I've used RS guides for 25 years and very much enjoyed visits to places like Hallstatt, Austria and the Cinque Terre, which were marketed as "back doors" and which truly were off the beaten path when I went. The back door concept was great--in every case I found his suggestions to be marvelous and uncrowded. We all know what's happened to so many previously overlooked destinations like these; I was shocked to hear my neighbors' report of being in Hallstatt this fall (it was absolutely overwhelmed with tour bus crowds, drones, etc). I thought perhaps the RS guides had moved on and found new back doors but looking at the Austria and Italy info on this site, it doesn't look like it (though there is an acknowledgement that the CT can get "jam packed"). My question is--have the RS guides been updated to take into account the overtourism that is happening so many places? Are there new back doors, or alternatives to the most congested places? Or is it all the same info it's been for 25 years, perhaps with the caveat that things are more crowded?
Guidebooks exist to "sell" and market the heck out of places, so I don't look to them to provide any answers or relief from crowds since they contributed to those crowds to begin with (along with other books, blogs, ads, inane "top ten" lists, instagram, other online content, airline packages, cheap airfares, word of mouth, etc). If guidebooks say, "don't go there...go here instead", then they'll open up new spaces that will eventually fill up. I think people have to find their own back doors and hopefully become more tolerant and introspective about sharing their favorite sites with others - there's no silver bullet. The harder or more expensive it is to get somewhere (or the more remote it is), the less likely you'll be competing with crowds. Western Europe doesn't fit in this category, but if you're set on only Europe then consider those countries that are not considered blockbusters and are not very well covered by American guidebooks (Bulgaria, Romania, Baltics, Balkans, etc.). The world is a big place and there are plenty of back doors if you expand your horizons beyond the standard US guidebooks (RS being among the most recognized and successful) which are pretty narrow and tailored to those with very relatively little vacation time.
Check these forums where you are right now for new back doors. I make suggestions all the time to alternatives to Rothenburg, other places along the Rhine, other interesting towns near Frankfurt for example, and I am not the only one.
Rick isn't going to add many more pages to his books. It was a really big deal when he added in Hamburg, the 2nd largest city in Germany as well as Erfurt to his Germany books a few years ago. It was as though the north and east didn't exist.
Check out other travel forums like Trip Advisor or Fodors, for new suggestions.
Steves is on TV every week. Hence, his guidebooks are #1 on Amazon, probably by a huge amount over other guidebooks. One solution, look at some of the other guides, most of which cover many more cities. Arthur Frommer talked about overcrowding and a certain TV personality regarding Cinque Terre. I don't think Steves is too blame in this case, but maybe he should include more options. Part of the blame is the mass of tourists that tend to treat his books as almost scripture.
It depends what you mean by "back doors". Americans are a minority of tourists in Europe, so if you mean "places with few other Americans", then there are lots of those. But if you mean no other tourists of any sort, i.e. including visitors from the same country, then such places are harder to find. What you will find are places that get fewer visitors than others do (sometimes for good reason - Murcia is delightful, but neighbour Andalucia has the bigger, better sights).
I recently saw a blog on here promoting Gdansk as a "best-kept secret". Gdansk is brilliant and we loved it. And in tourism number terms its certainly not up with Venice. But airlines going to the local airport include Ryanair and Wizz. Gdansk is definitely not a secret for Europeans or Britons.
If you want "back doors", which are locally used but not actually deserted perhaps look where the natives sometimes go. So the Dales not the Cotswolds.
Yes, there are alternatives to the most congested places, but these won’t be in major guide books, as anywhere recommend by Lonely Planet etc won’t be quiet for long. It pays to use more than one source for guidance and with the internet, this much easier than it was 25 years ago, when one just relied on 2 or 3 guide books.
However, more people are travelling than 25 years ago, so the major sites are more crowded.
There are over 200 habited Greek islands, but few posters on this forum seem to visit anywhere other than Santorini. Plenty of “back doors” to explore there. In England, most seem to visit the vastly over-rated Cotswolds, but none visit Rutland, the New Forest, Birmingham, Manchester, Northumberland, Norwich, Somerset, Harrogate or Winchester.
What Nick said - the vast majority of tourists in Europe, are other Europeans. They go to Halstatt and Cinque Terre because those are beautiful places worth seeing, not because some American named Rick Steves says to go there.
Christy, Rick is not looking for new destinations to write up. Of course, he has added many in the 25 years that you and I have been using the books, both within the older framework, and as countries were broken out from groups to be treated individually (remember the single book for Germany, Austria, and Switzerland?). See also Croatia and Slovenia, or the expanded destinations in Provence & the French Riviera, or the destination list in separate England and Scotland books, or the afore-mentioned additions in Germany. The two newest books are Iceland, published last March (parts of which will not be without crowds) and Sicily arriving in stores this April.
The first two weeks of this past October in France, I saw and heard barely any non-European tourists in many destinations that are well covered in Rick's guidebook and others, such as the Basque coast, Dordogne, Loire Valley, Brittany, and parts of Normandy. (There were Americans in Normandy, but the biggest "crowds" I saw were bus groups of French and Spanish speakers in Arromanche's Musee de Debarquement.) On Monday, Oct. 1, for instance, at least 10 more people could have gotten on a tour of the prehistoric cave of Font-de-Gaume without even arriving early!
But you can find perfectly uncrowded squares in Venice just by walking away from San Marco. In Halstatt it still must help to follow the advice Rick has long given for other small villages (Mont St. Michel, Cesky Krumlov, etc), such to arrive late, stay overnight when day trippers don't, start your day early, etc. You'll find that Rick's Cinque Terre "chapter" covers adjacent sights and towns that it never used to, such as Levanto, Sestri Levante, and Porto Venere. There are also places that Rick Steves Tours go, such as on the South Italy tour, that Rick's book doesn't cover, and he's happy with that. Of course, the most truly crowded places are blockbuster sites like the Vatican Museum, where reservations or similar strategies are your best hope (as well as the managers of those sites will have to continue to evolve their own tactics).
I may have first encountered information about the Cinque Terre in a very early version of Europe Through the Back Door, but my source could just as easily have been the New York Times "Travel" section, which I have been reading for perhaps 40 years. The latter has introduced me to more off-the-beaten-path places than any other source, because I have read so many of its articles, not limited to ones about places to which I was planning to travel in the immediate future. Places I think I first learned of through the NYT include: Erfurt, Quedlinburg, Schwerin and Goerlitz (Germany); Ponza and the Borromean Isles (Italy), Norwich (England), Nafplion and Skiathos (Greece); Girona, Puigcerda and Caceres (Spain); Troyes and the Yellow Train (France); the Plitvice Lakes National Park (Yugoslavia, as it was known back then); and Appenzell and the Valle Verzasca (Switzerland).
As I've mentioned before when the subject of over-tourism has come up, I think the role of the budget airlines was huge. Prior to airline deregulation, the cost of flying within Europe was very high. Except for businessmen and the wealthy, it wasn't really affordable unless one found a charter flight. Several times I flew to London and bought a ticket to a warm-weather destination (Spain or Greece) from a bucket shop. Usually you had to buy a vacation package that included lodging, which one could (and I did) "throw away". Except for trains, that was pretty much it for covering long distances within Europe. There was no such thing as long weekends in Prague or Gdansk, or bachelor/bachelorette parties on the other side of the English Channel or more than perhaps one country away. The advent of the budget airlines has been a sea change.
I haven't seen any statistics on the sources of visitors to high-traffic destinations. I'm sure they all know what countries their visitors come from. I'd like to know what percentage of those travelers are away from home for 4 days or less.
I suspect "over-tourism" is here to stay. Younger travelers, get used to it.
Millions of the world's people, whose parents couldn't afford to see Europe back when we could, now have enough disposable income to come to the places we've been visiting for decades, especially group/bus tours--but of course the number of tourist destinations is pretty much the same it's always been.
Laura, that answered my question perfectly-- thank you. I'm a little sorry to hear there aren't new back doors being investigated (these weren't just off the beaten path spots or places with no Americans as some assume) but it's interesting to hear there have been some accommodations and changes to the books. And I'm glad to hear that you feel many of the recommendations hold up. I just found an article on this website where Rick says he is less focused on finding new destinations and more on helping people navigate an overcrowded Europe, which admittedly makes sense. I guess I'm lucky to have visited a lot of these places before the industrial tourism of cruise ships and tour buses found them. Thanks again.
Christy: industrial tourism, thanks for introducing me to that phrase, it's a good one and, to me, describes what we're seeing in the same old places that, in decades passed, were always popular but never mobbed.
We find our own “back doors,” which I define as experiences most North American travelers do not have including places most have not been. It could be a different town on the Ligurian Coast, a little visited museum in London, an eatery in a residential area of Rome, or a path in the Swiss Alps that is not in any guidebook and I had to research it on a foreign language site.
On Gdansk no longer a travel secret, there is a direct flight from London Luton to Gdansk on Wizzair. A good friend living here did just that a few years ago, SFO to London, then connected or on the next day flew Wizzair to Gdansk...totally practical if you're time pressed and aiming to be in one or two places, London and /or just Gdansk.
I think you might have to do what I do and search far and wide on the internet.
Of course some places are hard enough to get to that the crowds won't get there such as Ober Steinberg and Puscen Negra.
We had 3 x 13th century castle ruins in the Alsace pretty much all to ourselves.
I think you might have to do what I do and search far and wide on the internet.
Of course some places are hard enough to get to that the crowds won't get there such as Ober Steinberg and Puscen Negra.
We had 3 x 13th century castle ruins in the Alsace pretty much all to ourselves.
What Nick said - the vast majority of tourists in Europe, are other
That's true for many sights. But tourists from overseas often make it much worse in some cases, since many American, Japanese, Chinese, Indian or Canadian tourists visit the same few places. Neuschwanstein for example. Have a look at Tripadvisor:
16.200 reviews, 7400 in English (and just 900 in German)
Or Rothenburg ob der Tauber:
3.100 reviews, 1.500 in English
Cinque Terre is even worse (Footpath Monterosso - Vernazza):
3.300 reviews, 2.200(!) in English (and just 500 in Italian)
A back door to Liguria? Cervo for example:
612 reviews, 25 in English (and 493 in Italian)
A town like Rothenburg in Germany? Quedlinburg:
775 reviews, 142 in English (and 449 in German)
If looking for an “undiscovered”, off the tourist map area filled with high alpine peaks, cute villages, more castles than I’ve seen in any one place outside the Rhine, orchards, walking and hiking, small medieval walled town and more, visit the Val Venosta in Italy, just west of Meran/Merano.
One solution, look at some of the other guides, most of which cover many more cities.
Absolutely, the fact that, it seems, many people use only Rick's books is surprising to me. I use as many sources as I can for a more thorough look at the areas I want to visit. I also think the train and buses are the way to travel, rather than the airplane as you miss a broad swath by flying to spots rather than traveling through or stopping. IMO, it is the difference between being a tourist vs a traveler. It is still possible to travel and enjoy places others don't go with this method. I'm often surprised when I am somewhere for a week and then I suddenly see another American. Still, I'm talking Netherlands, France, Sweden, UK, etc., off the main road and not in summer. So read more, and travel through, rather than over. This being said, I'll never give up the main cities either, but many tourist sites are not necessary. That's not what I'm generally interested in, solely,...I like to watch how people live. If you want to go up the Eiffel tower, well, it will be crowded. If you want to find another view and look toward the Eiffel tower, well, it can be your experience alone. It's not just where one travels to, but how one travels when one arrives. Two days here, two days there...you're another one of the crowd (and we've all done that sometimes, but there is more). Just my opinion, YMMV.
In eastern and North Germany in the summer, chances are that if you run into tourists visiting a place where you happened to be coincidentally, these other visitors are going to be German, almost exclusively. How often do you notice German language guided tour groups? Exclude the German tourists, say someone from Marburg, Cologne, or Stuttgart visiting Schwerin, Weimar, or Ludwigslust or Lübeck, then most likely, again, the odds are these foreign tourists will be Russians. Even in Dresden in the Altstadt among the foreign tourists you see or hear, how many are Russian or Italian as opposed to North American?
Bottom line, there are still lots and lots of places off the international tourist radar and that of North Americans in Austria and Germany.
If a particular destination appears in a RS (or any other guidebook), it won't be a "back door" for long. Another factor is that various destinations are described in social media or on the internet, which brings them to the attention of the masses. In this age of "instant information", people from all countries use that information for travel planning.
I'm now trying to plan my trips much earlier or later in the year, which helps to some extent when visiting popular destinations. I now also spend at least four nights in each place, so can enjoy the evenings when the day trippers have gone.
I just read Cameron's recent blog post, which I think Nick referred to above, the one that starts out with Gdansk at https://blog.ricksteves.com/cameron/2018/12/european-discoveries-2019/.
Note that Cameron's not calling these "Back Doors" or "undiscovered," but rather "under-appreciated," which also translates to not on every American's radar. And it's a personal list of places he's visited recently, whether for the first time or a repeat visit, and generally in the course of guidebook research. The Ukraine was not research for us, at least not that will come to fruition any time soon, so meanwhile, try the Lonely Planet guidebook to that country.
FYI, when I'm looking to visit somewhere I have not been and that Rick's books don't cover, then the Michelin Green Guide is another favorite source, and it helped with a few of my stops in Brittany last fall.
Laura, I agree with you about the Michelin Green Guides. They may not cover a lot of locations or sights in as much detail as RS guides do, but they mention and give basic information on so many places not in other guide books. I used them extensively for Normandy and Brittany a few years ago for places not covered in RS France book. I find that all guidebooks are best used in conjunction with other guidebooks as no one guide will have all the information you need.
As for new back doors, in general that ship has sailed. There are tons of places to visit that aren't on everybody's radar (especially in the US) so will be 'back doors' for you and relatively uncrowded, but chances are they will be often visited by tourists from other countries.
Rick Steves started his Europe through the Back Door Business when the Iron Curtain was coming down and travelers avoided those areas previously behind the curtain. Now, they are fabulous to visit with a vibrant economy and many of their former treasures have been nicely restored. I recommend travelers get out of the Italy, France, England, Germany mindset and venture to the central and eastern countries of Europe. Krakow is now my favorite European city.
For the record, "industrial tourism" was coined by the late great Edward Abbey, who eloquently, and mostly fruitlessly, crusaded against over-tourism in the American southwest, especially his beloved arches and canyons of southern Utah. He wrote about those places, mostly accounts of his own adventures there, and many people bought those books. He didn't write guidebooks, he was a crusading environmentalist. His goal wasn't to attract visitors but to thwart development. He probably "saved" many places from oil, gas, and uranium extraction, but also contributed to their becoming national parks with visitor centers, tourist towns like Moab, and busloads of visitors (including many Europeans).
Why is this relevant? I'd argue that Abbey and others who popularized wild parts of the American west also educated people about the natural world around them and helped preserve it. Better a national park with buses than an oilfield. Similarly, the writers who have popularized European destinations have also exposed us to the richness of European cultures and the history that shaped so much (not everything) about our own country. One reason we go to Europe is to learn more about those things, and we do. Good guides and guidebooks help us understand how European civilizations contributed to our own. Overcrowding is no fun, and sometimes destructive to special places, but I have to believe those crowds are learning things they (we) should know.
And I have this notion that somewhere in Europe, right now, some young man or woman, maybe a part-time piano teacher, is taking small groups in minivans to "undiscovered" places. He or she will write a book called "Europe Behind the Rear Window" or some such. You know the rest of the story. ;-)
For the record, "industrial tourism" was coined by the late great
Edward Abbey, who eloquently, and mostly fruitlessly, crusaded against
over-tourism in the American southwest, especially his beloved arches
and canyons of southern Utah.
Dick, I alternately laughed and wept over E.A.'s "Desert Solitaire", and his beautiful poem, "Benedicto", will be read at my Final Adios.
But you can find perfectly uncrowded squares in Venice just by walking
away from San Marco.
This is true not just of Venice but Rome, Paris, the Cinque Terre, etc. and yes, even our most overrun National Parks, like Arches. We hiked Tower Arch during high season, didn't see more than one other couple, and none at all on the longer jeep-trail route back to the car (one rock-crawling jeep, though). Devil's Garden Primitive wasn't much busier, and we've trekked fabulous trails at other parks that were as lightly traveled or where we didn't see another human at all.
We've walked into wonderful European churches that were all but deserted, and had the cemeteries at Vernazza and Monterosso - with their glorious views - all to ourselves. There was no one but a few dog-walking locals on the further reaches of the Appian Antica early in the morning, and the same along one of Bruges' prettiest canals. The Louvre was mobbed but I was all alone with my personal Mona Lisa: Holbein's portrait of Anne of Cleves.
A "back door" may also, I think, not just be a place but a moment that few others have had? Delicate Arch at sunset is a well attended (!) event but we waited until everyone had gone, darkness fell, and then made our way down alone under the light of a full moon. I'd like to think E.A. would have approved. :O)
So breathing room and "back door" memories can be found even in most-visited places if willing and able to find them?
The Louvre was mobbed but I was all alone with my personal Mona Lisa: Holbein's portrait of Anne of Cleves
Kathy, one of my favorites also. Her portrait and that of Henry VIII by Holbein were on the cover of one of my Art History class books way back when.
The important message in your comment is that the Louvre itself is so large that it is never all that crowded. What's crowded are the rooms and spaces where the most famous pieces are displayed. I understand people's need to actually be in the same room with and hopefully see up close masterpieces like the Mona Lisa and I'm glad I had that privilege before today's hordes of tourists. I'm not sure I would even try to get close to her today. Maybe most don't consider the Louvre itself a 'back door' but there are 'back doors' within the Louvre, if you seek them out.
What's crowded are the rooms and spaces where the most famous pieces
You're right, Nancy. I should have been more specific. :O)
Part of the RS travel philosophy, one I concentrate on, is the discovery of places and sights which are not always on the radar, in a rejection of "If It's Tuesday, It Must Be Belgium" method of European travel. Each of us who has traveled to any degree will form biases and preferences from the areas we have explored, and will instinctively seek out similar experiences.
Provence is beautiful and idyllic, to be sure, but the Dordogne is a more compelling destination for me. Biarritz will always be a favorite destination, as will Collioure and Nimes, not just for the haunting beauty of the towns, but for their place in history, religion, and literature. Each of the places was discovered for me from other sources than the RS tour guides. As one of the posters above notes, if a place is in a Lonely Planet guide, there are likely a lot of visitors looking at it for a place to visit.
The Amalfi Coast, while breathtaking visually, is NOT an enticing beach destination, with its pebbly beaches and limited foray into real beach holidays, and Capri is likewise short of laid back "beachy" days, but a 1 1/2 hour boat trip to Ischia results in a wonderful vacation with many beautiful sand covered beaches and hours of soaking in thermal waters only yards from the shore. Europeans know this, and flock to places which offer a different bout of relaxation often preferable to American tourists' preference for places to shop. I accidentally discovered Cervo, in Liguria, some 25 years ago. I rented a motorhome in Paris, a diesel Peugeot, and ended up on the beach in one of the most beautiful seaside resorts, my motorhome parked only yards from the calm blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea. Trier, in Germany, is quaint, historic, and beautiful.
Chamonix is beautiful, as is Aosta, some 25 miles south. One is on everyone's Grand Tour, while the other is relatively forgotten or overlooked.
As "Back Door" travelers, we instinctively know that a few minutes of research online, or in various books or publications, will often make the difference between being a crowd battling warrior in the Campo di Fiori, and a relaxed citizen of Orvieto in Piazza Cahen on market day. Just today, I was searching for a blog about Ischia, since I have a trip planned there in September. My efforts resulted in literally dozens of independent mini-travelogues about what to see, where to stay, and what sights would be the most interesting. Even Lonely Planet, which has better coverage of Ischia and Procida than the RS books, was no comparison to my own research.
The Back Doors exist, and they are for us to discover and, unless we succumb to a selfish desire to ensure that they remain unspoiled and undiscovered, to educate like minded travelers to their unique beauty.
Take a read of Rick's latest article in USA today discussing Europe's hidden gems
Arnold, thx for supplying this above link. Love his phrase 'Backdoor Congestion'.
I am done. The end.
I love going in mid September thru October. The crush of tourists has diminished. Since I like southern Europe, the weather is great. Consider Sicily or southern Italy. The Puglia region is fabulous. Looking for something different, try Bulgaria. I did a RS your, which I would recommend, since we did so many things you wouldn't know to do on your own.
I was recently on a cruise with 3 cruise ships in port. I walked past all the trinket salesmen, boarded the local bus and headed out for a drive around part of the island. I was the only tourist on that particular bus. It ended up at Nelson's Shipyard which had some tourists - most not speaking English. Returning, there were a few more tourists, but we drove by the tour busses charging a whole lot more than the $1.25 I spent and they didn't see how the locals lived, what they said to get let off the bus, what sort of things they shopped for.
Stay overnight - or two - for any place RS lists as a day trip (Toledo and Cordoba, for example)
Any city has enclaves of interest and fewer people - just keep moving away from the central core - or visit in winter, or go late or early in the day.
RS gives short shrift to Bologna, Italy.....others appreciate it, but the population is still mostly students.
Take a bus to a town an hour or so from a famous city.
Travel with a hobby in mind. I birdwatch. There are plenty of great birding places that have small towns in the areas.
Rent a car.
For practical, more intrepid (from a North American perspective) travel, use Bradt Travel Guides
I like your original query and will try to come at it from an alternative angle. We too have wondered about the same same thing.
I sometimes question whether we all are missing the point about 'which backdoor locations are the best' to visit anywhere on the globe. Could not one of Travel's great lessons for us all be to learn that our attitudes are just as important as the destination itself? So, instead of 'Here we are now, entertain us, enthrall us', the notion becomes something like 'I will do my best every day to be positive, respectful, curious and extra-patient'. The kind of attitude that results in one being able to have great days just about anywhere.
Does it really matter whether Prague, Florence, Barca or Varanasi have become too crowded? Understand, I don't mean for you to take this personally---I'm lookin' in the mirror as I type this.
And now I'll completely contradict the above. Here are a pair of worthy Italian back doors, one of which will remain sadly off-limits for a long time:
1) Bevagna. I am forever trotting this town out whenever these backdoor discussions occur. It is a genuine agricultural town in Umbria, where traditions still run deep and a wide variety of excellent daytrips are within easy reach. No must-sees. One of Italy's most sympa squares. Very very good food.
2) Castelluccio. Alas poor Castelluccio, the doomed hilltop town. It was wrecked by those back-to-back earthquakes a few years ago. Til then, it had served as our incontestable No. 1 Backdoor on the planet. To think that its 300 residents were forced to depart by the government due to ruptured gas lines and other structural concerns. At the time of the quake, they had just completed some town improvements, which were boasted of on 'before & after' displays here and there. Little did they know...
Norcia was similarly devastated during the same quakes, given its location directly atop a fault line.
I am done. The end.
I would add that most people who buy just one guidebook are not really looking for truly off-the-beaten path experiences. They want a "greatest hits" approach to travel which is also fine (especially if you're not able to travel frequently).
For those who do, you've got the whole Internet at your fingertips and the secret to finding the less-touristed places is just research, research, research.
I missed kayaking and swimming in rivers like I did in my native Northern California, so I decided to try to find that in Germany. A little bit of Internet research and I found the Altmuehl river in Franconia, Germany. A whole infrastructure of canoe-camping set up but known only to mostly locals. Luckily we have web browsers that now translate and I was able to find a beautiful area where not only did no one speak English but the local dialect was barely understandable, but we've visited twice and had a great time.
The hardest part is knowing how to look for the sort of thing you want, but there are literally hundreds of thousands of travel sites and blogs out there that will certainly have insights into off-the-beaten-path places.
I think Rick's guides do a good job of catering to what a certain generation of Americans see as highlights while holding their hands a bit and getting them to get beyond the most obvious places, but it's not at this point going to be super edgy or adventurous.
But with the Internet, it's easy. I wanted to find a cheap Greek island close to Athens for several days of R&R, I had a few to choose from, and after research picked Agistri, well known to Atheneans but not Americans. Loved it so much we returned 3 months later.
For people not wanting to do the research, I suppose this is why bespoke travel agents exist?