Rick Steves, perhaps America's most accomplished European tourist, was looking for a cheap but charming steak place in the ancient Tuscan town of Montepulciano last month. Following a local lead, he ducked into an osteria he'd never noticed before: a vaulted medieval cellar jammed with locals sitting at a common table. A man worked an open fire at the back of the room. He carved chops from a huge side of beef lying on a gurney, presented them in butcher paper to each customer for inspection and then fired them one by one, seven minutes on each side. "There was no asking how you like it done," Steves recalls. "That was how it was done."
A knack for finding the unsung dungeon for dinner helps explain why Steves is the unchallenged Baedeker of his generation: he just works it harder than anyone else does. Over the past three decades, Steves, now 54, has written more than 30 European guidebooks, phrase books and travel companions. Walk from Rome's Campo dei Fiori to the Spanish Steps on any evening this summer and you will spy his blue-and-yellow books under countless arms. Last week, 10 of the 20 best-selling European travel books on Amazon.com had Steves' name on the cover. When he's not updating his guides, Steves gives speeches, pens a newspaper column, hosts radio and television shows, runs group tours and does all this with the boyish enthusiasm of a college student who just got his first Eurail pass. (See 10 things to do in Rome.)
Steves' approach to travel is suited for a time of economic distress. He encourages readers to go to Europe through what he has long called its "back door," like a neighbor, staying in modest hotels, eating in local cantinas, for what he believes is a more casual and authentic journey. "It's spending less but experiencing more," Steves explains. "Ideally, you are welcomed as part of the party rather than put up with as part of the economy." Steves roots his followers not in a city's tourist meccas but in neighborhoods like Trastevere in Rome and around the rue Cler in Paris and then uses these as staging areas from which to explore. Relying on the corner bakery, café or farmacia puts Steves' devotees closer in habits to your average European than typical American tourists would otherwise get.
He laces his guides with short and vivid histories and a scholar's appreciation for Renaissance art yet knows the best place to start an early tapas crawl in Madrid if you have kids. His clear, hand-drawn maps are Pentagon-worthy; his hints about how to go directly to the best stuff at the Uffizi, avoid the crowds at Versailles and save money everywhere are guilt-free. He pushes his readers to picnic for lunch and save their money for dinner. He sketches out amusing walks through commercial quarters from Antibes to Venice that link the ancient world and the modern. And Steves is so keen for his readers to have fun that he delights in telling them what to skip. Athens merits two days, tops, he insists. "See it and scram." (Watch a video about a Russian roadtrip.)
Steves first went to Europe in 1969 at age 14 with his mom and dad, a Seattle-area importer of pianos who made trips to Germany and Austria to survey various makes and models. After a few visits, Steves noticed the carefree teenage backpackers at the train stations and wanted to join the fun. "I saw all these kids and thought, Hey, no parents," he says. "And there I was, at 16, still on my mom's passport." As an undergraduate at the University of Washington, he began backpacking in Europe every summer. Within a few years, he started a one-man company leading minibus tours. He published his first guidebook in 1980; a generation later, Steves employs 80 people and has spent roughly a third of his life living out of a suitcase. (Yeah, he designs and sells those too.)
All that time abroad has instilled in Steves a decidedly European sensibility. He has spoken in favor of decriminalizing marijuana and has said Europeans probably have healthier attitudes than Americans do about sex. "I'm against legislated morality," he explains. Last month Steves published Travel as a Political Act, a slim volume of essays that, in addition to being a kind of World According to Rick, argues that more travel might help keep the U.S. out of trouble overseas. "If every American were required to travel abroad before voting," he writes, "the U.S. would fit more comfortably into this ever-smaller planet."
Based in Edmonds, Wash., Steves spends four months a year on the road. He has spurned offers to expand his business beyond Europe to include Asia, Africa or Latin America. He thinks of Europe as a good "wading pool" for U.S. citizens to try before they jump into deeper waters elsewhere on the globe. Meanwhile, just keeping his guides current, he says, "requires focus rather than mission creep."
Besides, he is still learning. Scrounging for a meal one night in Volterra, Italy, recently, Steves broke a long-standing rule against dining near a blaring TV and sat down in a loud trattoria. Looking around, he could see that the locals favored the joint not despite the TV but in part because of it. The meal turned out to be great. The tab? About $15.
And the TV? Who knows? It may turn up in Steves' Italian guides next year as a harbinger of great value.