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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Sure, Switzerland has its mighty alpine peaks and distant valleys. But it also has gentle lakes and hills blanketed by vineyards and dotted with charming farms and villages. From the delightful city of Lausanne (in Switzerland’s French-speaking corner), you can ride a historic paddle steamer across Lac Léman (Lake Geneva), hop out, hike through vineyards to a postcard-perfect village, and catch the train back.
Switzerland may be expensive, but the views are free — and with a Rick Steves Switzerland guidebook, you’ll be able to sort through all the travel options and find ways to enjoy them without going broke…such as this paddle steamer ride.
Every year, I travel to Europe to research and update my guidebooks. For well over a hundred days this year, I’ve enjoyed a parade of sights, tastes, sounds, and experiences. My trip is nearly over, and, while I can hardly wait to get home, I’m feeling like, “Oh, I better soak up all the European fun I can in these last hours.”
Impromptu moments have been a theme of this trip, and today was no different. As I was reviewing my guidebook entry for the towering Lausanne Cathedral, the organist was practicing. This particular organ has a unique arrangement — one set of keyboards up in the gallery and another in the nave, where the audience can have a close-up view of the organist. Surrounded by incredible architecture and the church’s Reformation heritage, I was inspired to record this little clip. Join me now, accompanied by some amazing organ music, in one of Switzerland’s leading churches.
I’m traveling across Switzerland this week, updating my guidebook, and I’ve been thoroughly enjoying the great Swiss cities.
Wherever I travel, my favorite restaurants are always the family-run places that offer caring, hands-on service — and Switzerland is no different. In Lausanne, I had a delightful meal (even though I was dining alone) at Café du Grütli. The owner, Willi Prutsch, was in great form, and I just had to capture his passion for the food he and his family have served here, day in and day out, for over 30 years.
A ritual for travelers around Europe is to gather at noon and see old medieval clock towers shift into action for a show that — centuries ago — was impressive. It’s generally pretty anticlimactic by modern standards: A rooster crows, a statue of Jesus stiffly offers a blessing as a carousel of Apostles jolts into motion, the Grim Reaper tips his annoying hourglass, and a jester dings his dong.
In an attempt to give the show a little more razzle-dazzle, here’s a look at the actual gears behind the scenes. Imagine the wow factor of this mechanical spectacle if you were a pilgrim passing through Bern in 1530.
(This clip was filmed with the help of Dominic Arizona Bonuccelli, the brilliant photographer who shoots most of the gorgeous photographs we use on the Rick Steves website, and my local guide Marie-Therese Lauper, who loves to show off her town’s clock tower.)
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.