Let’s be honest: tours can be expensive, and quality can vary greatly.
A lot of people are rightly anxious about which tour to take, and if it’s even worth it to hire a tour guide at all.
Particularly in Rome, if you’re wanting to see the Palantine Hill – the birth place of Rome, the Colosseum, or the Roman Forum, you’re heavily spoiled for choice. There are tour guides and tour companies everywhere, fighting for your attention.
There are alternatives to hiring guides in Rome
Alt 1: Using an audio guide: low cost…for a reason
The closest thing to a tour without actually having a tour guide is an audio guide. You get given a phone or pre-recorded device for about 25 euro, you pop in the earphones, and you’re on your way.
This is the one I personally used when I visited Rome. And I seriously do not advise it. Audio guides have so many issues that you wouldn’t foresee before you actually use them.
Consider this: you’re standing at the edge of an old field in the Roman Forum. The field is dotted with old buildings and pillars, some well-preserved and others that simply look like rubble. Your audio guide very quickly points out an object, and talks about it for 5 minutes. You have no idea what you’re looking at. You can’t ask any questions about it. You can’t clarify what it’s saying. While trying to figure this out, you don’t realize that the audio guide has moved on to the next random object in the Roman Forum that’s approximately 15 meters away.
You can either rewind the audio guide and listen to everything again…Or try continue the tour. That’s not happening. You’ll probably just take it out of your ears. And now you have a bulky guide to carry around while you try figure out what you’re looking at.
Alt 2: Reading the signs
This is what I eventually resorted to after abandoning my audio guide. I would read the limited sign posts that are placed around the major objects. Admittedly, some are incredibly interesting.
You can learn a bit about the Temple of Saturn at the base of the Capotoline Hill. Just before reaching the Temple of Saturn, you’ll pass through what you’ll learn was the old office area of the Roman Forum. A very basic overview of the information is there, but you’ll at least know what you’re looking at.
What you’ll totally miss out on is the interesting things that don’t have sign posts. For instance, parts of the Temple of Saturn have broken off and are lying on the ground. If you look at them, you’ll notice some very perculiar markings and decorations. You’d be correct to assume that they’re there for a reason…But unless there’s someone to tell you about it, you wouldn’t really know.
Also, you’ll walk right past the Temple of Caesar without even knowing it’s there. Yeah. It’s right behind a low wall, and unless it’s pointed out to you, you’d never know it’s there. I read about it on Wikipedia after leaving the Roman Forum, and I was quite upset.
Alt 3: Eaves dropping on other tour groups
All right, so here’s the schtick: just outside the Roman Forum, I walked across a large field and went up the hillside. I was looking down on it and thinking, “this has to be something of importance. What on earth could it be?”.
Next thing, a Segway tour group pulled up beside me and I overheard the guide saying that we’re (yes, I consider myself part of their group for that time) looking down on Circus Maximus.
I learned about the chariot races that would happen there, how it was the largest stadium across the entire Roman Empire, and how it fell out of use.
Suddenly, I realized that a tour guide really should’ve been one of my priorities.
Except I didn’t hire one for the Colosseum…Or for Pompeii.
Pompeii simply wasn’t worth it
While staying in Naples, I had the choice of going to Capri on a boat tour, or going to Pompeii.
It was an obvious choice for me. I could go drinking on a boat in some deep blue waters for the day, with a bunch of fun and interesting people from around the world. Or I could go see an ancient city that was both destroyed and preserved by a volcanic eruption.
I chose Pompeii. It was a blistering hot day, but upon arrival at Pompeii, I was in awe. Seeing the ancient and abandoned city covering the landscape was unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.
I very quickly learned 3 things:
- There is no signage. You’ll have no idea what you’re looking at.
- The map is incredibly difficult to read, and you’ll rarely know how to get where you want to go. E.g. I never saw the preserved bodies of Pompeii, even though that was my main objective.
- Everything I learned, I learned from eavesdropping on other tours.
Seriously. Had I not heard the comments from 4 or 5 other groups throughout the day, I’d have left Pompeii knowing absolutely nothing. What I did learn was amazing and I was happy to learn it.
The deep grooves in the road are from horse chariots wearing away the road over the decades. Those frescoes are painted in the house of one of the wealthiest families on Pompeii at the time, which made their money from a laundry service. Those pots were taken and inspired from Greece, and are essentially the historical records of the civilization.
But because overall I didn’t have a guide, Pompeii was one of the worst days of my trip in Italy. It could’ve been made infinitely better, had I not been so stingy with my money.
Everyone came back from Capri that evening with the most amazing stories and pictures. I had pretty large regrets. I was doing everything wrong.
Oh, and one more thing. The stories you hear from a guide are infinitely more interesting than the facts you read online or on signs scattered around ruins.
The history of Italy is too diverse. The quality of your experience in Italy is directly related to how much you learn, rather than how much you see.