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How did you prepare to see these sites in Italy?

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We’re traveling to Italy in May and plan to see the classic Rome sites (including Colosseum, Palatine Hill, Roman Forum, Pantheon), with a side trip to see Pompeii and/or possibly Herculaneum. I’ve read and heard that these places aren’t necessarily well marked and its important to do your homework before going, otherwise it may as well just look like a pile of stones :)

So, any suggestions for books/articles about these places to read beforehand, or walking tours or audio tours you’ve used that help bring these sites to life?

Also, anyone know if you need to take a tour to have access to the colosseum dungeon/if these tours are worthwhile? All of the tours I’ve found online are quite a bit more expensive than the admission ticket, so I’m trying to figure out what added value they have.

Thanks!

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