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

Remembering the Lost on Slovenia’s Day of the Dead

While the USA is busy celebrating “All Hallows Eve,” the main event in Slovenia is All Hallows Day, November 1.  As the last of the autumn leaves tumble from the trees and winter gloom descends, the Slovenes observe their Day of the Dead (Dan Mrtvih) — pausing to look back on the generations who went before. And just when most of North America is waking up and combating their candy corn hangover with a pumpkin spice latte, Slovenes head to their cemeteries, arms full of candles and flowers, to honor lost loved ones.

Slovenia is one of many Catholic countries that observe the Day of the Dead  (also called All Saints Day, All Souls Day, or Remembrance Day). The best-known variation is Mexico’s Día de Muertos, with its colorful skeletons on parade. But Slovenia’s Day of the Dead is a more subtle affair — all the more poignant for its understatedness.

Several years ago, the Day of the Dead found me in Slovenia’s capital, Ljubljana. At the edge of downtown is one of the most beautiful final resting places I’ve seen: Žale Cemetery, designed by the great Slovenian architect and urban planner Jože Plečnik. (For those who appreciate European cemeteries, Žale is worth a visit any day of the year.)

I first stopped by Žale Cemetery on the afternoon of October 31 — All Hallows Eve. Stepping through its grandiose arcaded entrance, I was met with a deeply moving sight: Slovenians were busying themselves tending the graves. Each plot had been painstakingly weeded and scrubbed to a high shine, with not a pebble out of place. And each tomb was an artfully composed ensemble of candles, flowers, and mementos.

While back home, store shelves are stocked with plastic jack-o-lanterns, superhero costumes, and fun-size candy bars, Slovenian shops are doing a brisk trade in moss remover and headstone polish. Inside the cemetery, rickety green tables groan under the weight of red votive candles stacked on top of each other — two euros a pop. And for florists — who set up tents just outside the entrance — the Day of the Dead is their “Black Friday.”

Slovenes feel an obligation to tidy up the grave of each and every loved one. Cousins compare notes about who’s going to look after Uncle Janez’s grave, and who’s responsible for Aunt Marija. If you have a big family, you have a very busy week. My Slovenian friend said, good-naturedly, “I loved growing up as the only child in a big extended family. But these days, it makes the last week of October extremely busy.”

November 1 is a national holiday — everything is closed and quiet. But returning to Žale Cemetery, I found it overflowing with people. Everyone was wearing their Sunday best, as if attending the wedding of the year. I squeezed along the gravel lanes between elegant tombs decorated like parade floats — each one trying to outdo the next. Around mid-day, a priest appeared and began blessing the graves, and the crowd fell silent. After the ceremony, families departed to share a meal of remembrance, celebration, and fellowship.

Later that night — as the sky turned from overcast white to deep blue to inky black — Žale Cemetery was again full of people. Crunchy leaves and half-sheathed chestnuts skittered underfoot. Thousands upon thousands of flickering candles filled the gloomy cemetery with soft, dancing, deep-red light. Even when it began to rain, people still filled the cemetery. Old friends and distant cousins bumped into each other — for the first time in ages — at the grave of a shared loved one. Families huddled together under umbrellas, their tear-streaked faces shimmering in the candlelight, laughing together at treasured memories.

While this was in the capital’s most prominent cemetery, similar scenes play out in every graveyard, big and small, across Slovenia. After prepping the graves of their own relatives, Slovenes do the rounds to pay their respects to cherished friends, as well. A Slovenian friend counted about 15 different graves — spread over seven cemeteries — that her family tries to visit each November 1. And at each one, she leaves a candle or flowers. (She enjoys bringing her young boys along, if only to take in the spectacle.)

While Slovenia celebrates the Day of the Dead with a special reverence, similar observances take place in many Catholic countries in Europe. For example, recently a Palermitano told me that many Sicilians give gifts to children from their deceased ancestors. For a young child, stories about people they’ve never met can be hard to relate to. But presents? I mean, come on — presents make things real. Getting that toy they’ve been wanting from their deceased Great-Grandma helps a child feel connected to their roots.

Reflecting on these beautiful European traditions, I’m sad that American culture doesn’t set aside time for this kind of remembrance. We have national holidays to give thanks and to honor our presidents and to celebrate trees, but not to recall lost loved ones. (The closest thing we’ve got — Memorial Day, honoring fallen veterans — is, for most Americans, the unofficial start to summer and time for a big golf tournament in Ohio.) Perhaps we just have an uneasy relationship with mortality. While Europe looks back with nostalgia and respect, America races forward, as if escaping our past.

As a true-blue American, I can’t remember the last time I actually visited my family graves. Slovenia’s poignant Day of the Dead inspires me to carve out some time in my busy life to just remember…and be thankful.

In Rome, You Can Never Get a Taxi When It Rains

Visitors (and even Romans) often describe Rome in terms of “chaos.” That strikes me a little unfair, because I so often experience great hospitality and kindness in the Eternal City.

But then it rains, and everything goes straight to hell.

I’m finally going home, after a long six-week journey through Europe. My grand finale is Rome. And on the morning of my departure, I pack up my bag and head downstairs to hop in a cab to the airport. It’s Saturday morning, about nine o’clock.

When I tell the receptionist I’ll be needing a taxi, a flash of quickly suppressed panic crosses his face. Feigning competence like a champ, he quickly gets on his computer and requests one for me. “It’ll just be a moment. Once they confirm, I can give you the name and the time of arrival.”

A few minutes pass. I’m relaxed, but he’s growing noticeably agitated. Finally, he tries calling, and is put immediately on hold.

Enough time goes by for me to recall how, the day before, I overheard a fellow guest ask to order a taxi for the next day. They were assured it was not necessary — “Just tell us when you’re ready to leave, and we’ll call one. It will be here in five, ten minutes maximum. No problem.”

The night before, I double-checked and got exactly the same response: “Five, ten minutes, no problem.”

But this morning — a mere 10 hours later — the receptionist’s quest to order a taxi is entering its eighth minute.

He looks at me apologetically. “In Rome, when it rains, it becomes very hard to get a taxi.” Apologetic shrug.

I glance outside, at bright sunshine gleaming off wet cobbles. “But…it’s…not raining.”

“Huh. Well, yes, now. But thirty minutes ago…” Big shrug.

He glances over at the bellhop, who smiles and returns the big shrug.

We stand there, waiting, serenaded by the taxi dispatcher’s schmaltzy hold music. He clicks feverishly on his keyboard. Noticing the “four stars” sign above his head, I begin mentally subtracting stars.

Finally, after 10 or 12 minutes, the phone muzak is abruptly disconnected.

“Well,” he says, “It seems that we may not be able to get you a taxi.” Big shrug.

Three stars.

“But,” I say. “I was told that it wasn’t necessary to order one ahead. That you could just call one.”

“Huh, yes, well, normally,” he shrugs. “But it’s raining, so you understand, there are no taxis available.” Shrugging, he repositions his computer screen toward me, so I can see for myself that his online request, too, has twice been declined.

“Don’t you think, maybe, you could have told me that when I asked about this yesterday? You could have said, ‘It’s no problem unless it rains, in which case you need a little more time’?”

The idea is preposterous to him, and he explodes with laughter. “Ha! Well, sir, of course you can’t expect us to predict the weather, now can you?” He laughs heartily at his own zinger and glances over to the bellhop for backup. The bellhop looks up from what he’s doing to return a generous chuckle, with a side of shrug.

It takes the bellhop a moment to respond because — and I swear I am not making this up — at this precise moment, he is talking to a rather unpleasant American guest who has been loudly complaining about the weather. To egg her on, he is showing her the many rainclouds in the weather app on his phone.

Two stars.

Also — and I apologize if I’m pressing the point too much — but it’s not like we’re in the Gobi Desert here. It rains in Rome. It has rained four of the last five days in Rome. In Rome, it rains — on average — something like 70 days every year. If you work at a Roman hotel, and it’s a rainy week, and you are aware that it’s impossible to get a taxi in the rain, don’t you think you might provide this information when a guest specifically asks about it?

It dawns on me that perhaps this supremely talented duo thinks that my taxi trip this morning is an optional one. Maybe it’s just, you know, a passing fancy. A joyride. Skippable. “Oh well, no matter. I could use the brisk walk anyway!” But I have a 5,000-mile journey ahead of me. And the first step of that journey is getting to the frickin’ airport.

“So then,” I say. “What do you suggest? Am I supposed to walk to the airport?”

The receptionist gives me an “oh you’re still here?” look, then theatrically shrugs three times — the first, presumably, for the Father, the second for the Son, and the third for the Holy Spirit.

“Well, there is a taxi stand. It’s next to the Zara, across the piazza and to the left.” He gestures with an exquisitely unhelpful vagueness toward the front door.

The bellhop nods vigorously as if to say, “Yeah, yeah, taxi stand, yeah.”

“But if you can’t call a taxi, why should I expect that there will be one just sitting there, waiting for me?”

Trapped in an impenetrable cage of logic, our antagonist can only offer a big shrug in response. “Well, we only work with certain companies. But there are many companies. So…maybe…one of the other companies…has taxis there?” While he’s shooting for reassurance, it’s clear that he’s making this up as he goes, and he achieves exactly the opposite.

This guy may not have been the star of his hospitality school class, but I’ve gotta hand it to him: He’s the living embodiment of ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. Also, you have to admire his chutzpah. I have seen a lot in my travels, but I have never, ever had a hotel flatly and unapologetically refuse to help me get a taxi.

One star. We’re talking bathroom-down-the-hall territory here. Peeling wallpaper. Though, to be fair, my room at this particular “four-star” hotel already has peeling wallpaper. (I predict a 90 percent chance of downgrades in the next edition of Rick Steves Rome.)

I know when I’ve been beat, so I sigh theatrically — the only meaningful response to the Roman Shrug — and try to get more precise directions to the (quite possibly hypothetical) taxi stand across the piazza. The bellhop halfheartedly offers to accompany me there, but at this point it will be a tremendous relief to simply cut ties entirely with the crack staff of the Grand Hotel Shrug. (Do they even give zero stars? Is that a thing?)

I trudge through brilliant sunshine across the piazza and make my way to Zara. The taxi stand has but one taxi. But one is all I need. Friendly Fabrizio hops out, loads my bag in the trunk, and rattles my fillings mounting a curb to catch a yellow light — getting me to Da Vinci Airport in record time. Grazie, Fabrizio!

As for the security line at the Rome airport…well, that’s another story, for another day.


This post is part of my “Jams Are Fun” series — designed for those who savor the Schadenfreude of hearing about good trips gone bad. Like that time I ran out of gas on Scotland’s remote north coast? Or that time I was stuck on a cruise ship during a massive storm in the North Sea? Or the time I became embroiled in a gelato feud in a small Italian village? Or, really, the entire experience of driving in Sicily.

In-Your-Face Italy: Traveling as an Introvert in a Land of Extroverts

It’s always so tempting — and so reductive — to paint entire cultures with a broad brush. Usually, I resist. But in this case, I’m going all-in: Italy is a land of extroverts. As an introvert, I both love it…and, on rare occasions, hate it.

Recently I flew home from London on British Airways. Normally those nine-hour flights are a sedate affair, but this time was different. The plane was loaded up with a big group of Italians, heading to Seattle for an Alaska cruise. They rolled onto the plane with fanfare, jamming bags every which way into the overhead compartments, gesticulating wildly, really making a meal out of finding their seats. A couple of hours into the flight, I couldn’t get to the bathrooms because a half-dozen people were jamming the aisles. At first, I thought they were all waiting for the lavatory. Nope…they were simply socializing after dinner.

I’m sure Italy has plenty of introverts. I’ve met some shy, retiring Italians. But not many. To be fair, I suspect that Italian introverts have to adapt to their outgoing society, so they learn to do a good impression of extroverts. (I live in Seattle — a.k.a. Introvert City, USA — where it’s very easy to give yourself over to your loner instincts. Italians don’t have that option.)

For evidence that this is an extrovert’s paradise, you need only walk down the street — any street, anywhere in Italy — at about 6 or 7 p.m. What you’ll find is entire neighborhoods out and about, strolling, greeting each other warmly, sharing an ice cream cone or a cocktail. In Italy, every night is a party. It’s no wonder those Italians on my flight got so fidgety somewhere over Iceland.

Italian culture and society are organized around social interaction. The centerpiece of any Italian town is the piazza — the community living room and meeting place. German towns are organized around the Marktplatz — the market square, a place of commerce. But Italian squares are not designed strictly for commerce. They’re designed for socializing. After dark, the Martkplatz is closed up tight and completely dead. But the piazza is just waking up.

Among Italians, social intelligence is off the charts. I have Italian friends who can size me up and intuit exactly what I’m thinking with one quick glance. They have a sixth sense for people. They get it. I love doing guidebook research in Italy, because what is often the hardest part of my job in other places — explaining that I’m updating a book and just need to ask a few questions — is instantly understood and accommodated.

Have you ever been in Italy, and someone starts talking to you in fast-paced Italian, and you protest that you don’t understand — and they keep going? The more you apologize for not understanding, the more you realize that…no, wait…you do, in fact, somehow understand. Not everything, but a little. Just enough. It’s not that Italians don’t realize that you don’t speak their language. It’s that they don’t care. Because they instinctively grasp that communication is about more than words.

Charmed as I am by Italy, I’ve gotta be honest: It can be tough to be an introvert here. In a big, boisterous gathering, I feel like a fish out of water. From time to time, I need to escape to my hotel room (the introvert’s final refuge). The problem is, in Italy, you can usually hear everything going on in adjacent rooms — thanks to minimal soundproofing, paper-thin doors, and echoey hallways. For years I chalked this up to cheap construction. But on a recent trip, trying to get to sleep around midnight and hearing an animated conversation echoing through the stone staircase just outside my room, it dawned on me: Perhaps, out of a deep-seated drive to be among others, Italians don’t mind hearing other people. Perhaps they find it…comforting.

For an introvert, this can be wearying. Simply put, it’s hard to feel like you’re ever alone here. (This may seem like no big deal to extroverts…but my people understand.)

Street food stand

On the other hand, I’ve come to appreciate the way Italy forces me to stretch my boundaries. Italians have a gift for getting you out of your shell — which I don’t mind doing, even if I need a little encouragement. Rick (a classic extrovert) has a mantra: “Extroverts have more fun. If your trip is low on magic moments, kick yourself and make things happen. ” Easy for him to say. However, I have taken those words to heart since my first big European backpacking trip in 1999. And I find that in Italy, becoming a temporary extrovert comes very naturally. And, sure enough, it’s more fun.

At the end of the day, Italy is a package deal — you take the bountiful good with the occasional bad. And the extraversion of Italy’s wonderful people is something I’ll very happily accept as part of that package. It’s right up there with great art, great pasta, and great gelato: great people.

All Alone in the Alps: Hiking with the Cows High Above Gimmelwald, Switzerland

Gimmelwald — that perfect alpine village, perched on a meadow-draped cliff facing a panoply of cut-glass peaks — is a sleepy time warp…most of the time. But as summer nears its end, Gimmelwald snaps to life. By the second half of September, the cows are about to come down from the high alpine pastures…and there’s lots of work to be done.

My visit to Gimmelwald actually begins in the next village over, mile-high Mürren. I cross the street from my hotel and hop on the Allmendhubel funicular, which zips me in less than four minutes up to 6,200 feet and grand views of the Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau peaks.

I thought I was just coming up for a quick peek. But now that I’m here, I start paging through our Rick Steves Switzerland guidebook (which I’m here to update, for our upcoming tenth edition). It turns out that one of Rick’s favorite hikes — the North Face Trail — begins from right where I’m standing. It’s mid-afternoon, and my work is done for the day…why not?

Following the book’s instructions — and the blue North Face Trail signs — I gingerly let myself through the electrified cattle gate and head down into Blumental…the “Valley of Flowers.” In the early summer, this meadow bursts with wildflowers. But today the flowers are mostly gone, the cows have chewed the grass down to the nub, and fall is nearly upon us.

Over my head, a packed-to-the-seams cable car silently makes its way up to the Schilthorn. Seeing all those excited faces pressed against the cabin’s windows, selfie-sticks glancing off the scratched and smeary glass, I realize there are far few people in this entire meadow than there are in that one little cable car.

I rode that cable car up to the Schilthorn earlier today. It’s hard to be cynical about the Schilthorn — it’s a spectacular alpine panorama. But it’s also commercialized to the hilt, making the utmost of its connection to the James Bond movie filmed there 50 years ago. This theming — once just a kitschy footnote to a visit — is getting out of control. The cable car itself is emblazoned with a hot-pink 007 logo, the observation deck is scattered with George Lazenby cut-outs to pose with, and “Bond Girl” silhouettes shimmy on the bathroom stalls.

For my part, I’m very happy to be out in a pristine meadow, rather than inside that cable car. Taking in a deep breath of thin-and-fragrant alpine air, I make my way across the meadow to the rustic little hut called Suppenalp.

This is a proper “alp” — a high-mountain meadow where cows spend their summers grazing. In the interest of preserving this traditional bit of culture, the Swiss government subsidizes this work to the tune of about $5,000 per cow. In many rural communities, parents fret over the next generation leaving for the bright lights of the big city. But here, they have the opposite problem: Kids fight over who gets to take over the family herd.

The cows’ owners hire cowhands to tend the herd for 100 days each summer in the high alps. The cowhands get up every morning at 5 o’clock to milk the cows and take them out to pasture, and then bring them back and milk them again in the afternoon. Because it’s impractical to haul heavy cans of milk down the mountain, they make the Swiss mountain cheese right here. For these cowhands, it’s a lifestyle choice: spending summers at 6,000 or 7,000 feet — working hard, yes, but ensconced in alpine splendor, while steering entirely clear of the modern rat race…a high-altitude summer sabbatical.

At this alp, the cows are in their pen, contentedly munching and mooing, but the hut itself is closed so the cowhands can take a much-needed rest day. Monntag und Diesntag Ruhetag, says the chalkboard. No cheese samples for me…yet.

From the hut, I head up a steep, rocky path, curving around the midsection of a ridge toward an alpine pasture that my book tells me is just around the next bend. Another crammed cable car sails over my head as I head for a new row of snow-covered peaks. I pass through a little stretch of alpine forest before breaking through into a pristine pasture, stretching like an infinity pool toward the sheer granite cliffs on the far side of the valley. Someone has positioned a split-log bench just so to take in the panorama.

Crossing this alp, at what feels like the top of the world, I make my way down to a humble gathering of huts called Schiltalp. This is where the majority of Gimmelwald’s cows spend their summers. But summer is nearly over, and very soon — when the last of the summer sun fades and the autumn clouds close in — the cowhands will herd their charges together, strap big ceremonial bells around the cows’ necks, bedeck them with pretty wildflowers, and parade them back down through town to their barns for the winter.

You never know exactly when the cows will come down, but I was lucky enough to see this spectacle years ago, in the super-traditional village of Appenzell. It remains one of my all-time favorite Swiss memories: an impromptu folk-life parade where the bovine grand marshals were cheered like returning war heroes.

But for today, the cows remain up on the alp. I can tell they’re still here before I see them, because those big ceremonial bells are still hanging high from the roof beams of the biggest hut. The Schitalp hut has a little “self-service” fridge, where visitors like me are welcome to leave a few coins in exchange for a bottle of water or beer, or a little wedge of alpine cheese.

The outdoor tables are enjoying some late-afternoon sun, but the only people sitting there are four extremely rough and grizzled old-timers nursing beers, giving me suspicious looks. I’ve clearly crashed some local party.

Trying to break the ice, I experiment with the local Schwyzerdütsch greeting: “Grüezi!” After 20 years of traveling to Switzerland, I’m still trying to master the pronunciation: “GREWT-see!” In Swiss cities, that does the trick. But in the countryside, singsongy Swiss German gets even singsongier.  And up here, each village — or even each farmhouse — has its own idiosyncratic greeting.

As usual, the four old-timers respond with what — to my ears — are four entirely different ways of saying the same word:

“GRÜÜÜÜÜ-zeh!”

“Khhruh-suh!”

“Grut. [pause, pause, pause] Si!”

“Khhhhrew-tzee!”

They return to their beers, making it clear that our conversation is now complete.

I drop a few coins in the jar and help myself to a wedge of mountain cheese. It has a pungent aroma but is still soft: not quite fresh, not quite aged, and speckled with little bubbles.

I saw a little chunk off of the slab, mount it on a hunk of rustic bread, and take a bite. The texture is as smooth and creamy as the flavor is sharp and searing — filling my mouth with the taste of hay and wildflowers and a tannic kick and deep, deep Swiss tradition. Strange as this may sound, it marries well with the aroma of freshly cut hay and day-old manure that hangs heavy in the air…in a good way, I swear to you. It’s easily the best cheese of my trip, if not my life.

I munch my way through the slab of cheese, savoring each bite. When it’s gone, craving just one last taste, I whittle a curl of delicious cheese off the rind and pop it in my mouth…the dairy equivalent of sucking the meat off the bones. The flavor will linger on my palate for hours.

Recharged, I bid my fellow alp hut patrons a cheery Adieu! and head on down the path.

Within moments, I’m immersed in a bucolic landscape of grassy hills, wooden barns, and mooing cows. And then, in the distance, I hear cowherds hooting and whistling. The mooing becomes more agitated. The cows are on the move.

Riveted, I watch as the cowherds crest the undulating land and come into view. It’s a family — dad, mom, and a couple of kids — working together to bring their herd in for the night. They’re dressed in modern clothes — shorts, T-shirt, trucker hat — but they enact a timeless routine of man and beast: insistently moving huge animals, many times their own size, with nothing more than insistent yelps and a big stick.

And then, all of a sudden — I’m surrounded. Cows on all sides of me, cowherds behind them, trying to move them up the gravel road I’ve just come down. A little frightened by the thousands of pounds of agitated beef headed my way, I stand still — a rock in a stream of livestock.

Once the cows have passed, I carry on down the path, leaving the slow-motion stampede behind me. I’m buzzing from the moment I just experienced — one of those beautiful travel serendipities where it feels like every decision I made today conspired to put me in the perfect place, at the perfect time.

Continuing on down the path, I pass through yet another alp settlement — Spilbodenalp — where the cowherd is also out, wrapping up a busy day’s work, while a few lazy cows doze in the front yard.

From here, I make my way steeply down on a switchbacked trail through a thick forest, then down precarious steps carved into a cliff to slip under the thundering waterfall called Sprutz. Grabbing the metal cable drilled into the cliff, I climb back up the other side, then make my way up through another thick forest until I finally emerge at the top of a near-vertical meadow. Below my cow pie-scuffed shoes are the rooftops of an idyllic alpine village: Gimmelwald.

I make my way steeply down through the pasture toward the tiny settlement — following narrow ruts, barely wider than my shoes, through the lush green grass toward the rustic rooftops. The fields around me are alive with farmers, out harvesting hay they’ll use to feed those cows when they come back to earth from the high alps a few days from now.

Crossing a narrow, paved road high above town, I dodge out of the way of a tractor as it zips past — racing to wrap up chores before they lose the sun. Scanning the rooftops below me, I can see that this little village — normally sleepy — is a beehive of activity. A visit to Gimmelwald just before the cows come back teaches you what they mean when they say, “Make hay while the sun shines.”

Finally I reach Gimmelwald’s upper road, where I’m greeted by four perfectly positioned benches — gazing across the gaping chasm of the Lauterbrunnen Valley, to the black-and-brown-streaked, deeply pitted face of the Schwarzmönch mountain across the way.

Just up the road, I swing by the Hotel Mittaghorn — also known as “Walter’s,” for the Swiss gentleman who has run the place since, I have to assume, the last Ice Age carved out the Lauterbrunnen Valley. Nothing ever changes at Walter’s — he makes darn sure of that. If it was good enough 30 or 40 years ago, it’s good enough today.

Out on the front porch sits perhaps the only relaxed person in Gimmelwald: Tim, the Englishman who’s been Walter’s trusty right-hand-man for the last 20 years or so. I sit and chat with Tim for a while, getting the latest gossip on this Gimmelwald institution. Tim tells me that Walter is now 95 years old, and opens his hotel only three months a summer — when Tim can be here to essentially run the place for him. They close the hotel more or less when the cows return; the cooler weather that brings the cows down from the alps also keeps the sun-seeking tourists away.

While Tim and I are chatting, the relentless bleating of goats in a pen next door intensifies. One of the goats finally jumps the fence and starts wandering around in the road. Tim, the good neighbor, hops up to herd the goat back home. I try to help, but I’m even less of a shepherd than he is. All I can do is hold the little gate open while Tim grabs the goat and bullies him back into the pen.

“Those two goats are sick,” Tim explains. “That’s why they keep them down here while they take the rest of the herd up to the upper meadows during the day.” He explains that, while the cows are way up at the high alps, they keep the goats closer — simply to provide local families with fresh milk through the summer. Sure enough, a few minutes later, our conversation is interrupted by a chorus of bleating and tinny, off-key bells as a couple of village kids march several more goats down the path to join their two sick friends in the pen.

Before I move along, I head into the hotel kitchen to say hello to Walter — still with that same twinkle in his eye, all these years later. Many, many years ago, Rick Steves’ Europe Tours spent the night at this dusty, rustic firetrap of a high-mountain hotel. The only way we could fit the entire group was to squeeze six couples — that’s 12 paying adults, close to half the group — into one big sleeping loft in the attic. They shared a toilet and a coin-op shower…not just down the hall, but down the stairs. (Our tour guides mastered the art of identifying which dozen people were best equipped to tolerate, or even enjoy, that experience.) Understandably, our tour members came to expect a higher level of comfort, and about 20 years ago we stopped using Walter’s. But, I swear to you, the tour members who stayed here absolutely adored the experience. When they talk about it, they get a twinkle in their eye…just like Walter’s.

I bid farewell to Walter and Tim and head into town. Across the street from Walter’s, steps lead down into the heart of Gimmelwald: the main intersection with the overly enthusiastic directional signs, the two little guesthouses, and the youth hostel and cable-car station just around the corner.

I go for a lazy lap through town, following the main street past busy barns, log-cabin-style homes, perpetually flowing faucets that fill carved-tree-trunk cow troughs, lovingly tended flower boxes, and bazillion-dollar views.

The people of Gimmelwald are firewood artists — stacking a winter’s worth of fuel with the precision of a master engineer. But I also see piles of just-split wood, waiting to be stacked.

At one point, as I’m lost in the glorious views across the valley, a towheaded, cherry-cheeked teenager pops up over a hill in front of me, pulling a giant tarp filled with freshly scythed grass. He dumps the grass by the front door of his house, theatrically wipes his brow with a handkerchief, then grabs the empty tarp and heads back down over the hill for another load. If Norman Rockwell were Swiss, he’d paint what I just saw.

I head back through town, fantasizing about living in a cliff-hanging cabin, filling my bottle at the fountain, and dodging a couple more tractors that come rumbling up the road. Back at the cable-car station, I watch the lift arrive from the Schilthorn high above. Dozens of day-trippers pour out of the cabin and cross the platform — blowing right through this sweet, intoxicating village — in their rush to the connecting cable car back down to the valley floor, and their awaiting tour buses.

I think back on those entirely unpopulated high-alpine meadows, those stunning mountain views savored all alone, and the feeling of being the only non-Swiss human being out on a vast and lonesome alp, entirely surrounded by cows. And I wonder why someone would pay a hundred bucks to squeeze into a tiny box and ascend to a James Bond-themed revolving restaurant, instead of experiencing what I just experienced…for free.

The cable-car door closing jolts me awake, and I look down as I fly over the rooftops of Gimmelwald and the steeply switchbacked trail tethering it to Mürren. I catch one last glimpse of Walter’s rooftop just before I’m swallowed up by the Mürren cable-car station.


I’m in Switzerland working on the next edition of our Rick Steves Switzerland guidebook — where you’ll find all the details about visiting Gimmelwald, hiking to a remote alp, and even — if you choose — heading up to the Schilthorn (with tips for avoiding the crowds).

Or join us on a Rick Steves’ Europe Tour. Our Best of Switzerland in 12 Days Tour is ideal for those wanting a full itinerary of experiences like this. But we also spend time in this part of Switzerland on several other tours: Best of Germany, Austria, and Switzerland in 14 Days; Best of Europe in 14 Days or 21 Days; Best of Family Europe: London to Florence in 13 Days; and My Way Alpine Europe in 12 Days. (Come to think of it, it’s hard to find a tour that doesn’t stay in this part of Switzerland.)

While this was an idyllic late-summer/early fall visit, I also had a wonderful Christmas in this part of Switzerland once with my family.

Skip the Sistine Chapel? Alternatives for Avoiding Crowds in Rome

Tourists are fainting inside the Vatican Museums. Literally, about 10 times each day, someone drops to the ground from heat and exhaustion. It’s crowded — with up to 40,000 daily visitors. It can be sweltering — with temperatures soaring to over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. And everyone is squeezed through the pope’s sumptuous halls in one vast, slow-moving mosh pit of humanity…like hot toothpaste slowly moving through a tube. While home to some of the greatest art of human civilization — including Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling — the Vatican Museums are also, for anyone claustrophobic or simply pooped, one of travel’s most unpleasant experiences.

On my recent visit to Rome, I talked to several Romans who, on a daily basis, interact with visitors (and specifically Rick Steves guidebook readers and tour members): hotel owners, local tour guides, restauranteurs, and so on. When I asked what was new, every single one of them mentioned the crushing crowds at a handful of world-famous sights — the Vatican Museums and the Colosseum topping the list. Every day, they see travelers exhausted, frustrated, frazzled, and demoralized after trying to see these great sights. Those poor visitors retreat home with their tails between their legs, feeling bruised and disillusioned and not liking Rome.

And in my informal straw poll, about half of these Roman experts propose (and strongly endorse) an unconventional solution — one that’s as revolutionary as it is infuriating to purists. Hear us out, now.

Skip the Sistine Chapel. Skip the Colosseum. Instead, experience a less famous, less trampled corner of Rome. Because that way, you will truly experience Rome — not just tick off an item on your bucket list.

What Is Your Purpose?

The Romans I talked to are sad. They’re sad that their grand city is getting a bum rap because visitors are forcing themselves, as if on a forced march, through the same three or four sights on a short visit — leaving themselves with not nearly enough time, money, or patience to experience all the rest of what Rome is about.

If you have dreamed your whole life of seeing the Sistine Chapel, then by all means, go to the Sistine Chapel. (Just be sure to use a good guidebook to do it smartly: Reserve ahead, ideally first thing in the morning or — even better — during their new Friday night opening hours.) But before you assume that you simply “have to” go there, ask yourself: Are you sure? And also: Why?

To put it another way: Why are you coming to Rome? Is it just to see the great sights, period? Or is it to have a transformative encounter with the art and history of the Eternal City? Are you determined to see the Sistine Chapel only because it’s famous — or is it to have a personal encounter with an artistic masterpiece?

If it’s the latter, I have some good news: Rome has more great art than perhaps any place on earth. They have a ridiculous bounty of world-class art. They possess such an embarrassment of cultural richness, it’s bursting out of their attics and basements.

If you could stand under the Sistine Chapel ceiling in a moment of tranquility and centered awareness, and take the time to simply be still and take it all in — to let Michelangelo speak to you — then yes, that would be a lifetime experience worth any amount of toil and tribulation. But that is, most likely, not what’s going to happen when you get to the Sistine Chapel.

First, you’ll already have had your patience stretched to its limits, after traversing a half-mile of congested hallways. You’ll be sweaty and flushed. And you’ll have been bumped and jostled and rubbed against by a thousand different art lovers, from every corner of the globe.

Then, once you finally reach that majestic space, as you crane your neck to make out the details, you’ll hear not the voice of God (or even the voice of Michelangelo), but the voice of an impatient security guard shouting “Si-len-zi-o!” again and again.

Within a few minutes, you’ll feel the need to leave…no, to escape. And so, having squinted at some great art — briefly — you’ll squirt out the exit door and finally take a deep breath. At long last, your vacation-turned-ordeal is over. When you get home and people ask what you thought of Michelangelo, you’ll say, “Michael who? Was he the guy who kept jabbing me with his selfie stick?”

Try Something Different

Instead of the Vatican Museums, go to the Borghese Gallery — a beautiful, concise art gallery that fills a grand old villa tucked in a verdant park, with exquisite works by many of the great artists you’ll see at the Vatican: Raphael, Titian, Caravaggio, Bernini, Canova, and much more. If you’ve seen Michelangelo’s David in Florence, head to the Borghese and stand toe-to-toe with Bernini’s David — carved about a century later — and contemplate the differences…without some stranger’s elbow in your ribs.

Or hop on a train for an hour to visit Orvieto, where you can stroll its relatively undiscovered cobbles, enjoy intoxicating views over the Umbrian countryside, and ogle the glorious, vibrantly colorful frescoes by Luca Signorelli in the town cathedral. Signorelli may be no Michelangelo. But gazing up at his masterful scenes of the Antichrist, the dead rising from their graves, and the Last Judgment…you might just not care. As a bonus, the chapel is uncrowded — and you can linger as long as you want.

Rome’s Colosseum is an astounding feat of engineering. It’s also — if I’m being frank — pretty dull inside. And, again, it’s crowded. Not quite “cramming two pounds into a one-pound bag” crowded, like the Vatican Museums. But still unpleasant.

My visit to the Colosseum earlier this summer was just fine…mostly. But when it was time to leave, things took a turn for the worse. From the upper-level cheap seats, I reached the exit staircase at the same time as a huge school group, which poured down the steep, vertiginous steps alongside the usual flow of tourists. It was a little scary; while I’m sure on my feet, I saw other visitors who looked a bit panicked as the crowd effectively swept them up and hurried them down the steep, unforgiving stone stairs.

So here’s your alternative plan: Walk all the way around the outside of the Colosseum. Twice, if you want. It’s free, and it’s so big that crowds are not really a problem. But — unless you can’t live without seeing the ancient Roman equivalent of the concourse in a football stadium where you buy nachos and use the bathroom at halftime — skip the interior…and the long, slow-moving security and ticket lines to get inside.

Instead, after doing your loop around the Colosseum, walk 15 minutes to the Baths of Caracalla. This gigantic, communal bathing complex — dating to the third century A.D., back when almost nobody had a bathtub at home — could wash 1,600 sweaty Romans at the same time. This is where plebs would come to scrub up and to socialize, in lavish tile tubs under vaulted marbled ceilings. While admittedly about one-hundredth as famous, the ruins of this bath complex are every bit as impressive — from an ancient engineering and architecture perspective — as the Colosseum.

At day’s end, let yourself be tempted to join the passeggiata — that wonderful late-afternoon Italian custom of strolling around aimlessly, perhaps licking a gelato or pausing for an aperitivo cocktail, while bumping into old friends and catching up. Just don’t do it where everyone else does it.

The classic Roman passeggiata route meanders between Piazza Navona, the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain, and the Spanish Steps. But it’s been eons since everyday Romans actually spent time in that area. While the landmarks are sumptuous, the streets are entirely given over to tourists. Don’t get me wrong: I love this part of Rome. The Pantheon is my favorite of Rome’s many great sights, and only the most hardened cynic could manage to not be just a little enchanted by the majestic Trevi Fountain. (The appeal of the Spanish Steps has always eluded me, but you get my point.)

However, don’t mistake this area for “Rome.” This is a theme park filling some old Roman streets. If you stroll here, you’ll see not Romans out and about, but grotesquely tacky souvenir stands, hacky restaurants with interchangeably uninspired menus, street performers singing opera arias or playing pop songs on the violin, and lots and lots and lots and lots of tourists.

Sure, check out the Pantheon and toss a coin into Trevi Fountain. But then head to a more local neighborhood for your evening stroll. Just a few minutes’ walk away, the tourists melt away and are replaced by actual Romans…just enjoying their city.

For example, wander Via dei Coronari, a little street with a few touristy shops and lots of local ones, which stretches west from Piazza Navona to the river. Being here at 5 or 6 p.m., you can watch Romans emerge from their apartments and prowl their characteristic streets. Earlier this summer, I got one of the best gelati of my trip at Gelateria del Teatro (their fruit flavors are explosively flavorful) and leaned against a pillar in the piazza at the Church of San Salvatore in Lauro. Neighborhood kids were out playing in the square, doing three-legged races and jumping rope. Their parents were trading gossip and enjoying the cool of the evening. Tourists are tolerated, but this part of Rome is decidedly not for tourists. And that’s a good thing.

Or go to Monti. My favorite little corner of central Rome, the Monti neighborhood hides a few minutes’ walk from the major archaeological sites. On my recent visit, I left the Forum at closing time, crossed Via dei Fori Imperiali, angled left to avoid the busy Via Cavour, and walked no more than three or four minutes through deserted cobbled streets. I popped out at Piazza della Madonna dei Monti, a humble Roman square with a too-big fountain alongside a narrow, traffic-choked street.

In the late afternoon, the fountain swarms with the après-work crowd: Romans who buy an aperitivo at the nearby bar, or a cheap bottle of beer at the convenience store. They’re all simply hanging out, catching up, flirting, and laughing. It’s a wonderful cross-section of Rome: well-dressed office workers, grungy young people, older folks from the neighborhood, American students, and just a handful of tourists.

The streets of Monti aren’t even in the running to be named Rome’s most glamorous, or most historic. This is simply a real neighborhood, a very short walk from the rushing river of tourism. Its streets teem with hip restaurants and hole-in-the-wall shops where you can grab a panino, a slice of pizza, or a cone of gelato. And yet, spending the evening here instead of around the Pantheon, you’ll come away with a stronger impression of having actually been to Rome, the living, modern city, rather than Rome, the touristy stage set.

The Bottom Line: Take the Time to Let Rome Breathe

I know, I know: It’s very easy — condescending, even — for someone who’s already seen the Sistine Chapel or the Colosseum to advise someone else to skip it. But honestly, seeing what I’ve seen recently, if I were going to Rome for the very first time, I really would skip them. Ultimately, I’d rather have an “A+ experience” at a lesser known sight than a “C- experience” at a famous one.

Of my Roman contacts, about half suggested skipping the biggies altogether. The other half felt that, despite the crowds and the stress, it really would be a shame to miss these great sights — just be aware that they will be crowded. But unanimously, the Romans agreed that it’s essential to complement the big sights with some time spent simply strolling the lesser-known corners of Rome: parks, piazzas, streets, and neighborhoods where Romans outnumber visitors.

A similar debate is going on at the Rick Steves’ Europe home office. In the age of overtourism, everyone still has the right to see the great sights. But that doesn’t mean the great sights are right for everyone. We would never give blanket advice to simply avoid the Sistine Chapel, but it’s important for travelers to recognize that it’s a choice — not an obligation. It comes down to an individual decision: balancing your personal desire to see the Sistine Chapel and Colosseum against your threshold for crowd headaches.

Big-picture, the crush of crowds has an impact on your itinerary planning. My Roman friends have noticed a trend: People come to Rome for a very short time. “We’re here for two days,” they say, “and then we’re going to Tuscany to rent a villa for a week.” Most visitors seem to take the “strategic strike” approach to Rome: Get in, tick off those bucket list sights as quickly as possible, then get out fast. They do this partly because they’ve heard that Rome is intense and grueling. Ironically, it’s visiting Rome in this way that fills their trips with the aspects of Rome that are intense and grueling (its major sights), instead of the many, many aspects of Rome that are exactly the opposite.

So, even if you do insist on doing the big sights — s-l-o-w d-o-w-n. Take your time. Stay longer, and for every big sight you tour, offset that by watching the sunrise or sunset from an uncrowded park, or kicking around a soccer ball with neighborhood kids on a street with no English signs. Or, if time is short, be selective about which sights you see — and build in opportunities to take a deep breath and experience the true essence of Rome. Linger a bit, and you’ll find out why they call it the Eternal City.

What do you think? Sistine Chapel or no? Colosseum or any one of a dozen other great sights from ancient Rome? What has your experience been — and if you were (or are) going to Rome for the first time, would you skip the Sistine Chapel?


If you’re heading to Rome, and you do want to see the great sights, our Rick Steves Rome guidebook is an essential tool — with up-to-date advice on minimizing the impact of crowds.

If you’re heading to Rome, and you plan to skip some of the biggies — well, our Rick Steves Rome guidebook  is also perfect for you, since it includes detailed coverage on lesser-known, underappreciated sights right along with the biggies.

If you’re not going to Rome…to be honest, that’s really the only situation where our Rick Steves Rome guidebook  could be considered a bad purchase. Sorry!