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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Being in Hamburg, I kept thinking, “I love this city.” And one highlight was seeing the place from where millions of Germans emigrated to the New World. Imagine the fun of filming this city with a local guide to help locate the best angles. We’ve just filmed three great shows on six underrated German cities: Hamburg, Leipzig, Dresden, Nürnberg, Würzburg, and Frankfurt. These will be released as a part of Season Nine of our public television series, in the fall of 2016. Stay tuned!

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After being in Germany as it suffered through an unprecedented 30 days in a row of temperatures between 90 and 100 degrees, and now in the midst of several days of torrential thunder storms, I’m clued into climate change as it affects Europe. Here in Hamburg, in anticipation of storm surges that could push the Elbe River into people’s living rooms, you’ll find all-new riverside construction basically on stilts. The city’s 60-mile-long embankment is also beefed up. In an effort to make beer out of lemons, the city has gone to great lengths to make the new embankment not an eyesore, but an elevated, parklike people zone.

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Although it was almost completely destroyed in a horrific bombing in 1943, today’s Hamburg has rebounded as a surprisingly fun and fascinating city. While little remains from WWII, scores of the city’s old Nazi bunkers are simply too stout to be worth destroying. So they survive and are used in various creative ways. This bunker (Flakturm IV, on Feldstrasse in the St. Pauli neighborhood) is the biggest, designed to give 25,000 people shelter. It’s now filled with concert venues, recording studios, and dance clubs — and was fun to include in our TV show on Hamburg.

By the way, we’re just finishing our Germany shoot, and all three of our new Germany shows will air on public television in October of 2016. (These three shows are the first to be produced in our next series. We’ll likely produce 7 more in order to release 10 new episodes next year. Stay tuned!)

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We’re hard at work in Leipzig, Germany, shooting a new TV show. My favorite sight in Leipzig is the former headquarters of the communist-era secret police, or Stasi. Like the USSR had the KGB, East Germany had the Stasi. This amazing museum smells like the musty files that it kept on its citizens. The old vinyl floor is yellowed, and the camera lenses actually look like buttons. During the final days of the regime, the apparatchiks shredded as many documents as possible, and then dissolved the shredded paper into big, mucky balls. Here’s a little peek at what happens when a government goes overboard in surveilling its own people.

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In Leipzig, a city that helped lead East Germany to freedom at the end of the Cold War in 1989, the excellent Contemporary History Museum gives a fascinating insight into the 40-plus years people spent under communism. As we were scouting to decide what we’d include in our new TV show on Saxony (Dresden and Leipzig), my wonderful guide, Gisa Schönfeld, marveled at how her toy box was almost perfectly duplicated in the museum. It’s an example of how in the DDR, people did have things…all of the same things.

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When World War II broke out, Hitler was building a massive congress hall to accommodate his top 50,000 Nazis for annual gatherings. The unfinished and empty husk of this building still stands empty, as Germans can’t find an appropriate use for it. The brutal, no-questions-asked, Neoclassical design — like the architecture of any dictator — effectively drives individualism down and makes you feel insignificant…unless you join what they promised would be the winning team.

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I’ve left England and have made my way to Germany, where I’m filming new TV shows for our upcoming season. And my first stop is a beautiful town with some sinister connections: Nürnberg.

Hitler had a warm place in his cold heart for Nürnberg. Within sight of the castle of the Holy Roman Emperor, who ruled the First Reich, Hitler held his massive rallies to pump up the Third Reich. It’s amazing how much actually survives of the place where he threw mammoth propaganda spectacles to build community.

As we filmed this, we wondered if the word “community” was too positive — but Nazism was community, in both the inclusive sense and in the exclusive sense. With a classic fascist stance, Hitler made it clear: Either you were with him, or you were against him. Today, the rust and the stink of urine at his former tribune is a reminder of what present-day Germans think of this place.

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Thanks for traveling with me so far on my trip. I’m coming down the home stretch in my 2015 travels, with one final leg. I’m saying cheerio to England and flying to Germany, where I’ll meet my crew and film three new TV shows. With producer Simon and cameraman Peter, we’ll be visiting Frankfurt, Würzburg, Nürnberg, Dresden, Leipzig, and Hamburg — the great cities of Germany that travelers so often overlook. If you’ve got a trip to Germany percolating in your travel dreams, be sure to travel along.

German rooftops

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Watching this little video clip puts butterflies in my stomach. But I’m determined to go the full distance for my travelers — and here, on the windy cliff at Beachy Head, I’m a human suction cup learning a little geology in an unforgettable way. I’m just wrapping up two weeks of research in South England for both my England guidebook and our upcoming South England Rick Steves Europe Tours bus tour, and it’s been a very rewarding trip.

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Portsmouth — the historic home of Britain’s muscular naval fleet — is adapting to a future with a smaller navy presence and more pleasure craft and tourists. Most people pass through Portsmouth because it’s the major port on the south coast of England, busy with ferries heading for France’s Brittany. But the city also has amazing maritime history, plus enough candy-floss-on-the-beach fun to make going to Brighton or Blackpool unnecessary.

Portsmouth harbor with spinnaker

In London, billboard ads show an exotic harbor skyline with the question: Dreaming of Dubai? Then they break it to you: This is Portsmouth, 90 minutes away by train. Comparing Dubai and Portsmouth is a stretch, but its iconic Spinnaker Tower stands like an exclamation mark above a once run-down military port that is morphing into a pleasant people zone. Just last month, the Dubai-based Emirates airline paid £3.5 million to change the Spinnaker’s name to the “Emirates Spinnaker Tower.” (Unfortunately, they didn’t realize that the plan to paint the tower red and white — the airline’s colors — would infuriate local soccer fans, as those are the colors of the archrival Southampton team.) Locals tried to convince me to bow to their advertising agenda and add the new “Emirates” name to the listing in my England guidebook. I resist.

HMS Warrior in dock

Portsmouth’s Historic Dockyard is one of the best maritime sights anywhere. This ship is one of many on display. The HMS Warrior was the first ironclad warship — a huge technological advance. The Warrior was unbeatable, and the enemy knew it. Its very existence was sufficient to keep the peace. But that only lasted for a window of about ten years, until stronger steam engines made ships without sails smarter, and guns on turrets could outshoot anything previously on the sea. The Warrior is in amazing shape because it became obsolete shortly after it was built. The only action it’s ever seen are the tourists climbing through it 150 years after its heyday as the most awe-inspiring ship afloat.

Portsmouth teens on beach

The English are experts at enjoying dreary beaches in dreary weather. In Portsmouth, there’s a nice beach — but with the blustery weather, its best feature is what’s called “the Hot Wall.” This embankment provides a shelter from the breeze, and absorbs what heat there is and radiates it to those gathered (like this group of school friends).

Portsmouth harbor

Definitely not Dubai: While many areas of Portsmouth are becoming gentrified, deep down it’s still a hardworking port town.

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