Keep on travelin’ with Rick Steves
America’s favorite travel guru finds inspiration in his Norwegian roots
Lori Ann Reinhall
The Norwegian American
For decades, he’s been a household name. Rick Steves: our most trusted travel expert, PBS personality and patron, community activist, and, in general, all-American nice guy. Everyone loves Rick, who has been guiding travelers through Europe ever since he self-published his groundbreaking travel book, Europe Through the Back Door, in 1980, and over time, it has become a classic.
But fewer people know that this all got started because of a life-changing trip that America’s famous traveler took to Norway with his family when he was 14. In fact, few people know that Steves is of Norwegian extraction and that his heritage has been integral in shaping who he is, both as an individual and travel expert.
I am fortunate that Steves hails from Edmonds, Wash., only 25 miles from Seattle where I live. He is often out and about in the community, where he supports a large number of idealistic organizations—and he even took time to talk to me for The Norwegian American.
At his office in Edmonds last October, I met a very friendly and down-to-earth man, and we were quickly on a first-name basis. We are about the same age and are both alumni of the University of Washington, and I felt comfortable talking to him right from the start.
With the surname Steves, it is easy to overlook that Rick is of Norwegian stock. His ancestors came to North America by boat, some ending up in Edmonton, where they were homesteaders. Others continued on up to Alaska. His grandmother’s mother lived in Point Roberts, which is a pene-exclave of the United States on the southernmost tip of the Tsawwassen Peninsula in British Columbia, and his mother grew up in White Rock, B.C., just north of the U.S. border.
His paternal grandfather, who had the good Norwegian name Romstad, was a wild-spirited and accomplished ski jumper in Leavenworth, Wash., in the 1930s. He proved to be more of a roguish adventurer than family man. With time, he was kicked out of the family for his rowdiness, and Rick’s grandma married the more reliable Mr. Steves. The Norwegian family name of Romstad was not handed down to Rick, but the strong ties back to Norway remained. Several generations in North America, the family still celebrated Christmas Norwegian-style and maintained contact with relatives back in the old country.
Rick was raised as a Lutheran, which has shaped his worldview, with its strong sense of community and charity, the need to reach and out support others. He still attends church in Edmonds when he is not traveling around the world. Over the years, he has shown a tireless commitment to public television on a national level, and on a local level, he has worked to build housing for the homeless, recently giving $4 million to a women’s building complex—and this is just to name a few of the causes that he supports.
Social justice and philanthropy are at the core of everything that Rick does. It’s about being a good neighbor, a mission that goes beyond borders. “When you travel, you realize that your neighbor is not just across the street—your neighbor is across the sea as well,” he told me.
It was a family trip to Europe with a stop in Norway to visit relatives when he was 14 years old that opened his eyes. He had gotten a glimpse into a new world, and the travel bug soon took hold and has never let go.
An innocent abroad, once on Norwegian shores, he was “blown away by little things.” He remembers that at first he wanted hamburgers and Coca-Cola, but then he discovered that pølse and Solo, Norwegian hot dogs and orange soda, were just as good. He was amazed when he entered the wonderland of a pastry shop owned by one of his relatives in Sandefjord. The lesson learned from all of this was that while things could be different from back home, they could be just as good elsewhere—or even better.
As a young American, Rick was impressed by the hospitality shown by his relatives. “Norwegians show their love by force-feeding you,” he commented, and that summer he learned more pastry words than anything else. He remembers the beautiful tablecloths, the bløtkake, and the krumkake. At times, he felt a little stressed out, as he worried about not being polite enough.
In Norway, young Rick learned the joys of sleeping with a down comforter. He loved the reindeer skins that hung on the wall, and of course, he bought a Norwegian sweater. It was too big, so over the years, he grew into it. He still has it. Back in his ancestral home of Norway, he learned to appreciate a new way of doing things.
Little things, like individual candies, made an impression on the gangly teenager as much as bigger events. He remembers sitting on the living room floor watching the Apollo moon landing with his cousins that 1969 summer and hearing the words “Ett lite skritt for et menneske, ett stort skritt for menneskeheten” (“One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”), when it suddenly dawned on him: this was not just an American celebration, it was a victory for people all over the world.
But it was an outing to Oslo’s Frogner Park that left the biggest impact on Rick. He remembers feeling shell-shocked at first, overwhelmed by the concrete nudity that surrounded him. “How can they do this?” he thought to himself. “These people are naked!”
It was the realization that the human figures at Frogner Park are a celebration of life that was his aha moment. There he was in Norway with his parents showering love and attention on him, while he was surrounded by figures of humanity, other parents lavishing love on their children, just as deserving. At 14 years of age, he understood that the world is filled with the children of God, all equally lovable. “I’m special, and so is everyone else,” he thought to himself. He was part of bigger world.
Looking back, Rick understands that travel is an important experience for children growing up. Since this first trip to Norway, he has brought many groups there and has reflected on the differences between the two cultures. Americans may still be shocked by the nudity they see in Frogner Park, or they may be struck by the community sauna culture of Northern Europe. Above all, many are surprised to learn that most Scandinavians don’t seem to be bothered by paying high taxes. Nordics simply see things differently, Rick explains. They create security on the bottom and then build upon it with innovation. With their social system, many Norwegians are free from the anxiety that many Americans feel.
Back in Edmonds, the teenage Rick had no idea what he wanted to do when he grew up. He father was a piano importer, the owner of Steves Sound of Music store, and at young age, Rick learned to play the piano. He worked at the store and fully expected to be a piano teacher. At 18, he took a break to take another trip to Norway, this time without his parents. He went on to attend the University of Washington in Seattle, where he studied European history and business administration, graduating in 1978. Little did he know that the groundwork for his future career was set.
Travel was soon very high on Rick’s agenda. He turned to the Experimental College, an independent non-credit education program started by students at the University of Washington. Offering a variety of classes across a broad spectrum of subjects, virtually anyone with a good idea could teach there. Rick decided to enroll in a class about travel on how to go to India on the hippie road from Kathmandu. He recalled that the instructor was terrible, with no idea how to teach and share his ideas with others.
Rick decided to take the frustration he felt as consumer and turn it into inspiration for his own course at the Experimental College. He taught his first class about European travel, including slideshows and a talk. The enrollment fee was only $8, but more parents than students—about a 100 participants total signed up—and the rest is history.
In 1979, he decided to write his first book, Europe Through the Back Door, his famous “how-to” travel book, with step-by-step advice for the novice traveler. Looking back, he said it was a “very easy book to write.” It offered advice on how to plan an itinerary and maximize travel time, including tips on how to pack light and right and lists of good-value hotels and restaurants.
This first book contained a page that stated, “Anyone caught reprinting any material herein for any purpose whatsoever will be thanked profusely,” a creed that has not changed in four decades. He self-published his book in 1980, initially printing 2,000 copies. Today, it is in its 30th edition, and for many it is still the gold standard guidebook for first-time European travelers.
The young entrepreneur opened up a storefront business in Edmonds, which initially served as both a travel center and a piano teaching studio. He held travel classes, offered travel consulting, and started to organize group tours. And as we know, with time, he built up a multi-million-dollar travel empire.
His first television show, “Travels in Europe with Rick Steves,” debuted on public television in April 1991, and he has regularly appeared on the air ever since. He also has a public radio travel show called “Travel with Rick Steves” and is a syndicated newspaper columnist. Ten years ago, his company released a mobile phone application called “Rick Steves’ Audio Europe” with self-guided walking tours.
The Rick Steves philosophy of travel has remained the same from the very beginning: “Travel like a temporary local.” His company website reads: “Our mission at Rick Steves’ Europe is to inspire, inform, and equip Americans to have European trips that are fun, affordable, and culturally broadening. We value travel as a powerful way to better understand and contribute to the world in which we live.”
While his company does offer tours, he is a strong advocate of independent travel. This means travel can be affordable and accessible to most. Rick still travels this way himself to various degrees. When he is in Oslo, he likes to go down to the harbor to buy fresh shrimp straight off the boats. Sometimes, he will even eat at a 7-Eleven in Norway to save money and time. He enjoys staying at the centrally located Bondeheimen Hotel, which was built for Norwegians staying in the city. He loves the everyday traditional food served there, favorites being rømmegrøt porridge and Norway’s sweet brown gjetost. And Rick is still drinking Solo instead of Coca-Cola.
The travel guru urges all travelers to be a bit of a “cultural chameleon,” to step out of their comfort zone and dare to experience something new and different. He emphasizes that this is a philosophy of travel that can work anywhere. There is also some risk involved as you put yourself out there. “If you are worried about completely safe travel, you might as well stay at home,” he told me. He frequently quoted for saying, “Fear is for people who don’t get out very much.”
I asked Rick how travel has changed in the age of the internet. I remember the trip I took to Scandinavia when I was 18 and how I had to rely on guidebooks and just simply asking questions to strangers, as opposed to today when you simply can type your query into a smartphone. I even wonder at times whether there is still anything exotic or romantic to explore.
Rick talked about the new “Instagram phenomenon” of crowdsourcing, doing things simply because everyone else is doing the same. For him, this has nothing to do with good travel. TripAdvisor, for example, will have everyone going to the same Tex-Mex restaurant in Oslo without any informed critique whether it is any good or not. There is often no valuable cultural experience to be had.
Social media has also interfered with people’s ability to make good, informed decisions. About the time that both Rick and I started to travel in the 1970s, there was too little information, and now there is too much. But because travelers have both limited time and money, it is important for travel information to be carefully curated—and that is what Rick Steves and his team do so well.
Over the years, work and family connections have taken me back to Scandinavia many times, but I can share that I was still able to make use of Rick’s Scandinavia guidebook when I landed in Bergen after many years of having not been there. I found the information offered to be a well-organized overview of what the city has to offer, and after having made multiple visits to Bergen, I can attest to the fact that it is an excellent guidebook for Americans. The same can be said for his guides to many of the other Scandinavian cities I know well. There is a reason why Rick has been so successful over the years.
And, of course, if you can’t afford to take a trip to Europe just now, Rick’s travel shows will take you there virtually. And on his website, there is information offered about 31 European countries and details about their 40 different itineraries around Europe, as well as Rick’s TV show (five episodes on Scandinavia) and clips. One of the most interesting sections on the website is the “Classroom Europe,” which offers instructional videos on a variety of locations and topics. There are 10 episodes about Norway. They can be used in the classroom but are also of interest to everyone.
Rick thinks that Americans get far too little vacation, which in the end doesn’t support self-growth and family values. Corporate profits cannot take precedence over the health and well being of the people. Interest in the collective good is sometimes ignored for short-term corporate profits. We have long-term problems that require long-term attention and commitment: one need only think of climate change. A firm believer in capitalism, Rick believes that good capitalism needs to make tough decisions for the long haul. Here Norwegians seem to be very smart, with a government that puts parameters on capitalistic interests for the common good of the people.
When I asked Rick whether he hopes to go back to Norway soon, the answer was an unhesitant “yes.” He looks forward to going back to relatives in Bergen, Sandefjord, and Oslo, and eventually producing new episodes about Scandinavia. In the meantime, he is happy that his Norwegian relatives frequently make trips to United States to visit him here.
“I am proud of and thankful for my Norwegian heritage,” Rick says. “Heritage is a big part of who you are. I am not interested in seeing my name on tombstones but as I live and work here in Edmonds, looking out at the mountains and sea, I imagine that I have the same curiosity about the world around me that my seafaring ancestors had.” So strong is his affinity for Norway, that if he could start his career over, he would call himself Rick Romstad, “a good sea-faring name.”
Somehow, my conversation with Rick was over far too quickly: I had the feeling that we could have talked for hours. He was very engaging and easy to talk to, and I left with a calm sense of assurance that somehow all could be well in the world, if we could just get out there to experience other cultures and people. Ironically, it made me think that it might be time for me to expand my travel horizons beyond my own comfort zone. There is so much to see and explore, so much work to be done to bring people together. In his book Travel as a Political Act (2018), he further elaborates, “To me, understanding people and their lives is what travel is about, no matter where you go.”
Rick Steves maintains that “travel is rich with learning opportunities, and the ultimate souvenir is a broader perspective.” Sounds like a great souvenir to me, and from my own experience, I agree that travel is one of the best ways to enrich your education and overall life experience. And undoubtedly, it will bring you great pleasure and satisfaction at the same time. I am already planning my own next trip, and at that, I urge you to follow Rick’s lead to the tune of his famous motto: “Keep on travelin’!”
This article originally appeared in the January 24, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.