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

10 Money-Saving Tips for Your Next Cruise

One evening at twilight, on the deck of a cruise ship in the Aegean, I bumped into newlyweds from the USA who had recently been stationed in Germany. They told me they chose this budget cruise line for their first European vacation. They were big fans of our Rick Steves guidebooks and TV shows, and they seemed to be smart, adventurous travelers, so I asked why they weren’t doing the trip on their own. “Because there’s no way we could possibly visit five Greek islands in a week for this kind of money…unless we slept in youth hostels and ate only groceries.” They reminded me why I was there to begin with: Cruising can be a smart choice for budget travelers. But if you want to get the best value and the best European experience out of your cruise, it’s essential to be prepared.

A few years back, I went on a variety of cruises — from bargain-basement to high-end — in order to research cruising for Rick Steves’ Europe. That project resulted in our two Rick Steves Cruise Ports guidebooks (one for the Mediterranean, and the other for Scandinavia and Northern Europe); a series of travel talks on cruising, Mediterranean ports, and Northern European ports; and Rick’s brand-new public television special on Cruising the Mediterranean.

Over those many cruises, it was fascinating to see how different cruise lines handled their guests…and how they made their profits. One thing became clear: Especially for lower-priced lines, the strategy is to lure you in with a “cheap” fare, then bombard you with opportunities to pay more for this and that — and before long, the total price of your cruise has doubled. Some of those optional expenses are worthwhile. But many aren’t. And some are almost criminally rip-offs. It’s our job to help you figure out which is which.

This “consumer protection” mindset informed the way we wrote our cruising guidebooks, which are designed to empower travelers to take full advantage of their cruise experience, rather than the other way around. I’ve distilled those many weeks of cruising (and those two bricklike guidebooks) into these 10 key tips for wringing the maximum value out of your cruise: which things to skimp on, which things to splurge on, and how to most wisely invest your budget to turn your cruise into the best possible European travel experience.

Keep in mind that everything on board is marked up. Cruise lines make no money while you’re in port; if they could, they’d keep you on the ship the entire time. That’s because when you’re at sea, you are the very definition of a captive audience. And that means that anything you buy on board will be heavily marked up. This isn’t to say that you should skip all on-board expenses — just to choose wisely, knowing that you’re paying a premium. Sometimes it’s fun to splurge on cocktail hour. But if you’re going to want a Coke as soon as you get back to your cabin, pick one up at a convenience store for $1 — before returning to the ship — rather than waiting to buy one on board for $4. And skip the gambling, souvenir shopping, and overpriced photographs altogether; these are major moneymakers for cruise lines, and therefore, terrible values for travelers. Rather than ponying up $10 or $15 for a staged snapshot, get some of your selfies printed at Costco when you get home, for pennies on the dollar.

Understand your ship’s alcohol policy. Because of the high on-board markup — as well as for liability and safety reasons — many cruise lines don’t allow passengers to bring their own alcohol on board. If you do buy a bottle of local wine, you’ll need to hand it over to the cruise line, who will give it back only when you disembark at the final port. However, increasingly, cruise lines are allowing passengers to bring a small amount of alcohol on board, often one or two bottles of wine for the entire cruise. Considering that booze is one of the main profit centers for a cruise line, it’s worth it to max out on this allowance. Find out your ship’s policy, stop by a wine shop on your way to the ship (or buy it duty-free on the flight over), and save yourself some money.

Don’t assume you have to pay for official shore excursions. At every single cruise port in Europe, it’s possible to get into town and be your own tour guide for the day: Just hop on the public bus or tram, pay a dollar or two, and in a few minutes you’re at the main square. Or splurge on a taxi, which is still several times cheaper than an excursion. Our two Cruise Ports guidebooks (for the Mediterranean and Scandinavia and Northern Europe) are designed exactly for this purpose, with step-by-step instructions for how to get into town from every major European cruise port. This allows you to make an informed decision about whether an excursion is worth splurging on. (You can also get a port-by-port rundown by watching my travel talks on Mediterranean and Northern European cruise ports.)

Here’s an example: Stepping off my cruise ship in St. Petersburg, I’d already decided to skip the $250 cruise line excursion. Out at the curb, I was quoted a taxi fare of a $25 for the ride into town. But then a public bus pulled up just behind the taxi stand — and I hopped on. While designed for local commuters who work at the port, this bus also welcomes tourists. For $1, it brought me to a Metro stop, where — for another $1 — I zipped (under stalled traffic jams) directly to the heart of town…faster and for less than a tenth the price of a taxi.

Remember: Anytime you get off the ship, you can either head for those excursion buses…or head into town on your own. The choice is yours.

On the other hand, sometimes shore excursions can be a solid investment — particularly for reaching far-flung sights. Some outlying sights are a headache to connect by public transportation. For example, if you’re calling at the port of La Seyne-sur-Mer, in Provence, it’s possible to use trains and buses to reach a couple of the big Provençal sights…but that means spending part of your precious vacation poring over transit schedules. It can be much easier, less stressful, and more efficient to just let an excursion do the work for you. In contrast, in places like Naples, Tallinn, or Istanbul, where the ship lets you off a few minutes’ walk from all the big sights, I’d skip the excursions.

Also, don’t assume that you have to take an excursion offered by your cruise line. A wide range of third-party companies meet arriving ships selling essentially the same itineraries the cruise lines sell, and often cheaper. Or you can hire your own private guide or driver to show you around; especially if you split the cost among four or six people, this can be significantly less (per person) than official shore excursions, while tailored specifically to your interests.

Don’t be terrified about missing the ship. The cruise lines’ main motivator for selling excursions is the dire warning: If you don’t make it back to the ship by “all aboard,” we’ll leave without you — and you’ll have to find your own way to the next port. While this is, indeed, an enforcable policy, several crew members on various lines have assured me that it’s exceedingly rare for someone to get left behind. Trust yourself to manage your time smartly enough to make it back on time. (If you are perennially late, then tell yourself the ship leaves an hour earlier than it actually does.) I make a point of being the first person off the ship each morning, and the last one back in the evening…and I have yet to miss the boat.

One strategy for ensuring you’ll make it back on time is to hit the farther-flung sights first, then work your way back toward the cruise port, so an afternoon traffic jam doesn’t leave you stranded in the boonies. For example, in Barcelona, in the morning I’d tour Gaudí’s Sagrada Família — located in the distant suburbs — and then work my way back to the Ramblas and Gothic Quarter, which are within sight of my ship.

Choose cruises in expensive places. Since your costs for accommodations, transportation, and most food are set, cruises are a particularly good value in very expensive places, like Scandinavia. It can be demoralizingly expensive to visit the Scandinavian capitals on your own — with sky-high train fares, hotel rates, and pricey meals that can add up fast. But a cruise connecting Oslo, Copenhagen, Stockholm, and Helsinki lets you experience those places for one fixed price. And each of those cities is well organized for cruises, with a port either right in the center (within easy walking distance), or an easy public-transit ride away.

Have lunch in port. On the face of things, this is the opposite of a “money-saving tip” — why not just head back to the ship for a “free” lunch? But in terms of overall travel experience, having lunch on shore is an excellent investment. It saves you the wasted time of returning to the ship. Better yet, it gives you an opportunity to sample authentically local cuisine. (Remember the great lament of any cruising foodie: The food you’re served on board most ships is generic international fare.)

Take it a step farther, and challenge yourself to find something fast, affordable, and local (don’t just grab a Big Mac). Figure out the local version of a hot-dog stand or pizza by the slice — for example, in Nice, get a socca (chickpea crêpe, piping hot from the oven); in Athens, grab a souvlaki (kebab of grilled meat); and in Venice, drop into a cicchetti bar to munch some tapas-style small plates.

Don’t skimp on the tip. One place where you should not try to economize is when it’s time to tip the crew. Most cruise lines “insource” low-wage workers from the developing world, who work incredibly long shifts (12-14 hours a day), seven days a week, without days off, for their entire multi-month contract. (Seriously.) They’re away from their families and working hard, and their base pay is minimal — most of their income comes in the form of tips. In an acknowledgement of how important this tip income is, most cruise lines levy an “auto-tip” that is divided among the crew. While they set a default amount  (usually around $12/day), some cruise lines will lower it at your request. Don’t do it — the people working hard for you need this money. In fact, use some of the money you’ll save from the other nine tips here to fund generous additional tips for the folks who make your cruise experience so special.

Shop thoughtfully…even on land. Souvenirs sold on a cruise ship are obviously marked up. But you might not realize that what you buy in port also includes a substantial kickback. Cruise lines hand out an “information sheet” for each port, listing the “recommended” or “endorsed” merchants in that town. Of course, these businesses are paying the cruise line for the privilege of being “recommended.” And in some cases — for example, the carpet sellers in Turkey — they also pay a hefty commission for anything that they sell. (When you return to the ship, you’ll hear an announcement: “If you bought a carpet in Kuşadası, bring the blue copy of your receipt for a raffle. You could win an iPad!” This is the cruise line’s way of keeping track of which carpet sellers owe them a commission.) For the best prices, do some research on your own to find better value, without the built-in cruise industry markup. In general, assume any “advice” offered by your cruise line is clouded by a profit motive.

Do your homework. Most of these tips have a common thread: To have an “A” cruise, be an “A” student. If you just show up, unprepared, and throw yourself at the mercy of the cruise line, you’ll pay far more to experience far less. It’s that simple. Instead, do a little homework to wring the maximum value out of your cruise.

Spend some time preparing for your trip researching online reviews (such as on Cruisecritic.com), reading up on how you can visit ports independently (in the Rick Steves Cruise Ports guidebooks, on the Mediterranean and Scandinavia and Northern Europe), watching my travel talks and Rick’s new public television special about cruising, and asking your friends and social media contacts for their best tips. There’s a vast subculture of Americans who cruise year after year, and who geek out on the ins and outs of cruising. You probably know some of them. Find them…and learn from them. Pretty soon, you’ll be the one everyone is asking for advice.

Iceland in 72 Hours: The Perfect Off-Season Layover on a Budget

Iceland is made to order for a two- or three-day layover on the way between North America and Europe — allowing a peek at Reykjavík, side-trips to the Golden Circle and South Coast, and a soak in the Blue Lagoon. There are many ways to plan your time, but after working on the first edition of our Rick Steves Iceland guidebook (with co-author Ian Watson), I came up with what was — in my mind, at least — the perfect way to see the highlights of that little country on a short timeframe. However, I had not yet had the chance to try it out.

Last October, my parents wanted to stop off for a quick “layover” look at Iceland on their way home from Europe. Could I offer them some advice? Challenge accepted! Not only did I craft the ideal itinerary, I quickly re-routed my own flight schedule home from Europe to join them in Reykjavík. Our goal was to get the best possible taste of Iceland in 72 hours, off-season, on a budget.

Spoiler warning: It worked like a charm. Here’s how.

Day 0: Welcome to Iceland

Touching down at Keflavík Airport, I have about an hour to get my ducks in a row before Mom and Dad arrive. I pick up our rental car with the cheerful assistance of the rental agent, who helps me figure out whether we need to take out extra insurance against blowing sand. (Hearing our itinerary and scanning the weather report, he says, “Nope — you should be fine!”) I load my bags into the car and wait at the baggage-claim exit, just under the sign advertising bus transfers into town.

My parents pop out right on time, and we drive through the twilight to our Reykjavík Airbnb. In early October, Iceland still enjoys nearly 12 hours of daylight (setting around 6:45 p.m.). But the sun doesn’t provide much warmth; driving through frigid, sideways drizzle on the 45-minute journey into the capital offers a foretaste of the days ahead.

Finding our Airbnb — tucked on the residential slope just below the landmark Hallgrímskirkja church, in the heart of Reykjavík — proves a bit trickier than expected, because the nearby streets are torn up. But eventually we ignore our GPS, plunge headfirst up a normally one-way street, and find convenient street parking right out front. (At just a buck an hour, and free overnight, street parking may be the best bargain in Iceland.)

A note about money: I’m saying that we’re “on a budget.” I mean a midrange budget —we’re not starving backpackers. The thing is, Iceland is very expensive. It’s easy to blow through a lot of money here. We spent just enough money to be comfortable and to use our time efficiently. If you’re truly on a tight budget, check out my Top 10 Budget Tips for Iceland.

On past trips, I’ve learned that Airbnb offers the best value for accommodations in Reykjavík — a bursting-at-the-seams city where hotels are in short supply, and priced accordingly. For the cost of a basic double room with a shared bathroom in a cheap-but-cheery guest house, you can rent a one-bedroom Airbnb apartment with a full kitchen, bathroom, washer/dryer, and living area. This trip’s apartment — a freestanding little cottage tucked behind a big apartment block — is exceptionally comfortable, well-equipped, clean, and cozy, for the cost of about $500 for three nights.

Heading out to explore, we discover the reason for all those closed streets: They’re installing radiator pipes beneath a busy roundabout, which will harness Iceland’s bounty of naturally superheated water to melt snow and ice in the winter.

We tiptoe past the construction zone, under cheery street art murals, to the only discount grocery store in the center: Bónus, hiding a block above the main shopping street at Hallveigarstigur 1. The store is packed with fellow budget-conscious travelers, stocking up just before closing time. While it may seem silly for our first stop to be the budget supermarket, the only alternatives downtown are the ever-present convenience stores, which charge double or triple — making this stock-up trip essential for sticking to our budget. We fill our shopping basket with enough skyr (yogurt-like dairy treat), rúgbrauð (dense rye bread), and saltlakkrís (salted licorice) to get us through the trip. For about $60, we’ll have breakfast, snacks, drinks, and a few basic meals to help defray the high cost of restaurants.

Before everything closes down for the night, I make two more shopping stops: I drop into the outdoor outfitter 66° North to buy a knit cap for the next few days (I can already tell that I’ll need it). At about $35, it’s double what I’d pay for a similar hat back home, but I can justify the expense by calling it a souvenir. Then I swing by my favorite pastry shop — the trendy, graffiti-slathered Brauð & Co. — just before closing time, to stock up on impossibly delicious Scandinavian-style sweet rolls to supplement tomorrow’s breakfast.

After unpacking our groceries back home, we go looking for a simple, filling, satisfying meal. We find it a few blocks away at Súpa, offering an appealing variety of affordable soups. For about $15 per person, we get a generous bowl of soup, home-cooked bread, and hummus or butter. Bellies full, we walk back home through the drizzle to get a good night’s sleep before our first big day trip.

Day 1: The Golden Circle

We awake to frigid, blustery weather. No, not blustery…hurricane-y. Ian Watson, the co-author of our Rick Steves Iceland guidebook (and longtime Iceland resident), once explained to me that for Icelanders, wind trumps all. They define “bad weather” as “lots of wind,” and “good weather” as “somewhat less wind.” Today? Today is a “bad weather” day. But at least the howling winds will clear out the clouds, providing us with occasional, brilliant sunbreaks.

Our plan is to drive that quintessential Icelandic day trip, the Golden Circle: a 150-mile loop east of the capital, connecting three big sightseeing stops (historic gorge, spurting geyser, spectacular waterfall) through a sampler platter of rugged scenery.

On a previous visit, I opted to begin my Golden Circle trip with a scenic detour, over the low mountain pass called Nesjavallaleið — and was glad I did. Ian had warned me that this pass can close due to bad weather as early as October. But today looks clear, and the sun is peeking out. What the heck? Let’s chance it. So off we head to Nesjavallaleið.

The Nesjavallaleið road was built to connect Reykjavík to a steaming geothermal plant, deep in the interior. And driving along that road, we follow a burly pipeline carrying scalding water to city radiators, taps….and those pipes buried under city roundabouts.

Pulling over to photograph some lonely sheep, grazing miles from civilization, we notice that the surrounding landscape has grown frosty. As we drive onward, gradually gaining altitude, the frost becomes flurries, and the flurries become snow. And by the time I begin driving up the road over the pass, my four-wheel-drive tires are sputtering over a few inches of uncleared snowfall.

We’re most of the way to the summit — we can practically see where the road drops down to snow-free lowlands. And we know that going back will cost us at least an extra hour of retracing our steps. Can we make it over just…a…couple….more…hills?

No. No, we cannot. Cresting the penultimate hill, we get out of the car and survey our options: If we proceed, we’ll most likely slide our way down this next incline — getting hopelessly stuck in a snowbank in the middle of nowhere, wasting a precious day awaiting rescue. Or we can turn around and face the music. The choice is easy. I execute a sloppy 12-point turn, then put the car in first and let it ever-so-slowly trundle us down the snow-covered road, inch by inch, tire tread by tire tread. Feeling our tires grip bare asphalt after that white-knuckle descent, we don’t even mind the lost time…we’re just happy to not be stranded. A mile back down the road, with that treacherous pass in the rearview mirror, we see a tour bus zooming past us, in the opposite direction, towards certain doom. We’ll spend the rest of the trip speculating whether he made it (no way) and how many of his passengers froze to death that day (I’m guessing 10, maybe a dozen?).

Circling back around to the main road, we make our way to the Golden Circle’s first stop, Þingvellir (or Thingvellir) — a national park filling a gorge where the European and North American tectonic plates are slowly pulling apart. Þingvellir was also the site of the AlÞingi — the great gathering of the original Icelandic settlers (peace-loving cousins of the Vikings), dating back to the ninth century.

Stepping out of the car, we grip fast to our car doors; on a day like today, the whipping winds can pull them right out of your hand and crashing into adjacent cars (at best) — or even pull them backwards on their hinges. Pausing in the shiny new visitors center to pay the parking fee with our credit card, we stumble upon a giant screen showing road conditions all over Iceland…yup, Nesjavallaleið is closed, all right. Next time, I’ll check the map before heading out. (Side-note: In Iceland, you can pay for just about everything — parking, bathrooms, a cup of coffee — with your credit card. Cash is rarely necessary and never preferred. On this trip, we experiment by not taking a single Icelandic króna out of an ATM — and it’s never once a problem.)

Bundling up, we venture out for a look at the Þingvellir gorge, with a death-grip on the viewpoint’s railing to avoid being blown into Iceland’s “tourist casualty” statistics. Then we walk down the gorge itself — with North America on our left side, and Europe on our right — to the site of “Law Rock,” the focal point of those early clan gatherings. Battered by wind, we decide a few minutes is plenty; skipping the optional detour up to a pretty waterfall, we hike back up to the full blast of our car heater.

We follow rainbows through the Icelandic countryside, stopping periodically to snap photos of the pint-sized yet majestic Icelandic horses — who hitched a ride with those original Viking Age settlers. We pause at the lakeside settlement of Laugarvatn just long enough to stroll along the steaming shoreline, where natural reserves of superheated water bubble up in little hot spots in the sand.

It’s lunchtime, so we stop at a hilltop dairy farm, called Efstidalur II. I dropped by here on a previous trip for ice cream, but Rick Steves — who passed through a few months before — tipped me off that they also had a great full-service restaurant upstairs. There we settle into a rustic wooden table, peering through windows into the barn below, where cows munch on hay. We dig into tasty and filling $25 hamburgers (reasonably priced by Icelandic standards)…followed by $5 ice cream cones, of course.

Next up: the geothermal field called Geysir, which gave its name to hot-water spouts worldwide. Hiking in from the parking lot, we’re drawn close to the giant, steaming pools that bubble and spurt periodically, foreshadowing a big eruption. We wait in the frigid winds, lined up with dozens of other icicle tourists, gazing expectantly at that giant hole, well aware that the big geyser shoots up “about every 10 minutes.”

We wait. And shiver. And wait. And shiver. And wait. The geyser gurgles a few times, spurting up a few feet into the air, as if revving up for the big show. But eventually the cold overwhelms our curiosity, and we retreat back toward the car…only to hear, moments later, a big eruption splash behind us. Oh, well. You’ve seen one geyser…

The final big stop on the Golden Circle — unlike hit-or-miss Geysir — never disappoints. Gullfoss’ name (“Golden Falls”) is particularly apt today, lit up like a spotlight by the warm late-day sun.

Pretty as it is, it’s still darn cold. We batten down the hatches, pull our hoods tight around our hot red cheeks, and gingerly follow the damp, slightly icy trail down for a closer look at the falls. Icelanders call weather that looks pretty, but feels not so pretty, “window weather” (gluggaveður)…and today was a classic gluggaveður day. But it’s worth braving the cold, wind, and mist to stand in awe of Gullfoss’ thundering power.

Completing our loop back to our Reykjavík home base, we enjoy late-afternoon gluggaveður views of Iceland’s cinematic landscape. If we hadn’t lost time with our snowy dead-end, we’d consider a couple of more stops: the historic church at Skálholt; a quick hike around the rim of the colorful crater called Kerið; or maybe even a splash in one of the various thermal baths in the area. But the sun is sinking low in the sky, so we make a beeline back home.

Still satisfied from our hearty hamburger lunch, we make an Airbnb picnic dinner out of our discount groceries. Then it’s early to bed, in preparation of yet another day of Icelandic day-tripping.

Day 2: The South Coast

We awake to a rare Icelandic phenomenon: Sun and minimal wind. In October! We can tell immediately that it’s going to be a delightful day for touring Iceland — without requiring nearly as many layers as yesterday, when we encased ourselves in just about everything in our luggage.

On our way out of town, we pay a quick visit to the landmark church crowning Reykjavík, the Hallgrímskirkja. After strolling the tranquil, austere, light-filled Lutheran interior, we pay about $10 apiece to ride the elevator to the top of the tower. The cute Monopoly houses of Reykjavík splay out from our feet, with cheery colors that pop in the bright autumn sun — offering an ideal visual overview of the sprawling capital. From the top of this tower, we can see the homes of two out of every three Icelanders.

Back down on earth, we hit the road for the South Coast. Ever since working on the Rick Steves Iceland guidebook — and offering lots of travel tips to friends and relatives making their own Icelandic stopovers — I’m constantly debating which of the two big day trips from Reykjavík is better. Yesterday’s Golden Circle drive was a delight. But today’s 230-mile round-trip South Coast foray will come with perhaps even more epic scenery. (That’s why we saved it for the better-weather of our two days.) I warn my parents that I’ll be polling them later about which they prefer.

From Reykjavík, we drive through sunny mountains down to the southern coastline, where the jagged Westman Islands loom like a mirage just offshore. (If we had another 24 hours, that’s where we’d spend it.) We pull over for a WC and coffee break at the Lava Centre in Hvolsvöllur, where the free exhibits in the lobby illustrate the tectonic fissures that run diagonally through the island — the cause of all that geothermal water and volcanic activity. (With more time, or with kids in tow, we might pay to tour the Lava Centre’s exhibits. But we have a lot of miles to cover…)

Pro hack: Mid-morning, we pass the turnoff for the spectacular Seljalandsfoss waterfall. But I recall from past trips that at this time of day, the grand cascade will be mostly in shade. We’ll stop, instead, when we pass back through here on our way home — when the afternoon light will be perfect.

Instead, we carry on to the next stop on our South Coast day, a little pullout in the shadow of Eyjafjallajökull — the volcano that famously erupted in 2010, halting European air travel. We snap a photo of the farmstead that you’ll see in all the famous images of that erupting giant — today slumbering again, under its snowy blanket.

Carrying on, near Drangshlíð, we come upon a pair of rocky, steep cliffs with cow shed burrowed into the sides. We pull over for closer inspection (obeying the local farmer’s polite posted request not to actually enter the rickety buildings) and find our imaginations tickled by such fanciful structures. They call to mind the Huldufólk — they mythical Icelandic “hidden people” who must be appeased by humans.

Next up is Skógafoss — yet another grand waterfall, this one perfectly lit mid-day. After ogling the rainbows that dance in the mist, we find a picnic table and dig into another round of our discount groceries for lunch. It’s sunny, warm, and still — stripping out of our windbreakers and feeling perfectly comfortable in just long sleeves, we’re struck by the changeability of Icelandic Octobers.

Onward to the glacier called Sólheimajökull. We park our car and scramble over a gravelly path about 10 minutes toward a glacial tongue that reaches down and laps at a brown lagoon bobbing with little icebergs.

The sign suggests that we proceed only at our own risk; while my folks head back (looping down along the lagoon shoreline, then cutting across the pebbly plain to the parking lot), I venture farther, carefully hiking up troughs that have been carved into the nearest appendage of the glacier. Shovels are standing by to add more grit underfoot for traction. Reaching the point where properly outfitted adventurers begin their cautious hike on top of the glacier’s icy slope, I double back and follow the muddy lagoon back to our car.

We’re getting low on gas — alarmingly low — but I know that there’s a gas station in Vík, just over the next ridge. A half-hour’s drive later, we pull into that N1 station…and discover that the power’s out and the pumps don’t work. We have maybe 20 miles’ worth of gas, but the next nearest station is 50 miles in either direction. We cut it too close. The guy at the next pump matter-of-factly tells us he’s been waiting there for two hours, and was told it could be hours longer.

Just as our idyllic day is about to crash down around us, the gas station attendant walks up, tears down the “out of order” sign, and flips the switch to reboot the pump. Phew! A few minutes later, we’re gassed up and heading back toward Reykjavík. The lesson: Never wait too long for gas.

It’s getting late in the afternoon, but a few more stops temp us to delay our two-hour return drive to Reykjavík. First up, we turn off for the black-sand beach at Reynisfjara, where otherworldly sea stacks loom just offshore, and mind-bending basalt formations are etched into the cliffs.

Next up, we take another turnoff for the looming promontory called Dyrhólaey. Our four-wheel-drive car makes easy work of the steep, chopped-up-gravel road to the top. Once up there, we bask in spectacular views in all directions — black-sand beaches as far as the eye can see, with the open Atlantic on one side, and glacier-capped volcanoes on the other.

Circling around the lighthouse at the promontory’s peak, we peer down into sea caves excavated by the pounding surf.

On our way back down from Dyrhólaey, crossing the causeway connecting the promontory to the mainland, we notice several cars pulled over. We join them and venture out onto the black-sand flats at low tide. The bright sun, low in the sky, casts miraculous reflections against the wet black sand — making us feel as if we’re walking on water. It’s one of those giddy encounters with nature that seem to happen far more here in Iceland than just about anywhere else. Our stroll across the glassy water is the ideal grand finale to our spectacular South Coast day.

But there’s still a long drive back home — mostly back the way we came. On our way through, we pull off for a better look at Seljalandsfoss waterfall, now perfectly illuminated by the late-afternoon sun. It’s getting cooler now, so we skip the exhilarating but very wet hike on the heavily misted path behind the waterfall.

Heading back toward home, we enjoy the last few moments of sunlight. We could head all the way back to Reykjavík for a late dinner. Or we could stop for dinner along the way — getting home later, but full. I think through my favorite options in this area. For microbrews and excellent pizza, we could stop off in the town of Hveragerði at Ölverk. But it’s likely crowded this time of night…and it is our last night in Iceland. Maybe something a little more Icelandic?

I suddenly remember a tip from my colleague (and Rick Steves’ Europe cartographer), Dave Hoerlein, who had told me about a memorable place to try the Icelandic delicacy humar. Somewhere between a little lobster and a giant shrimp, the humar is the top-tier foodie treat for Icelanders. We call ahead to book a table, then take a slight detour to the coastal village of Stokkseyri, where we have a humar dinner at Fjöruborðið (“The Water’s Edge”).

We’ve been watching our budget so far, but we decide to invest in a blowout, when’s-the-next-time-I’m-gonna-be-in-Iceland feast, ordering a copper kettle with humar tails luxuriously sautéed in garlic butter and spritzed with lemon, plus generous side salads. At around $160 for all three of us (including drinks and a shared dessert), we realize it’s not that much more than we’d pay for a quality seafood feast back home. Who says Iceland is demoralizingly expensive?

On our way home to Reykjavík, I conduct my informal poll with my sample size of two: Golden Circle or South Coast? When all was said and done, my folks say they preferred the South Coast — despite the longer hours in the car, the scenery was that much more spectacular and varied. But it’s hard to know whether the significant difference in weather is what put the South Coast over the top. They agree that either would be a satisfying, concise look at Iceland…but doing both was well worth the time. Why not?

Back at the Airbnb, we’re ready to turn in early. But then, as I’m out for a late stroll, I glance up in the sky and notice a shimmering sea of lime-green light. My previous visits to Iceland have always been in the summer; not only had I not seen the Northern Lights, but I’ve never even seen Iceland in the dark. So this is my first time experiencing the aurora borealis dancing over Iceland — faintly, but it’s there. I instantly grasp why those swirling lights capture travelers’ imaginations…they are mesmerizing, almost mystical.

Grand scenery, check. Waterfalls, check. Thermal springs, check. Humar feast, check. And now, Northern Lights…check!

Day 3: A Quick Look at Reykjavík & Soaking in the Blue Lagoon

Our flight home to Seattle is scheduled for 5 p.m. Working our way backwards, that means dropping our car off at 3, and reserving a slot at the Blue Lagoon (near the airport) at 1. That gives us until noon to see Reykjavík.

You might have noticed that our “perfect” 72 hours in Iceland includes very little time in Reykjavík. The Icelandic capital is a fine city and a wonderful home base, and there are some worthwhile sights to be seen here. But if all you have is two (or even three) full days in Iceland, they’re best spent in the spectacular countryside. You can still explore Reykjavík in the morning and evening — or, like us, do an “express tour” on your morning of departure.

With our morning in Reykjavík, we pack up our bags, throw them in the back of our car, lock up our Airbnb (and stick the key in the lockbox), and head out to explore the city. We stroll through the compact core of town, pausing at “The Pond,” the city hall (with its giant topographical model of Iceland — allowing us to trace the routes of our two day trips), the sleepy parliament square, and the historic core of town, with its colorfully painted, steel-clad houses.

Since it’s a Saturday, we swing by the indoor flea market, Kolaportið, just as it opens at 11. it’s a fun opportunity to browse secondhand Icelandic sweaters, ruffle through used books in Icelandic, and get in from the cold.

Another pro hack: Iceland’s famous “hardship foods” are rarely sold in restaurants, and when they are, they’re way too expensive (priced to gouge curious tourists). If you’re in town on a weekend (Saturdays and Sundays, 11:00 until 5:00), the flea market’s food section has free samples of unique munchies ranging from dried-out “fish jerky” snacks (harðfiskur) to the notorious “rotted shark” (hákarl). This infamous dish — which tastes like strong fish mingled with ammonia — is sold for about $10-12 in a few restaurants, or you can buy a little plastic tub for $5. Or, at the flea market, you can just sample a tiny little gelatinous jiggling cube on a toothpick — the most you will ever want to eat, I guarantee — for free. To cleanse the palate (and you’ll need it), a nearby stand dispenses generous free samples of licorice treats dipped in milk chocolate.

Leaving the flea market, we head back to our car, wave goodbye to Reykjavík, and drive 45 minutes toward the airport. We have one more Icelandic experience on deck: the famous Blue Lagoon lava-rock spa, nestled in a jagged landscape a short drive from the airport. Knowing we’d want only a quick dip, we’ve reserved for 1:00. In retrospect, 12:00 would have been a less rushed timeframe before our 5:00 flight. But as it turns out, our timing is ideal…today is not the day to linger at the Blue Lagoon. As we drive through the lava landscape, a howling sideways wind kicks up, pelting our windows with frigid liquid BBs and threatening to muscle our car right off the road.

We grab our swimsuits, bundle up, and walk from the parking lot to the Blue Lagoon entrance. The quarter-mile walk, through horizontal sleet, feels like climbing Everest. We’re soaked to the core by the time we get inside. But as soon as we change and lower ourselves into the opaque, hundred-degree water, we forget all about the cold and rain.

Except…we can’t really forget about it. Because the wind is skimming across the surface of the lagoon like a jet ski, swirling up substantial white caps that keep slapping us in the face. Our skin turns pink from being pelted by freezing rain. We try to ease the pain by smearing the free exfoliating silica goo on our faces. But it just gets blasted off by the rain.

Seeking a more relaxing experience, we find our way to a little cove, more protected by chunky rocks, and where thundering waterfalls offer an incredibly relaxing shoulder massage. (If only I could do this just before every transatlantic flight…) Periodically I venture out across the sloshing lagoon waters, swimming hard against the current, with frigid hurricane-force winds whipping refrigerated needles at my face. But I soon return to the relative tranquility of my protected cove. Usually the Blue Lagoon is an entirely relaxing soak — but today it feels like an adventure water park.

A word about the Blue Lagoon: It’s expensive (around $100 per person) and requires advance reservations. For these reasons, it’s not worth a visit for every traveler — particularly those on a budget, or those for whom a hot-water soak is not appealing. (For penny pinchers, Iceland has a whole world of municipal swimming pools, fed by natural thermal water that’s every bit as hot as the Blue Lagoon, for a tenth the price…but without the dramatic setting and spa elegance.) As for me, I’m a fan: Even under the worst possible circumstances, the Blue Lagoon is undeniably memorable.

After soaking, we head back inside, dry off, get dressed, and head to the airport. (Total cost for the three-day car rental: $250, plus one-and-a-half tanks of gas for about $120 total.) And before we know it, we’re heading home from our Icelandic layover — pleased as punch about how we’ve made the most of our limited time.

Despite sticking to a budget and traveling outside of peak season, we were able to bring home memories of a unique land that we’ll treasure for a lifetime. We’ll be back…and next time, we may be tempted to stick around even longer.


This is just one family’s 72-hour Iceland layover. But you could use it as a blueprint for a trip of your own, modifying it as you like. Step-by-step details for every last thing described here are laid out in the Rick Steves Iceland guidebook.

In the summer, things are more crowded (and more expensive), but the daylight is endless — allowing you an even better look at Reykjavík early or late.

And in midwinter, days are much shorter and roads can be dicey, making it more tempting to stay close to Reykjavík, or to book guided excursions to leave the driving to an expert.

If you’ve got 48 hours, pick just one of the day trips — I’d give a slight edge to the South Coast over the Golden Circle, but it’s a toss-up. With an extra day, add the Westman Islands. With yet another day, settle into Reykjavík. For more advice, see my posts on Icelandic itinerary tips and the best day trips from Reykjavík.

For more on Iceland, pick up a copy of our new Rick Steves Iceland guidebook; check out the blog series I wrote while working on the book; and watch my 75-minute Iceland travel talk.

R.I.P. Imre Nagy: The Death of Rational Governance in Hungary

Well, they’ve gone and done it. They’ve taken down my favorite statue in Budapest. Godspeed, Imre Nagy.

It’s a crazy time in Hungary. Let’s face it: It’s a crazy time just about everywhere — with Trump, Putin, and Brexit rewriting the rules of what’s “normal.” But it’s particularly crazy in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, where even the great anti-communist crusaders of the Cold War are finding themselves, suddenly and inexplicably, on the wrong side of history.

Just a few weeks ago, I turned in my updated files for the upcoming sixth edition of our Rick Steves Budapest guidebook. This morning, I had to rewrite large sections of the book because of all the changes taking place in Hungary.

If you’ve been paying attention to the news, you know that Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, and his far-right, nativist political party, Fidesz, are continuing their campaign to remake Hungary in their own image. On a previous visit to Budapest, in 2016, I posted about some of those changes — from a statue of Ronald Reagan that had been erected right next to a Soviet Army memorial; to a new monument honoring “victims of fascism” that conspicuously ignored the crimes of the Nazi-allied Hungarian government; to the patriotic new “Changing of the Guard” ceremony on Orbán’s glitzy, fascist-style square behind the Parliament; to the Transylvanian flag that flies on the Parliament building in place of the EU flag.

On that 2016 visit, a local friend of mine asked about the job market in Seattle. She’s seriously considering moving her family stateside to escape what she perceives as her society crumbling around her. Her teenagers now learn history from textbooks written by politicians — the same Fidesz-penned books that are required to be spoon-fed to every student in Hungary. Fidesz enjoys revising Hungarian history as much as they enjoy keeping refugees and immigrants out of their country.

The intervening two and a half years have felt like an eternity. And even in just the last couple of months, the list of Orbán’s offenses has grown. Here are just a few of the changes in Hungary in the several weeks since I was there updating my book:

George Soros — yes, that George Soros, favorite punching bag of the right — founded a university in his hometown of Budapest in 1991. As Hungary and its neighboring countries were just emerging from Soviet rule, Central European University offered students a place to study at a US-accredited institution, allowing them a foothold in the greater academic world of the West. CEU grew to become highly respected. But Soros — who is as loathed by Fidesz as he is by Fox News — is on the outs in today’s Hungary. And in December, CEU announced they will relocate to Vienna, after failing to meet Fidesz’s draconian new requirements to operate legally in Hungary.

Also in December, Fidesz announced a new law to roll back overtime protections for workers. (Because of Fidesz’s restrictive immigration stance, and because bright young Hungarian workers have left the country in droves, Hungary suffers from a labor shortage. Who saw that coming?) This new policy — nicknamed the “Slave Law” — has spurred widespread protests. Even many Fidesz supporters are criticizing a government ostensibly dedicated to “family values” effectively requiring citizens to work longer hours.

Meanwhile, Viktor Orbán has finally moved into his over-the-top new palace, up on Castle Hill. Orbán grew tired of living among the commoners, so he evicted the National Dance Theater from their home near the old royal palace and renovated their building into a plush new residence for himself. My Budapest friends have been grumbling about this since it was first announced a few years back — “He thinks he’s better than us! He wants to be up on the mountaintop, looking down upon all his subjects.”

Worst of all, just a few days ago, I received an email from my Budapest friend, confirming that the rumors she’d told me in September have now come true: A beloved statue of the great communist reformer, Imre Nagy, which stood for more than 20 years facing the Parliament building, has been removed by Fidesz authorities. She wrote, “It is a sad day for many of us here!” (It’s worth noting that Budapesters are connoisseurs of monuments. The city is graced with more than its share of memorable statues, from whimsical to poignant. )

Imre Nagy (pronounced “IHM-reh nodge,” 1896-1958), now thought of as an anti-communist hero, was actually a lifelong communist. In the late 1940s, he quickly moved up the hierarchy of Hungary’s communist government, becoming prime minister during a period of reform in 1953. But when his proposed changes alarmed Moscow, Nagy was quickly demoted.

When Hungary’s 1956 Uprising broke out on October 23, Imre Nagy was drafted (reluctantly, some say) to become the head of the movement to soften the severity of the communist regime. Because he was an insider, it briefly seemed that Nagy might hold the key to finding a middle path between the suffocating totalitarian model of Moscow and the freedom of the West.

Some suspect that Nagy himself didn’t fully grasp the sea change represented by the uprising. When he appeared at the Parliament building on the night of October 23 to speak to the reform-craving crowds for the first time, he began by addressing his compatriots — as communist politicians always did — with, “Dear comrades…” When the audience booed, he amended it: “Dear friends…” The crowd went wild.

But the optimism was short-lived. The Soviets violently put down the uprising, arrested and sham-tried Nagy, executed him, and buried him disgracefully, face-down in an unmarked grave. The regime forced Hungary to forget about Nagy.

In 1989, when communism was in its death throes, the Hungarian people rediscovered Nagy as a hero. His body was located, exhumed, and given a ceremonial funeral at Heroes’ Square. (It was also something of a coming-out party for Viktor Orbán — yes, the current prime minister — who, as a twentysomething rebel, delivered an impassioned speech at the ceremony.) Nagy’s symbolic re-burial is considered a pivotal event in that year of tremendous change.

The Nagy monument near the Parliament, erected in 1996, has long been one of my favorites in all of Europe. Its design was poignant: Nagy stood upon a bridge, representing his own political philosophy, which sought common ground between the stifling communism of the USSR and the capitalist free-for-all of the West. The bridge itself was made of treads from Soviet tanks — like the ones used to put down the 1956 Uprising.

Nagy’s face wore an expression not of defiance or dominance, but of inquisitive compassion. He looked across the square at the towering red dome of the Hungarian Parliament, symbolically keeping an eye on the government.

But now that statue is gone — removed with little warning and zero fanfare, in the middle of the night, just two days after Christmas. Viktor Orbán — who, let’s not forget, made his name lauding Nagy — has apparently decided to unilaterally reverse the rehabilitation of Nagy’s image. Fidesz claims that they are moving the statue to a different (and decidedly less prominent) location, on Jászai Mari tér, near Margaret Bridge. But no preparations on that site have taken place, leaving open the possibility that Nagy will again be brushed into the dustbin of history.

As someone who passionately loves Budapest, this worries and saddens me. It should worry and sadden you, too. Removing the statue of a gentle, heroic man who sacrificed his life to improve the lot of the Hungarians is a clear sign that Orbán believes history is open to his individual interpretation.

Let’s be clear: We’re not talking about removing Confederate flags or statues of Robert E. Lee, which are broadly offensive as symbols of racism and slavery. There’s nothing offensive about Nagy to the vast, vast majority of Hungarians, who view him as a beloved figure. He symbolizes sacrifice in the face of oppression, and the courage to rise up for what’s right. Removing the Nagy statue would be more like taking down a statue to Martin Luther King, Jr., because of some obscure political beef.

The only Hungarians offended by the image of Nagy are communist sympathizers longing for a return to the darkest days of Stalinism. And, it seems, Viktor Orbán. It’s rarely constructive to psychoanalyze a despot, but it’s difficult to imagine why Orbán has it in for Nagy. He claims his goal is to return the appearance of the square to its pre-communist, pre-WWII glory days. Why, then, is Orbán erecting brand-new statues even as he’s taking this one away? Surely the truth is more deeply rooted. For one thing, because Nagy’s historical ties to communism place him on the left, Fidesz simplistically views him as an ideological enemy. And perhaps, as he continues Hungary’s slide toward totalitarianism, Orbán is uncomfortable with celebrating an upriser on Hungary’s grand Parliament square.

Standing just a few steps away from the (now-removed) Nagy statue is Orbán’s statue of Ronald Reagan. Reagan and Nagy, fellow Cold Warriors, would have found much common ground. But in Orbán’s topsy-turvy, upside-down world, only one deserves to stand near the Parliament.

Adding insult to injury, that old memorial to Soviet soldiers still stands next to Ronald Reagan. To be entirely clear here: Fidesz has removed a statue of a freedom fighter, but has chosen to leave in place a monument to an army that “liberated” Hungary in order to occupy it for four and a half decades.

Someone once said, “May you live in interesting times.” But this is simply exhausting. Just a few years ago, someone who was executed by the communist authorities for his brave protest would be considered an unqualified hero. But in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, nothing makes sense anymore. The next time I visit Budapest and walk past the Parliament, I’ll miss seeing Nagy’s comforting form, keeping a watchful eye on things. Rest in peace, Imre Nagy. And rest in peace, rational governance in Hungary.

10 European Discoveries for 2019

Looking back on my recent travels in Europe, two big themes stand out: Popular places just keep getting more popular (and more crowded) — and some of the most rewarding places to travel are neither popular nor crowded.

As your travel dreams take shape for 2019, consider mixing things up with a few underappreciated gems. For starters, consider this list of alternatives to the super-famous, super-crowded tourist biggies. My New Year’s resolution in 2019 is to remember that just a little more effort to get off the beaten path can reap huge rewards.

 

Gdańsk, Poland

For years, Gdańsk has had my vote for Europe’s best-kept secret. But its time has arrived — and I’m determined to let the cat out of the bag. Gdańsk has always been a historic diamond-in-the-rough. But now it’s also stunning and fun. Glittering gables have been scrubbed clean, the exuberantly colorful streets bustle with hip microbreweries and third-wave coffee shops, and Oslo-style high-rises and sleek embankments are sprouting all along the long-deserted, WWII-scarred Granary Island — creating a brand-new waterfront people zone in the heart of the city. Today’s Gdańsk is hitting that perfect sweet spot: fascinating and entertaining, but without all of the crowds of more famous places like Kraków and Prague. In short, Gdańsk embodies everything I love about travel. Find out more about Gdańsk here.

 

Palermo Street Markets, Sicily

Among Italians (and other foodies), Palermo is synonymous with street food. And its three sprawling street markets — Ballarò, Capo, and Vucciria — let you delve into gritty Sicilian culture in a way that engages all the senses. Taste something adventurous — like pani ca’ meusa, a pillowy bun stuffed with spleen, lung, and other organ meat — or stick to an arancina, a deep-fried ball of saffron rice and meat sauce. Best of all, the whole time you’re browsing these gut-bombs, you’re fully immersed in the energetic hubbub of Sicilian urban life — watching the Palermitani greet old friends, listening to the urgent musicality of the vendors’ sales pitches, and smelling all that sizzling and frying goodness (plus a full spectrum of other odors). Find out more about Palermo street markets here.

 

Collioure, France

My favorite place to hit the beach in Europe is this little French Mediterranean town hemmed in by green hillsides and rocky cliffs, just a stone’s throw from the Spanish border. In Collioure, beefy bastions protect five separate beaches, each with its own personality — swimming, sunbathing, windsurfing, kiddie beach, and so on. The historic town center is a Crayola stage set of pastel houses, gnarled plane trees, climbing vines bursting with flowers, and just enough quality restaurants to keep you well-fed on vacation. This is the kind of place where in-the-know French sophisticates on a budget — seeking relaxation rather than glitz — head for an unpretentious break. Find out more about Collioure here.

 

Glacier Lagoons and Diamond Beach, Iceland

Beyond the touristy sights of Iceland’s well-trod South Coast, about four hours from Reykjavík, sit two dramatic glacier lagoons: Jökulsárlón and Fjallsárlón. Formed where tongues of great glaciers lap at serene pools, the lagoons bob with giant chunks of centuries-old ice. And just downriver from Jökulsárlón is “Diamond Beach,” where those icebergs wash up on a black-sand beach in the last stage of their slow-motion journey to the open Atlantic. While there are plenty of reasons to invest an entire week in doing the full “Ring Road” drive around the perimeter of Iceland, these glacier lagoons may just be reason enough to extend your Icelandic layover. Find out more about Iceland’s glacier lagoons and Diamond Beach here.

 

Lisbon’s Chiado District, Portugal

Exploring Lisbon recently to beef up the coverage in our Rick Steves Portugal guidebook, my favorite area was the steep, upscale residential zone called the Chiado, which swirls like a peaceful eddy, surrounded on all sides by the churn of tourism. The Chiado has diamond-in-the-rough Art Nouveau storefronts; breezy, tree-shaded squares with inviting al fresco kiosk cafés (a Lisbon specialty); some of Lisbon’s most enticing foodie finds; and Lisbon’s most appealing shopping zone, around the Príncipe Real Garden. The next time I go to Lisbon, there’s no doubt I’ll hang my hat in the Chiado. Find out more about the Chiado District here.

 

Ukraine

I visited Ukraine this year for the first time…and it was a revelation. Lovely Lviv — with its cobbled old town, Baroque churches, thriving coffee culture, kitschy theme restaurants, and cozy main square — is a time capsule from a simpler age of tourism. The capital, Kiev, feels like a more manageable, more colorful Moscow on a human scale — a mix of stately Soviet Gothic architecture, vibrant Art Nouveau townhouses, lush parks with stirring views, and gold-domed Orthodox churches on every corner. From Kiev, it’s an easy day trip to one of the most powerful and thought-provoking sites anywhere in Europe: Chernobyl. And prices are shockingly low: A high-end dinner for two for $25, an Uber ride across town for $4. How can such a huge country (Europe’s second-biggest) be so overlooked by travelers? Beats me. But for now, I am more than happy to be in on this particular secret. Find out more about Ukraine here.

 

The “Dutch Corridor”: Leiden, Delft, and Rotterdam, Netherlands

I love Amsterdam. But in recent years, it has become the poster child for “overtourism.” Sure, visit Amsterdam — but then hop on the train to a trio of towns that line up just to the south. In about half an hour, you can hop off in Leiden — a charming, sleepy, historic university town that feels like Amsterdam without the tourist-baiting sleaze. Back on the train, and just 20 minutes later, you’re pulling into Delft — the hometown of Vermeer, exquisite blue pottery, and one of the biggest, stateliest squares in the Netherlands, crowned by the burial church of the Orange dynasty. And finally, just 10 minutes farther is Rotterdam — the urban, modernist counterpoint to time-passed Leiden and Delft. For a day — or several days — of Dutch contrasts, invest just one hour in riding this train from downtown Amsterdam. Find out more about the “Dutch Corridor” here.

 

Isle of Skye, Scotland

If you’re visiting the Scottish Highlands, break out of the Inverness-Loch Ness-Oban rut and add a couple of days for the dramatically scenic, fun-to-explore Isle of Skye. Settle into the village of Portree, with its rainbow-painted harbor, and road-trip across the isle: the Trotternish Peninsula, with dragon’s-tooth mossy mountains; Talisker Distillery, dispensing peaty drams of whisky; Dunvegan Castle, providing an intimate peek inside the lived-in home of an aristocratic clan that’s seen better days; hiking areas with names like “The Fairy Glen” and “The Fairy Pools”; and much more. If I had to choose just one place to get an idyllic taste of the Scottish Highlands and Islands, Skye would win by a mile. Find out more about the Isle of Skye here.

 

Berlin’s Kreuzberg, Germany

Kreuzberg has long been known as Berlin’s “Turkish immigrant neighborhood.” But it’s also so much more. Once surrounded on three sides by the Berlin Wall — ground zero for squatters, draft dodgers, punks, and protesters — Kreuzberg is now at the vanguard of Berlin gentrification. Chasing down leads for our Rick Steves Berlin guidebook, I discovered that Kreuzberg is made up of many micro-neighborhoods called Kieze, each with its own distinct personality: Kottbusser Tor, with its vibrant Turkish Market; the Graefekiez, at the intersection of foodie, yuppie, and affordable; Markthalle Neun, Berlin’s super-trendy food hall; and the Bergmannkiez, with a swanky shopping zone, a lively market hall, and famous food stands with lines around the block. You could have a fun and varied visit to Berlin without ever leaving Kreuzberg. Find out more about Kreuzberg here.

 

Salamanca, Spain

OK, call this one a sentimental favorite. I spent a semester abroad in this Spanish university city, twenty-some years ago. Returning for the first time in 2018, I finally figured out why Salmantinos are considered a bit snobby: because they live in one of Spain’s nicest towns. Salamanca’s Plaza Mayor is the undisputed best square in Spain — slathered with reliefs of kings, queens, professors, and poets, ringed by cafés, and infused with an ambience that delicately mingles both European elegance and local character. From the square, Salamanca’s pedestrian zone cuts through the heart of town to the university district, where lemony sandstone buildings are carved with imagination-stoking details. Perhaps best of all, Salamanca sits just beyond easy day-tripping reach of Madrid. That means that, unlike slammed Segovia and touristy Toledo, Salamanca feels like you’re in on a Spanish secret. Find out more about Salamanca here.

 

What are your favorite European discoveries?

2019 Discovery: Berlin’s Kreuzberg, Germany

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Crowds got you down? This post is part of a series of 10 European Discoveries for 2019 — off-the-beaten-path gems where you can escape the tourist rut and find a corner of Europe all your own.

Kreuzberg has long been known as Berlin’s “Turkish immigrant neighborhood.” But it’s also so much more. Once surrounded on three sides by the Berlin Wall — ground zero for squatters, draft dodgers, punks, and protesters — Kreuzberg is now at the vanguard of Berlin gentrification. Wall? What wall?

Chasing down leads for our Rick Steves Berlin guidebook, I discovered that Kreuzberg is made up of many micro-neighborhoods called Kieze, each with its own distinct personality. Ride the U-Bahn to Kottbusser Tor (“Kotti” to Berliners) on a Tuesday or Friday and stroll to the riverside Turkish Market, a commotion of sights, sounds, and smells reminiscent of an Istanbul bazaar: vibrant rugs, piles of olives, aromatic teas, and sizzling food carts, along with everyday items like clothes and kitchenware. From there, simply explore.

Just across the canal, the Graefekiez lives at the perfect intersection of foodie, yuppie, and affordable; the nearby Paul-Lincke-Ufer embankment is home to some of Berlin’s most cutting-edge restaurants. A few blocks away, Markthalle Neun is Berlin’s super-trendy food hall, with stalls selling gourmet tapas, tofu sandwiches, and Berlin-style meatballs (Buletten). The Bergmannkiez features a swanky shopping zone, a lively market hall, and famous Gemüse Kebab and Currywurst stands with lines around the block. And the Wrangelkiez is jammed with creative bars and restaurants, from microbrews to traditional Georgian food.

You could have a fun and varied visit to Berlin without ever leaving Kreuzberg.


The second edition of our Rick Steves Berlin guidebook — hot off the press —includes a brand-new self-guided walking tour of Kreuzberg.

For nine more suggestions on where to get away from the crowds, check out my 10 European Discoveries for 2019.