Is there anything more iconic, more ‘tell me you’re in Rome without telling me you’re in Rome’ than a snapshot of the Colosseum? Maybe if you were also on a Vespa, espresso in one hand and cell phone in the other (and illegally parked outside the Colosseum).
Jokes aside, Flavio’s Amfitheatre (its official name) is literally colossal, absolutely dripping in history, and always top of the must-sees on any travel itinerary to Rome.
So, if this is your first time, should you go?
Does it actually live up to all the hype?
Can you just swing by, stand next to it, snap a selfie, and say that you went?
The answer to all three questions is a resounding yes. You do you. But if you do decide to go inside, here’s an overview of how to do it and, more importantly, how to do it right.
Is it Worth Going on a Tour, and How do I Pick The Best One?
First of all, let’s look at the kind of tickets available. You will be given an option of either:
- Colosseum + Forum + Palatine Hill
- Full Experience: Colosseum + Arena + Forum + Palatine Hill
- Full Experience: Colosseum + Undergrounds + Arena + Forum + Palatine Hill
- Night time Colosseum + Undergrounds + Arena (from March – September)
For each of these, you can book either a private tour, a small group tour, or a group tour.
Alternatively, you can book a self-guided tour, whereby you purchase an audio guide in advance and pick up the headset on the day at the Colosseum.
If it’s private, it’s just you (and your party) and the guide. Small groups can mean anything between eight and twelve, depending on the tour operator’s definition of small. A normal group can go up to twenty, but in peak season, groups might even reach twenty-five.
If the budget allows for it, go small. If it really allows for it, splash out and get a private tour for you and your group of friends or partner. There are all kinds of niche guides out there.
Once, I eavesdropped on a Jewish Italian guide leading a private group tour; she had all sorts of great insights about the Jewish population in Ancient Rome that I would have otherwise never known about. A good tour operator will listen to your requests and set you up with the right guide.
There are, of course, pros and cons to booking any kind of tour in the first place.
Your guide will bombard you with information (in a good way) but will really make it come alive. I’ve always been entertained by Italian tour guides – the good ones are wonderful performers, and their idiosyncratic English only adds to their charm.
The price. Chances are, if you book through a tour operator via one of the many online platforms, you will end up in a group of 20 people, particularly during peak season.
While you are provided with radios and headsets so you’ll always be able to hear your guide, the expression of being herded like sheep will inevitably spring to mind, not to mention the pressure to keep up. You may end up wishing you’d saved your Euros and booked a ticket to go on your own with an audio guide instead.
In the end, consider what’s best for you and your group. If you’re travelling solo, I’d recommend just paying for an audio guide and going alone. Luxuriate in the fact that you can go at your own pace without the pressure or slightly dehumanising experience of being herded along with the group.
If you or the person you’re travelling with has mobility issues, or you’re bringing your kid and the stroller, go for a small or private group. You might find the pace a bit too much.
The tour, including the Roman Forums and Palatine Hill, will take over three hours- more if faced with long lines. The terrain at the Forum and Palatine Hill is uneven, and a lot of walking is involved.
Combined Tour of Colosseum, Forum & Palatine Hill – What to Expect
Your entry to the Roman Forums and the Palatine Hill is included with your Colosseum ticket since they’re all part of the same archeological park (Parco Archeologico del Colosseo).
Your ticket is valid for 24 hours before or after your entry to the Colosseum, which means you are not obliged to see the Forum and Palatine Hill on the same day. In fact, I would recommend you visit the Roman Forum first (the afternoon before, ideally) and then go to the Colosseum the following morning.
If your itinerary doesn’t allow for that, be advised; it’s a lot. Most tours start at the Colosseum, but others run a reverse tour whereby you start at the Forum and end at the Colosseum. I think this is a better way to do it; it creates a nice build-up.
- The Roman Forums are basically a slice of Ancient Roman city life. You’ll see ruins of many temples, but also the main town square (market place if you like), a cemetery, and a couple of iconic and beautifully preserved archways.
- Palatine Hill is the mythological birthplace of the city and home to more ruins of what were once lavish Roman palaces overlooking the Circus Maximus.
In the sixteenth century, the spectacularly wealthy Farnese family moved in and built a series of pleasure gardens. Not too much of it remains today, but Palatine Hill is still a wonderful place to walk around and really central to Roman history.
Over at the Colosseum, if you’ve managed to get your hands on a Full Experience ticket, you’ll be guided around the Undergrounds, a network of tunnels and holding cells for animals and gladiators.
They also housed the impressive machinery which raised them to arena level. You’ll then be able to step out onto the partially reconstructed arena to have your Russel Crowe moment and then head up to level 1 for great photo opportunities as well as a series of informative displays and the all-important gift shop.
Good to Know
Private individuals and tour operators can only purchase tickets one month in advance. This is why they are such hot tickets.
In an effort to rule out illegal ticket sales, all tickets to the undergrounds are ‘nominative’, which is colosseum-speak for ‘you will need to provide your full name to be printed on your ticket’. You’ll generally do this when you purchase the tour (either directly from Coopculture, the Colosseum’s official site or via a third-party tour operator). Your ID will be checked on the day.
Always have an ID. In Italy, carrying a form of ID with you is the law. If you’re uncomfortable carrying your passport around town, a driver’s licence would also work.
Official and Third-Party Tours
Going The Official Route
The Colosseum is managed by a cooperative called Coopculture which oversees the running of hundreds of cultural sites in Italy. (They have a reasonably well-organised website available in English).
- Pro: Prices for their guided tours are significantly lower per person.
- Con: You will only receive a tour of the Colosseum, Arena, and Undergrounds (lasting 1h 15) and not the Forums and Palatine Hill, and there is minimal availability.
Going The Third-Party Route
There are dozens of third-party sites which host tours on behalf of local tour operators.
- Pro: These guys are snapping up all the tickets, so chances are, even if you’ve left it a little last minute, one of them will have a tour for you.
- Con: You’ll feel it in your wallet. They know how popular these tours are and how much people want to get their hands on them. And you’re going to pay a premium for it. It’s classic supply and demand.
In short, if you’ve got your heart set on a Full Experience Tour, booking a guided tour through an online platform might be your best bet. You’ll still want to book as far ahead of time as possible to be sure. Last-minute Full Experience tickets are much, much harder to come by.
If, on the other hand, you are happy enough to visit the Colosseum and the Forums and have access to the first and second levels and see but not set foot in the Undergrounds nor on the Arena, then tickets are much easier to come by.
You might even be able to buy exact day tickets, if you’re lucky, from the official website, Coopculture (where you’ll find the lowest price on the market for self-guided audio tours).
Generally speaking, the quality of the guide you get is high, regardless of whether you go official or third party. Guides in Italy need to be licensed, and to get that licence, they need to go through many exams and have demonstrable qualifications and experience under their belt.
You’ll basically be getting a Ph.D. level walking lecture. It’s illegal to let just anyone give a guided tour at cultural heritage sites. Italians are real sticklers about that.
How to Get the Most Out of Your Visit
For many of us, this will probably be a once-in-a-lifetime visit, so you’ll want to make it worthwhile. Or maybe this is your second visit, and you want to appreciate it this time around. For my part, the first time I went, I was a grumpy, ungrateful teenager; the second time was much more enjoyable.
Tip 1: Split the Tour Into Two
Do the Forum in the late afternoon and then the Colosseum the following morning.
OK, this would effectively mean that the Forums part of the tour would be unguided. But Coopculture has a free app that you can download with a map of the Forum and the Palatine Hill, each with a mini audio guide. It’s actually very thorough.
Tip 2: Go in the Morning
Between May and September, Rome is hot. Really hot. Or, if you’re visiting between March and September, go for a Night Tour. It’s wonderfully atmospheric; I actually love walking around the Colosseum and the streets surrounding the Forums at night. It’s lit up beautifully, and it’s majestic.
Tip 3: Dress Smart
I mean, use common sense here. Not wear a tuxedo. You’ll be on your feet for a long time. The terrain will be uneven and pretty pebbly in places, so wear comfortable shoes and bring water and a hat if it’s summer time. The Roman sun can be pretty unforgiving.
Tip 4: Bring a Sense of Wonder
It’s obviously all pretty old, and you’ll need to use a lot of imagination, no matter how talented a raconteur your guide is. So go with it, and bring a fully charged phone while you’re at it.
Tip 5: Rest up Before the Tour
Last summer I worked for a tour operator in Rome. We’d take bookings from clients doing this tour as soon as they landed from places as far away as Michigan. They’d actually leave their suitcases with us at the office while they went on the tour. I admired their stamina, but please. Don’t do that. The Colosseum deserves your undivided and unjetlagged attention.
Download the free Parco Archeologico App in advance. You can find it on the official Colosseum website or by scanning the QR code on the ticket information panels located next to the Colosseum ticket office.
It tells you everything you need to know in bitesize chunks, and it’s super helpful in helping you get your bearings around the deceptively large Roman Forums and Palatine Hill.
For more options for tours in Rome besides Colosseum, check out our other guide.