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

Lake Maggiore, Il Minore

My final stop in Italy was Lake Maggiore. Just an hour from Milan, it’s a handy side-trip for those wanting a taste of Italy’s famed Lake District. I liked Lake Maggiore. But I didn’t like it nearly as much as Lake Como, which is just as easy to visit and, for my money, even more rewarding.

In our guidebooks, we have to make some tough decisions. Our publisher has gently informed us that our biggest books (including Italy) are “pushing the boundaries of current book-binding technology.” Soon, we may have to selectively slim down our coverage. And after updating almost every chapter in Italy, Lake Maggiore is at the top of my hit list. There’s nothing wrong with Lake Maggiore, except that it’s basically redundant with a destination that’s even better (Lake Como). Realistically, most of our readers won’t have time to visit two lakes — so why not give them only the best?

Don’t worry — we’re good for now, so this will not be the year of Lake Maggiore’s “big arrivederci.” Let’s savor the stay of execution with a few photos of this (admittedly beautiful) place.

 

Lake Maggiore

While it enjoys the same gorgeous mountain backdrop as the other Italian lakes, Maggiore’s unique draw card is the Borromean Islands, where Milan’s most powerful aristocratic clan built their retirement villas. In the foreground, you can see the pyramid-shaped Isola Bella, the aptly named “Beautiful Island,” whose terraced gardens trumpet the status of the Borromeos.

 

Maggiore Peacocks

Isola Bella is home to a flock of crowd-pleasing peacocks. Watching herds of camera-snapping tourists chase peacocks around the garden, I was glad I had a good zoom lens — letting me just sit tight and wait for the perfect photo op.

 

Stresa Square

Lake Maggiore’s main town, Stresa, is a fairly soulless resort town. But its cozy square is welcoming for a lunch break.

 

Trilingual Sign

Faded, trilingual signs bragging “We speak your language” are nostalgic remnants of an age when that was really something to brag about. These days, I’m continually impressed by how confidently so many Europeans speak English — compared to even just a few years ago. In nearly three weeks of updating our Italy guidebook, talking to probably hundreds of Italians in the tourist trade, I can barely think of one who didn’t speak at least a leetle English.

 

Hemingway Hotel

Grand hotels line Stresa’s waterfront.  The English names (“Regina Palace” rather than “Palazzo Reale”) are a reminder that this destination boomed during the Grand Tour golden age of European travel, when Downton Abbey-type aristocrats made an obligatory circuit to all of Europe’s most romantic depots.

 

Boat Traffic

Getting around Lake Maggiore is easy. Just hop on the next ferry. On a sunny day, you’ll weave through a picturesque traffic jam of churning motor boats.

Arrivederci, Italia! My next stop is France. I’ll see you there…

The Glitzy Quaintness of World’s Fairs: Expo Milano 2015

When I was 10 years old, my parents woke us up early, loaded us into the car, and drove us across the Canadian border for a busy day at Expo ’86 in Vancouver, B.C. It was a fun day learning about world cultures, ogling the cutting-edge architecture, and getting very, very tired. But even then, going to a world’s fair felt old-fashioned.

In a more idealistic age, world expositions represented the pinnacle of human achievement. They were big stages for big ideas: The Eiffel Tower, Barcelona’s Magic Fountains, Brussels’ Atomium, New York City’s Unisphere, Seattle’s Space Needle, Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone, George Ferris’ giant wheel, Rudolf Diesel’s engine, and Pablo Picasso’s Guernica were all unveiled at world’s fairs.

These days, world expositions are more of a curiosity than a must-see. (Headline-grabbing innovations are debuted at thinly veiled corporate publicity stunts: CES, ComiCon, and software developer conferences.) But great cities keep hosting expos, and people keep showing up.

I happened to be in Milan shortly after the opening of Expo 2015, a six-month-long extravaganza that hopes to attract 20 million visitors until it closes in October. Finished with my guidebook-updating chores, I decided to hop on the Metro and — for just €2.50 — rode 30 minutes to the Expo. Another €34 got me into the fairgrounds. And, to be honest, I had a blast. At once both glitzy and quaintly old-fashioned, world expos are still a great opportunity to celebrate the diversity on our planet.

You can read my full report on the Expo in the June Travel News at Ricksteves.com. But here’s an illustrated version, with a virtual walk-through of the landmarks that caught my eye.


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Entering the fairgrounds, you’re standing at the top of the one-mile-long main boulevard, the “Decumano” (as main streets were called in ancient Rome). Hiking the length of the Expo may be exhausting, but at least it’s generously shaded.

While there’s a lot to see at the Expo, for this traveler, the highlight was the chance to drop into the 53 national pavilions. Each one — staffed by people from that country — is designed around a food and sustainability theme (“Feeding the planet, energy for life”). The fascinating thing is how each pavilion really fits the personality of its country. Here are a few of my favorite examples.

 

CH15MayExpo_060Russia is big, bombastic, and intimidating, with a swooping, 100-foot-long mirrored canopy stretching out over the entrance.  (Next door to Russia — and, fittingly, almost completely surrounded by its giant neighbor — Estonia’s modest but classy pavilion is a sleek, split-level, wood-clad space with serene music and little alcoves that gently invite you to learn more about Baltic life.)

 

CH15MayExpo_008At Brazil, you scramble across a huge net over a faux-rain forest.

 

CH15MayExpo_022The Polish pavilion at first feels a bit soulless, but the rooftop has a mirror-enclosed garden that immerses you, all alone, in a tranquil forest.

 

CH15MayExpo_038Some of the smaller, underappreciated nations have pavilions run by the national tourist board. Spunky Slovenia overachieves, enticing visitors with oversized photos and videos of its natural wonders.

 

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CH15MayExpo_079Meanwhile, bigger nations — seemingly confident in their identity on the world stage — focus more on the sustainability theme. The United Kingdom invites you to meander through a lush wildflower meadow to reach its central building, which is capped by a twisty metal structure that — once you step inside — mimics a human eye.

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France’s parabolic wooden frame — striking inside and out — is as beautiful as it is conceptual.

 

CH15MayExpo_046The good old U-S-of-A is well-represented, with an upbeat, slickly produced pavilion explaining “The American Foodscape”: a video welcome from President Obama, exhibits on our agricultural industry, and a series of short animated films exploring different facets of American eating habits. (Iran’s pavilion is just across the street. Aaaaawk-waaard.)

 

CH15MayExpo_068This pavilion — belonging to the planet’s 92nd biggest economy — was tucked discreetly between Qatar and Turkmenistan. Symbolized by a pair of golden arches, its main exports are beef, grain, potatoes, and Happy Meal toys.

 

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Most of the pavilions have restaurants — ranging from fancy sit-down splurges to takeaway stands — where you can get a pricey sample of the national cuisine: chocolates and beer in Belgium (pictured here), kimchi in South Korea, caipirinhas in Brazil, pilsner in the Czech Republic, chicken satay in Indonesia, and grilled steaks in Argentina. The USA’s “Food Truck Nation” sells burgers, BBQ, and lobster rolls.

 

CH15MayExpo_033Of course, every big world’s fair has to have its Eiffel Tower or its Space Needle. At Expo 2015, it’s the Tree of Life, a 120-foot-tall, unfinished-looking skeleton of a tree surrounded by a reflecting pool. But each hour on the hour, this sparse structure springs to life with music, lights, fireworks, and dancing fountains.

 

CH15MayExpo_089The Tree of Life really comes to life after dark, providing a fitting grand finale for a busy afternoon of vicarious globetrotting.

On My Last Nerve at The Last Supper

Last Supper

Sometimes, guidebook research doesn’t feel like work at all. A sunny day spent tooling around Lake Como, touring sumptuous villas and sprawling gardens? That’s not work.

But on one particular day in Milan, I really had to work. I packed about three days of sightseeing into one very busy day. It was interesting, and fun at times, but exhausting. Especially this exchange.

I walked into the ticket office for Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper. Spaces are severely limited, and reservations are mandatory — and book up weeks in advance. We devote nearly an entire page in our Rick Steves Italy guidebook to explaining this system, and I needed to confirm everything with the woman at the information desk.

She greeted me with a permanent snarl, close-cropped, dyed-blonde hair, and steely, cruel eyes. Before I opened my mouth, she didn’t like me. (I don’t take it personally. She doesn’t like anyone.)

After I explained I was updating a book, she allowed me to continue talking, which is probably her version of tacit approval. Here are some highlights of our actual conversation. (I am not making this up.)

“So, we explain here in our guidebook that you need a reservation.”

“Yes, that’s correct. You can call or go on our website.”

“And we say that you can make a reservation three months ahead.”

“On our website, you can reserve three months ahead. At our call center, you can reserve, maybe, ten days ahead.”

“So tickets are available online three months before, but by phone only ten days before?”

“Well, you can get tickets anytime you want.”

“Yes, but if someone wants to book very early, they can try three months before?”

“On our website.”

“Not by calling?”

“No! Of course, they can get a ticket by calling. Ten days before.”

“So by phone, tickets are only available ten days before?”

“It depends.”

“Well, we say here you can start trying to get a ticket three months before. More or less. Is that about right?”

“Yes.”

“Online and by telephone?”

“Yes.”

Phew. “OK, so we also explain that if you don’t have a reservation and really want to see The Last Supper, you can try to come on the same day to see if there are any cancellations.”

“No! Not possible.”

“Oh, so you…”

“Reservations are mandatory!” [Holds up sign that says “Reservations are mandatory”.]

“Yes, I understand that. What I’m saying is, let’s say someone did not make a reservation. And now they are in Milan and they really want to see The Last Supper. We say that sometimes there may be a few cancellations…”

“No! You must reserve.” [Eyes me suspiciously.] “Huh. Do you write in your book that you don’t need a reservation?”

“Oh, no, we do explain that very carefully!” [I show her several paragraphs in the book explaining that reservations are mandatory.]

“But you write in your book that you do not need a reservation!”

“No, we don’t say that. We say that in case you do not have one, sometimes it’s possible…”

“It’s never possible!” [She’s really starting to blow up now.] “People come here, all day, and complain to me because they do not have a reservation! And you are telling them to do this in your book!”

“But I…no, wait, look. It’s the opposite. You see, I’m trying to help people understand how this works. I want to make it very clear so people are not disappointed.”

“Huh.”

“So if you can help me now for five minutes, I can try to make sure it’s very clear in our book, so those people won’t bother you anymore — so they will understand how it works.”

“I don’t care!”

“You don’t care? You mean you don’t care if people are disappointed?”

“No! I don’t care. People come here all day and are disappointed anyway, so what does it matter what you say in your book?”

“Yes, but I’m trying to reduce the number of…” [I decide to give up on that point.] “OK, sorry, I’m almost done. I just want to confirm that it is not possible to buy tickets on the same day.”

“No, it’s impossible!”

“So you never have any cancellations and tickets that are available last minute?”

“No! Well, maybe one or two tickets each day. But almost none! It’s very difficult. You must take this out of your book!”

“OK, I’ll take that out, if you say it’s not possible.”

“Yes, not possible.” [Mutters to herself.] “I don’t know why you tell people in your book they don’t need a reservation…”

“OK, well, thanks for your help. By the way, I know this is very unlikely, but do you maybe have any tickets available for today?”

“You want one ticket?”

“Yes.”

[Checks computer] “OK, we have a reservation available for 5:15.”

By the way, The Last Supper was magnificent…well worth the painful conversation.


Sometimes, travel is the most memorable when good trips go bad. This post is part of a series called “Jams Are Fun,” in honor of my wife’s Great-Aunt Mildred, who recognized that the best stories are often the ones with a little drama.

The series includes an account of the time I was stuck on a cruise ship during a hellacious storm on the North Sea, the time I very nearly ran out of gas on Scotland’s desolate north coast, and the time I went on Sound of Music tours in Salzburg two days in a row…even though I hate The Sound of Music.

Lesser-Known Milan

The big sights of Milan — Duomo, galleria, Last Supper — are all that many visitors see. And that’s enough for most. But if you have some extra time, here are a few ideas for delving deeper.

 

Milan Brera Street 2

Most of downtown Milan lacks the charm of smaller Italian cities. It’s a snarl of tram tracks, double-parked motorinos, and sterile bank headquarters. But there are a few pockets of Old World charm. The neighborhood around the Brera Gallery, a 10-minute walk north of the Duomo, immerses you in a colorful, cobbled world of medieval homes that feels an eternity away from the congested boulevards.

 

Milan Da Vinci

In our Italy guidebook, we recommend the state-of-the-art Leonardo da Vinci Science Museum. In addition to working models of Leonardo’s designs (pictured here), the sprawling museum is packed with hands-on, kid-friendly exhibits covering every facet of science. If I were a 10-year-old Italian ragazzo, this place would blow my mind. But our guidebook’s audience isn’t Italian children— it’s American grown-ups with limited time. Given that there are probably a couple dozen just-as-good science museums scattered across the US, should we instead be devoting that valuable guidebook space to something that’s unique to Milan?

 

Milan Fashion Street 2

Milan lives up to its reputation as a fashion capital — or, quite possibly, the fashion capital. Wearing in my nicest travel clothes, I still felt like an eyesore. But even those of us who don’t dress for success enjoy strolling the city’s ritziest fashion streets, which are concentrated just northeast of the Duomo in the area around Via Montenapoleone.  Although these are some of the most expensive shops in Italy, the streets themselves are modest — tidy pedestrianized lanes thoughtfully decorated with lush plantings. Those expecting a bigger-is-better Fifth Avenue or Rodeo Drive experience may be disappointed, but I found the human scale of Milan’s fashion scene refreshing.

 

Milan Barbie

This window display’s honesty is a bit jarring: Yes, now that you mention it, Milan’s fashion scene pretty much does view women as dress-up dolls…

 

Milan Bank

In addition to fashion, Milan is a capital of banking. The streets in the very center, around the Duomo, teem with imposing bank buildings. But this one, sharing a square with the famous La Scala opera house, offers a fun twist: It’s been converted into the Gallerie d’Italia. You’ll stroll through the wealthy lobby — and past antique teller windows — to reach a fine collection of 19th- and 20th-century Italian art. Downstairs, tucked between the bag check and the toilets,  you can peer into the old bank vault — now guarding not gold bricks, but fine art.

 

Milan Naviglio Grande

I’m a connoisseur of emerging hipster neighborhoods in big European cities — in my travels, I seek out funky galleries, thriving foodie culture, and an adorkable/heavily bearded Portlandia vibe. And I had high hopes for Milan’s Naviglio Grande district, where dreary old industrial canals have been converted into a dining and nightlife zone. But for me, Naviglio Grande was a bit of a letdown. The restaurants were less creative than I was expecting, and the area already feels co-opted by tacky tourism. I had a couple of dinners here — one at a mediocre trattoria, another at an intriguing but ultimately unsuccessful “Brazilian sushi” place — and left disappointed. Sure, it’s a nice, lively, youthful change of pace from downtown, but this isn’t where you’ll find the most memorable meal of your trip. In general, I’ve finally figured out that truly great hipster zones are in very short supply in Italy. They seem thrive best in Northern Europe — Germany, the Low Countries, Britain — and in Eastern Europe. Perhaps the timeless beauty of traditional Italy is enough to keep young people entertained, whereas the rusting, industrial cities of the north and the east force the new generation to create their own space.

 

MIlan Aperitivo

Italy has a delightful happy hour custom that’s also a little-known tip  for budget travelers. Each evening after work, convivial bars like this one lay out a generous buffet of tempting antipasti, which are free to anyone who buys a drink. The drink — and the custom — is called aperitivo, and while those drinks aren’t cheap (often around €8-10), if you’re discreet, you can stretch the free snacks into a light meal. The aperitivo is also a great time to feel like a temporary local, as it’s mostly Italian yuppies who fill the tables starting at about 5 p.m. (Tourists show up for dinner just as the aperitivo crowd is clearing out.) Watch for the aperitivo custom all over Italy — but here in Milan, where they claim they invented it, it’s particularly robust. You’ll notice everyone sipping a deep-red drink made with Campari, the famous bitter that also comes from Milan.

Two Weeks in Italy, Plenty to Report

I’m nearing the end of my two-plus-week swing through Italy, updating our guidebook chapters on Naples, Sorrento, the Amalfi Coast, Lake Como, and Milan. And no matter how many times you return to a place, there’s always something new to experience. Here are a few of my favorite photos and observations so far. Next stop: France.

 

Sorrento Boat

Ritzy Sorrento clings to a cliff high above the Bay of Naples. Directly below is the endearing community of Marina Grande, where local fishermen pull their dinghies up onto the beach between sunbathers and fish restaurants. A long pier with a mix of working boats and pleasure craft lines the horizon, with Mount Vesuvius looming just beyond. Strolling here, you feel a world away from the congested town up above. In your travels, it’s always worth seeking out pockets of real life that trudge on in the shadow of mass tourism.

 

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In addition to lemons, Sorrento seems to specialize in stunning panoramic terraces. I enjoy my work updating guidebooks, and normally I don’t mind hustling around town while everyone around me is on vacation. But passing several of these romantic perches, I really wished I could slow down and settle in for a few days.

 

Amafli Bus

There are several ways to follow the outrageously twisty, outrageously scenic road that runs along the Amalfi Coast. The very intrepid, foolhardy, and well-insured can rent a car. But, comfortable as I am driving just about anywhere else in Europe, I’d never drive here. For a safer bet, most people hop on public SITA buses (they depart from in front of the Sorrento train station about hourly) or hire their own driver for a personal tour (about €300 for a carload for the entire day).  Another option is to join one of the shared tours by Mondo Guide; I went incognito on their all-day Amalfi Coast drive, just to re-assess it for our guidebook, and found it to be a great value — much more affordable than hiring my own driver, and far more convenient than the public buses.

 

Positano Beach

Even in late April, the beaches of the Amalfi Coast town of Positano were busy. I was here on a Thursday, in glorious sunshine, and saw only a few people splashing in the surf. Then, when I returned under cloudy skies two days later, the beach was mysteriously packed. My driver explained: On weekends, American college kids studying in big cities head for the beaches — regardless of the weather.

 

Amalfi Steps

Some of the best public spaces in Italy aren’t squares — they’re steps, like this grand staircase to the cathedral in the town of Amalfi. People hang out here, chat with their neighbors, snap selfies, lick gelato, and savor the sensation of being immersed in Italy. I was glad to spend the night in Amalfi, which gave me a completely different experience than the day-tripping logjam of midday.

 

Naples Lions

True, Naples is a gritty city. But it also has an elegant history and some beautiful corners. Piazza del Plebescito is a showcase from Naples’ glory days, with a vast open square, a replica of Rome’s Pantheon, and territorial stone lions with more than their share of personality.

 

CH15AprNaples_129Having a local friend show you around an intimidating city like Naples makes all the difference in the world. Virgilio, a native Neapolitan, helped me decipher the enigma that is his hometown, including teaching me the correct way to eat pizza. He even helped me do some Christmas shopping. Here, we’re posing with the local good-luck charm, corno: a skinny, twisted, red horn that resembles a chili pepper. The corno is two fertility symbols in one: It’s a horn of plenty, and it’s also phallic. Virgilio explained that to close-knit, family-oriented Neapolitans, fertility isn’t sexual; it’s the greatest gift a person can give — new life — and it ensures that their soul will live on into the next generation. The salesperson explained that if the corno breaks, that means it worked — it took the bad-luck hit so you wouldn’t have to. (Eyeing the cheap trinket, I was skeptical about whether this was a real tradition…or just an excuse for shoddy manufacturing.)

 

Pompeii Crowds

Herculaneum Street

The problem with really famous sights is that they’re really famous — and, therefore, crowded. The ruined ancient town of Pompeii (top picture) is jammed with cruise passengers, armchair archaeologists, and pooped picnickers, even late in the day. I had to sharpen my elbows just to walk down the street. Then, riding the train back to Naples, I hopped off at Herculaneum (bottom picture). Like Pompeii, it was consumed by Mount Vesuvius’ eruption in A.D. 79. But because it’s tucked in a gully and was engulfed by fast-moving lava several hours later, it’s even better preserved. And, since it’s not as famous as Pompeii, it’s far less congested — allowing you to really take your imagination off its leash.

 

Varenna CinematicRiding the train from South Italy to Lake Como — that’s Switzerland on the horizon — was a shock to my system. But the town of Varenna, filling its little spit, was the ideal place to rest up from the busy first stretch of my trip. From here, it was easy to hop on a boat to side-trip to famous Bellagio and some really stunning villas.

 

Plane Trees

If a garden is a canvas, then pointy cypresses and knobby plane trees are the Italian landscaper’s favorite brushes. From the Amalfi Coast to Lake Como, I’ve reveled in some glorious scenery. And, just like the food, the gardens change with the seasons. I love being in Italy in the late spring/early summer. It seems the entire country is draped in vivid-purple wisteria. (Perhaps not coincidentally, I’ve decided to plant some wisteria in my backyard this summer.) And this time of year reveals the carefully cultivated bulbs of the skeletal plane trees; before these trees completely leaf out, you can see the decades of care that have gone into sculpting their akimbo limbs. While Italy is also well worthwhile in the late summer and fall, by that time its vegetation is getting parched and sun-scorched, and you see more browns than popping colors.

 

Varenna PastaWhen I travel in Italy, I feel like I’m carbo-loading: Pastries for breakfast. A panino (baguette sandwich) or slice of pizza for lunch. Pasta for dinner. When I complained about this rut to a friend, she looked at me blankly and said, “Well, why do you eat pasta every night? Try some of the secondi.” It hadn’t really occurred to me to delve into the meat and fish main courses. So, inspired, I ordered fish that very evening. It was great. But by the next day, I was right back to pasta. How can you blame me, with options like this on the menu? The thing about Italian pasta is that it’s not just spaghetti and ravioli. The regional variations are staggering — on this trip alone, I’ve had everything from handmade tagliatelle sprinkled with fish eggs (pictured here), to delicate pouches of dough filled with ricotta and smothered in a simple tomato sauce, to dense buckwheat noodles with melted mountain cheese and sautéed greens. You could spend a year in Italy, have a different pasta dish every day, and still not run out of choices.

I’ll have a few more stories from Italy in the coming days, but then I’m heading for a change of scenery (and cuisine): France!