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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Buskers (street musicians and entertainers) are a fun part of travel. You spend a lot of time walking as a traveler, and it’s nice to experience a little audio color as you stroll.

I’m traveling through Switzerland right now, and I really lucked out: My itinerary aligned perfectly with the capital city of Bern’s annual three-day busker blowout. The city was inundated with festival-goers (which made my restaurant research a bit less productive — everyone was eating on the streets), and the entire Old Town was a joyful celebration. (Including herbal joy, which I just noticed in this clip at 0:07.)

My favorite band from the festival, an English group called Tankus the Henge, was an extremely physical explosion of musical fun. Check them out!





Here in Switzerland, I’ve been noticing sterile, pharmacy-type shops that advertise themselves with marijuana leaves. Popping into several of them, I’ve learned about the Swiss approach to pot. In Switzerland, you can legally use marijuana with less than 1% THC to get relaxed…but not high. (To me, this notion is kind of like, “OK, you can sit in the boat…but you can’t pull up the anchor.”) In this video, join me on a visit to a Swiss “Hanftheke.”





I’m in Luzern, at one of Switzerland’s many modern train stations. Traveling here, it occurs to me that a big part of the fun of being in Europe is just enjoying the everyday mechanisms of life over here: using ticket machines, jumping on trams, pushing buttons…just doing stuff. I’m generally pretty slow when it comes to getting things from machines, but lately, I’ve been impressed by how easy it is, across Europe, to get a ticket without waiting in line. (They’ve thought of everything — language barriers, different currencies, American credit cards — and it all works beautifully.) As you can see in this fun clip, ticket machines and train stations are getting really slick.

 





I make sure to spend some time in France every year with Steve Smith, my co-author and coach in all things French. Our mission: to update our France guidebook. This year, we’re double-teaming Alsace and the WWI sights, and I’m loving France more than ever.

This clip illustrates that France’s romantic, idyllic yesterday — as well as its vibrant today — is all yours when you know where to find it.





Wherever you travel, there are artistic and cultural riches waiting to be appreciated. Just be there, take the time to notice it, add information, and shake. That’s our challenge as travelers.

I have spent 40 years teaching budget travel tips. But only recently have I discovered the most important budget tip of all: Understand what you are experiencing, and it becomes twice as rewarding. Think about it: If you equip yourself with good information and use it, a travel moment — for the same price —  is suddenly worth double. That’s been my theme this year as I’ve worked on my guidebooks from Sicily to Lisbon, Belfast to Orkney, and now here in France.

Join me in a quiet Colmar courtyard to simply appreciate a statue by Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, the man who made our Statue of Liberty. He devoted much of his life to blessing our country with a statue that celebrates what he believed makes America great. And in this smaller statue — celebrating the great pillars of the world — Bartholdi trumpets many of the same values: hard work, education, justice, and patriotism.





I always wonder if politicians who talk loosely about going to war have given much thought to the human cost of war. I’m sure they’ve traveled. But country clubs and golf courses don’t expose you to lessons of history like actually “traveling on purpose” to places that know the heartache of war.

Most visit France’s Alsace for its charming towns and delightful vineyards. I also visit Alsace to remember World War I and World War II, because this is where what I think of as the “cultural tectonic plates” of Germany and France rub up against each other. And I take every chance I can to splice a little reality between the cute stuff.

Here, a 10-minute walk above the sleepy town of Bergheim, is a German war cemetery with the remains of thousands of young Germans. They weren’t necessarily ideological Nazis. These men — actually boys, as most of them were in their teens or early twenties — just had the misfortune of living in a country ruled by a madman.





Freiburg is the lively Black Forest alternative to Baden-Baden. And in a university town like Freiburg, if you hear music in the distance, you should grab the serendipity as it flutters by and follow it. It will likely lead you to great food, great prices, live music, and lots of people embracing life (like Europeans seem so expert at doing). That’s how I ended up here — and how I found a fun listing for my Germany guidebook. That’s my mission: To find places like this so you can be equipped with all the information you need for maximum travel fun.





Exploring the Black Forest High Road (just south of Baden-Baden), we came to a section of that venerable forest that’s healing from a devastating hurricane. In 1999, Hurricane Lothar tore through here, bringing down 50,000 acres of the Black Forest in just two hours. Germany decided to let nature heal itself and built a family-friendly, half-mile-long boardwalk (Lotharpfad) through the park so people can connect with the slow-motion spectacle and cheer nature on. It’s a delightful 20-minute circular walk, easily accessible from a free parking lot.

This is the kind of fun I’ve been discovering all summer as I’ve been updating my various guidebooks with the help of local guides — like Simone Brixel (Black Forest Tours), who you see in this clip. Danke, Simone!





This two-part clip from the Black Forest illustrates how, wherever you travel, you can have dramatically different experiences in the same destination. Most travelers, driven by “bucket lists,” get sucked into the highly promoted tourist trap version of a place. (In the Black Forest, they end up in Titisee — part one of this clip.) Some, however, step away from the commercial zone (so expert at bamboozling travelers and corrupting the industry) and manage to reach that “off the beaten path” dimension of the same sight (part two of this clip).

The sad reality is that the vast majority of visitors to Europe’s most-dreamed-about destinations have their romantic vision trampled by mobs of travelers on big bus tours and cruises. (Here in the Black Forest, it’s river cruises.) And the even sadder reality is that most don’t even realize the lost opportunity. The goal for us “Back Door travelers”: to turn our travel dreams into a pristine and unforgettable reality. In this clip, my guide, Simone Brixel (Black Forest Tours), shows us two very different sides of the Black Forest. The choice is yours.





I love breakfast — especially when I’m on the road. When you’re traveling, sitting down for breakfast can be like kicking off your day with a plate of edible art. (A British “fry-up” can be an excellent study in shapes.)

Beans, mushrooms, and fried tomatoes became my new norm over the past month in Ireland, Scotland, and England. (I generally try to be adventurous, but the hot-dog-like sausage, blood sausage, square sausage, and haggis were just too extreme.) Each morning, I considered going lighter and sticking with fruit and cereal. But I just couldn’t. I guess I just need comfort food in the morning…bring on the beans, tomatoes, mushrooms, bacon, and eggs.

 

I’ve just landed in Germany. Big change: yogurt with fruit, better bread, better cheese, liverwurst, and crunchy peppers. Bye-bye beans. Up next, I’ll be enjoying hearty continental breakfasts in the Black Forest, France’s Alsace, and the great Swiss cities.

 

 

What’s your take on the “full breakfast”? And what are your fondest European breakfast memories?