Rick Steves' Travel Blog

I'm sharing my travel experiences, candid opinions and what's on my mind. If you think it's inappropriate for a travel writer to stir up discussion on his blog with political observations and insights gained from traveling abroad, you may not want to read any further. — Rick

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My Rick Steves Mediterranean Cruise Ports guidebook is a perfect example of that old business axiom: “Find a need and fill it.” So many people take a cruise and have no practical information to help them use their time on shore smartly. Every Mediterranean cruise has the same rhythm: Sail each night and sightsee in a different port each day. With this 1,200-page guidebook, you’ll know exactly how to get the most out of your precious shore time. I’ve been on a Mediterranean cruise for the past two weeks, and I’ve been using this book the whole time — it really helps!

Okay, I’m on a massive cruise ship at sea with 3,000 mostly wealthy, mostly white tourists blitzing the great ports of the Mediterranean — and having lots of fun. No, I’m not suddenly abandoning my independent travel principles and becoming a huge proponent of cruising. But I am impressed by the economy, efficiency, and popularity of this kind of travel…and, to be honest, I enjoy cruising.

I’ve found it interesting reading your comments — pro and con — both here and on Facebook. Unfortunately, I’ve been too busy filming to respond directly. Here are a few general thoughts:

I am the first to agree that cruising is not for everyone. And why should it be? For some, it’s the anti-travel. For others, it’s the perfect vacation. On our ship, I met only people who seemed to be having a great time…most of them veterans of many cruises.

I’ve also met lots of budget-conscious, independent-minded travelers who’ve told me that a cruise (which includes all of their transportation, lodgings, and food for one discounted price) is, for them, a wonderful value.

My goal is not necessarily to promote cruising, but to acknowledge its huge presence in the travel world, and to outline its pros and its cons. Again, cruising isn’t for everyone. But lots of people are going to go on a cruise…whether I tell them to or not. My Mediterranean Cruise Ports and Northern European Cruise Ports guidebooks (and our upcoming public television special) are designed to help those who do cruise, to cruise smartly.

Some commenters have raised some important ethical issues. Here are a few of my thoughts on those (and I’d love to hear yours):

What about the environmental issues around cruising? Sure, a ship consumes a lot of energy and creates a lot of pollution. But how does that compare to 3,000 people traveling independently by car, bus, or boat?

What about the impact on local economies and communities? Cruising can trample towns with sightseers who leave almost no money (since they eat, sleep, and buy their tours on board). On the other hand, most of those communities seem to view cruise ships as a big economic boost (which explains why so many cities are investing in cruise ship-size piers and terminals).

Many point out that the industry is basically rich (on a global scale, anyone cruising is wealthy), white tourists being served by a black and brown crew from poor countries. I’ve talked to many people who work on cruise ships, who have told me that the income they earn on a cruise ship (and send home to their families) is far more than any employment prospects they have back home. And, not to be cynical, but isn’t that the reality of our world anyway — with the richest nations able to essentially ignore the fact that half the planet is trying to live on $2 a day? (Consider the $10 billion immediately given to help out Houston, while victims of a similar storm — which devastated entire Caribbean nations whose humble worlds were literally blown away — will hope for a tiny fraction of that and likely be ignored.)

Cruising might not be for everyone. But neither is my style of travel. And at least cruising gets people (who might otherwise stay home) out interacting with the world. And frankly, if I were to compare the people I met on our cruise ship to the people I’d meet on a typical train in Europe, those on the ship are more likely to be in need of the perspective broadening value of travel.

While I don’t really want to hear from people who’ve never been on a cruise ship saying that it’s a terrible way to go, I am interested in thinking a bit more about the ethics of cruising…and would welcome your comments.

Anneliese Friese, rest in peace

The medieval town of Rothenburg holds a special place in the hearts of Americans. A highlight for many travelers has been meeting Anneliese Friese, the charming woman who for decades ran her family’s souvenir shop — teeming with very German knick-knacks — just off the market square. Anneliese died last Tuesday and Rothenburg has lost one of the endearing characters that gave a charming human dimension to its venerable cobbles and facades.

While I generally make a point to not recommend tourist shops, for 30 years I’ve included The Friese Shop in my guidebooks, due to the sheer power of Anneliese’s personality and love of helping out visiting travelers.

Anneliese was also a founding member of Rothenburg’s English Conversation Club, which has been meeting every Wednesday for decades. This was her passion, where she would join both locals and tourists in a weekly excuse to get together, drink, and practice their fanciest English on each other. Every time I visited Rothenburg, if I was there on a Wednesday, I’d meander into the candlelit pub and squeeze a three-legged stool up to a table already crowded with Anneliese and the gang. She’d pour me a glass of wine, and we’d share our favorite slang and tongue twisters.

This photo shows Anneliese with her son Bernie and me. Bernie and his family will keep the shop going, but we’ll all miss his mother. Bless you, Anneliese, and thanks for the decades that you put delightful bits of Franconia into a box and shipped it home so we could enjoy those wonderful Rothenburg memories.

After raiding the minibar, I found myself all alone in a storm at midnight on the top deck of my cruise ship. I was a little lonely and feeling guilty that I haven’t been writing about all the great places we’ve been on this cruise — so I made you this little clip.

We’re wrapping up nearly two weeks at sea, our cruise show (a one-hour “Rick Steves’ Mediterranean Cruising” special to air on public television in late 2018) is in the can, it’s midnight, and we’ll be in Barcelona by the morning.

Join me in this clip as I journey from the top deck to my stateroom. I was going to tell you all about the wonders of the room card, which is also your on-board credit card and ID card…but I’m a bit tired and loopy, and I forgot. Still, here’s a quick little look at our ship (Celebrity Cruises’ good ship Reflection).

My TV crew and I are on a Mediterranean cruise, filming a special that will air on public television in the fall of 2018. One of my main goals for the show is to help independent travelers make the most of the cruising experience. Here’s one big tip: Consider your shore excursions carefully.

While easygoing cruisers may choose to book an excursion from the cruise line for $100 (or more) a crack, there are many other legitimate options that open up to passengers once they step off the ship. Some travelers may opt to find a small company with a box office in the terminal — and have essentially the same experience for about half the price. Meanwhile, others will book a private guide with a car or minibus in advance (using sites such as Cruise Critic to team up with other cruisers and share the expense). And others will simply hop on a public bus or hike to the train station (guidebook in hand) and do their own thing. For the most reliable information, I recommend skipping the onboard shore excursion information desks. Instead, head to the tourist information kiosks that are set up to greet ships in each port.

As the cruising industry grows, more and more cities are investing in terminals that can accommodate these massive ships (and their payload of tourists). In this clip, I’ll take you for a quick walk through the terminal at La Spezia, Italy. From here, you can get to Florence (a couple of hours away by bus), Pisa, Lucca, and the Cinque Terre.

(Note, however, that I don’t recommend that cruise ship travelers try to see the Cinque Terre. It is not designed to handle masses of quickie half-day visits by cruisers. Locals don’t appreciate “looky-loos” from cruise ships, notorious for arriving all at once at peak time and congesting the villages and trails, without staying for dinner or spending the night. The crowds can be frustrating for all involved.)

As Europe continues to endure terrorist attacks, fear-mongering politicians and media seem eager for these to have a greater impact than they deserve. Sure, these events are tragic…but no more so than other equally-deadly non-terror-related tragedies.

Lately, I’ve been visiting sites where terrible terror events have occurred: London’s Westminster Bridge, Barcelona’s Las Ramblas, Brussels’ airport, and Nice’s Promenade des Anglais. At most sites of vehicle attacks, there are now bollards in place to stop murderous cars from entering.

I’ve been in Europe five months so far this year…and, clearly, Europe (while working on security) is embracing life, not fear. With this more reasonable and thoughtful response, potential terrorists become lowly criminals with intent to terrorize and do not get the hoped-for results they wasted their lives for. Join me in this clip for a stroll on Nice’s wonderful Promenade des Anglais.

Follow me in this clip as I venture deep into Naples, far from the throngs of tourists piling off our cruise ship. I discovered an amazing quarry filled with human bones when I was here in the spring, and I just had to come back with my TV crew to film it.


Here’s how I wrote it up for the next edition of the Rick Steves Italy guidebook:

Cemetery of the Fountains (Cimitero delle Fontanelle)

A thousand years ago, cut into the hills at the high end of Napoli, was a quarry. In the 16th century, churches with crowded cemeteries began moving the bones of their long dead here to make room for the newly dead. Later, it housed the bones of plague victims and the city’s paupers. In the 19th century, many churches emptied their cemeteries, adding even more skulls to this vast ossuary. Then, a cult of people appeared whose members adopted skulls. They named them, put them in little houses, brought them flowers, and asked them for favors from the next life. And today, the quirky caves — stacked with human bones and dotted with chapels — are open to the public. Located in a sketchy-feeling neighborhood at the top end of Sanità (via Fontanelle 80, tel. 081.795.6160, 10:00-17:00 daily, tips accepted). To get there, hop in a taxi, ride the subway to the Materdei stop and follow the brown signs for ten minutes, or hike ten minutes up Via Sanità from the Basilica of Santa Maria della Sanità).

My TV crew and I are on a Mediterranean cruise, filming a special that will air on public television in the fall of 2018. Some of my favorite moments so far have been “sail-ins.” Each morning, I get up and — even before I brush my teeth — I enjoy the view from my balcony. This morning, the sun was peeking its hot head over the volcano of Vesuvius. I just had to share it with you. (Forgive me, I didn’t dress for this clip.)

Thanks for all the comments, both here and on Facebook. They are fun to read. I’ve noticed many of you think cruises are too crowded. Sure, there can be 3,000 people on your ship. But very often, like here in Naples, you dock right in a city center. And, as you’ll see in this clip, you can be deep in the neighborhood fun of the city within a few minutes of getting off the ship.

I visited Naples earlier this year and discovered the amazing district of Sanità. And I just had to bring my TV crew back. We filmed a segment here about how a cruise can feel like an adult summer camp (filled with people hell-bent on seeing the clichés), or you can use it as a springboard for your own series of little adventures. A cruise can be La-La Land or reality…or a little of both.

My TV crew and I are on a Mediterranean cruise, filming a special that will air on public television across the country in the fall of 2018. Today, after an exhilarating (but, frankly, brutal) day of shooting on hot and arid Santorini, we caught the last tender back to our ship. When the security guard scanned my ID card, I was literally the last person to check back in out of the 3,000 travel mates I’m sharing this ship with. (You scan in and out of the ship so they know at any moment exactly who is on board and who is on shore. When you scan, they see a mug shot of you on their screen to make positive identification.)

The sun was low and the caldera of Santorini (with the lip of its crater lined with dazzling whitewashed buildings) was injecting my crew with a little more steam — and I had a notion it would be fun to whip out my iPhone and capture the process. Take a moment with this clip to see my producer Simon Griffith and cameraman Karel Bauer at work. I’ve worked with these two for 20 years now. (I must have spent 800 days filming with Simon, as he’s been with me for every moment of shooting in Europe.)

Also, take a moment to appreciate how public television works. There is no big advertiser shaping our content. This will be the only piece of travel journalism you’ll ever see that shows cruising in a frank, honest, and consumer-oriented way (with no agenda pro or con…simply driven by a passion for helping our viewers know their options and travel smarter, more economically, and with more meaning).

Forgive my little pledge pitch here, but this can only happen with your support. There are so many ways public television helps us live more open and enriching lives, with a positive and outward-looking spirit rather than a fearful and inward-looking one. If you recognize that, you know it’s more important than ever to keep public broadcasting alive and well in our community.

(To see more of me, Simon, and Karel at work, watch The Making of Rick Steves’ Europe.)