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Private vs Group-Guided vs. Self-Guided Tours

In planning our upcoming trip, I'm trying to figure out which places are worth getting a private guide vs going in a group tour vs using RS walking tours or something similar on our own. I'd love to hear opinions/advice about this!

I can get some advice from the RS Italy book. One place I'm specifically wondering about is Ostia Antica, though, and RS doesn't cover it in the Italy book so I'm wondering the best way to do it.

We will be in Venice (with Murano/Burano), Florence, Siena (day trip), Rome.

Travelers are me and my husband, 24yo son and 26yo daughter. Interests lie in history more than art.

Posted by
1822 posts

My first choice has always been small group tours. You lose some of the freedom of having a private guide, but it's usually much less costly. I've never been a fan of the RS self guided tours, I find the narrative a bit dull. Also, the one time we tried it we got hopelessly turned around and couldn't find the sites he was talking about.

I haven't been to Ostia Antica but in a site like that or the Colosseum/Forum I'd recommend a tour or you may find yourself looking at piles of rubble and wondering what it is. Same with art galleries. The significance of what I was looking at would have been lost without someone talking to me about it.

Check out Through Eternity Tours, it's by far been the best small group tour company I've used anywhere.

Posted by
12397 posts

Many guidebooks, in addition to Rick's, include self-guided walking tours, and he's provided some audio tours which can be dowloaded for free:

in Rome, you might consider a tour which covers the Colosseum, Roman Forum and Palatine. While the Colosseum is pretty easily understood with just a little advance reading or an audioguide, the other two are much more complex. Most combo tours last around 3 hours or so. I'll say the same for the Vatican Museums as they are VAST and can benefit from the direction of an experienced guide. If they have resumed them at the time of your trip (there's some confusion around whether this itinerary is currently available or not) I'd recommend a tour which includes early entrance to the museums + St Peter's basilica.

Recommendations from RS posters over the years:

Walks of Italy:

The Roman Guy:


Through Eternity:

The Vatican offers its own tours of the museums: options and tickets here:

You'd likely want the "Guided Tours for Individuals - Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel". They don't offer one which includes the basilica at this time.

I don't personally think there's anything in Florence which needs a human guide, although advance reading is highly recommended. Ostia Antica: it's possible they'll resume guide services at the site by the time you go but here's printed guide you can download in advance for seeing the site on your own, if interested:

I would refer to the website Christine provided in one of your earlier posts for any visiting news updates.
Just a start !!!

Posted by
45 posts

Allan, thanks for the recommendation for Through Eternity Tours. I have seen them mentioned but not looked into them yet. I'll do that. I am definitely one like you describe where the significance is lost if I don't have someone telling me about it. I get MUCH more out of tours with that than just looking at something on my own.

Kathy, thank you for those links! Very helpful. I have spent some time on the Points Guy site but it wasn't about tours so far. And that info on Rome is helpful. I wasn't sure if grouping the sites together like that would be good, so that advice is helpful. Thanks!

Laura, I just went to our library site and reserved the Rome book. I'm not sure I need to buy it, but can decide once I've seen it. I can at least see the Ostia Antica pages. Thanks!

Posted by
2726 posts

Some great suggestions above. We have used a variety of guides in our travels: Group Walking Tours (some free), private guides, & RS self guided walks. I think RS guidebook for Ostia Antica as suggested would be great. We used Walks of Italy for the Colosseum, Palatine and forum. The guide was knowledgeable and engaging. Most of our historical tours were private guides or small group tours. I’ve never regretted hiring a guide.

In Venice I used Frommer’s “24 Great walks in Venice.” It takes you through the neighborhoods from famous places to lesser known gems.

I included a website for one of my favorite blogs that discusses the pros for hiring a guide.

Posted by
524 posts

In Florence, we love "WalkAboutFlorence" -- we did 2 of their tours - the BEST OF TUSCANY TOUR and the CHIANTI WINE & FOOD SAFARI TOUR. Check out their website - the BEST OF TUSCANY does go to Siena.

Posted by
45 posts

Janis, I'll look into the Frommer's guide for Venice, thanks! And I'll read through the blog.

When in Spain, we hired a private guide (RS recommended) for the Alhambra and it was one of the highlights of our trip. But we also did a few group tours that were very good. I think if there is one particular site I know my family will especially love it is worth getting a private tour, but otherwise group ones or doing it on our own are fine. I'm finding it hard to know where which type would be most beneficial in Rome, though!

chinalake67, thanks for the tour recommendations. I'll look at those!

Posted by
12397 posts

mhsrmoore2. I think the companies we've linked largely specialize in smaller-group tours, although Context offers many private tours too. The exception is the tour offered by the Vatican, which can be as large as 25.

I'd definitely group the Colosseum, Forum and Palatine together as they are in the same area. In fact, the Forum and Palatine are connected inside shared security borders. The Colosseum is just a short walk away. I'm so jealous; you're going to have such a good time! :O)

Posted by
4836 posts

We've hired private guides more and more in Europe, including Paris, Iceland, Brittany, and Ireland, as well as for Morocco. These were mostly for art, and/or backcountry adventure activities.

Group guides in London and upcoming (2022) Africa safari trip. Cheaper and/or safer than private, or on our own!

For Ostia Antica, Rick's book was fabulous -- i don't think we would've understood the communal toilet without his insight!

For Venice, the Venicescapes Historical Society private tours run by long-time Venice resident, Michael, an American, are the way to go. His itineraries are almost all history, although he does have one focused on the sublime art. His are a bit like taking a Venice History class taught by an expert, and you can get an exclusive visit inside a private palazzo, plus a souvenir/reference book with the fascinating tour.

Posted by
45 posts

Kathy, thanks for your advice and sharing my excitement! I'm plowing ahead with planning under the assumption everything will be okay for travel in October.

joe32F, thank you for that link! I'll look for the RS Rome book there!

Cyn, that tour guide sounds perfect for us. Thank you for sharing that info!

Posted by
12397 posts

We're crossing fingers for you that your trip goes off without a hitch! 🤞