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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oktoberfest-tent
 
Munich is in the midst of its annual 16 days of Oktoberfest. It’s massive (serving literally millions of people each year in 16 tents, each filled with about 8,000 people). Each of the leading local breweries has its own tent. It’s well organized (they’ve been at it annually for 200 years). And I was impressed by how easy it was for a traveler to enjoy. Here are five photos illustrating a few observations from my visit:
 
oberland-security-oktoberfestOktoberfest would be an ideal target for terrorists, so security is tight. Each tent has its own security and a new fence has been placed around the perimeter. There is a heavy police and security presence at each entrance, and no large bags are allowed in. In spite of all this, however, it felt relaxed and fun.

oktoberfest-urinalsWith 16 temporary tents set up to accommodate over 100,000 beer drinkers at the same time, and with literally millions of liters of beer drunk, there are lots of urinals set up in the men’s rooms. And, in the saucy spirit of this festival, posters of randy girls sporting traditional dirndls are hung above, looking on and commenting on what they see.

oktoberfest-fair-groundsThe weather was pretty bad during our visit. But for the festival-goers, the rain didn’t dampen the fun — it just drove more of them into the giant tents.

rick-steves-oktoberfestBavarians love their big liter-sized glass beer mugs (and so do I), but you can imagine the security concerns these days with these potential weapons. In the USA, you can’t use glass bottles in stadiums, but in Bavaria, the people insist on keeping their glass steins. I made a local friend at our table and he told me the Bavarian solution: design the handles so they break off easily if the mugs are used to hit someone and consider any attack with a big glass mug attempted murder. Consequentially, everyone gets their big glass mugs — and no one uses them as weapons.

oktoberfest-pretzel-breakfastIf you head down to an early breakfast at your hotel during Oktoberfest, you’ll find yourself in an empty room. (It seems everyone was out pretty late.) And, while a nice fresh pretzel can be appealing for breakfast in Bavaria, I noticed that after eating huge pretzels the night before at the fair, they’re the last thing I crave in the morning.

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I joined my film crew in Munich this year for Oktoberfest — the last festival we’re filming for our “Europe’s Top Ten Festivals” special that will air on public television in 2017. Oktoberfest goes for 16 straight days, usually starting on the third Saturday in September. Here are some thoughts and a few tips after my visit this week:

  • It’s massive (serving literally millions each year in 16 tents, each filled with about 8,000 people). Each of the leading local breweries has its own tent. The famous ones (Augustiner Bräu and Hofbräu) are most crowded and touristy.
  • It’s well organized (they’ve been at it annually for 200 years).
  • Security is tight as this would be an ideal target for terrorist (a fence is newly added around the perimeter, there are thousands of police and security at each entrance, each tent has its own security, and no large bags are allowed). In spite of the high alert, it all felt relaxed and fun.
  • Anyone can enjoy this. It’s busiest late and on weekends, but weekday afternoons and early evenings are a delight when it’s family-friendly. (I’d highly recommend enjoying it Monday through Thursday during the late afternoon and early evening; if you don’t like drunken brawls, avoid it after dark.) Popular tents do fill up and can have long waiting lines. It’s free except for your €10 beers (that’s for an entire liter), food, and rides. English works everywhere and people are friendly. It’s tradition to sit at any table that can fit an extra rear end. Jump right into the conversation with a clink of the glass mug.
  • It feels local. While there are plenty of tourists, it’s estimated that 90 percent of the attendees are Bavarians. Locals love to dress up in traditional garb and gather their friends at their favorite beer tent to enjoy a fun evening meal with drinking and music.
  • The famous beer maids make you think, “Who needs Hooters?”. These women are generally amateur servers who take two weeks of their generous paid vacation time to work hard here and make some serious extra money. Each tent considers them independent businesses — they buy the beer or pretzels or whatever at a wholesale price from the big kitchens, and then are free to sell them anywhere in the tent. And pricing beers at €10.50 makes it hard not to tip (if they were an even €10, I imagine earnings would take a huge hit).

I must close with a political observation. (If that will anger you, you might just stop reading now and leave today’s post with nice beer-and-dirndl thoughts.) While enjoying this happy festival, I was struck by how the crowd was 90 percent local and how I felt I was in a country with a healthy middle class. It’s fair to say that the vast majority of Germans are middle class. They live in a country where progressive taxation, a $15 minimum wage, one-month paid vacations, and affordable health care are not controversial issues. And they easily afford fun such as this. In my travels, I’ve observed that when a society’s middle class is shrinking and under siege, so is the societal well-being of that entire nation. Over all, Germany and the USA are similarly successful economically. But Germany has more people in the middle and fewer at the extremes, while America has more of the rich and far more people struggling. If I had a red hat with a political slogan to wear, it would say, “Make Our Middle Class Great Again.” And I wouldn’t buy that trickle-down stuff our big-business elites (“job creators” and their friends) keep preaching.

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I’m taking a quick break from our Best of Europe in 21 Days tour, while leaving our group in the good care of guides Ben and Trish, to join my film crew in Munich to film Oktoberfest — the final festival for our “Europe’s Top Ten Festivals” special that will air on public television in 2017. An hour before the tents open, our guide Georg Reichlmayr shows off his fancy lederhosen and introduces us to his favorite white sausages and sauerkraut.

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The Arnhem Open-Air Museum, about halfway to Germany from Amsterdam, is like a fun dose of Dutch culture on a lazy Susan for busy travelers. Here’s a bit of the fun our Best of Europe in 21 Days tour group had here. Thanks to Trish Feaster (The Travelphile) for shooting and assembling the clip before we say “tot ziens” to the Netherlands and “Guten Tag” to Germany.     

(Thanks for following along here on my blog and on Facebook as I guide our Best of Europe in 21 Days Tour.)

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Rick Steves with iPhone

We have a vast selection of travel talks posted on YouTube and at ricksteves.com/travel-talks. YouTube likes everything to be captioned, so they use voice-recognition software that does an amazing job of automating that laborious transcription process. But occasionally, what I say and what their robotic ears hear are quite different…amusingly different. My assistant Skyla Sorensen has been busy proofreading YouTube’s automated work and found some crazy mistakes that we are thankful she caught. Here are some actual examples of how a voice-recognition robot can mangle a phrase in a Rick Steves travel lecture:

  • Visit places like the beautiful Italian villages of “Gym Daddy”…or is it “Chicken Patty”… (Cinque Terre)
  • On the coast of Portugal, eat some delicious “burning coals” (barnacles)
  • Taste some local “Vietnamese hookers” in the Italian countryside (Vignoles)
  • Check out the pietà Michelangelo made in his “girly” 20s (early)
  • Travel to the best place to go in Poland, “crack house” (Kraków)
  • Warsaw is the capital, “butt-crack houses” the university (but Kraków has the university)
  • If you don’t know what to order in Provence, just “do your best” (get bouillabaisse)
  • Two hours north of Rome, visit the beautiful “Chiquita banana Rachel” (Civita di Bagnoregio)
  • Look at the Armory where Venetians would take potential enemies to say, “Don’t mess with Dennis” (Venice)
  • Go to the Uffizi and see “peanut butter and jelly” (Venus by Botticelli)
  • If you venture to the Holy Land, be sure to notice the “terrorist” settlements, the “terrorist” hills, and the “terrorist” vineyards (terraced settlements, hills, and vineyards)
  • Sample the gastronomic “papas” in Spain (tapas)
  • Throughout northern Europe you’ll see coastal towns with an “antibiotic” heritage (Hanseatic)
  • Try doing “man-licking” in the high Alps, it’s very accessible for all ages (Männlichen)
  • In France, don’t miss the exciting city of “Blah!” (Blois)
  • Get “beat stupid” in Eastern Europe. It’s a local favorite (beet stew)
  • In Iran, you’ll hear religious sayings ingrained in their culture, like “enchilada” (insha’Allah)
  • Another cultural aspect of the Middle East is that “veterans” eat camels (Bedouins)
  • If you want to make a difference without leaving your house, donate to “Bred for the Road,” my favorite charity (Bread for the World)
  • For more information on my travel philosophy, check out my “Travel As a Blood Clot” talk (Travel As a Political Act)
  • And finally, don’t forget to try out the local language. When you meet a German, greet him by saying “Good dog!” (Guten Tag)
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A tour guide is a teacher of culture, and in Europe, each country’s open-air folk museum provides the perfect classroom — a sprawling park filled with historic and traditional buildings from every corner of the country for visitors to stroll through and travel back in time as they pop into homes, farms, pharmacies, schoolhouses, medicinal herb gardens, and various mills. On our fast “best of” swing through Europe, a few hours at the Netherlands Open-Air Folk Museum in Arnhem gives us an unforgettable dose of the Dutch countryside from centuries past. Join me on this little video clip as I crash a grade-school party just as the kids are settling into their tasty cones of hot fries.

(Thanks for following along here on my blog and on Facebook as I guide our Best of Europe in 21 Days Tour. Stay tuned tomorrow for a look at what our tour group did and saw in the park.)

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spotify-graphic

Photo: The Travelphile

When I was a small boy, my dad and I “invented” something we called “stereo ears” — if you cup your ears at a concert, you hear a much broader array of sounds and more vivid highs.

If you like music, it can be a great part of your travels. For this tour, Trish and I collected fun and instructive cuts of music, organized them to match our Best of Europe in 21 Days tour itinerary, and posted a playlist titled “Rick Steves Europe Tour” on Spotify. All along the way we’re plugging our iPhones into our big bus’ sound system and enjoying our expanded roles as tour-guide DJs. If you’re traveling along our route (the Netherlands, Germany, Alps, Italy, more Alps, France, and Paris), feel free to use this list to inject some location-specific music into your travel fun. (What cuts might you add if it was your tour?)

Happy (and musical) travels!

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Rick Steves with tour group

Photo: The Travelphile

My life’s mission is teaching Europe to Americans in a meaningful and challenging way that is economic, efficient, unforgettable, and wildly fun. (With my staff, we do that three ways: for independent travelers — with guidebooks; for travelers who want an expert guide at their side — with our tours; and for those who, for whatever reason, cannot or will not travel — with our TV shows). I’m in the Netherlands today with 27 great tour members from across our country and I’m doing exactly that — teaching.

For many people in my group, this is their first time in Europe — and for some, it’s their first time out of the USA. Passport virgins! And I have the honor of giving them their first experiences and the challenge of making it even better than they imagined.

It’s been zero to 60 in a blitz, and two days into the trip, we’re collecting eureka discoveries like mad: Carillon players have 1-inch callouses on their little fingers after years of playing their church-tower glockenspiels (fists on wooden pedals); cityscapes are wide open and clean here as they have no electrical wires strung up (they’re under the pavement stones — easy to dig up, fix/replace/augment, and then put the street back together); French fries aren’t called “French” in the Netherlands and they’re dunked in a rich and creamy mayonnaise; with an all-day tram pass you can swing like Tarzan on vines through the urban jungle of Amsterdam; clubs of Dutch windmill enthusiasts are renovating and maintaining classic windmills and will drop what they’re doing to climb through a mill with visitors from the USA; of the dozen or so people a year who drown in Amsterdam’s fabled canals, a good portion of them are dredged up with their zippers down — having drunk way too much, staggered over to the canal to relieve themselves…and taken a fatal tumble in the wee hours.

And, after a 20-year break from personally guiding our tour groups, it’s even more fun than I thought it would be to get back into the saddle and join my legion of committed tour guides doing what we do with such passion and style in our tour program — help people vividly experience Europe…the Rick Steves way.

(Thanks for following along here on my blog and on Facebook as I guide our Best of Europe in 21 Days Tour.)

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I just finished a marvelous tour of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam with our tour group and am inspired by the local art-historian guide we enjoyed.

During the Dutch Golden Age (the 1600s), with their trading ships roaming the globe and their leading city the pinnacle of European civilization, the Dutch produced some of the greatest art ever. No longer the “Spanish Netherlands” ruled by the Habsburg king and obedient to the pope, the Dutch were a Protestant republic — fiercely independent and proud. Great news — but it left their artists without the support of the usual big patrons (nobles, kings, and the Catholic Church). As you’ll see here, they did just fine.

Enjoy this three-minute blitz of the core of one of Europe’s greatest collections of art: Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum. Hold on to your cheese!

(Thanks for following along here on my blog and on Facebook as I guide our Best of Europe in 21 Days Tour.)

 

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rick-steves-group-amsterdam

I am two days into our Best of Europe in 21 Days tour. I have 27 wonderful tour members and I’m assisted by two of our top guides, Ben Cameron and Trish Feaster. It’s been many years since I dedicated 21 days to one busload of travelers, and this promises to be a learning and growing and brainstorming experience for Rick Steves Europe Tours. We take over 20,000 travelers to Europe every year on about 900 bus tours (roughly 40 different itineraries), and with 150 talented guides, we need to be sure we are all teaching and guiding the “Rick Steves way.” And I need to know about the guides’ on-the-road, day-to-day reality (new technology, higher expectations, more dietary concerns, and so on).

So each day Ben, Trish, and I are experimenting, huddling, and debating to make sure we’re giving our tour members the best possible value. Just today it occurred to me that if we’re doing our job, we’ll be extremely busy behind the scenes ensuring that our travelers can have the maximum experience but without feeling harried. It’s amazing how much more a smartly guided tour accomplishes in a day than a typical solo traveler might. Here’s a behind-the-scenes example of the schedule we came up with for the first day and a half of our Rick Steves Best of Europe in 21 Days tour (with a sampling of guiding notes from our work). We go fast (as it’s a “best of” tour), but you’d be surprised how smooth it can be for those on the receiving end when the guide is doing his or her job well.

Day One: Meet group in Haarlem, orientation meeting and get to know Haarlem (half an hour from Amsterdam).

2:00 Intro meeting (guide lays out groundwork of our tour).

4:00 Haarlem town walk with Ruby (a local guide), including a climb through a classic windmill and a local snack canalside (freshly fried bitterballen, be sure to have Ruby take 15 minutes at the end of her guided walk for general “reflections on Dutch lifestyles” questions).

6:30 Indonesian rijsttafel dinner (a traditional feast from the Dutch colony known as the “Spice Islands,” with a table full of dishes, guide explains four kinds of local beer — rounding price up and down to €3 to make ordering smarter and faster).

8:15 Take those interested to the pipe organ concert in Haarlem big church (free, one of Europe’s grandest pipe organs, Mozart performed on it, great experience, start by gathering people in rear of church: give people permission to leave early if too jet-laggy, read organ description from Amsterdam book, explain how this church is a fine example of a former Catholic church made Protestant).

Day Two: All day in Amsterdam

8:00 Leave hotel.

8:32 Catch train (give round-trip train tickets and all-day Amsterdam tram pass, give public-transit lesson).

9:00 Arrive Amsterdam, orient group in front of station, hop on tram, get off at Anne Frank House (tram driver will announce it in English).

9:15 Historic Amsterdam and Jordaan guided walk (theme: Anne Frank intro, tolerance), gay rights monument, men can actually demonstrate outdoor urinal, wander through scenic Jordaan district, stop at “big head square” for 20-minute coffee/WC break, give sampling of three kinds of local cheese when group meets up again (pick up cheese at Reypenaer cheese shop on corner while group is having break), walk to Dam Square, up Kalverstraat, pop into Begijnhof.

10:45 Catch tram at Spui for Resistance Museum (tram drops you right at theater).

11:00 Visit Dutch Theater, Holocaust Memorial, review lunch options, and set free in Dutch Resistance Museum. (The lunch place at the Artis Zoo, in Art Nouveau building, listed in guidebook, is great for fast, inexpensive, and elegant lunch. They have an enticing variety of gourmet, toasted open-face sandwiches, €8, that could be a fine group meal.)

1:30 Catch tram to Rijksmuseum.

2:00 Meet guide at Rijksmuseum for 90-minute tour of Golden Age Dutch art (Hals, Vermeer, Rembrandt, and company). One hour of free time for more art, coffee, or wander in park.

4:30 Meet at the IAmsterdam monument in the park, walk to canal-boat dock.

4:45 One hour canal-boat ride through city (captain will make a special stop to let our group de-boat just outside the Red Light District, near the Waag).

5:45 Take group on guided walk through the salty sailors’ quarters/Red Light District, Zeedijk, and back to the train station. (Topics for guide to cover: city organization, prep for wild zone), warn about pickpockets and danger of photographing prostitutes — wide shots from bridge are fine, misc. cultural insights, stop on bridges and gather people very tight for talking interludes, first bridge intro to prostitution, second bridge for more social issues/prostitution — let people walk around the block, meet back on bridge for all to sample fries Dutch-style with mayo, continue walk — stop in front of hidden church (Our Lord in the Attic), ask where it is (then show photo of interior on wall), walk to next bridge to talk about Dutch pragmatic drug policy (permit marijuana in coffee shops and how they solved their big hard-drug problem in this neighborhood, a “no-go zone of hard-core addicts nicknamed “Heroin Ally” back in the 1970s, talk of sailors’ quarter heritage, and show original dike and locks). Walk on out via Zeedijk and to station finishing in front of station where the morning began.

7:30 Train back to Haarlem (they depart about every 10 minutes).

8:00 Review evening options and next day with group in front of Haarlem station, free for dinner.

Two days down, 19 to go. I hope you can follow me here on my blog and on Facebook as I guide our gang of hearty travelers on our Rick Steves Best of Europe tour. I’ll be sharing our experiences and some candid, behind the scenes peeks at my work daily for the next three weeks. Happy travels!

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