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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Rattling around late at night in an empty Siena, I found myself curbside at the craziest horse race in the world…the Palio. Hold on to your gnocchi!

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Visiting agriturismos and countryside B&Bs listed in my Italy guidebook, I was impressed by how much fun the hosts were. Here, Franco of Frances’ Lodge (a B&B just outside of Siena) jumped at an opportunity to show off his flag skills. And then today, while writing in my downtown Siena hotel room, I could hear drums and drill teams out my window — it was school kids practicing the same moves Franco has had down now for 50 years.

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I spent the better part of yesterday popping in on the wonderful agriturismos we recommend in my Italy guidebook. An agriturismo is a rural B&B run by small farmers who are trying to survive in a modern economy. Here in Italy, you can’t call yourself an “agriturismo” unless you are actually a working farm. This place (Casanova Agriturismo near Asciano, in the province of Siena) certainly is. But, as you’ll see, you can go in less than a minute from the sweet smell of cows to the sweetness of doing nothing poolside with a vast Tuscan view. (BTW, the trendy thing these days is what’s termed a “Zero Kilometer Meal” — serving food that is virtually all grown on the farm from zero kilometers away. And it’s a meal you’ll never forget.)

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I don’t generally get all excited about individual gelato shops, but BuonGusto in Pienza is an exception. Run by Chef Nicola, here is an example of a high-quality gelateria. Tourist-trap places come with countless open bins of brightly colored gelato piled high. In a serious gelateria, there are only a few flavors, the colors are muted, and the bins come with lids. Nicola was all excited about his artichoke-and-ginger gelato and his salted-caramel variety. And now, so am I. La vita è bella…life is good! Have you found a favorite gelateria in your travels?

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By Rick Steves for The Seattle Times

All I was trying to do was share a little happiness from my trip on my Facebook page.

So when someone responded with, “Seems out of place with what’s happening in the news,” it made me think. And my first thought was, “Yes, like Baltimore. And Nepal. And ISIS, and climate change, and a dozen other serious issues.”

When you’re on the road, tuning into the news can be troubling and sobering. It can make a vacation seem trivial and elitist.

Keep-on-Traveling-graphicBut if my years rubbing shoulders with world travelers have taught me anything, it’s this: going abroad doesn’t blind you to the world’s problems; if anything, it makes you more acutely aware of them. Traveling thoughtfully, especially in challenging times, is one of the best ways to put current events in perspective. It forces you to see that victims of poverty and natural disasters — whether across the sea or across the street — aren’t just faceless statistics in a newspaper, but human beings. You can’t help but feel empathy. In my travels, I’ve stood on the steps of sacred temples in Katmandu, bowed my head, and said “Namaste” to people–perhaps some of the very same people–who are now homeless and whose temples are now rubble.

Travel also helps me better appreciate the unrest in Baltimore. The violence that shook that city should surprise no one who’s traveled in the Developing World.

I’ve seen “Baltimore” in Central America. In many Latin American countries, the gap between rich and poor is Grand Canyon-esque. Big corporations and the landed gentry call the shots. Governments have armies not to protect themselves from foreign enemies but from angry and hopeless people within their own societies. (Back in the 1980s, Costa Rica–headed by President and Nobel Peace Prize winner Oscar Arias–drew the suspicion of the USA by simply not having an army. His country had the most equal distribution of wealth in the region, and didn’t need a military force to protect its elites from its own citizens.)

Today in the USA, we too have a widening gap between rich and poor. Our friendly neighborhood cops-on-the-beat are becoming more like an occupying military force—seemingly necessary in a “democracy” where corporations are considered “citizens” and money is “free speech.”

When you’ve traveled the Third World, the violence that erupted in Baltimore should come as no surprise. It’s the symptom of hopelessness. When people feel the system is rigged and they are victims of structural poverty in a world of obscene wealth, they don’t navigate life by the rules others would expect of them. They attack symbols of authority. They burn corporate icons. They support demagogues. They believe wild promises. They join ISIS.

So when people question how I can enjoy a great vacation while horrible things are happening, I say “Sure, horrible things are happening. But what good does staying home do, especially when I find being on the road gives me a better understanding of the challenges our society will be confronting for a long time to come and help me better respond.” It’s not whether you are at home or abroad during challenging times. It’s what you are learning and what you are doing that matters.

I’ve learned in my travels that, while the day-to-day news comes and goes, some problems live on. After the cameramen go home, earthquake victims still need food and shelter. It’s made me more committed than ever to finding long-term solutions to deeper problems, whether it’s disaster relief, wealth inequality or climate change.

To those on the road right now or planning a trip, I say “Keep on traveling.” Stay in touch with the news if you so choose. Or wait till you come home, when — I guarantee — you’ll watch the six o’ clock news with fresh eyes. Then act with your renewed energy and global perspective. Empower those public leaders who honestly address the hopelessness that angers America’s poor. Send a donation to your favorite organization. Help mend buildings, bodies and souls in Nepal, where beautiful people are still clasping their hands gently together and saying Namaste — “I salute the divine good within you.”

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The proud little church of San Biagio, just outside the Tuscan hill town of Montepulciano, is a celebration of the humanism of the Renaissance period 500 years ago. While medieval churches were designed in the shape of a Latin cross (reminding us of Christ’s crucifixion), Renaissance churches were generally done in a Greek cross design (with arms of equal length, like a plus sign). The Greek cross can be contained perfectly in a circle and reminds us of God’s perfection — and how cool it is that we are made in His image. And the acoustics are irresistible.

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Cesare, the coppersmith of the Tuscan hill town of Montepulciano, is a proud old artisan with a spirit as strong as the oak-tree root upon which his grandfather’s anvil sits. For Cesare, every day is show-and-tell, as steady streams of travelers with my Florence & Tuscany guidebook drop by to see him work, stroke his beautiful ego, and say hi. It is people-to-people moments like this that distinguish a good trip.

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With so many travelers into food these days, food tours and cooking classes have become a big deal all over Europe. And a cooking class is a perfect example of how we, as part of our bus tours, encourage our travelers to roll up their sleeves and dig into the local culture through real experiences. I love to bump into our tours while in Europe doing my research. And just the other day I met one of our Venice/Florence/Rome tour groups and joined them for lunch. The catch? We had to cook it ourselves. Fun and enthusiastic Fabrizio (of the In Tavola Cooking School) had five mini-kitchens set up for our group where he and his staff led us through a marvelous 90 minutes of cooking fun. And, I swear, the food was as good as anything you might expect in a fine restaurant. Plus, knowing that we had made the bruschetta, pasta, sauce, chicken, and even the tiramisu ourselves, made it taste even better.  What favorite food-tour and cooking-class memories do you have from your European travels?

See photos from this cooking class on The Travelphile.

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Bobo runs one of my favorite Florence restaurants, Antica Trattoria da Tito, with attitude. And sometimes that attitude puts off my readers. But once you embrace Bobo’s devil-may-care flair for fun and dining, you’ll enjoy an unforgettable meal.

 

bobo rules.jpgThis is Bobo and these are his rules. As you can see, don’t try to get your meat cooked well and forget about cappuccino after lunch or dinner.

 

cook.jpgWith so many travelers into food these days, food tours and cooking classes have become a big deal all over Europe. And a cooking class is a perfect example of how we, as part of our bus tours, encourage our travelers to roll up their sleeves and dig into the local culture through real experiences. I love to bump into our tours while in Europe doing my research. And just the other day I met one of our Venice/Florence/Rome tour groups and joined them for lunch. But first, we had to cook the meal. Fun and enthusiastic Fabrizio (of the In Tavola cooking school) had five mini-kitchens set up for our group where he and his staff led us through a marvelous 90 minutes of cooking fun.

 

eat.jpgOf course, after cooking our meal, we got to eat it. And, I swear, the food was as good as anything you might expect in a fine restaurant. Plus, knowing that we had made the bruschetta, pasta, sauce, chicken, and even the tiramisu ourselves, made it taste even better.

See more photos from this cooking class on The Travelphile.

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With my work, I rarely plan to be anywhere for a local festival. But when one hits, I make it a point to enjoy it. In Florence, the night before May Day is a huge blowout called White Night. All the museums are free and open late, all the places to eat and drink are ready to serve, and it seems everyone is out in the streets.

Rather than stay in your hotel room and complain about the noise, your best response is to get out in the streets and make them even noisier. What big-city, after-dark blowout festivals have you stumbled onto?

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