Innovative, meaningful travel with Rick Steves
It’s a beautiful thing
LORI ANN REINHALL
The Norwegian American
He’s been traveling to Europe for over 50 years now, leading tours for over 40 of them. He’s a guidebook author, TV and radio host, and sought-after public speaker. A resident of the sleepy bedroom community of Edmonds, Wash., just north of Seattle, he is a devout Lutheran and a community philanthropist with a strong commitment to peace, both locally and abroad. With millions of followers around the country, he is an innovator in tourism. And what some may not know, he is a proud Norwegian American. He’s Rick Steves, America’s favorite travel guru.
As part of the Innovators & Inventors Lecture Series at Vesterheim, the National Norwegian Museum in Decorah, Iowa, Rick sat down for a casual Sunday evening chat in January to talk about his special relationship to Norway, what motivates him as a travel guide, and the value of travel. Broadcasting from his kitchen at home in Edmonds, his Norwegian flag was seen in the background and a good piece of gjetost was on hand.
The cheese was an interesting detail and perhaps symbolic of Rick’s journey as a leader in the world of travel. Brown cheese is something different to many (cheese is supposed to be some shade of yellow or orange, right?). To the uninitiated, brown might appear somewhat odd or suspicious. But you’ve got to try it—it’s oh so sweet and delicious. And for Rick, that is much of what travel is all about—getting out of your comfort zone, shaking yourself up with a bit of culture shock, living like a local and getting into a new mindset, expanding your horizons.
For Rick, it was a trip to Norway with his parents when he was a teenager that opened up a new world and perspective on life. He has three Norwegian grandparents, and it was a family heritage trip to the ancestral land. He was only 14 at the time, not knowing what to expect. He experienced the warmth and hospitality of his Norwegian relatives, with all the delicious pastry, and then he discovered Norwegian hot dogs, pølse, and the famous orange-flavored soft drink, Solo. He got to meet reindeer for the first time. He watched the 1969 moon landing with his cousins and realized that it was not just an American experience, as the entire world celebrated together.
Then there was a transfigurative moment in Frogner Park in Oslo with his parents. Astounded by all the larger-than-life naked statues surrounding him, he was struck by Gustav Vigeland’s massive stone depictions of love between parents and children. He felt his own parents’ love at the moment but also realized that there was an entire world of parents loving their children, the universality of the human experience. This insight has stuck with him to this day.
For Rick, travel is much more than checking off a bucket list of destinations—it’s about immersing yourself in another culture, getting up close and personal with the locals. If you’re on tour and find yourself on a park bench with one of the locals who wants to engage in a chat with you, forget about your itinerary (if you can) and take that opportunity to make a new friend. That is why you are there, to experience another country, to get the know the people, their way of life, and what makes them tick. It’s about broadening your perspective and building cultural bridges.
If you’re going to Norway for the first time, you may choose Oslo as your starting point. As Rick will tell you, there are what seems to be endless opportunities to delve into your heritage to understand your roots, be it the legacy of the Vikings, Arctic explorers, or the adventure of Thor Heyerdahl and Kon Tiki.
According to Rick, one of the best places to begin your tour is at the open-air museum, the Norsk Folkemuseum on Bygdøy. The Scandinavians were innovators in open-air folk museums, which he describes as “culture on a lazy Susan,” which offer you a varied menu to sample all in one place, as you orient yourself in your new cultural environment.
You can easily spend an entire day there, as you take yourself back in time, not only learning about how life was in the countryside and the capital in days gone by. It’s the perfect introduction in a nutshell to the history and culture of Norway before you venture out to other targeted destinations. And what could be a more perfect place to go as we move out of the pandemic than a museum that takes you on a walk through the fresh air as you explore exhibit after exhibit?
Getting out into nature is fundamental to the Norwegian experience, and if you’re short on time, the Norway-in-a-Nutshell trip from Oslo to Bergen will offer you a big bang for your buck. While touristy, you will see some of the most magnificent scenery in Norway: snow-capped peaks, waterfalls, fjords, and small goat farms nestled in the mountainsides. It truly does give you that travel value you are looking for, as you end up in Norway’s largest second city, Bergen, which looks like a fairy-tale dream.
Of course, spending more time in Norway is recommended. If you travel with Rick Steves Europe, there will be tour bus stops simply to take in a stunning vista here or there and breathe the fresh air. While you will be seeing a lot, you will also take time to relax and soak everything in. A trip to Oslo City Hall will not only be about seeing the magnificent murals there but also to meet up with Rick’s cousin, who lives in the city. You will get the chance to ask a real-live Norwegian why he doesn’t mind paying such high taxes and why it actually makes sense to most Norwegians, a concept that seems foreign to many Americans. It might even get you think a bit differently about things at home.
While Rick Steves is no stranger to The Norwegian American and its readers, the Vesterheim program contained a few surprises. We learned that Rick’s favorite travel country is not his ancestral homeland Norway but India, as he saw his own ethnocentrism explode there. “It rearranged all my cultural furniture there,” he said, as he realized that a billion people living on a subcontinent see and hear things entirely differently. Rick thought he knew music, but listening to the tones and rhythms there, he realized he only knew his kind of music. India was an eye-opening and ear-opening experience for him.
“Travel forces us to bend and to flex,” says Rick. “It make us more tolerant and inspires us to celebrate diversity. Just like a child goes beyond their backyard, you can push your boundaries and go out into the world. It can be painful, but it is forces you to grow. Culture shock becomes constructive.”
When Rick talked about places he would like to explore, he mentioned Ukraine, which in light of recent events, leaves one with a feeling of melancholy. Recently, Rick Steves Europe (RSE) canceled all 2022 tours with a stop in Russia in protest of the invasion, issuing the following statement on his Facebook page:
“Our mission at RSE is to help Americans better know and understand our neighbors through travel. But when we bring travelers to another country, we also bring their dollars— dollars that would support Putin’s aggression.”
But Rick’s core message was that we should never give up:
“The tragic reality unfolding in Ukraine only reminds me how important it is for Americans to keep on traveling and to do so in a way that makes us better and more engaged citizens of our world.”
Today, it is a dangerous world, but in Rick’s own words, “What’s really dangerous is staying home and not traveling. If everybody stayed at home and didn’t travel, this world would be a more dangerous place. So, it’s my mission in life to inspire people and equip people to … venture beyond Orlando … try Portugal, try Norway … it’s a beautiful thing.”
To view “An Innovator Abroad with Rick Steves” in the Vesterheim Innovators & Inventors Lecture Series, visit: youtube.com/watch?v=v1qebaA_pQ4&t=3308s.
- “Keep on travelin’ with Rick Steves: America’s favorite travel guru finds inspiration in his Norwegian roots” by Lori Ann Reinhall, The Norwegian American, Jan. 24, 2020.
- “Keep on dreamin’: America’s favorite travel guru finds inspiration in his Norwegian roots” by Lori Ann Reinhall, The Norwegian American, May 22, 2020.
- “Explore Norway with Rick Steves’ Classroom Europe” by Lori Ann Reinhall, The Norwegian American, Sept. 4, 2020.
- “Challenging, charming Oslo: Travel with Rick Steves” by Rick Steves, The Norwegian American, June 4, 2020.