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

Unwanted Statues? A Modest Proposal, from Hungary

Across the United States, statues of Confederate figures are finally being removed from public spaces. Considering that these statues embody a shameful heritage of racism — and the majority of Americans want them gone — taking them down would seem pretty open-and-shut, not to mention long overdue. (And I, for one, would be happy to relocate all of them to the bottom of a river.) But opponents claim to be worried about one issue in particular: “Those statues represent our history. If we remove them, we run the risk of forgetting an important chapter of our past.”

Assuming that this concern is genuine, I have some great news: Hungary came up with a solution for this problem decades ago.

When European communism fell in the autumn of 1989, the people of Central and Eastern Europe turned their attention to the unwanted statues that had loomed over their lives for generations. Marx, Engels, and Lenin preached the gospel of the proletariat by the bus stop, stoic stone soldiers kept the peace over busy intersections, noble and anonymous workers stood proudly at the gates of factories, and cheery red stars and hammers-and-sickles adorned buildings all over. Each one of those symbols was a dagger in the heart of freedom-loving citizens.

The Eastern Europeans did not wait long to remove those statues; most were torn down within weeks, or even days, and tossed onto the trash heap of history. And I can promise you: More than 30 years later, nobody is in danger of “forgetting” the dark days of communism.

In Budapest, however, they took a slightly different approach. Some entrepreneur gathered some the city’s rejected statuary to display in a big field on the outskirts of town. And today Memento Park still welcomes visitors.

I’ve been to Memento Park several times since 1999. (I even wrote up a self-guided tour of the statues in our Rick Steves Budapest guidebook.) And each visit is a surreal experience.

The valiant Red Army soldier charges boldly toward…nowhere in particular. Vladimir Lenin and Béla Kun energetically preach their socialist ideology to each other. And the happy children of the Young Pioneers remain so very proud to embody the false optimism of a worldview that has long since expired.

While it’s possible that a few nostalgic old-timers come here to get misty-eyed about the “good old days” of communism, it’s clear to me that the vast majority of visitors are here to ogle these monstrosities, to learn about the era they represent…and to take a “victory lap” around the now-pitiful remains of a failed empire. For those seeking historical context, archival photographs show the statues in situ. Because, obviously, you don’t need to keep a symbol of oppression in a prominent place just to ensure that it’s remembered.

In Sofia, the field behind the Museum of Socialist Art hosts a similar gathering of statuary. Here, too, the towering monuments offer a taste of what it would have been like to live in the People’s Republic of Bulgaria. But the nice thing is that, whenever you’re ready, you can leave the museum and never think about it again.

I still vote for entirely removing symbols of hatred and oppression. But perhaps sequestering a few in a museum would be a suitable compromise. And I must admit, some small part of me is glad that a representative sampling of communist statuary still exists, tucked away from public view. With proper context, Memento Park is a fascinating place to learn about a bygone era. But the best part is that the many people who associate these figures with trauma never have to see them…unless they want to come and thumb their nose at a vanquished foe.

Travel Memories on My Shelf: Knickknacks from 20 Years in Europe

These last few weeks, I’ve been spending a lot of time not traveling…stuck at my desk, starting at my bookcase, being taunted by the top shelf of knickknacks and mementos from half a lifetime of exploring Europe. It’s quite the hodgepodge. I’m not much of a shopper, and I go entire trips without buying a single souvenir. But sometimes a special item just catches my eyeusually one of those quirky little cultural footnotes that get overlooked by blitz tourists.

Recently — around the time our world went into lockdown — I reached my 20-year mark of working at Rick Steves’ Europe…two decades as a professional traveler. But in 2020, it looks like I won’t be going anywhere, anytime soon. So, instead of getting depressed, I’ve decided to use all of those European artifacts to do a little armchair travel — reliving some of my most memorable trips. If you’re stuck at home too, join me on this little “knickknack shelf” tour of Europe.

Shirtless Vladimir Putin Riding a Bear Across a Map of Russia

Clearly, this is the star of the show (and, along with the final item on this list, among my most prized possessions). It also sets the tongue-in-cheek tone for much of my collection. Some items are sentimental, but most skew to the weird. I love the way this figure pushes Putin parody to the Nth degree: It begins with the famous photo of manly Putin riding a horse, plops him on a Russian bear, and then — for good measure — positions him striding across a map of Russia. It’s also the single best conversation-starter in my office: The first time a visitor scans my shelf, their gaze is stopped in its tracks by this knickknack, which instantly becomes the only thing they want to talk about. A few years back, I saw this online and knew I had to have it; my wife managed to order me one from Russia for my birthday. What a wife! What a birthday!

Pelota Ball from Basque Country

Every little Basque town and village has a pelota court, where locals play the traditional pastime, similar to jai alai. I appreciate how this ball is even embossed with the words “Pays Basque” in that distinctive Basque script. To me, it represents those beautifully quirky cross-border regions that make Europe so richly rewarding.

Mystery Flag

I love to quiz my well-traveled colleagues when they drop by my office: What does this flag represent? The obvious first guess is Norway…but what about the yellow trim? Nope, this is the flag of Orkney, the remote archipelago off the north coast of Scotland. The one-hour ferry crossing to Orkney brings you to a very different landscape than the rugged Highlands you left behind, and a different cultural flavor — this part of the British Isles really does feel more Scandinavian, thanks to the influence of passing Norsemen way back when. This flag reminds me that those distant fringes of Europe can be the most rewarding to explore.

Bottle of Cockta

I love the idea of this Yugoslav-era Coca-Cola knock-off more than I actually like its taste. The children of Yugoslavia (where real Coke was a rare luxury item) grew up on this stuff. To me, as a child of Reagan-era America, it tastes like Coke that’s gone bad. But because it’s “the taste of your youth” (as the slogan goes), nostalgic middle-aged Slovenes and Croats and Bosniaks still love the stuff. On my first-ever Rick Steves’ Europe tour — assistant-guiding our inaugural Best of Eastern Europe route — our Slovenian bus driver stocked the on-board fridge with bottles of Cockta, then couldn’t figure out why none of his (American) passengers wanted to buy any.  (I’d watch them file on the bus and ask, “Do you have any Coke?” And he’d just shake his head and shrug, with growing impatience. Why do they need Coke? This is Cockta!) This bottle reminds me that there’s no accounting for taste.

Slate from a Welsh Mine

I watched a miner hand-split this shingle of slate at the Blaenau Ffestiniog mine in North Wales. It’s a reminder that in addition to great art, great food, and great culture, Europe also has some fascinating industrial sights.

“Pooping Catalan Villager” for a Manger Scene

A few years ago, I heard about a unique tradition in Catalunya: Their manger scenes include a villager taking a dump, tucked in among the donkeys and oxen and wise men and whatnot. This character is called — wait for it — “The Pooper” (caganer). But this bit of cheeky, scatological humor comes with a theological point: It’s a reminder that the story of the babe in a manger is one of divinity mingling with real-world grit and grime…it’s not just a gag, but a commentary on how God chose to enter our world. In this highly agricultural region, the figure also represents the “fertilization” of the Nativity…making the world ready for God’s incarnation to take root on earth.

That’s all well and good. But I will also admit that I simply enjoy displaying a pooping dude that also has redeeming cultural value. (And, yes, my shelf also has a tiny pewter replica of Brussels’ Manneken-Pis. Because, deep down, I am a 12-year-old boy.)

Chewits Candy

When traveling in the UK, I get a kick out of seeing my name — almost — at every candy stand. (Get it? C. Hewitt…Chewits.) I keep this on my shelf to remind me to always be sweet to my co-workers.

Wooden Model of a Slovenian Hayrack

When I wrote the first edition of our Rick Steves Croatia & Slovenia guidebook, my editor thought it bizarre that I would wax poetic about a roofed hayrack. “Why such a fuss about a farm implement?” But anyone who’s spent time in Slovenia understands why these structures are so iconic: They are uniquely Slovenian, and they are absolutely everywhere. I have several of these little wooden re-creations of hayracks, scattered around my house, and this one injects a little more Slovenia into my office.

“Golden Pen” Prize

In 2009, I worked with Rick and our TV crew to write and produce an episode of our public television series about Croatia. The Croatian Tourist Board honored the show with their “Golden Pen” award, which we were flattered to accept. I’m honestly not sure whether Rick knows that I kept this trophy, but if he’s reading this and wants to reclaim it, he knows where to find it.

Hórreo from Galicia

In college, I did a semester abroad in Spain. Our professor took us on a multi-day field trip to Galicia, the green and gorgeous area in the northwest corner of Iberia. Up in that rocky landscape, locals build rustic stone igloos — called hórreos — for protection against the elements. To help us identify them, my professor would call them out as we rolled down the highway: “There’s one again! Hórrrelllo! Hórrrrrellllllooo! Hórrrre-órrrre-órrrre-llllllllloooooo! ” Many years later, I traveled back to Galicia to research and write a new chapter for our Rick Steves Spain guidebook — and I could not resist buying this as a souvenir of both trips. Every time I see this little stone hut, I think of that formative first study-abroad experience.

Eastern Europe Slide Carousel

When I started working at Rick Steves’ Europe in 2000, I was just about the only person in the office who had traveled a fair bit in Eastern Europe…and certainly the only one who would admit to enjoying it. So, essentially by default, I was deputized to present a slideshow lecture on the region, as a part of our free Saturday travel classes (which are still going on). And I’ve been doing a version of that talk ever since. Many years ago, I replaced this old Kodak carousel with a new, digital PowerPoint. But this vintage black-and-yellow box survives as a poignant reminder of how far I, Eastern Europe, and technology have all come in the last 20 years.

Pewter Vasa

I appreciate this tiny pewter model of the good ship Vasa — which sunk to the bottom of Stockholm harbor on her maiden voyage in 1628 — for two reasons. First, the Vasa Museum in Stockholm —  where they’ve restored the entire ship, bow to stern — is one of my favorite museums in Scandinavia (and that’s saying something). And second, it reminds me of one of my favorite pearls of Rick Steves wisdom: “For the cost of a pewter Viking ship in Oslo, you can buy an actual boat in Turkey.”

Hugging Solidarity Salt-and-Pepper Shakers

Since my first visit in 2005, I have been a passionate advocate for the northern Polish Baltic port city of Gdańsk — home of Lech Wałęsa and birthplace of the Solidarity movement that toppled European communism. Anyone who loves history and/or beautiful cities is happy as a clam in Gdańsk. A few years back, Rick traveled to Gdańsk (with a healthy dose of skepticism)…and quickly became a convert. This sentimental “I love Solidarity” salt-and-pepper set was his thank-you gift to me for nudging him to a place that he found just as fascinating as I do. (Rick and I were planning to travel to Gdańsk in 2020 to film a new TV show there. Those plans are postponed…but we’ll get there eventually.)

Orthodox Icons

I’m fascinated and entranced by the Eastern Orthodox faith, and I have two icons displayed in my office. The little diptych came home with me after a trip to Greece — I think I bought it in Corfu. I appreciate its packability…very handy for travel. And up on my wall is a bigger, hand-painted Bulgarian icon of Cyril and Method — those early Christian missionaries who first translated the Bible into the language of the Slavs (and in the process, created what became the basis for the Cyrillic alphabet). I bought this one from the artist who painted it, Rashko Bonev, in Veliko Tarnovo. (You can see him at work in this clip.)

Drinking Pitcher for the Healing Waters of Karlovy Vary

Spa towns compel people to do very strange things. And Karlovy Vary (a.k.a. Carlsbad), in the Czech Republic, is no exception. Shops sell these distinctive little pitchers, which are used to drink the local “healing” waters — tepid and infused with minerals. All over town, you see arthritic Germans and Austrians filling up these tiny pitchers from free-flowing taps, then sucking on them like miniature hookahs. I decided I could not have the true Karlovy Vary experience without investing in one for myself. (Unfortunately, the water tasted exactly the same.)

Chunk of the Berlin Wall

Inside this sealed jar is a real piece of the real Berlin Wall, which was a beautiful gift to me about 20 years ago. When I started working at Rick Steves’ Europe, Rick put me in charge of re-starting his treasured tradition of the “World Travelers Slide Club” — where avid travelers would gather on a Sunday night to take turns showing each other slideshows. One couple who attended religiously recognized my passion for Europe’s communist period. They had a few chunks they’d carved off the Berlin Wall, and I think they knew I’d give this one a good home. Over the course of other trips to Berlin, I also picked up a matchbox Trabant (the classic East German car) and an armband for the DDR secret police…creating a little tableau of East Germany.

Shingle from a Maramureș Wooden Roof

When I joined Rick to film a TV show in Romania a few years ago, I was determined to take our crew to the remote, rustic region of Maramureș — where woodworking is still as vital as computer programming is in most societies today. We went to a woodworking shop where I grabbed this shingle off of the discard pile as a memento. I also picked up a funny little straw hat, traditionally worn by local men. These remind me of the rich folk culture that still survives in Europe’s remotest corners.

Paper Model of Hotel Kranenturm by Herr Jung

So many members of the Rick Steves’ Europe extended family — from guides to tour members — were touched by the beautiful soul of the German schoolteacher Herr Jung, who for decades led tours around his little Rhine town of Bacharach. Herr Jung passed away recently, but his legacy looms large in the halls of our office. One of Herr Jung’s many hobbies was making paper models of buildings around his hometown. Many years ago, when he came to Edmonds for a visit, he gifted us with this model of the Hotel Kranenturm (another Rick Steves mainstay for decades). It made its way around the building until eventually the last person who owned it realized they didn’t have a good space for it. So they sent around an email saying, basically, “If nobody claims this, I’m afraid it’s going in the trash.” I immediately ran down and rescued the Kranenturm, and now it sits on top of my bookcase. Especially now that Herr Jung is gone, I like to think I’m preserving some small part of the sprightly spirit he so generously shared with many Rick Steves travelers over the years.

And speaking of kind souls who’ve touched many, I’ve saved the best item for last…

Autographed Photo of Mister Rogers

I work for a public television icon, but I grew up watching a different one. Recently, I was going through some old childhood papers — elementary school report cards, handmade Mother’s Day cards, and so on — when I came across this photograph of Fred “Mister” Rogers, signed (presumably) by his own hand. My Mom explained that I’d written to him as a child and he’d sent back this photo…but I never got an answer as to why it’s been buried in a manila folder in our attic for the last 30 years. I’ve now framed it, and it’s the highest thing in my office — reminding me that everyone is special and deserving of being treated with respect. You still can’t beat that Mister Rogers wisdom.

If you’re a frustrated would-be traveler, try this at home: Glance around and notice all of those little things you picked up in your travels, and have since become the wallpaper of your life. Look at them with new eyes and let them spark some memories. For now, that’ll have to do.

What’s your favorite offbeat souvenir from Europe? Which knickknacks and mementos fill you with happy memories that keep you going through this challenging time?

Keep Calm and Carry On: Notes from the Coronavirus Blitz

Stuck in my house except for very cautious walks outside, feeling the lurking presence of invisible death around every turn…I’ve been thinking a lot about the Blitz.

As a lifelong European traveler (and history buff),  I can’t help but see things through that lens. And with the coronavirus lockdown tightening and everyone being encouraged to sacrifice for the greater good, it’s impossible for me not to imagine London, circa 1940.

From September of 1940 through May of 1941, London (and other English cities) lived under constant fear of aerial bombardment by the Nazi Luftwaffe. Being jolted awake by air-raid sirens in the dead of night to scurry for cover became routine. During one especially harrowing period, bombs fell daily for 11 straight weeks. More than 150,000 people slept each night in the tunnels of the Underground, trying to get comfortable on Tube tracks and platforms. The Blitz impacted everyone indiscriminately: young and old, rich and poor. By the end of it, one-third of London lay in ruins, and more than 40,000 citizens had been killed.

Like the Blitz, the current coronavirus onslaught is a battle of patience and persistence. Hitler and Göring eventually figured out that their relentless (and costly) bombardment was not going to bring about the quick surrender that they sought. Quite the contrary: Britain rose to the occasion.  (In fact, British manufacturing increased.) After eight months, the Nazi war machine gave up on the Blitz and redirected their resources into the invasion of the USSR.

In our Blitz, we, too, are determined not to let the coronavirus beat us. The way we do that is by social distancing and generally keeping apart from each other. And, yes, we’ll all have to sacrifice. But over time — nobody knows quite how long — the coronavirus will be held at bay and begin to fade, until reinforcements arrive…not the Yanks, but vaccines and treatments. (That’s the hope, anyway.)

We live in frightening times. But I’m deeply heartened by the determination I’m seeing among my fellow citizens. We stand united in refusing to let the coronavirus change who we are, even as it changes virtually every aspect of our daily lives. In my world, I’m struck by how everyone is reaching out to each other, reaffirming their sense of community. Parents have more time to be with their kids. Colleagues, now working from home, are jury-rigging ways to have water-cooler conversations and virtual “drinks after work.” Our tour guides and other European friends are comparing notes about what’s happening across the Pond. We are all in this together.

Around the time of the Blitz, UK government designers came up with a peppy slogan: Keep Calm and Carry On — big white letters cast matter-of-factly against a bright red background, under the royal crown.  (Strangely, although millions of these posters were printed, very few entered circulation — until decades later, when the design was re-discovered and popularized.)

This message — representing the British ideals of pluck, resolve, and stick-to-itiveness — has been a great inspiration to me, especially in my travels, where things are guaranteed to go sideways from time to time. In fact, I’ve adopted “Keep Calm and Carry On” as my personal travel motto. For years, I’ve had a tea towel with that phrase pinned to my office wall.

Last week, I experienced one of the saddest moments in my 20 years at Rick Steves’ Europe: On the last day our building was open — long after almost everyone had begun working from home — I made one last trip to my office to pack up anything I might need for the next several weeks. Of the many decorations that clutter my walls and bookshelves, the only thing I brought home was that tea towel. It’s currently taped up inside the front window of my home. (My neighbors have voiced their enthusiastic support.)

We need that message now more than ever. Like the battle-hardened Brits in the fall of 1940, we stand upon the precipice of something that will challenge us to the core. There will be countless disruptions to our lives. There will be sacrifices, big and small. The heroes in the medical field will fight on the front lines, while we cheer them on from the self-isolation of our couches. Instead of scrap metal drives, we’re collecting respirators and hospital gowns to support our troops. Through it all, everyone seems to recognize that if we come together and remind each other of what’s at stake, we will get through this.

This is how we beat COVID-19: By changing our lives to “flatten the curve” and slow down its spread — and by being true to who we are and finding strength in our connections. There is life (and there is travel) after the coronavirus. And we’ll get there if we can keep calm and carry on.

For travelers, that means doing the hardest thing imaginable: Staying home. But we can carry on with our travel dreaming. Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been touched by members of our traveling community reaching out and reminding each other about the big, beautiful world out there: Sharing memories of treasured trips. Venting about the dream vacation they had to put on hold. And making plans for the next trip they’ll take, once this is all behind us.

So…where are you going on your next trip?

10 Moments of European Zen

Coronavirus, ack! Just a few weeks ago, I was putting the finishing touches on an ambitious itinerary of 2020 travels: Amsterdam. Berlin. Budapest. Poland. Iceland. Norway. Tuscany. But now all of that has been turned upside-down by that pesky bug. In the middle of January, I posted on Facebook: “Top priority for Europe-bound travelers in 2020: Avoid crowds.” I had no idea just how right I was!

We live in surreal times. The risk of coronavirus is serious, and those of us who take it to heart can easily get sucked into a whirlpool of panic. But we all need a break every now and again. During this period of self-isolation, I’m daydreaming about Europe like crazy…it’s helping me get through a period where my entire world is about the same size as my living room.

I miss Jon Stewart. I miss him for a lot of reasons, but one of my favorite Daily Show rituals was his sign-off each night with a “moment of zen.” After covering all of the day’s most consequential stories, he’d finish up with a surreal, beautiful, or thought-provoking non-sequitur…as if to cleanse the viewer’s palate before going to bed.

I think we could all use a palate-cleanser these days. So below I’m sharing 10 moments of European zen. I hope these calm and inspire you with the knowledge that there’s a big, beautiful world across the Atlantic that will still be there on the other side of this thing. (And if you find yourself hyperventilating from the headlines, click back here and take five deep breaths as you look at each photo. Works like a charm.)

And so, without further ado, here it is — your 10 moments of European zen:

Piran, Slovenia

Kirkjufell, Iceland

Lucca, Italy

Cotswolds. England

Rila Monastery, Bulgaria

Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany

Dubrovnik, Croatia

Honfleur, Normandy, France

Kastelruth/Castelrotto, Dolomites, Italy

Santorini, Greece

Stay safe and healthy, everybody! See you in Europe…someday.

What’s So Great About Switzerland? 12 Reasons to Love the Swiss

What’s so great about Switzerland? Hard to say, but their flag is a big plus.

My best friend’s eighth grader told me that joke when he heard I was going to Switzerland. (Very funny, Thomas.) But, like a lot of terrible jokes, it contains a kernel of wisdom: Switzerland is, indeed, a great place to travel. And not just for its flag.

I recently enjoyed a two-week guidebook-research trip across Switzerland — a week in the mountains (Berner Oberland, Pilatus, Rigi), and week in the cities (Bern, Luzern, Zürich). Switzerland was one of the first places I visited in Europe, and I used to go there frequently, but somehow I had not set foot on Swiss soil in a decade. I’m happy to report it’s better than ever. Switzerland is an utterly wonderful place to travel, and the Swiss are utterly wonderful people.

Here are my observations about Switzerland and its people — culled both from my recent trip, and from years of earlier travels.  (Full disclosure: My parents lived in Switzerland before I was born, so I grew up thinking things like a cowbell by the fireplace, fondue at Christmas, and Bircher Muesli for breakfast were normal. Ergo, I’m predisposed to love the Swiss.) I’ve also mixed in some practical tips to smooth your next visit.

The Swiss own some of the most stunning mountain scenery anywhere.

This is an obvious one, but it bears repeating. As an Alps connoisseur, it’s easy for me to see the Swiss Alps as kind of a cliché. But it’s one of those clichés that more than lives up to the hype. On a beautiful day, Switzerland’s Alps are stunning and worth the high cost to summit. (Even on a cloudy day, they can be gorgeous — provided visibility is good.)

The Swiss never met a mountain they didn’t want to conquer with a cable car, a funicular, or a cogwheel train, and cap with a revolving restaurant. Here are a few tips for enjoying those Alps:

I love how the first channel on any Swiss hotel TV is live webcam footage showing area mountaintops. This helps you decide, at a glance, what to do today. Weather is hard to predict in the mountains, but it’s worth some effort. One day I was staying in Luzern and hoping to head up to Rigi. The Luzern forecast was miserable. But I carefully checked the webcams and weather report specifically for Rigi. Luzern was cloudy and had a high chance of rain; Rigi had neither. So I took a leap of faith…and had a glorious mountaintop adventure, above the clouds, while Luzern suffered in the drizzle.

A few days later, I had a similar experience: riding a cable car up from socked-in Wengen, until it finally punched through the cloud cover to reach sunny Männlichen. I hiked all day in the sun before descending by cogwheel train to still-foggy Wengen.

Once up top, keep an eye out for those handy yellow Swiss hiking signs, which mark various trails. While it’s always smart to get tips from locals, and bring at least a rudimentary map, Swiss trails are delightfully user-friendly…and incredibly rewarding.

If you’ll be in Switzerland at least a week, seriously consider investing in a Swiss Travel Pass. It’s not just for trains — it also covers lake boats and local public buses and trams, earns you significant discounts on many pricey lifts, and gets you free into most museums in the country. It’s the kind of up-front investment that frees you up to be spontaneous, taking advantage of everything it covers without worrying about the nickel-and-dime costs. Feel the financial pain once…then enjoy.

The Swiss are very proud of their fountains.

I spent time with local guides in Bern, Luzern, and Zürich. And in all three cities, as if fulfilling a blood oath to the Swiss Tourist Board, they repeatedly pointed out the perpetually flowing water fountains that gurgle throughout their cities — and bragged that the water was entirely potable. In fact, they carry around plastic cups to let their guests try it for themselves.

Americans are spoiled by having public water fountains everywhere. But, come to think of it, flowing drinkable water is quite rare in Europe. In most countries, all of the prettiest fountains have big Acqua Non Potable or Kein Trinkwasser signs, warning you that filling up your bottle can lead to an unpleasant memory. But in Switzerland, it’s all good.

Three other reasons why Switzerland’s many fine fountains are a big deal: First, drinks are very expensive here…and in pricey cities like Zürich, many restaurants even levy a surcharge for tap water. Filling up your bottle at a free fountain is a big money-saver. Second, the water quality is excellent — usually piped in from high-mountain springs or purified glacier melt. It tastes great and it’s very refreshing. And third, Switzerland’s fountains are a design feature, from classic stone pillars with ornate statues, to carved-log troughs high in the mountains, to recently installed fountains that double as modern sculptures. In Bern, the city’s most important landmark — collectively — are its 11 Renaissance fountains, each one topped by a colorful statue, and each one representing an important story from the annals of the city.

The Swiss are keenly aware of their environment.

During my visit, the historic old streets of Bern were torn up. It was a mess just trying to walk through the city center. My guide explained: “We had an unprecedented heat wave last summer…it was over 105 degrees! The rails for the tram actually began to warp. It became hazardous and there was a big worry about derailments. So they’re replacing several rail lines.”

There are few countries as tied to nature as the Swiss. And when their landscape struggles, they struggle too. The Swiss went out of their way to tell me that they’re feeling the effects of climate change, in the form of melting rail lines, shorter skiing seasons, and disappearing glaciers. (Seeing political posters for the upcoming elections, I asked if right-wing nativist parties were on the upswing here. I was told that, in contrast to much of Europe, their influence is waning, mainly because they are flat-footed when it comes to climate issues. My takeaway — admittedly an oversimplification — is that even Swiss racists are more motivated by climate change than by xenophobia.)

The other way increasing temperatures impact travelers: air-conditioning. Don’t count on it, and even when you have it, don’t expect it to be very strong. Some Swiss hoteliers are feeling the heat and installing A/C, but they are carefully regulated to cool things down just a bit, rather than turn each hotel room into a walk-in refrigerator. I was surprised to see many hotels with both air-conditioning and fans — used in tandem to take the edge off. So if you’re heading to Switzerland in warm weather, be prepared to sweat a bit with the Swiss. (And ask for a quiet room, high up and facing away from noisy streets, so you can keep your window open while you sleep.)

The Swiss have the prettiest money of anyone.

I mean, come on: It’s just gorgeous — each bill is a work of art. It’s the only currency I can think of that orients its bills vertically. And it’s entirely unafraid of bright colors and fanciful design. This may seem at odds with the rigid, stern image of Switzerland. Not to psychoanalyze too much, but I think it’s more nuanced than that: The Swiss live in a place of unspeakable beauty and unforgiving natural constraints. They’ve tamed their unruly land with the best train system in Europe, not to mention a galaxy of high-mountain cable cars, gondolas, and cogwheel trains, plus big, low-slung boats for plying alpine lakes. It’s the perfect preparation for being both right-brained and left-brained: aesthetics within boundaries.

The Swiss are fiercely loyal to their grocery store.

Anyone who’s traveled in Switzerland knows there are two dominant grocery-store chains: Coop and Migros. But until this visit, I was not aware that they are far from interchangeable.

“Either you’re a Coop family, or you’re a Migros family,” my local guide told me, matter-of-factly. Migros focuses on in-store brands. If you stop by Migros to stock up on chocolate, you’ll be buying Migros brand chocolate. The company also prides itself on having a conscience: They don’t sell alcohol or cigarettes, they were the first Swiss supermarket chain to stop giving out free plastic bags, and they donate one percent of its total annual sales to good causes. Meanwhile, Coop has a wider variety of brands and higher prices, and focuses more on organic and sustainable products; it’s considered a bit more posh.

The Swiss know how to deal with big crowds.

Like much of Europe, Switzerland has been struggling with huge crowds. But they’re handling the situation with characteristic grace and practicality. Lifts scheduled for twice hourly often go more frequently — more or less continuously — at busy times. And they’re adding new cable-car lines all the time to increase capacity. For example, the Berner Oberland’s Schilthornbahn — which connects the Lauterbrunnen Valley, Gimmelwald, Mürren, and the mountaintop Piz Gloria station — is adding parallel cable-car lines, effectively doubling capacity. Because they’re not sure exactly when this initiative will be complete, they’re calling it “Project 20XX.” (Gotta love that no-nonsense Swiss honesty.)

Even as they’re doing an excellent job managing crowds, things can get backed up. To minimize frustration, it’s wise to head up early. Be on the first or second lift of the day — which are often discounted and always uncrowded. If the weather’s perfect, it can also work well to go late in the day, but make sure you know what time the last return is. If you’re flexible, swing by the lift station the day before and ask what time they suggest going tomorrow. The lift operators know better than anyone what the day-to-day crowd patterns are, and have a knack for predicting the weather.

The Swiss love their cheese…but not necessarily the smell.

In one little area of Zürich, I checked out three different traditional Swiss restaurants…all entirely for tourists. The main draw are the melted cheese dishes: fondue and raclette. But all that melted cheese can be very fragrant. Swiss people don’t go out for raclette and fondue — they make it at home. And they actively avoid ye olde traditional melted cheese restaurants because it makes their clothes stink like a festering foot for a couple of days. So if you’re determined to eat cheese at a Swiss restaurant — and you should — accept the fact that you’ll be doing it among fellow tourists. (And go before laundry day.)

The Swiss live in an expensive country…but you get what you pay for.

Switzerland is expensive. Very expensive. A cup of coffee or a Coke costs $5; a basic budget lunch at a take-out stand can be close to $20; and a hotel room costing less than $200 is bare-bones-basic, with threadbare carpet, thin walls, and antique plumbing. It’s very easy to blow through a lot of money here.

And yet…somehow, it’s worth it. People are polite, competent, and efficient. Things work the way they’re supposed to. On my way out of Switzerland, I arrived at the airport — and checked in, and got through security — long before I expected to. (In Italy, just getting a cab can be a high adventure.) That $20 lunch? It’s delicious — satisfying and filling. That $100 mountain lift? It buys you a glorious day of spectacular alpine views and eye-popping hikes you’ll remember the rest of your life. (And the $5 coffee? Well, let’s just say the third wave hasn’t quite hit Swiss coffee houses. But at least it’s caffeinated.)

Honestly, “money-saving tips” for Switzerland only go so far. You can stay in youth hostels or Airbnbs, do the math to see if a Swiss Travel Pass can save you money, picnic frequently, enjoy nice restaurants at lunch (when many offer $20-25 lunch specials, as opposed to the $30-40 dinner entrees), take advantage of the many affordable and healthy cafeterias (Migros, Coop, and Manora), and skip drinks at restaurants. But in a land where even tap water is often charged for, the best advice may be to simply accept that it’s a big investment. Don’t cheap out on Switzerland. It’s worth the expense.

The Swiss do have a sense of humor…albeit a very specific one.

Walking through the streets of Bern, my local guide pointed to a big, shiny, 5-franc coin on the cobbles. “Watch this,” she said. A few seconds later, an unsuspecting tourist wandered by, saw the coin, bent over to pick it up…and got spritzed by water squirted from the eaves overhead. My guide relished every moment. “It’s a modern art sculpture, called ‘Roofspit.’ It squirts water at that coin every 15 seconds or so. You have no idea how many people I’ve seen get wet!” She practically giggled an evil giggle.

Later, just a few hundred yards down the main drag, my guide called my attention to a little three-part channel, exposing the stream that runs through the middle of Bern. “Look carefully! Do you notice anything?” Scrutinizing the three channels, I didn’t see a thing. Finally, I noticed that the middle channel was running uphill — in the opposite direction of the channels before and after it. Her eyes danced with enjoyment. “There’s a pump built in underground that pushes the water backwards!” Only in Switzerland would someone conceive a complex (and, presumably, expensive) system to very subtly reverse the direction of a five-foot stretch of gutter… just to, y’know, mess with people.

Never let it be said the Swiss don’t know funny.

Swiss neutrality is no joke — and neither is military preparedness.

Walking along a one-lane road at the base of a vertical cliff, along the shoreline of Lake Luzern, I came upon a ramshackle shed huddled up against the rock. Stepping through its rickety door, I found myself at the entrance to a 650-foot-long, heavily fortified tunnel, leading to machine guns, huge artillery cannons, and barracks where a hundred armed-to-the-teeth Swiss soldiers could hole up indefinitely, protecting one of several dozen mountain passes that are all just as fortified.

The “Swiss Army” ain’t just a gimmick for selling knives. And Fortress Fürigen — an easy side-trip outside of Luzern — is just one of nine different fortresses in this one tiny part of Switzerland, guarding the approach from Lake Luzern and the Central Plateau.

During World War II, surrounded by the Nazis and Mussolini’s Italy, Switzerland had to figure out a way to retain their independence. They embraced the symbol of a hedgehog — cute and cuddly, but capable of hunkering down and exposing its spines when threatened.

The government came up with a bold plan: In case of invasion, Switzerland would contract like that hedgehog. The country’s leaders and military would pull back into the mountainous interior, essentially abandoning the cities of Zürich, Bern, Basel, and Luzern in the flat area facing Hitler’s Germany. The passes into and out of this rugged mountain fortress — called the Swiss National Redoubt — would be heavily guarded.

With the Cold War and threat of nuclear attack, Switzerland doubled down on these plans. And today, every bridge and tunnel in the country is rigged with explosives, innocent mountain slopes conceal missile silos, military service is compulsory, and every Swiss household has a loaded gun. It’s a system they call “armed neutrality” — never used offensively, but defensively ready to unleash hell.

Swiss neutrality has been criticized. It also means not taking sides — or playing both sides — even in times of moral absolutes. In World War II, Swiss banks willingly held vast amounts of wealth that the Nazis stole from murdered Jews. This debate is dealt with openly and constructively in Swiss society, confronting the populace with unpleasant realities and tough choices. But ultimately, the Swiss have made their decision. And, if you were a tiny country encircled by the great European powers of Germany, Austria, France, and Italy…perhaps you’d make the same one.

The Swiss love a soft drink that tastes like vitamins.

Of the many fine flavors that remind me of Switzerland — stinky cheese and creamy chocolate top the list — there’s one thing that I need to have before I really know I’m in Switzerland: Rivella, the soft drink made with milk serum. It looks like Coke but tastes like chewable vitamins. I am an aficionado of weird local soft drinks, from Scotland’s Irn-Bru to Slovenia’s Cockta. But Rivella may be my favorite. It’s an acquired taste, perhaps, but worth trying.

Swiss cities are great, too.

Naturally, when people think “Switzerland,” they think alpine majesty. But Swiss cities are pretty great, too. They’re beautifully situated, well-organized, easy to get around, spick-and-span tidy, and packed with great museums and pleasant squares (and fountains…mustn’t forget the fountains). In fact, considering how popular the Alps are, Switzerland’s cities may be some of the most underappreciated destinations in Europe. Consider weaving some urban Switzerland into your itinerary — or, given how small and well-connected this country is, escape to the cities on rainy, socked-in days. (From Interlaken, it’s less than an hour to Bern.) Here’s a rundown:

Zürich, by far the biggest Swiss city, flanks a pretty river on the edge of a big lake. Known for its banking industry, it’s thought of by the Swiss as being hardworking, bustling, and a bit snobby. (They call it zu reich …”too rich”.) Everything moves fast here; people are impatient…but that’s because they’ve got places to go. Banks aside, Zürich also has a surprisingly large and fun-to-explore cobbled old town (called the Niederdorf) and one of the country’s top museums: the Landesmuseum, with a gorgeously presented, thought-provoking exhibit on Swiss history…just a few steps from the main train station (ideal for a sightseeing layover).

Bern, the pint-sized seat of government, is laced with big, elegant arcades and colorful fountains, and its towering Münster (main church) rockets up from the promontory on which it sits. Among Swiss, Bern is known as the city of bureaucrats and students…things are relaxed and mellow. While its sightseeing is unspectacular, Bern’s cityscape — historic yet highly livable — makes it hard to leave.

Luzern, with an even more spectacular lakeside setting than Zürich’s, is the touristic darling. It faces the many-fingered Vierwaldstättersee (a.k.a. Lake Luzern), which stretches deep into soaring cut-glass mountain panoramas. (Lake cruises are hard to resist here.) Of the Swiss cities, it’s on the smaller side and by far the most “discovered” — huge crowds of travelers from around the world jam onto its beautiful, landmark wooden bridges, using the city as a springboard for easy mountain excursions. You could spend a week in Luzern and visit a different mountaintop every day.

And there’s more. Lausanne — steep, vertical, and facing Lake Geneva — comes with French chic and a big cathedral, and it’s the Olympic capital, to boot (with a state-of-the-art Olympics Museum). Lugano — in the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino — feels like a bridge between Switzerland and the chaotic country to the south; like Luzern and Lausanne, it’s perched on the edge of a lake facing towering mountains. And Basel — at the vertex of Switzerland, France, and Germany — has a lively market square, a colorful town hall, and the Rhine running through its middle.

That’s just a dozen of the many reasons why Switzerland is one of Europe’s most satisfying destinations. What are your favorite things about the Swiss?

I was in Switzerland updating our Rick Steves Switzerland guidebook. (The newly updated edition is out in May 2020.) While there, I crossed paths with several of our Best of Switzerland tours — and everyone was having a blast.

Want to read more about Switzerland? On this same trip, I went for a glorious high-mountain Swiss hike above the village of Gimmelwald. Years ago, I spent a memorable Christmas in the Swiss Alps. And I chose Bern as one of my European Discoveries for 2020.