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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While updating my Rick Steves England guidebook, I’ve endured some pretty dreary weather. So dropping into the Eden Project in Cornwall was a delightful chance to enjoy the tropics in England, and to explore the biggest rain forest in captivity. Here’s the description from the guidebook:

Set in an abandoned china clay pit, the Eden Project is an ambitious and futuristic work-in-progress – a theme park of global gardening with an environmental conscience. Exotic plants from all over the world are showcased in two giant biomes, reputedly the largest greenhouses in the world. The displays focus on sustainable farming and eco-conscious planting. If you’re looking for a quaint English cottage garden, this isn’t it. Rather than a flowery look at England’s past, this “global garden” gives you a sense of how the shrinking world will affect us in the future (www.edenproject.com). I haven’t experienced anything quite like this in my travels. Have you?

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Tintern Abbey is one of most beautiful and evocative sights in all of Britain. And seeing a wedding ceremony inside was icing on the cake. In this clip the harpist strums while the pastor worries about the threat of rain, and the bride is nowhere to be seen (though she finally did show up).

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Buried in the Cotswold region of west England is the pristine village of Stanton, with what appears to be just another little medieval church. But, by knowing what to look at, you’ll see deeper. Follow me on an exercise that includes psychoanalyzing the patron saint (St. Michael, a giveaway that the church was built upon a pagan holy ground) to feeling the grooves worn into pews by sheepdog leashes centuries ago.

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England’s Cotswolds hide many subtle dimensions of the local culture. A hundred years ago, the delightful village of Chipping Campden hosted the Arts and Crafts Movement (refugees from the Industrial Age who despised mass-produced decorative art). Today, only one shop descended from those anti-industrial-design hippies survives — the Hart Silversmiths. It was fun to meet the younger generation, whose members are still enthusiastic about the fact that “everything we make is a one-off.”

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High school grads in the Alps, a “monk chat” in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and under the pillow in a Scottish B&B. There’s a lot going on in our Travelers Café where I collect my favorite blogs.

Skyla with cow

At Rick Steves’ Europe, we’ve been at this long enough that our veteran guides and travel writers have kids venturing off to Europe on their own. Skyla (daughter of Rich and Risa — writers in my office and former lead guides) and her friend Gabby are a week into their high school graduation adventure, and Skyla is blogging intimately about the experience. Reading Skyla’s report takes me back to my first solo trip — which I fondly recall as “Europe Through the Gutter” — as an 18-year-old. Skyla jokes that she should title her blog “Train Station Mishaps with Skyla.” It struck me that, for a teenager, the joy of travel is not the sights and not necessarily doing it right — it’s having fun with the process, being wonderstruck with a wider world, laughing through the mistakes and learning from them, and making friends along the way. That’s what Skyla is reporting on. They’ve figured out Paris, hiked the Alps, and are now sorting through the trains to Venice. If you have teens and are wondering about helping make the world their oyster, be sure to travel along with Skyla.

My kids, Jackie and Andy, are now in Thailand. Jackie reports that on her first day in the city of Chiang Mai, it’s already her favorite stop (beating out Bali and Vietnam). Andy and Jackie are learning about Buddhism with a program for travelers known as “monk chat.”

And my right-hand man in the guidebook-writing corner, Cameron Hewitt, continues to blog from Scotland. Scotland is a very hot destination these days (our Snapshot: Scotland guide easily outsells our England guidebook). And our Scotland tours may even be rivaling the sales of our Ireland tours. Cameron reports on the B&B scene as he searches Edinburgh for the very best places to include in our new, full-fledged Scotland guidebook. And he realizes how fascinating traditional Scottish candies are — checking out Chelsea Whoppers and other goodies at Lickety Splits.

And I’m heading for the south coast of England, blogging daily from there until I meet the TV crew again for more shows in Germany.

Thanks for traveling with us.

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I nearly skipped Blenheim Palace this year, thinking that on a gorgeous Sunday in July this palace near Oxford would be a mob scene. It was nearly empty. In fact, I booked a special tour of the private apartments, giving me a 30-minute, behind-the-scenes look at the workings of the palace (£5). I was all alone with my excellent guide. This really is the number-one stately home to see in Britain.

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I enjoy having strong opinions when it comes to hard itinerary decisions and rating various European destinations. And I enjoy reassessing. Twenty years ago I visited Oxford and Cambridge and got it lodged in my mind that Cambridge was much better to visit than Oxford. Since then, in my lectures, I’ve made the point that, “If you have less than a month to tour Britain, don’t do both great university towns. Do one or the other and save up time for something entirely different (like North Wales or the Cumbrian Lake District). And…Cambridge is better than Oxford.” I’ve spent the last three days enjoying both towns and comparing each — and I need to change my assessment. Here’s how I wrote it up for the next edition of my England guidebook:

England is home to two world-renowned universities: Oxford and Cambridge. Seeing one is enough. And the big question for many is which one? Cambridge is easier and more charming — with its lovely gardens along the River Cam. Oxford is more substantial with lots more to see and do. If you’re choosing between them, consider this: Cambridge feels like a lazy, easygoing small town; Oxford has more urban energy and more stately buildings than its rival. Cambridge is not really on the way to anywhere (and weak in hotels), making it better as a side-trip from London than as a stopover. Oxford can keep you busy sightseeing for a longer time and has plenty of good hotels — so it’s worth a longer stop. Both are convenient to London (with an hour’s train ride). And Oxford is in a much more interesting neighborhood as it sits near the Cotswolds, Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwick, and Blenheim Palace. If you can’t choose, do both (there’s a great bus connection).

College quad

The universities of Oxford and Cambridge each consist of many venerable colleges sprinkled through town. And most have a fine central courtyard (called a “court” in Cambridge and a “quad” in Oxford). This is a particularly beautiful quad at Oxford’s Magdalen College.

Tour guide

Oxford and Cambridge each use the “collegiate system” where the colleges are mixed throughout the town; there’s no sense of an intact campus like you’d expect at many American universities. To explain the fascinating mix of town and gown, each city’s tourist board offers fine guided tours (2 hours, £10).

Harry Potter Great Hall film location in Oxford

If you haven’t read a lot of novels, visiting Oxford and Cambridge can be frustrating. Each city is bursting with literary references and treats its hometown authors like pop stars — such as C.S. Lewis, E.M. Forster, Lewis Carroll, or J.R.R. Tolkien. If you haven’t read their stuff, you won’t feel a lot of the excitement. Both college towns have also been featured in hit movies. This dining hall at Oxford’s Christ Church College is a huge hit with “Harry Potter” fans since it was the inspiration for Hogwarts’ Great Hall in the films.

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Finally…I learned why that White Rabbit was always late: It’s because Oxford is almost comically full of tradition. One of the preeminent colleges of the 38 that make up the university, Christ Church is particularly loyal to its traditions — it even has its own time zone. Before the advent of trains made it important that everyone be on the same time — hence Greenwich Mean Time — different towns routinely had their own times. Oxford, being 60 miles west of Greenwich, was longitudinally 5 minutes different. To this day, the clock tower at Christ Church runs five minutes later than official British time. My guide tied that to the fact that Lewis Carroll taught there — so it was natural that the author of “Alice in Wonderland” would create a character that was always late.

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Spending a few days in London updating my guidebook, it was fun to reconnect with one of the greatest cities on earth. The many massive new buildings seem to have been given permits on the condition that they’d provide public spaces, especially if they might obstruct views of historic buildings. For example, the big and glassy New Change Building (just east of St. Paul’s) has a little park high above street level reached by a sleek elevator that offers a free and amazing view of the cathedral and the skyline.

View of St. Paul's

London’s Tube, as the Underground is called (saying “subway” means a pedestrian underpass to a Brit), feels more efficient than ever. The Oyster Card is the standard pass — you buy it for a refundable £5 and put as much money on it as you like. You swipe in and swipe out and ride anywhere in town for about half the normal fare. If you forget to swipe, you’ll be charged for the longest ride possible — but you can never pay in a day more than the cost of a one-day pass (about $15). A feature I like is that you can swipe it at a ticket machine (shown here) and it tells you everywhere you’ve gone by bus and Tube with a full accounting and the resulting balance.

Oyster card

As a rising tide of affluence sweeps through London, I see a lot of pubs becoming victims of progress — torn down for new construction. It got me thinking that there are more pubs in poorer towns and neighborhoods than in wealthier ones for a reason. The venerable English pub filled (and still fills) a big need for the working class. For workers — historically with humble domestic quarters and no money for vacation — a beer on the corner was the closest they’d get to a comfortable living room, a place to entertain, and a vacation. As people get wealthier, the importance of the corner pub diminishes.

Pub hidden behind scaffolding

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While updating my Rick Steves’ London guidebook this week, I was struck by the construction and the changing skyline. With my local guide, Gillian Chadwick, I marveled at the energy of new London, as it seems intent on building itself out of any economic recession. While most people don’t know the formal names of the most striking skyscrapers — or which companies inhabit them — everyone knows the nicknames…inspired by what they look like: the Cheese Grater, the Shard, and the Pickle…I mean the Gherkin.

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