By:Pamela Jacobs

In 1477, construction of the Sistine Chapel as it stands today began, and it was completed in 1480. A generation of some of history’s greatest artists decorated its walls; its original ceiling was a dark blue studded with golden stars. Decades after the chapel’s construction, Pope Julius II decided he wanted a new ceiling fresco, and looked to Michelangelo.

Michelangelo begrudgingly accepted the commission under two conditions: that he could have complete artistic liberty, and that no one could see it until it was complete. He began the work in 1508, and four years later, one of the greatest masterpieces of all time was unveiled. Standing under this magnificent work of art is spectacular; for most who visit, it’s a dream come true. Imagine being in the presence of historical, artistic genius, of staring up at it for the first time, feeling the weight of its significance and pure beauty.

Now imagine being the first person inside it that day—of standing there in the silent Sistine Chapel, with only a handful of people alongside you, alone with your thoughts. It’s enough to bring anyone to tears. This is the type of experience you get when you book a tour with City Wonders. City Wonders offers exclusive, intimate tours throughout Italy, France, and the UK. They’re focused on engaging and inspiring travelers; they let you truly experience the behind-the-scenes, often off-limits aspects of a destination. Visitors don’t just see a place, they live and breathe it.  Through small group sizes, thoroughly knowledgeable English-speaking tour guides, and unprecedented access, the wonders of a city come alive.

 

This means skipping the line at the Vatican and being the first to roam its hallways and set eyes on that remarkable ceiling. It means delving into the underground world of Rome, touring dark 2nd century catacombs, and experiencing the Colosseum through the eyes of a gladiator—areas not open to the general public. Thanks to my City Wonders experience in Rome—an incredible introduction to the city—I not only saw and learned more in four days than most people will in a month, but I was able to fall in love with the city by seeing it through the eyes of those who know its secrets.

 

City Wonders offers dozens of exclusive tours, including day trips from Rome to Pompeii and Mt. Vesuvius, Tuscany, and Capri. There are food tours, tours for families, and themed tours (i.e. the Official Angels and Demons Tour). And should you wish to have an even more exclusive experience, most of their offerings in Rome can be seen through a private tour. There simply isn’t a side of Rome you can’t see through City Wonders. While I could write for days about the intricacies of each tour, and how every moment of each one I took inspired and amazed me, here are just a few of their offerings:

 

Best of Rome Walking Tour
Arriving in a city like Rome—so full of history and treasures—can be overwhelming; where do you begin? This tour is the perfect introduction to the city’s highlights, and gives you a great overview, allowing you insight and understanding while walking through the heart of it and getting the lay of the land. Instead of wondering where to start on my first day, my expert City Wonders guide taught me about the history of the Spanish Steps, the Piazza Navona, the wondrous Pantheon, and the breathtaking Trevi Fountain, among other gems.

 

Along the way we stopped to drink out of fountains that carry fresh water from 2,000+-year-old aqueducts, roamed through piazzas and past numerous ancient structures, and of course, took a highly-anticipated gelato break. I threw a penny over my shoulder into the Trevi Fountain, which was for a very specific purpose: it means I’ll return to Rome. After this tour I knew I’d want to return again and again. This two-and-a-half hour tour includes limited group sizes, high-tech audio headsets, and a gelato break.

 

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Colosseum Underground Tour with Arena Floor, Third Ring, Roman Forum, and Palatine Hill
I was traveling with a small group of people, all of whom were visiting Rome for the first time. When we were driving to the Colosseum and it first came into view, we all gasped. Then, when we skipped the line, toured its hidden treasures, and learned all about its construction, the lives of its gladiators, and its role in ancient Roman life, we felt its history come alive.

 

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Our tour guide, Sev—an Aggregate Professor of Roman Topography at the Third University of Rome—was brilliant. Not only did he lead us through the structure (which was inaugurated in the year 80 A.D.) and its closed-to-the-public areas (the Arena Floor and the Third Ring), but he took us on a virtual tour through its existence. We learned, for instance, about the stolen treasures that were used to construct it, about where each type of Roman citizen sat and what they ate, and that, during shows,  gladiators and citizens condemned to death fought lions, panthers, tigers, crocodiles, and each other. My tour of the Colosseum, followed by the equally incredible Forum, a marketplace that reached its heights between the years 27 and 14 B.C., was one of the most fascinating experiences of my life. This three-and-a-half hour tour includes a limited group size and skip-the-line admission, with full access to all VIP areas of the Colosseum.

Extended Vatican Museums & Sistine Chapel Tour, with Bramante Staircase & St. Peter’s Basilica
City Wonders is one of only three official Vatican Museum Partners; until you’ve been there, seen the lines, and experienced the level of exclusivity and convenience this means, you can’t imagine how invaluable this is.

 

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You enter through the official no-wait partners’ entrance, skipping the lines and walking into an empty Vatican. Over the next few hours, your small group and tour guide (once again, my guide was a wealth of knowledge) travel through all areas of the smallest country in the world—the holy site of Christianity and home to the Pope, which actually dates back to the 1st century A.D. You’ll learn everything about its evolution, its governing from ancient times through today, and its art work while enjoying a visual feast.

 

You’ll be blown away by the Sistine Chapel before its thousands of other visitors arrive, see priceless masterpieces, visit the Rafael Rooms, and marvel at the size and splendor of St. Peter’s Basilica—within which is Michelangelo’s Pieta, which, I learned on the tour, Michelangelo secretly signed, then later regretted doing so. You’ll also gain access to the Bramante Staircase, which is closed to the general public. In summary, you’ll see one of the most magnificent places in the world in the absolute best way possible. This four-and-a-half hour tour includes skip-the-line, no-wait access, limited group sizes, special access to the Bramante Staircase, and audio headsets.

 

Rome Ghost and Mystery Night Walking Tour
Rome is a city full of dark secrets and ancient mysteries: murders, public executions, hauntings, and heretics. On this tour, our expert guide—who knew everything there is to know about the underbelly of the Eternal City’s history—led us through quiet cobblestoned streets, across a supposedly haunted bridge, and around sites and squares where legendary tragedies took place. It was an inside look at the lesser-known, beneath-the-surface Rome, and it was awesome.

 

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This one-and-a-half hour night tour leads you through the dark heart of the city and includes stories and tales not told on other ghost tours.

 

Gourmet Wine Tasting and Food Pairing Class
This is a hands-on tour of Italy’s food and wine, all from the comfort of a private wine library, where you learn about its best flavors by tasting them (be prepared to enjoy the best pesto of your life). As you taste six different wines from various regions of Italy, each paired with exceptional foods including rare handmade cheeses and an incredible aged tuna (and that aforementioned life-changing pesto), an expert sommelier guides you through all aspects of Italy’s wines, bringing a new level of appreciation for the best food and wine in the world. You’ll learn, for instance, that there are 1,855 varieties of wine planted throughout Italy—and that you’ll probably enjoy them all.

 

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This two hour class includes small group sizes, six glasses of wine, and a selection of paired delicacies chosen to match the wines. There are a host of other tours and opportunities provided by City Wonders, and they’re all unique. What they all have in common is that they give you incredible insight into the very best wonders of the world’s very best places. If your experience seeing Rome via City Wonders is anything like mine, you’ll feel as if you didn’t see Rome, but lived it, and subsequently loved it the way the locals do.

For more information: citywonders.com

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