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

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.

Iceland’s Wild Westfjords: Happy Icelanders and Filthy Cars at the End of the World

Iceland’s Westfjords dangle like a giant bunch of grapes from the northwest fringe of this rugged island. The region’s unpopulated northern reaches nearly kiss the Arctic Circle. Relatively few tourists make it up here — some say about one in ten, others say more like one in twenty. It’s remote, rustic, and as off the grid as you can get without a monster truck. And that’s why I’m going. The Westfjords are home to the world’s most impressive bird cliffs (Látrabjarg), rusted old boats and airplanes discarded along the side of the road, endless chains of jagged fjords and mountain passes, and one of Iceland’s most stunning waterfalls (Dynjandi).

As I’ll discover, it takes a special breed of traveler to visit the Westfjords…and a special breed of Icelander to live at the edge of the world. For being so sparsely populated — just over seven thousand people in an area about the size of Connecticut — the Westfjords have an unusually high concentration of happy people ready to chat your ear off. (Or maybe they’re just lonely.) For all its natural wonders, Iceland’s most underrated feature may just be the Icelanders themselves. A bit introverted, but warm, smart, and funny, the Icelandic people have a can-do spirit and an easygoing charm.

Ferry to the End of the World

I’m catching my ferry to the Westfjords from the main town of Snæfellsnes, Stykkishólmur. (I know, I know. But the more you travel through Iceland, the more you grow immune to its silly names.) Stykkishólmur is a tiny town, with about 1,200 people, but compared to where I’m headed, it feels like my last dose of “civilization” for a few days. I gas up my car and stock up on discount groceries at Bónus, then head to the harbor. It’s the first week of September — still prime time in most of Europe — but I’m getting the impression that here in Iceland, the busy summer season will be finished in a matter of hours, not weeks. I feel like I’m boarding the last chopper out of Saigon.

Stykkishólmur’s little harbor huddles behind a basalt islet, which protects the town from the surf of the wide Breiðafjörður. Colorful boats, tethered neatly to no-nonsense piers, bob upon the gentle swells. Of the row of food trucks lining the harbor, only one is open. There I’m warmly greeted by Martin, tall and lanky, with black curly hair. He seems lonesome and chatty — as if he’s been waiting all day for a customer. Perusing the menu, I settle on the lamb burger. “Sorry,” he shrugs, “We’re out of lamb. Actually, we’re out of almost everything. We’ll close for the season as soon as we use up our supplies. We do have some beef burgers left!”

A rousing endorsement. But I decide to help Martin use up his meat. “One, please.”

While he griddles up my burger, Martin tells me he’s from the Czech Republic — a small town in Moravia. He and his girlfriend came to Iceland, bought this truck, and have been slinging burgers here at Stykkishólmur’s harbor all summer. But the customers dried up a week or two ago. “When we signed the lease, it was for five and a half months. So we were optimistic. They didn’t tell us that the actual season is only about two months.”

Still, business has been brisk, and they’re satisfied. In a few days, he says, they’ll close up the truck and drive it 400 miles to the opposite end of Iceland — the tiny village of Seyðisfjörður — where they’ll catch the two-day ferry to Denmark, then drive the rest of the way back home. All in all, it’s about a week’s commute to end the season.

The burger’s ready. And it’s delicious — quality, locally sourced beef, pickles with a sweet Slavic punch, and perfectly seasoned. “Do you have Diet Coke?” He looks in the fridge. “Yep, last one!” I’m all too happy to help Martin zero out his inventory.

Wishing Martin luck, I head for the ferry. It’s a hulking beast of a ship, fittingly named Baldur — the Tom Brady of the Old Norse pantheon. The Baldur, which looks like it could be an Arctic icebreaker, feels too big for what is essentially a tourist vessel. But in the torrid Atlantic waters of northern Iceland, it’s not overkill.

The end-of-season closure extends to the on-board café, which is shuttered tight. The Baldur appears to be at about one-tenth capacity. Once the small number of cars have loaded up, beefy Baldur charges out into the Breiðafjörður. At first it’s calm. But after a half-hour, we hit some serious surf and the ship begins teetering up and down. Thank goodness for my cast-iron stomach.

An hour and half into the crossing, we pull up to a tiny, flat island — aptly named Flatey — in the middle of the fjord. It’s a famously remote place, with just a few colorful shiplap houses, a historic church, and year-round residents numbering in the single digits. As our gigantic ferry sidles up to the dock, an antique deckhand — who looks like Santa Claus, if he were a very skinny whaler — hobbles out and loops our anaconda-sized line around a cleat as big as a garbage can. They winch up a rusted gangplank on spindly wheels and attach it to the side of our ship, allowing two intrepid backpackers to walk off for their night on a desolate rock in the turgid bay. Fisherman Santa helps us untie our line and waves us a grizzled goodbye as we head back out to sea.

Two and a half hours into our journey, we approach a giant boat dock on an uninhabited fjord. A garbled announcement instructs us to return to our cars, so the few passengers on board head down into the bowels of the ship. We run into a closed door with a big sign telling us not to enter the car deck while the ferry is in motion. So we wait for someone to come give us the go-ahead. And we wait. And we wait. Until well beyond the point when it feels like we’ve stopped moving. Finally I grab the giant wheel on the door, give it a spin (as if retracting the periscope), and step through into the car deck…where the crew has been impatiently waiting for all of us to get our cars out of the way.

“I Think He’s Going to Pull Through!”

Driving off the ferry, I split off from the main flow of traffic. After two and a half hours of intense rocking, I’m in need of a little R&R, and I’ve scouted a thermal swimming pool hiding in a tiny settlement a few minutes’ drive away. Spotting the little “head poking above water” sign that promises a hot-water dip anywhere in Iceland, I pull up a gravel road to a little gathering of cute wooden bungalows. Sure enough, a fine swimming pool complex perches on the ridge overlooking the fjord, with not a soul around.

I park and walk up the path to reconnoiter the pool. Someone in the nearby house spots me and emerges tentatively, with a mix of surprise and suspicion. He’s the caretaker of this little holiday camp — a gentlemanly Icelander with a twinkle in his eye. “Swimming pool?” I say. “Yes! Naturally heated, no chemicals. We’re closing next week.”

Now, the thing you have to understand about Icelandic swimming pools is that they aren’t just swimming pools. They’re basically gigantic hot tubs. What looks like a standard backyard pool is bathwater-warm. Nearby simmer “hot pots” that steam at around 100 degrees. When people visiting Iceland — chilled to their bones even in the blustery midsummer months — rhetorically ask, “How do people live here in the winter?”, they don’t realize there’s a very good answer: Icelanders survive their frigid climate by soaking in hot water with their friends and neighbors every evening. This volcanic island has hot water in abundance. And the Icelanders know exactly what to do with it.

It’s sunny but brisk, and I have the pool (and, really, the entire fjord) to myself. The pool is so small I can almost do a full lap without taking a breath. Windows wrap entirely around, offering views over the fjord as I paddle. It’s Icelandic bliss. Welcome to the Westfjords.

As I splash around, I notice the caretaker lurking outside one window. He motions me over, so I swim to him. He shows me a little brown sparrow in his hands. “Poor little bird!” he says. “He flew into the window. He’s very, you know, confused. I hope he will be OK!”

I wish him luck and go back to my laps. A few minutes later, the caretaker brings me a cup of water to stay hydrated. “That little bird — it’s so sad. I don’t think he’s going to make it.”

I voice my sympathy and get back to swimming. A few laps later, the caretaker appears again with another update: “I think he’s going to pull through!”

Finishing my swim, I get changed and thank my host for his hospitality. He points toward the bird, who’s convalescing on the nearby lawn. “I think he’ll be OK. Unless the arctic foxes eat him.” I wave a cheerful goodbye and wish both of them the best of luck.

Back in my car, I drive 45 minutes to the town of Patreksfjörður. Maybe it’s the hot-water coma talking, but it’s one of the most stunning drives of my life — with breathtaking fjordside scenery, then a mountain pass that twists up over a jagged volcanic terrain that looks positively Martian. Way up at the summit, on a little plateau next to a gurgling waterfall, stands a statue made of stacked stones — an Icelandic tradition upon completing a challenging construction project.

Cresting the pass and twisting back down to the fjord, I follow the shoreline to my hotel. Patreksfjörður is a functional settlement perched on a flat spit poking into a gigantic fjord of the same name. (Incidentally, this describes essentially every town and village in Iceland.) There’s no “sightseeing” in Patreksfjörður. But — with gas pumps, a few hotels and guesthouses, a smattering of eateries, and two grocery stores — it’s a handy hub for visitors to the southern Westfjords. With just 675 souls, it still qualifies as a metropolis by Westfjords standards.

Here at the fringe of the season, very few restaurants remain open. I can either have a burger at the gas station, or head to what is essentially the only real restaurant in town, Stúkuhúsið. Fortunately, it’s a wonderful spot, with a cramped and convivial interior and three different “fish of the day” meals — all of them fresh and flavorful. I try to resist my server’s suggestion to check out the glass tower showing off a variety of homemade cakes. I fail miserably.

It’s a bit early for the Northern Lights, but it’s possible I’ll spy some. Settling into my fjordside hotel, I keep peeking between the shades, like an excited kid on Christmas Eve hoping for a reindeer sighting. Finally, around midnight, I end my search and get some sleep.

Disassembled DC-3s and Free Sweaters in the Middle of Nowhere

From Patreksfjörður, it’s a long but satisfying day trip south to one of the world’s most famous bird cliffs, Látrabjarg. Along the way, more Icelandic encounters await.

Bright and early, I hit the road and begin winding around the Patreksfjörður. After touch-and-go-weather for the last few days, it’s gloriously sunny. Curling around the shoreline, I spot the rusted hull of a ship beached along the shore — the Norwegian-built Garðar, still wedged where it ran ashore in 1981. While a roadside shipwreck would turn heads in most places, it seems fitting here in the Westfjords.

Continuing around the fjord, the pavement runs out. I’ll be on unpaved roads for the next several hours. My first stop is Rauðasandur — meaning “Red Sands.” To get there, I turn off from the main road and make my way over the pass. Cresting the summit, a breathtaking panorama of rugged rock and epic waterfalls opens up before me. Making my way down to the shoreline, I arrive at the broadest sandy beach I have ever laid eyes on. It’s so big, it barely seems to qualify as a “beach.” I turn left and head for a campground called Melanes. A few battered trailers perch on a grassy lawn, and I’m pleasantly surprised to find toilets and showers with running water.

Leaving my car behind, I walk through shimmying sea grasses — hopscotching over steppingstones to ford churning little streams — to an attractive ensemble of basalt cliffs and sea stacks. I scamper down to the beach, where the saturated sand jiggles under my feet. Gigantic black stones are weathered to a high shine, like the polished marbles of a giant. Above them tower jagged Jenga towers of black basalt. I have rarely felt so far from civilization.

Back in my car, I retrace my path over the rocky pass, then carry on along the fjordside road, passing above an abandoned airstrip. (This area is so remote, even its tenuous aerial tether to the rest of Iceland has been severed.) The road curls around several dramatic headlands — at the base of great, towering cliffs — alternating with little pockets of farmland.

Arriving at one of these, Hnjótur, I pull over at a humble red house (one of about five or six in the settlement). I’m hoping to scope out this guesthouse for our guidebook, but I’m skeptical that anyone’s home. Much to my surprise, my doorbell is answered by Kristinn, the innkeeper. He’s shutting down for the year, he explains, but he’s happy to show me around. Would I like a cup of coffee?

Like many people who choose to live at the end of the world, Kristinn is friendly…almost suspiciously friendly. The kind of friendly that suggests he’s either a chatty small-town type, or a serial killer.

As we talk, I’m pleased (and relieved) to determine that Kristinn is the former. When I ask about the folk museum I’ve heard about — just a few hundred yards up the road, and next on my list — he proudly tells me it’s named for his father, who started the collection decades ago. Pointing out the window, Kristinn explains that the big hangar used to be part of the folk museum, but now it’s his own private exhibition of historic airplanes. A DC-3 sits disassembled in big pieces on the lawn — like a Lego set abandoned by a bored toddler.

“That was built in 1944,” he said, “and later became part of US forces in Iceland, based at Keflavík, now the main international airport. In 1973, it took part in the evacuation of the Westman Islands, when the volcano erupted there. It was retired in 1977 — after some 20,000 flight hours, from the Arctic Circle to the Antarctic Circle. My dad had it brought here for the museum. There’s another plane inside the hangar. Would you like to see it?”

Kristinn fishes a loose key out of a junk drawer and hands it to me. “Go check it out. It’s a Russian plane. But I have just one condition: I want you to tell people that the DC-3 isn’t just an old plane. It’s a memorial to all US Navy and Marine Corps troops who served in Iceland. This is very important!”

I head over for a closer look at the DC-3, and let myself inside the hangar. There — tucked unceremoniously between paint cans, old fishing equipment, and all the assorted bric-a-brac you’d expect to find in some remote Icelander’s garage — is a Russian Antonov AN-2 from 1967, covered in Cyrillic lettering. The plane made an emergency landing in Iceland in 1993…and was deemed not worth fixing. So here it sits.

I head back to return the key to Kristinn, who now feels like an old friend. I can tell he’s flattered by my interest in his collection, and I’m enjoying an unexpectedly lively conversation at the edge of the world. Before leaving, I admire the hand-knitted Icelandic sweaters for sale in one corner of the breakfast room. It’s my third time in Iceland, and I still don’t own one — I’m not much for souvenirs, but one of these sweaters is on my list.

Noticing my interest, Kristinn says, “Do you want one?” I’m startled by the question, and politely decline. But I can tell he’s serious. “My wife spends the entire winter knitting those by the fire. We haven’t sold as many as we expected, and our season is over. She likes to stay busy — you’d be doing us a favor to take one!”

Incredibly flattered, I agree. He pulls the $250 price tag off the sweater and hands it to me — and insists that I take a matching beanie, too. Loading the precious cargo into my backseat, I wave goodbye and continue on my way.

The World’s Finest Bird Cliffs

The main reason people come to this godforsaken, pavement-forsaken corner of Iceland is to see one of the most stunning bird cliffs on the planet: Látrabjarg. From Kristinn’s place, it’s another hour, hour-and-a-half on borderline-passable roads. I go over a couple more mountain passes, where the hard-packed surface makes things workable. But the final stretch is harrowing. Coming down over the last pass, I enter a tiny settlement of just a few houses, whose residents really, really, really want you to drive just 30 kilometers per hour — they’ve erected a half-dozen handmade signs to that effect all along the road.

Here the road flattens out, yet it becomes far harder to drive than the many rocky passes I’ve already conquered today. My teeth and my tires rattle as my car plays xylophone along the washboard surface. I straddle red rivulets of iron-rich soil that stream down the middle of what some might choose to call a “road.” At one point I mount the grassy berm to prevent a gigantic puddle from swallowing my little car whole. And then, in the absolute middle of nowhere, I come across a freestanding little toilet. A pungent smell fills my car, suggesting that one of Iceland’s countless sulfur springs is nearby.

Finally I arrive at a big parking lot next to a little lighthouse. I’ve made it: Látrabjarg! But my heart sinks just a bit. After such a long journey, it’s…underwhelming. At least, from the parking lot.

The weather has closed in, and I’ve spent the last hour dodging raindrops. Here at the westernmost point in Europe, there’s nothing to stop storms from rolling in across the Atlantic. Or, more to the point, this cliff is what stops storms that roll in across the Atlantic.

Getting out of my car, I notice a little squall swirling about a mile offshore. I have a feeling that I’m about to get rained on. But I’ve come this far. I bundle up and head up the well-marked path, climbing up some uneven stairs, then following a narrow, rutted path through the middle of a wide meadow. On my right, that meadow abruptly ends at a dramatic drop-off to the swirling seas below.

Hiking about 10 minutes up the path, I turn to look back, and my breath catches in my throat. Finally I understand why this place is so special. From this point, I can see the pockmarked cliff face plunging from the grassy lawn straight down to the churning Atlantic. And embedded in that cliff face are thousands upon thousands of sea bird nests. From here, Látrabjarg stretches for more than seven miles, reaching a height of about 1,400 feet — taller than the Empire State building (or, for Icelanders, six Hallgrímskirkjas stacked on end).

In the summer, this cliff is home to one million sea birds, who drift in with warm currents, nest and breed here, and then head back out to sea when things cool off. (When I asked one local why the tourist season is so short, he gave me a perfectly succinct answer: “Once the birds leave…so do the tourists.”)

Now in early September, most of the birds have left — but several remain. The cliffs are streaked with white, and the stench of bird shit is overpowering. Delicate little feathers are scattered across the grass, like flower petals after a wedding. The turf is spongy and embedded with hidden rocks and other tripping hazards. And getting closer than several feet from the cliff edge produces intense vertigo. Gingerly, oh so gingerly, I tiptoe up to the edge and peer down.

The cliff stretches infinitely in both directions. I squint to see colorful little dots bobbing along the top of the cliff in the distance — intrepid visitors, bundled like me in their parkas, going for an incredibly scenic hike. Looking down into the tumultuous sea, I think back on a story I heard earlier today — one of those tales you hear when traveling that seem almost too perfect to be true:

In December of 1947, a British fishing trawler crashed against these rocks. A volunteer rescue squad leapt into action and came to the cliffs with ropes and pulleys, ultimately saving 12 of the crew members. A year later, a filmmaker making a documentary enlisted the villagers to re-enact the event. And just as they were all rigged up in their pulleys…a different British trawler ran aground nearby. And so, naturally, the “actors” rescued those sailors, as well.

It’s hard to top an experience like Látrabjarg. So I don’t try. On an intense traveler’s high, I float back down to the parking lot, and only once back in the car do I notice that that squall is still swirling offshore — it never made its way to me.

I drive the two and a half hours back to Patreksfjörður, numb to the bumps and rumbles. Back in town, I pull into my hotel’s parking lot, taking my place in a long row of the filthiest tailgates I have ever seen. Each car’s rear end is coated with a thick layer of multicolored grime. I have a theory that Icelandic car rental companies heavily favor white vehicles, so they can assess in an instant just how much abuse you’ve put your car through.

Not quite ready for this day to be over, I decide to check out Patreksfjörður’s swimming pool — reputed to be something special. The raves are earned. The glassed-in complex clings between the upper road and the hillside, with simmering pools perfectly positioned to look out over the fjord, the town’s rooftops, and the setting sun. Toggling between the different pools — warm, hot, very hot — I realize I’ve enjoyed one of my best travel days ever.

Sea Monsters, Grand Waterfalls, and 50 Unpaved Miles

The next day, I hop into my car and head north. My drive today connects Patreksfjörður (hub of the southern Westfjords) to Ísafjörður (capital of the northern Westfjords). In between are 110 miles of rugged roads — about half of them unpaved. The sun has come out again, and I’m in for a stunning road trip.

Leaving Patreksfjörður in my rearview mirror, I make my way north, connecting a charm bracelet of humble fjordside settlements, linked to each other by scenic mountain passes. At one point, I pull over at a random little complex of open-to-the-public thermal pools, perched high on a cliff…another reminder of how the Icelanders love their hot water.

The tiny town of Bíldudalur — 200 people living on a precarious shelf at the base of a cliff — is the “last chance gas” point on the drive. At the entrance to town, Vegamót Bíldudal has a tiny grocery store up front, and in back is a cozy restaurant that does a brisk business selling travelers fish-and-chips to fortify them for the long drive ahead. When I stop by, it’s too early for lunch, and the dining room is occupied by a little scrum of what look to be retired fishermen, pouring coffee into their white beards.

Leaving town, I head along the shoreline of the Arnarfjörður, grooving in and out of its many arms. The Arnarfjörður, shaped like a giant squid, is famous for its “sea monster” lore. Maybe it’s the latitude, maybe it’s the cold, or maybe it’s the boredom — but locals seem to constantly see mysterious creatures out in the fjord. Back in Bíldudalur, one entrepreneur has even opened a “Sea Monster Museum.” It feels like a wannabe-Loch Ness tourist-baiting strategy, but, given the dearth of other tourist attractions in this area, I have to admire the effort.

Rattling through epic scenery on rutted gravel roads, I lose count of the fjords. On one, I pass an evocative, remote farmhouse with a distinctly triangular roofline. On another, I pull over at a picnic table perched just so, overlooking a rushing waterfall. On another, I drive past a tidy, well-kept, open-air swimming pool — just sitting there alongside the road, with changing cabins nearby — fed by natural thermal springs.

And then I start heading up. And up. And up. As scenic as this drive has been, nothing could have prepared me for the mountain pass I traverse next. The road crests in a rocky landscape that feels like the very rooftop of Iceland, if not all of Europe. Off on the left, I can take in the entire Arnarfjörður, and all its convoluted inlets, with one sweep of the head. From here, it’s easy to understand how this remarkable landscape came to be: It’s a high, flat plateau, out of which have been carved great divots…the Westfjords.

Twisting back down to sea level on the far side of the pass, I steal a distant view of one of Iceland’s most spectacular waterfalls: Dynjandi. I can see it miles before I reach it. It tumbles like a bridal veil over the edge of the high, flat plateau that I’ve just crossed. Following signs to the parking lot, I cross a bridge over a churning river. Visually tracing its course uphill, I see how Dynjandi isn’t just one waterfall: It’s about one dozen, stairstepping into each other on their way down from the top of the cliff to the fjord’s shoreline.

I hike up the rocky trail that leads alongside the waterfall’s many stages. Each sub-fall has its own little viewpoint, where a sign identifies its name. There are no real “crowds” in the Westfjords, but the Dynjandi trail concentrates more human beings than I’ve seen in one place in several days. Still, those ranks thin out considerably as I make my way up the steep trail.

Finally I arrive at the main fall at the top, tumbling over the sharp cliff into a giant, chilly pool. This upper section alone is as big as an American football field laid on end — about 100 yards long, 50 yards wide. The thundering flow pulverizes a heavy mist into the air, spraying my glasses and camera lens with frigid souvenirs of Iceland’s fast-melting glaciers. Iceland fills any traveler with awe in the face of nature. And Dynjandi is one of the best places for exactly that.

Back on the road, I curl around yet another fjord on chunky roads. At one point I pass a busy construction zone. They’re boring a tunnel through the middle of the mountain to connect to the next fjord over. In a couple of years, my journey to Ísafjörður will be at least a half-hour shorter; a few years later, you’ll be able to subtract an hour. But if I’m being honest, I’m happy for the hardship. Driving on paved roads just doesn’t come with the same sense of adventure.

Before heading over yet another mountain pass, I pull over at Hrafnseyri, a tiny, middle-of-nowhere settlement that was the birthplace of Icelandic founding father Jón Sigurðsson, who lobbied the Danish government on behalf of Icelandic independence during the 19th century. Today his statue faces the Icelandic parliament building in Reykjavík. But here on a remote fjord, his birthplace is marked by a picturesque church and a trio of turf-roofed houses…an idyllic Icelandic tableau.

I twist my way up and over yet another epic, unpaved mountain pass. The last few days have made me numb to spectacular scenery — but even in that state, this road takes my breath away.

Returning to sea level on the other side, I also return to civilization for the first time in hours: At the village of Þingeyri, my tires grip pavement and my car seems to breathe a sigh of relief.

It’s midafternoon and I’m famished. So I drive into the lonely waterfront hamlet of Þingeyri and step into Simbahöllin — a hipster café filling an old general store. Despite being in what should feel very much off the grid, they have fast Wi-Fi, crispy waffles, and oat-milk lattes. I pay 20 bucks for a big, delicious bowl of soup and some bread, plus a coffee. Chatting with the clerk, I’m told that this café, too, is a few days away from closing for the winter. Will the last tourist leaving the Westfjords please turn out the lights?

Continuing on, I wind around the fjord and conquer my umpteenth mountain pass, made much easier thanks to the smooth road. Soon I reach the modern tunnel that takes me under yet another mountain pass to the capital of the Westfjords — and the end of my long journey.

Ísafjörður, Capital of the Westfjords

The town of Ísafjörður (literally “Ice Fjord”) occupies a big, flat spit in the center of 360 degrees of fjordland cliffs. From here, the Arctic Circle is just over the horizon. Despite being a regional “capital,” Ísafjörður is a humble burg. Driving into town, I pass Ísafjörður’s main landmark: an eyesore modern church, built in 1995 in an idiosyncratic architecture style that doesn’t quite come together. (I think of it as “beige pebble-clad Cubist-meets-Sydney Opera House.”)

Out at the tip of the peninsula is Ísafjörður’s historic wharf area — a tiny cluster of historic shiplap buildings. One of them is the local historical museum, and two others are, unbelievably, still residences — housing the only people who might be excited about living in a 200-year-old log cabin on a frozen fjord: museum curators.

It’s dinnertime, and I’m ready for a good meal. I step into the log-cabin-like tar factory from 1781, now a restaurant called Tjöruhúsið. While reservations are usually required, the waning season makes it easier to improvise — they’re able to squeeze me in, last-minute. I’m ushered to a big shared table with twentysomething American couple and a thirtysomething French couple. While waiting for our meal, we trade testimonials about how Iceland has stolen our hearts.

Tjöruhúsið is a bit of a tourist trap. But it’s the kind that you’re very happy to be trapped in. The meal begins with delicious fish soup that would, in itself, make a plenty satisfying dinner. But then comes the main course: A buffet line of oversized, sizzling skillets of different fish dishes, each with a different flavor profile, both traditional Icelandic and international. It’s one of the best meals I’ve had, capping another lifetime-best day of travel.

The next day, my guidebook-scouting tasks in Ísafjörður keep me very busy. But before leaving the Westfjords, I drive 15 minutes to Súðavík, on the next fjord over. There, filling an old house, is the Arctic Fox Centre, offering an education in Iceland’s only native land mammal — which ekes out a challenging existence in some of the harshest conditions on earth (their mortality rate is about 80 percent).

I’m warmly greeted by the manager, Sæmundur. He clearly adores the foxes and has dedicated himself to advocating for them. “Icelandic farmers complain about the foxes killing their sheep,” Sæmundur tells me, with a tone suggesting that he takes these allegations personally. “But the foxes only do what comes naturally, and they only attack the weakest sheep — the ones very unlikely to survive anyway.”

I head out back to the pen where two rescued foxes live. I just barely spot them, huddled sleepily under a little enclosure. Just as I resign myself to not getting a closer look, Sæmundur comes out, and the foxes spring to life, running over to greet him. He pulls some treats out of his pocket and begins feeding the two foxes, who eagerly climb up the walls of the cage to get a snack and a scratch from Sæmundur. They are beautiful animals — intelligent, bright-eyed, and clearly wild, without the affable domesticity of a dog or housecat. I can see exactly why Sæmundur has fallen in love with these creatures.

I wish I could hang out with Sæmundur and his friends longer. But I have a flight to catch. I zip back around the fjord to Ísafjörður’s tiny airport for my trip back to Reykjavik. (When I find the rental-car office unattended, I call the phone number on the contract. “No problem. Just slide the keys under the door.”) Arrive 30 minutes before takeoff, free coffee, no security checkpoint, friendly gate agents: Domestic flights in Iceland are my kind of travel.

As we leave the ground, the wheels retract back up into the belly of our little plane, and we fly higher and higher up a grand fjord, I realize I’ll be in downtown Reykjavik in just a half-hour. But I can’t express how happy I am that I took the very long way to get up here.

I was in the Westfjords writing a brand-new chapter for our Rick Steves Iceland guidebook; the second edition (with the Westfjords) is available in April 2020.

Want to Avoid the Crowds? Europe’s “Third-Rate” Towns Are Truly First-Rate

Europe is crowded — especially its big, famous sights. As you plan your 2020 travels, you may be looking to escape your fellow travelers. Here’s an idea: Consider going easy on Europe’s top-tier destinations, and instead check out some lesser-known places. Last year, I made a swing through what I think of as The Big Three: London, Paris, and Rome. But I also mixed in some smaller towns, including ones few travelers have heard of: Arezzo. Canterbury. Sarlat. And you know something? The experiences I had in Europe’s “third-rate” towns were truly first-rate.

Virtually everyone visiting Italy wants to go to the “first-rate” cities: Rome, Florence, and Venice. With more time, they add some “second-rate” destinations: Pisa, Assisi, Siena, Milan, and so on. But even once you get beyond those top tiers, Italy is rich with rewarding destinations.

I had this revelation when I spent a sleepy, rainy Saturday in the Tuscan town of Arezzo. It’s a midsize town that’s not included in our Rick Steves’ Italy guidebook — even with 1,250 pages of coverage, Arezzo doesn’t make the cut. I was here on the recommendation of an Italian friend, specifically to take a day off from the busy tourist towns I was visiting elsewhere in Italy: Assisi, Rome, and so on.  And I got exactly what I was looking for.

I love the endearing way that smaller cities have their own idiosyncratic claims to fame, which swell their residents’ pride. Arezzo has two: It’s home to a thriving weekend antiques market; and its Basilica of San Francesco is slathered with colorful frescoes by Piero della Francesca. I enjoyed those aspects of Arezzo. But mostly, I savored simply being alone in Italy…wandering all by myself through colorful and cobbled back lanes; having a memorable lunch at the town’s foodie splurge restaurant, just dropping in without a reservation; discovering a world-class neighborhood gelato shop; and browsing antiques alongside Tuscans furnishing their homes rather than tourists seeking souvenirs. I left Arezzo re-energized — and ready to plunge into Rome.

In England, everyone wants to go to “first-rate” London. With more time, they add some “second-rate” destinations — Bath, York, the Cotswolds, and so on. But there’s a steep drop-off in traffic when it comes to a town like Canterbury, where I retreated after two exhausting weeks of guidebook research in London. And, much as I love London, this trip reminded me that Canterbury is one of my favorite places in the UK.

Canterbury is best known for two things: First, its cathedral is the seat of the Archbishop of Canterbury, who leads the Church of England. And second, English majors know the town for its role in Geoffrey Chaucer’s 14th-century Canterbury Tales, in which a ragtag assortment of pilgrims swap tall tales and parables on their journey to that famous church.

Of course, Canterbury is not entirely “undiscovered.” The knot of half-timbered streets ringing its cathedral and its bustling High Street are packed with visitors. But many of them are day trippers, and most never leave that compact core of town. I loved simply wandering Canterbury’s back streets, following its idyllic river, discovering lush parks, ogling its tidy brick row houses mixed in with tipsy Tudor black-and-white half-timbered homes. Even just a few steps off High Street took me to areas that have never seen a tourist.

Near Canterbury, I also spent time hiking along Beachy Head and the Seven Sisters (a less famous but drastically more pleasurable stretch of white cliffs than Dover’s); explored the characteristic Sissinghurst Gardens; took a day off in the English beach resort of Brighton; and toured the sprawling and fascinating Hampton Court Palace, infused with vivid memories of Henry VIII. I also visited far-better-known Cambridge, Oxford, and Windsor, where the oppressive crowds left me exasperated. But thinking back on my little swing through southeast England fills me with a happy glow…even though it was socked-in and drizzling the entire time.

In France, Paris is the first-rate, world-class “must.” Second-rate destinations include Provence, Nice and the French Riviera, Mont-St-Michel, and Normandy. But my personal favorite slice of France is third-rate: the Dordogne, huddled deep in the southwest, and its lovely market town of Sarlat.

Built of a lemony sandstone that seems to suck in the warmth and glow of the sun, Sarlat looks like a film set. It’s a town that celebrates geese: A bronze statue of two proud waterfowl honors the importance of foie gras in the local cuisine (and commerce). Twice a week, one of France’s best street markets (and that’s saying something) curls through Sarlat’s interlocking squares. On market day, Sarlat is one of the most engaging places in all of France…a feast for all the senses. On other days, it’s still an utter delight, exuding a “let’s-retire-here” serenity that has tourists checking their 401(k) balances.

Italy is richer with life-alteringly-wonderful “third-rate” towns than perhaps any country in Europe. In addition to Arezzo, many of my favorites are in Tuscany, Umbria, and other parts of Central Italy: LuccaVolterraMontepulciano,  Orvieto… the list goes on.

And then there’s Sorrento, perched over a serene bay just south of Naples, offering a genteel springboard for exploring the Amalfi Coast. And up north, a short train ride from Venice leads to the thriving university town of Padua, Romeo and Juliet’s hometown of Verona, and alpine Bolzano — so close to Austria you can practically hear the yodeling.

This is a fun game to play. In Germany, I love Berlin, Munich, Rothenburg, and the Rhine Valley — but Dresden, Erfurt, and Freiburg caught me off guard and captured my heart.

In Poland, Kraków is an all-star, but Gdańsk is an overlooked gem.

In Belgium, Brussels and Bruges are at the top of every traveler’s list, but Ghent and Antwerp are delightful discoveries that feel more authentic.

In Portugal, Lisbon is the undisputed champ, and Porto is the up-and-coming second city, but the sleepy university town of Coimbra is an unheralded joy.

In Croatia, everyone flocks to Dubrovnik and Split. Why not check out Slovenia’s Piran, just up the coast?

In Iceland, Reykjavík, the Golden Circle, and the Blue Lagoon get all of the attention. But my favorite corners of Iceland are the Westfjords, Lake Mývatn, and Seyðisfjörður on the Eastfjords.

In Hungary, Budapest is top dog, but Eger and Pécs are woefully underrated.

In Spain, it’s hard to resist the pull of Madrid, Barcelona, Sevilla, Granada, and Toledo. But my favorite Spanish memories take place in Salamanca, Bilbao, Arcos de la Frontera, and Santiago de Compostela.

I’m not (necessarily) saying to skip those world-class destinations entirely. If you’ve never been to Paris…then go to Paris. But consider changing it up by also visiting a smaller city or town that isn’t a household name back home. If nothing else, see Europe’s “third-rate” towns as an antidote to the crowds.

By the way, reviewing these photos, I notice two things: Gorgeous places…with virtually no people. I mean, just look at all of those empty cobbles. If you want Europe to yourself, go third-rate.

What are some of your favorite “third-rate” towns in Europe, and why?

For more ideas of lesser-known places to visit, check out my recent list of 10 European Discoveries for 2020…and my Discoveries for 2019 and 2018, too.

For more details on all of the destinations mentioned here, check out our Rick Steves guidebook series, which includes coverage of the biggies along with the “third-rate” alternatives.