts tours in Rome, Vatican City, Florence, and Venice, and also has many day trips too. I’m sure all their guides are as fabulous as Jowita, Raffaella, and Leah. Having enjoyed their tours so much, I would love to try out one of their Italian vacations—especially the ten-day “Italian Vistas” trip!
The Roman Guy takes care of all the reservations and ticket buying. This is a very nice service for travelers—it’s like having a personal assistant! Also, for many of their tours, you are able to skip the lines—as was the case with the two that we took. Having guides navigating behemoth sites is particularly helpful saving both time and energy. In short, for those who enjoy getting VIP treatment, like fun tours with experienced guides, and want to feel connected to a city, the Roman Guy tours are for you. Have a great time on your next Italian adventure!
Disclosure: Although The Roman Guy provided me with complimentary tours, I paid for my husband to attend and was thereby able to undergo the process as a regular customer. All views and opinions expressed in this blog are always my own.