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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The Swiss, who are both great engineers and great lovers of nature, know how to make Alpine thrills accessible to almost any traveler. Follow me on the latest addition to the Schilthorn experience. At the Birg station, which until a year ago was just a place to change cable cars, they have opened a wonderful restaurant with a view terrace and a fun, 15-minute “Thrill Walk.” Put on your helmet and let’s go!
The Swiss love to cap their peaks with restaurants. One of the most popular is the Schilthorn’s Piz Gloria, a revolving restaurant perched at 10,000 feet above sea level. Just after it was completed and before opening to the public in 1969, it was the famous and thrilling setting of key moments in the James Bond movie, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Today, they entertain visitors with 360 degrees of jaw-dropping Alpine views and lots more. The station is bursting with the James Bond theme…even the public toilets — as you’ll see in this clip. This must be one of the most memorable toilets anywhere — what’s your most memorable foreign WC?
This clip is the first of a five-day series of fun I had with my Rick Steves’ Best of Europe Tour group high in the Swiss Alps. (Up next: James Bond WCs at 10,000 feet, The New Thrill Walk at Birg, The Mighty Trümmelbach Falls, and The Cows Coming Down from the High Alps).
As guides, we are really dependent upon good weather to fully enjoy the Swiss Alps. The truth is: The Alps are most staggeringly beautiful and unforgettable when it’s sunny. And on this tour, we enjoyed the most beautiful day I can remember, high in Switzerland’s Berner Oberland. Of our group of 27 TMs (as we call our tour members), 24 joined us on this all-day alpine excursion. This video clip is a moment from the last part of the Mürren to Grütschalp hike.
For a peek at how we design such a day (and share our experiences with our other groups), here are my rough notes for our other tour guides:
Guide Notes — Day 17 of Rick Steves’ Best of Europe Tour: Swiss Alps
Free day in Alps. If sunny, guide should organize this day and lead it. (Lift tickets discounted if 20 or more are individual tickets, so TMs can peel off if and when they like. Remind group you’ll collect tomorrow in euros so they don’t need to hit ATM for more SF.)
8:00 – Bus to lift.
8:25-8:55 – Catch lift Stechelberg to Schilthorn, 10,000 feet above sea level (beating the crowds and any clouds that may gather later in the morning) — watch altimeter in cable car as you rise, remind group at this altitude you get winded very easy.
9:00-10:30 – After five-minute orientation, free time at Schilthorn (new viewpoint out back, great James Bond clips in theater, revolving restaurant for hot chocolate or a pastry).
10:30 – Gather group outside funny James Bond WCs and catch 10:35 lift down together to Birg station.
10:40-11:10 – Free time at Birg – wonderful new Thrill Walk (takes 15 minutes max), fine terrace and glass floor with view down on Thrill Walk alternative. (Just miss one lift to make time for Birg, be in line before next lift arrives from Schilthorn to fill 11:15 cable car down to Mürren with no extra wait.)
11:20-12:30 – Mürren, short orientation town walk, free hour for lunch, stop at Co-op grocery store – perfect for picnic (demo weighing a single grape and printing out price and wrapping grape in it), meet at station at far end of town.
12:30-14:10 – Hike Mürren to Grütschalp with stop midway at Winteregg dairy farm for fresh home-made yogurt, and Alp cheese (pay for goodies, one small 1-SF yogurt per couple, 2 spoons, old mountain cheese, handy WC). They also do a cheese tasting with three varieties if you like.
14:15 – At Grütschalp station, buy group lift tickets down to Lauterbrunnen (to get them discount, collect tomorrow in euros).
14:20-15:00 – Walk through Lauterbrunnen, meet at waterfall far end of town (just past Horners, the BASE jumpers’ favorite pub). Tell story of how the waterfall throws rocks and can be dangerous (especially after rain storm).
15:00-16:00 – Hike up valley to Trümmelbach (point out cow bells under eves of old farmhouses).
16:00-17:00 – Tour Trümmelbach Falls (group discount admission is 10.50 SF. Tell the lady you’ll pay the 50 cents per TM and let TMs just pay 10 SF as they enter. This saves time and frustration.) Ride elevator through mountain with group, explain best underground waterfall caves are within 100 meters above top of lift. Call bus driver to meet you one hour after arrival.
17:00 – Bus picks up group there, shuttle back to hotel.
19:00 – Dinner at hotel (Alp horn concert and demo tonight if not last night).
We’re waiting to catch our early train out of the Italian Riviera. We have six days left in our Best of Europe in 21 Days tour and I’ve asked our group to recall their tastiest bites so far. Along with the creamy pumpkin ravioli we enjoyed in Rome’s crusty Trastevere neighborhood, yummy favorites include octopus, pineapple-mint gelato, pesto, and (my favorite) wild-boar salami. Great food is an essential part of any good European vacation.
After a glorious free day on the beaches of the Italian Riviera, my tour group is heading north for the Swiss Alps. Because we sleep deep in the characteristic nooks and offbeat crannies of Europe, we often can’t get our bus to our hotel. In this case, we need to hop a train for a five-minute ride from Monterosso to Levanto, the nearby bigger town. In this clip, our hearty gang of tour members is packing light, and walking (past the stretch of beach where we had our happy hour last night) to the train station as the sun rises over the Cinque Terre.
On a Best of Europe in 21 Days tour, we are admittedly getting just a quick introduction to the greatest sights in Europe. But this route (with eight days in Italy) is clearly the best of the best, and we get the most travel thrills out of every mile and minute.
Here’s a montage of the types of experiences we wrangle for our groups as we enjoy Venice, Florence, and Rome. As you watch, imagine the joy of being a guide who is connecting a wonderful gang of travelers with all this travel fun.
You’ll see: me dutifully holding up the Venice map as our local guide Elisabetta tells us the story of her city; an artisan sharing the Venetian tradition of mask making; how we cap our day with a convoy of gondolas gathering on the Grand Canal for a serenade at the Rialto Bridge; our Florence guide bringing meaning to Renaissance art in the Museum of the Cathedral; images of our night walk through Rome and an unforgettable dinner in Trastevere; a rare chance to actually enter the Colosseum through the “gladiators’ gate”; and finally, orienting our group to the quintessential Italian hill town, Orvieto. This montage shows how going on a Rick Steves’ Europe tour is as much fun for the guides as it is for our tour members. Italy!
When leading a busload of merry travelers around Europe, our practical challenge is to keep things on time and everyone safe, happy, and well fed. Europe’s freeway rest stops are generally excellent — and getting better all the time. Europeans insist on decent food — even at these fast cafeteria-line eateries. In Italy, we pulled into this rest stop on the autostrada (midway between Venice and Florence) for an hour, which was plenty of time for lunch, coffee, a rest stop, and a bit of shopping. Sixty minutes later, it was wheels up — next stop, Florence! In this video clip I’ll take you on a quick rest-stop tour.
For me — and my amazing team of guides at Rick Steves Europe Tours — the great joy of guiding is to take tour members’ lifelong imaginings, transform them into actual experiences, and then into lifelong memories.
On a recent evening in Venice, my merry gang of Best of Europe tour members and I did just that. We shared a family-style feast at Trattoria da Bepi as Loris served us the seafood bounty of the lagoon with deliciously grilled local vegetables and polenta. Then, twinkling from our sprightly Venetian white wine, we wandered through back lanes musty with history, paused on lonely bridges to watch gondolas glide silently by, and then, just a few blocks farther on…
This all brought back vivid memories from when, as a very young tour guide, I would bring my groups out of the tangle of back lanes and suddenly onto Piazza San Marco, perhaps the most beloved square in all of Europe, where the age-old glories of Venice still swirl. I watched the wonder sweep over my travelers’ faces…years ago…and again tonight. The sun was down and the lights were on. The crowds were gone and, at the last corner before St. Mark’s, I blitzed ahead so I could turn around and watch every one of my travelers’ expressions as they arrived on the piazza. A “wow” moment, amplified two dozen times.
As my re-energized group dispersed to enjoy the dueling orchestras on the piazza and to make their own after-dark discoveries in this magical city, I popped into Gran Caffè Lavena, which our guides use as a rendezvous point on the square. Tonight there happened to be six Rick Steves tours staying in Venice, and I joined a group of our guides and bus drivers as we compared notes and stoked our collective guiding skills over drinks together.
Other companies have tour managers. We have guides who both manage our tours and teach our travelers. They create lifelong memories with talent and passion unmatched by other tour companies. Our team of guides makes me proud and thankful. (And I believe that Judy, one of our current tour members — who’s been on 17 of our tours and enjoyed 17 of our guides — would agree.)
We include half the dinners on Rick Steves Europe Tours, and for the other dinners, we set people free to enjoy meals on their own. That means we can dine in smaller places where larger groups can’t fit. One of my Venice favorites is Luca’s Osteria alle Testiere. Luca is a classic quality restaurateur — look at the joy on his face as he describes the vintners who produce his carefully chosen wines as friends, and then how he cuddles up with his beloved wine drawers. The challenge of dining in Venice is finding a quality, personality-driven restaurant. It can be done, but you need a good tour guide or a good guidebook. Buon appetito!
(Thanks for following along here on my blog and on Facebook as I guide our Best of Europe in 21 Days Tour.)
One of the joys of travel is eating well. And one of the challenges of leading a good tour is to connect our travelers with great local cuisine served with passion and pride by local chefs in small, characteristic, family-run restaurants. We did just that with our group on our first evening in Venice. I’ve long enjoyed Trattoria da Bepi and its chef/owner, Loris (who plays a sizable role in my autobiographical “Postcards from Europe” book). I phoned Loris, asked him if he could seat a group, and welcomed him to assemble a “maximum-experience Venetian gastronomic extravaganza.” I explained we wanted to eat seasonal, local, and family-style, and that I’d trust him with the “tasting festival.” As you can see in this clip (edited by Trish Feaster), we had an unforgettable dinner. And, as our guides share our collective triumphs, I’m sure Loris will be seeing more of our groups.