After decades of guidebooks, newspaper articles, and television shows, Rick Steves, the foremost authority on European travel, has created “For the Love of Europe,” a collection of 100 essays that highlight his favorite experiences in the continent. Lyrical descriptions, humorous anecdotes, and moving passages tell stories of his nearly 50 years of traveling throughout Europe.
Travel + Leisure had an opportunity to chat with Steves about the book and his insights on the subject of travel, including the importance of getting out of your comfort zone, connecting with locals, journaling, and more.
Rick Steves: “I’ve long intended to collect my favorite writings and compile my essays. Last year, I finally got it together and committed myself to select my top 100 articles.
Had I known we were going to be locked down this year, I could have used this time to do it. As it turns out, though, it’s very timely, as travelers are looking for ways to enjoy vacation memories and experiences. You can give yourself a daily dose of Europe through this series of essays that describe the magic moments in my lifetime of traveling through Europe.
I made it a point to sweep out all the practical details that I generally pack into my guidebooks. I wanted this book to be free from that and just to focus on vivid moments, the romance of travel, and the fun of unique experiences. After all, it’s not for the love of finding a good hotel or catching the right train. It’s for the love of Europe — experiencing Europe.”
Your approach to travel from what we see in your books and TV shows nearly always involves local guides. Why is that so important for travelers?
“It took me a while to realize this, but it’s the people you meet that make a vacation memorable.
If I’m working on a guidebook, leading a group, or vacationing with my family, the mark of a great trip for me is how many local voices I connect with. It’s one reason the tours we organize have small groups, not the standard 50 tourists packed on a bus. With fewer people, we can be more intimate and approach others outside our group.
If you go to Europe and have your bucket list, see all the places you want to see, take photos, and then go back to the hotel and talk to other Americans, or take a tour bus excursion from a cruise ship and then just hang out with other cruisers, you’re missing something. That’s not my kind of travel. I believe in experiences — getting out of your comfort zone — really connecting with the locals.”
You mentioned getting out of your comfort zone, and in your book, you tell about a few of those experiences. Talk about one.
“One of my favorite essays in the book, and one of my best travel experiences, was in Finland. I was in Helsinki, and I wanted a sauna. The most likely place to find a public sauna in that city is in a working class neighborhood, so off I went on a short subway ride. The only English sign was the one that said ‘sauna,’ and little English was spoken; I don’t speak Finnish. I sat among the regulars, who were able to tolerate much more heat than I could. The main problem was figuring out the procedure and the purpose of the one tiny towel I was given.
I vividly remember sitting there in a steamy room with a bunch of naked Finns, long blonde hair plastered on their rugged faces, thinking, ‘This could be any century, but it’s definitely Finland.’ As it turned out, I had my sauna and a scrub, a great experience, some laughs at my own expense, and a story to tell. It’s decades of fun moments like this that make me so excited about the 100 essays that fill my ‘For the Love of Europe’ book.”
Your 45 years of backpacking through Europe must be a record. How has this type of travel changed over the years?
“Some things have changed, of course, but the fundamental rewards of travel are the same as back in the 1970s. While the essence and wonder of being on the road is still there, today, we have plenty of efficiencies that travelers a generation ago never enjoyed — ATMs rather than traveler’s checks, bullet trains, and almost no language barrier. Today, there’s GPS, email, Wi-Fi, and Airbnb. But, if you want to have those same backpacking experiences — those good old days backpacker moments — you still can.
A beautiful realization I’ve had in reading the journals of young people who’ve traveled through Europe recently is that the joys of travel that made me fall in love with Europe in the 1970s still survive. The adventure of getting off the beaten path, connecting with people, and getting out of your comfort zone is there today, just as it was when I was a kid — just as rewarding, and experiencing it is easier than ever.”
You describe how you kept detailed journals of your early travels. Today’s backpackers are more likely to document their trips with phone photos. Would you still recommend journaling for travelers today? Why?
“I think journaling is an important life skill, a personal discipline. You can take snapshots, but I find it’s a beautiful experience to write down your thoughts, what you’ve learned, the memories you want to treasure. And I love the idea that when you take time to collect and order your thoughts and lessons from the road, you can fly home with that most important souvenir — a new perspective, and a better connection with the other 96 percent of society, as well as a better understanding of our own country in the broader context of the world.”
Several of your essays describe the serious side of travel — meeting eyewitnesses to historic events or observing history yourself. Can you comment on travel beyond traditional sightseeing?
“That’s the beautiful thing about travel — if you’re interested and you have reasonable social skills, and you take advantage of the moment, simply meeting people can give you unexpected and fascinating insights.
I shook hands with a man whose little finger was twice as wide with a massive callous from playing the carillon. In Bruges, I climbed 366 steps for a view of the city and a peek into the carillon room, just in time to see the medieval bells play their tune. The carillonist explained how to ring the different bells and create various rhythms. Then, I shook his hand and noticed his little finger. He explained that a carillonist plays the keyboard with fists and feet rather than fingers, as he has done for many years.
It’s when you walk up to the gate in Gdańsk that Lech Walesa made famous, and talk to dockworkers who were with Walesa in the Solidarity movement. Or go to a B&B in Dubrovnik that was bombed during the war and the owner still has the mortar that damaged his house during the siege. And now, he’s renting out rooms to the people whose father bombed his house, and that mangled mortar sits on his mantle.
One early evening, after being cooped up from working in my hotel room in Rome, I needed a break. I went out and just let myself get swept away with the river of people on their nightly passeggiata, or evening stroll. It led to so many observations and experiences — accordion players, street vendors, couples, giddy tourists — that it ended up as an essay in my book.
Anyone can have those experiences. Instead of looking through your viewfinder, take a notepad and write down your thoughts. Become a poet, learn about your world, look at it from new perspectives and realize that you’re a poet deep inside. Just open up to it when you’re on the road and you suddenly have a new dimension. That’s transformational travel.”
The video clips that you make available to go with the destinations are a great bonus. What went into your decision to include them?
“Most of the articles have a TV clip that brings more to the essay. I’m excited about it — it’s part of our Classroom Europe program, 400 short video clips distilled out of my TV shows that can be searched fast, free, and easily by keywords or themes. It’s fun for someone who enjoys one of the essays to travel there with me on one of the TV clips. I created the program for teachers — they’re the unsung heroes who need to be supported.”
During this time of travel restrictions, many of us are realizing how important travel is in our lives. What are your plans for the time — soon, we hope — when the world is once again open to travel?
“I had planned a three-week family trip through Europe for June — purely for pleasure, not a work trip at all. The occasion was to travel with my daughter’s future in-laws with my son as our guide. It was disappointing to have to postpone that trip, and I know many other travelers have had to put long-anticipated trips on hold.
We had 24,000 people signed up on Rick Steves tours this year for what would have been our biggest year ever. Of course, they were all canceled, and we provided refunds quickly. My theme as a tour producer and travel writer lately is: This virus can put our travels on hold, but it cannot stop our travel dreams. We’ll all be on the road again soon.”
Who is “For the Love of Europe” intended for?
“I wanted a book to be read at home, one for people who can’t travel for whatever reason, or for those who have traveled to those places and have lots of wonderful memories. It’s also for people who are dreaming of going to Europe to be inspired to have similar experiences.
There are hundreds of photographs in the book that are important for the articles, and I’m thankful my publisher opted for full color. They’re my best memories from a lifetime of travel to Europe, and it brings a smile to my face to think about all the wonderful experiences. I hope it can encourage some equally great travels for the folks who get to read the book. As I like to say, “Happy travels…even if you’re just staying home for a while.” And it’s my hope that ‘For the Love of Europe’ can help out.”