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

Postcards from Normandy

The Fourth of July has me in a patriotic mood, and nostalgic for a time when America was doing good in the world, rather than alienating allies and burning bridges. And there’s no better reminder of that than the D-Day beaches in Normandy, where I enjoyed one of my favorite trips in recent years, helping update our Rick Steves France guidebook (which is, if I’m being honest, one of our very best guidebooks — thanks to a lifetime of expertise and hard work by co-author Steve Smith). Here are a few “Postcards” from that trip.

Welcome to Normandy 

While best known as the site of the D-Day landings that turned the tide of World War II, Normandy is a sprawling, multifaceted region that’s a delight to explore. Even an impatient sightseer could spend a week here without getting bored. In addition to thought-provoking cemeteries and beaches still strewn with artifacts from that pivotal invasion, Normandy serves up a pastoral countryside of green rolling hills misted by English Channel storms, charming half-timbered towns, towering churches, landscapes and cityscapes made famous by the Impressionists, and a delicious, apple-flavored cuisine.

Honfleur

Honfleur wins the title for Normandy’s most charming town, with its historic harbor, half-timbered old town (pictured earlier), and a characteristic wooden church that feels like an overturned boat. With its unique “luminosity,” it’s no wonder the Impressionists found inspiration here. Honfleur is also a delightful spot to browse for typically Norman foods, many of which feature apples from the region’s orchards. You can graze on delicious edible souvenirs such as apple-wine vinegar, apple candies and cookies, hard cidre, and of course, Calvados, the powerful local apple brandy.

Mont St-Michel

Normandy’s flagship destination is one of those great European sights that truly lives up to its billing. An island abbey that’s sometimes surrounded on all sides by water, and at other times high and dry in the middle of an expansive mud flat, Mont St-Michel strikes a dramatic pose. A new causeway provides handy shuttle-bus service (in high tide or low) from a park-and-ride on the mainland. Once at the island, you can wander the mud flat (inspecting temporarily beached sailboats), climb up the twisty lanes through town, and tour the historic abbey.

Rouen Cathedral

The city of Rouen, where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake, clusters around the dramatic facade of its exuberantly Gothic Notre-Dame Cathedral. The great Impressionist Claude Monet painted 30 different versions of this facade — depicting the same subject at different times of day, in different weather and different light. As a photographer, I enjoyed circling back past the cathedral facade every few hours to carry out a study of my own. Normandy brings out the artist in any traveler…and the patriot.

Omaha Beach

The main thing that attracts most visitors to Normandy — especially Brits, Canadians, and Americans — are the desolate beaches where the Allied forces staged Operation Overlord in the early hours of June 6, 1944. The D-Day invasion provided the Allies with a foothold in Western Europe, while Hitler was distracted fighting Russians on the Eastern Front. Eleven months later, Hitler was dead. Stepping onto Omaha Beach (the most famous landing site, thanks partly to Saving Private Ryan), you’ll trip over jagged Nazi fortifications that still survive nearly 75 later. Put yourself in the combat boots of the young grunts tasked with taking the beach, and notice how impossibly far away that scrubby, sandy bluff is. Now add relentless machine-gun fire. Standing here, I dare you not to get goosebumps.

Arromanches

Of course, D-Day was more than just Omaha Beach, and the brave souls fighting on those beaches were not just Americans. Canadians have their own museum and monuments at Juno Beach. And in the town of Arromanches — in the British landing sector — the beach is still littered with gigantic prefab harbor sections. In an astonishing feat of engineering, the Allies prepared for phase two of the invasion by building an entire temporary harbor in England, breaking it into 115 modular pieces (each the size of a football field), and then shipping it across the English Channel to reassemble here as soon as the beaches were secured. This four-mile breakwater, called “Port Winston,” allowed the Allies to swiftly begin their land invasion before the Nazis could regroup. Arromanches is still stuck with its giant chunks of Port Winston — how could you possibly remove them? — and history buffs love wandering out and getting up close to history.

This is just a reminder that D-Day is a whole series of sights, scattered across a 54-mile stretch of coastline, each one illustrating a different chapter of the invasion: Juno Beach, Utah Beach, Pointe du Hoc, the church at Ste-Mère Eglise, the gun battery at Longues-sur-Mer, cemeteries honoring each nationality who suffered losses here, and on and on. (In our Rick Steves France guidebook, Steve and Rick outline a driving route to connect all the major sights, and a long list of local guides you can hire to show you around.) Give the D-Day sights a full day. Better yet, two. Better yet, three.

American Cemetery

For Americans, the ultimate D-Day experience is visiting the American Cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach — vast green fields speckled with 9,387 neatly arranged gravestones honoring troops who lost their lives in Normandy. (This is just one of many such cemeteries throughout Normandy. D-Day alone brought 4,413 Allied deaths — including 2,499 Americans.) Each cross and star of David is etched with the name, place of birth, date of death, and dogtag number of a young American whose sacrifice helped turn the tide of the war. Walking through these fields, my heart swelled with thoughts of relatives who were ripped from the dairy farms and cornfields of rural Ohio and — at an age when most of us have the privilege of taking a “gap year” or going to frat parties — traveled half a world away to fight someone else’s war and die on an anonymous beach. It’s hard to imagine anyone leaving this site with a dry eye.

Merci

Inside the Utah Beach Landing Museum, next to one of the landing craft that carried so many American troops to a premature death, someone had scratched a simple message into the sand: Merci. While I find French people, as a rule, extremely welcoming to Americans, I have rarely traveled somewhere where the locals were so genuinely appreciative of the part my homeland played in their history, and where I felt so proud to be an American. Throughout Normandy, French people of all ages tear up when talking about what we did for them.

At a moment in our history where America seems less sure about its role in the world than it has in generations, I’m filled with patriotic pride (and, I’ll admit, not a little sadness) as I reflect on a time — and a corner of France — where my country joined with its allies to do the right thing, at great personal sacrifice, and made a history-changing difference to people outside our borders who needed us. Now that’s global leadership. Merci. And God bless America.

40 Hours in Amsterdam: A Travel Writer’s Layover

What does a travel writer do on his day off? He just putters around Amsterdam, without an agenda, enjoying travel in its purest form. (And then, surprise surprise, he writes a blog post about it.)

That’s just what I’m doing on the way home from my guidebook research trip. After two busy weeks in Spain, and three even busier weeks in Sicily, I’m ready for a break. So, I figured, why not take a two-night, one-day layover in Amsterdam on my way home? That gives me exactly 40 hours to reacquaint myself with a great city.

There’s something liberating about returning to a city where you’ve already seen all the big sights. This isn’t a post about how to squeeze the Rijksmuseum, the Van Gogh Museum, the Anne Frank House, and a canal cruise into a hectic day of sightseeing. Instead, this is a post about how you can have a wonderful visit to Amsterdam, simply exploring neighborhoods that are missed by most visitors — entirely avoiding the tourist core, and never stepping through a turnstile. When a travel writer finally gets to turn off his data-collection feature, he finds himself simply going on a photo safari, strolling, browsing, and grazing. (Side-note: When I tell certain people I’m spending a couple of nights in Amsterdam to unwind after a busy research trip, I get a lot of knowing winks and rib jabs. “Yeah, I’ll bet!” But, in all honesty, I have zero interest in the illicit activities that are uniquely legal here. I just love Amsterdam. My friends back home will  back me up on this: I am a total square.)

Thursday Night

Arriving at my lovely splurge of a canalside hotel, Hotel Ambassade, around 9 p.m., I’m ready for dinner. I want something close, and something different — a change of pace after my steady three-week diet of pasta, seafood, granite, and Sicilian spleen sandwiches. Fortunately, right around the corner is one of Amsterdam’s top upmarket Indonesian restaurants, serving flavorful cuisine from the former Dutch colony. Kantjil & De Tijger, along the busy Spui corridor, is a once-trendy restaurant that has settled into its status as a reliable standard. Sitting outside as the sky gradually darkens at 10 p.m., I dig into the nasi rames — a one-plate sampler of flavorful Indonesian dishes, including sambal goreng kentang (shrimp and potatoes with spicy sambal paste), rendang (beef simmered in a sauce of coconut and spices), and saté babi (pork kebab). After dinner, I go hunting for bridges strewn with twinkle lights, reflected in a glassy canal. And, sure enough, I find some.

Friday Morning

While Amsterdam has a booming brunch scene, I stick with the excellent breakfast at my hotel —  reasonably priced when prebooked as part of the room rate. There’s no better start to a drizzly day than relaxing over made-to-order eggs and crêpes while gazing out over the picturesque Herengracht canal.

Leaving my hotel, I dodge wayward bicycles through a gentle rain, going nowhere in particular. I wind up following the exclamatory steeple of the Westerkerk, where I duck inside to avoid a sudden squall. The tranquil interior is filled with simple pews and soaked, poncho-clad tourists rubbing raindrops off their eyeglasses. The austere space is the polar opposite of the dazzlingly ornate Baroque churches in Sicily and Spain, where I’ve spent the last several weeks. Of course, as this was one of the flagship churches of the Dutch Reformation, that was exactly the point. Even the fancy organ has “modesty covers” that can swing shut to conceal its naughty pipes. Hiding out from the rain in this church, whose bells Anne Frank heard from her hiding place in the building next door, I’m reminded again why Amsterdam is such a delight.

I head back outside and circle around the church, following the gaze of a sweet little statue of Anne Frank to the Wil Graanstra Friteshuis, a handy spot for Vlaamse frites — Flemish fries, double-fried and served with a variety of sauces. I’m tempted to order a greasy cone of fries, but the rain picks up again, so I dash across the street and duck into one of the city’s ubiquitous Albert Heijn mini-supermarkets. Browsing with no intention of buying, I come across a display of make-it-yourself meal kits for mexicaanse burritos, italiaanse lasagne, and indiase curry madras…a clever Dutch spin on America’s current obsession with Blue Apron-type mail-order meal kits. I love stumbling on little slices of local life, even when I’m just trying to stay dry.

From Westerkerk, I delve into my favorite part of Amsterdam: the Jordaan. While this might seem like shameless product placement, I really do enjoy touring the Jordaan using the excellent audio tour on the Rick Steves Audio Europe app — taking me through this sleepy, photogenic, formerly working-class neighborhood where Amsterdammers still outnumber tourists. Rick and my colleague (and favorite writer) Gene Openshaw wrote the tour years ago, and it still holds up — offering an intimate look at a corner of Amsterdam most tourists miss entirely.

Friday Lunch

The rain begins to let up, and I head back toward the core of the city. A sudden sun break reminds me it’s actually summer, and I’m in the mood for an al fresco lunch…raindrops be damned. I make my way to Café t’Smalle, a classic wood-paneled “brown café” — a characteristic old Dutch pub whose walls are stained by decades (or centuries) of tobacco smoke. While the seating inside is traditional and cozy, I’m lured to the tipsy tables on a barge in the canal out front. It’s an ideal spot to canal-watch and munch a simple sandwich of aged Dutch cheese, shielded from the occasional fat raindrop by a generous canopy of leaves.

Heading south after lunch, I follow the Prinsengracht canal to dessert at IJscuypje, a local chain of ice cream shops. Flavors include the usual suspects, plus Dutch variations like stroopwafels (syrup waffles), boerenjongens (brandy-soaked raisins), and speculaas (gingerbread cookies). Biting into my speculaas cone, I remember one of the most mind-blowing discoveries in my many years of travels: that morning at my Amsterdam B&B breakfast table when I learned that they smash ginger cookies into an insanely decadent and delicious paste…and that I can buy it anytime I want, back home, where Trader Joe’s sells it under the name “Cookie Butter.” Soon after I got home, I learned a hard lesson: If you ever really want to put on some weight — and fast! — develop a taste for Cookie Butter. In this city notorious for its addictive vices, the one that really did me in involves gingerbread cookies.

Friday Afternoon

From the Prinsengracht, I go on a little aimless safari through another of the city’s most characteristically Amsterdam areas, the “Nine Little Streets” — a checkerboard of shop-lined, perfectly Dutch lanes connecting the Prinsengracht, Keizsergracht, and Herrengracht canals just west of downtown. While it’s billed as a “shopping area,” I’ve never spent a dime here — but there’s no place in Amsterdam I’d rather wander to reacquaint myself with the city’s unique cocktail of tranquil canals, skinny townhouses with fancy gables, manicured flower boxes, perfectly inviting cafés, and constant, fluid swirl of bicyclists rattling over cobbles with no helmets. Even the garbage bags lining the streets — awaiting collection — are arranged just so.

Heading east, I cut through the busy transit hubs of Spui and Rokin, traversing the touristy core of Amsterdam for the first (and only) time on my trip — providing a jarring contrast to the rest of my day. I realize that the Amsterdam I’m so enjoying gets entirely missed by many visitors.

But just a few steps from the tourist blight, I find myself in the sleepy zone around the University of Amsterdam. I detour a few steps through a fancy archway next to Oudezijds Achterburgwal 229, down the corridor housing the Oudemanhuispoort book market. The rustic tables lining the passage are piled high with secondhand books and art prints. Halfway along the corridor, I duck into a sunny courtyard where university students linger and chat — as if, like me, they’re regrouping from the stag-party chaos a couple of blocks away.

From here, I head east along Staalstraat, a lovely, narrow lane of classic Amsterdam townhouses and some of the city’s best window-shopping (including, at #7b, a wonderful design store confusingly named Droog, and at #17, the top-end local praline shop, Puccini Bomboni). In three short blocks, Staalsraat manages to cross over two entirely different — but equally distinctive — Amsterdam drawbridges.

Popping out at the far end of Staalstraat on Waterlooplein — facing the starkly modern opera house — I realize I’m starving…and I’m just a couple of blocks from one of my favorite scenic Amsterdam cafés: De Sluyswacht, “The Lock-Keeper’s House.” True to its name, it fills a standalone black-brick house from 1659 overlooking a busy intersection of canals in the heart of Amsterdam. I pull up a bench at a shared table and look out over the hubbub of boats big and small plying the brown waters, crisscrossing their way through the city.

For a snack, it’s a plate of the classic Amsterdam bar food, bitterballen — croquettes that have been double-fried to create a crunchy, almost prickly outer skin. The sun has finally decided to come out for good, and the whole city is out, enjoying the early inklings of summer. Dipping my butterballen into spicy Dijon mustard and watching boats scurry to and fro, I wonder why so many people think they need marijuana to enjoy Amsterdam. Sure, come for the marijuana…but stay for the bitterballen and canal views.

Feeling those bitterballen weighing heavy in my stomach, I head back to the hotel for a brief rest. Why am I so tired? I realize it’s because simply walking down the street in Amsterdam is exhausting. You have to keep your head on a swivel, as cars and silent bikes whiz past you constantly, forcing you to jump at a moment’s notice onto the little brick median teetering between the road and the canal. In my 40 hours in Amsterdam, I’ll see at least three or four near-miss accidents — mostly involving tourists (on foot or on bike) who didn’t realize that they don’t always have the right of way, simply by virtue of being from out of town. Dutch cyclists are kind but firm, and will set you straight quickly if you wander in front of their oncoming bike. (You should hear the friendly jingle-jangle of a handlebar bell as if it were a foghorn.) Just as I’m pondering this, I see a Dutch cyclist pull to a stop and — again, kindly yet firmly — point out to a jetlagged tourist family that their toddler is toddling straight toward a canal.

Friday Night

After resting up, I head out in the early evening for a 20-minute walk west — beyond the Jordaan — to one of Amsterdam’s newest foodie hotspots: Foodhallen, Amsterdam’s foray into the European trend of jamming a world of eclectic eateries under one roof. Filling a red-brick former tram depot with shared tables, Foodhallen is ringed by two dozen different food stands, representing a rainbow of cuisines: Basque pintxos, dim sum, Hawaiian poke, tacos, sushi, bitterballen, Mediterranean mezes, Indian wraps, wood-fired pizza, steaming ramen, gourmet burgers, high-end hot dogs, and much, much more. After doing a couple of laps to survey my options, I settle on a plate of chicken-and-corn gyoza and a steaming shumai dumpling with pork and mushrooms. Squeezing into a free seat at one of the hall’s countless shared tables — all of them jammed full on a busy Friday night — I realize that I could have a dozen different meals here, and probably enjoy each one equally.

After dinner, I walk back toward the center, detouring along bustling Rozengracht to catch the 8:30 comedy show at Boom Chicago, Amsterdam’s answer to Second City.  Since 1993, comics including Jordan Peele, Seth Meyers, and Jason Sudeikis have cut their teeth on Boom Chicago’s stage, in English-language sketch and improv shows skewering current events on both sides of the Atlantic. For this show’s audience, savvy, worldly Amsterdam natives seem to slightly outnumber American tourists — all of them laughing in unison at the easy pickings generously provided by the Trump Administration.

Stepping out of the theater to find it’s still light out, I go looking for a canalside nightcap. Drawn once again — like a mosquito to a zapper — to the Westerkerk spire, I find myself back in the Jordaan. At another characteristic brown café, Café de Prins, I nurse a drink at an outdoor table, with a view of the Westerkerk and of a steady parade of well-dressed Amsterdammers rolling by on their bikes as they text on their phones and smoke cigarettes.

Saturday Morning

Determined to make the most of my fleeting few hours in Europe, I follow canals about 30 minutes south to the neighborhood delightfully named De Pijp (“deh peep”), where I stroll the thriving Albert Cuyp Market — several blocks of open-air vendors selling foods, flowers, clothing, housewares, antiques, and more.

The Albert Cuyp Market an easy and enjoyable place to assemble a progressive breakfast. There are pickled herring stands, if that’s your poison — choose between “Amsterdam-style” (chopped up on a bun, with raw onions) or the more adventurous “Rotterdam-style” (pick up the intact filet, dredge it in onions, and lower it delicately into your open mouth).

In the mood for something a little less…aggressively flavorful…I follow my nose to a stand selling poffertjes — tiny, puffy Dutch pancakes cooked on a special griddle. Each one is about the size of a semi-deflated squash ball, sprinkled with powdered sugar. Delicious.

As I wander, I check out many other tempting foods: roasted chicken sandwiches, a hummus bar, an array of Dutch cheeses, roasted nuts, and more.  But the one thing I can’t resist is a hot stroopwafel. Neighboring Belgium is famous for its big, fluffy waffles, but here in the Netherlands, they prefer a thin, crispy wafer…or, actually, two of them, sandwiching a layer of caramel syrup. You can buy stacks of stroopwafels in any shop, but they’re best when warmed up — hot and gooey. I don’t really feel like I’ve been to Amsterdam until I’ve had a stroopwafel. I’m getting this one in just under the wire.

Back at my hotel, I pack my bag in a hurry — determined to squeeze in one last culinary adventure before my flight. Around the corner from my hotel, I’ve spotted a hole-in-the-wall shop called The Lebanese Sajeria, specializing in the Middle Eastern wrap sandwich called a manoushe. I line up and place my order, then wait patiently on the sidewalk as the busy chef delicately lays each flatbread on the dome-shaped griddle in the window until it’s cooked just right. Finally, my name is called, and I find a canalside bench to bite into my wrap. The flatbread is warm and crispy, wrapped around a generous layer of the spice and sesame seed mix called za’atar, along with a layer of spiced ground beef.  It’s hot, delicious, explosively flavorful, and the perfect end to my mini-break in Amsterdam.

Hopping into my Uber, I know that I’ll be back to Amsterdam soon. This city exerts a strange magnetism on any traveler who simply enjoys exploring. Best of all, in two nights and one full day in one of Europe’s most touristy cities, I’ve managed to almost entirely avoid the tacky parallel world that most tourists never leave. If you’re going to Amsterdam just once in your life, of course you should check out the Rijksmuseum, the Anne Frank Museum, and the Van Gogh Museum. But also carve out a little time to putter around the city’s concentric canals. find a cozy café in the Jordaan, snap a twilight photo of a canal at 11 p.m., and munch a manoushe or a poffertje.


Most of the places I visited are my favorite discoveries from past trips — and are included in our Rick Steves Amsterdam & The Netherlands guidebook… although, because this was such a short trip, I brought along the more compact Rick Steves Pocket Amsterdam. (Other new finds — like the Foodhallen — will turn up in our upcoming third edition.)

Amsterdam is particularly well-suited for audio tours. Through our Rick Steves Audio Europe app, you can download Rick and Gene’s tours of three different neighborhoods: the Jordaan, the city center, and the Red Light District…all entirely free.

Top 10 Sicily Travel Tips

I’m just back from three busy weeks in Sicily, circling the island to put the finishing touches on our upcoming Rick Steves Sicily guidebook (available in spring 2019). For those who just can’t wait for the book to come out, here are my 10 favorite practical tips for traveling in Sicily. Special thanks to the book’s co-author, Sarah Murdoch, and contributing author Alfio di Mauro for their hard work and abundant insights. Amuni!

Visit a mix of big cities, smaller towns, and countryside sights.

For a good sampling of Sicily, plan to visit a mix of big cities (Palermo, Siracusa); smaller towns (Ragusa, Trapani, Taormina, Cefalù); and striking sights in the countryside (Mount Etna, ancient temples and theaters, the glittering mosaics at Monreale Cathedral). On a quick visit of just a few days, home-base in Taormina or Catania and make strategic side-trips to Siracusa and Mount Etna, then spend a day or two in Palermo. With more time, consider adding your choice of other towns: Agrigento (with its remarkable ancient temples), additional time in Siracusa (for its ancient sites and delightful urban bustle), Ragusa (for its low-key hill town ambience), Trapani (a pleasant west coast town with an array of tempting side-trips, from salt flats to hill towns to offshore islets), and the beach town of Cefalù. For most travelers, the best plan is to rent a car — but be prepared for the often challenging Sicilian roads, especially in cities. (And spring for the full insurance.)

Pig out on street food.

The island’s cuisine — which is distinctly different from mainland Italy’s — is, like Sicily, a unique mix of cultural influences. Choosing between eggplant pasta and fish couscous on the same menu, it’s clear that you’re at a crossroads of Europe and Africa. And some of the best food is also the cheapest. Sicily is renowned for its street food. Try an arancina (deep-fried saffron rice ball), panelle (chickpea fritters), sfincione (rustic, Sicilian-style “pizza”), polpo bollito (a boiled mini-octopus), and — if you dare — pani ca’ meusa…the famed spleen sandwich. To sample several items in one go, just wander through one of the characteristic street markets in Palermo or Catania…or join a street food tour.

Party with the Sicilians.

On this island of very tight-knit communities and fierce local pride, there’s always some big festival going on. Most towns celebrate their patron saint’s day by processing through the streets with an elaborate float (or several). Other celebrations fill a more specific niche. I happened to be in the pristine town of Noto during their biggest party of the year, the Infiorata di Noto. An entire street — several blocks long — was filled with gigantic murals, delicately constructed of flower petals.  And when I was in nearby Ragusa, the townspeople were celebrating the native Ragusano cheese. The town square hosted cooking demonstrations, and every restaurant in town was highlighting a special cheese-forward dish. While I enjoy the serendipity of just stumbling onto Sicilian celebrations, it’s smart to do some homework, find out what local festivities might be going on nearby, and make a point to drop by.

Bone up on ancient history.

In antiquity, Sicily was called Magna Graecia — “Greater Greece” — for the many Hellenic city-states that colonized the island. Ancient Syracuse (today’s Siracusa) was one of the most powerful city-states on the Mediterranean. Sicily was also an outpost of the mysterious Carthaginians, who were almost entirely wiped out by the Romans. And all of these civilizations left behind world-class artifacts. Scattered across Sicily are some of the best ancient Greek temples and theaters anywhere outside of Greece: the Valley of the Temples at Agrigento; Europe’s largest archaeological area at Selinunte; and the theaters in Taormina, Siracusa, and Segesta. The cathedral in Ortigia (Siracusa’s old town) is actually built upon the still-visible columns of a fifth-century B.C. temple. And deep in the remote interior of Sicily is the Villa Romana del Casale, with some of the world’s best-preserved floor mosaics. If you love ancient sites, Sicily will blow your mind. If you don’t…there’s no better place to start.

Visit Mount Etna for its amazing volcanic sights — and its wine.

Mount Etna, which (literally) gave rise to Sicily, is one of Europe’s most accessible active volcanoes. A cable car whisks you halfway up the mountain, and from there, you can hop on a monster-truck bus nearly all the way to the smoldering summit. (It tends to be clear first thing in the morning, then clouds over just as it gets crowded a few hours later — it’s smart to be on the first cable car, at 9:00.) But Mount Etna is also home to one of Italy’s most pleasant wine-growing regions. My favorite stretch — picturesque and still relatively off the beaten path — is on the north side of Etna, between the towns of Linguaglossa and Randazzo. The Etna wine scene has exploded in recent years, garnering more and more international attention. And even if you’re not into wines, the scenery is magnificent: vineyards stretching up sun-baked slopes toward the steaming, snow-capped cone of Etna. Several picturesque wineries offer tours and tastings; it’s customary to call a day or so ahead to let them know you’re coming. (Some favorite finds for the upcoming guidebook include the swanky Tenuta di Fessina, the cheerful Fattoria Romeo del Castello, and the family-run, nicely low-key Filippo Grasso.) If you’re serious about wine, Etna Wine School  — operated by an American vintner expat who literally wrote the book on Etna wines — offers private tours.

Be prepared for heat and hills.

At the same latitude as Spain’s Adalucía and Greece’s Cycladic Islands, Sicily can be very hot for much of the year. (Most of Sicily sits on the African tectonic plate — and the geology and climate really do feel closer to Africa than to Europe.) Many of Sicily’s best sights are dusty ancient landmarks, requiring a hike to reach, with little shade. And virtually nothing in Sicily sits on flat ground — you’ll encounter hills, hills, and more hills. Come prepared with broken-in shoes, sunscreen, and a hat for shade — and take plenty of breaks. Or consider coming off-season, when it’s cooler and less exhausting. Sicily is one of Europe’s most appealing winter destinations. It may not be balmy enough to swim in the ocean, but even in winter, you can often enjoy warm, sunny days and cool, refreshing nights….and zero crowds.

Unwind in the hill towns of the southeast.

Sicily can be intense. But one of my favorite little corners of the island is in the southeast, around the dramatic hill town of Ragusa. With green, rolling hills and neatly stacked stone fences, this area feels almost Celtic. And it’s one part of Sicily where most tourists aren’t Americans, or even northern Europeans — but Italians. In a short drive from Ragusa, you can link up some lovely towns: Modica, famous for its chocolate industry and its dual cathedrals (one on a hilltop, the other in a valley); Scicli, where troglodyte caves carved into the cliffs overlook a fun-to-explore town filling a valley; and beautifully Baroque Noto, rebuilt in a short period after a 1693 earthquake, giving it an unusual architectural harmony (not to mention its world-famous gelato shop, Caffé Sicilia). About halfway through my three-week journey around Sicily, I found Ragusa and the surrounding countryside to be the perfect place to settle in and just relax.

Peel back the layers of history.

Strategically located in the middle of the Mediterranean — practically forming a bridge from Italy to North Africa — Sicily’s culture has been shaped by a staggering variety of overlords and occupiers. There’s so much history on this little island that it’s tempting to just let it wash over you. But this is a place where it’s really worth studying up and grappling with the epic story. From the ancient foundations of the Greeks, Carthaginians, and Romans, to the Arabs who controlled Sicily for more than two centuries (and, during that time, richly developed the island), to the Normans from France who “reclaimed” Sicily for the Christian world and slathered its churches with Byzantine-style mosaics, to the Spanish Bourbon kings who draped the island in a stately Baroque elegance, and even to the mafia who dominated much of Sicily’s 20th century (and whose influence is finally on the wane)…Sicily is a pastiche of history. Get to know and recognize the hallmarks of each period, and before you know it, you’ll be able to step into a church and say, “Wow, those Normans really did a number on this one.”

Go before it’s too late.

In just a few short years, Sicily has quickly become “ready for prime time.” Cities (like Siracusa or Palermo) that were rough, rugged, and a little dangerous have been prettied up and pedestrianized. I noticed lots of European travelers…but relatively few American ones. I was also struck by the relative lack of crowds — even in late May, when the weather’s perfect and mainland Italian cities like Venice and Florence are overrun. All of that is bound to change in the next few years, as more people find out what a great spot Sicily is. Go now, before the cat’s out of the bag.

Accept Sicily on Sicily’s terms.

Street food stand

Sicily is an ideal “deep cut” for Italy connoisseurs who’ve already seen Venice, Florence, and Rome, and want to experience a facet of Italy that’s more intense and challenging. But first-timers might find it a bit wild: buzzing motor scooters, potholed infrastructure, arm-waving people, and, yes, more graffiti and roadside garbage than you’re probably used to seeing. Sicily feels more like Mexico than like Milan. But that’s what I like about it. It’s rustic, rugged, close to the ground, and off the radar of most mainstream tourists. It takes a few days to adjust to the island’s unique rhythms, but once you do, it’s easy to get swept away by Sicily. Best of all, in all of Europe, Sicilians are some of the most enjoyable people to simply interact with. Walk through a bustling street market, strike up some conversations, and let a vendor talk you into buying a three-foot-long zucchini you don’t really need.


In earlier blog posts, I wrote about Palermo’s amazing street food scene, and the challenge of driving in Sicily.

Rick was also in Sicily this spring, filming two new episodes of Rick Steves’ Europe. You’ll see those this fall on public television.

And if you’d like to visit Sicily — but would love it if someone else did all the driving, took care of the hotels and half of the meals, and explained it all to you — well, then, we have a great 11-day tour for you.

Go Ahead — Leave an Honest Hotel Review

Earlier this week, the New York Times published an article warning consumers not to put too much weight into overly negative reviews. But when it comes to crowdsourced hotel review sites, like TripAdvisor and Booking.com, I’m concerned about a different (and equally vexing) problem: overly positive reviews.

In our review-driven culture, we’re constantly asked to rate our experiences. And sometimes — especially when the ratings go both ways — there’s a big incentive to just be nice. (I have a relative who always gives Uber rides five stars…even the bad ones.)

I’m all for niceness — but not when it comes to reviews. After all, if everyone is giving well-meaning (but meaningless) top marks to everything, then what’s the point of reviews at all?

I’m particularly aware of this because of my work researching and writing guidebooks. For three months each year, I spend hours every day scouting accommodations — ringing doorbells, climbing up dreary stairwells, and interrogating hoteliers in my search for great sleeps.

What do I look for when evaluating hotels? Location is key, as are factors such as cleanliness, thoughtful amenities, local character, soundproofing, and conscientious management. I’ll admit that this list can be self-contradictory, and I rarely find a place that ticks every single box. But with these factors in mind, coupled with expertise and intuition, at the end of a busy day surveying options, a few gems usually rise to the top.

Another big factor, of course, is the friendliness of the hotelier. But increasingly, I’m realizing that this one is tricky. A gregarious, welcoming host can be a big plus — but risks overshadowing even bigger minuses. And these days, I have a hunch that the “niceness factor” is throwing off the curve for crowdsourced reviews.

Crowdsourced review sites like TripAdvisor and Booking.com have transformed the way travelers choose and book their accommodations. As a writer of old-fashioned paper guidebooks — admittedly, I’m a dinosaur — I have mixed feelings about this trend. But in the end, I really like crowdsourced sites. I use them often, both in my personal travels and to scout leads and verify hunches in my guidebook research.

I don’t see crowdsourced sites as “competition” to what I do, because they occupy a different niche: Guidebooks provide expert advice, while a crowdsourced site seeks a consensus from an army of amateurs. They’re complementary. Our hunch is that people skim our guidebooks’ hotel listings, then further research their top choices online.

But the crowdsourcing model has inherent problems. When working on a book, I personally visit and evaluate dozens of accommodations in a given destination. But the traveler who leaves a review based on their one-time stay has no basis for comparison. As an experiment, a few years ago I systematically inspected the “Top 10” accommodations from a popular review site in a Croatian town I know very well. A slim majority of them were spot-on. But quite a few were unfortunate outliers. I remember one in particular that was significantly less appealing than its next-door neighbor, but cost far more, for no discernible reason.

After years of admittedly non-scientific testing, I’ve found Booking.com to be the most reliable of the big crowdsourced sites. Until recently, I could pretty well trust that anything above a 9.0 rating was probably a winner. But these days, I’m finding more and more exceptions.

There are probably multiple reasons for this. Some unscrupulous hotels have been known to leave fake positive reviews on some of these sites. (That’s one reason I like Booking.com: You can only review a hotel after you’ve stayed there.) And I know for a fact — because hoteliers have approached me about it — that some hotels try to “game the system” by offering a free breakfast or a discounted rate if you show them a positive review you’ve left.

But I don’t think those factors entirely explain the reliability crisis in crowdsourced sites. Let’s not overlook what I think of as the “friendly host problem”:  I believe that “friendliness” is the X factor that can seriously throw off crowdsourced reviews.

When I’m checking out accommodations, I definitely take the friendliness (or unfriendliness) of the hotelier into consideration. I love it when a host who runs a great place is also a great person — as is usually the case. That’s the cherry on top of an enthusiastic hotel recommendation.

But at the end of the day, I have to call it like I see it. So if I love the hosts but find the rooms subpar, I’ll say so. Rick always instructs our researchers, “You have to be incorruptible. Our readers are counting on you.” I think that’s what our customers appreciate about Rick Steves’ Europe: We always put the traveler first.

On review sites, however, I’ve observed significant “grade inflation” for lackluster properties run by wonderful people. On a recent six-week trip throughout southeastern Europe, I had my worst overnight experience at a place with a sterling 9.5 rating on Booking.com. The rooms were grubby and not entirely clean. The carpets were frayed and worn. A drawer handle came off in my hand. In one corner, the paint was literally peeling off the walls. There were water-pressure problems. And the whole place just smelled musty. Simply put, they were not putting money back into their hotel. And they charge higher rates than more solidly run (if not quite as friendly) places just a few steps away.

Re-checking those rave reviews in retrospect, conspicuously little was said about the rooms. Instead, people raved about the “super-friendly staff…they’d do anything for us!” and the “huge breakfast — more than we could ever eat, and they kept bringing us more!” In other words, they were rating the people who run the hotel (who, unquestionably, deserve a “niceness rating” of at least 9.5)…but, crucially, not the complete experience of staying at the hotel (which I’d put below 8.0).

At another place I stayed — in this case, a wonderful property in every way — the conscientious owner told me, “Fortunately, the people next door with the noisy dogs moved out.” Probing for more information, I was told, “Their dogs would start barking early in the morning, every morning, and there was nothing we could do. Strangely, nobody complained. Maybe it’s because they liked us and didn’t blame us. But we knew it was a problem.”

I get it that the neighbor dogs are not the fault of the host. But if I’m reading reviews of that property, and I know I’m a very light sleeper, am I wrong to hope that somebody — anybody — would tip me off?

Look, I’m not a robot, and I know this may sound harsh. And I don’t want to diminish the importance of hospitality — which is huge. But it’s not the only thing that matters, and my “consumer-protection” streak needs to speak up.

At the end of the day, your experience staying at a hotel is shaped by any number of factors. If a hotel has sweet, earnest, chatty owners, but the paint is peeling off the walls and the nightclub downstairs just extended its closing time until 5 a.m., don’t potential future guests deserve to know that? Giving nice people inflated ratings feels altruistic…but you’re hurting other travelers.

That’s why, the next time you’re reviewing a hotel online, I urge you to be honest. Crowdsourced sites don’t have to be purely about promoting hotels — they can, and should, be about looking out for your community of fellow travelers. It’s OK…go ahead and say what you really think. (We do.)


Have you had an unfortunate experience at a hotel that didn’t live up to its ratings?  Please share your stories in the comments — and let’s see if we can start a trend toward more honest and helpful reviews.

How to Drive in Sicily: Just Go Numb

I just spent three weeks driving 800 miles around Sicily. And let me tell you, that’s no easy task. While touring Sicily by car is a smart, efficient approach for travelers, the timid and the uninitiated may find it challenging. Hold on, is “challenging” the right word? Hmmm. No, wait. I’ve got it: “Terrifying.”

The trick to driving in Sicily is keeping in mind that you are driving in Sicily. It took me a few days to dispense with my preconceptions about things like obeying traffic signs, or why it’s a bad idea to triple-park in the middle of the street, or the importance of cars staying in their lanes (or, really, the very concept of “lanes”). Drivers who refuse to accept Sicily on Sicily’s terms will need to end each journey by popping a Xanax and prying their raw, white-knuckled, death-grip claws from the steering wheel. But, like with other things in Sicily, if you just sort of go numb and roll with it…you’ll be just fine. (Oh, and while you’re at it, spring for the zero-deductible insurance. Not joking.)

Entering a big city like Palermo or Catania, forget about right of way and obeying signs — just go with the flow of local traffic. I was taught to drive defensively, which works in Sicily…to a point. But don’t be too stubborn about it. Assuming you actually want to get where you’re going, occasionally you need to drive like a Sicilian. Just today, in the very heart of Palermo, I obediently pulled to a stop at a red light, instantly generating a chorus of furious honks from the column of cars behind me. I shrugged, checked both ways three times, and ran the red light…followed, without a moment’s hesitation, by everyone else.

Meanwhile, there are the motor scooters — the true love of most Sicilians. Knock-off Vespas weave between cars stalled in traffic, brushing past your side-view mirrors, bushwhacking their own path through an urban jungle. Pausing at a red light, my car was instantly enveloped by motor scooters squeezing around me on both sides. They gathered in front of me, cramming into the tiny no-man’s-land between my hood and the intersecting traffic, forming a scrum of eager beavers at my front bumper. When the light turned green, a half-dozen little engines buzzed to life, like a swarm of bees taking flight, and off they zipped…leaving me in a cloud of dust and exhaust.

While urban driving is challenging, driving in the Sicilian countryside is, for the most part, a delight. The roads are empty — it’s easy to make great time. But be prepared for the dramatic variation in Sicilian cruising speeds. On a road with a limit of, say, 100 kilometers per hour, virtually nobody actually goes 100 kilometers per hour…except me. Approximately half of all Sicilian drivers go far, far below the speed limit. The co-author of our upcoming Rick Steves Sicily guidebook, Sarah Murdoch, quite rightly pointed out that Sicilian roads are clogged with dinky, boxy Fiat Pandas from the early 1980s, which appear to have a maximum speed of about 70 kmh. Sure enough, I spent enough long journeys stuck behind Pandas to become something of an aficionado. (The lines on the 1982 Panda 45 Super were nothing short of breathtaking.)

Meanwhile, the other half of Sicilian drivers go far, far above the speed limit. And if you’re going even a smidge below their preferred speed — even for a fleeting moment, even if there’s a stop sign a hundred yards in front of you — they’ll ride your bumper so close, it feels like you’re giving them a tow. Passing on blind curves is a high-risk national pastime in Sicily (like bullfighting in Spain), and drivers take insane chances. On a busy parkway into the city of Siracusa, a motorcycle screamed past me at around 120 kilometers per hour. As he faded into the horizon, I caught a fleeting glimpse of the daredevil driver riding sidesaddle, his bike leaning at a precipitous angle.

Navigation is tricky. Sicily’s roads are potholed and inconsistently signed. And when there are signs, they can be more confusing than no signs at all. Highways can be unexpectedly closed — or exist only on maps despite never having been completed (I spotted quite a few on-ramps to nowhere).

I am a fanatical devotee of using Google Maps on my phone for navigation, and — with only a few memorable missteps — it has been my reliable copilot through dozens of European road trips. But it was patchy at best in Sicily.  Late one night, returning to my agriturismo in the hills near Agrigento, I was counting on Google Maps to get me home. It treated me to a fun little detour, 10 minutes high above the seashore, before dead-ending me at a three-way intersection with two rutted, overgrown trails suitable only for tractors and herds of goats. (About 20 minutes of backtracking later, I finally found my way home.) I can get away with blindly trusting my GPS in most of Europe and the USA…but not in Sicily.

A word about roundabouts: I deeply believe that they are humankind’s greatest invention, a notch above penicillin and smartphones. We should have roundabouts at every intersection in the United States. I’ve driven miles and miles through the British countryside, zipping around the outskirts of major cities and through the historic cores of quaint villages, without ever coming to a full stop. When properly utilized, roundabouts make traffic flow like poetry.

But Sicily is a long way from Britain. And it’s the only place I’ve been where a roundabout is treated like a lawless intersection: Everybody just aggressively plows through, willfully defiant of silly concepts like “right of way.” Yield to vehicles already in the roundabout, and those entering from the left?! Per favore! What a ridiculous concept. You just go, and let God sort it out.

All of this sounds like madness…chaos. But if you manage to approach Sicilian driving with the right attitude, it becomes clear that it’s a controlled chaos. The thing is, it works. It works not because it’s “every driver for himself,” as it might seem at first glance…but because there’s an unspoken understanding that we’re all in this together. Other drivers are watching you. They see how fast you’re going, how big your car is, and where you’re headed next. They probably know more about your driving skills than you do. And they adapt — constantly, intuitively, and effectively. If you get stubborn and use roundabouts the way they were intended to be used, dammit! — you’ll get everyone angry (at best) or cause a fender-bender (at worst). Put another way: If you’re the only one using the roundabout “the right way,” then you’re the one using it the wrong way.

A cadre of road engineers in Britain and the Netherlands are pioneering a new way of handling complicated intersections: You simply remove all of the signage. There are idyllic little English and Dutch towns where, upon reaching the village green, suddenly there are no traffic lights, no roundabouts, no bike lanes, no crosswalks, no signs of any sort. You just have to pay attention. You have to. And so, everyone does: Drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians all make eye contact with each other, ensuring that everyone’s on the same page regarding what’s about to happen. It sounds counter-intuitive, but removing all signage from intersections not only drastically reduces accidents — it actually makes traffic flow more smoothly, reducing congestion. (This is just fascinating. Check it out.)

On about my third day driving in Sicily, I was cursing my fellow drivers who refused to abide by the universally accepted rules of using a roundabout, when it suddenly dawned on me: Sicilians long ago intuitively figured out what all those Northern European eggheads have spent their careers researching. The road is a shared venture — a communal enterprise. And as long as we all look out for each other, we’ll get through it in one piece. And if you can do that, and just dive in…well, then, you might just come to enjoy it.

Bruised and battle-hardened, but wiser, I leave Sicily thinking it’s a fine place to drive. A car gives you maximum flexibility for linking up the remote and rural highlights of Sicily, even on a short trip. And distances are short, making fuel prices reasonable — I circled the entire island on just three tanks of gas. So don’t be afraid to tackle the Sicilian roads. Remember: Just go numb. Go with the flow. And keep in mind that, like all things Sicilian, everyone’s in this together.