Rick Steves Travel Blog: Blog Gone Europe
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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As part of our annual guidebook updating process, we assemble a series of “what’s new” articles for each region in Europe. This is the last in a series of these articles I’m posting to my blog. Today we’re going to Germany. If you or your friends have a trip coming up, get up-to-date with the help of these bulletins. We hope you can share them with anyone heading out, and that they will bring a little extra travel joy.
While Germany sits in the driver’s seat of Europe’s economy, it doesn’t take a cultural backseat either. Here are a few of the latest developments for 2014:
In Berlin, a multiyear renovation project continues at Museum Island, filled with some of the city’s most impressive museums. Beginning in the fall and continuing until 2019, the star of the Greek antiquities collection in the Pergamon Museum (www.smb.museum)–the Pergamon Altar–will be closed to visitors. The museum’s north wing (formerly home to other Classical antiquities) is already closed. In the meantime, some Classical Greek artifacts can be seen at the nearby Altes Museum. In other Museum Island news, reserved timed-entry tickets are no longer required at the Pergamon and Neues museums.
Although Berlin opened its new main train station (Hauptbahnhof) in 2006, construction is likely to begin again in 2014 to extend its roof. Many travelers may be diverted through other stations–such as Bahnhof Zoo and Ostbahnhof–for the duration.
Berlin is also trying to finish construction of its new, €5 billion airport: Willy Brandt Berlin-Brandenburg International (www.berlin-airport.de). But the project has been perennially delayed by a faulty fire-safety system, glitches in the baggage-sorting equipment, and other technical problems; even a partial opening in 2014 is not likely.
Each year it seems Berlin, the scene of so much tumult in the 20th century, has new memorials. Near the powerfully evocative Memorial to the Murdered Jews is a memorial dedicated to the homosexual victims of Hitler’s rule, and a new Roma and Sinti memorial. The latter is to remind all who mourn the slaughter of six million Jews during the Holocaust that Hitler aimed to exterminate Europe’s Roma and Sinti (a.k.a. Gypsy) population as well. While Berlin has done what it can to keep the focus off of Hitler himself, the parking lot that sits over the site of Hitler’s bunker is a few minutes’ walk from these other memorials. The site (where he committed suicide just days before the end of World War II in Europe) comes with an information board to explain the significance of the spot.
Hamburg is not your Grandmutter’s port town: The northern metropolis is one of Germany’s wealthiest cities and a major financial, commercial, and media center. As is the case with port cities all over Europe, Germany’s leading port saw its docklands abandoned as freighters needed to be accommodated in a more modern setting outside of town. The run-down (yet central) real estate of the old harbor has been given new life with a massive renewal project–HafenCity (www.hafencity.com). Its shining glory is the new Elbphilharmonie concert hall, which looks like a glass palace resting on top of an old warehouse. However, like Berlin’s airport, the concert hall has hit major snags–it’s about €270 million over budget and won’t be opening until 2017–about seven years late.
To the south, travelers sleeping in the Bavarian town of Füssen are now entitled to the Fuessen Card, paid for by the hotel tax. This card allows free use of public transportation in the immediate region (including the bus to “Mad” King Ludwig’s famous castle–Neuschwanstein), as well as discounts to major attractions. Similarly, the Aktiv-Card for the Reutte area just across the border in Austria includes free travel on local buses and free admission to some attractions. Also new in Reutte, the Alpentherme Ehrenberg is an extensive swimming pool and sauna complex, featuring two indoor pools and a big saltwater outdoor pool, as well as two waterslides.
In Frankfurt, the new European Central Bank building, with its glistening twin towers topping out at 607 feet, is scheduled to open in 2014. The “New Frankfurt Old Town” construction project, stretching from the cathedral to the city hall, is also under way. It will include up to 35 new buildings, several of which will be reproductions of historic structures destroyed during WWII air raids.
In Nürnberg, the Imperial Castle (Kaiserburg) has reopened after a restoration. Visits to the castle’s “Deep Well” (which, at 165 feet, is…well, deep) are now accompanied by a guide. Wittenberg’s Town Church of St. Mary’s–which was Martin Luther’s home church for many years–is being renovated. From early 2014 to early 2015, the nave of the church will be closed, and no organ concerts will be held. By the way, Germany’s many Luther sights (especially in the Luther cities of Wittenberg, Erfurt, and Eisenach) are gearing up for a very festive 2017 (on a Lutheran scale anyway)–the 500th anniversary of Luther kicking off the Protestant Reformation in 1517.
Despite a few construction-related delays and closures, Germany remains one of the easiest places to travel–offering efficient public transportation, state-of-the-art museums, and locals who are ready and willing to give travelers a hearty “Willkommen.”
As part of our annual guidebook updating process, we assemble a series of “what’s new” articles for each region in Europe. This is the third in a series of these articles I’m posting to my blog. Today we’re going to Great Britain. If you or your friends have a trip coming up, get up-to-date with the help of these bulletins. We hope you can share them with anyone heading out, and that they will bring a little extra travel joy:
For travelers, Great Britain is a work in progress, richly rewarding those who visit with up-to-date information. Here are a few important changes to be aware of for 2014.
London continues to grow and thrive post-Olympics. Free Wi-Fi is everywhere, bus transportation is more efficient than ever, and the city’s freshly scrubbed monuments have never looked so good. Some of the biggest changes are in East London, where backhoes and bulldozers buzz around busily turning the 2012 Olympics site into what is now Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park (great for Londoners, but a bit far from the center for most tourists).
The Shard, a shimmering glass pyramid that soars 1,020 feet above the Thames in central London, started welcoming visitors to its observation decks last year. Perched in the building’s pinnacle, the decks offer great views of the Tower of London (directly across the river), St. Paul’s, and the South Bank (underfoot). But a visit to the top costs a jaw-dropping £25 (for advance tickets)–not worth it for most visitors.
Years ago the venerable Tate art gallery (www.tate.org.uk) split in two, with the original site dedicated to British art and the new site–the Tate Modern–filled up with modern art. An extensive renovation at the Tate Britain has wrapped up, which means even better gallery spaces in the oldest parts of the building. Now the Tate Modern is adding a new wing (currently under construction yet opening bit by bit), allowing the museum to expand beyond its current European and North American focus with exhibits on Latin American, African, and Asian art. A new space called the Tanks (formerly underground oil tanks) is already open and hosts live performances, film screenings, and installations.
Hold onto your codpiece: Shakespeare’s Globe now boasts an indoor theater, the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. It’s an intimate space designed to use authentic candle lighting for period performances–and allows the Globe to stage plays year-round.
Greenwich’s famous Cutty Sark, the last and fastest of the great tea clippers, was gorgeously restored in 2012 after a devastating fire. It’s now suspended within a glass building, allowing visitors to walk on its decks, through its hold, and below its gleaming golden hull. Multimedia and hands-on exhibits bring the ship’s record-breaking history to life.
Finally, after nearly 5,000 years, Stonehenge has a decent visitors center (www.english-heritage.org.uk/stonehenge). The new center features artifacts found at the site and a 360-degree virtual view of what the stone circle looked like back then. The highway that once ran adjacent to the iconic edifice has been closed. Instead, people start at the visitors center–located more than a mile west of the stones–then take a shuttle or walk to the stone circle. Advance reservations are required, and tickets feature a timed entry window (though a few walk-up tickets are available each day).
In the Georgian city of Bath, the Georgian House, which gives an intimate look at life in the 18th century, has reopened following an extensive renovation. The American Museum (I know, you need this like you need a Big Mac) on the outskirts of town is now easier to visit, thanks to a free hourly shuttle that runs from the town center.
In Portsmouth, the Mary Rose Museum opened last May (www.maryrose.org). The £36 million facility, shaped like an oval jewel box, preserves the hull of Henry VIII’s favorite warship, which sank in 1545. You can view the hull (through protective glass, for now), but the highlight is the collection of Tudor-era items that were found inside the wreck, such as clothes, dishes, weapons, a backgammon board, and an oboe-like instrument. There’s even the skeleton of Hatch, the ship’s dog.
In York, the renovation of the Minster’s Great East Window continues, with temporary exhibits that explain the project, such as the painstaking process of removing, dismantling, cleaning, and restoring each of the 311 panels. The Minster’s new undercroft museum focuses on the history of the site and its origins as a Roman fortress. Thirsty tourists will appreciate a new activity in town: an intimate, tactile, and informative 45-minute tour of the York Brewery, a charming little microbrewery.
In 2014, Glasgow will host the Commonwealth Games July 23-August 3, with 6,000 athletes expected to compete.
The Battle of Bannockburn–Scotland’s most significant military victory over the English–will mark its 700th anniversary in 2014. In honor of the occasion, the Bannockburn Heritage Centre in Stirling (www.battleofbannockburn.com) is being spiffed up with an interactive 3-D battle simulation and 360-degree film. A three-day festival called Bannockburn Live will take place June 28-30. Activities include music, highland games, re-enactments of the battle, and themed Scottish villages.
Whether you’re interested in Scotland, Stonehenge, Shakespeare, or all of the above, having–and using–good information will put the great into Britain on your next trip.
As part of our annual guidebook updating process, we assemble a series of “what’s new” articles for each region in Europe. This is the second in a series of these articles I’m posting to my blog. Today we’re going to France. If you or your friends have a trip coming up, get up-to-date with the help of these bulletins. We hope you can share them with anyone heading out, and that they will bring a little extra travel joy:
France is always working to show off its rich heritage in innovative ways. You’ll see some impressive changes this year.
The big news in Paris is that the extensive, multi-year makeover of the Picasso Museum is nearing completion. The museum, which will reopen sometime in 2014, is home to the world’s largest collection of Picasso works, representing the full range of the artist’s many styles (check www.musee-picasso.fr for the latest).
Also in Paris, the Rodin Museum will stay open, though some rooms will close from time to time while renovation continues through 2015; on the plus side, visitors can currently enjoy some rarely displayed pieces and temporary exhibits (included in the ticket price). The museum’s gardens–one of Paris’ best deals at only €1–also remain open.
Online reservations for the Eiffel Tower, notorious for its lines, are easy if you book at least a month in advance. You can print out a paper ticket, or have the ticket sent to your mobile phone. An attendant scans the bar code on your phone, and voila, you’re on your way up.
St. Sulpice Church is no longer allowing visits to its massive pipe organ due to space constraints. However, the church’s superb organ recitals continue as usual.
Paris is going green: The Left Bank expressway from near the Orsay Museum to the Pont de l’Alma is being converted to a pedestrian promenade and riverside park and should be completed by 2014. Modeled on the city’s popular Vélib’ self-serve bike rentals, the Autolib’ electric car program (where users can pick up a car in one place and drop in another), is a smashing success.
In Arles, the new Fondation Van Gogh facility is the talk of the town, as it’s rumored that several original Van Gogh paintings will accompany its opening in early 2014 at Hôtel Léautaud de Donines. The restoration of the city’s Roman Arena (Amphithéâtre) is now complete, but the Arlaten Folk Museum remains closed until 2015.
France’s second city, Marseille, is still undergoing a massive 3.5 billion-euro face-lift as part of its designation as a European Capital of Culture for 2013. The pedestrian zone around the Old Port was redesigned–it’s now as wide as the Champs-Elysées–and a new tramway system is up and running.
In Nice, construction on the green parkway La Coulée Verte continues. When completed, the 30-acre parkway will extend from the sea through Place Masséna to the Museum of Modern Art, carving a people-friendly swath for biking and walking through Nice’s urban center.
In the Dordogne region, the prehistoric cave-painting sight Grotte de Font-de-Gaume currently is not taking reservations and is admitting just 80 people a day. Some visitors are camping out overnight to get a ticket. I recommend getting there by 7:30–the ticket booth opens at 9:30. At the Lascaux II cave, reservations are strongly recommended for July and August, and accepted only three to four days in advance (in France, call 05 53 51 96 23 for ticket availability and estimated English tour times). Of the prehistoric sights in the region, only the Lascaux II, Pech Merle, and (in July and August) Abri du Cap Blanc caves take reservations; for all others it’s first-come, first-served.
In Normandy, June 6, 2014, will mark the 70th anniversary of the landings of the Allies on French soil during World War II. There will be huge D-Day commemorations around this date, so anyone planning a Normandy trip near the anniversary may find all the hotels already booked. New at the Caen Memorial Museum is the restoration of German General Wilhelm Richter’s command bunker next to the museum.
At Mont St-Michel, 2014 is the last year for the causeway that tourists have used for more than 100 years–it’s slated to be demolished by 2015. Restoration of the island’s ramparts may block some island walkways.
In Bayeux, the MAHB (Musée d’Art et d’Histoire Baron Gérard) has reopened, offering a modest review of European art and history in what was once the Bayeux bishop’s palace. Bayeux’s three main museums–the Bayeux Tapestry, Battle of Normandy Memorial Museum, and MAHB–offer combo-tickets that will save visitors money if they plan to see more than one sight.
And, as 2014 marks the centennial of the outbreak of World War I, all will not be quiet on the Western Front. WWI buffs will find plenty of special exhibits and a surge in activity at many sites in commemoration of the battles that hit Europe in 1914.
Boasting a startling wealth of historic sights, art museums, and cultural icons, France is a mecca for travelers. From its prehistoric caves to its progressive cities, it’s a rewarding destination any year.
We get thousands of tips and feedback emails each year from our travelers. People who use our guidebooks know they are the most lovingly updated on the market, with in-person visits each year — and, it seems, they want to be sure we have no shortage of places to check out during our research rounds. I’m heading out in a month, and I’ll be packing 30 pages filled with reader tips and suggestions on the cities I’ll be updating.
As part of our updating process, we assemble a series of “what’s new” articles for each region in Europe. Today, I’m kicking off a series of these articles with Italy. If you or your friends have a trip coming up, get up-to-date with the help of these bulletins. We hope you can share them with anyone heading out, and that they will bring a little extra travel joy:
Florence is notorious for long lines at sights. Thankfully, ticketing and line-skipping options for the city’s blockbuster sights continue to improve. The Firenze Card, which admits you to 60-some museums for 72 euros, is now good for these cathedral (Duomo) sights: Baptistery, Campanile bell tower, dome climb, and Duomo Museum. If you want to see any single cathedral sight without a Firenze Card, you’ll need to buy the new 10-euro combo-ticket. It’s still free to enter the cathedral and have a look at Brunelleschi’s sublime dome from the inside.
At Florence’s Uffizi Museum, known for Renaissance art, there’s an exciting change. A new gallery is devoted to Michelangelo, with his famous Doni Tondo painting of the Holy Family as its centerpiece. It’s the only easel painting that’s definitely known to be by the master’s hand.
The private NTV/Italo high-speed train service is up and running, serving Florence along with Venice, Naples, Milan, and Rome. Because rail passes are not accepted, pass holders should choose Trenitalia’s equally fast Eurostar Italia or Le Frecce services instead.
Volterra has my vote for the best less-touristed hill town in Tuscany. Its new Alabaster Museum, featuring workmanship in the prized local stone from Etruscan times to the present, has opened within the 15th-century Pinacoteca painting gallery.
In Rome, there’s good news for those traveling on a budget or who enjoy eating in bars (or both). A pleasant practice traditionally found in northern Italian cities has migrated south: the aperitivo service. Bars set up an enticing buffet of small dishes and anyone buying a drink (at an inflated price) gets to eat “for free.” Drinks generally cost 8 to 10 euros, and the spread is out from 6 until 9 o’clock. Some places limit you to one plate; others allow refills. Another dining trend in Rome is that small restaurants with a full slate of reservations for 8:30 or 9:00 often will accommodate walk-in diners earlier–if they’re willing to eat a quick meal.
Venice is working hard to cope with its mobs of visitors. As ever-growing waves of tourists wash over the city every year, residents are struggling to ward off the trash (and trashiness) left in their wake. Picnicking remains illegal anywhere on St. Mark’s Square, and offenders can be fined. The city is taking a good-cop/bad-cop approach: On St. Mark’s Square, “decorum monitors” admonish snackers and sunbathers, while around town friendly posted guidelines cheerily encourage people to pick up their trash, refrain from pigeon-feeding, and save the beachwear for the Lido.
Structural renovation work on the iconic bell tower that looms over St Mark’s Square is finally finished; a titanium girdle wrapped around the underground foundations now shores up a crack that appeared in 1939. The city’s top art gallery, the Accademia, is still undergoing a seemingly never-ending renovation, with major rooms still closed. The Peggy Guggenheim Collection has also done some rearranging, largely to accommodate the recently bequeathed Schulhof Collection, which brings the museum’s holdings up to the late 20th century with works by Rothko, Calder, de Kooning, Warhol, and many others. Peggy would have loved it.
In Ravenna, a new museum is dedicated to Dante Alighieri, who spent three years here before succumbing to an infernal (or at least malaria-ridden) mosquito. While it’s a buzz for Italians, it’s skippable for those who aren’t fans of the author and his work.
Milan is preparing to host the 2015 World’s Fair. To welcome the expected 20 million visitors, the Rho-Pero district is revamping its layout with new parks, museums, and American-inspired skyscrapers.
Life is pretty much back to normal in the Cinque Terre, where flooding devastated the area just a few years ago. But the beautiful coastal trail system remains at the mercy of nature, with washouts or bad weather closing popular stretches. The popular Via dell’Amore (Path of Love), which was hit by a landslide in 2013, will reopen sometime in 2014. In Vernazza, a new “beach” was formed with debris from the floods. It’s great for wading and sunning, but wear shoes, as bits of rubble are mixed in with the pebbles.
Italy has long been my favorite country in Europe, and some of its thrills will never change with the calendar. Sit silently on a hilltop rooftop and get chummy with the Tuscan view. Write a poem over a glass of local wine in a sun-splashed, wave-dashed Riviera village. Lifelong travel memories are like low-hanging fruit in Italy — yours to harvest and preserve for years to come.
Last week, the Washington Post hosted a workshop in Seattle to highlight the growing importance of adult caregivers in our nation. I was asked to share my take on that issue after my experiences with my Mom, who suffered from Alzheimer’s until she died two years ago, and my Dad, who took care of her. Here’s a 10-minute conversation about the importance of giving adult caregivers a break from 24/7 responsibilities by making an adult day care service available in our communities.
We all need to be comfortable with bringing our aging loved ones out in public, and we need to appreciate the huge (and unpaid) workforce that brings comfort to this growing part of our society. All of us will eventually outlive both our bodies and our minds — but generally not at the same rate. As a society, we should be better prepared.
Our nation has been mired in a war against marijuana that has proven to be as wrong-minded and counterproductive as the prohibition against alcohol back in the 1930s. Recognizing the social and economic toll this war on pot was causing our country (not to mention the civil liberties concerns), I long ago embraced this cause. I’ve been advocating for the legalization of marijuana for adult recreational use for over a decade.
Until the last couple of years, people could hardly talk about marijuana in polite company. That’s why, five years ago, the ACLU produced a documentary called Marijuana: It’s Time for a Conversation,” and asked me to help write and host it. (Believe it or not, even that recently, TV stations were afraid to run this program — they wouldn’t even sell infomercial time for that topic before midnight.) If the ACLU wanted to start a conversation, they certainly did. And things have really crescendoed since Washington and Colorado actually legalized pot in 2012.
If you’ve followed my work, you know that I was very active as a co-sponsor of Initiative 502, which legalized marijuana in Washington State. Watch the stump speech that I gave all over the state during that campaign.
Here’s the press I’ve noticed, just in the last week, as our nation moves rapidly to take the crime out of the marijuana equation:
- Last Sunday, I had dinner with the leadership at NORML (the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) in Washington DC. That same day, the Washington Post came out essentially congratulating NORML and other drug policy reform groups for an amazingly productive last couple of years.
- On Monday, I flew to Corpus Christi, deep in the south of Texas, to give a talk to a group of seniors. I explained to them (among many other lessons from my travels) why our nation’s war on marijuana is a counterproductive and costly mistake. I was impressed that a room full of senior Texans saw the practicality of ending this prohibition.
- On Tuesday, back home, I watched an hour-long show on CNBC reviewing how the first two months of legalized marijuana in Colorado is going.
- On Wednesday, I read that the president of Uruguay, José Mujica, has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for making his country the first in the world to fully legalize marijuana.
- And on Thursday, in the Huffington Post, I found this article by John Wenzel (writer for The Cannabist and the Denver Post), sharing my take on the rapidly changing marijuana situation in the USA.
What’s next? I just met with my friends at the ACLU and other drug policy reform activists and learned why we’ll wait until 2016 for California…but it’s all hands on deck to legalize in Oregon later this year. To do what I can to help out, I agreed to spend five days on an “end the prohibition against marijuana” lecture tour in Oregon. I’ll announce dates soon. Learn more at New Approach Oregon.
If you’re in a state (or a state of mind) that is worried that all hell is about to break loose, trust me: The goal is to stop an expensive, racist, and non-productive war on marijuana and to regulate and tax its adult recreational use smartly. I firmly believe that, while use may spike with the giddiness that comes with being able to enjoy a joint legally, consumption will stay about the same in the long run — and we’ll end a violent black market and the other unintended evils that come with a prohibition. Stay tuned…
When I was a kid, I remember my sister, Jan, was fanatic about two things: snow and dogs. She spent every moment she could on the slopes. And I’ll never forget the day when, while driving our mom’s car, Jan had to choose between running over a little dog and totaling the car by running into a telephone pole. That was the last time I saw my mom’s Plymouth Barracuda.
Now, 40 years later, Jan is still crazy about snow and dogs. (And I still get nervous when she borrows my car.) In fact, she has spent the winter training with her team of dogs in Alaska — and on Saturday, March 1st, she embarks upon her third Iditarod race. Jan is sharing her story in a wonderful blog at her “Living My Dream” website. I’m so proud of my sister, and I’ll be rooting her on as she sets off on her 1,100-mile trek through the vast expanses of Alaska, alone in the wilderness with her hearty and loyal team of dogs. It’s an amazing and inspirational adventure. If you’d like to stow away on her sled and root her on, follow her Iditarod 2014 blog.
Join me and my top travel teachers on Saturday, March 22nd for my spring Travel Festival. This free, all-day, live European travel webcast includes the following six classes. I rarely speak on these destinations, so mark your calendars!
- 9:00 am (PT): Spain and Portugal with Rick Steves
- 11:00 am (PT): Germany, Austria and Switzerland with Rick Steves
- 1:00 pm (PT): European Cruising with Cameron Hewitt
- 4:00 pm (PT): Packing Light and Right with Rick Steves
- 5:30 pm (PT): Eastern Europe with Cameron Hewitt
- 8:00 pm (PT): Great Britain with Rick Steves
No registration is required to watch the webcast.
You can also meet me in person by attending these classes in Edmonds, Washington. They’re free, but registration is required.
Visit our web page dedicated to all of the webcast details, a complete schedule, and onsite class registration.
We’ll see you — virtually or in person — on March 22!
One of the most exciting projects I’ve ever done was collaborating with my local symphony and performing arts center to produce a musical tour of Europe. The outcome was luscious classical music cut together artfully with equally luscious video. I absolutely love it, and I’m convinced more than ever of the vital role local arts organizations play in building strong, vibrant communities.
So to celebrate the local arts, for the next 24 hours we’re offering the Symphonic Journey DVD/CD set for 90% off — just $2. Music lovers and Europhiles won’t want to miss this sale.
You and your friends can each buy up to five sets for this price through this link only (not via my website) until 10 a.m. PST, Wednesday, February 26th or while supplies last. Regular shipping fees apply.
As of Wednesday, February 26th 10 a.m. this promotion has ended.
I’m well into the final stages of producing our upcoming “Holy Land: Israelis and Palestinians Today” special for public television. Doing this work, I’m struck by the value of actually meeting people in faraway lands.
Recently, a friend shared this photo essay from Iran with me. These photos (by Brandon Stanton, of Humans of New York fame) bring back memories of wonderful moments from my travels to Iran. Check it out. And as you look at these people, imagine them on your street, in your place of work, dating your children, sharing a retirement home with your parents. It’s a wonderfully small world and, as far as I can tell, people are generally good… motived by fear and love.