Travels in Europe with Cameron

I'm excited to host this blog of one of my favorite collaborators, Cameron Hewitt. Fans of my books have been reading Cameron's words (often without knowing it) for years. In addition to partnering with me to co-author our three Eastern European guidebooks, Cameron has also been a major contributor to my other books and writings. Cameron is well-traveled, smart, and insightful. And, while he and I are in perfect sync in terms of travel styles and priorities, he gives voice to the next generation of "Rick Steves travelers." If I were 20 years younger, I hope I would travel like Cameron does. Join me in enjoying his reports right here. —Rick

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By Cameron Hewitt

Our editors are hard at work on the brand-new Rick Steves Iceland guidebook (coming in March of 2018). But for now, here’s a sneak preview of the practical advice we’ve assembled.

Iceland is one of Europe’s most popular destinations — and one of its most expensive. These strategies will help you keep costs down while fully experiencing Iceland.

1. Consider Airbnb. Airbnb and similar sites rent properties that are typically far cheaper than hotels. And, if you’re willing to forego big-hotel services (like a reception desk and daily cleaning), you’ll get much more space and amenities for your money. Airbnb can also get you into more local neighborhoods; sleeping in a Reykjavík suburban home is both cheaper and more Icelandic than a hotel in the touristy downtown.

2. Be willing to share a bathroom. While Icelandic hotels are pricey, its characteristic guesthouses can be affordable. These typically offer basic rooms with a shared bathroom, which cost far less than en-suite rooms. If you’re willing to “go” down the hall, you’ll save plenty.

3. Have a big lunch and a small dinner. Even the fanciest restaurants offer excellent-value lunch specials in the $25 range — allowing you to sample a high-end chef without breaking the bank. Have your sit-down meal at lunch, then picnic or grab cheap takeout at dinner (when most restaurants jack up prices — upper-midrange places can easily charge $40-50 for an entrée). Once you’ve had a memorable and filling lunch, you can settle for a basic dinner; for Icelanders, takeout pizza, the IKEA cafeteria, or the corner hot dog stand provide a cheap and handy meal, just like back home.

4. Picnic. In general, cultivate the art of picnicking in atmospheric settings. Seek out Iceland’s discount supermarket chains — Krónan and Bónus — and use them to stock up. Be careful picnic-shopping at the ubiquitous convenience stores, which are far more expensive. Consider bringing a few staples from home. For example, in a land where a basic takeaway coffee costs $5 a cup, packing along some Starbucks Via lets you caffeinate cheaply.

5. Know what’s included. Every restaurant happily provides a free carafe of tap water — just ask, and don’t feel obligated to purchase a drink. If you’re paying for unlimited soup and bread, don’t be shy about going back for seconds. And if someone offers you free coffee, take it! Since Iceland has no tipping culture, and taxes are included, you’ll pay exactly the price you see on the menu.

6. Economize on alcohol. Alcohol is priced at a premium, particularly in bars and restaurants. Stock up at the airport duty-free store on arrival — with the lowest prices in Iceland — or at a government-run liquor store (called Vínbúðin). If you’re going to a bar, find out when they have a happy hour, when drink prices drop by as much as half.

7. Consider renting a car. Iceland’s best sights are in the countryside, and most of them aren’t well-served by public buses. That means you’ll likely need to pay for an excursion to reach them efficiently. For example, a couple based in Reykjavík for three nights and two days might pay for all-day excursions to the Golden Circle ($100 per person) and the South Coast ($150 per person), plus the transfer from the airport to downtown ($40 per person round-trip) — that’s nearly $600, certainly more than a comparable-length car rental. While fuel is expensive, you can save by skipping options you don’t need: It’s cool and breezy even in the peak of summer, so you can usually get by without air-conditioning. And unless you’re here in winter (when roads can be dicey) or plan to venture far off the beaten path, a casual tourist doesn’t need four-wheel drive.

8. Skip the Blue Lagoon. While the Blue Lagoon spa is famous, and a highlight for many visitors, it costs ten times as much as Iceland’s many thermal swimming pools…which are a far more authentic experience, to boot. Reykjavík alone has more than a dozen municipal pools with water just as hot as the Blue Lagoon’s. If visiting several pools, invest in a shareable multi-visit card.

9. Sightsee Selectively. Icelandic museums are typically very good…but expensive ($15-20 for a small exhibit that can be seen in under an hour). To stretch your budget, choose your sightseeing options carefully. If you’ll be sightseeing a lot in the capital, consider a Reykjavík City Card. Fortunately, many of Iceland’s best attractions — its natural wonders — are free (though a few popular ones are beginning to charge for parking).

10. Splurge where it counts. When you do splurge, choose an experience you’ll always remember: If you’re a naturalist, invest in a whale-watching tour; if you’re a foodie, take a culinary walk, or dine out for at least one top-end restaurant meal; if you’re an adventurer, spelunk through a lava cave or hike across a glacier. Minimize souvenir shopping — most shops sell things that are extremely expensive, produced outside of Iceland, or both. (Plus, how will you get it all home?) Focus instead on collecting wonderful memories.

For lots more advice on traveling to Iceland, look for the new Rick Steves Iceland guidebook — coming in March of 2018. Thanks to that book’s co-author, Ian Watson, for his many practical money-saving insights.





By Cameron Hewitt

I’ve been mighty quiet on my blog the last couple of months. And when that happens, you know I’ve been working day-and-night on a new guidebook. Yesterday, I turned over the newest Rick Steves guidebook — Rick Steves Iceland — to our editors. It’ll hit bookshelves nationwide in March of 2018.

I’m hoping to post a blog series about Iceland closer to the book’s publication, so stay tuned for that. But I can tell you now that we think this book will be the perfect tool for people going to Iceland — whether for 24 hours, or for 2 weeks.

We’ve focused the book’s coverage on Reykjavík, where most people home-base, and nearby day trips — ideal for a quick visit. We believe the two best side-trips for getting a glimpse of Iceland’s dramatic landscape are the Golden Circle (linking both historical and geological wonders, in the country’s lava-rock interior) and the volcano-and-glacier-lined South Coast (where you can hike up to a glacier tongue, stroll along black-sand beaches, and walk behind a thundering waterfall).

We’ve also included ample coverage of the famous Blue Lagoon spa — a serene, milky-blue oasis in a volcanic landscape — and the West Iceland region around Borgarnes, with an eclectic variety of sights. And my favorite “Back Door” discovery was the Westman Islands, just off Iceland’s South Coast, where you can see the effects of a recent volcanic eruption and meet a real, live puffin (a weather-dependent day trip by plane from Reykjavík, or by boat from the South Coast).

 

For those with more time to explore Iceland, we’ve also written a chapter on the Ring Road, which curls 800 miles around the island’s perimeter, connecting virtually all of its must-see sights. It’s crazy to do Iceland’s ultimate road trip in less than five days; a week lets you slow down and actually enjoy it. My personal favorites on the Ring Road were Siglufjörður, a charming port town buried deep in a fjord on the north coast, with a more-interesting-than-it-sounds Herring Museum; Mývatn, a volcanic lake ringed by many of Iceland’s most fascinating and fun-to-explore natural wonders; Seyðisfjörður, a tiny, artsy little burg buried deep in a fjord on the east coast, accessed by one of Iceland’s most stunning mountain passes; and the breathtaking glacier lagoons, Jökulsárlón and Fjallsárlón, in the middle of nowhere along the southeastern coast. Just thinking about these amazing places makes me want to shout from the rooftops: “Forget a two-day layover in Iceland! Make it two weeks!”

Of course, producing a guidebook is a team effort. My part is done, and now our amazing staff of editors and mapmakers take over. But the MVP of this project was the book’s co-author, Ian Watson. Ian, who’s had more than two decades of experience writing guidebooks, actually lived in Reykjavík for many years. He became an Icelandic citizen, speaks the language fluently, started his family there, and knows the country as a local. Ian has an encyclopedic knowledge of Iceland’s history and culture, and a passion for debunking the clichés and half-truths that otherwise run rampant in Icelandic tourism…the perfect fit for Rick Steves’ Europe mission to teach thoughtful travel, while still having fun. And from a practical point of view — the nuts-and-bolts our guidebook readers rely on — only Ian could explain the nuanced differences between Reykjavík’s many thermal swimming pools, and know just the right places for a lunch-and-bathroom break on the long drive between Borgarnes and Skagafjörður. Ian’s also the one who suggested we include the Westman Islands, which is often downplayed by guidebooks but turned out to be one of my favorite places in Iceland. Well done, Ian!

Special thanks, too, go to all of the readers who posted suggestions for this book to Rick’s and my Facebook pages when we asked for tips earlier this summer. The day before I touched down in Reykjavík, I read over every single comment, added dozens of them to my notes…and many gems that might have been otherwise overlooked wound up in the new book.

Earlier this summer, Ian handed his work off to me, and I scrambled through Iceland for two and a half weeks to finalize the project, add a few discoveries of my own, and balance Ian’s insider savvy with all the bumpkin naiveté of a first-time visitor. Thank goodness it never really gets dark at that time of year, because I was out at all hours, tracking down just the right tips and details for the book.

As a seasoned traveler, I’m skeptical of anyplace that gets so popular, so quickly. On this, my first visit, I half-expected Iceland to disappoint. How could it possibly live up to the fuss? Imagine my surprise when it far exceeded my hopes. From this traveler’s perspective, Iceland is not an empty bubble. Iceland is for real.

Now that Iceland is in my rearview mirror, I’m already packing for my next trip. I take off tomorrow for a guidebook-update swing through some of my favorite countries: Croatia, Bosnia, and Slovenia, capped by some time in Greece (Athens, Mykonos, and Santorini). As time allows, I’ll try to post a few fresh dispatches from this beautiful and fascinating corner of Europe. And this winter, look for more reports from Iceland, in advance of the book’s March publication. But for now, wherever you may journey this fall…happy travels!





By Cameron Hewitt

Two summers ago, I spent a month traveling all over Scotland to research our Rick Steves Scotland guidebook. And right now, Rick Steves is making his own trip around Scotland — updating that book and adding some new discoveries of his own, for the upcoming second edition. Rick was telling me about some of his experiences (which he’ll be writing about on his blog and on Facebook for the next several days)…and suddenly I felt some of those happy pangs that accompany memories of a particularly vivid trip. Here are 10 of my best tips for how to make the most of your Scottish journey.

New Town Concert

1. Linger in Edinburgh. From the famous Royal Mile — with its great landmarks and quirky shops — to the underrated New Town, Edinburgh entertains. One day gives you just enough time to see the castle and ramble down the Royal Mile. A second day lets you slow down and explore. And a third day (or more) lets you really settle into one of Britain’s finest cities.

Cameron Scotland Glasgow Buchanan Street

2. …But Don’t Miss Glasgow. Scotland’s biggest city is also its most underrated. The working-class yin to Edinburgh’s upper-crust yang, Glasgow has the most engaging foodie and nightlife scene I found in Scotland. It also has some of Scotland’s best 20th-century architecture, a rejuvenated downtown core, and an impressive collection of museums.

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3. Toss a Caber at a Highland Games. These celebrations of traditional Scottish culture fill the summer calendar. A Highland Games (or “Gathering”) is like a county fair, dance competition, and track meet all rolled into one. Ranging from glitzy to endearingly small-town, it’s the one day a year when an entire community turns out to socialize, gorge on junk food (deep-fried Mars bar, anyone?), and cheer on the strongmen, footracers, and graceful dancers. If you’ll be in Scotland in the summer, check the Highland Games schedule before nailing down your itinerary.

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4. Enjoy the Clichés…but Dig Deeper. Kilts, bagpipes, whisky, haggis…for such a wee land, Scotland has so many claims to fame. Be warned: Cliché-hunting can cheapen a trip, and Scotland is only too happy to indulge tourists looking to buy knock-off kilts. But each cliché also comes with an authentic — and often fascinating — backstory. Visiting a kiltmaker on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, you learn the difference between top-quality tweed and tacky “tartan tat.” Touring a whisky distillery — or several — cultivates an appreciation for the subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) variations in bouquet, flavor, and peatiness. And trying your hand at playing the bagpipes instills respect for musicians who’ve devoted their lives (and sacrificed their left eardrum) to their love of the instrument.

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5. Hunt for Ghosts. I enjoyed a ghost walk led by a surprise skeptic in the historic town of Stirling. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg of ghost-themed experiences in Scotland — where each city has its haunted tours, each castle its apparitions, and each B&B room its mysterious creaks. (As for whether all of the above have scientific explanations…that’s for you to decide.)

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6. Go to the Movies. The hit TV show Outlanderand the novels upon which it’s based, helped Scotland kick off a Renaissance among travelers. But Outlander was hardly the first bit of pop culture with a Scottish lineage. From Monty Python and the Holy Grail to Braveheart, from Highlander to James Bond, and from The Da Vinci Code to Harry Potter, wee Scotland has long had a big presence in show business. Watching these movies and TV shows — before, during, and after your trip — can enhance your enjoyment and appreciation for Scotland. Real fans geek out on visiting the places they’ve seen on the big and small screen (for example, our Scotland guidebook includes a list of Outlander locations). And cynics enjoy debunking half-truths (whether in Braveheart or in The Da Vinci Code), which also buys you street cred with the locals…who are tired of explaining that William Wallace was never called “Braveheart” until Mel Gibson came along.

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7. Take a Hike…and Bring Good Shoes. Tromping through drizzle, watching my feet settle onto bright-green turf only to disappear under a torrent of brown water, I wished I’d brought my waterproof boots. But before long, I just ignored my soaked socks to fully appreciate the symphony of achingly gorgeous glen scenery all around me. This was in the valley called Glencoe, but hiking opportunities abound throughout Scotland. Just be sure to dress for the damp conditions.

Cameron Scotland Island Hopping Iona

8. Go Island-Hopping. Scotland — with a West Coast slashed by receding glaciers — has nearly 800 islands. But on a short visit, visiting just a few will do the trick. The Isle of Skye, with pretty pastel harbor towns, jaw-dropping scenery, and a vivid heritage of folk tales and clan battles, can easily fill a couple of days. Or, for a strategic strike, base yourself in the small West Coast town of Oban and spend a day side-tripping to a trio of worthwhile Hebrides: Big and desolate Mull, spiritual Iona, and otherworldly Staffa — an uninhabited bulb of rock where puffins greet arriving boats, and the “other end” of Ireland’s famous Giant’s Causeway disappears into a mysterious cave.

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9. Go North to Get Off the Beaten Path. Most tourists in Scotland get stuck in a predictable rut: Edinburgh-Stirling-Glasgow-Fort William-Inverness-back to Edinburgh. And, while there’s plenty to see on that loop, with more time it’s rewarding to break free and strike out for the far north. If rugged scenery tickles your fancy, drive up Scotland’s scenic west coast — called Wester Ross (and yes, that was George R. R. Martin’s inspiration for “Westeros”) — then along its north coast to John O’Groats. (Just don’t run out of gas.) And if you’re really adventurous, catch the ferry to the Orkney Islands — a world apart, with prehistoric treasures and evocative World War II history.

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10. Seek Out and Celebrate What Makes Scotland Unique. While it’s still part of the United Kingdom — for now —  Scotland is so much more than just England’s northern annex. In this age of “devolution” (Scotland gaining more autonomy from London), ask locals what they think about current issues. (At least Scotland and England still share a knack for witty signs.) Even if you’re a closet royalist, check your sympathies at the door and really try to understand what makes Scots Scots. And then…celebrate it.

It goes without saying, but all of this — and much more — is covered in the Rick Steves Scotland guidebook.

Turas math dhut! (Happy travels!)





By Cameron Hewitt

I’m driving around England and Wales, updating our Rick Steves Great Britain guidebook for the new edition. Britain is one of my favorite places to travel — it’s so beautiful, so charming, so welcoming, so compact, and so substantial in its sightseeing. Re-visiting several places I’ve updated before (and finding them even better than I’d remembered), every day I also drive past many other places that seem just as good. I’m beginning to think you could throw away our whole guidebook, start from scratch with all new destinations…and you’d still wind up with a smashing book.

Nearing the end of my time in Britain, I’ve been collecting a list of some of the things I just love about traveling here…along with a few pet peeves. (You can blame Bill Bryson, a fellow American Anglophile whose curmudgeonly Road to Little Dribbling audiobook has been my soundtrack through much of Britain.)  I hope you’ll take these as they’re intended — with an undercurrent of great respect for a great nation, and with tongue planted firmly in cheek. Enjoy!

Delightful town names. British maps are peppered with place names that seem like a prank or a put-on. I was never more aware of this than the day I found myself leaving the village of Cerne Abbas on Piddle Lane, en route to Piddletrenthide. In this tiny corner of Britain alone (Dorset, about an hour southwest of Salisbury), you’ll find hamlets named Plush, King’s Stag, Fifehead Neville, Maiden Newton, Mappowder, Hazelbury Bryan, Poopton-upon-Piddle, Stock Gaylard, Bishop’s Caundle, Alton Pancras, Melbury Bubb, Beer Hackett, Sturminster Newton, Nether Cerne, Margaret Marsh, Ansty, Lower Ansty, and, of course, Higher Ansty. (Believe it or not, only one of these names is made up. Any guesses?) Later on my trip, I drove through the villages of Much Birch and Diddlebury. And of course, in Wales, the names are tongue-twisting and (to this non-Welsh speaker) indecipherable: On the 30-minute drive between Caernarfon and Conwy alone, you’ll pass Llanddeiniolen, Capel-y-graig, Llanfairfechan, Abergwyngregyn, Penmaenmawr, Dwygyfylchi, and Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch. (Believe it or not, none of these is made up.) Having grown up in a place with non-nonsense names like Columbus, Cleveland, and Dayton, and I find these irreverent names downright inspiring.

Everyone is so darned friendly. Brits must be about the most socially intelligent people on earth. They’re simply good talkers and fun to interact with. Updating a guidebook, how smoothly my day goes depends largely on the helpfulness of the people I meet. Maybe that’s why Britain is one of my favorite places. They instantly grasp what I need, validate my request, and quickly set about to helping me as efficiently as they can (“Let’s see if we can’t get you sorted!”). I find myself being exaggeratedly polite here, because I’m reflecting back the kindness all around me. Britain really brings out the best in this traveler.

Remarkably courteous drivers. The pleasant British demeanor also extends to the roads. On paper, Britain should be the most formidable place in Europe to drive: You’re on “the wrong side” of the road, and the steering wheel is on “the wrong side” of the car. Major thoroughfares squeeze through constricted village centers, where double-parked cars funnel all traffic — in both directions — into a single, shared lane. Country roads are often barely a car wide, and flanked on both sides by claustrophobic, ten-foot-tall hedges. Roundabouts are endless, at times slinging you from one traffic circle into another, then into another, until you’re somehow right back where you started. And yet, even with all that, driving here is an utter delight. I think that’s largely thanks to the British style of driving: Everyone seems to view the roads as a shared venture, and we’re all in this together. So if you come to a narrow passage, British people are just naturally programmed to take turns in the most equitable way possible. Need to back up to the nearest “passing place”? Have to pull in those side-view mirrors to squeeze through? No problem! When they finally do nudge past each other, drivers raise a few fingers off the steering wheel, in a salute of mutual gratitude. It’s all so…civilized.

Tossed Salads and Scrambled Eggs. Every morning for an hour — from 9:00 until 10:00 — Britain’s Channel 4 broadcasts old reruns of Frasier. Every. Single. Morning. Going back at least 10 years. Because that coincides exactly with when I’m getting ready for my day, watching the Crane family antics has become part of my British routine. Why is Frasier, of all shows, a UK mainstay?  Maybe its highbrow-yet-farcical tone suits British tastes…literate, wry, but unafraid to become irreverent when called for. For whatever reason, when I hear Kelsey Grammer singing about tossed salads and scrambled eggs, I know it’s time to hit the road. (“Frasier…has left…the building.”)

Now that I’ve buttered you all up, I must admit it’s not all cream teas and sunny spells. After intensely traveling somewhere — anywhere — a few things start to rankle. To balance things out, here are my four pet peeves about traveling in Britain:

Pockets Overflowing with Heavy Change. As much as I love driving in Britain, it comes with a major drawback: The constant need to feed greedy “pay-and-display” parking meters. These appear in any and every parking lot, even for sights where you’re also paying admission. (Especially for sights where you’re paying admission. You stay classy, National Trust.) The vast majority of these machines take only coins. And, making things more difficult, the weighty British pound may be the most literally named coin in circulation. To be sure I have enough coins for my four or five sightseeing stops each day, I’m constantly paying for small purchases with big bills and hoarding the change. My jeans pockets are perennially weighted down with Sterling metal. (I just checked…I currently have £14 in British coins, or about $18, in my pockets.) And recently, Britain has introduced a new (infinitesimally lighter) one-pound coin…but most parking meters I’ve encountered still don’t take these. So now, within my hoard of British coins, I have a sub-hoard of old pound coins, which I guard ferociously. By the end of a trip to Britain, I’m walking with limp from all the extra weight in one pocket.

Curry stains on my nice new shirts. Before this trip, I stocked up on some nice, new, crisp button-down shirts. On my first evening in Britain, I was trying out a trendy Indian street food place in Salisbury — dredging a chunk of naan bread through a multicolored mash of curry and chutney — when a drop broke loose on its way to my mouth…permanently staining my brand-new shirt. I wrote it off to jet lag-induced stupor. But then, a few days later, wearing another new shirt for the first time, I did the same thing. Curry stains in cotton simply do not come out, no matter how quickly or how aggressively you treat them. While the obvious response here is, “Be more careful when you eat!”, this never happens stateside. And so I choose to blame Britain, for having such delicious yet vividly colored food.

Gift Aid. In Britain, certain cultural attractions can charge British taxpayers pay a slightly higher, but tax-deductible, admission fee — called “Gift Aid.” I don’t entirely understand how this works, but I do know that the readers of our guidebook — at least 95% Americans and Canadians — are not eligible. Still, I have to suffer through several conversations each day where an earnest ticket-seller tries to talk me into listing the Gift Aid price in our book. Each time, I have to explain (to their puzzlement, and often guilt-inducing looks) that it’s not relevant to our readers. British people refer to programs like Gift Aid as a “scheme,” oblivious to the sinister overtones to American ears. In this case, that word feels apt.

No right angles…anywhere. The other day, I dropped a coin in my hotel room. As I bent to pick it up, I could hear it rolling, rolling, rolling across the floorboards, accelerating until it finally toppled into a baseboard. I never found it. All those centuries-old houses are a substantial part of Britain’s charm. And, naturally, you have to expect a little settling in a house that was built back when America was an oversaeas colony. Consequently, the most characteristic B&Bs have no right angles. Doors don’t always fit cleanly into their frames. And windows — which tend to be single-pane, and with complex Rube Goldberg counterweights and latches dating from the Victorian (or at least Edwardian) Age — do very little to block out road noise. To be fair, I do find this mostly quaint. But I must admit, at some level I’m looking forward to settling into a modern, business-class hotel at my next stop, Oslo — where at least I know I can set down a round object without fearing it’ll make a break for the nearest corner.

When all is said and done, of course, Britain’s many wonderful qualities far outweigh its few quirks. Perhaps the biggest “problem” I have when traveling around Great Britain is that I keep getting tempted to move here. Hey, wait a tick…then I’d finally be eligible for Gift Aid!





By Cameron Hewitt

It’s easy to be cynical about Stonehenge. Yes, it’s world-famous. Yes, it’s an astonishing feat of prehistoric engineering. But at the end of the day, it’s just a pile of rocks, on a windswept plain where sideways rain is far more common than cheery sunshine. Worse, for years the way it was presented was laughably poor: You’d pull off the highway, park in a big lot, zip through a cut-rate visitors center, and then walk through a tunnel to an ugly cordon that kept you well away from the site.

I’m happy to say Stonehenge has turned things around, in a big way. In the last few years, they’ve built a state-of-the-art new visitors center, with a concise but engaging exhibit about the site’s history. Just outside is a re-creation of a thatched-hut village similar to the one where Stonehenge’s builders likely lived. You can walk through the huts to see their primitive “wicker” furniture and woven blankets. Docents show off Stone Age tools — made exclusively of wood, flint, and antler. And lying nearby is one of those massive sarsen stones, lying sideways on a log-wheeled cart — likely the way these were transported 20 miles, up and down undulating hills, to this location.

Another big change has been to keep the tourist hubbub far away from the stone circle itself. Now you have to ride a shuttle bus from the visitors center a few minutes to Stonehenge itself. Or you can walk about 20 minutes through the fields. Here’s a tip: I was glad that I arrived early in the day (around 10:00). I hopped on a nearly empty bus to the stones — saving the museum exhibits for later. By the time I rode back to the visitors center, there was a long line waiting for the shuttle bus.

The staff told me that it’s best to arrive before 10:30; it’s also quieter late in the day — ideally, arrive two hours before closing time, which is also officially the “last entry” time…that’s 18:00 in June-Aug, 17:00 in spring and fall, and 15:00 from late October through March. Yet another tip: You can avoid ticket-buying lines if you prebook at www.english-heritage.org.uk/stonehenge (no extra charge). While you have to designate your arrival time, the staff told me (with a wink) that they really don’t worry too much about that — if you’re running late, or want to swing by earlier in the day to avoid encroaching bad weather, it’s generally no problem. (Keep in mind that, even once you have a ticket, you may still face a line for the bus…that alone is a good reason to aim for a quieter time.)

Anyway, back to the stones: Even having seen this before, it’s hard not to be impressed by the undertaking of people living 5,000 years ago. The decision to build it, and the know-how and hard work to make it happen, are staggering….the B.C. equivalent of putting a man on Mars. And yet, here it stands, five millennia later, admired by visitors who’ve traveled from thousands of miles away — from every corner of the earth — to share this experience. During my visit, I kept overhearing travelers whisper to each other, in giddy awe, “Wow. This really is amazing.”

In our guidebooks, we rate every sight on a scale of zero to three “pyramids” to indicate each one’s relative worthiness. Stonehenge has been at two pyramids for years. But with all of these improvements, the new consensus around the office (including Rick, who filmed here recently) is to promote Stonehenge to coveted three-pyramid status.

On a side note, I was also here on a mission: At Rick Steves’ Europe, our photo database is woefully thin on Stonehenge images. We’ve been leaning on one grainy, 10-year-old shot for way too long. One of our designers made a special plea for me to get some better photos. So I enjoyed getting as many good angles as the barriers would allow, taking advantage of a nice sunny day with big puffy clouds to add texture. I was able to text back: “I shot the hell out of these rocks for you.”

Yes, you can still manage to be cynical about Stonehenge. But these days, that’s just too much work…now the easy thing is to let yourself be swept up in the majesty and the mystery of it all.