When I was 18, I wrote a postcard to my grandmother from Austria, describing how I slept for free on the porch of a hostel in Innsbruck. While I wouldn’t do that now, it’s fun to reminisce about my backpacking days. Back then, bars were inundated with smoke, currency changes were required after each border crossing, and it took about nine hours to travel from London to Paris. Yet despite the changes, the adventure and thrills of good old-fashioned vagabonding survive.
I head to Europe every spring, ready to start afresh on a new season of travel. It’s an exciting time, as I dive into exhausting days of nonstop guidebook research and travel show filming. With age and wisdom, I’ve learned to take some of my own advice: on any trip, I slow down and smell the roses — or tulips.
Belgium falls through the cracks. It’s a little country, not big enough for people to find on a map sometimes. But it’s one of Europe’s great secrets. While its capital, Brussels, has become overly international, the port city to the north – Antwerp – has more of a local identity. It’s an honest, what-you-see-is-what-you-get place, perhaps because it’s in the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium called Flanders.
One of the great joys of European travel is eating. If you let yourself tune in to the experience, a meal is a travel thrill in itself – as inspiring as visiting an art gallery and as stimulating as a good massage.
It was the final day of a two-month trip to Europe. I was in London, and with all of my work behind me, I had the freedom to do whatever I wanted. So I decided to test my five free London audio tours in a citywide blitz spanning two neighborhoods, one church, and two museums. It ended up being a very entertaining and cheap day, proving that you don’t have to spend a lot of money to have a fulfilling experience in this pricey city.
A major expense of any European vacation is the cost of accommodations. No matter where you go – whether a bustling city like Madrid or a midsized destination like Sevilla – the neighborhood and hotel you choose help shape your experience. But you don’t have to spend a fortune to find a nice, comfortable place to rest your head every night.
I’ve always taught what I loved – and I’ve always loved music. I spent my high school years as a piano teacher. I’d start out my students with boogies and pop songs, and eventually get them turned on to Bach and Beethoven.
Great European train stations stir my wanderlust. In Munich, about to catch a train, I stand under the station’s towering steel and glass rooftop and study the big schedule board. It lists a dozen departures. Every few minutes, the letters and numbers on each line change as, one by one, cities and departure times work their way to the top and then disappear. I’m surrounded by Europeans on the move — businessmen in tight neckties, giddy teenagers, families, porters pushing handcarts.
Several years ago, I served as the Grand Marshal for Seattle’s St. Patrick’s Day parade. That year, the visiting dignitary was Noel Dempsey, then the Irish minister for communications. Noel explained to me that each St. Patrick’s Day, the demand for Irish dignitaries empties their country of politicians as they fan out to festivals around the world, bringing Irish cheer to all corners of the globe.
When traveling to Europe, I sometimes crank up the voice of my grandmother telling stories of her journey from Norway to Canada. The boat ride was miserable. The only thing she could keep down was beer — she became a teetotaler the day she saw the Statue of Liberty. Having entered North America like a bad traveler — not speaking the language, packing too much luggage and not enough money — she navigated the immigrants’ road to Edmonton, Alberta, where she eventually met her Norwegian husband.
I’m lucky my work allows me to spend a good part of the year in Italy. Here, lifelong travel memories are like low-hanging fruit: They’re yours to harvest. Even after 30 years, Italy continues to pelt me with experiences and delight me with new memories and insights.
Like travel in general, breakfast can throw you a cultural curve that can add to the memories of your trip. Not long ago, I grabbed breakfast at a hotel in southern Spain. The only cereal available was a local version of frosted corn flakes. As there was no “mature” option, I indulged in a bowl. But the cereal milk was heated – apparently standard in this part of Spain. My poor frosted flakes immediately turned to mush.
When researching my guidebooks, almost by definition I have to revisit the same places. But I also like to take a few day trips here and there to scout out new destinations — both for future editions and for future TV shows. On my last visit to Europe, I explored many places, including the lush lowlands of Holland.
Europeans love to dress up the settings of everyday life, from their piazzas to their back lanes — and they’ve been doing it for centuries. Climbing the Acropolis, communing with the druids at Stonehenge, strolling the Croatian shore in the shadow of Emperor Diocletian’s palace in Split, tracing the intricate carvings on Trajan’s Column in Rome — the remnants of Europe’s distant past are everywhere you look.
During my college years, I traveled to Europe every summer. Back then, I’d start hatching my plans in spring: First I’d determine how much time I could get away for, and then I’d buy a cheap plane ticket to Europe. After that, I’d figure out where I’d actually go.
I keep getting asked if Greece is “safe” for travelers — a question that feels absurd the instant you arrive there. Ask anyone who’s been to Greece recently, and you’ll learn that safety concerns have been played up by both Greek and international media outlets.
Three countries with a rich heritage — Germany, Hungary, and Austria — each have a constantly evolving sightseeing scene. Here’s the latest:
Great Britain will likely be taking a deep breath (and perhaps a sigh of relief) this year as it recovers from a busy summer, when it hosted both the Olympics and Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee.
Travelers to France find a rich and constantly changing palette of cultural and historic sights. Here’s a review of what’s new or different in la belle France for 2013:
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.
At Europe's lively open-air markets and bazaars, bargaining for merchandise is the accepted and expected method of setting a price. Whether you are looking for doorknockers or hand-knitted sweaters seize the chance to bargain like a native. It's the only way to find a compromise between the wishful thinking of the seller and the souvenir lust of the tourist.
Budapest, the cultural capital of Hungary and much of Central Europe, has no shortage of nightlife. You can go there for grand opera, folk music and dancing, a twilight boat trip, or live music in a nightclub.