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 am at Boston’s Wilbur Theatre at a WGBH event, midway through an exciting eight-cities-in-eight-days lecture tour — and every night we have a sold-out house. It feels great to be connecting with travelers so enthusiastic about their travels. I’m also appreciating the wonderful early 20th-century theaters that caring communities have saved and are now enjoying. So far, I’ve been to the Keswick Theatre in Philadelphia, the Baird Auditorium at the Smithsonian in Washington DC, the classic old Music Hall in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and the Wilbur in Boston. Coming up: Houston, Oklahoma City, Dallas, West Palm Beach, and then home to Seattle.
Many of the events are fundraisers for public television. In the face of a government that is opposed to anything with the word “public” in it, I’ve witnessed a powerful energy for this important community resource. Yes! It is worth $1.35 per citizen in tax revenue for a great nation like ours to have one oasis on the media dial that is non-commercial. Thanks to public broadcasting on radio and TV, our communities can enjoy programming that assumes an attention span, respects our intellect, and is driven not by a passion for keeping advertisers happy, but by a passion for educating and inspiring us to embrace life and celebrate diversity. Please, raise your voice for a smarter and less fearful society… raise your voice for public broadcasting.
I have an American friend, Steve Brenner, who is raising his beautiful family in Orvieto, Italy, for the quality of life and the family values. (He also runs a great hotel/hostel in Rome called The Beehive and curates private apartments at Cross-Pollinate.) Occasionally, Steve produces wonderful little videos celebrating that essence of small-town Italy.
In this fun little clip about the local pasta shop, just watch the fingers stuffing the tortellini. Feel the passion, the love, the community…people living their lives intentionally, celebrating quality, struggling with how to feed the kids in a healthy way, and embracing that good old “small is beautiful” ethic.
Steve writes: “I’m a big fan of making my own bread and pasta and think it’s worthwhile for everyone to learn — it’s easy, cheap, and for most people, what you can make at home is much better than anything you can buy from a store. However, it’s another story when you live next to a fresh pasta shop like La Bottega del Tortellino. For years we’ve enjoyed their ricotta and spinach ravioli at least once a week. We’ll get a few portions of tortellini to serve in broth, or the potato and taleggio cheese ravioli, which we’ll toss with butter and sage. Yes, this is what we get to eat when we’re too lazy to cook — fresh pasta, usually made that day. This video is a hometown story about changing careers, becoming professional pasta makers, competing with big business, a changing food culture in Italy, and of course, pasta!”
When you write a guidebook, your work has just begun. You have to update it, and you have to promote it. I’m thankful to have a great relationship with a smart and supportive publisher, Avalon Travel Publishing. And Avalon (I like to think) is thankful to have a writer who jumps at any opportunity to tell the public about his books. Every year or so, Avalon offers to hire a special service that lines up an intense morning of radio interviews for me. And every year, I say, “Yes!”
Before dawn, I set up camp at my office. The service calls in, and then, from 6:00 a.m. until 10:00 a.m., they connect me with talk show hosts all across the country. I do an eight-minute interview nearly every ten minutes. When I finally hang up the phone, the call duration reads “4 hr 30 min” — and I’ve talked with perky commercial radio hosts for 20 or so drive-time interviews right across the USA. When done, I run to the men’s room and think, “That was a great morning’s work.”
There’s lots to talk about these days. Here are a few of my key points:
Europe is on sale — with the dollar nearly at parity with the euro.
It’s critical that smart American travelers be proactive about planning for the marquee sights, as they’ll be competing with lots of travelers from the emerging economies of China and India. In those countries, there are suddenly 100 million people in the middle class with enough money to fly to Europe, and who have long dreamed of seeing Europe’s top ten sights.
If you’re wondering where your travel dollar stretches the farthest, I make three points: know more about what you’re looking at, and each admission earns you double the experience; your time is a valuable and limited resource that deserves being treated as thoughtfully as your money; and the best values are had in the places where your travel dreams are taking you. If prices are cheaper in Portugal, but your travel dreams are in Scotland, your best travel value is in Scotland — just equip yourself with good information so you can travel smartly there.
That’s when I segue into a reminder that guidebooks are $20 tools for $3,000 experiences — and my Scotland guidebook has all the practical information you’ll need for a great trip there. It’ll earn back its cost on your first day in Edinburgh.
Stoking your own travel dreams? You can find all of my guidebooks in my travel store.
I recently found this video of a talk I gave 27 years ago, with my two-minute, circa-1990 take on terrorism. While the eyeglasses may be dated, the message is timeless: Keep things in perspective, don’t turn a small terrorist event into a big one by overreacting, and keep on travelin’. The differences between then and now: More people were being killed by terrorists in the 1980s than in the 2010s; back then, only 8,000 Americans were victims of gun-related homicides annually, while now that figure is closer to 13,000; and today we have sensationalistic, fear-mongering 24/7 commercial news working overtime to keep us on edge.
Earlier today, I was being interviewed on a radio station that needed to cut away for breaking news: In a breathless voice, the announcer reported, “In London, pedestrians have been mowed down by a car and a masked man with a big knife is inside of Parliament. Stand by for more news as it breaks.” With only that information, it was easy to imagine unspeakable carnage unfolding in the House of Commons. The reality — while undoubtedly tragic — is turning out to be much less dramatic, as the police quickly took control of the situation.
There has long been terrorism, and there always will be terrorism. I like to say, “Terrorism is the new normal.” But as this video shows, it’s far from new. And something else that hasn’t changed: If our reaction to these events is exaggerated, we’re still richly rewarding the terrorists for their actions.
In my experience, the most fearful people are those who don’t get out much. But the flipside of fear is understanding — and we gain understanding when we travel. As you watch this vintage clip, please remember: The best way to stay safe is to keep on traveling — and striving to better understand and better fit into our beautiful world.
As racist, bigoted, and right-wing movements are on the rise on both sides of the Atlantic these days, I’d love to host a sharing of experiences that gay travelers are having in Europe. Where do you feel comfortable? Where don’t you? What are good sources of information? With hate crimes on the rise in the USA, do you sense any changes to the vibe in Europe lately?
Be sure to check out the conversation on my Facebook page as well.
Many years ago, my son Andy got a particularly bad case of jet lag — and ended up asleep in his spaghetti.
Jet lag hates bright light, exercise, and fresh air. To beat it, I sleep on the flight and then, once I arrive in Europe, I make it a point to be active, staying out and about until an early bedtime. Psychologically, it’s important to shift your mindset to European time when you shift the hour hand on your wristwatch. I admit, I love my Ambien. I take half a tablet to get 3 hours of sleep on the plane. At my hotel, I conk out easy at bedtime. But I wake up wired at about 4 a.m., so I take the rest of the tablet. That way I can sleep until breakfast, as I muscle myself onto a European schedule.
What are your best tips for minimizing jet lag?
After taking several trips with organizations offering “educational” or “reality” tours, I’ve learned that getting the most out of a trip to a complicated corner of our world is easier with a guide and in the care of an organization that’s well-connected locally. I traveled through Central America with, and have long recommended, Augsburg College’s Center for Global Education and Experience — but it is now limited to college students.
The new edition of my Travel as a Political Act book will contain a list of organizations offering educational tour experiences to the broader traveling public. Please check out my list and let me know if you have any experience with these groups, or if there are others you’d recommend. Thank you!
Global Exchange, an international human rights organization, believes that “meaningful, socially responsible travel can, and does, change the world.” Its five- to 16-day experiential education Reality Tours focus on person-to-person exchanges and give travelers a firsthand look at the effects of intractable global problems, as well as the possibilities for positive changes. Whether meeting with health organizations in Haiti, observing Cuban teachers and musicians at work, or visiting a farming co-op in North Korea, participants go beyond stereotypes to build real understanding.
A small organization determined “to change the world by changing the way we relate to the planet and its people,” New Community Project structures its one- to two-week Learning Tours as deep intercultural education voyages. The organization works with local partners to introduce tour members to people from all walks of life, from human trafficking survivors to indigenous shamans to farmers. Travelers confront questions of social justice, environmental sustainability, and how people remain hopeful in difficult situations.
A nonprofit educational organization focused on promoting “global citizenship,” Xperitas offers one- to two-week immersive programs based on longstanding partnerships with local grassroots organizations in indigenous and marginalized communities. Travelers live in the partner communities, either in a homestay or communal lodging such as an ecolodge or guesthouse. They eat what the locals eat, help with community-led development projects, and get to know the community in ways a tourist cannot.
Friendship Force International, a nonprofit organization, focuses on person-to-person exchanges, with locals welcoming travelers into their homes and introducing their visitors to their cultures. In each destination, a “Friendship Force” club led by volunteers offers homestays and social activities, giving visitors the chance to get intimately acquainted with their hosts. Each one- to three-week program includes cultural experiences, such as learning to make traditional lavash bread in Armenia, visiting historic Brazilian fishing villages, or tobogganing on sand hills in Australia’s Hunter Valley.
A part of AFS-USA, the well-known study abroad organization, AFSNext offers international volunteer and professional internship programs for travelers ages 18 and up. These programs, which range from one to 24 weeks, are geared for close engagement with local communities through volunteer work, and professional development through internship opportunities on global issues like wildlife conservation. AFS-USA offers a certification course to help participants more deeply explore and gain a credential in intercultural and experiential learning.
Each year we take 20,000 Americans to Europe on Rick Steves Europe Tours and more than a million Rick Steves guidebooks are printed and sold. In other words, inspiring so many people to cross the Atlantic makes me a huge contributor to global warming.
As a company, we want to find a smart way to help our travelers be carbon neutral. We could buy carbon offsets for each transatlantic flight and we could support groups (such as the Union of Concerned Scientists) that advocate for governmental policies that are smart in regard to climate change.
This challenge has frustrated me for a long time. Do you simply throw money at some charity to assuage your carbon-footprint guilt (which might be squandered by a company just cashing in on these environmental concerns) or can you help fund work that really makes a difference? I wish there was a rock-solid assurance that if you fly to Europe and give money to xxx, then you’ll truly be a carbon-neutral flier.
If you were running my tour company, what would you do? Thanks.
Over the past weeks, millions of Americans have been inspired, in their own way, to celebrate and defend what they believe makes our country so…American. Last Wednesday, I declared that I’d give a donation to an organization helping the youth of Palestine equal to the amount spent on travel gear through last Thursday at ricksteves.com/shop.
As promised, I’m matching your collective shopping spree. And — further motivated by our government’s threat to drastically cut domestic and foreign aid programs — I’m upping my gift to an even $50,000. Thinking about how this money will help that community in such a troubled region brings me (and hopefully all of us) real joy.
Bright Stars of Bethlehem funds a cultural center where Palestinian boys and girls from every corner of their community can enjoy dimensions of life that we in America often take for granted. I’ve visited this center on two recent trips and its work is truly inspirational.
When I think about the “love thy neighbor” ethic and Golden Rule that is a common denominator of the three great religions that share the region we call the Holy Land, and then hear the leader of my country declare “America first,” I’m troubled by the disconnect.
I’m so thankful for your support in this small but exciting initiative. This money, when invested smartly in Palestine for such an important cause, is more than compassionate. Wielding this “soft power” from the mightiest nation on earth will contribute to an enduring peace more than the use of conventional “hard power.”
Thanks again and happy travels!
I’ve been hard at work updating my “Travel as a Political Act” book and I’d love some help from my traveling friends who are familiar with Turkey.
I’m rewriting the chapter on Turkey to include information about the 2016 coup attempt there — and the extreme reaction to the coup by President Erdogan.
You can read the rough introduction to the chapter below. And, if you are up to date on Turkey, I’d appreciate your suggestions on how to better describe the changes brought on by what seems like a dictator in the making. What’s it like for the locals and for tourists in Turkey now? What’s Erdogan up to? Thank you.
Turkey and Erdogan
My Dad used to be absolutely distraught by the notion that God and Allah could be the same. Years ago, I couldn’t resist teaching my toddler Andy to hold out his arms, bob them up and down, and say, “Allah, Allah, Allah” after table grace just to freak out his Grandpa. Later, rather than just torture my Dad, I took a more loving (and certainly more effective) approach to opening him up to the Muslim world: I took him to Turkey. Now — while he’s still afraid of ISIS — my Dad is no longer afraid of Islam.
While violent Islamic fundamentalists represent a tiny fraction of all Muslims, the threats they pose are real. And they get plenty of media coverage. To help balance my understanding of Islam, I make a point to travel there and learn about its reasonable, mainstream side.
Just as Europe and the US are dealing with rising populism, nativism, and fear-mongering politicians looking for an excuse to cut down on freedoms and amp up their military and local forces of “law and order.” And just as pluralistic secular Western governments are dealing with fundamentalists in their society that would prefer to see sins treated as crimes and their style of prayer in school, Muslim nations have that same dynamic. In fact, the challenges, while similar, are more extreme in much of the Islamic world.
I have long loved traveling in moderate, Western-facing Muslim countries such as Turkey and Morocco where embracing secularism was not seen as being anti-Muslim but simply the mark of a modern democracy. Visiting moderate developing nations which happen to be primarily Muslim gives us a safe and fascinating look at our globe’s fastest-growing religion, practiced by more than 1.5 billion people worldwide. Through travel, we can observe Islamic societies struggling (like our own society) with how to navigate through a rough-and-tumble globalized world. In doing so, we gain empathy.
I have long considered Turkey one of my favorite countries and a good classroom in which to better understand our world and its struggles. Through my company, I’ve offered (and guided) tours of Turkey through good times and bad since before the first Gulf War (in 1990). We’ve followed Turkey’s torrid modernization, its battles with separatist Kurds, and its internal tug-of-war between modern urban secularists and traditional more rural fundamentalists. And, for many years, I’ve worried with my Turkish friends about the slow yet persistent drift to the political right and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in that country that has always taken great pride in the modern constitution given to it by its founding father, Ataturk. Then, in 2016, a failed coup attempt gave the country’s president the opening he needed to become its dictator.
Erdogan vs. Secular, Pluralistic Turkey
Turkey is not living in Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood. Ten percent of its society is Kurdish and many Kurds have aspirations to secede and join an independent Kurdistan. Just as rich and powerful forces push a right wing and fundamentalist agenda in the USA, powerful and wealthy forces are pushing a right-wing and Islamic agenda in Turkey. For a decade I considered Turkey a model of balancing the needs of a strong leader with Western ideals of pluralism and secularism. And for years, Muslims in neighboring countries dreaming of a more democratic system looked to Turkey for inspiration and as a model. But gradually it became clear that Turkey’s leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, had a different vision: to make Turkey less free and more Islamist. The constitution, given the modern state of Turkey at its founding in 1923 by Ataturk, anticipated such a leader. In fact, that constitution called for a strict separation of mosque and state and even required the Turkish military to overthrow its own president if ever he violated that tenet (which they’ve actually had to do on several occasions).
Turkey’s President Erdogan needed an excuse to declare a state of emergency and establish his more authoritarian rule and he got it in mid-2016. On July 15th, 2016, a faction of Turkey’s military attempted a coup (apparently to stop Erdogan’s over-reach). It failed and Ergodan responded with a harsh crackdown. Erdogan declared an extended state of emergency, replacing leading generals, silencing professors, shutting down the press, and locking up thousands of western-minded Turks. He essentially criminalized his political opposition. Before the coup attempt and all the purging, Ergodan — during his attempt to get Turkey admitted to the EU — was praised for supporting religious freedoms and civil rights. Suddenly, it was all different. The leaders of the military were replaced by Erdogan cronies. The military and the judiciary, both counted on for their defense of secularism, were effectively silenced. Erdogan moved to stop the public from organizing. He blocked or limited internet access and social media. Turks were arrested on charges of simply insulting the president. Erdogan, named by the European Voice newspaper “European of the Year” in 2004, had now moved Turkey — its populace thoroughly frightened and silenced — closer to a Muslim autocracy.
For many years the predictable question I’d get from loved ones is, “Why are you going to Turkey?” With each visit to Istanbul, one of my favorite cities in the world, my thoughts were: Why would anyone not travel here? Now, with the darkness of Erdogan settling on 70 million Turks, Western tourism is essentially dead in a country where it once thrived. Hotels are shut down, squares that thrived with guests from around the world are quiet, and there’s barely a foreigner in sight. From a safety point of view, I would be totally comfortable visiting Istanbul. I’d receive a warm and eager welcome. But I’d be sad, as the free spirit I expect to find in Turkey would be in hiding.
This chapter shares favorite moments I’ve enjoyed over the years in pre-Erdogan Turkey. The lessons are true as ever. And hopefully, when the spirit of Ataturk retakes its rightful place as the guiding light of the Turkish people, we’ll be traveling there again soon.