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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I’ve noticed in Venice, Rome, and Florence that the traditional economy is being pushed out by the playground economy that comes with modern affluence. In old, historic city centers, as rents go up, longtime residents and families are pushed out. Recently, the Florentine government ended rent control and rental costs immediately spiked, driving artisans and shops catering to locals out of business — to be replaced by boutiques and trendy places to eat and drink.
In both Florence and Rome, if you cross the river (into neighborhoods that are the European equivalent of “the wrong side of the tracks”) you’re more likely to find small family businesses eking out an existence for another generation — like this cobbler’s shop.
When exploring Florence, remember to take a moment to look above the trays of neon-colored gelato and enjoy the cityscape. This is a city of noble and elegant facades.
You can diligently visit all the museums and eat at all the right restaurants, but if you don’t take a simply aimless stroll for a half-hour before crawling into bed, you’re missing an important dimension of a great city. After dark, thoughtful floodlighting, reflections on cobbles, lonely street musicians, and local lovers all bring charm to streets that are otherwise teeming with traffic and workaday crowds.
I don’t build my itineraries around festivals. But I’m constantly happening upon fun events filling the streets and squares. Standard operating procedure for any good traveler: when checking into your hotel, be sure to ask, “What’s happening tonight?” I imagine half the tourists in Florence were in their hotel rooms on the last night of April when the streets were jammed for White Night Florence — a nightlong celebration of Florentine good living when venerable facades became just backdrops to free concerts, dancing, dining, and street performances.
Lorenzo the Magnificent is just one of the many busts that greet visitors entering Florence’s Uffizi Gallery, home to the best collection of paintings in Italy. Lorenzo must have been a big personality with Mick Jagger-sized energy and charisma.
While Lorenzo had nice hair and chiseled features, others in the family were not quite so well assembled. When you study how inbred Europe’s aristocratic elites became over the ages, you stumble upon some of the physical downsides of tight families. This Medici, like many of Europe’s royals, had a pretty distracting underbite.
One of the great sights in Florence, along with all the must-see museums, is the Mercato Centrale. The Central Market is thriving with traditional market stalls and competitive little eateries. At this tripe shop, it was easy to see that locals eat just about every bit of the cow…and some bits unique to the bull, too. In order to get to all these parts in a 90-second video clip, I had to talk over my charming guide. She reminded me that you know a restaurant is dedicated to locals (and not just tourists) if it offers dishes using these non-tourist-friendly cuts.
Crowds are a huge, huge thing at many major sights, including here at Rome’s Vatican Museums. Emerging economies in large parts of our world are creating big middle-class populations with enough money to finally see the Europe of their dreams.
In the Vatican Museums’ Raphael Rooms, visitors are packed in shoulder-to-shoulder. With booming tourism from populous countries such as China and India adding to the sightseeing demand, it makes having a careful plan for avoiding crowds even more important.
These days the Vatican Museums are jammed with heads — in the case of this photo — both ancient and contemporary. It always amazes me how the vast majority of people just line up for these sights, wasting literally hours to get in. On the other hand, those following the advice of good guidebooks learn how to avoid crowds and get in with almost no wait. But once inside, we’re all just part of one big mosh pit of art love. Even with the intercontinental BO, it’s a great experience.
The Vatican Museums are housed in what was essentially the pope’s palace. In it an entire hallway is dedicated to maps. Here’s an excerpt from the Rome guidebook:
The 16th-century maps on the walls show the regions of Italy. Popes could take visitors on a tour of Italy, from the toe (entrance end) to the Alps (far end), with east Italy on the right wall, west on the left. They actually functioned as the official maps from 1582, when they were painted, until the 19th century…. The windows give you your best look at the tiny country of Vatican City, officially established as an independent nation in 1929. It has its own radio station, as you see from the tower on the hill. (Pope Francis lives in the residence just in front of that radio tower — with the three green shutters. He can be seen strolling on his rooftop terrace on nice afternoons.)…. Near the end (on the left) is Liguria, where you can actually see the five little towns of the Cinque Terre circa 1582, and a chariot captained by Neptune himself taking Columbus to the New World.
You’ll have to come here yourself to see Columbus and Pope Francis. But here in this photo is a tiny bit of the map showing the five villages of the Cinque Terre — amazing to think they showed up on a map in 1582 about like they do today.
Vatican Coach Museum: Just beyond the cafeteria, near where you enter the Vatican Museums, is a delightful garden open to the public (that’s usually filled with tour groups getting their Sistine Chapel briefing by guides who are not allowed to talk in the chapel). And just beyond that, steps lead into the Padiglione delle Carrozze, a newly opened, peaceful exhibit showing off centuries of papal carriages, cars, and “popemobiles” — including the vehicle that Pope (now Saint) John Paul II was riding in when he was shot in 1981 (with video clips of the pope later meeting his would-be assassin to offer him forgiveness).
When making TV shows I love to get a “high wide shot” of whatever we’re shooting. Many people visiting Rome see Piazza Navona, but very few ever get a good high wide. This photo is taken from the third floor of the Museum of Rome. The museum is only worth visiting for its views down to Piazza Navona, and its galleries of Romantic art depicting Rome in the 18th and 19th centuries.
The Museum of Rome (in Palazzo Braschi) is a lost opportunity. It doesn’t seem to care — or try — and almost no one goes there. But I enjoy it for its Romantic paintings of great sights, showing what they looked like in past centuries. Many of Rome’s medieval churches are medieval on the inside, but few are medieval on the outside. In the Baroque Age, the Church here was determined to amp up the public presence of its places of worship, and most were given Baroque facelifts. This is how Santa Maria Maggiore (one of Rome’s four great Vatican churches, independent of Italy) looked before.
With so many restaurants to review in just four nights in Rome, I didn’t have time to dine with my best friends in the city. So I did something that was a first for me: I hosted a dinner party at my favorite restaurant, Il Gabriello. Among those joining me in this photo are Tom Rankin (a professor and architect who established Scala Reale, which became the highly respected tour company Context; his latest project is “Tevereterno” — revitalizing the Tiber River in Rome), Stefano Loreti (who runs Hotel Oceania, one of my longtime favorites, and really knows his grappa), Francesca Caruso (the guide who takes most of our Rome groups on such inspirational tours of the ancient sights), and Claudio Conti (my favorite restaurateur in Rome, who runs Il Gabriello restaurant). Each has joined me for great little bits in past TV shows on Rome and are examples of how the people-to-people, thoughtful travel we love is accessible to American travelers…and worth striving for.
The fun and lively new hot spot in Rome is the Monti neighborhood. I just spent a couple of nights there exploring and enjoying restaurants — all in the name of guidebook research. If you don’t have enough money to take your date out to a nice restaurant or bar, no problema! Piazza della Madonna dei Monti is the impromptu neighborhood gathering point. A convenience store at the top of the square sells cheap bottles of beer and the gang’s all here. Go out after dark in Rome…it feels safe and shows you a different face of a great city that embraces life with a special gusto.
Warning: This video includes ancient nudity and general horniness! Along with updating my guidebooks when I travel, I enjoy giving my audio tours a “road test”. My audio tour co-author Gene Openshaw and I are always looking for ways to make the 45 tours in our Rick Steves Audio Europe™ app smoother and easier than ever. In Athens this past week, I’ve listened to myself whispering in my ear for four tours, and they all work great. As much as I love guidebooks, a museum or sight is much easier to enjoy when you can listen while gazing at what you came to see, instead of looking down and reading from a book. Here’s a two-minute sample (recorded on my iPhone) starring Aphrodite, Pan and Eros.
In April, we improved and expanded our free Rick Steves Audio Europe app. If you’ve got the old one, be sure to update it with the latest version (2.2 Apple; 2.0 Android) before your next trip! You can find the app here: ricksteves.com/audioeurope
Lots of people are making audio tours these days. What audio tours have you used? Where? Which ones have been most helpful for you?
Every year it seems I go to places partly because naive and gullible Americans, whose worldview is fed by a diet of hysterical commercial TV news, are avoiding those places for supposed safety reasons. Of course, Greece has its economic crisis. But that doesn’t mean the 10 million people who live there aren’t living life with creativity and gusto.
I love to see students on the road. These two George Washington University students (enjoying a semester abroad) discovered the Karamanlidika by Fanis restaurant just like I did.
The big question on people’s minds here: Will Greece stick with the euro or return to the drachma? There’s a monument to Greece’s historic currency next to the mayor’s residence. For Greeks, the problem with being on the euro is that their currency is lashed to Germany, when instead it should have the flexibility to rise and fall in value as needed. Yet locals fear that if they go back to the drachma overnight, the value of their savings will drop by more than half. I wouldn’t want to count on a retirement here, but as a tourist you barely notice any economic crisis.
Athens is not a pretty city. In fact, in conventional terms, it’s pretty ugly. But for locals, the graffiti is just there. They hardly see it. Given that graffiti is a reality, I do my best to enjoy it rather than ignore it.
There’s an unwritten rule among street artists/taggers that if a building is already painted they won’t mess it up. So, many businesses (like this insurance company) actually hire street artists to pre-emptively paint their storefronts.
It’s great traveling in Greece during the shoulder season — the days are lovely and warm (not hot) and the crowds are few. I’m here in historic, bustling Athens, home of the world’s top ancient site: the Acropolis. Athens, like Rome, went from being a major city in ancient times to nearly a ghost town, and then (partly because of its Classical heritage) grew into a major city again with a population of several million.
As a tour guide, it’s hard to describe Athens at the dawn of the modern age. This 19th-century Romantic etching does it well. Back then, the city was little more than a small town (today’s Plaka) built around its ancient ruins.
In the city of Athens, even with its booming tourist trade, must-see sights, and cruise-ship crowds, there is only one sight where lines are a concern — and that’s the Acropolis. The good news: The Acropolis ticket is a combo-ticket that you can pick up at a number of other sights in town. Buy the ticket elsewhere and then use it to walk straight into the Acropolis. The cruise-ship groups get there first thing, but when I arrived around noon, the cruise-crowd rush hour was heading in the opposite direction.
The Acropolis experience is complete with a visit to the amazing Acropolis Museum. It basically takes all the surviving bits of carved marble (that didn’t end up in London) and sorts them out in a setting that is the size of the Parthenon. You look out the window and see the remains of the actual temple above and then, with great comfort, lighting, and information, you enjoy the art — quasi in situ.
Stepping out of my hotel during my first hour in Athens, I stumbled onto a great restaurant. This video clip illustrates perfectly how Athens is regaining some positive energy. Here’s my guidebook write-up:
Karamanlidika by Fanis, close to the Psyrri neighborhood and near the Central Market, is my favorite in the area. It’s a quality meat and cheese shop that doubles as a restaurant. Delivering authentic Byzantine and Cappadocian tastes, aged cheese, and cured meats, it’s a tasty testament to the many Greek Turks expelled from Turkey in the 1920s who settled in Athens — bringing their Anatolian cuisine with them. With friendly service by Maria and her gang, you’ll enjoy delicious plates for €5-7 (Mon-Sat 12:00-23:00, closed Sun, a block off Athinas at Evripidou 52, tel. 210-325-4184).
Stay tuned for a new and much-improved edition of my Rick Steves Greece guidebook. (Every year we invest literally hundreds of days lovingly researching our guidebooks to ensure that they are the most accurate and up-to-date guides available.)
Monemvasia is a Gibraltar-sized rock on the Peloponnesian coast of Greece. It’s connected to the mainland by a narrow causeway, has a town at its base, and the scant remains of a town and mighty fortress across the summit. As the wind howled on top (pardon that buffeting), we walked to the very edge of a cliff next to an old Byzantine church. From there it’s a sheer drop of what seems like a couple thousand feet — and no railing. You know that feeling you get when peering tentatively over a cliff — worried that a freak gust will end your trip? (Or do you? Share your most memorable cliff-top stir-the-butterflies-in-your-belly perch.)
When in Greece, hospitality comes with ouzo. And when in remote corners and hardscrabble villages (like here on the Mani Peninsula), where historically hospitality is a matter of life and death, the welcome drink is tsipouro — a brandy-like firewater that’s about 40 percent alcohol and makes ouzo seem like kid stuff. In this clip, I have a hard time holding the camera steady as I take “going local” with my guides to a very tasty extreme. Gia mas!