10 European Discoveries for 2018

My Christmas tree is out at the curb, which means it’s time to start planning 2018 travels. This year, I hope to visit some big-name destinations — maybe Madrid, maybe Amsterdam, maybe Prague? But as I reflect on recent trips, I’m struck by how many favorite travel memories have taken place in Europe’s underappreciated corners. As your travel dreams take shape for 2018, consider peppering your itinerary with a few off-the-beaten-path discoveries — the sorts of places that Rick Steves, decades ago, dubbed “Back Doors.” Here are 10 of my current favorites.


Lake Mývatn Area, Iceland

Driving around the perimeter of Iceland on the 800-mile Ring Road this summer (working on our upcoming Rick Steves Iceland guidebook), I binged on an unceasing stream of cinematic landscapes. But what sticks with me most vividly is the region surrounding Lake Mývatn, a geological hotspot that straddles the European and North American tectonic plates. Birds love this dreamy lake, as do the swarms of microscopic midges (for whom the lake is named) that invade the nostrils and mouths of summertime visitors. But the bugs are easy enough to ignore as you explore the lakeshore’s volcanic terrain — from the “pseudocraters” (gigantic burst bubbles of molten rock) at Skútustaðir, to the forest of jagged lava pillars at Dimmuborgir, to the climbable volcanic cone at Hverfjall. And the thermal fun crescendos just to the east: the delightful Mývatn Thermal Baths (the lowbrow, half-price alternative to the famous Blue Lagoon), the volcanic valley at Kralfa (with a steaming geothermal power plant), and the bubbling, hissing field at Námafjall (pictured above). Stepping out of my car at Námafjall, I plugged my nose against the suffocating sulfur vapors and wandered, slack-jawed, across an otherworldly landscape of vivid-yellow sands, bubbling gray ponds, and piles of rocks steaming like furious teakettles. Many visitors drop into Iceland for just a few days, and stick close to Reykjavik — which is a good plan, if you’re in a rush. But the opportunity to linger in Mývatn (about a six-hour drive from Reykjavík) may be reason enough to extend your trip by a few days…and turn your stopover into a full-blown road trip.


Sarlat Market Day, Dordogne, France

Of all the delightful activities I’ve enjoyed in France, my favorite remains the lazy Saturday morning I spent wandering the market stalls in the town of Sarlat. Rickety tables groaned with oversized wheels of mountain cheese, tidy little stacks of salamis, cans of foie gras and duck confit, and a cornucopia of fresh produce. Market day in rural and small-town France isn’t just a chance to stock up — it’s a social institution, where neighbors mix and mingle, and where consumers forge lasting relationships with their favorite producers. And when the market wraps up, even before the sales kiosks are folded up and stowed, al fresco café tables overflow with weary shoppers catching up with their friends. While Sarlat is my favorite market (and my favorite little town in France), you can have a similar experience anywhere in the country; I’ve also enjoyed memorable market days in Uzès (Provence), Beaune (Burgundy), St-Jean-de-Luz (Basque Country), and even in Paris. Just research the local jour de marché schedule, wherever you’re going in France, and make time for one or two. And when you get there…. Actually. Slow. Down. Throw away your itinerary for a morning. Become a French villager with an affinity for quality ingredients. Browse the goods. Get picky. And assemble the French picnic of your dreams.


Ruin Pubs, Budapest, Hungary

I must admit, I’m not really a “nightlife guy.” But when I’m in Budapest, I budget extra time to simply wander the lively streets of the Seventh District — just behind the Great Synagogue, in the heart of the city — and drop into a variety of “ruin pubs.” A ruin pub is a uniquely Budapest invention (though these days, it’s been copied by hipster entrepreneurs everywhere): Find a ramshackle, crumbling, borderline-condemned old building. Fill its courtyard with mismatched furniture and twinkle lights. And serve up a fun variety of drinks, from basic beers to twee cocktails to communist-kitsch sodas for nostalgic fortysomethings. The Seventh District — the former Jewish Quarter, and for decades a wasteland of dilapidated townhouses — gave root to ruin pubs several years back. And today, tucked between the synagogues and kosher shops are dozens of ruin pubs, each one with its own personality. While you could link up a variety of the big-name ruin pubs (and my self-guided “Ruin Pub Crawl” in the Rick Steves Budapest guidebook does exactly that), the best plan may simply be to explore Kazinczy street and find the place that suits your mood.


Julian Alps, Slovenia

This gorgeous corner of my favorite country has always been high on my personal “must list.” It’s a little slice of heaven: Cut-glass alpine peaks tower over fine little Baroque-steepled towns, all laced together by an eerily turquoise river. While this place should be overrun with crowds, on my latest visit — in late September — I had the place nearly to myself. A few A+ travelers have begun to find their way to the “sunny side of the Alps”: Rafters, kayakers, and adventure sports fanatics are drawn to the sparkling waters of the Soča River. Historians peruse the well-curated array of outdoor museums and cemeteries from World War I’s Isonzo Front, where Ernest Hemingway famously drove an ambulance. Skiers gape up at the 660-foot-tall jump at Planica, home to the world championships of ski flying (for daredevils who consider ski jumping for wimps). And foodies make a pilgrimage to Hiša Franko, the world-class restaurant of Ana Roš — a self-trained Slovenian chef who was profiled on Netflix’s Chef’s Table, and was named the World’s Best Female Chef 2017. (I recently enjoyed a fantastic dinner at Hiša Franko, and was tickled to be greeted by Ana herself, who took my coat and showed me to my table.) As a bonus, the Julian Alps pair perfectly with a visit to northern Italy: On my latest trip, I spent the morning hiking on alpine trails and exploring antique WWI trenches carved into the limestone cliffs, had lunch immersed in the pastoral beauty of Slovenia’s Goriška Brda wine region (also egregiously overlooked), then hopped on the freeway and was cruising the canals of Venice well before dinnertime.


Vigeland Park, Oslo, Norway

My favorite piece of art in Europe isn’t a painting, and it isn’t in a museum. It’s a park — a grassy canvas where a single artist, the early-20th-century sculptor Gustav Vigeland, was given carte blanche to design and decorate as he saw fit. The city of Oslo gave Vigeland a big studio, and turned him loose in the adjoining park for 20 years. He filled that space with a sprawling yet harmonious ensemble of 600 bronze and granite figures, representing every emotion and rite of passage in the human experience, all frozen in silent conversation with each other — and with the steady stream of Oslo urbanites and tourists who flow through Vigeland’s masterpiece. The naked figures (which might provoke giggles among prudish Americans) reinforce the sense of timelessness and universality: They belong not to any one time or place, but to every time and every place — from Adam and Eve to contemporary Norway. Over the last decade and a half, I’ve been to Vigeland Park three times. Each time, I was in a totally different state of mind. And each time, the statues spoke to me like old friends — sometimes with the same old message, and sometimes with new insights. With all due respect to da Vinci, Van Gogh, and Picasso, no single artistic experience in Europe is more meaningful or impactful to me than Vigeland Park.


Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina

Sarači #16 is the most interesting address in downtown Sarajevo. Facing east — toward the Ottoman-era old town, Baščaršija — you’re transported to medieval Turkey: a bustling bazaar with slate-roofed houses, chunky river-stone cobbles, the tap-tap-tap of coppersmiths’ hammers, and a pungent haze of hookah smoke and grilled meats. Then, turning to the west, you’re peering down Ferhadija, the main thoroughfare of Habsburg Sarajevo. This could be a Vienna suburb, where stern, genteel Baroque facades look down over cafés teeming with urbanites. Within a few short blocks of this spot stand the city’s historic synagogue, its oldest Serbian Orthodox church, its Catholic cathedral, and its showcase mosque. Few places on earth are so layered with history. And then there’s the latest chapter: the poignant story of the Siege of Sarajevo in the mid-1990s, when the town was surrounded by snipers for more than 1,400 days — connected to the outside world only by a muck-filled tunnel and a steep mountain ascent. Proud Sarajevans you’ll meet are often willing, or even eager, to share their stories of living a horrific reality that we experienced only through the Nightly News. And if you’re lucky, they’ll invite you for a cup of Bosnian coffee — and explain why it’s integral to their worldview and their social life. Many travelers do a strategic side-trip from Croatia to the town of Mostar — a good first taste of Bosnia, but what I consider “Bosnia with training wheels.” But for the full Bosnian experience, I’d invest another day or two and delve a couple of hours deeper into the country…to Sarajevo.


Val d’Orcia, Tuscany, Italy

Of all of Tuscany’s appealing corners, the Val d’Orcia (“val dor-chah”) is — for me — the most enchanting. While just a short drive from the tourist throngs in Florence, San Gimignano, Siena, or the Chianti region, the Val d’Orcia — bookended by the charming towns of Montepulciano and Montalcino (both synonymous with fine Tuscan wine) — feels like a peaceful, overlooked eddy of rural life. This strip of land is where most of the iconic “Tuscany scenery” photographs are taken: Winding, cypress-lined driveways; vibrant-green, rolling farm fields that look like a circa-2000 screensaver; and lonely chapels perched on verdant ridges. And it’s the backdrop for famous scenes in everything from The English Patient to Gladiator to Master of None. And yet, the area has no “major sights” — no sculptures by Michelangelo, no paintings by da Vinci, no leaning towers — which, mercifully, keeps it just beyond the itineraries of whistle-stop, bucket-list tourists. I have savored several visits — including a particularly memorable Thanksgiving week with family — settling into my favorite agriturismo, Cretaiole, in the heart of the Val d’Orica. And every moment of every trip lives on as a mental postcard: Making fresh pasta. Sawing into a deliciously rare slab of Chianina beef T-bone. Following a truffle-hunting dog as it sniffs its way through an oak forest. And on and on. If you have a day to spare between Rome and Florence, don’t go to the Val d’Orcia. But if you have several days to really delve into the best of Tuscany…let’s talk.


Psyrri Neighborhood, Athens, Greece

A few years removed from the depths of its economic crisis, Athens has re-emerged as a red-hot destination. Revisiting the city a few months ago, I was struck by how many tourists I saw — and by how many of them refused to venture beyond the cutesy, crowded Plaka zone that rings the base of the Acropolis. And that’s a shame, because literally across the street  from the Plaka’s central square, Monastiraki, is one of Athens’ most colorful and fun-to-explore neighborhoods: Psyrri (“psee-ree”). Not long ago, this was a deserted and dangerous slum. But recently, Psyrri has emerged as a trendy dining and nightlife zone. Its graffiti-slathered apartment blocks now blossom with freshly remodeled Airbnb rentals. This still-gritty area may feel a little foreboding at first, but if you can get past the street art, grime, and motorbikes parked on potholed sidewalks, it’s easy to enjoy the hipster soul of the neighborhood that’s leading many to dub Athens “The New Berlin.” For the upcoming fifth edition of our Rick Steves Greece guidebook, Psyrri inspired me to write a brand-new, food-and-street-art-themed self-guided walk chapter. In just a few blocks, between the Plaka and the thriving Central Market, you can stop in for nibbles and sips of sesame-encrusted dough rings (koulouri), delicate phyllo-custard pastry (bougatsa), deep-fried donuts (loukoumades), anise-flavored ouzo liquor, and unfiltered “Greek coffee.” If you’re going to Athens, break free of the Plaka rut, walk five minutes away from the hovering Parthenon, and sample this accessible, authentic slice of urban Greek life.


Moscow, Russia

On my last visit to Moscow, in the summer of 2014, Russia was in the news: military action in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, Putin’s brutal crackdown on homosexuality and punk-rock protesters Pussy Riot, and the recently completed Sochi Olympics. Of course, since then, the headlines have changed, but Russia is in the news more than ever. That’s why I consider Moscow to be Europe’s most fascinating — and challenging — destination. People back home shake their heads and wonder: How can these people support Putin, who (to us) is so clearly a demagogue? I take that not as a rhetorical question, but as a genuine one that deserves a real answer. And a thoughtful visit to Moscow — even “just” as a casual tourist — can offer some insights. Designed-to-intimidate Red Square and the Kremlin fill onlookers with awe and respect. The still-standing headstone of Josef Stalin — tucked along the Kremlin Wall, just behind Lenin’s Tomb and its waxy occupant — seems to suggest that the Russian appetite for absolute rulers is nothing new. But mostly, I’m struck by the improvements I see in Moscow with each return visit. On my first trip, in the early 2000s, the famous Gorky Park was a ramshackle, potholed mess, and the Cathedral of Christ the Savior — which had been demolished by communist authorities — was still being rebuilt. But today, Gorky Park is a lush, pristine, manicured people zone, and the sunshine glitters off the cathedral’s rebuilt golden dome. Just up the river, a Shanghai-style forest of futuristic skyscrapers rises up from a onetime industrial wasteland. In short, the Russian capital — which has always been interesting — is now actually a pleasant place to travel. Finding myself really enjoying Moscow, for the first time, makes it easier to imagine how many Russians might be convinced that Putin is Making Russia Great Again.


Orkney Islands, Scotland

Cameron Scotland Orkney Old Man of HoyI traveled all over Scotland a couple of summers ago, working on the Rick Steves Scotland guidebook. And the most intriguing place I visited had nothing to do with kilts, bagpipes, or moody glens: the archipelago of Orkney, barely visible from Britain’s northernmost point at John o’ Groats. This flat, mossy island feels far from what I think of as “Scotland.” For most of its history, it was a Norse trading outpost, rather than a clan stronghold. And today it remains a world apart. Five-thousand-year-old stone circles and rows point the way to prehistoric subterranean settlements. The main town, Kirkwall, has a quirky tradition for a no-holds-barred, town-wide annual rugby match, and a fascinating-to-tour church. And you can still drive across the “Churchill Barriers,” installed by Sir Winston after a Nazi U-Boat snuck into the famous harbor called Scapa Flow and blew up a British warship. But my favorite sight is the Italian Chapel: a drab wartime hut transformed into a delicate, ethereal Catholic chapel by Italian POWs who were allowed to improvise the decor from whatever materials they could scavenge. While Orkney takes some effort to reach, it’s worthwhile for the unique and captivating sightseeing it affords. (To get the most out of your time on Orkney, book a tour with Kinlay at Orkney Uncovered.)

Where are you headed in 2018?

Wartime Orkney: Sunken Ships, Churchill Barriers, and a POW-Built Chapel

Aside from its Old Norse heritage and its prehistoric sites, Orkney is known for its role in 20th-century military history. The islands of Orkney create a natural harbor, called Scapa Flow, that was the base for the British Royal Navy during both World Wars.


Cameron Scotland Orkney Wartime Shipwrecks

During World War I, to more completely seal off the harbor, the navy requisitioned and intentionally sank hundreds of ships in the narrow straits between islets. A century later, you can still see their rusting hulls poking up above the surf.


Cameron Scotland Orkney Wartime Barriers

In the early days of World War II, a Nazi submarine discovered a gap in the sunken-ship barriers, and managed to enter Scapa Flow and sink the HMS Royal Oak. First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill (just weeks before becoming prime minister) hatched a plan to build sturdy barriers between the islets. These were finally completed just a few days after V-E Day, and today tourists use them to link the WWII sights.


Cameron Scotland Orkney Italian Chapel Exterior

The most fascinating World War II site on Orkney — and in my mind, one of the best wartime sites in all of Europe — is the Italian Chapel. The Italian POWs who built the Churchill Barriers were granted permission to create a chapel of their own. While it looks like a pretty church from the outside, circling around back you see that it’s actually two prefab Nissen huts (similar to Quonset huts) stacked end-to-end.


Cameron Scotland Orkney Wartime Italian Chapel Interior

The POWs decorated the chapel in their free time, using whatever materials they could scavenge. The ethereal Madonna e Bambino over the main altar is based on a small votive one prisoner had brought with him to war. They used scrap metal from sunken WWI ships to create the gate and chandeliers.


Cameron Scotland Orkney Wartime Font

This elegant baptismal font’s corkscrew base is actually a suspension spring coated in concrete. Lovingly crafted details like these are a hope-filled symbol of the gentility and grace that can blossom even during brutal wartime.

Seeing the many sights on Orkney is doable on your own, but much more satisfying with a good local guide. I was treated to a great guide named Kinlay, whose company Orkney Uncovered runs tours that efficiently tie together both the prehistoric and the World War sights on this eclectic island. Thanks, Kinlay!

Orkney’s Prehistoric Wonderland

Orkney boasts an astonishing concentration of 5,000-year-old Neolithic monuments — some of the best in Great Britain (and that’s really saying something).

Five thousand years ago — before the Picts and Celts, before the ancient Greeks or Romans, before the Great Pyramids, and even centuries before Stonehenge — Orkney had a bustling settlement with some 30,000 people. These prehistoric Orcadians left behind structures from every walk of life: humble residential settlements (Skara Brae, Barnhouse Village), mysterious stone circles (Ring of Brodgar, Stenness Stones), more than 100 tombs (Maeshowe, Tomb of the Eagles), and a sprawling ensemble of spiritual buildings (the Ness of Brodgar). And of course, this being the Stone Age, all of this was accomplished using tools made not of metal, but of stone and bone.


Cameron Scotland Orkney Ring of Brodgar

Of Orkney’s many stone circles, the Ring of Brodgar is the biggest. Of the original 60 to 80 stones — creating a circle as wide as a football field — 27 still survive. The ring, which sits amidst a marshy moor, was surrounded by a henge (moat) that was 30 feet wide and 20 feet deep.


Cameron Scotland Orkney Ring of Brodgar Graffiti

Some of the ring’s stones are carved with “graffiti” — names of late-19th-century tourists. There’s even some faint Norse runes carved by a Viking named Bjorn around A.D. 1150.


Cameron Scotland Orkney Ness of Brodgar

Orkney offers a unique opportunity to see an actual archaeological dig in progress, at the Ness of Brodgar. Discovered only in 2003, the site is carefully covered ten months out of the year — but in July and August, anyone is welcome to watch the archaeologists at work.


Cameron Scotland Orkney Skara Brae

At Skara Brae, you can see how some Neolithic people lived like rabbits in warrens — hunkered down in subterranean homes, connected by tunnels and lit only by whale-oil lamps. All of this was covered with turf, with only two or three entrances and exits. Because sandstone is a natural insulator, these spaces — while cramped and dank — would have been warm and cozy during the frequent battering storms. A primitive sewer system, flushed by a re-routed stream, ran beneath all of the homes, functioning not too differently from modern sewers. They even created an ingenious system of giant stone slabs on pivots, allowing them to be opened and closed like modern doors.

Sea Stacks, Evocative Tombs, and American Flags on Orkney

For very seasoned travelers, Orkney — the archipelago that dangles just above the crown of Scotland — has a special allure. When I tell most people I’m going to Scotland, they say, “Oooh! Edinburgh!” or “Pretty! Highlands!” But the extremely well-traveled squint their eyes and ask me, almost conspiratorially: “Will you make it to Orkney?” And when I tell them yes, a flash of jealousy passes their face. “You’ll have to tell me about it.” It’s not a request…it’s an order.

Why is Orkney the holy grail of Scottish travels? For one thing, it’s remote: At best, you’re in for a three-hour drive due north of Inverness, then an hour and a half by ferry. Unless you take the slow route that I did: Two days up the west coast, then across the north coast of Scotland.

Crossing the 10-mile Pentland Firth to Orkney, you feel as if you’ve traveled more like 1,000 miles. Orkney is a world apart. For most of its formative history (875-1468), Orkney was a prized trading outpost of the Norwegian realm. The Vikings left their mark, both literally (runes carved into prehistoric stone monuments) and culturally: Many place names are derived from Old Norse, and the Orkney flag looks like the Norwegian flag with a few yellow accents. Today, while Orkney is technically Scotland, it doesn’t quite feel like Scotland — with no real tradition for clans, tartans, or bagpipes.

Over the next few days, I’ll report on Orkney’s two big claims to fame: its amazing prehistoric sites and its fascinating World War II heritage. But first, let’s get our bearings.


Cameron Scotland Orkney Old Man of Hoy

The Old Man of Hoy, one of Orkney’s main landmarks, is a 450-foot-high sea stack that towers up in front of Britain’s tallest vertical sea cliffs. To see it, you can hike seven miles round-trip…or you can just look out the window on the ferry to Stromness.


Cameron Scotland Orkney Yesnaby

Orkney’s main island is — confusingly — called “Mainland.” It just goes to show: One person’s island is another person’s mainland. (If that’s not an old adage, it should be.) While there are a few dramatic cliffs on its perimeter, most of Mainland is flat and carved into tidy little farm plots.


Cameron Scotland Orkney St Magnus

Orkney’s capital, Kirkwall, is home to St. Magnus Cathedral, built in classic Romanesque style by the same stonemasons who did Durham’s famous cathedral. (In Durham, the style is called “Norman” — but the Normans never made it this far north.)


Cameron Scotland Orkney Rae

St. Magnus is my favorite church to tour in all of Scotland. It’s jammed with quirky and fascinating details, like this tomb of artic explorer John Rae — who seems to be really enjoying his nap.


Cameron Scotland Orkney Tombs

Gravestones line the walls of the nave, each one carved with reminders of mortality: skull and crossbones, coffin, hourglass, and the shovel used by the undertaker. One touching epitaph reads: “She lived regarded and dyed regreted.”


Cameron Scotland Orkney Holland House

I enjoyed staying in the Orkney countryside, at Holland House. After staying in dozens of B&Bs, I thought I’d seen it all. But this place has a particularly thoughtful custom: The day after I checked in, I noticed they were flying the Stars and Stripes. Apparently they have quite a flag collection, and pride themselves on displaying the flags of their guests.