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Mar 1st, 2014, 01:35 PM
  #1
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Small group tour for Vatican and Colosseum/Forum, ? catacombs

Hello,

I am visiting Rome at the end of the month and looking into tours for the Vatican/St. Peter's/Sistine Chapel and considering a small group tour for the Colosseum/Forum/Palatine Hill. Two friends of mine highly recommend a private tour of the Vatican. Since I am a solo traveler, this would be quite expensive. I did come across Context tours and figured that their 4 hour, smaller group tour (Arte Vaticana), which they quote a maximum of 6 people, would be a good compromise. I am leaning towards this option, although I welcome suggestions for any other reasonably priced small group tours. Through my research, Context seems the most well known for the smaller group size.

Regarding the Colosseum, I am debating between Walks of Italy (with its Underground Colosseum option) and Context Tours. I think I would benefit from a tour to get a good historical perspective rather than wandering around by myself. They are similar in price, although Context Tours does not mention the Underground Colosseum in the regular tour and may charge an extra fee that I am not interested in. I would like some opinions regarding these two options. Is the Underground a must? Context Tours has a smaller group size, which is a plus but I am not sure how important that is for the Colosseum/Forum. Does anyone know if Context Tours would provide more in depth history?

I plan on requesting a Scavi Tour ASAP. Debating about visiting catacombs as well.
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Mar 1st, 2014, 01:43 PM
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I did a Context Vatican tour (small group) and thought it was wonderful.

I haven't done the underground Colosseum tour but have read reports on this board that it was worth the additional charge. Do a search for this topic and see what people say.
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Mar 1st, 2014, 03:10 PM
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I did the Colosseum Underground last year with the Colosseum itself. In case you didn't know, you cannot do the underground without a tour guide or some kind. It is not possible to wander around yourself. It covers the locked underground and also locked third level. This was my third visit, so yes, it was a must for me.

Unlike Colosseum, Forum/Platine Hills can get extremely confusing if you are not immersed in the history of the Roman Empire. Emperors after emperors from different dynasties tried to leave marks in both areas and after a few of them, your head will be spinning even with a guide. For my third visit, I watched a Yale University online course video at youtube by Prof. Diana Kleiner. I thought it was by far the most informative in understanding what each emperor wanted to do and the architectural significance of each building.
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Mar 1st, 2014, 04:00 PM
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Highly recommend Context Tours for the Vatican. There were 5 in our group. The docent spent some time while sitting in the courtyard to tell us what to expect, especially the history of the Sistine.
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Mar 1st, 2014, 04:35 PM
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Thanks to all. I'll use Context for the Vatican.

Greg, I am not at all up to date with my Roman history. I will watch the lecture you recommended, as I get much more out of my trips with a little prep on the history. Still debating about the Context tour for Colosseum and Forum versus just doing the tours offered by each site.
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Mar 1st, 2014, 04:40 PM
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I have to say that Walks of Italy was excellent for both the Colisseum (with top tier and underground) and the Vatican Museums.

Stuart for the Vatican Museums was our guide and was outstanding. One great thing with him, is that he goes straight to the Sistine Chapel so you can see it while it is practically empty. We loved both and though they were well worth the money.

The group size was small, but I don't remember exactly how many--maybe 10-12 max.
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Mar 1st, 2014, 05:27 PM
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I have just been reading more about Walks of Italy and am leaning towards its VIP Colosseum tour, hoping it touches on some of the architecture in the Forum. Dark Rome seems to offer a similar tour, but I'll just stick with Walks of Italy. I can do Context for the Vatican.
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Mar 2nd, 2014, 08:01 AM
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We used Walks of Italy for the Colosseum, Vatican and Crypts and Bones tour last may. Their tour groups have a maximum of 12 people. There are other similar companies like Context and Dark Rome and all have good reputations.
Just a bit of clarification the Colosseum tour did go underground to the lower level. It then went up to the highest level. Both are restricted areas with access with tour groups.
The Walks of Italy tour also included the Forum and Paletine. Our tour guide had us gather in the shade and then had us role play characters in Romes history beginning with Greek Gods. It was a memorable introduction to Rome.

Regardless what tour company you use at the Vatican make sure that you book the early tour. Walks of Italy call theirs Pristine Sistine. I only mention this to say this tour gets you in an hour before the general public so you will have about 40 minutes in the Chapel with no more than 100 people. There were other tour groups with early access privileges as well.
I brought binoculars and sat on a bench and looked at each panel up close. When the crowds started to arrive we left for the museums and managed to stay ahead of the crowds. We had to pass back through the chapel a couple of hours later and it was wall to wall people. That early morning tour is priceless.
While it is not possible to take pictures in the Chapel I did get some lovely images in the museum,St Peters and the Colosseum.
http://www.flickr.com/photos/stanbr5...7634677664021/
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Mar 2nd, 2014, 09:59 AM
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The place that I think most requires a guide is the Roman Forum. I'm very well read in Roman history, and I find the site confusing. It's poorly marked, and even with a good guide book and map, I have trouble finding specific things I want to see; I've been there multiple times and always have problems finding things and understanding what I'm looking at. The Palatine Hill is almost as confusing, but it doesn't have as many things that I really want to see. The Colosseum is very well marked, and I've never felt the need of a guide there. The Colosseum has very little historical significance; it was a sports stadium, after all. I've never done the underground tour, and it's not high on my list of priorities.

I would advise against getting a private tour to any of the catacombs. There are five of them that have regular visiting hours; all of them have their own tours, and none of them allow outside guides to conduct tours. If you want a small group tour, you should go to one of the less-visited catacombs. At the Priscilla catacomb (which has wonderful 4th century frescoes) and at the St. Agnes catacomb (in a very interesting complex that includes the beautiful 4th century church of Santa Costanza) there have been so few visitors that I practically had private tours. (I've been to each of these catacombs twice.) These two are north of the city, while the other three are on or near the Via Appia Antica. If you want to see other things on the Via Appia Antica, I would recommend the Domitilla catacomb, which I've only been to once, but which also had a fairly small group. The San Callisto catacomb is the most visited, and its groups tend to be very large, and strung out along narrow corridors, where it's hard to see or hear the guide. I've been there twice; once the guide was a young monk who was very good about staying in place while we all filed past so we could see what he was pointing out. The other time, the guide was an elderly windbag American priest who was just dreadful as a guide, and stopped every so often to invite us to join him in prayer. At the other four catacombs, the guides have all been lay people, and at St. Agnes, Priscilla, and Domitilla, they've always been women.

The private catacomb tours usually visit the so-called Capuchin Crypt, a place whose fascination escapes me, and the Basilica of San Clemente, which has very interesting underground layers. I would go to a catacomb on your own, and, if you have time, I would suggest also going to San Clemente, where you can take a tour, but which also can be visited with a decent guide book.
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Mar 2nd, 2014, 12:56 PM
  #10
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Thanks for the details. You all are providing really helpful information. I would like a very good overview of the Forum. I had been leaning towards Context for that reason. But for me, I figure any reputable tour company, including Walks of Italy, would hopefully provide the information that I am looking for since I am not well-read in Roman history. Also, as of now Walks of Italy has more dates available for the week I am there.
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Mar 2nd, 2014, 01:01 PM
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nomadder - it's a really good idea to have a guide for the Forum - I've seen it three times now and it's still just a heap of stones to me. I'm heartened that blvenci has the same problem. I'm not sure that it's necessary to have one for the Vatican etc -a good guide book can tell you most of what you will want to know and you can move at your own pace.

but the forum, definitely.
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Mar 2nd, 2014, 01:03 PM
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I don't have any first hand input yet; but we have downloaded some of Rick Steves audio tours to do while we are in Rome. there is one for the Forum and there is a map to print out that is used for the walking tour.

I have heard good things about using them, but of course, it is quite different from a real live person giving a tour.

http://www.ricksteves.com/watch-read...io-tours/italy
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Mar 2nd, 2014, 01:42 PM
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There is some good discussion on the Forum architecture with the Walks of Italy tour. I really knew very little about the Forum and it was interesting. You really could spend several hours just at the Forum with a good guide but our tour was informative.

If you are interested, stay after the tour ends with an audio guide to squeeze more out of your time there.
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Mar 2nd, 2014, 02:46 PM
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I downloaded some of the Rick Steves tours for my young nieces who were visiting me. I thought the Colosseum tour was pretty good, although a little Gee Whiz for my taste. The Forum tour was very superficial, but my nieces had no burning interest in the early history of Rome. They were much more impressed by Ostia Antica.

I know a very good private guide for ancient Roman sites. Her name is Daniela Hunt, an American classics scholar who has lived in Rome for many years:

www.rome-tours.com

Private guides are more expensive than a small group tour, but they will gear the tour to your level of knowledge and your special interests. I know that Context tries to match the guide (they call them docents) to the person.
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Mar 2nd, 2014, 03:23 PM
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I had heard Viator has good tours for small groups; has anyone used them?
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Mar 2nd, 2014, 03:38 PM
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Mar 2nd, 2014, 03:48 PM
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We are using Viator for "Small Tour of Vatican." It is no more than 12 in group, skip the lines and starts early 8:10 am. It isn't cheap {$118 per person}. I signed up for it before I started doing a lot of exploring on the web for other options.

It seems to get great reviews. Time will tell.
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Mar 2nd, 2014, 04:00 PM
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I've been reading many reviews about different Forum tours. Walks of Italy, Context, and many others all get great reviews. For some reason I get a feeling that Context may provide more in depth history. I could be very wrong, it is just a feeling I get. If the underground Colosseum is not do or die, then I could try to grab the one day left that context has open. Not sure if the differences between these tours are enough to obsess over or not.
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Mar 2nd, 2014, 04:09 PM
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"Not sure if the differences between these tours are enough to obsess over or not."

I hear you on the obsess part.

My first trip to Paris and France, I was so worried I had to do it all, see it all because I may never be back. Well, we did go back - 2 more times so far in less than 18 months in fact!

I have the same thoughts here, but I realize that Rome wasn't built in a day and I don't have to see it all in a day. We'll be back if we like it.
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Mar 3rd, 2014, 02:20 AM
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If the underground Colosseum is not do or die, then I could try to grab the one day left that context has open. Not sure if the differences between these tours are enough to obsess over or not.>>

nomadder - nothing on a holiday is "to do or die for" really - they are all about compromises. I've been to Rome 3 times, been to the colosseum 3 times, and not done the underground tour yet. Nor any tour of it, come to that, but I enjoyed every visit.

If the Context tour is what you think will suit you best, and it fits into your itinerary, then that may be the way to go.

THere is no such thing as the perfect trip.
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