The Best and Worst of Europe

Some would call me a severe dip, but the area just north of Hadrian’s Wall is boring.

We Americans get the shortest vacations in the industrial world. With so little time, the pressure is on to make all the right choices when planning a trip. But how to select the right destination? It ultimately depends on your interests and your tastes — and what your experienced travel writer tells you.

It’s my job to sort through all the travel-industry superlatives and “top 10” lists. Readers naturally want to know the Best, but it’s just as important to know the Worst. With that in mind, I’ve pulled together a round robin of my candid opinions on the best and worst European destinations. Here goes:

Let’s start with the British Isles and its dullest corner, southern Scotland. It’s so boring that the Romans decided to block it off with Hadrian’s Wall. But don’t skip Hadrian’s Wall; it covers history buffs like me with goose bumps (or goose pimples, as the English say).

London, York, Bath, and Edinburgh are the most interesting cities in Britain. Belfast, Liverpool, and Glasgow are quirky enough to be called interesting. Oxford pales next to Cambridge, and Stratford-upon-Avon is little more than Shakespeare’s house — and that’s as dead as he is.

Extra caution is merited in southwest England, a minefield of tourist traps. The British are masters at milking every conceivable tourist attraction for all it’s worth. Stay away from booby traps like the Devil’s Toenail (a rock that looks just like a…toenail), Land’s End (you’ll pay, pay, pay), and cloying Clovelly (a one-street knickknack town selling useless goodies).

This is not a crime scene, unless you consider time wasted in the Emerald Isle to see Ireland’s ultimate tourist trap (the Blarney Stone) a crime.

Tune out the hype around Ireland’s Blarney Stone (slobbered on by countless tourists to get the “gift of gab”), Spain’s Costa del Sol resorts, and the French Riviera in July and August. These are among Europe’s most overrated spots.

Geneva, one of Switzerland’s largest and most sterile cities, gets the “nice place to live but I wouldn’t want to visit” award. It’s pleasantly situated on a lake — just like Buffalo is. While it’s famous, name familiarity is a rotten reason to go somewhere. If you want a Swiss city, see Bern or Luzern instead.

Germany’s famous Black Forest disappoints more people than it excites. If it were all Germany offered, it would be worth seeing. For Europeans, any large forest is understandably a popular attraction. But I’d say the average American visitor who’s seen more than three trees in one place would prefer Germany’s Romantic Road and Bavaria, or the Rhine and Mosel country — all high points that cut the Black Forest down to stumps.

After Prague, Kraków (Poland) and Budapest (Hungary) are Eastern Europe’s best cities. Bucharest, Romania’s capital, has little to offer. Its top-selling postcard is a view of the InterContinental Hotel.   Norway’s Stavanger, famous for nearby fjords and its status as an oil boomtown, is a large port that’s about as thrilling as…well, put it this way: Emigrants left it in droves to move to the wilds of Minnesota. Your time is better spent at Sognefjord, Norway’s most spectacular fjord. The most boring countryside is Sweden’s (yes, I’m Norwegian).

Europe’s most scenic train ride is the Glacier Express across southern Switzerland. The most scenic boat ride is from Stockholm to Helsinki — countless islands and blondes. Europe’s most underrated sight is Rome’s ancient seaport, Ostia Antica, and its most misunderstood wine is Portugal’s vinho verde (green wine).

Honeymooners should try these tiny towns: Beilstein on Germany’s Mosel River; Hallstatt on Austria’s Lake Hallstatt; Varenna on Italy’s Lake Como; Ærøskøbing on an island in south Denmark; and Gimmelwald, high in the Swiss Alps.

Pondering the vast wonder of the Cumbrian Lake District from the summit of Catbells can be a highlight — literal and figurative — of any visit to northern England.

The most pleasing French château is Vaux-le-Vicomte, near Paris. The best Gothic interior is found in Paris’ Sainte-Chapelle church. The top two medieval castle interiors are Germany’s Burg Eltz on the Mosel River, and northern Italy’s Reifenstein. Lisbon, Oslo, Stockholm, Brussels, and Budapest are Europe’s most underrated big cities.

I’ll close with a lightning round of “ultimates” (what travel writer can resist?): the ultimate medieval walled town in Germany (Rothenburg), prehistoric stone fortress in Ireland (Dún Aenghus), Italian Riviera port town (Vernazza), hike in England’s Lake District (Catbells above Keswick), neighborhood pub in London (The Anglesea Arms), castle in North Wales (nope, I still can’t pick just one)…and pedestrian market street in Paris (Rue Cler).

Having stuck my neck out to say all this, I must add that it’s always fun — and necessary — to reassess opinions (mine have certainly changed over the years). These are just my personal feelings after more than 100 months of European travel. As you sort through these “bests” and “worsts,” go ahead and disagree. (That’s what Facebook comments are for.) And, of course, don’t let any travel writer limit your freedom to find your own ultimates.





20 Replies to “The Best and Worst of Europe”

  1. Thank, Rick, for these candid opinions. If I’ve been to these places, I agree with your assessments, except that I do love Cornwall in spite of the tourist traps–Mousehole, half timbered B&B in St Ives, jacket potatoes with English cheddar in pubs, fish and chips, lovely hikes on the beaches. If I haven’t been there, I’ll use them as a guide! I’ve been traveling with your books since 1986. This year I introduced my friends to Paris with Rick Steves. We did not stay in Rue Cler area, because it was a first time trip for them and we wanted to be close to the museums. But next time!

  2. I’m so glad to hear that we aren’t the only tourists disappointed by the Black Forrest. We lived in Germany 20 + years ago, and managed to do all traveling we could fit in for the four years we were there. We took a week vacation to camp in the Black Forrest – I’m from California and that’s what we do here. I was expecting something like a forrest of deciduous redwoods in Europe. Nope! Without spending even one night, we quickly decided to drive on to Munich and the Alps. BTW, we LOVED almost everything else in Germany, and, with huge regret, haven’t been back since we moved.

  3. What Rick Steves just said is exactly the reason why you, and he, should branch out. There is Buenos Aires, Shanghai and Istanbul to consider. Europe, at least some parts, has become like a high priced version of Canada (which I like a lot). But of course there are many who have not even been out of their own state. Someone told me the other day she had never seen NYC. And before you say you don’t want to, consider Broadway, Museum of Modern Art, Museum of Art, Lincoln Center etc etc. I also liked Wellington, NZ and Sydney, Australia. Munich can be pleasant too.

  4. “Europe, at least some parts, has become a high priced version of Canada”, writes “w”. Really? But I’m glad “w” likes Canada a lot. I wonder how much of Canada “w” has visited or for that matter of Europe. I’ve spent a year over 4 holidays in Europe, including the British Isles, and travelled extensively in 6 provinces and see very little similarity, unless you eat at McDonald’s and stay in the big hotels. Sure, scenery is scenery and you do find similarities in that everywhere. And, yes, Canada also has streets teeming with tourists, but no bullet trains, ancient castles, cabbage slaw sandwiches with big chunks of cabbage that fall into your lap instead of your mouth, and no milkshakes made of colored flavored milk shaken up (in McD’s, Scotland: ours have ice cream). Enough said. It’s a good thing there’s so much to see out there: everybody can find something that really appeals to them. As for me, I’d love to spend another month in the Shetland and Orkney Islands. Don’t forget too that Rick’s milieu is Europe. One wouldn’t expect him to branch out to another continent. There’s enough to see in Europe to last a couple of lifetimes.

  5. We count on you to do all this foot work to save us the time. We want to stay in Rue Clar for our New Years Eve stay. I better get on it! We stayed in the Latin Quarter the last time we went to Paris and it was really charming and easy to get around from. Hoping you put the France, or Paris guide book on special soon!

  6. I have to say I disagree with you about the Borders of Scotland. The area is steeped in the history of the border Reiver Raids with dark brooding castles–Hermitage Castles where Mary Queen of Scots met Bothwell–and the twisty turning roads that can make you think of those Reivers on a “Hot Trod” after their stolen cattle. The Armstrongs, Johnstons, Bells, Grahams, Elliots are just some of the names from the Borders. Then there are the Abbey’s–Jedburgh, Melrose, Kelso, Drysdale. Floors Castle and its view of the mound that was Roxburgh Castle where Scotland’s early Kings lived. Traquair House whose Bear Gates were shut as Prince Charlie’s army headed south again, not to be opened until a Stuart reigns again. And Abbotsford, Sir Walter Scott’s home. What about the Common Riding Festivals? This is the land of the Douglas Clan whose role Scottish history was powerful and long.

    Yes, the Highlands are wonderful, but lowlanders have their own special place in Scotland and there are so many other places that belong on a worst list.

  7. Of course Evelyn is largely correct and so is Jan especially if she includes Quebec City. After all my travels in England, Germany, Austria, Australia, Italy, France, Spain, Portugal, New Zealand, Canada, U.S. and Netherlands I just feel Europe is overly gushed about. But this is of course primarily a site for Euro travel buffs, no?

  8. This is a European Travel site, not just a Europeon Travel site for Euro travel Buffs. If I am going to travel to other parts of the world I will use travel info that is specializing in that area.

  9. I’m with Pam on this one. Galloway was one of my favourite places in Scotland when I lived in the UK. You do the Borders a disservice, Rick. Have you ever been out to Stranraer?

  10. Thanks for the fun speed tour through best & worst of Europe. We have read Rick Steves books for years, and followed your excellent advice on many, many hotels, cities, etc. One thing I’ve never understood though is the attraction to Rue Cler. We lived in Paris for three years, and have visited many times – and I’m afraid we just don’t get it. There are so many great market streets all over Paris, and this one comes across as a bit touristy for us. I think people are much better off with the makeshift markets that spring up twice a week all over Paris. In addition, nearly every arrondisement has its own market street – which are just lovely and much more authentic than Rue Cler.

  11. Yes, I’ve been to Montreal, but would rather return to Paris though. I too like the Scottish Borders and also the Inverness area although it is touristy with those seeking a possible glimpse of Nessie.

  12. After all is said and done, I give credit to Steves for trying to stay ahead of the curve. These are terribly difficult economic times for many. And by the way not just for those who live in the U.S. (especially those who Don’t get paid by govt.) but for those in Spain, Italy, Portugal, Ireland etc. even if paid by govt. In fact it would be interesting to know how many on RS tours are beneficiaries of govt. directly or indirectly. But I’m glad to read (sometimes between the lines) that ETBD is trying to tack into the wind. It offers a valuable service, it has outstanding guides, RS himself adds value (most times), and there is a large demographic that benefits from this kind of tour. Keep up the good work. But those prices, “argh” They are enough to make you want to go on your own.

  13. Have you tried the Hotel Waldsagmuhle in the Black Forest? It’s one of my favorite places to stay, I can tell you that you could not be disappointed there. I have been taking Steve’s advice since 2005 driving through Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Northern Italy with a GPS a map and good companions. Last year I introduced five friends to Europe with Steve’s help and my past experiences and they were amazed at how fabulous driving free through Europe is. Driving along the Mosel River, through the Black Forest, the Bodensee, Oerammerau, down to Switzerlands Interlaken, Luzern and Zermatt, Austria’s Salzburg and Vienna all in three weeks they were in awe. On a couple other trips driving through Italy was awesome and I can’t wait to go again. Thanks Steve I never feel alone as along as I have Rick Steves’ travel book with me.

  14. Ok, I’m going to be THAT person: Have you ever been to Buffalo? The fact that Cleveland was dropped from that statement makes it a particularly dirty shot.

  15. While in the Canadian Army I lived four years in Lahr-Schwarzwald at the beginning of one of the valleys leading from the Rhine plain into the Black Forest. We travelled extensively thoughout Germany and Europe, and have to disagree with your assessment of the Black Forest. Yes there are large tracts of forest in the US and Canada, but unfortunately they are just forests (what I call the Grossegrunwald). In Canada you can drive for miles through forest which is pristine and calming but also often dull. We were never disappointed by the Black Forest because around every corner there was a new vista, but perhaps we were corrupted because around every corner there was also another charming gasthaus with good beer, better wine, and a wonderful meal waiting for us. “Around every corner’ can be said of Europe generally, which is why we love it.

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