My co-author and frequent collaborator, Cameron Hewitt, is well-traveled, smart, and insightful. And, while he and I are in perfect sync in our travel styles and priorities, he gives voice to the next generation of "Rick Steves travelers." Join me in enjoying his reports right here. —Rick

Poland’s New World War II Museum — Who Gets to Tell the Story?

I spend a lot of my time in Europe checking out museums, to evaluate and describe them for our Rick Steves guidebooks. But on my latest trip to Poland, I had the most thought-provoking museum tour of my career, at the new, high-tech, and highly controversial Museum of the Second World War, in Gdańsk. My review of the museum is mixed…for political reasons. That’s because the museum I saw is not the one that was originally intended. Instead of leaving the exhibits to historians, Poland’s government decided to make some… “adjustments.”

Poland took a hard right turn when the Law and Justice Party came to power in 2015. Regardless of my personal politics, I have no problem with Poland having a right-wing government. There’s a natural and healthy pendulum swing to Polish politics, which I’ve observed up close over the 20 or so years that I’ve been traveling here regularly. And regardless, Poland has always been far to the conservative end of the European spectrum.

But the Law and Justice party is something different. Like Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz government in nearby Hungary, or Donald Trump’s presidency stateside, the Law and Justice party has made bold moves that feel outside of the “normal” bounds of a democratically elected government. All of the specifics — including aggressive changes to the judiciary, the military, and the media, all while flouting EU censure — are beyond the scope of this post, but this video by Vox provides a helpful primer.

From my perspective as a guidebook author, the Museum of the Second World War provides a fascinating case study in how the politics of a place you visit can have an impact on your sightseeing.

The original director of the Museum of the Second World War, Paweł Machcewicz, pursued a bold vision to present an ambitiously global, yet personal, perspective on the war that began right here in Gdańsk in 1939. When I first heard about this plan, many years ago, I couldn’t wait to see it.

It should be noted that Poland does museums exceptionally well. In the Gdańsk area alone, recent years have seen the opening of new, state-of-the-art museums about Lech Wałęsa and the Solidarity strikes of 1980, and about Polish emigration to the New World. Both are among the best historical museums in Europe. And the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, which opened in 2014 in Warsaw, is simply breathtaking — ambitious in scope, intimate in detail, and masterful in telling its story.

The bar was set high. But it seemed that the new World War II museum might just be able to clear it. Unfortunately, after the Museum of the Second World War was completed — but before it had opened to the public — Law and Justice government officials deemed it too pacifistic and “not Polish enough,” demanding changes to make it more singularly patriotic. Machcewicz was replaced as the director, and the other historians and curators who had designed the exhibit were also fired or left. By the time the museum opened in March of 2017, several exhibits had been altered.

It was through this lens that I visited the museum for the first time, just a few weeks ago. I was curious whether I’d be able to tell what had been altered. And — from my perspective as a travel writer who has evaluated literally thousands of museums across Europe — I also wondered, simply, was this version of the museum any good?

The purpose-built museum complex — steered by a committee that included Polish American architect Daniel Libeskind — is striking. Surrounding the building is a flat, neatly landscaped plaza — representing the present. Above it rises a jagged, glass-and-rusted-steel tower — representing the future. And the exhibit occupies more than 50,000 square feet, entirely underground — representing the past, or perhaps something like a tomb.

Once inside, the permanent exhibit curls through a central corridor, telling the story of World War II beginning with the fragile peace that ended the First World War. The museum is blessed with remarkable artifacts, which it weaves together with modern effects, touchscreens, and some elaborate dioramas (such as a walk-through Polish city street, before and after the war).

Touring the exhibit leaves you with powerful impressions: A boxcar that was used to transport Jews to concentration camps. A wooden wheelchair from a psychiatric hospital near Gdańsk, all of whose patients were executed by the Nazis. An actual Enigma machine, with an exhibit explaining how it was Polish mathematicians who originally broke the German code…before sharing that information with Alan Turing and Bletchley Park. A film by American correspondent Julien Bryan, who was in Warsaw during the invasion and bore witness to the Nazis bombing a church during Mass, an attack on a maternity ward, and a village of peasants strafed by Luftwaffe gunfire while digging up potatoes.

Museum of the Second World War

I went in looking for examples of what might have been changed by the new director. Some were obvious: In the middle of a powerful exhibit about the Holocaust — awkwardly plastered to a wall that felt like it was supposed to have been left empty — was a display explaining how the Polish people stood up to save their Jewish neighbors from the Nazis, at great personal risk. While this certainly took place (and such people are rightly honored by Israel as “Righteous Among the Nations”), many Poles also looked the other way — or collaborated. This is an important — and somewhat controversial — topic that is handled evenhandedly in Warsaw’s Museum of the History of the Polish Jews, among other places. But this museum, supposedly the definitive statement on World War II in Poland, makes no mention of any Poles who aided the Holocaust. Rather than posing questions, it provides a definitive (yet incomplete) answer.

Another notable change was playing up the role of Poles as victims and martyrs. Posters were added throughout the exhibit profiling everyday Poles (often clergy) who were persecuted during the war. This struck me as odd; in other cultures where nationalism takes root, the tendency is to downplay victims and elevate heroes. Later, a Polish friend reminded me that much of the Polish national identity is tied up in its spectacular failures. Victimhood is not weakness; it’s the foundation of strength. And here again, the exhibit was working hard to pluck the Polish heartstrings.

And I sensed a tone, throughout, of simplistically painting Nazi Germany and the USSR with the broadest of brushes. I’ve toured many museums — less mired in politics than this one — that relate the events of history with honesty, intelligence, and nuance, which is devastatingly effective in documenting just how coldly ruthless World War II’s authoritarian regimes were. Those museums trust their audience to draw the appropriate, reasonable conclusions. But this museum self-consciously strives to make everything as overt as possible: “Boy, those Nazis were bad hombres, amirite?” And in doing that, paradoxically, it weakens its message.

One exhibit explicitly condemns “nationalism” on the part of the Nazis and the Soviets — which struck me with some irony, since the Law and Justice party itself is often labeled as nationalistic. I suppose nationalism looks bad when someone else is wearing it.

After visiting, I talked with a tour-guide friend of mine who’s based in Gdańsk. She confirmed my hunches about what had been changed. And she would know, since she had been fully trained and licensed to lead tours through the original exhibition. With the change in management, however, all of the tour guides were given a document to sign, agreeing that they would offer only the authorized narrative to visitors, without any supplementary information or personal insights. Approximately two-thirds of the guides — including my friend — had refused to sign, and the museum scrambled to train new ones who would march in lockstep with their version of history.

Still chewing over this near-miss of a great museum, several weeks later, I keep returning to one key question: What is the purpose of a museum? To educate about facts…or to manipulate emotion?

To be fair, I suppose most (good) museums strive for a balance between these two goals. That’s the artistry of museum curation: If you tell the story properly — and objectively — it creates powerful emotions.

A spokesperson for the museum has said that because the Polish taxpayers financed it, they deserve a museum that pushes a Polish narrative. But of course, the original version of the museum also gave voice to the Poles; perhaps the difference was that it stopped short of telling them exactly how to feel about all of this.

Great art — and a great museum — tells its story thoughtfully, and the emotions occur organically. And, yes, it makes the viewer work a little harder on their own. But that’s what makes the experience more powerful. It’s the difference between an art film and a telenovela.

On the other hand, walking through exhibits with a nationalistic bent, I tried to put down my hackles and see the place through Polish eyes. If ever there’s a time to give strong voice to a specifically Polish point of view, is it not in a Polish history museum? Can it not be said that the Jewish museum in Warsaw is “skewed” to the Jewish point of view, or that the Museum of African American History in Washington DC is “one-sided” in presenting the experience of Black Americans?

And yet, the Museum of the Second World War fails where the Polish Jews and African American museums soar. That’s because there’s a precipitously fine line between presenting a perspective and forcing an agenda. And for me, Poland’s re-envisioned World War II museum crosses that line. It’s a museum that makes me mistrust what it’s telling me. Because I know that it’s politicians, not historians, who are presenting this story. And once a museum — or a teacher — has lost the respect of its students, how can it effectively teach?

More than anything, it’s the museum’s final exhibit that rankles me. After 18 intense rooms of exhibits — feeling like you’ve been put through an emotional wringer — you arrive in the final hall, with a literal Iron Curtain cutting through the middle of the room, and photographs of bombed-out Polish cities on the walls. Overhead plays a brief film called “The Unconquered,” bursting with cherry-picked historical details, generalizations, and exaggerations. The movie is charged with an intense, unmistakable message of national pride and military might. With cheaply produced CGI effects, an urgent voiceover, and bombastic music, it feels like a trailer for a first-person shooter video game. (You can watch it here.) Sadly, this is the taste that the museum leaves in your mouth.

My tour-guide friend said that the final film had originally concluded the exhibit on a more thought-provoking note, accompanied by wistful folk music and challenging questions. Later I read an interview with the original director, Paweł Machcewicz, who said, “Through this film, we had wanted to show that the war wasn’t a closed chapter, it wasn’t the past. Violence, the suffering of civilians, is still going on around us. The propensity to violence is inside us; it is part of the human condition. It served as a warning and emphasized the universal meaning of the exhibition.” I sure would like to see that film.

And by the way, Warsaw’s magnificent Museum of the History of Polish Jews — in contrast — is not afraid to ask tough questions on its way out the door. In that museum, the final room pointedly asks: Is there any future for Jewish people in Poland, a place where they were very nearly wiped from existence? Conflicting viewpoints are presented — from contemporary Jewish communities in Poland, and from Polish Jews in Israel — but it doesn’t instruct you how to feel. It trusts you enough to wrestle with tough questions without slipping you the answers.

At the end of the day, the Museum of the Second World War is still an impressive accomplishment. It succeeds at providing important, mostly well-rounded insight on an extremely significant event, from the perspective of the country that was perhaps more grievously impacted by that event than any other. I will recommend it in the new 10th edition of my Eastern Europe guidebook— but with a caveat.

Good as the museum is, I can’t stop thinking about how much better still it could have been. Full disclosure: I am one-quarter Polish, and I wear my Polish ancestry with great pride. It saddens me, as a Pole at heart, that my grandfather’s homeland has been denied the world-class World War II museum it deserves.

What do you think? Who gets to tell the story of a nation? Am I wrong to wish that it be historians, rather than politicians?

Europe for Foodies: How (and Why) to Incorporate Food into Your Travels

The term “foodie” is trendy these days. It sounds pretentious, and a little silly. But I’ve decided to take that word back, for food-lovers everywhere. There’s nothing wrong with being a “foodie.” It simply means that you prioritize food in your life — and in your travels.

Some travelers eat to live. I live to eat. And the more I make food a central focus of my travels, the clearer it becomes that to really appreciate a culture, you need to understand its food. Because in a sense, food is culture.

Finish this phrase: Swiss ___. For all its claims to fame, and the end of the day, Switzerland is synonymous with cheese. It’s part of their international brand and their national identity. And the government invests generous subsidies in keeping this part of Swiss culture alive. To this day, Swiss farmers — now federally funded — still make cheese the old-fashioned way. Each spring, they take their herd of cows up to high-mountain huts, on pastures called “alps,” and hang their decorative cowbells from the eaves. There they stay with their livestock for 100 days, all summer long — milking them at dawn and at dusk, and spending their days making cheese. And then one day in September, when cool weather announces the onset of autumn, the cowhands sling those giant bells around their cows’ necks and walk them back down into the village in the valley below — creating an impromptu parade of flower-bedecked cows, enjoying a victory lap after a productive summer, to a soundtrack of clanging bells and satisfied moos.

What type of food do you associate with Spain? Tapas, of course — small plates. But a deeper understanding of Spanish cuisine tells you volumes about the Spanish culture, climate, and landscape. In arid, blistering Iberia, people take a mid-day siesta to head home, eat a big lunch, and hide out from the heat for a couple of hours. They return to work for a few more hours, and then, just as the sun goes down and temperatures grow tolerable, they go for a paseo — a languid stroll through the city streets, promenading with friends and family, greeting neighbors, and dropping into a variety of cozy bars and cafés. After a day cooped up inside, avoiding the heat, the last thing you want is to settle in for a long, sit-down dinner. So instead, you nibble on little plates of food at the bar — sharing a variety of dishes with friends old and new, sipping drinks, cracking jokes, socializing. Then you head to the next bar, for some new dishes (and some new friends). “Tapas-style” dining isn’t a trend — it’s a social ritual and a way of life, shaped over eons by Spain itself.

What are the two most beloved European cuisines? If you’re like most people, you’re thinking of Italian and French. (If you’re an odd duck like me, Hungarian might have crept into the mix.) Italian and French cuisine are equally enticing, and yet, so fundamentally different.

In sun-drenched Italy — the garden patch of Europe — cuisine is all about highlighting quality ingredients. The fewer ingredients, and the less they’re manipulated, the better. I once took a cooking class in Tuscany where Marta taught me how to make the most delicious sauce ever to cross my palate. It has just five ingredients: tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, red pepper flakes, and salt. And it makes everything it touches explosively flavorful. This emphasis on fresh ingredients also makes Italian cuisine highly localized. Why are there so many types of pasta? Because each one is engineered to highlight a particular sauce or topping, usually rooted in a highly specific place and season. (Those pasta places where you “pick your noodles, then pick your sauce” make Italians furious.) Specialties aren’t just regional — they can be specific to a town, or even to a neighborhood. And Italian law forbids restaurants from using frozen ingredients unless they’re noted on the menu.

In French cuisine, the ingredients are less important than what you do with them. I once took a cooking class in Burgundy, where every dish had at least a dozen ingredients — and each recipe involved mastering a precise, delicate technique. French chefs are technicians, who endlessly play and tinker and experiment to create something delicious. Who, but the French, would look at snails crawling across a rain-dampened path and think, “I’ll bet if I cooked those in garlic butter, they’d be delicious”? Beyond escargot, think of the other most famous French dishes: Coq au vin takes the toughest, least palatable type of poultry — rooster — and slow-simmers it in red wine and spices until it’s tender and flavorful. Bœuf bourguignon does the same with tough cuts of beef. And confit de canard is a duck that’s been rendered, preserved in a sealed can of its own congealed fat, then opened up months later and cooked in that same fat. That’s not a recipe — that’s a science experiment. So much of French cooking feels like it was created on a dare. And yet, it’s delicious. And it’s beautiful. French chefs are also elegant artists, who employ their technique to create stunning masterpieces, as pleasing to the eye as to the palate. French salads aren’t just jumbled together — they’re composée…composed.

These are just a few examples of how food can play a much larger role in your travels than simply filling the tank. And that’s the topic of my “Europe for Foodies” class, which we filmed earlier this year and is now available to view on Ricksteves.com and YouTube (and below).

Of all the travel talks I do at Rick Steves’ Europe, “Europe for Foodies” is my favorite. It’s the one that my audiences seem to enjoy the most. And, strangely, it’s also the least-attended.

Maybe people already take it for granted that food is important in travel — or are confident that it isn’t. But the purpose of this talk is to deepen your appreciation for the many vivid travel experiences where food and culture intersect. Like a French chef who makes snails delicious, I’ve engineered this talk to fine-tune your culinary sensibilities, with ample suggestions for incorporating food in your travels. If you’ve enjoyed my many blog posts about food in Europe…this talk is for you.

In the talk, I introduce age-old European culinary concepts that are newly trendy these days, including terroir, zero-kilometer, nose-to-tail, and the importance of eating with the seasons. I also suggest practical tips for finding the best restaurants, and explain some subtleties of dining in Europe that can be confusing. Sometimes this requires psychoanalyzing the way Europeans conceptualize food: You’ll learn why Italians can’t understand how anyone could drink a caffé latte after lunchtime, why they serve your salad after the pasta, and why that stubborn server won’t bring your bill to the table until you’ve asked for it.

I run through some of my favorite cheap eats in Europe (from German Currywurst to Greek souvlaki to Sicilian arancine to Polish zapiekanka) and the best food halls and street markets. And there are sections on drinking (wine, beer, spirits, and café culture) and sweets — from Belgian chocolates to Italian gelato. Finally, I suggest some experiences that allow you to incorporate food into your travels: cooking classes, food tours, visits to local farms, chasing a truffle-sniffing dog through an oak forest, getting to know a Slovenian beekeeper, and so on.

I hope you enjoy my “Europe for Foodies” talk as much as I enjoyed putting it together. And remember: Every meal you have in Europe is an opportunity to have a cultural experience.


If you enjoy reading my blog posts that focus on food, you can find a roundup here.

Check out my full 1.25-hour “Europe for Foodies” talk on Ricksteves.com and YouTube. (You can find the handout for the class here.)

If you’re tight on time, you can also check out shorter chapters separately:

 

What Travel Has Taught Me About Migrants

Right now, a caravan of Central American migrants is making its way through Mexico toward our southern border — thousands of men, women, and children in search of a better life. Like many Americans, I’m watching this tragic spectacle with sadness. But for me, it’s tinged with a particular poignancy.

Three years ago, I had a life-changing travel experience that humanized migrants like the ones in our headlines today. Then, as now, a group of desperate people from the poor south were struggling to make their way to the affluent north. But this was in Europe, not North America — and it wasn’t a caravan. It was a tidal wave.

In 2015, Syria was war-torn and falling apart, leaving a quarter-million people dead. And through the summer and early fall of that year, an estimated one million refugees — about half from Syria, the rest from other failed states in the region — made their way to Europe. The steady flow of new arrivals made landfall in Greece and worked their way up the Balkan Peninsula, toward prosperous northern European nations willing to offer them amnesty.

That summer I was, for the most part, blissfully unaware of the details. Watching news clips of migrants stranded at train stations and border checkpoints, I felt pangs of sympathy. But mainly I was worried that my guidebook-research trip might be inconvenienced.

By early September, I was in Zagreb, Croatia’s capital. Enjoying a sunny late-summer weekend, I was completely engrossed in my work. Stepping into the main train station, I noticed that all of the international departures on the big timetable flashed otkazan — “cancelled.” A few days earlier, they had stopped running trains to Hungary or Slovenia, to prevent the flow of refugees from crossing more borders.

Cameron Zagreb Train Station Refugees

And that’s when I saw them: refugees. About eight or nine people, including two young children. At this moment, they weren’t howling in despair, running through wheat fields, or stuffing themselves into the windows of train cars, like I’d been seeing on TV. They were just standing there. Waiting. Bored.

They were dressed neatly, wearing fanny packs, and glancing at their smartphones. The little boy was entertaining himself by tossing his stuffed animal into the air. They reminded me of someone who just learned that the last flight out was grounded — and now they had to figure out another way to get where they were going. Maybe after all they’d been through, just hanging out at a train station on a sunny Saturday was a relief.

In the middle of the group was a pair of young Croatians. One was a very smiley, mild-mannered guy who projected an air of peace and normalcy. The other was a force-of-nature activist with a blonde ponytail. She was simultaneously talking with the ringleader of the group and making calls on her phone.

Passersby, and the many police officers on duty, were keeping their distance — shooting glances of sympathy and suspicion from across the platform. Occasionally someone would come up and offer them food or water. But they already had overflowing shopping bags, as much as they could carry. One woman tried to hand them a shrink-wrapped flat of eight water bottles. “Thank you,” the young man said politely. “We only need two.”

I approached the smiley Croatian and asked what I could do to help. Did they need groceries? Water? Money? Cigarettes? Anything? Like the others who’d offered, I was told it wasn’t necessary. “We’re just trying to organize a ride to Slovenia for them,” he explained. “The taxi drivers keep trying to rip them off.”

Just the day before, I had toured a wrenching museum in Sarajevo about the 1993 massacre at Srebrenica. I was haunted by the final words of the exhibit, a quote from Edmund Burke: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

I can’t express how helpless I felt in that train station. I like to think I’m a good man. But there I stood, doing nothing. In that moment, I could no longer view these people as some abstract problem that smart, caring people shake their heads about and mutter, “Oh, that’s too bad.” I didn’t care about politics, or some obscure fear of terrorism. All of that melted away, replaced by a keen awareness of what distracting nonsense it all was.

All I knew was that I was standing face-to-face with human beings in a terrible situation. And every instinct inside of me was screaming that they had to get to where they were going. They couldn’t stay there. They couldn’t go back. Quite simply, they had no choice but to complete their quest for a better life. How could any person with a conscience, in that moment, not arrive at the same conclusion?

After a few minutes, the refugees’ Croatian Samaritans led them over to the taxi stand, and waved goodbye as they embarked on the next leg of their journey.

A couple of days later, I followed their trail north, toward the Slovenian capital of Ljubljana. Because the trains still weren’t running — and because I happened to be born as a US citizen — I effortlessly booked a transfer with a shared van service. We hopped on the expressway, and a half-hour later, we were approaching Slovenia.

Cameron Croatia Refugees Tents

Just a few feet in front of the border checkpoint, in the grassy median strip, were dozens upon dozens of multicolored tents — left behind by refugees who had camped out for days, then finally crossed over the night before. Discarded clothes and blankets littered the grass. Sleeping bags were hanging over fences. A staging area was piled with cardboard boxes of food, bandages, and other supplies. Reporters were loitering under their switched-off lighting rigs, strategizing where to go next. A couple of workers wearing reflective vests were cleaning up — and preparing, I imagine, for the potential of many more refugees to come.

For those of us in that van, the border crossing was a non-event: a flash of a passport, and in minutes, we were rolling along at 120 kilometers per hour to Ljubljana. I must admit, I was heartened when I arrived there and found this message spray-painted onto a sign in the city center:

Cameron Slovenia Refugees Welcome

Of course, I never saw those refugees again. But I still think about them. Especially today, watching “The Caravan” persistently plod its way through Mexico.

It’s so easy to become complacent, jaded, even irritated about migrants and refugees. We see them either as some distant, sad spectacle, or as a vaguely sinister threat. Just like today in the United States, the ruling right wing in Hungary exploited the fear of refugees in the fall of 2015 to shore up their political base. It seems universal: Politicians excel at yelling, red-faced, about how some poor person from a faraway corner of the globe is to blame for society’s problems.

But when I met those refugees in person, at their darkest moment, the only thing I could see was their stark humanity. It was painfully obvious: These are not stealth terrorists, or George Soros-funded activists. They are people just like you and me. And they are in need of compassion.

I realize the caravan of people walking through Mexico today is not the same as those refugees I met in the Zagreb train station. Except, fundamentally, they are the same. All refugees and migrants — going back to my own Norwegian and Polish and Irish ancestors who left all they knew to come to the New World — share the same motivation: an entirely understandable need to find a safe place to live their lives and raise their families. Their only crime is being born in the wrong country at the wrong time, and taking action to improve their lot in life. And their sentence is to be treated as scapegoats and political props. They are transformed into grotesque, inhuman caricatures for the purposes of a cynical pre-election push.

A year and a half after my encounter in Zagreb, I found an epilogue in Berlin — the capital of the country where many of those refugees ended up. There, they were welcomed with open arms, as Chancellor Angela Merkel took in more than one million migrants. The Berliners I talked to acknowledged there had been some growing pains. But every single one told me they could already see signs of how well the new arrivals were integrating with and contributing to their society. They were making Germany stronger, not weaker. And besides all of that…it was simply the right thing to do. How novel. (A few months later, Merkel was decisively re-elected to her fourth term.)

The power of travel is that it exposes you to raw realities in unexpected ways. It assaults your assumptions, forces you to develop empathy in spite of yourself, and reminds you that the more of the world you experience, the less frightening it becomes. It subverts fear by giving you context for the news. And it reminds you that, at the end of the day, we’re all just human.


Since my experience with those refugees, I have become a regular, generous donor to the American Refugee Committee and to the United Nation’s Refugee Agency, UNHCR. I just made another donation today, on behalf of that caravan of migrants in Mexico — and so many others, whose stories will never appear in your news feed. If your life has been touched and your world made richer by travel, I challenge you to do the same.

Crowds Got You Down? Go Someplace You’ve Never Heard Of

I just returned from my fall trip to Europe, wrapping up a busy year of travel. And in 2018, two big themes emerged: Europe is more crowded than ever. And yet, for much of the last few weeks…I was the only traveler around. How? Because I was off the beaten path, in lesser-known corners of Poland and Hungary.

It’s clear that popular places like Salzburg, Amsterdam, Prague, and basically all of mainland Italy are reaching a saturation point. Famous landmarks and piazzas are a 24-7 human traffic jam. Major sights are impossible to visit without reserving well ahead and, once inside, are so congested you wish you’d skipped them. Increasingly, traveling to Europe’s too-famous-for-their-own-good biggies is becoming more trying than fun.

Here’s an elegantly simple solution: Break out of that tourist rut and travel somewhere new. Go to a city you’ve never heard of…or, at least, couldn’t place on a map. The destinations I’m talking about are far less crowded (and, typically, far less expensive). Even better, they feel more like real travel…a welcome throwback to a time when travel was about the pure joy of discovery, rather than a sheep-in-a-turnstile bucket list.

While you can find these unheralded gems all over Europe, my favorites are in Central and Eastern Europe. A decade or two ago, you could have made a case that these countries still had rough edges to keep travelers away. But these days, places like Poland and Hungary are definitively ready for prime time…yet still refreshingly untrampled.

Kraków is, deservedly, Poland’s most popular destination. With a spectacular square and an excellent food scene, it’s well worth visiting. But on this trip, I found that even Kraków is becoming noticeably more crowded. Don’t miss Kraków — but after you see it, continue deeper into Poland, to explore its equally appealing, completely undiscovered destinations farther north. Go to a city with a name you can’t pronounce.

Toruń is a historic, red-brick town deep in the heart of Poland. The hometown of Copernicus (ahem, Mikołaj Kopernik) and famous for its gingerbread (which scents its streets with a heavenly aroma), it’s an utter delight.

Just a few weeks ago — in the heart of prime tourist season — I was in Toruń on a balmy, late-summer Friday night…and spotted zero American tourists. The floodlit, generously pedestrian-friendly streets had just the right number of people, and most of them were Polish. Buying a big bag of gingerbread cookies (intended to last me a week…but gone by the end of the night), I strolled between Gothic brick towers, nursed a drink at an al fresco café on a cobbled square, and simply enjoyed the sensation of being the only Yankee around.

A short train ride took me to majestic Malbork Castle — the former headquarters of the Teutonic Knights, and the largest brick castle on earth. It’s the most important, most impressive European castle that you’ve never heard of. When I asked the ticket-seller if he had any crowd-beating tips for my book, he stared at me blankly for a few seconds, then said, “Well, I guess on summer weekends you might have to wait, like, 10 minutes. Maybe.”

Once inside, I enjoyed going from room to room, squeezing through tiny brick doorways, ogling delicate fan vaulting — in a haze of medieval castle fantasies — and never once got stuck behind a tour guide with a numbered paddle and 50 pooped tourists in tow. The gigantic castle is a bit exhausting to tour…but not because of crowds.

Just 30 minutes farther north is perhaps the best example anywhere of an underrated city that simply blows away anyone willing to give it a chance. You may know it by its old German name, Danzig — but to locals, it’s Gdańsk.

Gdańsk is intrinsically fascinating. Located on Poland’s Baltic coast, at the mouth of its main river, Gdańsk has been the primary crossroads of Polish history. There’s a spot in Gdańsk where you can look in one direction, and see Westerplatte — the exact location where World War II began (when Hitler invaded in 1939). And then, with a swivel of the head, from that same place you can see the shipyards where Lech Wałęsa staged his Solidarity protests in 1980 — sparking the beginning of the end of Soviet domination and the Cold War. The city is literally bookended by 20th-century history.

If history’s not your thing, then what about gorgeous old towns? If there’s a more stunning main drag in any city in Europe, I can’t think of it. I find myself fabricating excuses just to walk up and down Gdańsk’s “Wide Street” as frequently as possible. And behind those skinny, pastel, ornately gabled facades are endearing and unexpectedly fascinating little museums that bring to life the golden age of this maritime burg.

For sightseers, the Gdańsk area also has several new, cutting-edge museums that are among the very best I’ve seen in Europe. There’s one commemorating Lech Wałęsa and those Solidarity strikes (in the actual shipyards where the strikes took place); one telling the story of Polish emigration to the New World (in the neighboring port city of Gdynia); and the state-of-the-art Museum of the Second World War, with an exceptional exhibit that, unfortunately, has been compromised by political meddling (more on that in an upcoming post).

Exploring Gdańsk for the first time in a few years, I was floored by how drastically the place is upgrading. I’ve loved Gdańsk since my first visit in 2005 — when it was, I’ll admit, something of a diamond in the rough. But today it’s simply breathtaking…without qualifications or reservations.

Granary Island, in the middle of the river that cuts through the middle of Gdańsk, was historically filled with handsome red-brick granaries. Bombed flat in World War II, it was left in ruins for generations. Like an ugly scar ripped through the heart of the city, the island was an off-limits eyesore. With each visit to Gdańsk, I was assured that the island would soon be renovated and re-integrated into the fabric of the city. I never quite believed it.

But on this visit, I literally did a double-take when I spotted the sea of construction cranes, turning this prime real estate into a futuristic new housing, dining, and entertainment district. Glassy, modern buildings — with rooflines echoing those historic granaries — will soon face the city’s classic old riverfront strip. Suddenly, humble Gdańsk looks like Oslo.

And the best thing about Gdańsk may be how undiscovered it feels. There are just the right numbers of tourists…but most of them are Polish, German, or Scandinavian. Norwegians and Danes flock here on cheap flights for cheap food and drink, ensconced in a dazzling historic city. Waiting for my flight at the brand-new Lech Wałęsa Airport, I noticed the names flicking across the departure boards: Trondheim. Oslo. Copenhagen, Stavanger. Helsinki. Stockholm. When Scandinavians are on board, you know you’re on to something good.

There is one big risk with going to Gdańsk, and it is this: You’ll come home evangelizing about the place with such fervor, your friends might start to think you’re a little unbalanced. (But then, one day, they’ll finally go there…and you’ll get a text that says, “OK, I GET IT NOW.”)

Poland alone has at least a half-dozen other cities where being able to pronounce the name is not a prerequisite for enjoyment: Poznań, Wrocław, Zamość — and even the capital. My recent visit to Warsaw was a revelation. It was amazing to see how fully realized a destination that city has become. It’s an absolute delight that goes toe-to-toe with more “known” capitals like Prague or Berlin.

But Poland is just one example of a country that’s easy and rewarding to travel in, but gets overlooked by whistle-stop tourists. My latest trip also took me to Hungary, where I reacquainted myself with Pécs (pronounced “paych”) — a small city at the southern edge of the country, close to nothing, but packed with more than its share of top-notch museums.

Pécs’ strollable core is congested not with tourists, but with local students. And the whole thing is slathered in bright, colorful Zsolnay porcelain — decorative tilework (invented right here) that’s a defining feature of Hungarian architecture.

I happened to be in Pécs on the evening of their wine harvest festival. A grandstand was set up on the main square, which was filled with locals grazing at a dozen different food stalls and sipping wine from another dozen little kiosks showing off local vintners’ products. Since it’s close to Croatia, Pécs menus come with Balkan accents. Settling into a bench with my paper plate of grilled meat and spicy ajvar sauce, listening to Britney Spears and Katy Perry hits thundering out of the loudspeakers, watching local kids play while their parents chatted and sipped new wine, I felt not like a gawking tourist — but like an invited guest at the banquet.

Up in the north of Hungary, I settled in for a couple of nights in my sentimental-favorite Hungarian small town, Eger. I got to know Eger over many years of tour guiding, bringing our Rick Steves Best of Eastern Europe groups here.  And every time I step into its tranquil main square, under the spires of a gorgeous Baroque church, I savor the small-town authenticity of the place.

Eger has sumptuous architecture, fine wine, a historic castle, and some endearing little museums just right for enjoyably killing a few hours. It had been years since I’d been to Eger’s thermal bath complex, a 10-minute riverside stroll from the main square, so I went for a soak an hour before closing time. A few days before, I had visited Széchenyi Baths — my favorite thermal spa in Budapest — and found it, for the first time ever, uncomfortably crowded. Until very recently, Széchenyi was mostly locals, with a few curious tourists. But on this visit, it was packed with little clumps of borderline-obnoxious international travelers, with a few irritated Hungarians mixed in.

However, Eger’s thermal bath complex was all mine. It was enjoyably bustling, with small-town Hungarians. Floating in the hundred-degree water, I heard not one word of English. And it was a delight to explore the freshly renovated complex, from its tranquil, old-fashioned Turkish bath under a stately dome, to its giddy indoor-outdoor whirlpool. On a trip where I took a dip in no fewer than five different thermal baths (I am an aficionado)…Eger’s small-town spa was the surprise favorite. And that was mostly because I had it all to myself.

Serendipity is more poignant off the beaten path, and when I returned to Eger one evening after a side-trip to some different thermal baths in the countryside, I found that a hot-air balloon had just set down right in the middle of the square. Watching the wranglers pull on sturdy ropes to expertly maneuver the bulging, precarious bag of hot gas as they slowly drained it of air, then gently tipped it over, I felt like a giddy backpacker on my first trip.

Hiking up to Eger’s stout castle, gazing out over its sweet square and skyline prickly with fanciful church towers, I thought for the umpteenth time on this trip how satisfying it is to travel to places like this one.

Eger, Pécs, Gdańsk, Toruń, and so many other gems are just now hitting that perfect “sweet spot” for travelers: Easy and accessible for anyone, but still largely undiscovered and crowd-free.

I love our Rick Steves Best of Eastern Europe in 15 Days Tour itinerary, which efficiently visits the “greatest hits” of this region: Prague, Kraków, Budapest, Rovinj, Lake Bled, and more. Returning from this trip, I was inspired to brainstorm a (totally hypothetical) “sequel tour” to that itinerary. What if you could link up the lesser-known gems of Central and Eastern Europe? Warsaw, Bratislava, Pécs, Zagreb, Slovenia’s coast and Karst, Sarajevo, Montenegro. You’d wind up with a tour every bit as rewarding as the original…but with a tiny fraction of the crowds.

When planning your next trip, consider skipping the predictable biggies. Instead, take a leap of faith and go to places like these…and let yourself be enchanted.

What’s your favorite uncrowded, undiscovered gem in Europe?


I was traveling in these places to update the upcoming new editions of our Rick Steves Eastern Europe and Rick Steves Budapest guidebooks. That’s where you’ll find all of the practical details for everything mentioned here. (In fact, these are probably the most lovingly updated but least used chapters in any Rick Steves guidebook.)

Europe’s off-the-beaten-path gems are a theme on my blog. For example, while mainland Italy is spectacular, Sicily has a few more rough edges…and far fewer crowds.

Slovenia is Europe’s ultimate undiscovered destination. I could write a book about the charms of Slovenia. (Oh, wait…I did.) Whether you’re exploring high-mountain pastures, sampling the local budget foodie scene, or browsing through wonderful Ljubljana, Slovenia earns a place in any itinerary seeking something new and uncrowded.

That said, even in super-popular places, you can (with a little effort) find your way to untrampled corners. For example, in Iceland, bust out of the “Reykjavik and Day Trips” rut and drive the entire Ring Road around the island. Linger at Lake Mývatn, a geothermal wonderland that still feels yours alone.

Columbus, Ohio: Unexpected Foodie Mecca

I recently made a trip back home to Central Ohio, where I grew up before moving to Seattle in 2000. Normally, my blog focuses on European travel. But you can also “travel” back home — approaching it through the eyes of a visitor. And when I do that, I’m doubly impressed by the remarkable foodie scene that’s percolating in my formerly meat-and-potatoes hometown. If you’re headed to Columbus, be ready for some great food — from Himalayan dumplings and explosively flavorful fried chicken, to high-end molecular gastronomy feasts, to artisanal microbrews and spirits, to the best damn ice cream in the land. And if you aren’t going to Columbus anytime soon…well, maybe you should.

Aaah, Columbus, Ohio. Flyover country. The heartland. The Heart of It All. The crossroads of the good ol’ U-S-of-A. And, for me, home. But these days, tucked amid the cornfields and strip malls of Central Ohio is also one of the most exciting culinary scenes in the United States. Who knew?

I spent my 20 most formative years (from age 5 to age 25) in Central Ohio — in the small town of Delaware, a half-hour’s drive north of Columbus. Back then, Central Ohio was the farthest thing from a culinary mecca. But it had all of the ingredients of one — in a literal sense. Ohio’s sultry summers give rise to a cornucopia of lush produce. No more perfect food exists than a juicy cob of Ohio sweet corn, right off the stalk. And Ohio (where one of the leading cities is called Cleave-land) has always had a top-tier meat industry. My next-door neighbor raised prizewinning hogs, which sold for some of the highest prices in the country.

And yet, when I was living there, local restauranteurs hadn’t quite caught up with local producers. Consider the Ohio State Fair butter cow. Now, get this: Dairy sculptors take a full ton of rich, creamery butter and fashion it into a full-sized statue of a cow. The butter cow is kept in a refrigerated glass case that a half-million fairgoers shuffle past with a hushed reverence, like visitors to the tomb of Lenin. (I am not making this up. Did I mention the butter cow is life-sized?) The year I graduated from high school, in a beautiful synergy of Central Ohio food theming, the butter cow was joined by a full-sized butter statue of Dave Thomas, founder of Columbus-based fast food chain Wendy’s.

Looking back, using mountains of butter to sculpt statues seems an almost too on-the-nose symbol for a city that had more great food than it really knew what to do with. They had the ingredients, and the industriousness. It just hadn’t yet coalesced.

When I moved away from Central Ohio in 2000, the food scene there was just getting rolling. Chains were beginning to be nudged aside by quality local restaurants. (In the 1990s, Cameron Mitchell built the foundations of a culinary empire that’s still expanding. Today he’s preparing to open a trendy food hall in the former Budd Dairy building.)  I believe things really turned a corner just a decade and a half ago, when Jeni Britton Bauer, from her humble ice-cream stand in Columbus’ North Market, figured out a way to harness Central Ohio’s natural bounty and turn it to the best ice cream on the planet. (More on Jeni’s ice cream later.) Jeni led the vanguard of a new foodie awareness, and a new foodie pride, in Central Ohio. And today, Columbus is blossoming into one of the best food cities in the USA.

With each return visit, my in-laws — in an endearing if fruitless quest to convince us to move back home — take my wife and me on a culinary tour around the city. Those first few years, these food tours felt a little forced. But then something strange started to happen: The places they took us were actually good. Really good. And after our last visit, it’s official: Columbus has arrived. It’s a city I’d seriously consider traveling to just for the food.

The best embodiment of Columbus’ foodie renaissance is the city’s Short North,  a trendy corridor stretching along High Street from the main campus of Ohio State University to downtown. Longtime favorites here include Tasi, a delightful breakfast, brunch, and lunch café with delicious comfort food and a neighborhood bustle; Bakersfield,  an upmarket bar-taqueria; and Northstar Caféan organic stay-a-while cafeteria with great salads and sandwiches.

But the epicenter of the foodie scene in the Short North — and Columbus generally — is the North Market, which hides between brick warehouses on the northern edge of downtown. Now, I moved from Columbus to the city with perhaps the most famous market in America. You know…the one where they throw fish. But the problem with Seattle’s Pike Place Market is exactly that: its fame. Years before I moved to town, the Pike Place Market had already been transformed into an almost entirely touristy venture. I rarely visit Pike Place Market, unless I’m entertaining out-of-towners. And if I do wind up at the market at mealtime, I panic a little bit, because I have no confidence I’ll find a good meal. Most eateries are squarely pitched at the palates of people piling off one of the world’s largest cruise ships, moored out front every Saturday. (Apologies to the exceptions.)

But Columbus’ North Market?  Now, that’s a place I could have lunch every single day and never get bored. Unpretentious and packed with temptations, the North Market has been the incubator for Columbus’ burgeoning foodie scene. Its main floor is a warren of producers and food vendors, offering everything from toothsome Polish pierogi to flavorful Vietnamese vermicelli bowls to crisp French macarons. Each stand is more tempting than the last, but two are particularly worth trying.

First is Momo Ghar, serving a short-and-simple menu of savory handmade Nepalese-style dumplings called momos. Food snobs shouldn’t be put off by the Guy Fieri endorsement — this place is straight-up fantastic, and a perfect example of how curious foodies and Columbus’ growing immigrant populations mix and mingle at the North Market.

But if you have only one meal at the North Market, head upstairs. There you’ll find Hot Chicken Takeover, filling a long, industrial-mod hall. Not only does this place have the best Nashville-style fried chicken I’ve ever eaten — juicy, tender, and perfectly seasoned — but it’s socially conscious, priding itself on being a “fair chance employer” (the majority of their staff are formerly incarcerated or formerly affected by homelessness).

As you get in line, a chalkboard on the wall counts down how many pieces of today’s fresh chicken are still available. The line moves fast, and soon you’re ordering your preferred spiciness level, from “cold” to “fire” (casual palates max out at “warm”). While waiting for your name to be called, grab a free cup of iced tea — super-sweet or unsweetened — and fill a little tub of ranch sauce. (No barbecue sauce here. The chicken is so juicy and flavorful, you won’t miss it.)  Find a seat at a shared table, with strategically placed rolls of rough brown paper towels, and wait for your name to be called. They have only a few sides — macaroni and cheese, coleslaw — but they’re also perfectly executed.

If you just want a snack at the market, Brezel has an enticing array of German-style pretzels (and smaller pretzel twists), ranging from sweet to savory. On my latest visit, they had one encrusted with Crunch Berries, and another with melted slivers of smoked gouda. Nearby is Cajohns Flavor and Fire,  with a dizzying array of salsas and hot sauces to suit every palate, from mild and sweet to unadulterated heat. I already have my personal favorites here (the salsa verde and the chipotle salsa are tops), but I can never resist the long tasting bar.

And now…dessert. And for dessert, there’s no better choice — in the North Market, in Columbus, and quite possibly in the United States of America — than Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams. As I mentioned earlier, Jeni Britton Bauer started her ice cream stand right here in 2002. She befriended her fellow market vendors and suppliers, and engineered ways to infuse her ice creams with the essence of their produce. For example, her Backyard Mint is an off-white ice cream that tastes like actual mint — the kind that grows like a weed in your garden — rather than synthetic peppermint essence and neon-green coloring. Another summertime North Market inspiration is her Sweet Corn and Black Raspberries, which speaks for itself.

Jeni’s ice cream is the perfect expression of the form. It’s the In-N-Out Burger of frozen dairy products. The texture is smooth and creamy — rich, but not too rich. It melts on your tongue exactly the way you want it to. And the flavors… well, the flavors are magnificent. Jeni has the nerve to christen her ice cream with superlative names that can’t possibly be true (“The Milkiest Chocolate In The World”)…but somehow live up to the fuss.

Jeni’s flavors are simple, yet complex. Like a perfectly composed dish by a master chef, every ingredient has its place — each one hits its note, perfectly on-pitch, without overshadowing the others. Take the Bangkok Peanut. It’s a rich, creamy peanut butter flavor. Not fakey Jiff peanut butter — the real stuff, nutty and rich, from the health food aisle. To that, she adds coconut that’s been toasted to the point of perfect caramelization. And finally, she tosses in a pinch of cayenne pepper, which tickles the back of your throat just so — adding an exquisite, exotic twist the moment after you’ve already swallowed and think you’ve experienced every nuance of the flavor. An ice cream that finishes hot sounds like a gimmick, but in Jeni’s hands, it’s a masterpiece.

In addition to a long list of perennial flavors (don’t get me started on the Gooey Butter Cake), there are always a few changing seasonal flavors. I’ll never forget her Pumpernickel ice cream from a few Christmases ago. On my latest visit, she had another one of my favorites — Savannah Buttermint. It tastes like a dish of chewy after-dinner mints suspended in a creamy broth. The Pickled Mango is a fascinating mix of sweet and sour. And the Watermelon Buttermilk Frozen Yogurt tastes like the best tangy watermelon you’ve ever eaten…only better.

I could go on and on about Jeni’s flavors (apparently so). But recently she topped herself by coming up with the ultimate delivery system for her ice cream: the Buttercrisp Waffle Cone. Imagine taking a traditional cone, hot and fresh off the griddle, and dipping it into a vat of melted salty butter. The cone is a perfect synthesis of soft, crisp, sweet, and salty. It’s so good, it threatens to upstage the ice cream.

A few years ago, Jeni published a cookbook that teaches the home chef to make ice cream that’s nearly as good as what she does in her shops — and quite rightly won a James Beard Award. (Having made a couple dozen batches of Jeni’s at home, I can attest that if you follow her instructions carefully, it turns out great.) Jeni has a serious mail-order business, and has opened several additional scoop shops around Columbus, and in other US cities. But visiting the mothership in person, at the Columbus North Market, is a pilgrimage.

OK, enough with the ice cream. (Though, let’s be honest: Can there ever be enough ice cream?) Apologies for getting carried away. My in-laws have gently teased me that I come to Columbus as much for Jeni’s as for them. I have, to date, not disabused them of this notion.

The Short North and North Market may be ground zero for Columbus’ foodie explosion, but other destination eateries are scattered around the metro area, too.

Just a few blocks east of High Street, in the Italian Village neighborhood, runs Fourth North, which has recently flourished as an arterial for artisanal breweries: Wolf’s Ridge (with a particularly well-regarded attached restaurant, and more affordable taproom), Seventh Son, and Hoof Hearted.

Just west of downtown, in an industrial corner of the posh Grandview neighborhood, those who look will find Watershed Distillery. In addition to offering tours of the facility where they distill a wide variety of spirits from Central Ohio ingredients (such as apple brandy), they operate a fun cocktail bar and restaurant. They publish the most entertaining cocktail menu I’ve seen, with choices like “Teenage Dirtbag” and “Big Papi.” The cuisine is bold and experimental, melding local favorite dishes with flourishes that challenge the palate — such as big slabs of ribs with Asian accents.

My favorite high-end restaurant in Central Ohio used to be incongruously located in the humble downtown shopping zone of my hometown, Delaware, Ohio — literally across the street from the three-screen movie theater where I worked my way through college. Foodies from all over Ohio would flock to Veritas for Chef Josh Dalton’s high-end, confident cookery — harnessing the state of the culinary art with a typically Central Ohio lack of pretense. A few years ago, I had a dinner at Veritas that was the best-value meal, dollar for dollar, that I’ve had anywhere — creativity and execution on the caliber of a European Michelin-starred restaurant, but at Delaware, Ohio, prices.

Chef Dalton’s ambition and command of molecular gastronomy — savory bacon risotto with perfectly delicate sous vide egg; scallop with pungent kimchi and crispy rice; Wagyu beef short rib with palate-blasting chimichurri — has cultivated many foodie converts amid the cornfields of Central Ohio. Recently Veritas moved to a location more befitting its world-class cuisine — in downtown Columbus, between the North Market and the statehouse — and raised its prices accordingly ($90 for the eight-course tasting menu). But it’s still an unmissable opportunity to blow up any preconceptions you might have that Columbus is a Podunk culinary wasteland.

There are many other excellent choices scattered within and around the I-270 outerbelt, but this representative sampling of why I get excited anytime I head back to Ohio…beyond the chance to reconnect with family and friends. I realize I am biased. But, believe me, nobody was more suspicious of Central Ohio’s lackluster culinary scene than someone who fled to the wilds of Washington State. Take it from this prodigal son: Columbus, Ohio, is the most underrated foodie destination in the USA.