A guided tour can help you experience the city at its best, writes Linda Thompson.

Rome — the Eternal City, cradle of democracy, birthplace of Western civilisation.

It's hot, it's packed with tourists and it's the final destination on our Insight Vacations Road to Rome 12-day guided tour. We've made it, via London, Paris, Lucerne, Innsbruck, Venice, Tuscany, Pisa and Florence.

About three million people live inside Rome's ring road and all of them are out tonight, along with thousands of summer visitors. Rome is the third most-visited city in the European Union.

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Our driver, Guiseppe, takes us for an evening jaunt, stopping at the brightly lit-up Colosseum for a sneak preview and we enjoy the lights of this ancient city on the way to our hotel.

And what a hotel. The Romanico Palace, just off the Via Veneto, is a gilded over-the-top concoction of gilt, lush fabrics, statues and frescoes in every room. Our youngest tour member shows me the massive fresco painted over her bed and I'm relieved I don't have that keeping me awake.

Until I go to bed and discover my own fresco — naked gambolling cherubs and a woman in a chariot — on the ceiling. My bathroom is a forest of royal blue and gilded mirrors, with a gold-encrusted loo paper holder to match the life-sized Romulus, Remus and wolf statues in the foyer.

We're up bright and early for our special visit to the Vatican, bypassing the endless queues for VIP access to its museums.

There are halls of artworks everywhere, too many to absorb.

Our local guide, Franca, takes us behind the scenes to the Bramante Staircase, a Renaissance masterpiece to accommodate a pope who couldn't climb stairs so it's a winding spiral of cobbles which even his donkey could manage.

Next, the Sistine Chapel to admire Michelangelo's ceiling and the Pieta in St Peter's Basilica, now packed with more tourists.

After a good look around we head over the Tiber to the Colosseum, scene of gladiator combat, murder of animals and humans, and visit the Forum, where government began.

The Trevi Fountain in Rome. Photo / Getty Images
The Trevi Fountain in Rome. Photo / Getty Images

The Forum was ancient Rome's showpiece of temples, basilicas and public spaces. Originally an Etruscan burial ground, it was first developed in the 7th century BC, growing over time to become the social, political and commercial hub of the Roman Empire.

Last time I was here it was early spring and the crowds were much smaller. The Colosseum was quiet enough for you to feel the centuries of violence through the stone. This time the crowds have diluted its spirit and it feels like just another ruin.

Some of us forgo the trek up a hill in the Forum as the heat begins to bite. A sit in the shade watching the passing parade is more tempting.

We gather for our last group photo with the Colosseum in the background. Next week that photo will be propped up in homes in seven countries.

There are optional experiences here too — take a "passeggiata" (stroll) around the back streets of pedestrian Rome and see the Pantheon, Spanish Steps, Piazza Navona and Trevi Fountain along with tourist hordes.

People still toss a coin in the fountain to ensure a return to Rome. It's worked for me.

That night we have a farewell dinner at a local restaurant after an evening wander through the winding back streets.

It's a feast of Roman specialties — Prosecco to begin (of course), white foccacia, tempura veges, a rustic tart of pecorino Roman cheese, saltimbocca (veal with ham, butter and sage), fillet of sea bass cooked in a potato crust called spigola, Romana lasagne, eggplant parmigiana followed by fresh peach mousse and lady finger biscuits, washed down with limoncello, that delicious citrussy Italian staple.

Our meal is accompanied by a young and talented singer performing well-known opera standards with great humour, obviously a friend of tour director Gary — he knows everyone. It's a charming end to a couple of weeks of travelling and learning together for our disparate crew aged from almost 12 to 70-plus.

We've covered the famous landmarks, seen behind the scenes, wandered the back streets of famous cities we'd previously only heard about, tasted new foods and wines, learned new skills and broadened our horizons, all with new friends from around the world.

On my last morning alone in Rome I wander the Via Veneto, get lost in a few back streets and see the sights one more time. Luigi, a young man in a black Mafia suit, collects me in his sleek, shiny black car to drive me to Fiumicino airport.

He practises his English, plays me Oasis and signs up for the online low-power FM rock radio station that streams worldwide from the mixing desk in my office at home. That night a new listener pops up on the map in Rome.

It's been a great way to see the world. Two friends at home have already booked their own trips, based solely on my daily Facebook updates.

My new friends have shared email addresses to keep in touch and share photos and memories as they either return home or head off on more adventures, a cruise around Norway, more days in Rome, a trip to Amsterdam.

This tour has also given me a new appreciation for this way of travelling. An experienced tour director is a must: our Gary — a well-travelled American living in London — has been a master of organisation, keeping our trip running smoothly.

So where does he go on his holidays? The French Riviera — it's quiet and cooler: he has a house there, and he has friends everywhere it seems.

In two days he'll be off with another group of travellers, to somewhere new — possibly Croatia and eastern Europe.

Arrivederci Roma.

The Colosseum at dusk. Photo / Getty Images
The Colosseum at dusk. Photo / Getty Images

FACT FILE

Insight Vacations

' 12-day Road to Rome premium escorted journey starts in London before exploring Paris, Burgundy, Lucerne, Liechtenstein, Innsbruck, Venice, Pisa and Florence, ending in Rome. This holiday is priced from $5950pp, including accommodation, transport, sightseeing, many meals, Insight Experiences and a Travel Director. Call: 0800 568 769.