Hoa Lu, the ancient former capital of Vietnam until 1010, lies 15km from Ninh Binh and is best explored on a tour when you can really appreciate the history of this royal city. Although there's not a great deal left of the buildings here, what remains gives you an indication of the former grandeur of these palaces. Many of the tours will combine this with a visit to the nearby watery caves of Trang An.
Pretty much every guesthouse will be able to arrange guided tours out to Hoa Lu, a half day is likely to be enough time for the palace itself as the site is much smaller than many of the other royal palaces around the country.
Tam Coc is probably the one sight in the region that is on everyone's list, this place is easy to reach by yourself but if you go on a tour you won't need to waste time haggling over the cost of the boat trips, leaving you free to enjoy the scenery. Tam Coc Tours is one of the most popular tour companies in the area, arranging tours of here as well as other sights, leaving either from Hanoi or collecting you from your hotel in Ninh Binh. It's best to contact them directly for prices as this can depend on the size of the group.
Trang An is often combined with a trip to Hoa Lu and many visitors claim it is more enjoyable than the more high-profile Tam Coc which can become overcrowded, spoiling the ambience. Trang An Tours (469 Le Thai To) is an excellent choice if you arrive in town without having any tours booked. Their tours to Trang An always include a boat trip, lasting about 3 hours, as well as entrance fees and English speaking guides so you know you will be well looked after. They also offer a wide range of tours to pretty much every conceivable attraction in the region, but if there's nothing that takes your fancy then they'll gladly customise a tour to include whichever sites you would prefer to combine.
Vic Travel (17 Pham Ngu Lao; open 8am–6pm) is one of the most highly regarded tour companies in town, with a whole range of tours leaving Ninh Binh for places as far away as Ha Long Bay. Whether you prefer to travel privately or as part of a larger group, to be away for 3 nights or just a morning, there'll have something for you. The guides are highly knowledgeable who ensure you get the very most out of your tour. Also, this is one of the few agencies who list the tour price on their website, which is very handy when trying to plan a trip on a budget! Tours start from around USD40.
Cuc Phuong National Park
Cuc Phuong National Park is considerably further out of town than many of the other popular sights, but is well worth the effort. The easiest way to get here, unless you're thinking of hiring a motorbike, is by guided tour. Confusingly, one of the most popular tour agencies is Cuc Phuong National Park, this company is a good open for visiting the park and you can book tours either through their website or at the office in Hanoi. Like all agencies, they can arrange tours to all the major tourist destinations in the area, but tours of the national park start from USD72, including entrance fees and food.