Rick Steves Travel Blog: Blog Gone Europe

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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Anywhere in Poland, you can find milk bars. These are leftovers from communist times, when the government would subsidize a cafeteria so workers could have an affordable place to eat out. Despite the misleading name, they don’t sell just milk — they have a long menu of mostly traditional, stick-to-your-ribs Polish dishes.

The idea of a cheap and hearty meal survived communism, and 25 years later, you’ll still find a wide variety of these budget cafeterias — ranging from slick and modern places with excellent food and slightly higher prices, to holdovers from the old days (with a certain Soviet je ne sais quoi) where you can snare a fast and forgettable meal for about $2. If this clip doesn’t get you salivating…anything will.

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One of Europe’s best museums about the Nazi occupation fills the factory building where Oskar Schindler and his Jewish employees worked, in the Kazimierz district of Kraków, Poland.

While the museum tells the story of Schindler and his workers, it also broadens its perspective to take in the full experience of all of Kraków during the painful era of Nazi rule. It’s loaded with in-depth information (all in English), and touchscreens throughout invite you to learn more and watch eyewitness interviews. Scattered randomly between the exhibits are replicas of everyday places from the age — a photographer’s shop, a tram car, a hairdresser’s salon — designed to give you a taste of 1940s Kraków.

When Steven Spielberg made his film Schindler’s List, Kraków’s Jewish Quarter of Kazimierz was an overlooked slum — having become ramshackle under communism. Spielberg chose to film his movie right here, in the place where the real events actually happened, and helped revive a vibrant Jewish culture that had gone dormant. While several other synagogues, cemeteries, cultural centers, and other sights reward those coming to Kazimierz, the Schindler’s Factory Museum is the best.

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The days of changing money are a distant memory for many travelers — thanks both to ATMs, and to the common euro country shared by much of the Continent. And, while ATMs are every bit as abundant in Eastern Europe as in the West, most of these countries have still retained their traditional currencies. If you wind up with a few Czech koruna or Hungarian forints when you cross into Poland, you may need to track down an exchange booth to turn them into Polish zlotys.

Anytime you need to use an exchange booth, comparison-shop by looking carefully at the various rates. Look for places that do not charge a commission and that show both the buying and selling rate. And confirm that the buying and selling rate are within a few percentage points of each other.

There are about 3 zlotys to a dollar. These two photos (taken on the same day and on the same street) show two different exchange bureaus. One has a decent mark-up (as indicated by the spread in the buying and selling rate — buying and selling for 3.10 or 3.15), while the other is a terrible rip-off (with a huge spread — buying and selling at 2.33 or 3.20).

Avoid exchange booths like this one, with a huge gap between the buying and selling rates.

Avoid exchange booths like this one, with a huge gap between the buying and selling rates.

The small gap between the buying and selling rates suggests this exchange bureau is a good deal.

The small gap between the buying and selling rates suggests this exchange bureau is a good deal.

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Dropping by the farmers’ market in Kraków with my guide, Marta, was like a cultural scavenger hunt — complete with the lovely image of watching TV snuggled up with a big pod of sunflower seeds. Here’s a two-and-a-half-minute slice of Polish life, and a video reminder not to miss the markets wherever you travel.

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The brand-new Sanctuary of St. John Paul II — built on the outskirts of Kraków, where he served as archbishop — is an impressive place to visit.

When you travel around Europe, you rarely see new churches. And the old churches you see often feel more dead than alive…more for tourists than for worshippers. But in Poland, churches are alive with the faithful.

In small Polish towns, there’s a strong tradition of building huge, architecturally daring churches as a sign of both civic pride and deep respect for their Catholic faith. Particularly during communism (when atheism was the official state religion), building a bold new church was a statement. The architecture of these modern houses of worship sometimes feels more slapdash and on the cheap than the great churches of an earlier age (which were often built over centuries). But the spirit that fills them is powerful.

If you can’t see the video below, watch it on YouTube.

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The man who would become St. John Paul II grew up, studied, and served as a priest and archbishop in Kraków, Poland. And today, on the heels of his sainthood, the city is ramping up celebrations of the person many consider to be the greatest Pole in history.

Imagine you’re Polish in the 1970s. Your country was devastated by World War II, and has struggled under an oppressive regime ever since. Food shortages are epidemic. Lines stretch around the block even to buy a measly scrap of bread. Life is bleak, oppressive, and seems hopeless. Then someone who speaks your language — someone you’ve admired your entire life, and one of the only people you’ve seen successfully stand up to the regime — becomes one of the world’s most influential people. A Pole like you is the leader of a billion Catholics. He makes you believe that the impossible can happen. He says to you again and again: “Have no fear.” And you begin to believe it.

Many people (including Mikhail Gorbachev) credit Pope John Paul II for the collapse of Eastern European communism. His compatriots — even the relatively few atheists and agnostics — saw John Paul II both as the greatest hero of their people…and as a member of the family, like a kindly grandfather.

A speedy nine years after his death, Karol Wojtyła was made a saint. And today, when you travel in Poland, you’ll find St. John Paul II wherever you go.

Sanctuary-of-St-John-Paul-II-krakowThe John Paul II Center is at a huge new church at the edge of Kraków, consecrated in 2013 and dedicated to St. John Paul II.

 

pilgrims-and-the-faithful-in-Sanctuary-of-St-John-Paul-II-krakowThe church is big and dazzling, with art in the lower sanctuary that highlights St. John Paul II’s illustrious ministry.

 

Saint-John-Paul-II-krakowSt. John Paul II seems to have a chapel dedicated to him in every Polish church. Seeing a man we all grew up with actually up on the wall, glorified with the apostles and other saints, you feel we all experienced the charismatic presence of an historic figure who will be honored for ages to come.

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Kraków’s excellent Rynek Underground Museum — situated directly below the Main Market Square — offers an intimate look at the city 500 years ago. In this clip, I stroll with my local guide, Anna, down a medieval street, past the remains of a series of shops.

If you can’t see the video below, watch it on YouTube.

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One of many great new museums in Kraków is the excellent Rynek Underground Museum. When the Main Market Square was renovated, they found so much of archaeological value that they opened a major museum right on the site. In this video clip, my guide explains that even though we’re 12 feet underground, this was the street level of medieval Kraków.

If you can’t see the video below, watch it on YouTube.

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I’m wrapping up my summer travels in Poland. And my first stop is Kraków.

Kraków is easily Poland’s best destination: a beautiful, old-fashioned city buzzing with history, enjoyable sights, tourists, and college students. Even though the country’s capital moved from here to Warsaw 400 years ago, Kraków remains Poland’s cultural and intellectual center. Of all of the Eastern European cities laying claim to the boast “the next Prague,” Kraków is for real.

Krakow-main-square-and-churchThe Old Town, within Krakow’s medieval walls, converges on one of the most charismatic squares in Europe: the Main Market Square.

 

Trendy-bohemian-chic-eateries-in-Kasimierz-KrakowKazimierz is the historic Jewish Quarter of Kraków. Once upon a time, the majority of all Jewish people lived in Poland. And Kraków was their cultural capital. While tourists come to see the historic synagogues and cemeteries of the Jewish Quarter during the day, throngs of young clubbers clog the Kazimierz streets after dark. The Kazimierz market square retains the gritty flavor of the town before tourism and gentrification. And countless bohemian-chic restaurants make Kazimierz a destination for dinner.

 

Vodka-tasting-5-samples-for-10-zloty-KrakowFor a vodka education in Kraków — complete with as much tasting as you’d like — drop by Staropolskie Trunki (“Old Polish Drinks,” right along the main drag at Florianska 20). It’s a friendly little place with a long bar and countless local vodkas and liquors — all open and ready to be tasted with a cheery local barista to talk you through the experience. You’ll get five different tastes for about $3, with a fun explanation that amounts to a private tour.

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Every time I decide to get out and see a great city after dark, I’m impressed by how different it is after hours. And Berlin is no exception.

After a long day of filming our new TV episode on Berlin, I decided to take my own audio tour — the newest self-guided tour on our free Rick Steves’ Audio Europe app. It’s fun to actually give these tours a whirl after we produce them. (The tour works great. But I took notes on the gaps where I needed to pause my iPhone. Now I’ll go home and edit the tour so that it can be done in real time, without pausing. If you have our app, remember to update the tours periodically so you don’t miss the fixes we make.)

Berlin is a city with a dark history and many memorials. In about an hour, you can visit 8 or 10 powerful memorials across the old center of Berlin. Experiencing them at night on this trip, I realized this is a great way to see the city.

I enjoyed standing before the Brandenburg Gate, gloriously floodlit and without all the commercial commotion that surrounds it throughout the day. I pondered the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe with only the security guard sharing the moment with me. And I stood over the spot where the Nazis ceremonially burned the booked that didn’t fit their ideology.

It was on this square (now called Bebelplatz) in 1933 that staff and students from the university threw 20,000 newly forbidden books (authored by Einstein, Hemmingway, Freud, and T.S. Elliot, among others) into a huge bonfire on the orders of the Nazi propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels. In fact, Goebbels himself tossed books onto the fire, condemning writers to the flames. He declared, “The era of extreme Jewish intellectualism has come to an end, and the German revolution has again opened the way for the true essence of being German.”

The “burning of the books memorial” on Bebelplatz is a glass pane in the cobbles with a room of shelves under the square. During the day, it’s full of glare and commotion, so the experience never quite works. But after dark, it’s quiet, and the empty shelves are hauntingly bare and beautifully lit. The contrast between that and the nighttime cityscape above is quite evocative. I’ve stood over this memorial many times in broad daylight and never really been moved. Finally, tonight, it grabbed me.

Get out at night and just be in a great city. Have you noticed that difference I’m clueing into in other great cities?

Brandenburg-GateThe historic Brandenburg Gate (1791) was the grandest — and is the last survivor — of 14 gates in Berlin’s old city wall. The gate was the symbol of Prussian Berlin, and later the symbol of a divided Berlin. Today, it’s once again the centerpiece of a great and united capital.

 

Jewish-Memorial-at-night-BerlinBeing alone with the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe after dark, I thought perhaps this is the way the architect who designed it wanted it to be experienced.

 

Burning-books-memorial-at-night-BerlinStanding on Bebelplatz, you look down through a glass panel and see a room of empty bookshelves.

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