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Private Guides – Your Best Travel Investment

On our trip to Italy this summer, I tried out several companies we use for private tours.  My expectations were exceeded, and our experience was so much better than if we had done it alone.

Vatican Museums – The crowds were so overwhelming, I could not imagine visiting without a private guide.  She was able to pull us aside as dozens of large tour groups filed by with headsets on, and then show us something interesting (even for the kids) that everyone else was missing.  

Couldn’t even see the pictures when the hall was filled with tour groups

While many people just popped their heads in the papal apartments, we were learning how different Raphael and Michelangelo were both in artistic style and personality. Before entering the Sistine Chapel, we relaxed in the beautiful courtyard as our guided explained what to look for when we got inside.

Prepping for the Sistine Chapel

Pompeii– We took a day trip to Naples from Rome, and I previously wrote about our experience hiring a private driver.  Before we headed off for our drive along the Amalfi coast, he dropped us off for a 2 hour tour of Pompeii with a guide. I had heard it was huge but had no idea until I saw it for myself.  It literally is a city, with block after block of streets that all look alike, and minimal signage. 


The streets go on and on and on…

Most guests take a self-guided tour with headsets, which can run out on the busiest days.  Our guide, who also led school field trips, expertly led us around the site so we could understand what life was like for residents. Often other visitors nearby leaned in to listen, as the stories she told were not found on any signs.

Learning about the “McDonalds” of Pompeii

Tuscany– We explored with our own car most of the time, but one day we had the luxury of a private driver.  Finally my husband and I both got to relax and enjoy the scenery rather than focus on a map and scan for road signs.  

Wouldn’t you rather enjoy this view while someone else drives?

We visited a honey farm, a cheese farm, and a winery where we had a wonderful lunch prepared by the owner.  He also took us to the hilltop village of Montalcino so we could see the fort.  He dropped us off outside the castle so we could enjoy the scenery rather than waste time in the car looking for parking.

This Brunello wine came home with us.
Say cheese!

One day we drove ourselves to Volterra, where we met another guide who grew up there.  She showed us around the ancient Etruscan village, and took us to the shop of an alabaster artisan I had met in San Francisco, when his replica of the Leaning Tower of Pisa was put on display.

If this looks familiar you may have seen it in a Twilight movie,
this is the home of the Volturi
A master in alabaster

Florence– We day tripped by train from our resort, so our time was limited.  The guide we hired for a city orientation tour met us at the train station, and she took a few minutes to get a feel for how we’d like to spend our time. Since we had seen enough churches and museums, she took us to the food market, which we would have never discovered on our own. 

Before the lunch rush.

Then she led us on a tour of the city, guiding us through side streets so we avoided the worst of the crowds.  She pointed out where Leonardo di Vinci and Michelangelo once stayed, and told the back story on funny signs we saw everywhere. 

Hunting for these signs amused the kids.

We planned to visit the Accademia on our own, so she had done us the favor of reserving our tickets in advance.   She ended our tour at the will call window (which was practically impossible to find unless pointed out), made sure we got in the right line (there were 3 very long ones), and recommended a nearby cafe for lunch.

The original David

When you hire a private guide, you will save time, you will learn more, your kids will have fewer melt downs, and overall you will have a better experience.  Whenever we’ve visited a town or museum on our own, we found ourselves wandering a bit aimlessly. (And in the summer heat, efficiency is key, you want to make every step count!) 


Wish we had a guide at the Colosseum, very few signs here

If you have a special interest in art, history, food, etc., then you’ll really appreciate having a guide who is an expert in that field, rather than taking a generic city tour where the guide is reciting a memorized spiel.


Beautiful Florence, one day is not enough!

You don’t have to hire a guide everywhere you go.  But consider investing some of your travel dollars in locations where a private guide will make the difference between a good vacation, and a great vacation.

Water taxi to the Venice airport, another worthwhile splurge