123CarHire logo

+44 (0)333 300 1056
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

A Romantic Afternoon in Paris

There's a spot in Paris that's an ideal place to share a box of macarons. Pulling the ribbon on a tiny box of them — gilded with tradition and the Parisian flair for good living — is the perfect start for a romantic afternoon with my favorite travel partner and my favorite city.

Nibbling our pastel confections — rose, lavender, peach, and pistachio — we dangle our legs over the tip of an island that splits the Seine River, which splits the city. Ahead of us a series of bridges gracefully arch over the river as it recedes into the distance.

Paris is a city for walking, hand in hand, with just the right person. In a tiny park on the island, we tune in to the sound of pétanque balls cracking against each other and the cackle of old-timers wrapped up in the game. We share a Monet moment near a pond of water lilies, where children nudge toy boats along with sticks.

We celebrate the chance to become temporary Parisians — to not just blend in, but join in. We explore the city as cultural chameleons, relishing the novelties all around us (such as how poodles here actually sit on chairs at cafés). And as we watch children practice their social skills in the sandbox at the Place des Vosges, we find comfort in the universalities.

We mimic the relaxed sidewalk dance of couples who are clearly as old as our parents and still in love — with each other and the city they call home. The friendly bustle along a market street reminds us that this vast city is really a collection of close-knit neighborhoods. Like locals do, we give market strawberries the sniff test and covet the countless goat cheeses spilling from a fromagerie onto sidewalk racks. We watch and listen, happy to go ignored, as chance meetings of friends are followed by sweet little popping sounds made by air kisses just beyond each cheek.

We're not really hungry, but at a corner bistro we spot two rattan chairs and a rickety table that're just too inviting to ignore. Settling in, we appreciate our mutual taste for escargot, agreeing that snails really are delicious if they come with enough garlic. The curiously appetizing sound of a knife slicing a crusty baguette lets us know that another basket of fresh bread is on the way, just in time to soak up the last bit of that buttery sauce. Over a glass of wine, we ponder the countless love affairs that can be blamed on Paris. We draw up a list of past Parisian romantics — from Frédéric Chopin to Edith Piaf to Ernest Hemingway — and vow that we'd turn them all down for each other.

A dainty bird alights on an adjacent chair, taking a sweet break from her daily chores. She cocks her little head at us and blinks — as if reminding us of our goal in Paris: to hit pause on normal life, take time to reflect, and focus on simply being here. So when the crème brûlée comes we prick our ears for the mouthwatering sound of our little spoons cracking through its roof before we devour it…slowly. Then we settle ever deeper into our wicker chairs to sip pastis, that anise-flavored liqueur that demands you just sit and experience it. It's so Parisian.

After climbing the steps of Montmartre, we grab a perch at the top. From here, we survey the city as it sprawls before us. France, like every culture, has a soul — the accretion of its art, its history, its people, and their struggles. We ponder how, for generations, it's been not the elite but the fringe of Parisian society who've enjoyed this top-notch view — the bohemians of each age. We feel a kind of communion here, on the steps of Montmartre. As we snuggle, so do strangers around us. They may be of different generations and nationalities, and speak a different language, but there's a oneness here — an intimacy of being surrounded by strangers carrying on their own love affairs with Paris.

As we look out over Europe's grandest skyline, the sun sets, and the City of Light starts to turn itself on. District by district, neighborhoods are illuminated. As if all connected to one sliding switch, the floodlit monuments gradually glow brighter. And then, at the top of the hour, as church bells ring, the Eiffel Tower twinkles like a constellation in the Paris sky.

We put our phones away, thankful we have nothing scheduled but time together.

A sunset stroll along the Seine River is one of Paris' most romantic experiences. (photo: Cameron Hewitt)

Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and follow his blog on Facebook.

Continue Reading

Vernazza: Lorenzo’s View

Vernazza’s strollable breakwater creates a little harbor, rare on this rugged Italian Riviera coastline. Grabbing a comfortable hollow in a boulder on the tip, I study the arrangement man and nature have carved out here over the last thousand years. Crumpled hills come with topographical lines: a terraced, green bouquet of cactus, grapevines, and olive trees.

With a closer look, I notice that the hills silently simmer with activity. Locals tend their vines and hikers work up a thirst for the white wine these hills produce. It’s autumn and the grape pickers’ tiny train—the trenino—is busy ferrying grapes down into town from the highest terraces. This single silver rail line runs perpendicular to the terraces, scaling the hillside like a rock climber’s rope.

Vernazza has two halves—in each half, every building is connected with every other building. These clumps of humanity are separated by one main street, which the townsfolk created by paving over the stream that carved out the ravine upon which the town was built. It’s a commotion of pastel with dark stepped lanes and dank tunnels winding like veins on a leaf up each hillside until the buildings meet the vineyards.

Below my rocky perch, a fisherman cleans his nets. The cool mist that follows each crashing wave reminds me how easily this breakwater is conquered during winter storms. High above the breakwater, at the base of the castle, is Ristorante al Castello. This pricey place was my private little splurge back when I stretched my money by choosing popsicles over gelato.

Vernazza sometimes feels populated by descendants of the pirates who plundered this coast. But Lorenzo, who ran the Castello, was a rare Vernazzan who didn’t take advantage of tourists held captive by his town’s beauty. He’d sit me down under an umbrella with the most commanding view in town. And with the love of a small-town priest, he’d put a cookie next to my glass of cool, sweet sciacchetrà wine, and say, “Rest here. The view is nice.”

Cancer took Lorenzo quickly one winter. Now he’s king of the Vernazza mountain. He’s resting and enjoying the best view of all from a different kind of hotel, booked out by locals for years: the hilltop cemetery.

Leaving the harborfront, I climb the steep, stony staircase up to the Castello. Monica, Lorenzo’s daughter, who runs the place now with her husband Massimo, greets me warmly. Her black hair backlit by the sun, she seems to have an aura. Her penetrating eyes seem to really see me. She has Barbra Streisand lips and a bony nose. In her caring face I see Lorenzo, as if he were still standing there with a nice bottle of sciacchetrà.

I tell Monica that I’ve been thinking about her father and she suggests we visit the cemetery. Hiking through narrow back alleys that smell of damp cats, we reach the lane that leads uphill to the cemetery. After a funeral Mass, the entire village spills out of the church and trudges darkly up this same route. It’s been a sad ritual for generations here in Vernazza.

At the top of the lane, a black iron gate is open. Inside, the cemetery is fragrant with fresh flowers. Quiet pathways separate marble walls of niches, stacked five high. Walking down a lane closest to the sea, Monica explains that coffins are not put into the ground but slid into a loculo. Squinting at a wall of niches, reflecting bright white in the late-afternoon sun, I review names and dates carved into the marble. Each niche is wired with a minuscule light and comes with a built-in vase. And next to each vase is an inset oval window filled with a black-and-white portrait.

Stepping around a rolling ladder—left out for loved ones with flowers for those resting on the top row—Monica arrives at her father’s loculo. She leaves me long enough to cross herself. Then, turning toward the sea, Monica sits on a flat rock just big enough for two. Patting the other half of her perch, she invites me to sit down. She doesn’t know it, but it’s as if to say, “Rest here. The view is nice.”

We ignore the red tiles, flapping laundry, and tourists lounging on the breakwater below. From here, enjoying what we call “Lorenzo’s view,” the world is peaceful green and reassuring blue, blending the sea and sky. To the left and right, I pick out each of the Cinque Terre towns along the coast. Each is alone in the world—seemingly oblivious to the march of time. I wonder what could possibly improve the setting. Then the church bells ring.

This article was adapted from Rick’s new book, For the Love of Europe.

A view of sea, sky, and Vernazza (photo credit: Orin Dubrow, Rick Steves’ Europe)

Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and follow his blog on Facebook.

Continue Reading

Thin-Air Switzerland

The villagers of the Swiss Alps have an endearingly intimate relationship with the nature that surrounds them, the history of their area, and the folk legends that make that history even more interesting. And, taking a hike there with a local comes with as many cultural insights as it does alpine views.

I’m spending my day walking with my schoolteacher friend, Olle, exploring the alpine landscape surrounding his home in Gimmelwald, above the Berner Oberland’s Lauterbrunnen Valley. Before we’re too far along, I realize I’m getting a blister.

Opening his rucksack on a rock, Olle asks me to take off my shoe and sock. Muttering that he can’t believe how tourists tackle these mountains without good hiking boots, he fits some moleskin around my tender toe. As Olle works, I lie back on the rugged tufts of grass growing through the pebbly shale.

We continue on, following a faint path along the ridge. I stop every few steps to enjoy vast views of the Schilthorn on our left and the Jungfrau on our right. Olle takes on his teacher’s voice: “We respect nature more than the tourists do. When there’s an avalanche warning, we take the gondola down. Tourists continue sledding. There are many accidents. In Lauterbrunnen, maps show red flags for places of mountain injuries and black ones for deaths.” Pointing to the towering rock cliff of the mountain over the valley directly ahead of us, he says, “The Eiger is solid black.”

As I squint up at a wasp-like helicopter, Olle answers my question before I ask it. “Those are mostly sightseeing trips. But even sightseeing trips are related to mountain rescue. As they show a tourist around, they are practicing for emergency rescues.”

“Are there really dead climbers hanging from ropes on the Eiger?” I ask.

“Yes,” says Olle. “It’s sad when bodies are finally recovered. They look like they did when we saw them last, except with a very light beard. You can tell from the beard how long they lived. The family has to identify them.”

The weather can turn at any time. Just last month, a storm hit fast. Within a few minutes, five people died: three mountaineers on the Eiger, one on the Mönch, and one in the air—a paraglider.

I tell Olle of a harrowing experience I had back in my youth-hostel days. We’d hike up the Schilthorn from the hostel with a plastic bag, sit on the bag, and slide down the glacier—breathtaking fun. As a reckless young tour guide, I’d lead my groups down the mountain in the same way.

One day, late in the season, sliding on an icy but smaller-than-usual sliding field, I started going out of control. Hurtling directly toward the rocky edge, I didn’t know what to do, but I did know I had to do something. After almost too much time to consider my options, I dug my hands like brakes into the rocky ice. Going through several degrees of burn in a matter of seconds, I ground to a halt with blackened, blistered, and bleeding hands—and a bloody butt.

My group heralded me as a hero. But in the doctor’s office in Mürren, I was scolded as a fool, the whipping boy for all the stupid tourists who disrespect the power of the mountain. The doctor didn’t even bother to clean my hands. He lectured me, sprayed something on my wounds, and bandaged me. I left knowing that the little bits of Schilthorn embedded in my palms would come out only in the pus of a later infection.

Olle nods, as if in support of the doctor, and says, “This happens many times.”

He tells me that even cows become victims of the mountains, occasionally wandering off cliffs. Alpine farmers expect to lose some of their cows in “hiking accidents.” These days, cows are double the weight of cows a hundred years ago and no less stupid. If one wanders off a cliff in search of greener grass, the others follow. Farmers tell their sons about the time at the high meadow above Gimmelwald when a dozen cows performed this stunt—and died like lemmings. Helicopters recover the dead cows, flying them out, but because the meat must be drained of blood immediately for human consumption, it’s wasted. It’s meat fit only for dogs.

Switzerland originally attracted me to its icy peaks and its thrilling mountain lifts that made conquering summits just a matter of buying a ticket. But what keeps me coming back is the way it embraces its traditions and celebrates its culture. This is a land where nature is both wild and accessible and where the traditional culture survives most heartily in its most remote corners.

This article was adapted from Rick’s new book, For the Love of Europe.

Gimmelwald, though built in an avalanche zone, specializes in alpine tranquility. (photo credit: Dominic Arizona Bonuccellii, Rick Steves’ Europe)

Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and follow his blog on Facebook.

Continue Reading

Europe Tears Down Walls — and Builds Bridges

Though many impressive walls have played an enormous role in Europe's past, today most are historical relics. From Hadrian’s Wall (constructed to defend the northern boundary of Roman Britannia) to the Maginot Line (built by the French in the 1930s to keep out the Germans), Europe's walls have generally been symbols not of strength, but of mistrust and insecurity. Most were necessary when built. But the promising news in our age has been a European society that is advancing toward mutual respect and cooperation—dismantling walls so that it can move forward.

Long ago, at one point or another, most of Europe's great cities—Paris, London, Rome, Florence, Milan, Barcelona, Vienna—were contained within walls, constructed during ancient and medieval times to defend against invaders. Many of these walls were torn down long ago as cities expanded beyond their historic centers and land was opened up for grand circular boulevards. Some intact walls have been preserved in places like Dubrovnik, Croatia; Rothenburg, Germany; York, England; Lucca, Italy; and Carcassonne, France. In each case, these walls have become people-friendly, park-like spaces where people stroll, gather, and enjoy the view.

Some walls seem to survive to take us back in time. One of my favorites, Hadrian’s Wall, is the remains of the fortification the Romans built nearly 2,000 years ago in Britain. Now in ruins, this great stone wall once stretched 73 miles from coast to coast across the narrowest part of northern England, where Britannia ended and the barbarian land that would someday be Scotland began. More than just a wall, it was a cleverly designed military rampart manned by 20,000 troops. At every mile there was a small fort guarding a gate. On each visit I try to imagine the bleakness of being a young Roman soldier stationed there, 18 centuries ago. Today, two of these Hadrian Wall forts have been turned into museums, where visitors can see the ruins up close, view ancient artifacts, and get a sense of life in the distant past of a desolate corner of the Roman Empire.

Hadrian’s Wall is much-loved by hikers, who follow the wall as it meanders up and down the natural contours of the land. On one visit I grabbed a sunny late afternoon to hike the wall. Scrambling along Roman ruins, all alone with the wind and the sheep, I took a moment to simply absorb the setting. I surveyed vast expanses from a rocky crag that seemed to rip across the island like some horrific geological violence, frozen in mid-action.

But Europe’s most poignant walls are products of the recent past. Thankfully, so many that once stood for fear and intolerance now symbolize peace and progress.

During the Troubles, the 30-year conflict that wracked Northern Ireland, so-called “peace walls” went up in Belfast to separate its sectarian communities: Catholics, in favor of a united Ireland, and Protestants, in favor of staying in the United Kingdom. Today, instead of separating its warring tribes, these walls are a tourist attraction. Visitors from around the world decorate the walls with colorful messages of hope and thanksgiving that the bombs and killing that came with the Troubles are no more.

Europe’s most famous wall is the Berlin Wall, designed not to defend against invaders but to keep residents from escaping. Built in 1961, this 96-mile-long barrier encircled West Berlin, making it an island of freedom in communist East Germany. When the wall fell on November 9, 1989, Europe enjoyed its happiest day since the end of World War II. In the euphoria that followed, “wall peckers” giddily chipped the Berlin Wall to smithereens. A surviving stretch of the wall has been preserved as a memorial to the victims of the Cold War. It’s a long, narrow park stretching from a museum and viewing tower. What was once the notorious “death strip,” with a deadly obstacle course of barbed wire and tire-spike strips, is now dotted with personal memorials and informational displays. That no-man’s-land between East and West is now an everyman’s land. And what's left of the long-hated wall has become a concrete canvas for graffiti artists—a people’s gallery celebrating freedom.

Europe’s walls were built for a reason. But, as travelers learn, the true success of a society lies in finding a way beyond walls. It’s no accident that the euro's paper bills feature bridges, not walls—as do the dreams of great leaders.

This article was adapted from Rick’s new book, For the Love of Europe.

Writing on Belfast’s Peace Wall (photo credit: Dominic Arizona Bonuccelli, Rick Steves’ Europe)

Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and follow his blog on Facebook.

Continue Reading

Milan’s Masterpieces

Milan can’t compare with Rome and Florence artistically, but Italy’s second city hosts two noteworthy masterpieces: Michelangelo’s last pietà sculpture and Leonardo’s Last Supper.

On this visit to Milan’s Sforza Castle I get a rare opportunity to enjoy a Michelangelo statue with no crowds. Michelangelo died while still working on the Pietà Rondanini, his last pietà—a representation of a dead Christ with a sorrowful Virgin Mary. While unfinished, it’s a thought-provoking work by a nearly 90-year-old genius. The symbolism is of life and of death: Jesus returning to his mother, as two bodies seem to become one. Christ’s head is cut out of Mary’s right shoulder, and an earlier arm is still just hanging there. Above Mary’s right ear, you can see the remains of a previous face (eye, brow, and hairline).

Michelangelo’s more famous pietà at the Vatican, carved when he was in his 20s, features a beautiful, young, and astonished Mary. Here, Mary is older and wiser. Perhaps Mary is now better able to accept death as part of life…as is Michelangelo. The pietà at the Vatican is simple and clear, showing the mother holding her dead son. Contemplating the Pietà Rondanini, I wonder who’s supporting whom.

The big highlight of any Milan visit is seeing Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper in the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie. Decorating a former dining hall, this remarkable, exactingly crafted fresco is one of the ultimate works of the Renaissance.

Deterioration began within six years of The Last Supper’s completion—Leonardo painted on the wall in layers, as he would on a canvas, instead of applying pigment to wet plaster according to the usual fresco technique. The church was bombed in World War II, but—miraculously, it seems—the wall holding The Last Supper remained standing. A 21-year restoration project, completed in 1999, peeled away 500 years of touch-ups, leaving Leonardo’s masterpiece fainter and yet more vibrant.

To preserve the artwork as much as possible, the humidity in the room is strictly regulated, and only 30 people are allowed in every 15 minutes. As my group’s appointed time nears, we’re herded between several rooms to dehumidify. The rooms’ doors close behind us, then open slowly in front of us. I’ve studied up, but I review my notes as I wait to enter, like cramming for a test. I want to get the most out of every second in the presence of Leonardo’s masterpiece.

Then the last door opens and we enter. There it is—filling the far wall in a big, vacant, whitewashed room: faded pastels, not a crisp edge in sight, with much of the fresco looking look like an old film negative.

To give my 15 minutes an extra punch, I decide to enter the room as if I were one of the monks for whom The Last Supper was painted some 500 years ago. I imagine eating here, in my robe and sandals, pleased that the wall in my dining room, which for so long has been under some type of construction, is finally done.

It’s a big day—the unveiling. The painting is big and realistic. Jesus and the 12 apostles are sitting at a table just like the three big tables we monks share here in our dining room. It’s as if we were just blessed with more brothers. The table in the painting is even set like ours—right down to the stiffly starched and ironed white tablecloth.

The scene gracing our refectory is a fitting one. The Last Supper was the first Eucharist—a ritual we celebrate daily as monks. The disciples sit with Jesus in the center. Jesus seems to know he’ll die—his face is sad, all-knowing, accepting. His feet are crossed one atop the other, as if ready for the nail. (The doorway that erased Jesus’s feet hasn't been cut into the wall yet.)

While we eat in silence, I meditate on the painting. It shows the moment when the Lord says, “One of you will betray me.” The apostles huddle in small groups, wondering, “Lord, is it I?” Some are concerned. Others are confused. Only Judas—that’s him clutching his bag of silver—is not shocked.

Again and again, my eyes return to Christ. He’s calm despite the turmoil he must feel over the ultimate sacrifice he must make.

But then, my modern-day sensibility intrudes. I can’t help it. I want to tell the monk that Leonardo cleverly used lines of perspective that converge on Christ, reinforcing the idea that everything does indeed center on him. But I suspect the monk wouldn’t care, since he already understands the artist’s intent.

Suddenly, two doors burst open—abruptly ending my musings. My group and I are sternly ushered out and a new group enters. On a bench in front of the church, I sit down for a moment to settle back into the 21st century.

This article was adapted from Rick’s new book, For the Love of Europe.

Leonardo’s faded but still masterful ‘Last Supper’ enthralls visitors. (photo credit: Rick Steves, Rick Steves’ Europe)

Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and follow his blog on Facebook.

Continue Reading

Berlin’s Reichstag: Teary-Eyed Germans and a Big Glass Dome

Years ago, when I got my history degree, I said to myself, “I’d better get a business degree, too, so I have some useful knowledge.” But of course since then I’ve come to appreciate the value of historical insight. History is constantly speaking to us.

Whenever I visit the Reichstag building in Berlin, I’m reminded of my visit in 1999, when it had recently reopened to the public following a nearly decade-long reconstruction in the wake of German reunification. For tourists unaware of the building’s history, its restoration just meant another sight to check off their lists, its glass dome simply another vantage point to enjoy views of the city.

But a knowledge of the Reichstag’s past gives a visit a far deeper meaning. It was in this building that the German Republic was proclaimed in 1918, officially putting an end to German monarchy. In 1933, this symbol of democracy nearly burned down. While the Nazis blamed a communist plot, some believe that Hitler himself planned the fire. Whatever the case, he used the fire as a convenient excuse to frame the communists and grab total power.

After 1945, this historic home of the German parliament—which saw some of the last fighting of World War II on its rooftop—stood as an abandoned and bombed-out hulk overlooking the no-man’s-land between East and West Berlin. After reunification, Germany’s government returned from Bonn to Berlin. And, in good European fashion, the Germans didn’t bulldoze their former parliament building. While the building represented many painful aspects of German history, the reunited Germans respected the building’s cultural roots and renovated it with extreme care.

They also capped it with a glorious new glass dome, incorporating modern architectural design into the late-19th-century icon, and opened it up to the people. Inside the dome, 50 yards above the ground, a cone of 360 mirrors reflects natural light into the legislative chamber below. Lit from inside at night, the dome gives Berlin a memorable nightlight—and a lantern celebrating good governance.

The Reichstag dome is a powerful architectural symbol. German citizens climb its long spiral ramp around the mirrored cone and look down, literally over the shoulders of their legislators, to see what’s on their desks. Jerked around too much by their politicians in the past century, Germans are determined to keep a closer eye on them from now on. This dome is designed to let them do exactly that.

When the Reichstag first reopened, I climbed to the top of the dome and found myself surrounded by teary-eyed Germans. Anytime you’re surrounded by teary-eyed Germans, something exceptional is going on. I noticed that most of those people were old enough to remember the difficult times after World War II, when their city lay in rubble. What an exciting moment for them: The opening of this grand building was the symbolic closing of a difficult chapter in the history of a great nation. No more division. No more communism. No more fascism. They had a united government entering a new century with a new capitol building, looking into a promising future.

It was a thrill to be there. I was caught up in it. As I looked around at the other tourists, it dawned on me that most of them didn’t have a clue about what they were seeing. Many seemed not only unaware of the building’s historical role, but also too preoccupied with the trivial concerns of a typical tourist’s day to pick up on the emotion in the room—thereby missing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to celebrate this great moment with the German people. And it saddened me.

A lot of the tourist industry encourages a lighthearted approach to travel—its customers are looking to avoid serious matters on their vacation. And sure, carefree fun is great—beachgoing, shopping, and nightlife can be worthwhile parts of a rich trip. I enjoy it, too. But we shouldn’t forget what makes for the most memorable and enriching travel: firsthand experiences that expand our outlook, enabling us to rise above the dumbed-down mindset enouraged by advertiser-driven infotainment to see the world as it is—and ourselves as citizens of it. Watching so many disengaged tourists miss a rare chance to witness history in the making, I recommitted myself, as a travel writer, to keep expecting and encouraging my audience to be interested in and engaged with perspective-broadening travel. (Shortly after that inspirational Berlin visit, I started developing that notion into what became my book Travel as a Political Act.)

With knowledge of the past, we can better appreciate the significance of what’s happening today. Travel can let us experience our collective history like nothing else—and it’s never been more important to understand it.

This article was adapted from Rick’s new book, For the Love of Europe.

Inside the dome atop the Reichstag, Germany’s parliament building. (photo credit: Dominic Arizona Bonuccelli, Rick Steves’ Europe)

Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and follow his blog on Facebook.

Continue Reading

Blackpool: Britain’s Coney Island

When I tell my British friends I’m going to Blackpool, their expressions sour and they ask, “Oh, God, why?” For me, the answer is easy: for the joy of experiencing working-class England at play.

For over a century, until the last generation, Blackpool, located on the west coast north of Liverpool, was where the mill workers and miners of Yorkshire and Lancashire spent their holidays. Working blokes took their families to this queen of north England resorts hoping for good fun for the kids and a bit of razzle-dazzle entertainment for themselves.

Today, Blackpool’s vast beaches are usually empty—often too cold for comfort. In this era of cheap airfare between Britain and Mediterrannean Europe, warm beaches are a year-round option for even the working class.

Blackpool is dominated by the Blackpool Tower. Shaped like a stubby Eiffel Tower, this giant amusement center seems to grunt, “Have fun.” At the tip of this 518-foot-tall symbol of Blackpool is a grand view that’s just smashing, especially at sunset.

The tower’s gilded ballroom is festooned with old-time seaside elegance. A relay of organists keeps pensioners waltzing, fox-trotting, and doing the tango. Many of these dancers have been coming here regularly for 50 years. They’re happy to share an impromptu two-step lesson with any curious visitor. Many more pay to sit with their fish-and-chips and mushy peas and watch.

Leaving the ballroom, I work my way through a string of noisy amusements on the waterfront promenade. Countless greedy doors open, trying every trick to get me inside. Huge arcade halls broadcast tape-recorded laughter and advertise free toilets. The randy wind machine under a wax Marilyn Monroe flutters her skirt with a steady breeze. The smell of fries, tobacco, and sugared popcorn wafts with an agenda around passersby.

For a quick diversion, I hop a vintage trolley car to cruise the promenade. Riding the trolleys, which constantly rattle up and down the waterfront, is more fun than driving. While the old trolleys survive, the traditional horse carriages have been replaced with sugary pink Cinderella carriages. Little girls want to be princesses, and demand drives change.

Each of the three amusement piers has its own personality. Are you feeling sedate? Head to the north pier. Young and frisky? Central pier. Dragging a wagon full of children? The south pier is for you. For a peaceful side of Blackpool, I hop out at the north pier, and stroll that venerable boardwalk out to sea where the only sounds are the gulls and the wind in my hair.

In 1879, back when the north pier was new, Blackpool became the first city in England to switch on electric streetlights. Now, it celebrates this history—and stretches its season into the autumn—by illuminating its seven miles of waterfront with countless blinking and twinkling lights. The first time I saw the much-hyped “Illuminations” years ago, the American inside me kept saying, “I’ve seen bigger and I’ve seen better.” But I filled his mouth with cotton candy and just had some simple fun like everyone else on my specially decorated trolley.

For modern-day fun, Blackpool Pleasure Beach is tops. Its 42 acres of rides (more than 100, including “the best selection of white-knuckle rides in Europe”), ice-skating shows, cabarets, and amusements attract seven million people a year, making Pleasure Beach one of England’s most popular attractions. Its biggest roller coaster is among the world’s tallest (213 feet) and fastest (74 mph).

Blackpool has plenty to keep its visitors entertained in the evening. A fun part of my afternoon is deciding how I’ll cap my day: with a play or an old-time variety show. Nighttime options always a few dancing-girl, racy-humor, magic, and tumbling shows. I enjoy the corny “old-time music hall” shows, which are neither hip nor polished. It’s fascinating to be surrounded by hundreds of partying British seniors, swooning again and waving their hankies to the predictable beat. Busloads of happy widows come from all corners of north England to giggle at the racy jokes. A perennial favorite is Funny Girls, a burlesque-in-drag show that delights footballers and grannies alike.

For me, Blackpool’s top sight is its people. You experience England here like nowhere else. Grab someone’s hand and a big stick of “rock” (rock candy), and stroll. Appreciate the noisy 20-somethings pulling down their pants to show off butt cheeks reddened by new tattoos. Ponder what might inspire someone to spend his golden years here, wearing plaid pants and a bad toupee.

A British friend once told me, “Blackpool is in the DNA of north England. It’s a ritual where family memories are created and where those memories are passed through the generations. It’s a place not to see but to do. You’ve got to eat the candy, ride the carousel, dance in the ballroom, walk the pier.”

If you’re not into kitsch and greasy spoons, skip Blackpool. But if you’re traveling with kids—or still are one yourself—splash in this uniquely English puddle of fun.

This article was adapted from Rick’s new book, For the Love of Europe.

Blackpool, its beach, and its tower. (photo credit: Rick Steves, Rick Steves’ Europe)

Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and follow his blog on Facebook.

Continue Reading