In this post, we review and compare the many city tours offered in Rome, including free and self-guided audio tours. These are tours that generally cover Rennaissance Rome and the modern city’s center. We also offer reviews of tours that cover the Vatican as well as the Colosseum, Forum and Palatine Hill.
CITY TOURS OVERVIEW
We have classified a “city tour” as a tour that doesn’t cover (at least extensively) the Vatican or ancient Roman sites, such as the Colosseum and the Forum.
A city tour covers Baroque or Rennaissance Rome and you could expect each tour to cover the Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, Piazza Navona as well as other piazzas.
This doesn’t mean that you won’t see any ancient Rome, as most tours will cover the Pantheon as well as obelisks and aqueducts, as these relics of Republican and Imperial Rome are everywhere. Most tours are 2 hours, with some lasting 3.
Guided tours differentiate themselves by which sights you will see, the # of people per guide, the length of a tour, the level of English proficiency, and of course, price.
There are also differences as to the time of day that tours are offered. Most companies offer an afternoon or early evening tour, but a few offer morning and night options.
And don’t forget, we also offer a free, self-guided option. We hope this analysis helps you with your time in Rome.
WALKING TOURS OF ROME CENTRAL
You have an excellent selection of tour companies offering traditional guided Rome city walks. The 4 companies listed below are all well-reviewed. Group sizes tend to be between 12 and 25 participants per tour guide, and most take place in the late afternoon or evening.
One group offers headsets for their guests while others include free gelato in the price.
The English fluency of their tour guides is often cited in reviews. Most tours are between 2 and 3 hours in length and expect to pay between €31 – €39/adult. The companies differ in pricing for children, and we list the prices below.
This company offers tours throughout Rome and other Italian Cities. They are well reviewed with 98% of their reviews on TripAdvisor either a 4 or 5 star (out of 5 stars). They offer 2 tours, one that has a maximum of 12 participants and one that maxes out at 8 (the latter includes breakfast). They also offer a tour of ancient Rome.
- €39/adult | €29/student | €22 child (7-14) | free for 6 and under
- Daily at 17:30 (5:30 pm)
- Price includes gelato.
- More information or to book.
City Wonders (formerly Dark Rome)
Another well-reviewed company (97% 4 and 5-star reviews). They are a bit cheaper for adults than Roma Experience, but their groups cap out at 25 participants, and no “free” gelato. However, they do employ headsets, something that reviewers seem to like. They also offer a tour of the Colosseum, Forum, and Palatine Hill as well as other tours in Rome and other Italian cities. Their pricing isn’t as low when it comes to children and they don’t appear to offer a student discount.
- €35/adult | €30 child (4-14) | free for 3 and under
- Daily at 15:30 (3:30 pm)
- More information or to book.
Rome Your Way
This outfit offers a night tour that runs daily at 19:00 (7 pm). They cap their groups at 18 participants and offer the least expensive adult ticket in this group. They offer their city tour in English, Italian, German, and Spanish They have great reviews, but not many in total. It seems as though they are a relatively new company. Aside from this tour, they have more tours in Rome on offer.
- €31/adult | €27 child (6-18) | €27 seniors (60+) | free for 5 and under
- Daily at 19:00 (7 pm)
- More information or to book.
As a sightseeing company that focuses on pay-what-you-like walking tours throughout the world, we are disappointed not to offer yet our own tours in Rome. We do offer a free, self-guided Rome City Tour as well as a suggestion for a free audio walk.
Nevertheless, there are approximately 6 companies offering “free” or pay-what-you-like tours in Rome. They all have similar names, so it is confusing to know which company is which, but we have helped narrow it down a bit.
Compared to the paid tours listed below, most of the free tour companies in Rome are not as well reviewed, but their review profiles are still good.
They tend to attract more backpackers and families. Some companies can have groups of 30 or more participants while others have low caps, and some companies will cancel a tour if there are not enough guests, so beware, particularly in the slow season.
We list the 3 that we feel are the best of the 6.
New Rome Free Tour
This outfit has the best reviews of this class, with just 3% of reviewers rating them 3 or fewer stars (out of 5). They offer a daily tour at 9:30 am as well as 17:00 (5 pm). What we like most about them is that they limit their groups to just 15 participants.
Their route is very similar to our self-guided tour, but in reverse order, starting at the Spanish Steps. Their tour lasts 2 hours.
Children 10 and under can’t participate, though.
They have a dress code, as they visit churches on this tour. They also have a requirement that you print out your ticket or else you can’t participate. They are serious about this. In fact, without this requirement, their review profile would be even better, as it seems this has angered a few would-be guests.
Rome Free Walking Tours
Of the 3 outfits in this section, this company has the most negative reviews (7% give them 3 or fewer stars). With that said, this also means that 93% have given at least 4 out of 5 stars on TripAdvisor.
They offer two tours that cover sights in this post, both of which start at the Spanish Steps. One tour heads toward the Colosseum and includes the Trevi Fountain, while the other heads toward the Vatican and includes the Pantheon. You would need to take both to cover everything in this post.
Rome Ultimate Free Tour
We also wanted to mention this company because of their great reviews, 97% give them 4 or 5 stars (out of 5 stars) and their limit of 15 people per tour guide. They offer 2 tours daily, one at 11:00 am and the other at 16:00 (4 pm). However, they advertise their tour as visiting the B-side of Rome, so no Trevi Fountain or Spanish Steps, but they do visit the Pantheon and Piazza Navona.
One warning: this company reserves the right to cancel a tour if fewer than 4 participants show up, but they don’t seem to do this often, if at all.
SELF-GUIDED AND AUDIO TOURS
If you are looking to explore on your own, or maybe you are traveling on a budget, then we recommend taking a look at the following resource. Below that, we list our short self-guided tour that follows the general route of most of the tour companies listed above.
Rick Steves’s Heart of Rome Audio Tour
Rick Steves is famous for producing travel guides for the public radio and television folks in the U.S. His target audience is independent American travelers, but anyone who reads and understands English should benefit. The audio tour is efficient and excellent.
You could download the audio tour to your podcast player or you could download his app. There is a companion map that you could download or use in the previous two formats. At the very least, you could listen to the audio at home and follow his tour on Google maps.
In addition to this tour, he offers other free audio tours in Rome and other Italian cities. Click here for more information.
Self-Guided Tours of Rome’s Center
This self-guided tour of things to see somewhat follows the same route as the Rick Steves’s audio tour. Use this as a primer for your trip or take it as an actual tour. The total time should be between 2-3 hours to walk this route, which includes time for photographs and pausing to enjoy some views and history.
Stop 1: Campo de’ Fiori Market
The Campo de Fiori Market is the perfect place to start your tour—and your day. You can grab a coffee at Obica and maybe even a little snack while you sit outside and watch people coming and going from the market.
This is one of Rome’s most famous markets and a great example of the eclectic and community atmosphere in the city. As you will see, if you are here during the day, a popular fruit and vegetable market has sprung up in this spot, but this area is full of history.
Originally, it was a meadow. The name literally translates into “field of flowers”. Can you imagine this square as a field of flowers? These days, this is where Romans might stop at a café or restaurant, as you are doing right now. They can also be seen parading through the market late at night after a few too many glasses of wine.
This type of gathering place is very typical in Rome, and you’re experiencing authentic Roman life at this spot.
Yet the square’s history is darker than what you might see in modern-day times. The centerpiece of the square is a statue of a monk, Giordano Bruno. Bruno was a Dominican priest who had some novel ideas for the times. He believed that the earth wasn’t the center of the universe long before Copernicus did.
As you might guess, his fellow Romans did not like these ideas, and Bruno ended up fleeing the city. Fortunately, he quickly made friends all over Europe, including a group of Calvinists and Queen Elizabeth.
The good times did not last as Bruno’s ideas were just too ahead of their time. He was eventually arrested in 1593, during the Inquisition era and sentenced to death. He was burned at the stake on the very spot where his statue stands today.
The statue was erected by the new secular government in the 1980s and shows Romans’ love for resistance, quirky stories, and history.
This wasn’t the only famous historic figured who was murdered in this square. Julius Caesar was stabbed right near the columns in the square. Okay, maybe it’s a little early in the morning for all this death and mayhem, but these stories really show the diverse layers of Roman history. You’re going to discover all about ancient Rome and modern day times today.
Stop 2: Piazza Navona
Piazza Navona is one of the most beautiful squares in Rome, if not the world. The square was built on top of the crumbling ruins of the Stadium of Domitian that was built in 86 AD. This explains why the square is more like a long oval. The stadium held over 33,000 spectators (about half as many as the Colosseum.) and was used mostly for festivals and sporting competitions.
Today it is one of Rome’s liveliest squares, with many outdoor cafes, restaurants, and nightclubs. Annually a large festive Christmas Market opens here.
In the late 15th Century what was still standing of the ancient stadium was paved over. You can still see remnants of the ancient stadium at the northern end of the square along Piazza di Tor Sanguigna.
In 1477 Pope Sixtus IV designated the Piazza as the site of Rome’s main outdoor fruit and vegetable market. It stayed this way for 400 years until, in 1869, the market was moved to Campo dei Fiori, also a stop on the tour.
The Piazza is known for its three splendid fountains. The central and largest fountain is the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of the Four Rivers) built in 1647. Designed by sculptor Bernini, the fountain has four figures, each representing a river from a different continent – the Nile, Ganges, Danube and Rio de la Plata.
The two other fountains are located at either end of the square. On the northern end is the Fontana del Nettuno (Neptune Fountain), built in 1576 by Giacomo della Porta. The statue of Neptune surrounded by sea nymphs was added in 1878.
On the southern end of the Piazza, is the Fontana del Moro (Fountain of the Moor) also designed by Della Porta, although it was Bernini who added the statues of the Moorish man and the dolphins in the 17th Century.
Another highlight of Piazza Navona is the church of Sant’Agnese. Commissioned by Pope Innocent X in 1652, it is built on the site where legend says that St. Agnes was stripped of her clothes, yet by a miracle, shielded from disgrace by a sudden extraordinary growth of hair that covered her exposed body.
Stop 3: Pantheon
The Pantheon dates back to 120 AD and is the best-preserved structure in Rome. What was the Pantheon made of to ensure such great strength? The crazy thing is that no one knows for sure. Many people believe that material is very similar to the concrete we use today for foundations. The Romans must have been pretty savvy to create concrete over 2,000 years ago.
This amazing structure was erected by Emperor Hadrian. Many scholars believe that this was the exact spot from where, according to the ancient Romans, Rome’s founder, Romulus, rose into heaven.
The Pantheon has survived wars, raids, and weather. Back in 609 it served as a pagan temple but was saved from demolition because it was transformed into a church. Today, it still serves as a church. Read our tips for visiting the Pantheon.
Stop 4: Palazzo Montecitorio and Obelisk of Montecitorio
The Italian government meets here in the beautiful Renaissance palace commissioned by the Medici Family. It was built by Bernini in 1653, expanded by Carlo Fontana in the late 17th century, and received an art nouveau ‘facelift’ in 1918. Before Italy became a unified country and the Papal States were independent, the building was used for the Papal law courts. At one point, this palazzo was Papal States police headquarters.
The nearby Obelisk of Montecitorio (also known as Solare), is an ancient Egyptian obelisk from some time in the early 590s BC. It is 21.79 meters (71 ft) high, and 33.97 meters (111 ft) including the base and the globe.
In 10 BC, Emperor Augustus brought it to Rome and placed it in the Campo Marzio used for military training. The obelisk was used as a big sundial, hence the name Solare.
With the wear and tear of time, earthquakes war and the simple passage of time, the ancient obelisk crumbled and was partially buried. Several Popes worked to excavate it and finally, in 1789, it was installed in front of the Palazzo Montecitorio by Pius VI.
Stop 5: Marcus Aurelius Column
This impressive 100-foot tall column was built somewhere between 180 AD – 196 AD to honor Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius. The column is covered with a spiral relief of battle victories led by Marcus Aurelius’ victories against the Barbarians. The column is said to have been modeled after the famous Trajan’s Column, also worth seeing.
In 1588, the column underwent restoration and the original statue of emperor Marcus Aurelius was replaced with a statue of apostle St. Paul. Occasionally, the column is open and you can climb the stairs inside to catch a rare view of Rome.
Stop 6: The Trevi Fountain
This fountain is probably one of the most recognizable sites in Rome. If you’ve ever seen a movie that takes place in Rome—including Fellini’s Dolce Vita—you might feel as though you’ve been here before.
The main statue in the fountain depicts the god, Ocean. It was designed by Nicola Salvi and opened in 1762. The plans for the statue started over 300 years earlier. The original fountain was commissioned by Pope Nicholas V in 1453 and later abandoned. They were resurrected by Pope Urban VIII in the 1600s and was supposed to be designed by famous architect Bernini. Yet when the pope died, the plans were scrapped.
The word Trevi comes from the Latin word, Trivium. This translates into, “The crossing of three streets.” It marks the final point of the Aqua Virgo, a manmade canal that brought water into the city.
As you can imagine, the fountain uses a lot of water–2,824,800 cubic feet per day to be exact. Yet we don’t recommend dancing through the fountain as if you were a character in a Fellini movie. The fountain’s water is recycled every day and isn’t safe for drinking—or dancing for that matter.
Stop 7: Spanish Steps
The Spanish Steps are a well-known meeting place in Rome. They’re also a great place to sit and chat with friends. You can also hike up the 135 steps to the church of the Santissima Trinità dei Monti, a Roman Catholic church consecrated in 1585. Francesco de Sanctis won the competition to design the steps.
At the bottom of the steps sits the Piazza di Spagna and the Fontana della Barcaccia that translates to “Fountain of the Old Boat”. The fountain was designed by Pietro Bernini. It depicts a sinking boat that supposedly washed ashore here in a flood in the 16th Century. Despite their name the Spanish Steps were not built by the Spanish; they were built by the French. Many tourists use them to access the Villa Medici at the top.
Near the bottom of the steps is the Keats Museum, where famous poet John Keats lived and died.
Stop 8: Villa Medici
Completed in 1544, the Villa Medici was once home to the Messalina family, who was murdered in the structure. The building was renamed for Cardinal Ferdinando de’ Medici when he purchased the property in 1576.
When the last of the Medici heirs died in 1737, the building was bequeathed to Françoise-Stéphane Duke of Lorraine and then to Pierre-Leopold, who turned the building a gallery. Finally, the building became an academy for French artists in 1803.
Stop 9: Villa Borghese
Villa Borghese is home to the third-largest public park in Rome. It is home to the Galleria Borghese and several other museums and galleries.
Built-in 1605 by Cardinal Scipione Borghese, most of the grounds were reimagined in the 19th Century as an English garden. In addition to the museums, there is a zoo and a replica of Shakespeare’s Globe Theater on the grounds.