Avoid­ing tourist traps, find­ing the real Europe

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - TRAVEL - RICK STEVES

A fun­da­men­tal part of en­joy­ing travel in Europe is find­ing places that I call “back doors.” When I first started trav­el­ing, back doors to me were Europe’s undis­cov­ered cor­ners and un­tram­pled towns that had, for var­i­ous rea­sons, missed the modern pa­rade (like Din­gle in Ire­land or Salema in Por­tu­gal). But now, with more so­phis­ti­cated trav­el­ers, worth­while places rarely go undis­cov­ered. And cer­tain des­ti­na­tions that I raved about now suf­fer from back-door con­ges­tion.

So how, in to­day’s Europe, do I still find back doors? Th­ese days, my ap­proach is less about dis­cov­er­ing the undis­cov­ered and more about us­ing thought­ful back-door travel to get beyond tourist traps, side­step crowds, broaden per­spec­tives and ex­pe­ri­ence a part of Europe that most trav­el­ers miss. Here are some ways to do that.


Many trav­el­ers go to crowded, touristy places — then com­plain about the crowds. Take Salzburg. I love this city, but it’s over­run with tourists. Rather than com­plain about all the peo­ple, I cel­e­brate them while en­joy­ing this town of Mozart and The Sound of Mu­sic — then get on a train and go two hours south to Hall­statt. This beau­ti­ful lit­tle vil­lage — bul­lied onto a ledge be­tween a tow­er­ing moun­tain and a gor­geous lake — is less crowded than Salzburg (but lately it’s be­com­ing more


STAY OVERNIGHT. Many pop­u­lar des­ti­na­tions have a tourist rush hour (gen­er­ally, be­tween the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.), when ev­ery­body floods in from nearby cities, cruise ships and tour buses. Th­ese day-trip­pers in­un­date the town, see the mar­quee at­trac­tions, do some shop­ping, then re­treat to their home bases.

To en­joy th­ese places with­out the crowds, spend the night. For in­stance, the his­toric Span­ish city of Toledo, on a high rocky perch just south of Madrid, is mobbed with day-trip­pers. But af­ter they leave, lo­cals push away the post­card racks and come out for their paseo — and the real Toledo emerges. Touristy towns re­ally come into their own late at night and early in the morn­ing. If you play it right, it’s just you, flood­lit cob­ble­stones and ro­man­tic ram­parts.

FIND LESSER-VIS­ITED AL­TER­NA­TIVES. Many travel dreams are cre­ated by the tourism in­dus­try, which tends to pump up the cliches of each coun­try. For Ger­many, it’s cas­tles, beer and the Rhine River. This area, while pretty, also has lots of traf­fic, train noise, com­mer­cial­ism and bus tourism. But nearby, you can have a sim­i­lar and qui­eter ex­pe­ri­ence along the Mosel River. The misty Mosel is what some vis­i­tors hope the Rhine will be — peace­ful, sleepy, ro­man­tic vil­lages slipped be­tween steep vine­yards and the river. My fa­vorite town here is Beil­stein, where you can sit at your guest house sip­ping wine pro­duced right in the val­ley, gaz­ing at views of the river and dis­tant vine­yards.


Many trav­el­ers fo­cus only on the top sights, miss­ing many worth­while, less-known at­trac­tions. While ev­ery tourist in Paris de­scends on the Lou­vre and Or­say, places like the Rodin Mu­seum, with a spec­tac­u­lar sculp­ture gar­den, or the Cluny Mu­seum, with its mys­te­ri­ous Lady and the Uni­corn ta­pes­tries, are pos­i­tively peace­ful.

It’s also fun to seek out mu­se­ums suited to your fan­cies. I love hu­man bones, so in Rome, while ev­ery­one’s at St. Pe­ter’s, I visit the Ca­puchin Crypt, with thou­sands of 18th-cen­tury bones stacked ar­tis­ti­cally. Sim­i­larly, if you’re into The Bea­tles, Bar­bies, thim­bles, shoes or choco­late, there’s a mu­seum in Europe for you.

SEE TO­DAY’S EUROPE. I love Europe to­day, and of­ten­times that’s an an­gle that trav­el­ers miss. In big cities, it’s worth leav­ing the old town to visit the modern busi­ness dis­tricts, such as Lon­don’s Ca­nary Wharf or Paris’ La De­fense.

Lately, I’ve been en­joy­ing the less glam­orous sec­ond cities — the Chica­gos of Europe — such as An­twerp (Bel­gium), Mar­seille (France), Liver­pool (Eng­land) and Ham­burg (Ger­many). A lot of money and ef­fort are be­ing put into re­vi­tal­iz­ing th­ese once-de­pressed, for­mer In­dus­trial Age pow­ers, giv­ing them a cer­tain en­ergy that you don’t find in other cities. If you have three days in Ed­in­burgh, spend one of them in Scot­land’s sec­ond city: Glas­gow (just 45 min­utes away).

JOIN THE LO­CALS. To me, the best back doors are ones where you hang out with Euro­peans in their el­e­ment. Visit the weekly mar­ket and buy fruit from a lo­cal farmer. At­tend an even­song ser­vice in Bri­tain. Go to a sport­ing event — soc­cer in Spain or hurl­ing in Ire­land (and just think about all the cul­tural in­sights Euro­peans would gain if they at­tended an Amer­i­can tail­gate party and col­lege foot­ball game). Join the old, re­tired French guys in a game of petanque. Or visit a Bu­dapest bath, slip into a too-tight bathing suit and chal­lenge some big guy to a chess match.

Europe may be crowded, but it pro­vides end­less joy if you know where to find those off­beat, back-door nooks.


Hall­statt is a peace­ful and per­fectly Aus­trian al­ter­na­tive to the tourist hus­tle of Salzburg.

Rick Steves’ Europe/RICK STEVES

The cen­ter­piece of Paris’ La De­fense district (nick­named “le petit Man­hat­tan”) is this grand arch — a 38-story of­fice build­ing.

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