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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Glasgow is a city where it seems there are two kinds of people: those who live to drink beer and cheer their soccer team, and those who confuse you by having that hard Glaswegian accent yet are cosmopolitan, sophisticated, cultured, and hardworking.

The first Glaswegian I met was from the first group. He was a cabbie who spent the entire ride insulting me for being an American because Yankees don’t go to pubs and drink lots of beer until late at night. If you venture into a rough neighborhood after dark — as I did one night — it seems the entire world is populated by angry people with dead-end lives, like that cabbie. Crammed into bars, they leer at passersby who don’t want to join the mosh pit.

But the next morning, with the sunshine came a world of that second type of Glaswegian: people with vision for making Glasgow an on-the-rise city with a purpose.

p3-buchanan-streetBuchanan Street is part of a Glasgow pedestrian shopping zone called the “Golden Zed” for the way it zigzags through town. Just strolling up this street — listening to buskers, enjoying the people-watching, and remembering to look up at the architecture above the modern storefronts — was a delight.

p2-glasgow-street-artGlasgow’s city center has a stretch nicknamed the “Golden Mile.” Rather than letting graffiti artists mess up the vibe with random or angry tagging, the top street artists are given entire walls to paint. These paintings are almost sightseeing destinations in themselves.

p1-phoneboxThroughout Great Britain, you can see red boxes on the streets that people back in the 20th century would enter in order to make “telephonic” calls to each other. They would put coins in a slot, turn a rotary dial with a sequence of numbers, and then speak through a device connected to the machine by a flexible pipe. These red boxes (which smelled like urine and doubled as handy places for the neighborhood prostitutes to stick their advertisements) were produced for the entire British Isles by a factory in Scotland. Now they are commonly seen no longer on the streets, but decorating nostalgic pensioners’ gardens.

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In recent years, I’ve really been enjoying what I consider the “second cities” of Europe. The Chicagos of Europe don’t get a free ride, and they lack the blockbuster attractions and charming sights that bring everyone to the big-league cultural capitals. These “second cities” often have a rough, Industrial Age heritage that dug them deep into a rust-belt hole with the coming of the Information Age, but enabled them to be honest,  unvarnished, and nonconformist. My list of European “second cities” includes Porto in Portugal, Naples in Italy, Marseilles in France, Hamburg in Germany, Antwerp in Belgium, and Glasgow in Scotland. I find all of these much-improved lately — underrated and great to visit. (Yes, Glasgow’s population is bigger than Edinburgh’s. But given that Edinburgh is the capital and dwarfs its rival from a tourism perspective, this travel writer considers Glasgow an honorary “second city.”)

In part because of my love of Edinburgh and in part because I don’t get to Scotland much, I’ve never seriously considered Glasgow. I thought I’d like it because I liked the Andy Capp cartoon, which I thought was set here. But when I got to Glasgow, I found out that Andy actually “lived” in Newcastle (south of the border, in gritty North England).

But with or without Andy Capp, Glasgow has a wonderful energy. And, being less an hour from Edinburgh by train (with four trains per hour), it’s an easy day trip. I’d say your best “day three” in Edinburgh is to side-trip here for “day one” in Glasgow.

Midway through a very full morning with my guide, Colin, I stopped for a coffee. The busker across the street had charisma, and the people-watching was endearing. Just as I was thinking, “This is so great…where are the Americans?”, two women burst into my video to tell me they’re taking one of our tours.

Enjoy two minutes with an extra-hot latte on what I think of as “the Ramblas of Glasgow”: Buchanan Street.

If you can’t see the video below, watch it on YouTube.

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Our guidebooks have been evolving with annual updates since the first edition of Europe Through the Back Door in 1980. I’m in the midst of month three of my annual four months of guidebook research. But even with four focused months of travel annually, I can’t begin to cover all our chapters. Now I have the joy of a trusted team of writers and researchers that help us meet our goal of covering all of Europe with the best and most lovingly updated guidebooks in print.

Lots of my favorite places have been favorites for literally decades, and we need to constantly reconsider old loves. Last week, I received this thoughtful email from my valued co-author and lead researcher, Cameron Hewitt, who recently returned from a trip to Germany and Britain. He suggested that I reconsider the number of stars (or “pyramids” in our jargon) I awarded to various sights. If you’ve seen our guidebooks, you know how this works:
Each sight gets a rating, from zero pyramids to three pyramids (Δ Δ Δ). As we explain in our books, these ratings mean the following:

Δ Δ Δ  Don’t miss

Δ Δ   Try hard to see

Δ   Worthwhile if you can make it

zero Δ Worth knowing about

These pyramids (like Michelin stars) are carefully and sparingly awarded. They have a real impact on travelers’ itinerary priorities, and we take them very seriously. I agreed with all of Cameron’s suggestions. And, for the upcoming 2014 editions, we have added or subtracted stars for these sights for the reasons explained.

Pyramid-changes

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It is always a bit emotional at the end of a tour, when we say goodbye to our bus driver and guide. We have a tour culture where bus drivers eat meals with our groups and are part of the family. Farewells (even with Roddie’s fake over-the-top emotions in this clip) are heartfelt. Our groups pack light, carry their own bags, and take care of the bus as if it’s ours. Drivers appreciate that. And drivers add a wonderful bit of spice to the social and cultural mix.

Our tour guide, Liz Lister (now with three Rick Steves tours — two assisting and one leading — under her belt), has picked up and embraced our quirky style well and clearly enjoys the group.

The party Liz invited the group to is our annual tour reunion party in Seattle. We’ll be flying Liz to Seattle in January (along with our other European guides) for our annual reunion festivities and tour guide summit. Our guides look forward as much as anyone to being reunited with their tour members.

As our tour disperses, I’ll be heading for Glasgow, Berlin, and Prague before meeting Steve Smith in Alsace and then joining up with the crew for TV production in France. Stay tuned.

If you can’t see the video below, watch it on YouTube.

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As my Best of Scotland in 10 Days tour winds down, it strikes me how quickly it’s all gone.  Here are a few memorable photos from late in the tour.

p9-fog-bow

I’ve seen a lot of things for my first time during this tour. One thing I didn’t expect to see was a fogbow. In front of our B&B, a heavy bank of fog obliterated the dramatic island view. Then, suddenly, we all opened our eyes wide as a wonderful band of light arced across the sky. Someone declared, “A fogbow!”

p10-group-shotHere, in front of Stirling Castle, we all gathered with Robert the Bruce for a group shot.

p11-group-tight

When I shoot a group shot, I don’t want sky. I don’t want trees. And I don’t want feet. I want faces. These are the people with whom I shared a trip I’ll never forget. Holding my camera high, I can maximize the density of happy faces.

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Celtic music (both Irish and Scottish) stirs me. It’s a great part of travel here. I see the tumult of the past and the love of heritage in the eyes of the musicians. There really is a spark that mixes well with beer, smiles, and good pub lighting. It’s a unique conviviality that I find nowhere else in my travels.

Part of the magic of Celtic music is how it’s invigorated by the driving and organic beat of the bodhrán — that ubiquitous handheld, animal-skinned drum thumped with such vibrancy with a single stick. During our group dinner in Oban (the gateway port to the Hebrides), we were entertained by a one-man musical act named Alex MacFie. Alex has been a big hit with our tour groups here for years. He demonstrated several traditional instruments and told stories offering an insight into Scottish culture while we ate (served by the young women enjoying Alex’s beat behind the bar).

Where has folk music connected you with a culture and its past like it does for me in Scotland and Ireland?

If you can’t see the video below, watch it on YouTube.

[pageview width=”600″ height=”349″ url=”http://www.youtube.com/embed/z2XzyQwXnj8″]

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Driving through the remote and evocative Highlands valley called Glencoe, our guide, Liz, and I conspired to find a place where we could simply stop the bus and let our group get out and feel the wonder of this distant corner of Scotland. Liz, an experienced Scotland guide, is doing her first Rick Steves tour — and I’m along. The night before, we were swinging each other and the rest of our group by the elbows around the pub’s dance floor to Scottish folk music. And doing it again was a natural impulse here, intoxicated by the beauty of Glencoe. When we got back to the bus, our driver, Roddie, was standing by…and Liz had tea cakes for all.

If you can’t see the video below, watch it on YouTube.

[pageview width=”600″ height=”349″ url=”http://www.youtube.com/embed/97g6-1dpmHY”]

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In World War II, Winston Churchill decided that Britain needed an elite military corps. He created the British Commandos, famous for wearing green berets (an accessory — and name — later borrowed by elite fighting forces in the US and other countries). Those troops trained in the windy shadow of Ben Nevis (the tallest mountain in Britain, at 4,409 feet). Many of them died in combat, and this bronze memorial — built in 1952 — remembers those fallen British heroes. Nearby is a second memorial honoring other British Commandos who died in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s a touching reminder that the USA is not alone in its distant wars; every nation has its share of honored heroes willing to sacrifice for what they believe to be the greater good. (Sorry about the wind buffeting on the mic as you watch the video.)

All over Europe, war memorials are poignant reminders of fallen heroes. Which do you find most impactful?

If you can’t see the video below, watch it on YouTube.

[pageview width=”600″ height=”349″ url=”http://www.youtube.com/embed/qxmnx6scnSU”]

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I love the challenge of orchestrating a smooth, efficient, and safe European bus tour for 25 happy travelers. There are countless keys to success: a good, modern bus with twice as many seats as tourist; a steady driver with social skills that make him a welcome part of our traveling family; and a low-maintenance group with a positive attitude that is well-organized and packs light. A week into our Best of Scotland tour, it’s clear — we’ve got it all.

p5-our-bagsOur bus driver, Roddie, greets us every other morning as we load up the bus and travel on (there are no one-night stops on this itinerary). And we all pack light. It’s required: Our luggage maximum is what you can carry onto an airplane — 9 by 21 by 14 inches.

p6-loch-nessOur itineraries come with a thoughtful balance of obvious sights and Back Door discoveries. Everyone wants to drive along Loch Ness and scan the lake for the monster. And Urquhart Castle — overlooking Loch Ness — is one of the most visited in Scotland. In fact, we rushed breakfast in order to leave our hotel early and beat the hordes of cruise-ship groups that converge on Urquhart Castle late each morning.

p7-Rick-and-LizEvery year, one lucky Rick Steves tour guide gets me on their bus. This year, my guide was one of our rookies, Liz Lister. Liz has plenty of experience guiding groups for other companies, but this was her first time leading one of ours. She apprenticed for two tours with our senior Scotland guides and, as I’ve seen firsthand, is perfectly ready for prime time. We’ll be flying Liz to Seattle this January for our annual tour guide summit and tour member reunion. Our group is already planning for the event…and looking forward to sharing a bit of our culture with her.

p8-taste-of-scotlandThere’s much more to experiencing a new culture than sightseeing. For one thing, there’s tasting. More and more, our guides are making a point to delve into the taste treats of wherever we travel. For this late-morning snack, Liz and our bus driver Roddie put out a delightful spread: mackerel, smoked salmon, various Scottish cheeses, oatcakes, haggis-flavored potato chips, traditional tea cakes, and the local ale: Irn-Bru (Scotland’s favorite soft drink).

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Each evening, in almost every town, the happy sound of traditional Scottish folk music spills out of local pubs. And each evening, visitors have the chance to join in the fun. It’s one of the great things about traveling in Scotland. Apart from Ireland, there’s no place like it.

After spending an evening writing at our Inverness hotel, I needed a little break. In the neighboring hotel’s bar, a band was playing. Our guide, Liz, popped out and waved me eagerly in. Inside I found most of our group, already thoroughly part of the scene…mixing it up with the regulars and a fun-loving hen party (that’s British for “bachelorette party”).

I love the way our guide, Liz, made sure to capitalize on any cultural serendipity over the course of our tour.

If you can’t see the video below, watch it on YouTube.

[pageview width=”600″ height=”349″ url=”http://www.youtube.com/embed/mPKbnn57Lbw”]

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