When I heard that Rick Steves, the Grand Poobah of European travel, was appearing in Minnesota’s capital city, I decided it was my Travel Architect duty to check it out. As someone who recently made a very costly travel planning error, I figured it couldn’t hurt to head to St. Paul and see if there was anything else I was doing wrong in my capacity as Household Travel Planner.
Full disclosure: This was a case of quid pro quo wherein Rick Steves and Twin Cities Public Television (TPT) engaged in some mutual back-scratching. TPT provided a venue for Rick to promote his company and products, and he, in turn, promoted the public television channel during his talk. (Also, the proceeds from all ticket sales went to TPT.) Fortunately, it didn’t have that slimy feeling that sometimes occurs when a person gushes unctuously about a sponsor. These two entities have a long-standing relationship and it was clear that Rick believes strongly in the mission of public television.
Even more disclosure: I’m not promoting Rick’s tours, books, or other travel products… merely reporting things I gleaned from his 90-minute talk. Any opinions are my own.
Those of us who arrived early were treated to a video montage of Rick’s outtakes, bloopers, and general silliness while filming his numerous travel shows.
After a brief introduction by one of TPT’s vice presidents, Rick appeared. Here is a rundown of Stevesian factoids:
- He spends 3-4 months each year in Europe – springtime in the Mediterranean countries, back home (Seattle) in June, then back to the more northern European countries in July/August.
- He’s started giving tours in 1980, but now rarely gives tours himself.
- His company’s first ten tours of this season have been cancelled due to coronavirus.*
- His own trip to Istanbul – booked, paid for, and scheduled for about a month hence – is in question due to the pandemic.*
- While Rick does travel outside of Europe for his work, the main focus of his tours and his career has been and continues to be Europe.
- His favorite country of all time is… India! (I wasn’t expecting that.)
*Rick’s talk and the writing of this blog post occurred when these facts didn’t seem like such, “Well, duh!” information.
After his little introduction, he presented a table of contents:
- Trip planning
- Avoiding crowds
The largest chunk of his talk was devoted to the first item – trip planning. I was pleased to learn that, my planning mistakes notwithstanding, Rick and I share similar travel philosophies and travel styles, and much of what he recommended I do anyway. Here are the main takeaways:
- Go to places that are not on the recognized tourist circuit and that don’t have a promotional budget. You can find gems that way. As an example, he recommended avoiding some famous, over-touristed ring road in Ireland. I didn’t catch the name, but it contains a stop at the Cliffs of Moher,
- If you do want to see the most famous sites, go very early and/or late. He pointed out that you should double-check what “closing time” means for a given site. Sometimes it refers to the last time you can buy tickets and enter, and other times it means the time they close up for the day and kick everyone out.
- Consider a mix of touristy destinations and off-the-beaten path places.
- If you really want to see popular day-trip destinations (examples cited were Statford upon Avon, Bruges, Mont St. Michel, Rothenburg, and Venice), stay overnight, since evening and early morning you’re more likely to have the place to yourself.
- When you go to big cities (such as Paris, London, Berlin), spend a half day away from the olde towne tourist areas and instead opt for the modern parts of the city where the actual citizens live and work. These places have few, if any, tourists, and give a glimpse into the modern, everyday lives of the people.
- Before you go, take some time to learn about what you’ll be seeing. This will put things into context and create a more meaningful experience when you’re finally there.
- Too many museums can ruin a good trip. (I agree, Rick!)
- Get up-to-date guide books (He wouldn’t mind if you got his up-to-date guide books, I’m sure.)
- Take advantage of free walking tours and paid local guides.
- Don’t allow resources like Trip Advisor to entirely shape your trip.
- Consider “open jaw” travel (flying into City A and home from City B… it’s your job to get yourself from City A to City B).
- To keep your sanity, book a minimum of two nights in any given spot.
Finally, Rick offered up several ways to be like a temporary local:
- Go to a local sporting event… thousands of locals and one tourist – you.
- Find out where people stroll in the evenings and go join them. (In Spain, this is called “el paseo” and in Italy, “la passeggiata.” I don’t know if other European nations engage in this nightly ritual. If you know, please comment.)
- Sit in the main square in the evening and have a cocktail.
- If you are in a university town, go to where the students gather, buy them a round of drinks, and start up a conversation. (The husband rejected this idea outright, for fear that, within seconds, we’d be surrounded by a mob of drooling, cash-strapped uni students with no discernible escape route.)
- Eat and drink what the locals do, when they do it, even if you don’t consume these things at home. [Examples given: whiskey in Scotland; tea in England; red wine in Italy (What Rick? Not pasta?!); chocolate in Belgium]
Twenty minute intermission…
In the last half hour of the program, Rick verily zoomed through the remaining 90% of his table of contents. The remaining takeaways:
Packing: Keep it light. He spends 3-4 months living out of a normal-size backpack and a smaller day pack. He likes to be the last one on the plane (Me, too, Rick! Why would I want to spend extra time aboard a tin can?!) and this way he has no worries about room in the overhead compartment.
Transportation: Flying between European cities can be cheaper than train and bus travel.
- Eat at hole-in-the-wall places. (Travel Architect Warning: Beware Deen’s Indian Restaurant in Nong Khiaw, Laos. That’s Asia, not Europe – but still worth mentioning.)
- Avoid places with menus in English and other non-native languages – these are for tourists.
- Seek out hand-written chalkboard menus – you’re more likely to get local, seasonal food, since the menu will change with what’s in season.
- Experience the family-style dining on offer in many European cultures.
- Have a picnic. (I know from experience that lots of Parisians picnic in the gardens of Versailles.)
- Better to eat sparingly (drinks and small plates/hors d’hoeuvres) at a good but expensive restaurant than eating lots of mediocre food at an inexpensive restaurant.
Sleeping: No to intercontinental hotels. Yes to B&Bs (traditional B&Bs as well as AirBnBs), inns, guest houses, etc. Hostels are for all ages nowadays. If you’re alive, you’re eligible to stay at a hostel.
Avoiding crowds: If you’re waiting in line for a sightseeing destination, you’re wasting your precious travel time. Book ahead and take advantages of any city passes that may be on offer.
So there you have it – 90 minutes of information distilled down into one blog post. It’s been my pleasure to be your eyes and ears. Enjoy your next trip to Europe! (And Rick, if you’re reading this, I’ll take a “like” and a “follow.”)