When parents tell me they’re going to Europe and ask me where to take their kids, I’m sometimes tempted to answer, “To Grandma and Grandpa’s on your way to the airport.”
With each trip I take, I make it a point to bring home cultural souvenirs – gold nuggets of experiences I'll remember all my life. Whether it’s sitting and talking with a Muslim at the Great Mosque of Granada in Spain, waving a flag at an Irish hurling match, or getting naked with Germans at a spa in Baden-Baden, it’s experiences like these that give each trip that extra sparkle.
They say that for every church in Rome, there’s a bank in Milan. The economic success of postwar Italy can be attributed, at least in part, to this city of bankers, publicists and pasta power-lunchers.
We have New York, but England has old York, one of the country’s top tourist destinations outside of London. The town offers a captivating tour of historic sites mixed with an easygoing pedestrian ambience – all lassoed within its formidable medieval wall.
Seville, the capital of Spain’s southern Andalucia region, is as soulful a place as I’ve ever been. It’s a wonderful-to-be-alive kind of town, buzzing with festivals, heat, color, guitars and castanets.
These days “budget European travel” includes point-to-point flights within Europe. When I started traveling, no one spending their own money bought one-way air tickets within Europe. It was prohibitively expensive. Nowadays, before buying any long-distance train or bus ticket, I look into flying, and routinely, it’s cheaper to fly than to make the trip on the ground – especially when you consider all the advantages of flying.
Iceland is trendy these days. Its powerful loneliness and mighty features can be ideal for exotic film locations – so parts of “Game of Thrones,” “Batman Begins,” “Prometheus” and the upcoming “Noah” were filmed here. Some of my readers have been nagging me to add it to our guidebooks and tours. But until this summer, I’d never visited.
Coming from a picnicking, backpacker travel heritage, it has taken me decades to recognize the value of a fine meal. Now I can enthusiastically embrace a long, drawn-out “splurge meal” as a wonderful investment in time and money.
Orvieto is one of the most striking, memorable and enjoyable hill towns in central Italy. Less than 90 minutes from Rome, Orvieto sits majestically high above the valley floor atop a big chunk of “tufo” volcanic stone, overlooking cypress-dotted Umbrian plains. A visit here will reward you with a delightful, perfectly preserved and virtually traffic-free world highlighted by a colorful-inside-and-out cathedral and some of Italy’s best wine.
For some time, I’ve been wanting to return to the Algarve, in southern Portugal, my favorite stretch of Iberian coastline. Warm and dry, the south coast stretches for some 100 miles, with beach resorts along the water’s edge and, farther inland, rolling green hills dotted with orchards. The coastline varies from lagoon estuaries in the east (the town of Tavira), to sandy beach resorts in the center (from Faro to Lagos), to rugged cliffs in the west (Sagres).
Driving in Europe can be scary – a video game for keeps, and you only get one quarter. European drivers can be aggressive. They drive fast and tailgate as if it were required. They pass where Americans are taught not to – on blind corners and just before tunnels.
The Louvre is Europe’s oldest, biggest, greatest and second-most-crowded museum (after the Vatican). It is home to the “Mona Lisa,” “Venus de Milo,” Michelangelo statues and paintings by the greatest artists from the Renaissance to the Romantics. Lately it is also home to groups of pickpockets. It got so bad that last April the museum staff walked out in protest. The Louvre had to close for a day, and the management finally beefed up police patrols.
Italy’s Amalfi Coast is one of those places with a “must-see” reputation. Staggeringly picturesque and maddeningly touristy, if can be both rewarding and frustrating. As if an antidote to intense Naples (just an hour to the north), it is the perfect place for a romantic break, if done right and if you can afford it. These towns are the big three sights of the Amalfi Coast: Positano is like a living Gucci ad, Amalfi evokes a day when small towns with big fleets were powerhouses on the Mediterranean and Ravello is fun for that peasant-in-a-palace feeling.
The medieval Belgian town of Bruges attracts hordes of day-trippers – but don’t let that keep you away. While the ultimate sight is the quaint town itself, the city also entertains with an infectious passion for good living. It hides some sweet surprises.
Stretched across a Tuscan hill, Siena offers Italy’s best medieval city experience. With red-brick lanes tumbling every which way, the town is an architectural time warp, where pedestrians rule and the present feels like the past.
There’s an old travelers’ adage that says, “When you get sick overseas, get on the first plane out and fly home for quality health care.” Those days are long gone. Based on my own experiences – and those of the many Europeans and travelers I’ve met – it seems that if you’re traveling in Europe and need medical help, you’re generally in capable hands.
Few cities can match Paris in its rich cultural, artistic, and historic heritage. And few residents are as confident as Parisians in their expertise in good living. That uniquely French joie de vivre is especially apparent in the fine summer months, as the little joys of life are embraced by Parisians citywide.
Although their kings and queens don’t come cheap and are today only figureheads, most Brits seem to thoroughly enjoy having a royal family. Right now the country is eagerly awaiting the birth of William and Catherine’s baby, who is in line to become the country’s 43rd monarch since the Norman Conquest. As a bonus, the sluggish British economy is expected to get a $380 million boost from the sales of baby souvenirs.
Whether tackling big cities or quaint villages in Europe, you don’t want to feel like a stranger in a strange land, even though that’s exactly what you are. Getting oriented is especially important in big cities, which, for many travelers, are the most intimidating part of a European trip.
Thirty years ago, I fell in love with the picturesque village of Rothenburg in Germany’s Franconian heartland. At that time, the town still fed a few farm animals within its medieval walls. Today its barns are hotels, its livestock are tourists, and Rothenburg is well on its way to becoming a medieval theme park.
You may think that the endless security lines at the airport are torturous –but they are child’s play compared with what heretics and criminals faced in the Middle Ages. Medieval torture was used to extract confessions and to punish the convicted prior to execution. Torturers had a huge toolkit with which to practice their bleak art.
Many people travel across the Atlantic in search of "Old World" Europe and to witness traditional culture in action. But with most of Europe firmly entrenched in the modern world, travelers are getting fewer opportunities to glimpse the old way of life.
I'm in Volterra, my favorite small town in Tuscany, sitting under rustic, noble stones at the base of a palace that made commoners feel small six centuries ago. Bats burst through the floodlights amid ghostly towers held together with rusted iron corsets. These stones have soul. The countless peasant backs they bent so many centuries ago gave to future generations the architectural equivalent of fine wines — something to be savored and pondered in solitary moments like this one.
Europe is safe when it comes to violent crime. But it's a surprisingly creative place when it comes to travel scams. Pickpockets and con artists target Americans — not because these crooks are mean, but because they're smart.
Electronic communication, such as disposable mobile phones, cheap and easy Wi-Fi, and social networking, is revolutionizing the way we travel.
Watching "Rick Steves' Europe" with my friends, I always wish I could take them behind the scenes to show them the "glamour" of filming. It takes six days to film a 30-minute television episode , and it is an exhilarating and exhausting scramble from start to finish.
Touristic, glorious, and romantic, some of Germany's best attractions are in Bavaria. My favorites are three of King Ludwig II's castles: stocky Hohenschwangau, his boyhood home; the nearby and fanciful Neuschwanstein, his dream escape; and Linderhof, his final retreat.
Despite France's reputation for fine restaurants and grand cafes, one of my most memorable meals was actually a picnic on a bench in Chartres. Munching my baguette with Emmentaler cheese and sipping my box of juice in front of the floodlit cathedral, I acknowledged the bum on the next bench.
Turkey is changing fast. And it's modernizing fast. For my vacation this year, I hit the road in Turkey, with romantic memories (a few years old) of horse-drawn carriages and villages with economies powered by hay, dung, and ducks. While that rustic old world is tougher to find, the deep traditions and warm hospitality of the region are as endearing as ever, especially if you venture past the predictable sights and tourist zones. Turkey has a sparse and frustrating train system, but flights are cheap and competitive bus companies provide easy, comfy, and inexpensive connections throughout the land.
Each July, a million revelers pack into Pamplona, Spain, for the raucous Festival of San Fermin. They come to this proud town in the Pyrenees foothills for music, fireworks, and merrymaking. Bu t most of all, they come for the Running of the Bulls, when fearless (or foolish) adventurers — called mozos — thrust themselves into the path of six furious bulls.