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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Columbus, Ohio: Unexpected Foodie Mecca

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rick Steves’ Europe Behind the Scenes: How to Make a Travel TV Show

This fall, we’re excited to be premiering Season 10 of Rick Steves’ Europe on public television stations across the USA. The new season includes episodes on Scotland, Portugal, Sicily, Greece, England, and more.

I just love it when a new season of shows comes out. It’s like Christmas morning. Like a lot of travelers, I first got to know the Rick Steves’ Europe travel philosophy in the late 1990s, through his TV show (on WOSU-34 in Columbus, Ohio — what was your station?). And that same spirit still inspires and informs so many traveling Americans today.

Previewing some of these new episodes has got me nostalgic, and a little jealous…because making travel TV is a lot of fun (and, yes, a lot of hard work). Not long ago, I scouted, wrote, and field-produced two episodes (Bulgaria and Romania) of Rick Steves’ Europe Season 9. It’s fascinating to be a fly on the wall of TV production. Here’s a behind-the-scenes peek into the process — from that first idea to your TV screen — with links to my in-depth blog series, which features lots more detail about each step.

Step 1: Pre-Production

Every show starts with a destination. But it’s not as simple as saying, “Let’s do a show on Romania!” You have to collect enough vivid experiences to fill 30 minutes of television. And then you have to whittle down that inspiration to fit just right into a 3,200-word script.

Over three decades of TV production, Rick has developed a keen sixth sense for what makes great TV. Anytime he says he’s “researching his guidebooks,” that’s also code for his process of sorting out whether and how a destination can best be captured on TV: Which local guides, experiences, and nuggets of history and culture will make the cut? He comes home from every trip with lots of ideas lashed to his budding script.

Occasionally we decide to film a show where we don’t have guidebook coverage — such as Romania and Bulgaria. That’s why, a couple of years ago, I headed to each of those countries on a whirlwind scouting trip, scouring the countryside and kissing lots of frogs to figure out what would make great TV.

Once the first-draft “shooting script” is finalized, it’s time to schedule the shoot. Our producer, Simon Griffith, arranges guides, hotels, transportation, and — most important — permission to film what we need to film. This usually involves working with the national tourist board, which might need to pull some strings to make sure we’re legal once we show up at a museum, church, or other landmark with our camera. All of this happens before a single frame of film is shot.

Step 2: On Location

A TV shoot is a whirlwind of “covering the script” (making sure everything that’s mentioned is supported by footage). That includes three main components: “on-cameras” (where Rick explains difficult-to-cover topics by talking straight into the camera), “walk-and-talks” (where a local guide gives Rick an on-screen tour of a sight), and — most of all — “b-roll,” which is all that beautiful footage that can be artfully stitched together to convey a sense of place, and to illustrate points that are mentioned in the script.

Of course, everything is complicated by the need to constantly chase down good weather. Color-correction — the last step in the process — can do wonders to compensate for a cloudy day…but sunny is still better.

It takes about six days of intense travel to shoot a 30-minute episode. While that one-day-per-five-minutes ratio seems like it should be easy, people who work in TV field production are astonished that Rick Steves’ Europe can produce broadcast-quality shows at such a breakneck pace.

That’s thanks largely to Rick’s supremely talented “crew of two”: producer/director/fixer/gaffer Simon Griffith (the jovial, bearded Kiwi you see Rick dining with all over Europe); and a talented camera operator, who’s equal parts athlete and artist. I’ve worked with Karel Bauer, but other “shooters” have also worked with Rick and Simon.

That’s right: Except for rare occasions when an associate producer is dragging them down (ahem, ahem), most of the episodes of Rick Steves’ Europe you see were filmed with just that skeleton crew, occasionally assisted by a local guide…another detail that befuddles most TV production crews.

With more than 10 seasons of TV under their belt and an astonishing work ethic, Rick, Simon, and Karel are able to be unimaginably efficient. Simon usually hauls the tripod and other heavy gear, Karel also wears the hat of sound engineer (listening to the audio as he shoots the footage, to make sure it’s clean), and Rick…well, Rick’s an Energizer Bunny who — between writing, re-writing, and filming on-cameras, and polishing his guidebooks, blogging, and running his business on the side — still manages to leave everyone else in his dust.

Step 3: Deal with Serendipities, Good and Bad

While the “shooting script” provides a blueprint for filming, the crew has to be ready to flex with whatever comes up. Rick is constantly rewriting to accommodate changing conditions, bursts of inspiration, happy accidents, unhappy accidents, and whatever might find its way into Karel’s viewfinder. The rewriting process — called “scrubbing the script” — is also collaborative, as Rick debates each and every word with his weary crew…often late into the evening, after the gear is stowed, or on long road trips.

On the Bulgaria and Romania shoot, we enjoyed lots of serendipities — both good and bad. Bulgaria, a wonderful and underrated little country, provided us with vivid and surprising moments. For example, one morning we woke up in a remote town to find it was the day of their annual parade celebrating Slavic culture. And our visit coincided perfectly with the early-summer rose harvest, on the outskirts of that same town.

Romania — while a stunning and fascinating land — treated us to more bad serendipities than good ones. Even so, we found Romania so dense with great travel that we wound up having to cut it to the bone to reach our 30-minute runtime — losing one of my favorite (and most challenging-to-film) segments, at a remote shepherd’s settlement high in the Carpathian Mountains.

Romania also presented us with one of the most bizarre experiences the crew had ever had, when — after months upon months of assurances we’d have access to film the interior of the over-the-top Palace of Parliament — at the last minute, Karel was forced to sneak in his camera with a pack of tourists…only to be unceremoniously kicked out. Then, a couple of hours later, we got a phone call that permission had come through after all. Returning to the parliament, we were greeted with a literal red carpet and complete VIP access. (I was told this insane experience was far from typical…which, come to think of it, would be an appropriate tourism slogan for Romania.)

Step 4: Post-Production

After all that work in the field, we still don’t come home with a TV show — just with a polished script and a bunch of raw footage. That’s when our master editor, Steve Cammarano, takes over. Steve has edited every single one of the more than 100 episodes of Rick Steves’ Europe (plus all of our specials). And he has the process down to a science.

First, once Rick is satisfied with the final script, he records a rough “scratch track” that Steve can cut to. Then, Rick and Simon watch Steve’s rough cut to make final changes, with the help of script consultant (and RSE Special Projects Manager) Risa Laib. (They often come up with some clutch last-minute fixes.)

The final soundtrack is recorded, and the show is color- and sound-corrected to even out inconsistencies between cameras and filming environments. Our graphics team comes up with the maps used on-screen to orient the viewers. And finally, the show is complete and delivered to public television.

Step 5: You Sit Back and Watch

That’s where you come in. Whether you’re tuning in on your local public television station, streaming, or watching on DVD, it’s a privilege for us to bring Europe into your living room.

In case you didn’t realize it, every single episode of our TV series is available to stream, completely free and ad-free, in its entirety, on our website, YouTubeFacebook, and Hulu — including those shows on Bulgaria and Romania. The twelve brand-new episodes of Season 10 will air nationwide on public television beginning in early October, and soon after each episode is on TV, you’ll be able to find it on our website. And, if you’re still into Blu-ray or DVDs, you can get them in that format, too. (We’re preparing a new Blu-ray/DVD anthology that will include all 10 seasons, plus all of our specials, which will be available in time for the holidays.)

Phew! That’s a whirlwind account of the tedious but immensely rewarding process of travel TV production. At the end of the day, it’s all more than worth it — for the joy of sharing Europe with our American viewers. Thanks for watching.

What are your favorite episodes of Rick Steves’ Europe? Any places you wish we’d film?

For more on Rick Steves’ Europe Season 10, check out our TV page.

For all of my full-length “Behind the Scenes” posts, with lots more photos and anecdotes, you can find the complete lineup here.

If you’d like to watch a video version of this post, check out the wonderful “Making Of” episode of Rick Steves’ Europe from a few years ago — so you can see Rick, Simon, and Karel in action.

Believe It: 8 Reasons You’ll Love Warsaw

I’m back in Warsaw, Poland’s capital, updating the upcoming 10th edition of our Rick Steves Eastern Europe guidebook. And I’ve gotta say — this city is just great. No, really.

I realize that Warsaw has a blemished reputation. Those who think of it at all, don’t think much of it. It’s synonymous with an agreement among an Evil Empire of nations who joined together to hate our living guts. And historians know that the city was brutally devastated in World War II. Even Europe completists think of Warsaw like taking their medicine: Well, I guess we have to go there…eventually.

But I’m here to tell you: Warsaw is fantastic. Yes, it lacks the romance of Prague or Kraków. But as a thriving, modern European capital — more on the order of Berlin or Athens or Budapest — it’s hard to beat. Just about any traveler can find something rewarding here. I think of Warsaw as Europe’s great “stealth destination”: It’s not on anyone’s radar. And then, even once you’re there, its charms sneak up on you when you’re not paying attention…until WHAM! — you realize you’re having a blast.

Here are my top eight reasons why Warsaw deserves to make the cut on your next itinerary.

It has an amazing food scene. 

On my last trip to Warsaw, I enjoyed the best food tour I’ve ever taken. It was a revelation to see (and taste) the city’s explosion of creative culinary energy. Warsaw is one of Europe’s most unexpectedly interesting foodie cities, period.

On this trip, I decided to go all-in and booked a table at Atelier Amaro, which owns one of Poland’s two Michelin stars. Filling an unassuming little brick building at the corner of Łazienki Park, the restaurant has impeccable service and delectable cuisine.

The best restaurants are rooted to a place, and Atelier Amaro’s tasting menu of nine courses (ahem, nine “moments”) was a journey through Polish forests and farms. Earthy notes; foraged greens; ample but not overwhelming hits of dill and beet and berry; and innovative, New Nordic-inspired plating.

One dish, served in a tiny lidded bowl, appeared to contain only a blanket of clover. But punching through that layer of wood sorrel, my spoon found tiny wild strawberries marinated in bison grass oil, tomato seeds, and horseradish.

The wild duck was aged in hay, and smoked, and seared — but rather than tasting overworked, its flavors were perfectly balanced. And the best dish may have been a minuscule ice-cream cone with pungent chive ice cream.

The entire experience, including drinks and tip, came to $120 — a bargain for a meal of this caliber. Ten years ago, I would have laughed in your face if you told me I’d spend more than $100 for a dinner in Poland. Today, I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

Chopin is everywhere.

While I appreciate music, I’m not an enthusiast…except when I’m in Warsaw. There’s something about the music of Fryderyk Chopin that perfectly suits his hometown. While often thought of as being French, Chopin had a Polish mother, was born just outside Warsaw, and said that the music he composed sounded like the wind blowing through the willow trees of his native Poland.

On my first visit to Warsaw, my local friend Kasia insisted that we attend a performance in the concert hall at the Chopin Museum. Watching the pianist moved with profound emotion as he pulled out those notes, and seeing the dewy eyes of the otherwise-steely Varsovians all around me, I realized how large Chopin looms in the Polish cultural legacy.

Ever since, I’ve made a point to attend concerts each time I’ve come to Warsaw, including the summer-only Sunday Chopin concerts in Łazienki Park — performed in the shadow of a giant monument to the great composer. Varsovians show up in droves to pack around the fountain and feel their patriotic souls stirred.

On this visit, I enjoyed a salon concert at my B&B (more on that later). When the pianist entered, before taking her seat, she carefully adjusted the light that had been aimed at the keyboard — raising it to illuminate the portrait of Chopin on the wall behind her. I’ve come to learn that Poles revere the Black Madonna of Częstochowa, Jesus Christ, and Fryderyk Chopin…in that order.

The people-watching is mesmerizing.

Sitting on any Warsaw bench, watching the world go by, you observe a perfect cross-section of Polish society. Grannies in track suits and tennis shoes, clutching humble flower bouquets, rushing to catch the tram. Tattooed hipsters with clean-shaven heads and long beards down to their perfectly sculpted pecs. Old-timers with Lech Wałęsa moustaches and faux-leather vests that are older than their adult children. Perfectly coiffed businesspeople, from all over Europe, deep in English conversation. Nuns and priests chatting on their cell phones. The Polish national weightlifting squad, out for an intimidating sneer. Husky brides and huskier grooms on a photo shoot at all the big landmarks. It just never gets old.

It’s infused with a surprising elegance…at budget prices.

Between the World Wars, Warsaw was one of Europe’s leading cities — cosmopolitan and genteel. While this was battered out of them in World War II, then through the slow burn of communism, Warsaw always retained a certain refinement in its DNA. Now that the city has rebounded, and has the freedom and wherewithal to pursue its true identity,  Warsaw is putting on the dog once again. For example, the top-of-the-top Hotel Bristol, along the Royal Way thoroughfare, comes with a variety of exquisitely decorated bars and cafés (like the sumptuous Column Bar, pictured above) — as elegant as any grand hotel in Europe. If you want class, you’ll find it in Warsaw.

And yet, the city is remarkably affordable. While Poland’s economy is strong, it remains reasonably priced on a European scale. That Hotel Bristol? In most European capitals, I’d expect to pay $400 or $500 for a room there. On this trip, they quoted me closer to $200. A comfortable, midrange hotel is comfortably under $100. Yes, that fancy dinner I mentioned is pricey by any standard — but remember, it’s the most prestigious restaurant in the entire country. A delicious, memorable, foodie meal at an upmarket restaurant can run $15-20…half what you’d pay in London or Paris. As its economy improves, Poland is hitting the sweet spot of affordable elegance.

The museums are world-class.

If you think of Warsaw as the Washington DC of a nation of 40 million people (including their field-trip-crazy kids), it just makes sense that the city would have top-quality museums. And it does, in abundance. Poland does museums particularly well, and you could spend days in Warsaw’s — most of which have been upgraded over the last few years. On this visit, I made a point to walk through all of the big museums in town — and was blown away, again and again, by the quality, which goes toe-to-toe with any great city in Europe.

If you like Polish art (or think you might), hit the National Museum — with Matjekos, Malczewskis, and Boznańskas that’ll knock your socks off. If you’re into music, tour the Chopin Museum. History buffs hit up the Warsaw Uprising Museum, or the newly re-opened Museum of Warsaw. Palace aficionados are wowed by the Royal Castle. Parents with kids in tow head down to the Copernicus Science Center, with two floors of hands-on, interactive, educational exhibits. And my favorite museum in Poland — and perhaps Europe — is the exquisite Museum of the History of Polish Jews, which opened in 2013. This immersive, thoughtful museum delves deeply into the full breadth and depth of the Polish Jewish experience, in a way that’s illuminating to experts and novices alike.

It’s perfectly on-trend.

While most visitors stick to Warsaw’s staid, stuffy “Royal Way” spine — leading between the main boulevard and the rebuilt Old Town — there are countless outer districts of the city that are young and vibrant and exciting and amazingly trendy. Śródmieście (“Downtown”), just a 10-minute tram or Uber ride south of the tourist zone, is where Varsovian yuppies and hipsters mingle at colorful, creative cafés tucked under hulking Soviet-era arcades. The square called plac Zbawiciela  — shaped like a Trivial Pursuit pie, with tram tracks running through the middle — offers a glimpse of this scene, with wine bars and posh coffee houses and Thai street food and hipster dives, all spilling out onto the square.

Just a few blocks away is my favorite discovery from this trip, the Hala Koszyki. This trendy food hall, which opened in 2016 in a renovated brick 1906 market hall, is your handiest one-stop shop for sampling Warsaw’s current dining scene. Outside — sandwiched between the two brick entrances — is a sprawling zone of al fresco tables tucked among trees strewn with twinkle lights.

Inside you’ll find a dozen and a half entirely different eateries, covering all of the culinary bases: Spanish tapas, sushi, Indian, Latin American, Italian, Thai, hummus bar, beer hall, tea salon, gourmet chocolates, gelateria, and, of course, Polish. It’s anchored by the big bar in the middle, surrounded by communal seating. And tucked down a little side hall is the Bazar Koszyki — a tight row of nine different international street foods (udon, hot dogs, flammkuchen, pierogi, pho). The upper level, ringed by design studios, has quieter seating. They also have live performances (concerts for kids on Sunday afternoons, Polish stand-up on Wednesday nights) — check for details.

It’s simply enjoyable.

If you want corroborating evidence for your dated impressions of Warsaw — that it’s nothing but dreary concrete apartment blocks — you can find it. But the city also has verdant gardens, inviting squares, kid-friendly pedestrian zones, and parks you want to get lost in. For example, after years of turning its back on the Vistula River, Warsaw is now embracing it — with freshly landscaped riverside parks, manicured trails, and lively beach bars.

Whether you want to stick to the pretty-as-a-postcard Old Town, or bust out of the tourist rut and go hang out with the Varsovians in an overlooked corner of their city, there are plenty of ways to enjoy yourself in the Polish capital. And, like any vibrant, forward-looking, youthful city, Warsaw comes with surprises. Graffiti murals laugh down on commuters, playful fountains beckon to kids, and otherwise dreary buildings hide colorful cafés, artisan workshops, and boutiques in their cellars. If you sit on a bench and notice a button, press it…and you’ll hear Chopin music playing.

Creative entrepreneurs more than compensate for the rough edges.

When I was first writing my Warsaw guidebook chapter in 2003, I struggled to find hotels and restaurants I felt good about recommending to our Rick Steves readers. Varsovians — still recovering from the brutal communist experience — were, as a rule, gruff. But since then, a new breed of entrepreneur has hustled to overcome that image.

One of my favorite success stories is Jarek Chołodecki, who contacted me when he opened a small B&B many years ago. At the time, this concept was a novelty in a city of high-end business hotels and dreary old communist holdovers. But Jarek parlayed a stubborn pride for his city, and an understanding of what makes it special and what his guests want, into a big success.

His Chopin Boutique B&B has grown over the years (he just told me he’s up to 30 rooms, having now taken over the entire building). But he doesn’t just accommodate his guests — he takes pride in helping them fully experience all that Warsaw has to offer.

I always used to lament to Jarek that there were relatively few Chopin concerts in town; other guests did, too. So he started hosting nightly chamber concerts of Chopin piano performances in his B&B lounge.

On this visit, as I checked in after an overnight connection from Seattle, Jarek said, “Our concert starts in 10 minutes, if you’d like to join.” Jetlagged as I was, I dragged myself down to his little salon and enjoyed a delightful 50 minutes of music that put me in the perfect spirit to enjoy the next 10 days in Poland. He told me this was concert number 1,844 — that’s more than five years of nightly Chopin. And I imagine that thousands of Rick Steves guidebook readers have gathered at Jarek’s breakfast table over the years — all of them feeling lucky to have such a welcoming home-away-from-home in an intimidating city.

And that’s why I do what I do. Through our guidebooks, we strive to put our readers in touch with Europeans who will help them make magnificent memories. Jarek is just one of many smart, capable, visionary, and proud Varsovians who have transformed their city from a gloomy punchline into one of Europe’s best-kept secrets.

For all my best tips on Warsaw, check out our Rick Steves Eastern Europe guidebook; the updated 10th edition will be available in early summer 2019.

“What about Kraków?” you might be asking. Well, Kraków is great, too…and has amazing food of its own. (And stay tuned for my upcoming posts on Gdańsk and northern Poland.)

Rick enjoyed a trip to Poland a few years back. You can watch short videos he took at Kraków’s Rynek Underground Museum, Sanctuary of St. John Paul II, and Schindler’s Factory Museum; at a farmers’ market and milk bar in Kraków; in Warsaw’s Piłsudski Square; at Malbork Castle; and in Gdańsk.


Sicily’s Ultimate Road Trip

I’ve just wrapped up my work on our upcoming, brand-new Rick Steves Sicily guidebook. It’s a team effort — with contributions from Rick, co-author Sarah Murdoch, contributing author Alfio di Mauro, and me batting cleanup — and now it’s in the capable hands of our editors, mapmakers, and graphics people. The book will be out in April 2019. But before I depart Sicily, I wanted to share a few more of my favorite photos and memories that haven’t seen the light of day yet.

These photos loosely follow the route I drove around Sicily, starting and ending in Palermo and circling the island counterclockwise. It’s also the route of our recommended two-week itinerary by car from our upcoming Sicily book. Enjoy!

Stop #1: Palermo

Palermo’s main intersection — called the Quattro Canti (“Four Corners”) — features four fancy facades facing each other. Trying to capture this lovely space on film, I made full use of my fisheye lens. In addition to being a fascinating study in the theatricality of Baroque architecture — as the day goes on, the sun moves across female statues embodying spring (young maiden), summer, fall, and winter (elderly woman) — this intersection is the navigational center of town. I found myself passing through here again and again…and was always glad I did.

Stop #2: Segesta

Sicily — which was known as Magna Graecia (“Greater Greece”) back when the ancient Greeks outgrew their little islands and followed their own westward expansion — is the best place outside of Greece to see ancient ruins: Segesta (pictured here), Selinunte, and Agrigento (described later) are the “big three,” but seemingly every town has an old temple ruin or a theater carved into the hillside.

Stop #3: Trapani and the West Coast

Sicily’s often-overlooked west coast is a fine spot to settle in for a day or two of side-tripping. From the workaday but endearing port town of Trapani, you can head up to the hill town of Erice (this photo is taken from its castle), take a thirsty stroll through medieval salt pans, ride a boat to the isle of Mozia to see scant remains of the ancient Carthaginian civilization, sample some wines in a Marsala cantina, and set sail for the Egadi Islands. (Favignana has a surprisingly fascinating museum dedicated to the tuna fishing and canning industry that put this area on the map.) While not the most spectacular corner of Sicily, Trapani and the west coast are a fine kick-off for an island loop.

Stop #4: Agrigento

Sicily’s top sight from antiquity is the Valley of the Temples, in Agrigento. Slightly misnamed, it’s a half-mile-long ridge lined with temples (in various states of repair) from Greek times. Like the Roman Forum or Ephesus in Turkey, it’s one of those places that stokes your imagination for ancient times…you can’t help but mentally don a toga and picture when this was a thriving community.

While Agrigento is famous for its Valley of the Temples, its overlooked town center — which also lines up along a promontory —  is worth exploring. I stayed in an agriturismo in the nearby countryside, but I was glad I ventured into Agrigento one evening for a stroll up its main drag and a good dinner. Forking off Agrigento’s spine is the colorful “stairs of the winds” — a popular canvas for local street artists.

Stop #5: Villa Romana del Casale

While many of the great ancient sites in Sicily are from Greek times, it also has some of the best-preserved ancient Roman mosaics anywhere. Villa Romana del Casale, strategically located in the middle of nowhere, has elaborate floors decorated with painstakingly crafted murals that depict exotic animal hunts, cherubs on a fishing trip, and mighty female athletes who have acquired the unfortunate, persistent nickname “the bikini girls.”

Stop #6: Ragusa and Southeastern Sicily

Looking back on my Sicily trip, my favorite stop may have been mellow Ragusa, burrowed deep into the island’s southeastern hills. With houses blanketing two adjacent hills, Ragusa hits that perfect travel sweet spot: It’s big and bustling enough to be interesting and to serve its visitors well, but small and out-of-the-way enough not to be overrun by tourists. I saw quite a few out-of-towners here, but it seemed that almost all of them were Italians…a good sign.

I happened to be in Ragusa during an endearing little festival honoring the local Ragusano cheese. I expected the place to be mobbed. Instead, I strolled through a floodlit town where local people, and a handful of Italian tourists, were out enjoying their beautiful piazzas. The streets and squares of Ragusa are designed with a Baroque sense of theatricality and drama…church domes seem to be positioned just so.

Another reason to like Ragusa is that it’s an ideal home base for side-tripping to a delightful variety of low-impact, lovely towns dotting southeastern Sicily. Chocolate-crazy Modica (pictured here), valley-filling Scicli, and the Baroque beauty Noto are all within a short drive. This area was severely rattled by an earthquake in 1693 — and the reconstruction coincided perfectly with the high point of Sicilian Baroque. The entire region was rebuilt in this same style, using the luscious local sandstone, giving it an unusual harmony — especially in Noto. I found this to be the prettiest part of Sicily.

Stop #7: Siracusa

Siracusa may be Sicily’s most all-around entertaining destination. The mainland is dreary sprawl, but the historic center — filling a little island called Ortigia, surrounded by a nearly 360-degree bay — is magic: ancient Greek and Roman ruins, quality restaurants, characteristic back lanes, creative artisan boutiques, colorful puppet shows, hipster cafés, pebbly beaches, and my favorite square in Sicily — facing the town cathedral, which, like Siracusa and Sicily itself, is built upon layers of history. Ancient Doric columns still line the nave.

Stop #8: In the Shadow of Mount Etna

Catania — Sicily’s second city — gets a bum rap. It’s big, gritty, intimidating, and hard to navigate. While I wouldn’t put it at the top of my “must-visit” list, I was glad to spend the night here. Its old center is made of black lava rock from Mount Etna, which smolders on the horizon. Its center has been slowly rejuvenated — leaving the old core far more elegant than Palermo’s (which wears its charm with a patina of scruffiness).

Sicily’s glamorous poster child is Taormina, dramatically clinging to the edge of a cliff, with grand views to smoldering Mount Etna. Capping things off are the well-preserved ruins of a Greek and Roman Theater — built by the ancient Greeks, but later “upgraded” by the Romans. It’s hard to imagine a more scenic backdrop for a theatrical production. While I love the theater and the setting, I have to admit I was left pretty cold by Taormina. It’s a posh resort that — like most posh resorts — feels soulless, its authentic character plastered over in favor of amenities to please deep-pocketed tourists. (To be fair, I was primed not to like Taormina by many Sicilians and Sicily aficionados who had gravely warned me it was not “the real Sicily”…one of them used a perfect Italian phrase to describe it: “All smoke and no meat.”) Yes, you’ve gotta see Taormina. But you may find that other places stick with you longer.

We’re spoiled in the USA — with our long, broad, sandy beaches in California, Florida, and Hawaii. In Europe, a “beach” is rarely sandy — and more often, rocky and pebbly. Sicily is a great beach destination, but only for those who understand this crucial difference. The most memorable beach I saw here was Isola Bella, tucked just below the cliff-clinging center of Taormina (and accessible by a quick and scenic gondola). In the 19th century, an English noblewoman bought this island — tethered to the mainland only by a slushy pebble causeway just a few feet wide — and built a villa here. I went down to check out the villa…but the beach was the real star. It was packed with holiday-makers, basking in the hot Sicilian sun, splashing in the stunningly clear water (a fair trade-off for the lack of sand), and struggling to get comfortable on the rocks.

Mount Etna — the still-active volcano that gave rise to Sicily — is famous for its steaming profile. But what really blew me away was its stunning, fun-to-explore wine region. My favorite stretch was along its northern slope, between the villages of Linguaglossa and Randazzo. Regardless of whether you enjoy the wine, the scenery and dreamy countryside culture are divine.

Stop #9: Cefalù

My favorite beach town in Sicily is Cefalù…not for its fine beaches (though it does have those), but because it has the soul of an old fishing village — you still see fishermen pulling their boats up onto the beach, between the sunbathers. Its centerpiece is an insistently likeable Norman fortress-church, decorated inside with glittering golden mosaics. Cefalù is simply a fun place to be on vacation — it reminded me of my favorite island getaways on Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast.

The most satisfying hike in Cefalù is up to the top of “La Rocca” — the Gibraltar-like giant rock that rockets up above town. It’s a steep and rugged climb, but at the top you’re rewarded with stunning views over the town’s rooftops and hulking church.

On the day I summited La Rocca, with a sense of achievement and curiosity, I checked my Health app: 21,000 steps and the equivalent of 105 floors (plus another 105 on the way down). That’s like taking the stairs to the observation deck of Chicago’s Willis Tower. Yeah, I think I earned my gelato.

Stop #10: Back to Palermo

You know a city has gotten under your skin when you’re conspiring to get back there before you’ve even left the country. I started my trip in Palermo, then circled Sicily. As the end of my loop neared, I realized I really wanted one more crack at the island’s main city — partly for my guidebook work, but also just because I enjoyed it. I gave up a day off I’d planned in Taormina and added one more day in Palermo. I loved having another shot at the city, with the benefit of all I’d learned in the rest of the country. This strategy worked well for me in Iceland, too — where I had a few days in Reykjavík both at the start and the end of my trip. I like this approach so much, I’m going to start doing in on purpose.

This itinerary works great by car. Sicily is a little crazy to drive in — but once you get used to it, it’s not so bad.

For my best advice on traveling in Sicily, check out my Top 10 Sicily Travel Tips.

If you’re a foodie like I am, you’ll definitely want to sample Palermo’s street food.