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

Taking a Historical View on Brexit: Hastings, Chaucer, Dunkirk, Chunnel

On my first trip to Britain, 20 years ago, I visited some old, dear friends of my parents. Over my first-ever chicken tikka masala at the town’s finest curry house, I explained that I was excited to visit all the different parts of Europe — starting here in England. The awkward silence that followed made it clear I had said something inappropriate. “Well, yes, but…” they finally said, kindly but firmly. “Britain is not Europe.”

Brexit may be dominating headlines today. But, as I learned on that first trip, Britain has long defined itself as something apart from Europe. I’ve just spent three weeks traveling in London and southeast England. And everywhere I go, I am reminded that Brexit is not a bold new idea. It’s the culmination of Britain’s centuries-long, love-hate relationship with the Continent.

When planning my itinerary for this spring’s trip — linking guidebook research in England with a visit to Paris — nostalgia compelled me to book a ticket on the Eurostar train through the Channel Tunnel. On that first backpacking trip in 1999, I took the Chunnel between London and Paris. Open just five years at that point, the Chunnel seemed so exciting…futuristic, even. For the first time in history, there was a “land” connection between Britain and Europe. This was the heyday of European unity: A few years later, eleven European countries would voluntarily do away with their traditional currencies in favor of the simplicity of the euro. And a couple of years after that, the European Union would expand aggressively to the east — bringing a flood of Polish and Slovak and Lithuanian workers to British shores.

In retrospect, perhaps that was too much integration, too fast. Today the Chunnel tethers England to a continent a majority of its voters have decided they want no part of. And at Ashford International train station, it shows.

Ashford International — where I’m hitching my ride through the Chunnel — is sprawling, characterless, and drab. Nobody here seems to like it very much. The simple task of driving my rental car to the station proves to be an ordeal. Circling the station, eyes peeled for a Hertz sign that never materializes, I keep winding up on the parkway to the adjacent Ashford Designer Outlet. Many times the size of the station, it exerts a strange and inescapable gravity — as if everybody in town has quietly decided that the shopping mall, and not the station linking Britain to Europe, is what Ashford should be known for.

Like all avid travelers, I’m a connoisseur of train stations — especially here in Britain, where historic brick, steel, and glass architecture mingles with modern amenities. But Ashford International has no personality. It feels like a too-big boondoggle airport in a depressed American city, whose developers are currently serving five to ten in minimum security prison. My warm, fuzzy, romantic notions of “taking the Chunnel to Paris” are being dunked in a bucket of ice water.

The concourse is like a ghost town. In my imagination, tumbleweeds swirl past the shuttered newsstands. There’s a scrum of loud French teenagers, apparently returning home from a field trip. And at the opposite end of the concourse — conspicuously keeping their distance — are a few weary-looking Brits, sitting sourly as if in a backed-up NHS waiting room. All of this is starkly at odds with the many colorful, life-size Mickey Mouse cutouts with the message, “Disneyland is closer than you think!” and encouraging me to “Find all 10 of the hidden Mickeys!” (Apparently, the only entity still gung-ho about the Chunnel are marketers responsible for luring British families to Disneyland Paris.)

While most of the shops in the station seem to be closed, there are two indistinguishable cafés. Comparing the two, I choose the farther one…if only because it’s easier than backtracking to the first one. The cashier — casting suspicious glances up the concourse — grumbles about the other café. “It’s Saturday!” she whinges. “And on Saturdays, only one of these two cafés is supposed to be open. And today is our turn. But this lot” — more accusatory glances up-concourse — “apparently decided to open anyway.”

“Um,” I say. I noticed, walking by earlier, that the offending café is French-run.

“Don’t worry,” she says with a satisfied wink. “I’ve already reported this to the supervisor.”

Duly relieved, I slink away with my mediocre, burned-tasting latte (a British specialty!) and my cheese and ham panini. The cheese is melted and runny and delicious — très French. But it’s missing something. I grab a couple of packets of English brown mustard, and it’s just the thing. If only the Brits and French could — like mustard and gooey cheese — mix to a surprising, positive effect.

I munch my sandwich, looking out over the heartbreaking mediocrity of the Ashford International platforms. The gray metal canopies over the tracks match the overcast sky. I think about how that very name — Ashford International — is infused with a cheeky optimism. Fancy that! An in-ter-na-tion-al train station — in England! This must have seemed thrilling when it opened. And yet, I can’t shake the feeling that the station is the embodiment of a deeply unsatisfying British-French compromise that made nobody happy — and, increasingly, feels like a regrettable albatross.

I’m probably overstating it. Maybe existential malaise is simply a prerequisite for working at a train station on a Saturday. But there’s no doubt that Brexit has stoked hard feelings on both sides of the English Channel. For most of my traveling life, Britain has prized its ties to Europe, but now the pendulum has swung back the other way — hard.

Looking over those gray tracks, I think back on what have, until now, seemed a random assortment of impressions that have stuck with me on this trip through Britain. Waiting for my train, I weave them together as strands of a thousand-year-long, complicated tale about Britain and Europe.

My first night in London was just days before the EU-imposed Brexit deadline. Curiosity drew me to Parliament Square, behind the Houses of Parliament. Big Ben was entirely covered with scaffolding — a too-on-the-nose symbol of Britain’s current “work in progress” approach to sensible governance. I happened to arrive at the fence just in time to see a gaggle of pro-EU protesters, waving flags and hollering. They huddled together and mustered all their energy for a chant: “No Brexit! No Brexit! NOOOOO BREXIT!” It seemed like they were just getting warmed up. But then, having said their piece, they dispersed just like that…wandering off in every direction, aimlessly, with their limp EU flags dragging on the pavement.

A few blocks up the street, I walked by one of my favorite monuments in London, which honors British women who died serving and fighting in World War II — many of them on European soil. It stands immediately in front of Downing Street, where, at Number 10, another exemplary British woman’s talents are being squandered trying to clean up the mess created by headstrong men. Theresa May already has one foot out the door; the pinnacle of her career, it seems, is to take the fall for David Cameron’s Brexit referendum, then quietly excuse herself for another headstrong man to take the reins.

A week later — after EU authorities extended the Brexit deadline for six months, extending May’s torture (I mean, tenure) — I sipped a burned latte with a Cornishman at café under London Bridge. I asked him to look into his crystal ball: What will become of Brexit? He shrugged. Like everyone — including (especially!) Theresa May and Brexit’s other supposed architects — he has zero clue whether and how Brexit will be implemented.

I asked why they don’t just do another referendum, to clear up the confusion and ensure the true will of the people is being heard. (This was also my brilliant suggestion in Florida in 2000. Nobody listens.) He pointed out that many people in poorer parts of the country — especially in the industrialized North, sort of the “Rust Belt” of Britain, whose Thatcher-era economic struggles worsened with David Cameron’s financial crisis austerity measures — are angry at the “Soft South” (as they call London and its posh satellite communities). And, just like a significant percentage of Donald Trump’s voters were simply disillusioned people who wanted to throw a live hand grenade into the hallowed halls of government, Brexit can be seen largely as a protest vote. The problem is, in both cases — like it or not — that vote is binding, and the consequences are real.

Throughout London, the effects of European integration are evident everywhere. London may well be the most cosmopolitan city on earth, and certainly in Europe — which is one of the things I dearly love about it. And yet, selfishly, I must admit that London’s international bent sometimes complicates my guidebook research. On several occasions, I stepped into a big chain hotel to update our book’s details, and the receptionist (in a thick Italian, Spanish, or Polish accent) explained — almost bragged— they had no idea how to answer my questions, because they had just started working there a week or two before. They struck me as freewheeling young people who’d come to London on a lark, to enjoy living in a big city for a few years before moving on to the next thing. While the “revolving door” culture of the EU has its benefits, I could imagine, if I lived in London my whole life, feeling a sense of loss for a time when I used to interact with people with a less transient connection to the city.

Moving on from London, I did a little road trip throughout southeast England, from Brighton to Dover to Canterbury. Here, in the corner of Britain that’s closest to Europe, the air is thick with insights about Britain’s historical connections to Europe.

Brighton, just an hour south of London by train, fancies itself Britain’s Riviera — a beach break for those who don’t have the money or the interest to head to Nice or Mykonos or Dubrovnik or the Costa del Sol. On an unseasonably warm spring day, the beach’s chunky pebbles were filled with working-class Londoners trying to get comfortable on towels and sling-back chairs. Most people seemed to be staying well back from the actual water, with just a few kids dipping numb toes into frigid surf. This struck me as a poor substitute for balmy Adriatic or Aegean beaches — but at least it’s English, dammit!

On a walking tour, my guide pointed out the Brighton Dome, where ABBA’s “Waterloo” won the Eurovision song contest in 1974, vaulting the group to super-stardom. (Am I pushing it too far to point out that the winning song was, in a very roundabout way, about Britain’s defeat of Napoleon’s French forces? Yes? OK, never mind.) There was a time when Eurovision captivated all of Britain. It was the pop music equivalent of the Olympics or the World Cup. But these days, the Brits have grown hardened and cynical: “It’s not what it used to be. After the Iron Curtain fell, the Eastern Bloc broke into a million little countries that just vote for each other all the time. It’s not fair!”

An hour’s drive east, in the town of Battle, I trudged through the drizzle around the site of the Battle of Hastings — where, in 1066, the Norman (read: French) William the Conqueror defeated the Anglo-Saxon (read: English) Harold Godwinson with an arrow through the eye. Thus began centuries of French rule over Britain. While seemingly a loss for “England,” many credit this event for bringing the until-then-remote island more fully into the European fold. If not for the Norman Conquest, Britain might still loom on Europe’s distant periphery. The English language and culture not only survived, but were enhanced by their French connection. Most English-speakers don’t even realize how many words came into our language from French — including ones for fundamental concepts like art, money, justice, diplomacy, theater, cuisine, and many, many others.

In Canterbury, I found myself reciting the first few lines of Geoffrey Chaucer’s 14th-century masterpiece, Canterbury Tales (which I was compelled to memorize in college). A museum docent pointed out that Chaucer’s work was so influential, in part, because it was written in vernacular English, at a time when French was still the language of learning and literature. But things were changing. A few decades before, the Great Plague had cut England’s population in half — disproportionately killing off French speakers (who tended to live in cities, where the plague spread like a stomach bug on a cruise ship). And Chaucer was writing just as the conflict that would come to be known as the Hundred Years’ War was turning popular opinion even more strongly against French. Chaucer boldly asserted the worthiness of English as a literary language; two hundred years later, Shakespeare would cite his influence.

In Dover, peering across the English Channel, I could plainly see France despite the cloudy, drizzly, blustery weather. It’s right there, after all — just 20 miles away. Up at Dover Castle, I toured the secret tunnels from which British authorities orchestrated the “Miracle of Dunkirk” — rescuing 338,000 British troops who’d become stranded on a broad French beach after being boxed in by Nazi forces in some of the earliest fighting of World War II.

Standing atop a windy white cliff, looking across to France, I recalled the words of Winston Churchill’s most famous speech, delivered the day after Dunkirk to rally Britain for the coming winner-takes-all war with Germany: “We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.” Churchill — who knew his Chaucer — made a point to use exclusively words of Anglo-Saxon origin, with just one pointed exception that came from French: “surrender.”

And then, down on Dover’s waterfront, I stumbled upon a chilling monument: a panel (donated by Germany in peacetime) where Nazi artillery forces made a note of each one of the 84 shells they lobbed at Dover from their positions on the cliffs of Calais across the English Channel. Imagine: The Nazis were so close to Britain — on French soil — that they didn’t even need airplanes or rockets to bomb it.

Just four decades later, however, Britain was again moving toward Europe. Leaving Dover, I pulled off the highway at a quiet little park called Samphire Hoe, tucked away from the world through a tunnel at the base of some of Dover’s famous white cliffs. This artificial meadowland was created by dumping more than six million cubic yards of chalk left over from the construction of the Chunnel between 1988 and 1994. By the seaside, a poignant plaque lists the names of 11 workers who died during construction.

Back at Ashford International, I’m jolted awake from my little history lesson zone-out by the announcement — first in English, then in French — that it’s time to head down to the platform and board the train that will take me through that tunnel.

Crossing from Britain to Europe proves anticlimactic. The train pulls up, I get on and find my seat, they serve a meal. A few minutes later, while they’re bringing around coffee, it grows abruptly dark. No “Cheerio, England!” No nothing.

Writing this, feeling my ears pop as I travel under the English Channel, the future of Europe, and of Britain’s place in it, feels uncertain. But looking back over the last millennium — and over my last few weeks of travel — I realize that’s nothing new. While Brexit adds a new wrinkle to the saga, Britain’s struggle to reconcile its relationship with Europe is as old as “British-ness” itself. My crystal ball is no better than anyone else’s. But I have a hunch that, as ever, Britain can’t live with Europe…but can’t live without it.

Several minutes later, it gets light again, and my phone jingles: “Welcome to France!”  (My cell phone company — eager to explain their roaming policy — seems to be the only one who cares that I’m in a new country.) And then, the loudspeaker: “Mesdames et Messieurs, nous approchons maintenant Paris.”

How to Visit King’s Landing: Game of Thrones Locations in Croatia and Beyond

Game of Thrones tourism has become big business at locations all over Europe — in Croatia, Spain, Iceland, and Northern Ireland — where curious travelers from around the world come to walk in the footsteps of Jon Snow, Daenerys Targaryen, Tyrion Lannister, and the Stark kids. I’ve enjoyed watching this phenomenon take hold in a sleepy town I’ve known since long before it became synonymous with Westeros: Dubrovnik, Croatia…or, as GoT fans know it, King’s Landing.

On my last visit to Dubrovnik, I stayed in a delightful B&B in an old stone house, buried deep in the heart of the Old Town. Like a swallow’s nest in the rafters of a busy cathedral, I was central to everything, yet just removed from the hustle and bustle. On my first evening, enjoying the peace and quiet and the cool of dusk in my B&B’s private garden, I heard the distant clang of a handbell. A few minutes later, I heard it again. It was simply mysterious: Over many years of visits, I’d never heard this before. But that occasional toll of a handbell quickly became the soundtrack of this visit to Dubrovnik.

On my third day in Dubrovnik, I finally figured it out: As I was descending the grand, steep staircase that leads from the Jesuit church down to the main drag, I heard the bell clang again — this time followed by chants of “Shame! Shame! Shame!” Glancing over, I saw a Game of Thrones walking tour, beaming with giddy delight at re-creating the most humiliating experience of Cersei Lannister’s life.

Game of Thrones Locations in Dubrovnik

Fans of the HBO television series Game of Thrones may feel the tingle of déjà vu during their visit to Dubrovnik. On the show, Dubrovnik and the surrounding coastline and islands provided the setting for two main storylines: the royal family intrigue at King’s Landing; and Daenerys Targaryen’s conquest of the continent of Essos, from idyllic Qarth to the cities of Slaver’s Bay. Of course, in most cases, the real-life Croatian locations are dressed up with special effects — the sea, rocks, and bottoms of the buildings are real, while the fanciful towers and spires (and the dragons) are pure fantasy. If you digitally plop the Sept of Baelor in the middle of Dubrovnik’s Old Town, presto! King’s Landing. (The series stopped actually filming in Dubrovnik a few years back, and yet, the town’s real-life landmarks continued to appear on the series even through its final episode — re-created using a combination of archival footage and digital reconstructions.)

The chance to visit the “real King’s Landing” and other important sites has begun to attract a new breed of traveler: “set jetters” whose passion for the show attracts them here from around the globe. For die-hard GoT geeks, here are some specifics (mild spoilers ahead for early seasons of Game of Thrones):

The real-life Fort of St. Lawrence (Tvrđava Lovrijenac) — the Red Keep of Westerosi royalty — looks over a pleasant cove that stands in for Blackwater Bay, the site of a calamitous naval battle in season two, and some poignant Stark family goodbyes in the series finale.

The City Walls, which wrap entirely around Dubrovnik’s Old Town, have seen frequent airtime as the mighty fortifications of King’s Landing — the site of many strategic (and scenic) conversations between the royals and their advisors. And in the epic Battle of King’s Landing, Drogon strafed these walls and bastions with dragon fire.

Several of the streets in Dubrovnik’s Old Town — especially St. Dominic’s Street (ulica Svetog Dominika), connecting the main drag to the PločeGate — become the crowded market streets of King’s Landing. The real-life “Rupe” Ethnographic Museum, in the upper reaches of the Old Town, served as the exterior of Littlefinger’s brothel.

The greater Dubrovnik area features more locations: The eventful “Purple Wedding” of Joffrey and Margaery was filmed in Gradac Park, just outside the Pile Gate. The epic duel between Oberyn Martell and The Mountain was filmed at the amphitheater below Hotel Belvedere, facing Dubrovnik’s Old Port. And the island of Lokrum played host to the Qarth garden party. Today, a monastery on Lokrum hosts a very modest exhibit about the Game of Thrones filming.

The fortress where Daenerys’ young dragons were held captive was Minčeta Tower (the highest point in Dubrovnik’s City Walls).  Later, when her dragons got bigger, they were chained up in a dungeon that was filmed deep inside the cellars of Diocletian’s Palace, just up the coast in Split.

Trsteno Arboretum, just north of Dubrovnik, is where Sansa Stark had many heart-to-hearts with Olenna and Margaery Tyrell. And the fortified town of Klis, just north of Split, was the slaving town of Meereen.

While it’s easy enough to find these locations on your own, various companies in Dubrovnik offer Game of Thrones sightseeing tours (two well-established local outfits are Dubrovnik Walks and Dubrovnik Walking Tours).

When Your Hometown Becomes King’s Landing

For their part, the people of Dubrovnik recognize that it’s an honor to play a major role in history’s most epic television series. And they’ve enjoyed the ride. For years, locals have been excitedly telling me about their brushes with Game of Thrones greatness: Seeing Peter Dinklage, in full Tyrion Lannister regalia, strolling down the main street. Or sitting down for dinner at a neighborhood konoba and spotting Joffrey at the next table. One of my Dubrovnik friends was an extra — dressed as a blink-or-you’ll-miss-him nobleman at a royal wedding.

At times, the filming could be frustrating. The route of Cersei’s “Walk of Shame! Shame! Shame!” — which traversed essentially the entire historic town center of Dubrovnik — was walled off with high privacy fences. And in this vertical town, that meant that locals who were caught unawares had to circle up a steep stepped lane, then all the way around town, just to cross the street. But one elderly woman — a local fixture famous for her incredibly slow gait — reached the fence and asked very kindly if she might be able to take a shortcut. The crew took pity on her, halted production, opened the gate…and proceeded to hemorrhage money as they watched her hobble through the middle of their set for several excruciating minutes.

For the first few years of the Game of Thrones phenomenon, Dubrovnik remained oblivious to the touristic gold mine they had stumbled into. I recall one visit, around season three, wondering why there was not one Game of Thrones attraction, tour, or brochure in town. For a city whose lifeblood is tourism, it seemed clueless.

But soon Dubrovnik caught on, and fast. By the time of my next visit, just a year or two later, Dubrovnik was awash in Game of Thrones-themed attractions: walking tours, souvenir stores, a sunset cruise where passengers are invited to dress up in Game of Thrones costumes, and a shop with a replica of the Iron Throne. If you buy an overpriced souvenir, you can take a picture of yourself seated as the Lord of the Seven Kingdoms. (The cheapest trinkets I saw were $6 lighters and refrigerator magnets, making this one expensive photo op.)
This sudden fame requires adjusting to a new clientele. I asked a local guide how she felt about adding Game of Thrones locations to her walking tours. She said she didn’t mind. But some customers are asking her, “Can you just do Game of Thrones locations, without all of that boring Dubrovnik history?” That’s where she draws the line: If you want GoT, you’re gonna get some Dubrovnik, too. (Respect!)

Game of Thrones has helped put Dubrovnik on Hollywood’s map for other projects, too. The town stood in for the casino city of Canto Bight in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and 2018’s Robin Hood was shot in the Old Town. (My local friends were impressed by the construction of wood-frame castle extensions to the City Walls at the Old Port — and then were disappointed when everything was burned down for the film’s finale.) Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again was filmed on the nearby “Greek Island” of Vis, Croatia. And persistent rumors suggest that the upcoming 25th James Bond film (featuring Daniel Craig’s final appearance as 007) may use Dubrovnik as one of its primary settings.

[Update after Season 8: Watching the final two episodes of the series — with the horrifying events of the Battle of King’s Landing and its aftermath — it was painful to see the fine old buildings of Dubrovnik destroyed by dragon fire. It felt like witnessing a place I actually know being wiped from existence — and even more poignant when you consider that the real Dubrovnik was badly damaged in a military siege during the Wars of Yugoslav Succession in the mid-1990s. I imagine watching those scenes hit a little close to home — perhaps literally — for the residents of Dubrovnik.]

More European Game of Thrones Locations

Other European destinations have played major roles in Game of Thrones. Beyond Croatia, the warmer-weather, tropical areas of Westeros and Essos have been filmed mostly in Spain — where, for example, the Alcazar Gardens of Sevilla appeared as the lavish and lush backyard of the Martell clan, and the bullring in Osuna was the site of an epic battle in Meereen. If you want to hike up the vertiginous, rocky trail to Dragonstone Castle, you’ll find it at San Juan de Gaztelugatxe in the Basque Country.

The frigid areas North of The Wall were mostly filmed in Iceland. Major tourist areas — such as Þingvellir, the dramatic and historic gorge on the Golden Circle tour route — were used as locations for some of this rugged scenery, as were far more remote areas that are all but inaccessible to casual tourists. In the North of Iceland (near Lake Mývatn), one popular stop is Grjótagjá, the hot-water spring grotto where Jon Snow and Ygritte, ahem, violated the oath of the Knights’ Watch.

And the temperate landscapes of the North near Winterfell, plus many of the jagged coastline scenes (and lots more), were shot in Northern Ireland — also the site of the primary studio for interior filming (Belfast’s Titanic Studios, which recently opened a GoT exhibition).

For honorable mention, consider Wester Ros, an area in the northern Scottish Highlands; while it hasn’t appeared on screen, its rugged, cinematic scenery inspired George R. R. Martin to name his fictional land “Westeros.”

Of course, there’s so much more to see and do in Croatia, Iceland, Ireland, and Spain than hunt down Game of Thrones locations. But if that’s what it takes to draw visitors to these wonderful corners of Europe, I’m all for it…especially if those “set jetters” are willing to put up with some real local stories alongside the fantasy lore. I’m not against using trojan horses to get people traveling. And I have to admit: It’s fun to see some of my favorite spots in Croatia popping up on one of my favorite TV shows.


Have you enjoyed visiting the filming locations of famous movies and TV shows? I’d love to hear about it — please share your favorite experiences in the comments.

And if you’d like to discover Game of Thrones locations yourself, check out our guidebooks on Croatia, Iceland, Spain, and Ireland.

How to Get a Good Night’s Sleep on the Road: A Guide for Traveling Insomniacs

I’m a professional traveler…and an inveterate insomniac. It’s hard to imagine a worse malady for a travel writer. (Xenophobia, maybe?) While I sleep well enough in my own bed, I’ve struggled with getting a solid night’s sleep while on the road. After doing much research on the topic — including consulting with more than one medical professional — I’ve assembled this list of tips and strategies that have helped me, at least somewhat, overcome my insomnia. At one time, waking up feeling well-rested was a rare treat in my travels. But since I’ve made a concerted effort to conquer sleeplessness, I’m happy to be sleeping much easier.

I am not any kind of expert. Please don’t mistake this post as authoritative. Of all the things I’ve done to fight sleeplessness, nothing had more impact than one brief session with a physician who specializes in sleep medicine and could tailor his treatment to my specific situation. Every person is different, and what helps one insomniac may not work at all for another. If you have serious sleep problems, talk to your doctor.

One more note: This is not a post about overcoming jet lag. This is about the insomnia that comes with any kind of travel, even long after you’ve adjusted to your new time zone. (For strategies specific to jet lag, check out Rick’s tips.) Since my beat is Europe, most of my examples are from there — but this advice can help any traveler, international or domestic. If you’re one of those people who can fall asleep anywhere, anytime, all of this will seem outrageously high-maintenance…but as my fellow light sleepers can testify, this is no small matter.

With those caveats in mind, here is one insomniac traveler’s roundup of what might be helpful in achieving that elusive good night’s sleep.

Hotel Issues

Choose quiet hotels. Painfully obvious, I know — but the hard part is how. Once I’ve narrowed down my options, I scour online reviews. Most big booking sites (TripAdvisor, Booking.com, Airbnb) let you search their reviews for keywords such as “noise” and “quiet.” Usually, a strong pattern for one or the other quickly emerges. If there are no comments about noise, I usually take it as a bad sign. Maybe past guests like the hotel — or the people who run it  — and don’t have the heart to mention the all-hours nightclub next door.

Of course, reviews only tell part of the story. And I’ve learned the hard way that the quietest hotel in town has a room that’s noisy, and the noisiest hotel in town has a room that’s quiet.

So once you book, ask for a quiet room — early, often, and as insistently as possible while still being polite. For this reason, I prefer to book direct — even if I’ve done my research on a booking site — so I can be clear and specific about my need for a quiet room.

And when you’re making your request, realize many cultures — ahem, Spain, ahem — have a different (or nonexistent) understanding of “quiet.” People live their lives against a steady soundtrack of buzzing motor scooters and rumbling buses and late-night revelers, to the point where they just don’t hear it anymore. I’ll never forget the time I checked into a downtown Lisbon hotel where the clerk offered me two room choices, while clearly prodding me toward his idea of the better option: the one with the view. I took the keys up and checked them both out. The view room had a nice vista over a bustling street — but every time a bus went by, the windows rattled. The second room was facing an interior courtyard, with a view of ugly HVAC venting, but blessedly silent. When I told him my choice, the receptionist was mystified. I explained that the buses would keep me awake, and he said, “Wow. It must be very quiet where you live!”

Because of this cultural difference, it’s worth running the risk of over-explaining: “I would like your quietest room, ideally on a higher floor and away from street noise or elevators.” In Europe, many hotels surround a courtyard, which is usually drastically quieter than street-facing rooms. I’ll sacrifice a view for a courtyard-facing room every single time (which has frequently mystified a hotelier who was trying to schmooze me).

And speaking of elevators: Those are the silent killers of a good night’s sleep. If your room adjoins an elevator shaft, you may assume it’s no problem when you check in mid-afternoon — when nobody is using it. But when the breakfast room opens at 6 a.m., every early bird in the hotel will be riding up and down. And only then do you realize that the gears haven’t been oiled since Franco was in power. (Vibrations through the walls and floor can be worse than the actual noise — and earplugs do nothing against vibrations.) If I’m assigned a room near an elevator, I’ll give it a test-run: Hit the “lobby” button, then dash into my room to see if I can hear it rumbling up and down the shaft. If I suspect it’ll keep me awake, that’s the time to ask for a different room….not at midnight, when everyone’s coming back from dinner.

And don’t be afraid to ask to change rooms. It’s really OK. They may not be able to accommodate your request, but often there’s a way — and it’s well worth the hassle of repacking.

Also, don’t rule out switching hotels entirely if that’s what it takes to get a good night’s sleep. On a recent trip, I toughed out three noisy, sleepless nights in a crummy hotel. I moved on to the next town, determined to change my luck. But that night, I stepped in the door of my guesthouse around midnight and heard the loudest snoring I’ve ever heard in my life. The banshee-howl echoed throughout the linoleum-lined hallways, all the way to the front door. As I curled around the corridor to my room, the noise got louder and — unbelievably — louder still, until I realized it was coming from the room next to mine. Lying in bed, I could hear the snoring through the wall; I could hear the snoring echoing out through the halls and back through my flimsy door; and I could even hear the snoring bouncing around the courtyard and back through my window. I was surrounded on all sides…and earplugs were useless.

Waking up the next morning (after a scant few hours of sleep), I found a dead-quiet Hilton down the street and splurged on their last available room. When I explained the situation to the guesthouse owner, he said, “Yeah, I don’t blame you one bit. I have never heard anything like that. Those people need a doctor.”

Sometimes, you’re stuck with the room you’ve got. But even a borderline room can be salvaged. Adjust your room for both noise and light.  Close windows and blinds. If the bathroom has an exterior window, close the bathroom door so that the light and noise of daybreak won’t awaken you. I like to turn up the fan on the air-conditioning unit to maximum, and/or flip on the fan in the bathroom, because the white noise can help mask bumps in the night. And finding a suitable temperature is important, too; research suggests that cold is more conducive to sleep than warmth.

Gear for Good Sleep

Equip yourself. I carry a little “sleep kit” in a zip-loc bag that goes on my nightstand: a variety of earplugs, an eye mask, noise-cancelling headphones, and medications. It’s all at my fingertips, in case I need it.

A word on earplugs: Use them. They are your single most effective weapon against hotel noise. If you find them uncomfortable, maybe you’re using the hard, scratchy styrofoam cheapies that some hotels hand out to assuage their guilt for skimping on decent windows. Try several varieties and find one that works for you. I like Mack’s, which go in soft but expand robustly. If you’re bothered by the sensation of something in your ear, give it a couple of nights; you’ll be surprised how quickly you adjust. If you just can’t get over the feeling of something inside your ear, try over-ear silicone putty earplugs, which can be very nearly as effective.

By the way, I wear earplugs even when going to bed in what seems to be a very quiet room. You never know what early-morning noises might erupt well before your alarm clock…like that time in Berlin when my room adjoined the housekeeping closet.

All of that said, I have stayed in more than my share of hotels where earplugs were almost, but not quite, effective against noise or vibrations — often due to the rumble of traffic outside, noisy plumbing, or thin walls and doors. (Fellow light sleepers know what I’m talking about.) Earplugs are my front line, but I also have a few emergency counter-measures on hand.

I also travel with noise-cancelling headphones. If you can sleep while wearing them, this can be a great alternative to earplugs. But for me, the best use for noise-cancelling headphones is to wear them before bed. If I’m in my hotel room working in the evening, and there’s a lot of bustle outside, I might start to focus on the noise and worry that it’s going to keep me up — which, of course, increases the odds of exactly that. So instead, I pop on my noise-cancelling headphones and listen to music while I work. By the time I’m ready to take off the headphones and go to bed, things are usually much quieter.

White noise works for many insomniacs. I have a free app on my phone (myNoise) that has a variety of white-noise soundtracks (I like the gentle raindrops). You can put your phone on the nightstand and hit play, or you can wear headphones, or you can get a speaker designed to place under your pillow. One thing to keep in mind is that if you can hear your neighbors, they can hear your white noise — so be considerate of those who don’t want to hear raindrops all night long. (Or, again, just flip on the fan.)

After sound, light is the second big killer of solid sleep. There are two kinds of people in this world: People who need it completely dark to sleep, and people who can sleep in broad daylight. And both types of people run hotels. While I’m not nearly as light-sensitive as I am noise-sensitive, I marvel at otherwise great hotels that simply don’t bother to fully black out their windows. My favorite are hotels with those amazing European blackout blinds: Pull on the rope, and interlocking blinds cascade down, stacking on top of each other until all light is obliterated. But many hotels have gauzy drapes that gape open stubbornly. I’ve been known to prop a chair against a gappy drape to keep it closed — or even to tape a drape to the wall. (And don’t get me started on skylights without shades.)

To be prepared for any eventuality, travel with an eye mask. After trying several (including freebies from the airplane trip over), I find the Rick Steves Travel Dreams Sleep Mask the most comfortable — soft and cushy, with a wide strap that keeps it firmly in place.

Medications

If you have serious sleep problems, sleep medications can help. Talk to your doctor — again, I am not qualified to give advice on sleeping meds. But I can tell you what has worked for me.

The most popular non-prescription sleep aid for travelers is melatonin, a naturally produced hormone associated with calibrating your body clock. While doctors aren’t in total agreement about how useful melatonin is (some suggest it’s mainly a placebo effect), it’s often recommended for two reasons: First, it has a mild sedating effect, which can help you fall asleep without the wallop of prescription sleep meds. And second — particularly relevant if you’re traveling across many time zones — it can help reset your natural body clock and more quickly. (Because the sale of supplements like melatonin is restricted in parts of Europe, I bring a supply from home.)

Given my history of sleep problems, I have a prescription for zolpidem (the generic version of Ambien; eszopiclone/Lunesta is similar, but longer-lasting). For me, zolpidem is the nuclear option:  my last-ditch strategy for aggressively forcing myself to fall asleep, in cases where nothing else works. Zolpidem is serious stuff — it requires a prescription, it can be habit-forming, it makes some users feel groggy and clumsy the next morning (and can increase the risk of falls), and the jury’s out on its long-term effects. But it’s effective — sometimes comically effective. I can be wide awake, convinced I’ll never get to sleep. I’ll pop a half-tablet of zolpidem and wait the 20 to 30 minutes for it to kick in — the entire time convinced there’s no way it’ll work. And then, suddenly, like flipping a light switch, I get a little dizzy…and then I wake up, several hours later. That’s far preferable to lying awake in bed from 2 to 5 a.m. on my first couple of nights in Europe.

There are other sedatives and sleep aids out there: Sominex and Valium have both been used as sleep aids for generations, and Tylenol PM is popular with some. But some users report that those meds leave them feeling groggy the next day, and reduce the quality of sleep. (I haven’t tried them.)

Sleep Hygiene and Psychology

Fortunately, there are ample non-medicinal strategies that also work. In clinical studies, insomniacs treated with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I) saw better long-term results than those who took medications. That tells you that psychology plays a huge role in sleep. While medicines can be a useful tool, I’ve found that the most effective treatment for my insomnia has been an attitude adjustment, combined with some specific behavioral changes. This is sometimes called “sleep hygiene” — developing effective habits around your sleep routine.

Associate the bed only with sleep. Think about it: If you’re sitting up in bed on a laptop working, or watching an exciting sports match, and then suddenly you try to sleep in that same place, it’s confusing to your body. Wait…is this is a place for work, or for sleep? This sounds elementary — even primal — but it’s powerful. Because I understand this rule of thumb, I do my computer work sitting in a chair, and shift to the bed only when I’m ready to sleep.

This ties into the next tip: Get into a very specific bedtime routine, and stick to it — even if you’re traveling, and everything else in your life is different every day. I used to work on writing up my guidebook research until 1 or even 2 in the morning, then went straight to bed…and wondered why I couldn’t fall asleep (as my mind was spinning full-tilt about all the work I’d just done, and what I had left to do tomorrow). Now I force myself to stop working at the same time every night — whether I’m “done” working or not. I brush my teeth and settle in to watch one 30-minute TV show, then lights out. Habits are extremely powerful, and good sleep habits can compensate for an awful lot.

What about when you wake up in the middle of the night? (This is my big problem.) Specialists prescribe a very specific approach: Try to get back to sleep for 10 or 15 minutes. If you can’t sleep, get out of bed, go into another room, do something that’s not too engaging, and only return to the bed when you’re ready to try sleeping again. If you begin to associate the bed with frustrated sleeplessness, it aggravates the negative spiral. This sounds impractical in a tight hotel room, but it can be done. For example, on a recent stay in a tiny hotel room, I couldn’t get back to sleep at 3 a.m. So I got up and sat up on the foot of the bed, watching videos until I was ready to get back to sleep. And I did.

Yes, I admitted that I was using my phone in the middle of the night. (Gasp!) This is a huge taboo in the sleep science world. Your phone, tablet, or laptop screen emits light. And if you’re directing that light straight into your eyes just before bed, you’re sending your body mixed messages. Strict sleep specialists will tell you, simply, no screen time for a few hours before bed, period. In my case, I find watching videos very soothing. I’ve found I can get away with breaking this rule, but I am very careful to turn the brightness all the way down. (These days, most phones have a built-in feature to automatically dampen the brightness of your phone after a certain time — check your phone’s settings.)

If you’re trying to sleep and your mind is racing, try some deep, diaphragmatic breathing. “Diaphragmatic” means that you’re breathing deeply, from your diaphragm, not just shallowly in your chest. Breathe in a way that your belly extends. There’s a world of apps out there designed to teach basic meditation techniques, focusing on your breathing in a way that lets the thoughts buzzing inside your head fade into the background. (I’ve found the book Mindfulness, by Mark Williams and Danny Penman.)

Accept your natural sleeping patterns. The fact is, just like people are left-handed or right-handed, or introverted or extroverted, some people are night owls and some are early birds. You probably already know which one you are. Now lean into it: Larks shouldn’t try to stay up late, and owls shouldn’t set an early alarm. Being true to your nature facilitates better sleep. My sleep doctor told me not to go to bed until I’m so tired I can’t keep my eyes open. Since I lean toward being a night owl, that means going to bed later than I might think I “should.” But, anecdotally, he’s seen how forcing an unnaturally early bedtime can make things much worse for insomniacs.

Another “attitude adjustment” that has revolutionized my thinking about sleep is the concept of “sleep effort.” This is based on the downward spiral that tortures all insomniacs: The worse you sleep, the more you begin to obsess about not sleeping. But ironically, the more effort you put into worrying about sleep — the worse you’ll sleep. (If you are a great sleeper who has never had this problem…I hate you. Also, why are you still reading?)

Break out of this negative pattern. Resist the urge to scour reviews of upcoming hotels for signs of noise. And have confidence in your ability to sleep. If you wake up at 5 a.m. even though your alarm is set for 7, it’s natural — for those of us who suffer insomnia — to immediately think, “Oh, rats. That’s it. I’m never getting back to sleep!” That is, obviously, a self-fulfilling prophecy. Challenge those assumptions. Remind yourself of the many times when you woke up in similar circumstances and did get back to sleep.

Don’t catastrophize about not sleeping. If you have one or two wakeful nights, remind yourself that it’s not the end of the world. I’ve had some amazing travel experiences after even four or five nights in a row of not enough sleep. I’ll remember what I did long after I’ve forgotten how tired I was. You may be cranky and less sharp, but you can still enjoy your travels. Cut yourself some slack — especially when you’re jet lagged.

Just like athletes are at the best when they’re “playing loose,” poor sleepers sleep better if they can stop thinking about sleeping all the time. Sleep loose!

The Final Word

Hopefully some combination of these strategies will help you sleep easier on your next trip. But if you’re truly having trouble sleeping, consult a doctor — either an M.D. who specializes in sleep medicine (usually a pulmonologist), or a psychologist who specializes in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I). A physician can give you a sleep test to rule out sleep apnea as a cause for your insomnia (or to diagnose it and treat it). A CBT-I specialist can train you in specific behavioral approaches to target your sleeplessness. And either one can tailor their treatment to your circumstances…far better than a travel blog post ever could.

Well, it’s getting late. I could go on about this forever…but it’s bedtime, and sleep comes first.

The Insomniac’s Nightmare Hotel: It’s Gonna Be a Noisy Night

After a lifetime of world travel, my wife’s Great-Great-Aunt Mildred wrote a memoir. The title: Jams Are Fun. Mildred realized that it’s not always the big sights that stick with you the most…it’s those serendipitous moments when things go memorably awry. In the spirit of Aunt Mildred, this installment of my “Jams Are Fun” series — about when good trips turn bad, and the journey is better for it — involves an insomniac’s worst nightmare.

Checking into my hotel on a Saturday night in a small European city, I can tell immediately things will not end well.

“I mentioned this in my reservation — can I please be assigned a quiet room?”

“Oh. Hm,” the receptionist says, scrunching up her face, pondering an unsolvable riddle, tap-tap-tapping on her keyboard. “Well, you see, today we have a wedding.”

“Ah,” I say. Having read online reviews, I know all too well about this hotel’s epic wedding parties. Which is why I asked for a quiet room. Months ago.

Really working hard to reassure me — fruitlessly — she continues: “So, the wedding is on the first floor.”

“O…K…” Waiting for the other shoe to drop.

“But,” she continues triumphantly, looking up from her keyboard to smile at me, “your room is on the second floor.”

Glancing at the mailbox-like key caddy behind her, I see the hotel has five floors. “Hm. Well, do you not have anything on a higher floor?” You know…like I specifically requested?

“No, unfortunately, we are full house tonight. We have the wedding. Plus we have two groups.”

“Hm.”

Buuuuut,” she begins helpfully, “your room is at the opposite end of the hall from the wedding. So I hope you will not have problems. And if you do, you can just…call.” She gestures toward the phone at the reception desk.

“So, if it’s midnight, and I’m trying to sleep, and someone’s wedding reception music has a thumping bassline that vibrates through my mattress and shatters any hope of the sweet solace of slumber, all I have to do is call the reception desk, and you will immediately bring the proceedings to a halt and circulate among the guests, individually shushing them until they are all speaking in barely audible whispers?”

“Yes, of course!” she cheerfully replies. “That is always our policy here at The Good Sleep Despite Wedding Hotel.”

“And then, in the wee hours of the morning,” she continues graciously, “I will personally scale the bell towers of nearby churches to remove clappers from any early-morning churchbells, lest they trouble your rest. Once stationed in the belfry, I will employ my silenced sniper rifle to dispatch any loudly chirping birds near your window. With these tried-and-true methods, we can guarantee you the highest quality of sleep.”

Except she doesn’t say that. And I don’t either. We both know what she really means: If you need to yell at somebody — without results — at 2 in the morning, she’ll take the abuse and apologize profusely. And then I’ll just toss and turn furiously for another hour or two, until the party subsides just before dawn…and its pesky churchbells.

Knowing I’ve been beat, I take my keys, hang my head, and, Charlie Brown-style, sulk up to my room. On the way, I pass a DJ hand-trucking his amplifier toward the ballroom, and another guy hauling up crates of jostling beer bottles.

To their credit, they have located me as far as they could from the wedding party — while still being just one floor above. (Seriously, guys?)

However, looking out the window, I realize that in order to get me away from the wedding, they’ve situated me overlooking the town’s main walking street. Opening the window, I hear the charming bustle of pedestrians, plus a street violinist who seems to be slowly executing an elderly cat. It’s mostly pleasant now (cat killer aside) — at 7 o’clock. But this is a college town. On a Saturday night. On the final weekend of nice summer weather. By midnight, I assume, a rave will break out about 20 feet below my bed.

I begin to hear a thumping bass beat vibrating through the walls. The wedding DJ must be warming up. But no — it’s coming from the other direction. It’s coming from outside the hotel. Sticking my head out the window and craning my neck, I can just barely see a bit of the main square, just a block away. Something’s going on.

Heading out to investigate, I walk a block to the square, which is filled with a lively commotion that seems excessive even for a festive Saturday night. They’re hosting some sort of wine harvest festival. Food stalls are grilling up meat and potatoes and onions, and I realize how hungry I am. Just then, a DJ mounts the big stage and grabs the microphone. Promising several uninterrupted hours of top hits, he begins playing an old Britney Spears song. It’s loud. No, I mean, really loud. The bass vibrates through my back molars, and my eardrums start to tingle.

Grabbing a plate of food, I find a bench at the far end of the square and consider my predicament. I am a terribly light sleeper. And it seems that on this Saturday night, I’m faced with a perfect storm — stuck between the proverbial hard place (the wedding) and the literal rock (music, from the square). This could be a sleepless night.

Except…it isn’t. It turns out I’ll sleep like a baby…eight-hours-plus. Because, knowing I’m a light sleeper, I’ve spent the last few years assembling strategies to get me through situations just like this one. And it works. In my next post, I’ll fill you in on my best tips for getting a good night’s sleep on the road.


Aunt Mildred was right: Jams are fun, indeed. What’s your favorite travel jam?

If you savor the Schadenfreude of hearing about good trips gone bad, check out the other posts in my “Jams Are Fun” series. How about that time I ran out of gas on Scotland’s remote north coast? Or that time I was stuck on a cruise ship during a massive storm in the North Sea? Or the time I became embroiled in a gelato feud in a small Italian village?

In Lovely Lviv, Ukraine, a European Crossroads (and Blowtorch Coffee)

“Ukraine? You bet!”

That’s how my travel buddy Ben replied when I suggested the trip. My wife had — politely and, let’s face it, quite reasonably — declined my invitation to visit a country currently mired in an armed conflict with Russia, and whose main tourist attraction is the site of history’s worst nuclear meltdown. But I knew Ben would be up for it. Like me, he’s a total Eastern Europe geek. Like me, he’d never been. And like me, he has an inexplicable affinity for the uniquely quirky culture of the eastern Slavs.

Our first stop is the western Ukrainian city of Lviv. Famous for its charming main square and for its feisty, Western-looking, Putin-phobic politics, Lviv appears poised to emerge as a travel hotspot. The easy-as-pie, one-hour flight from Vienna — with just a few minutes between the “cruising altitude” and “beginning our descent” pings — underscores Lviv’s huge touristic potential.

Having traveled in former Eastern Bloc countries like Poland and Hungary 20 years ago, when they were still diamonds very much in the rough, Ben and I arrive with tempered expectations for Ukraine — which, economically, is several years behind those places. But our initial reconnaissance walk around Lviv reveals a town that’s in remarkably fine fettle, and already well on its way to becoming “ready for prime time.” It’s tidy, well-organized, and very accessible to outsiders. Lviv has just the right number of tourists: Ukrainians and Poles, maybe some Germans, a few other Europeans, and a scant smattering of in-the-know American backpackers.

We enter town by crossing through the grand, elongated square bounded on both sides by Svobody Prospekt (“Liberty Avenue”). From the steps of the opulent, unmistakably Habsburg-style opera house, the plaza elegantly stretches several hundred yards past fountains, benches, and parks to a towering statue of Taras Shevchenko.

We’ll hear Shevchenko’s name again and again, and again and again, and again and again and again through our travels (and yet, somehow, I’ll never master the pronunciation — I insist on referring to him as “that poet guy”). The national poet from the 19th century, Shevchenko has recently become embraced as the standard-bearer of Ukrainian cultural identity — which makes him more important today than ever, with the looming threat of Putin to the east. All over this huge country (nearly the size of Texas), statues of Lenin have been pulled down and replaced by Shevchenko. When a tour guide informs us that “there are more statues of Shevchenko than of any other historical figure on earth”…the crazy boast seems almost plausible. (Almost.)

A few blocks farther in — after pausing for a cup of Lviv’s famous coffee at the cozy, venerable café, Svit Kavy — we arrive at the main market square, Ploshcha Rynok. Paved with pristine cobbles, ringed by colorful facades, anchored at its four corners by fountains dedicated to Greek gods, and facing the blocky town hall, the Old World square is what I’d describe as “Euro-cozy” — the kind of place you fabricate excuses to return to, again and again.

Both geographically and culturally, Lviv is closer to Poland than to Kiev. And historically, this region was essentially Polish all the way until after World War II, when shifting borders relocated a huge chunk of Lviv’s population to the newly Polish city of Wrocław. Having both guided Rick Steves’ Europe Tours in Poland, Ben and I feel a constant sense of déjà vu. Lviv’s grand square feels like the little sister of Kraków’s famous one.

We stroll through lovely Lviv without a sightseeing agenda, just exploring. We pass a dolled-up chocolate store with giant cartoon characters out front, marked by a big ROSHEN sign. Ben explains that this is a wildly successful Ukrainian chain owned by the current president, Petro Poroshenko, who (not unlike certain heads of state closer to home) has few qualms about leveraging his political clout to boost his brand. (Later, a guide will explain that — seeking ostensible compliance with regulations — Poroshenko has officially put his business “up for sale,” but at a ludicrously inflated price that no serious buyer would consider.) We walk through the Roshen shop, which feels like a carbon copy of an M&M Store with a Ukrainian accent.

Another popular stop: the little stands selling sweet “drunken cherry” liqueur that are scattered throughout the cobbled old town. Each one attracts a convivial little crowd out front, sipping their little plastic cup of sweet booze, shifting weight from one foot to the other to stay warm.

Lviv has an abundance of dazzling churches — more than its share. They look essentially Polish Catholic from the outside. But it’s Saturday night, and many are currently holding services — luring in passersby like us with the strains of Orthodox chanting. We come to learn that Lviv (and much of Ukraine) is characterized by its ecumenism: locals are a hodgepodge of Russian Orthodox, Ukrainian Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and “Greek Catholic” — a unique hybrid that answers to the Pope but follows Orthodox liturgy. Standing in the crowded entry foyer of a hulking church with frilly Baroque altars, immersed in harmonious chanting and inhaling incense, it’s clear we’re at a crossroads of civilizations.

For dinner, we follow our GPS in circles around that same Bernardine Church, finally discovering a hidden cellar restaurant we’d read about called Trapezna Idey. (Being a guidebook author myself, I have sympathy for the directions in our otherwise reliable Lonely Planet Ukraine, which tells us to look for a giant paper airplane monument…that no longer exists.) There we settle in for a delicious traditional Galician meal. For my “welcome to Ukraine” dinner, I couldn’t resist the borscht — savory red beet soup, with big chunks of potatoes and other veggies. Ben digs into a plate of potato pancakes smothered in a mushroom cream sauce.

By the way, Lviv is cheap. No — I mean cheap. As in, “filling, sit-down traditional dinner for about $5 per person” cheap. A crosstown Uber costs a few bucks. And our comfy, central, well-equipped, two-bedroom Airbnb is about the price of two hostel bunks in London. It’s hard to think of any place in Europe where you can travel so comfortably and safely, on such a low budget.

The next day, we decide to get our bearings with a “free” walking tour. In keeping with that old Ukrainian adage, “You get what you pay for,” it’s not the best tour we’ve ever taken — but it does offer a handy orientation to the town and its landmarks. At one point our guide recommends a “coffee mine” where you don a hardhat and order a coffee caramelized with a torch. It sounds just the right kind of kitschy. We make a mental note to swing back later.

Speaking of kitsch, the walk leaves a strong impression that kitsch is a forte of Lviv tourism. One bar on the main square — with a patriotic, militaristic, fiercely anti-Russian theme — allows you to enter only after you bark the password (Slava Ukrayini! — “Glory to Ukraine!”). From there, you spelunk through a warren of cellars and into a courtyard where a huge, robotic Truckasaurus “secret weapon” has been welded together from various car and tank parts. Finally you get to poke your head through a hole to pose in a giant photograph of Ukrainian troops about to execute a Russian officer. (Unlike kitsch, subtlety is not a Ukrainian forte.)

Just around the corner, in the home of the Lviv writer Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, is a restaurant dedicated to the kinky predilections that typified his personal life: masochism. Our guide calmly explains — as if this were an entirely rational practice — that if you let the waitstaff beat you with a whip, you’ll get a discount on your bill. And, according to a friend of hers who works there, they really lean into it.

A real gem of the tour is our visit to the Armenian Cathedral — representing yet another faith in this ecumenical city (Armenian Apostolic). Nondescript from the outside, the cathedral’s interior is slathered with stunning Art Nouveau frescoes by the Polish painters Jan Henryk de Rosen and Józef Mehoffer. Of all the churches we step into on the tour, this is the only one we decide to circle back to later for closer inspection — and simply to bask amidst the glorious paintings.

After the tour, we scale the hill just behind the old town, ascending a long wooden staircase to the summit of the High Castle. This historically strategic site is now home only to an observation platform. On this sunny weekend, it’s crowded with Ukrainians surveying the views over the city and snapping pictures of each other. High overhead flaps a giant Ukrainian flag. On this fine early autumn day, the flag matches its natural inspiration: fields of golden wheat under a vivid blue sky. While the tourists’ Lviv is constrained to its compact historic core, from up here it’s clear that the city sprawls in all directions, curling entirely around the hill we’re standing on.

Descending the hill, we decide to see more of this increasingly fascinating city. A $4 Uber ride later, we pull up at Lychakiv Cemetery — one of those classic old European cemeteries that feels like a monumental park filling a forest. I love a good European cemetery…and Lychakiv is one of the best I’ve seen.

We go for a pensive hike, noticing how the gravestones tell the complicated story of this multilayered city. They come in a wild variety of styles, and the epitaphs are a bewildering mix of Cyrillic, Polish, and German. Ukrainian headstones are topped with a Latin (rather than Orthodox) cross. Poignant graves show a young man, who died in his 40s, and his septuagenarian wife, depicted in her old age, after decades of widowhood. They look more like mother and son than husband and wife — a contemplation, perhaps, on the perils of being a Ukrainian man in the early- to mid-20th century.

Another dirt-cheap Uber ride takes us across town to Lontsky Street Prison — Lviv’s main prison associated with the Soviet leadership in Ukraine, and the site of some horrifying atrocities. In June of 1941, Soviet authorities executed thousands of prisoners — including more than 1,500 in this building.

Lontsky Street Prison is slated to become one of Ukraine’s most important national memorial sites. But for now, it’s still a work in progress. The door is guarded by gruff, flak-vested, assault-rifle-toting soldiers who eye us suspiciously when we arrive, and then — once they see we’re curious tourists from half a world away — heartily invite us in to learn the story of the place. It turns out they’re guarding an idea more than a building — this remains a dank, grubby old space, with a few makeshift cardboard information panels. It smells like wet concrete and diesel fumes.

The prison’s current state speaks volumes about just how young the fledgling Ukrainian nation is. They have bigger fish to fry than fancy museums. (In fact, under Russia-friendly former president Viktor Yanukovych — who was ousted in the 2014 revolution — authorities tried to close this prison, to brush the ugly Soviet blemishes under the rug.) And yet, in some ways, the neglect enhances the experience. The prison is more poignant because it has no choice but to speak for itself.

Leaving the prison, we take a shortcut through a sprawling, lush, slightly overgrown park back to our Airbnb. At one point, we’re passed by a formation of a dozen Ukrainian soldiers, in fatigues, marching in lockstep. If I were Ukrainian — knowing that a war against a giant neighbor rages on my eastern border, 750 miles away — I’d find this little battalion a comforting sight on a Sunday stroll.

Rested up from the day’s sightseeing, we head into the old center for an evening stroll. As afternoon turns to evening, the square is lively with musicians and roving groups of heavy-drinking tourists.

We eat well in Lviv, for very little money. In addition to Trapezna Idey, we have delicious dumplings at Khinkalʹnya Na Fedorova — one of several solid Georgian restaurants in town. For a quick bite, we find the cheap-and-cheery Puzata Hata cafeteria chain to be a reliable, extremely affordable choice, with a long cafeteria line of traditional fare. With locations all over the country, this turns out to be a handy go-to. (Entering for the first time and seeing the long, surly row of monolingual cafeteria attendants manning their stations — like humorless mid-level bureaucrats guarding their nuclear silos — Ben and I nudge each other and say, “Oooohhh…we are about to get yelled at.” And indeed we are.)

Tonight for dinner, curiosity lures us to a simple, hole-in-the-wall Crimean café, operated by recently relocated refugees from the little Black Sea dongle of Ukraine that was annexed by Russia in 2014. Digging into our simple meal of hearty soup, fresh salads, and noodles with rich meat sauce, we watch gauzy, slow-motion Crimean tourism videos on the big TV screen — revealing a starkly mountainous landscape and dreamy beaches in a corner of Europe that few Americans visit. (Duly inspired, we add Crimea to our list of upcoming trips.)

On our last morning in Lviv, Ben and I are ready for one more memory before heading to the airport. On a quest to caffeinate, we remember our guide’s tip about the “coffee mine” (Lvivska Kopalnya Kavy) on the main square. We head into the standard-issue coffee house interior. Then we discover a staircase that leads deep down into the 800-year-old cellars of the building, which feel chipped by hand out of solid rock. We’re issued hard hats and hunch our way through passages to a tight, dimly lit seating area. We pull up rustic, uncomfortable wooden stools at a battered table tucked in a nook below a blackened wall. Squinting our way through the menu, we spot the drink the place is known for: caramelized coffee.

The server brings us a tin cup filled with coffee and sets it deliberately in the middle of the table. In his other hand, he carries a blowtorch. Not a cute little chef’s torch, with a harmless blue flame for gently caramelizing crème brûlée. No, this is a military-grade, just-wait-’til-those-Russkies-show-up blowtorch. He moves the napkin holder out of the way. And just as I’m thinking, “Why did he have to move that? It’s all the way across the table…” — the blowtorch explodes to life.

I don’t know exactly what we were expecting. Maybe a foot of flame, for show, for just a few fleeting seconds. Just long enough for a fun photo op. What we were not expecting was a terrifying five-foot flame to spurt out across the tabletop, licking the wall behind it and scorching the exposed stone. The heat from the blowtorch is intense. My eyebrows singe and my eyeglasses frames start to radiate heat to my cheeks. Ukraine plays for keeps.

After several seconds of pyrotechnics, the server dials back the flame and aims it at the tin cup, scorching a crispy layer of caramelized sugar on the top of the liquid. When finished, he blasts his blowtorch against the wall a couple of more times — just to remind us that he could kill us with the flick of a wrist — then walks off without fanfare…on to the next table, where a half-dozen hungover bachelorette partiers have no idea what they’re in for.

The blowtorch coffee experience turns out to be the perfect conclusion to our Lviv visit: memorable, unexpected, just a little bit challenging, but ultimately rewarding. Lviv is not quite for everybody, but it is well worth a visit for curious, adventurous travelers with an appetite for off-the-beaten-path gems that are just about to break through as tourist darlings.

Oh, yes — and for people who enjoy getting whipped for a discount on their near-death coffee experience.