Rick Steves wants you to break away from the over-hyped sites when you travel.
“You find that everybody wants to go to the same places more than ever,” he said.
“There are great alternatives to the famous places everybody is hell-bent on going to,” Steves said in an interview with Travel + Leisure, having just returned stateside after a whirlwind 45-day research tour of more than 10 major European cities.
Across his best-selling guidebooks, TV shows, and small-group tours, Steves is a devoted advocate of embracing local culture, independent hotels, mom-and-pop restaurants, and alternative cultural sites over tourist traps.
Summer is certainly the most popular time to visit many European destinations, so Steves shared some of his top summer travel tips with T+L to help anyone planning a high-season vacation.
Avoid Herd Mentality
Michelangelo, Last Judgment fresco from the Sistine Chapel, post-restoration, Vatican City, Rome.
Credit: VCG Wilson/Getty Images
There is no off season when it comes to the most popular sites, Steves said. Travelers who want to visit top spots like the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City or the Musée D’Orsay in Paris will need to book a ticket far in advance, and then still have to battle it out with the crowds once they arrive.
“The most grueling thing about travel is the heat and the crowds of summer,” he said.
Steves’ advice is to look for other museums or institutions that offer a similar, if not better, experience. For instance, he said travelers can almost always get into the Museo del Duomo in Florence, instead of waiting at the better-known Uffizi Gallery. While visitors will have a hard time seeing Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam without a reservation, they can always get into the Dutch Resistance Museum instead, he said.
“There are so many unsexy sites that don’t have the marquee value, and they are really good,” Steves said.
He said summer visitors should try to build their itineraries around how they want to spend the majority of their limited time each day. Visiting the most iconic, famous sites now includes the added phenomenon of people all vying for the same selfie to post on social media, Steves said.
“Are you a traveler that’s always dealing with lines and mob scenes?” he said. “It’s not the mark of a good traveler that follows that crowd. And it’s certainly not a way to enjoy Europe without the crowds.”
Take away the top 30 sites, Steves said, and Europe would be just as good — and there wouldn’t be any crowds.“If people are smart, they’re going to not be in that herd mentality,” he said. “We talk about getting herd immunity. We’ve already got herd mentality, and in your travels that’s not a good thing.”
Indulge in Local Favorites
Travelers will always need to make an advance reservation for certain museums and sites. In a departure from some of his previous advice, Steves said, he now also recommends booking one nice meal ahead of time. “My new thing about restaurants is, if you really have your heart set on a particular restaurant, you would be really wise to put it on your list of things to make a reservation for in advance,” he said. “You’ll be glad you chose a restaurant that is booked every night, because that’s got this positive energy.”
With the goal of updating his 50 most important guidebooks by the end of 2022 with new research from this year, Steves plans to address how the pandemic affected his previous recommendations.
On his recent trip, he was happy to see some of his favorite local restaurants still had local clientele — people with the wanderlust and money to explore dining out in their own towns.”I thought I’d be raking away the corpses of all my favorite businesses to update my guidebooks,” he said. “I’m so thankful that, by and large, the little businesses did well during the pandemic.”
Steves said relying on a guidebook or recommendations from a few years ago is still fine, just make a habit of calling restaurants to confirm they are open, he said, and expect hours of operation for many businesses have probably changed.
“There’s a curious sort of affluence in Europe right now,” he said. “A lot of people are eager to get out, and a lot of restaurants are just jam packed. And it doesn’t mean they’re tourist traps at all. It just means they’re good.”
Visit “Second Cities” Instead
Port Wine ship at river Douro with Porto City.
Credit: Tanatat pongphibool ,thailand/Getty Images
For travelers still looking to book a summer trip, Steves recommends checking out a smaller “second city” in place of the area’s most popular destination. “Everybody goes to Edinburgh; a second city would be Glasgow,” he said. “Everybody goes to Dublin, why not Belfast? Everybody goes to Bath, why not Bristol? Everybody goes to Paris, why not Marseille? Everybody goes to Lisbon, why not Porto?”
He said these areas often lack the glitz and marketing prowess of the bigger cities, but still have top-tier offerings when it comes to great food, history, and culture — just without the crowds.
Location matters when it comes to summer weather as well, and Steves said he prefers to travel north of the Alps in the summer. “I want peak season, I want the good weather,” he said. “I want the crowds in Ireland and Britain and Scandinavia, because that enlivens it.”
Steves said where he dislikes dealing with crowds are places like Barcelona, Salzburg, and Amsterdam, where the summer masses can get a bit too intense.
No matter what time of year people are planning to visit Europe, Steves said he is just thankful people are traveling again after the pandemic put many plans on hold. When it comes to peak summer travel, applying some smart fundamentals is key to an enjoyable trip.
“Be out early, be out late,” Steves said. “Go to the less-famous places, and treat them like the famous places.”