The remarkable difference with this tour, indeed any Rick Steves tour, is culture.
In saying this, I do not refer to the ethnic or national culture being visited by the tour (in this case the wonderful culture of Italy), but the Rick Steves difference is due to the culture of the tour itself: The people, the guide, the way we were recruited and prepared, the whole Steves philosophy, and the itinerary.
Here is the difference: Other tours are more like theatre. That is, you view things almost as if they are on stage or a screen; you have a place on the tour and you view things and have them described to you, sometimes by experts. It is more passive, maybe even voyeuristic—a sit-and-watch or walk-and-stare experience. At worst, some tours even bear a slight whiff of arrogance, where the tourists view a culture as if it’s under glass or in a zoo display; they point to what they see, appreciatively perhaps, but they barely engage it.
But our experience with the Heart of Italy, the nine-day tour of Rome, Volterra / Lucca, Cinque Terre and Florence, was different. We participated; we touched the culture, and were coached to know Italian phrases and not to dress like a conspicuous tourist. We were asked to be curious and to learn, to walk with our own bags through narrow streets to our Mom-n-Pop B&B-style hotels, to know transportation tricks and to have long conversations with the locals who hosted our stays and served our meals.
More was required of us, to be active in visiting rather than passive, and that’s a good thing.
The Rick Steves organization is quite intentional about the culture of their tours, based on a well-thought-out philosophy of travel. This slant on visiting Europe has a natural filtering effect on customer recruitment, i.e. you have to like this kind of travel to begin with (travel-as-theatre folks are not likely to sign up). Further, the organization will diplomatically caution against negative participants with their “no grumps” rule and the many statements that gently caution about the amount of walking, the potential for waiting in line or other potential discomforts we will take in stride (like heat, for example).
So our thought was “wow, give us that!” And we knew, thereby, that like-minded people would be on the tour, people who have some energy for travel, who do not count effort as discomfort, and relate well to others. The group was small. We interacted with what we saw and with each other, making the social aspect of this tour a highlight. Indeed, this group—our group—was one of the best aspects of the tour.
This itinerary is balanced. Some days were split, half the time with the group, guided through the Vatican Museum, Coliseum, Forum, the streets of Volterra or Lucca, the train stops of Cinque Terre or the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, and then the remaining time on our own. We found the so-called “strenuous” days to be not quite as daunting as that word implies. Departing our peeps in the Vatican, we prowl St. Peters on our own, go back to the room and take a nap, then taxi over to Trastevere for Calzone and milling with the crowds. Several days were like that.
I had the space of heart and time to contemplate Michelangelo’s David and to be overwhelmed at the history and significance of the Creation of Man in the Sistine Chapel; to watch the waves batter the breakwater at Vernazza, and to hear arias in the 13th century chapel in that town later that evening. Beauty and heroism were on display at Volterra's Etruscan gate, an idyllic hillside view with a tale of the townspeople's bravery in WWII.
I believe that I may have changed a bit as a result of this trip. And that is the point, is it not? You can take an arms-length view, just to say you saw it, and will likely leave Europe little changed. Though in my 60’s, I refuse to be rutted and I want travel to change me. Getting immersed even briefly in a culture—both that of Rick Steves and of Italy—will do that to a person.