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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One of my great joys as a tour guide is teaching art and architecture in a way that makes it both fun and meaningful. And a good way to do that is by building a Gothic church out of 13 tourists. Join me here with my happy tour group, just before going into Sainte-Chapelle in Paris (a cathedral of glass built about 750 years ago to house the Crown of Thorns), as I prep my group for this wonderful experience.
I am so happy that each year our team of guides at Rick Steves’ Europe Tours share their passion for European history, art, and culture in creative ways like this with nearly a thousand tour groups — each one as fun-loving, curious, and eager to learn as mine has been. Happy travels!
Paris is relaxed in October. And — even on the once-each-month free day, with heightened security and a sizable line — we got the group inside with just a 20-minute wait.
Just gathering our group under the iconic pyramid entrance was exciting.
Experiencing the Mona Lisa is more than just seeing a famous painting. It’s a spectacle, with seething crowds and a commotion of cameras. It’s the only painting anywhere where you actually hear its crowds before you see it.
Along with seeing the iconic paintings of the Louvre, I enjoy just wandering and finding works that are overlooked and underappreciated — like this one, entitled Death of Mondale.
After we led our group through the highlights of the Louvre’s collection, our tour members were free to explore. We like our travelers to be capable and independent — and they are. Here, Larry and Fran recharge with a coffee and review the many options within an easy walk of the Louvre.
Every time I huddle with my guides, exploring ways to improve Rick Steves Europe Tours, our goal is the same: “How do we maximize the experience?” There are many clever ways to pack each day with lifelong memories and cultural lessons. While standard-issue tour guides often don’t go beyond the basic sightseeing schedule, a Rick Steves guide is constantly finding creative ways to carbonate the experience with fun little extras.
So many towns in Europe have classic carousels on their main squares. Why not buy tickets for the gang and enjoy a chance to be kids again…and another rich travel memory.
A good guide steers tour members away from the tired sandwich for lunch, and into a characteristic local bar where you’ll enjoy a plate like this: At my favorite bar in Venice (Osteria al Mascaron), just ask for the mixed seafood antipasto plate. It’s €16 and — unless you’re squiddish about fish — a delightful lunch.
You can’t travel through France without a good wine-tasting. Here in Burgundy, we enjoy sharpening our wine-tasting skills in a classic cellar under our favorite hotel with a local wine expert.
Anyone who dreams of going to St. Peter’s Basilica will consider a chance to go through the Holy Door (open only in Jubilee Years) a once-in-a-lifetime experience. As 2016 happens to be a Jubilee Year, our group got to do that with our Vatican visit. As I see it, it is the responsibility of a professional guide to know when these opportunities present themselves, and not to miss it.
For me, a big part of the joy in leading this three-week tour has been collaborating with two fine guides: Trish Feaster and Ben Cameron. We tag-teamed the tour and learned from each other all along the way. We have well over 100 guides at Rick Steves Europe Tours — both Americans and Europeans. I encourage them to play to their strengths, while studying in areas where they may be weak. Ben and Trish beautifully covered for me when I was weak, and that gave me a great chance to learn.
Trish takes the mic and engages our group as we cruise down the highway.
On a Rick Steves tour, you learn to use the public transportation. Here in Rome, tour guide Ben coaches the group as we master the Roman underground.
Hiking through the Alps with a good guide (like Ben Cameron), you know where the farm-fresh yogurt and tastiest cheese is, you relax knowing you’re on the right trail, and you know just which mountain vistas are not to be missed.
Here in Rome, Ben and I make sure all 28 of us get on the packed bus #280 as we head from St. Peter’s Square to dinner in Trastevere. One of the exhilarating challenges of being a guide (at least, a Rick Steves guide) is giving our tour members that “public transit experience”…and not losing anyone. We all made it, and the dinner was one of the best of the tour.
Thanks, Trish and Ben, for the great trip (and for carrying all that beer up to the top of that ruined castle to surprise our group)!
If you’ve ever been on a bus tour, you know what an important part of the mix your driver is. And if you’ve ever been a tour guide, you know that the driver can be your best friend…or a real obstacle to a smooth tour. We love our bus drivers and consider them part of our traveling family. (While we can’t promise this, several of our drivers have actually fallen in love with and married our tour members.)
Bus driver Richard plays tour guide, and lets me imagine driving his wonderful coach.
Each year we give our tour members a patch as a memento of their tour. About 40 percent of the more than 20,000 travelers who joined us this year were return travelers. Here, Mike — a proud six-time tour alum — shows off the six patches he’s collected over his many years of touring with us.
Travelers on our tours are limited to a carry-on-sized bag. While we don’t strictly enforce that limit, our tour members are expected to carry their own bags from the bus to the hotel, and then to their rooms. And, because we strive to have centrally located hotels in delightfully traffic-free towns and old city centers, there are many times when getting to or from the bus involves a bit of a hike. Here’s our group leaving our Florence hotel (in another newly pedestrian-friendly, traffic-free center), and ready for Rome.
As museums get more and more crowded, the value of the free audio tours on our Rick Steves Audio Europe app is increasing. This year, we’ve been producing several very important new tours and spiffing up existing ones, and I’ve been road-testing them as I travel. As our local guide led us through the Vatican Museum, I kept switching my earbuds between her tour and my recorded tour. Both worked great. (We fear that in the future, places like the Vatican Museum could get so crowded that leading a tour group through the collection will become simply impractical. In that case, it may be easier for our travelers to go through on their own. As guides, our job would be to simply get people in the front door, and then turn them loose with a Rick Steves audio tour.)
I enjoy many aspects of my work. But perhaps the most gratifying is to stand before a great piece of art and explain it in a way that helps travelers fully appreciate it. And that’s what I got to do in Florence, in the inspirational presence of Michelangelo’s David, as I guided our Best of Europe in 21 Days tour.
(If you can’t physically be with me or one of our guides at David’s beautiful feet, you can still have my voice in your ear. Just download the free Rick Steves Audio Europe app and search for the “Accademia & Michelangelo’s David” audio tour.)
One of the great things about taking a tour is the people you get to travel with (assuming you join a tour that markets itself in a way that attracts enjoyable travel partners). With our “no grumps” policy, our “carry-your-own bags” policy, and our unapologetically “characteristic” hotels, we do our best to scare away the high-maintenance travelers. I love looking at the happy faces of a group like the one I was fortunate enough to guide — especially after two weeks together.
Here’s the group, giddy to be with each other (or maybe it was just the thin air — at 10,000 feet above sea level, high atop the Schilthorn in Switzerland’s Berner Oberland).
While touring the newly renovated and wonderful Museo del Duomo in Florence, we stayed until the very last minute. The museum guards, eager to call it a day, made sure we all packed onto the huge elevator at closing time and headed for the exit. Ciao!
Part of the fun of leading a group through Europe is introducing them to public transportation — whether subway or bus. In Rome, our bus #280 from St. Peter’s Square to Trastevere for dinner was running late, meaning that when it finally arrived, it was jam-packed. With 28 of us on board, let’s just say it was a very local experience. Our “whisper system” headsets allowed our local guide to be in communication with each tour member…no matter whose armpit they were staring into.
As a guide, it’s fun to grab spontaneous experiences when they present themselves. There are always two considerations: Can 28 people actually do it efficiently? And is it a budget-killer? On my orientation walk through Venice before dinner, we were running a bit late. I came upon the traditional traghetto (gondola ferry) that crosses the Grand Canal where there’s no bridge, and I thought, “Wonderful — that’ll get us to dinner on time, and be memorable, as well.” The maximum capacity is 14 per boat, and they go every 3 or 4 minutes for €2 per person — so two boatloads got the entire group across quickly for less than €60…and we all enjoyed an experience we’ll never forget.
Just after crossing from Switzerland into France we made a quick lunch stop at a modern mall next to the expressway. In this clip, one of my tour members (Jill) explains her clever souvenir tradition (buying frames for her glasses), and I cap my welcome-to-France lunch with a Nutella-and-banana crêpe. It’s fun to be in France.
I’ve been leading bus tours since the 1970s. Back then, my groups were nearly all women. (My theory: Guys were comfortable having a travel adventure on their own. But the women, just as eager for excitement on the road, felt safer in a small group.) They would fill the bus with girl talk as if I weren’t there. I would just put on my earphones, listen to my favorite playlist, and drive. I drove countless hours and listened to the same short list of tunes on my Walkman over and over. Today, so many years later, I satisfied the urge to play one of those favorite and well-worn tunes that take me back to those minibus tour days. It’s decades later, and I’m guiding a tour on a big fancy bus with a great sound system filled with young-at-heart travelers. We have a fun music-sharing game called “Tour Member DJ Party Party” (invented by tour guide Trish Feaster). It’s a great way to help pass a long drive — open mic and any traveler gets to share a personal favorite. It’s my turn, and we’re rocking out to the great road-trip groove of “Bang a Gong” by T. Rex.