The Best Tour of Rome's Colosseum Reviewed.

Classic facade of the Roman Colosseum
Today's iconic facade of the Roman Colosseum is actually the original interior facade. The original outer wall was 100,000
 cubic meters of  travertine stone. That stone was later used to build many Roman churches and several  palaces of Popes. 

Is a Colosseum Guided Tour Worth it?

Read our Third Ring Colosseum Tour Review with Tips and Advice. 

Where to Get the Best Photos.   Can We Skip the Line?   Colosseum Guided Tours in English.

Should You Book a Guided Tour or Tour on Your Own?
We have done both, and we believe that a Colosseum tour / Roman Forum tour is the best choice. We visited the Colosseum and the Roman Forum by ourselves on our first trip to Italy in 1984. We enjoyed it a lot, and it was easier then – inexpensive and no security. However, we now know that we missed a lot of the best stuff, and our little guide book skipped over many features that would have really interested us. Both of the sites are just too packed with layers of history and ancient buildings to be enjoyed fully without help.

The arena floor was wood covered with sand, 270 by 160 feet. Underneath were these walls of the hypogeum, a two-story underground of tunnels connecting training rooms for gladiators, cages for wild animals, and storage rooms hidden under the arena floor. Elaborate machines lifted scenery and animals into the arena. Photo from 2nd level with lens at 55mm.

Switch to a new millennium. In May, 2018, we went on a guided tour* of the Colosseum and the Roman Forum and we were blown away by the wonderful experience. Not only were the lines at entry and the security check made easy, but the sites themselves came alive. Our guide presented fascinating history, facts, and anecdotes at every stop, and answered every question we had. It was very much like we had never been there before. Self-guiding is a fun way to see many places, but not the Colosseum and the Forum.

Which Tour - Top Level, Underground or At Night?
Rome Colosseum has good views from Level 1, but it's crowded sometimes.
Access to Level 1 is included with general admission. The
views are good but sometimes you'll have to wait for a spot.
We booked our tour with the The Roman Guy. Founded by a young American - Sean Finelli - just 10 years ago, we selected them because they have a strong customer-oriented attitude and consistently good reputation.  For the Colosseum we chose the 3 hour Restricted Areas Belvedere Top Levels Colosseum Tour which also includes a Roman Forum tour. We especially wanted the special viewpoints for better photos and this tour includes the restricted access third level - a/k/a the Belvedere.  Our second, back-up choice was the best-selling Colosseum Underground Tour with Roman Forum & Palatine Hill.  The group was manageably small – about 15 people, and we each had an earpiece receiver for easy listening. Our guide was Giulia and she was hands down the best guide we’ve ever had in decades of travel. This smart Roman has several advanced degrees in history and was so knowledgeable she never needed to use a script. She is also friendly, unflappable, and dedicated to seeing that we had a good experience. Which we certainly did.

TIP:  If you book a tour with The Roman Guy, use the DISCOUNT PROMO CODE shown below.

Our Top Levels Colosseum Tour Described.
Rome tour guide with Colosseum in background.
Our Top Level guide Giulia making
sense of the Colosseum's history.
The Colosseum. After we met outside the Colosseum, Giulia guided us through the entrance lines and security with just a small wait. FYI, there's no way to truly Skip-the-Line at the Colosseum. The best you can do is take a guided tour where the wait time to enter and get through security is minimized. Our tour was a morning affair, which we strongly recommend because the longest waits occur when the 3,000 person maximum capacity is reached and new entries are paced – often around late morning.

Once inside, our Roman Guy guide, Giulia, gave us a brief but fascinating architectural and historical overview of the Colosseum so we'd know what we're seeing. Things like where it got it's name (it's not the building size), why there are holes in the walls, why was it preserved at all, how the seats were allocated, what is the connection between the Colosseum and the word 'fornication'. Did you know that the present exterior is actually an interior wall – the original exterior wall is gone – 100,000 cubic meters of stone! Did you know there's no evidence any Christians were martyred here? Freshly and smugly knowledgeable, we then headed up the steep entrance ramp ( a vomitorium in Latin ) to the first ring. 

The first two rings are open to visitors with general admission. You can see a lot from the first ring; the center stage / games area; the seating sections reserved for the emperor, the vestal virgins, and the senators; an overview of the now-exposed underground facilities; and the walls of rising seats above you. It can also get crowded here and you might have to wait for folks to move on to get a clear viewpoint.

View from the Roman Colosseum Top Level, a/k/a the Upper Level, the Third Tier, the Belvedere.
The view from the Colosseum Top Level - also called the Upper Level, the Third Tier, or the Belvedere - centers this great
monument within this great city.  Here you see the hypogeum which was under the arena floor,  the 1st and 2nd levels
with people, and the Palatine Hill next to the Roman Forum. Photo taken with lens at 24mm. See our photo advice below.

Then our little group moved up to the second level, with a more of an overview and we stopped for an explanation of different features. In Roman times, the higher the ring, the lower the rank of the ticket holder. We learned more, such as how the seats were accessed and assigned, how the emperor really didn't use the thumb up / thumb down gesture, and how valuable the gladiators were.

Finally we moved to a locked gate and a guard admitted us to the vomitorium leading to the third ring a/k/a the Belvedere. Here you can appreciate the historical irony of paying extra to get to the SRO section originally reserved for Roman slaves and servants.  The view from the top is excellent. The building is laid out before you and the song lyric, 'the Grandeur that was Rome' jumps into your head. You can see not only the Colosseum spread below, but also some of the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill.

Arch of Constantine. Photo from 3rd Tier on Top Level of Colosseum
Arch of Constantine. Photo from 3rd Tier on Top Level
 Roman Guy Colosseum Tour with lens at just 70mm. 

The top level provided the better photo angles we were hoping for, and we had plenty of time to make sure we took a lot.  Guide Giulia now talked about some of the aspects of this higher level - like the seamen who handled the giant canvas sunscreen held by poles around the whole building.  We took our time absorbing the  information were hearing and seeing and with photos of the scene and with selfies, and then it was off to the Forum.

The Roman Forum. Leaving the Colosseum, Giulia led us down the street - away the nearest Forum entrance, explaining that the alternate entrance usually has no line in late morning and she was right.
We assembled at a succession of vantage points and she outlined the history and rediscovery of the Forum. We began to understand that this wonderful jumble of ruins was not a two dimensional postcard, but the very heart of ancient Rome. It was the life of Rome with processions, elections, trials, speeches, commerce, shrines, temples, libraries.

She explained important concepts like the Vestal Virgins, Triumphal Arches, and she explained the rediscovery of the Forum. The excavations only started in earnest only about 1898. It turns out that the regular flooding of the Tiber over the centuries dropped lots of sediment in the low places - like the Forum. We realized that since we were here in 1984, there was more to look at - more columns and higher buildings. Score one for getting older.

Relief inside the Arch of Titus in Rome celebrating plunder of Jewish temple
Relief in the Arch of Titus on the Via Sacra near the Roman Forum showing.
the procession of plunder from Jerusalem which financed the Colosseum.
 Thousands of Jewish slaves were used in the Colosseum construction.
As we began to climb the Palatine hill and leave the Forum, she pointed out one aspect of the Arch of Titus that fascinated us. Included on an inside wall was a relief (see photo) showing the  triumphal procession into Rome of the plunder, including a prominent menorah, from the sack of Jerusalem in the Judea War in 70 A.D. Much of the labor of constructing the Colosseum was done by Jewish slaves from that war and those that survived are the ancestors of many of Europe's  Jews.

After an hour, we had reached a Forum overview, our brains were full, and the tour was over. We parted inside the Forum so that we could look around to our hearts' content and we did – climbing all over the Palatine Hill until we were ready for yet another path to lunch.

Advice on Photographing the Colosseum and the Roman Forum. 
For the best photographs we think the Upper Level tour of the Colosseum greatly increases a photographer's opportunities. You won't need to have a digital SLR to get good pictures. We used a compact Canon PowerShot G7X Mark II. It's a good camera with a 24-100 mm equivalent lens, a 20 MP 1" sensor, and many features, but we have yet to be mistaken for photojournalists.

Gladiator tourist outside the Roman Forum
A gladiator wannabe outside the Roman Forum - 2,000 years too late. 
For overviews from the upper level, our 24mm lens (in 35mm equivalent focal length) was useful, but you can see from some of our photos that we were squeezed. We guess you'd need a 18mm or 21mm equivalent to cover the whole ellipse of the building from the top level.

Since the upper level viewing is in the northeast quadrant of the Colosseum, the light much after noon would mean shooting with some degree of back lighting – for better or worse.

In the Roman Forum, and less so in the Colosseum, we could have used a longer lens. A telephoto is very useful to compress the ruins into an attractive image, to zero in on inaccessible details, as well as to minimize the presence of other visitors. It's also may have the ability to create a contrast between the ruins and modern Rome. A 180mm equivalent lens or longer should do the trick.

Our Guide on The Roman Guy 'Restricted Areas Belvedere Top Levels Colosseum Tour'
Our wonderful guide Giulia on the
 Roman Guy Colosseum Top Levels Tour 
Why The Roman Guide Tours.
 We were impressed by the level of personal attention. At the rendezous point there were two coordinators to make sure the wifi earpieces worked and that everyone was accounted for. Even more impressive was our guide into the ruins - Giulia - was very anxious that we enjoy the tour, and was happy to take photos of us. She even good-naturedly endured our taking photos of her, often with 2nd & 3rd takes.

She invited questions often and it was hard to stump her, whether it was about the Pope's Good Friday visit or the questionable staged naval battles in the Colosseum.

Of course, The Roman Guy has many kinds of tours in Rome and not just the landmarks.  You can see all the Roman Guy tours here: The Roman Guy

 All the Colosseum tours are here: Colosseum Tours Page  

You can use the discount code of our Lunigiana friend Martha Bakerjean when you book with the Roman Guy - enter MARTHASITALY.  You can also get more up-to-date Italian travel info than any human needs at her website Marthas - with hard-to-find stuff like:

More Info.
The website The-Colosseum,Net  is a dream for the - let's say - factual personality. Architecture, history, the Games, etc. Give yourself a time limit.

If you are interested in Jewish history, be sure to read our story of the The Jewish Ghetto of Lerici  just a few miles from Cinque Terre. There are ideas and links there for other aspects of Jewish history in Italy.

*Disclosure:  Our tour was complimentary - and the first free thing we ever got for having a website. Of course, we can't say for sure that this freebie didn’t undermine our judgment in some subtle way, but we have tried hard to consider the experience as you might. However, we can say for sure, knowing what we know now, we’d willingly pay for this tour experience - like we should have in 1984.

Written by Martha