May 26, 2024

Marline Travel Sea

Fly to a New World, Set Foot on Every Adventure

Meet the real Rick Steves, beyond Europe to his home and passions

11 min read

EDMONDS, Wash. — At first glance, it is hard to tell that Rick Steves is protesting.

In the center of his hometown, America’s favorite travel host is perched on the edge of a fountain roundabout engaging in some friendly civil disobedience. As cars circle the intersection, Steves smiles and waves, looking more like an Elf on a Shelf than an angry picketer. This is his way of reminding people he wishes they’d stop driving here.

Steves’s family moved to Edmonds when he was 12, and the 68-year-old is still happy to call it home. Rather than relocate to his beloved Europe, he dreams of bringing some European sensibilities to the edge of the Puget Sound, less than 20 miles north of Seattle.

Rick Steves protests at the roundabout in the middle of town that he wishes was closed to cars so it could resemble a European piazza. (Video: Monica Rodman/The Washington Post)

When he’s not traveling around Europe, writing about Europe or running his multimillion dollar European tour company, the prolific TV host and author likes to squeeze in some local activism. The roundabout routine is his push to block off Edmonds’s very American Main Street for pedestrians. If you squint at it, you can see what Steves sees: this would be the perfect place for a lively town square.

“I like a lot of things about Europe but I love the urban energy of Europe. I love the piazza,” Steves said in a wistful tone you might recognize from PBS. “We don’t have a piazza.”

Unfortunately for Steves, the voting majority of the city does not love the idea of parking their SUVs farther away to shop. So despite his Boy Scout enthusiasm, the most famous man in Edmonds must keep up the perch-and-wave. This is not his only crusade.

Spend any amount of time with Steves, and you’ll encounter a total ham who loves a zany bit. But if you ask him about serious issues like car-free zones, he’ll bring up other causes that are dear to him: affordable housing, supporting the arts, creating senior centers for the elderly to age with dignity.

He’s anti-Trump and pro-cannabis. He does not care if that is bad for business.

The average Rick Steves fan has likely missed this side of him. On TV they see an always-sunny history lover who makes going abroad feel approachable for the average American. That’s an incomplete picture, like thinking you know Paris because you’ve seen the Eiffel Tower on YouTube.

Meet him in Edmonds, and he’ll fill in the rest.

Steves wrote his first book with pencil and paper. He self-published “Europe Through the Back Door” in 1980. (Video: Monica Rodman/The Washington Post)

It may look like a lot of gallivanting, but being Rick Steves takes a lot of work.

He spends three months of the year overseas, researching, writing, recording, refining tours, updating guidebooks. If he’s not planning or producing content, he’s often doing promotional events across the United States. This year Steves is celebrating the 40th edition of his first book, “Europe Through the Back Door.” Over the course of his career, he’s built a privately held company that generates $120 million in revenue a year, published 110 books, filmed 12 seasons of “Rick Steves’ Europe” and produced more than 750 podcast episodes.

“It’s just like coordinating a three-ring circus,” Steves said.

That is: really fun, sort of exhilarating and extremely complicated. To pull this off, Steves does not observe the French 35-hour workweek. He’s a workhorse with a reputation for keeping a frenetic pace year-round.

“It’s more of an American work culture,” Amy Duncan, Steves’s communications director, told me. “He’s an unapologetic capitalist but he is also a socialist.”

He makes enough money to fly first class, but he only sits in economy, claiming he doesn’t mind being cramped.

“It never occurred to me that I’m suffering,” he said. “As long as I’ve got an aisle and a seat that reclines, I’m happy.”

Actually, Steves believes airlines should only have one class. It’s part of his egalitarian worldview. He’s also anti-points and anti-miles, refusing to sign up for airline loyalty programs because he believes they bully us into complicating our lives.

Steves also enforces a self-imposed “carbon tax” on his tour company, which takes more than 30,000 people to Europe annually. For every customer, Steves invests $30 to atone for emissions created by their flights between the United States and Europe. Last year, that added up to $1 million donated to a portfolio of organizations, Steves said.

“I don’t need to be a slave to the quarterly profit statement. I want to be around and profitable in 10 years from now in a world that you can travel in that’s stable,” Steves said. “This is a smart investment and it’s an ethical expense that I should pay for.”

Rick Steves will tell you he’s motivated by making money; the more he can earn, the more good he can do with it.

“Vicarious consumption, that’s one of my things,” Steves said.

After amassing a windfall from the 2001 George W. Bush tax cuts for high earners, Rick Steves donated $1 million to support the local symphony and performing arts center. In 2005, he used retirement savings to buy a 24-unit apartment complex for the local YWCA’s use as transitional housing for women and children. He figured he’d eventually sell the complex and live on the earnings. About a decade later, he changed his mind and donated the complex valued at $4 million.

He also gave more than $4 million to help build the Edmonds Waterfront Center, a vibrant gathering place for seniors where his daughter had her wedding in 2021. And he gave another $2 million for a similar center in the nearby city of Lynnwood, which broke ground in mid-April.

“Rick puts his money where his mouth is,” said Nancy Leson, a former Seattle Times food critic who used to let Steves’s daughter babysit her son. She’s appreciated his regular presence in the community, like hosting events for local politics at his house and shopping at the farmers market.

“He changed travel,” local resident Karen Howe said on her way into the Waterfront Center with a friend. She’s used Steves’s guidebooks for years. “He’s introduced us to places that most of us would never think of going.”

Rick Steves hasn’t won his piazza battle, but he has brought European touches to Edmonds. At the Rick Steves’ Europe headquarters, there’s an E.U. flag hanging from the mocha brick facade. And gargoyles that drain rainwater, just like at the Notre Dame cathedral.

“Gargoyles scare away evil spirits,” Steves points out, unable to suppress his inner tour guide.

Here Steves employs more than 100 people: editors, audio producers, tour specialists and cartographers such as Dave Hoerlein, his first employee. That’s excluding the fleet of guides and drivers he contracts across the pond to shepherd tour customers.

Inside, he bounds through a maze of cubicles, his neck craned forward, always at an eager pace. His 6-foot frame appears leaner than previous seasons of his life, but his signature look is familiar. No, not khakis and a button-down. That’s vintage Rick. These days, he wears dark jeans and a button-down, plus a thin scarf and leather sneakers.

During a day of meetings, Steves’s fjord-blue eyes lit up at the minutia of the business. He went over new maps with Hoerlein. He and longtime co-author Cameron Hewitt addressed problems like finding a “less glitzy” stop on the Amalfi Coast that’s not Sorrento. They discussed whether a place is worth visiting after it’s gotten too popular, and Steves indulged in some gallows humor.

“It’s going to be like holding the corpse of a loved one who just died,” he said.

His critics argue the “Rick Steves Effect” can turn a charming village, restaurant or museum into a tourist magnet. Matthew Kepnes, the travel writer behind the blog Nomadic Matt, points to the Swiss town Zermatt, which he says Steves put on the map, and has since dealt with overtourism. You’re bound to bump into groups with Rick Steves guidebooks in Italy’s increasingly crowded Cinque Terre.

Whether Steves is actually to blame for changing a place is up for debate. There are plenty of destinations he’s covered that haven’t been inundated with swarms of Americans (see also: Gdańsk).

Steves says he assesses whether a place wants tourism, if it can handle it gracefully. If they don’t or can’t, he may mention it but not promote it.

He has faith — maybe too much — that his clients share his values.

“Does [my work] change the personality of a town? It can. Am I a dramatic impact on Europe? No,” he said.

“There’s a handful of places I really promote aggressively that I’ve had a serious impact on, but otherwise … my travelers are the kind of people that take only pictures and leave only footprints … they’re good travelers.”

On a sunny Sunday, Steves plays a feisty game of Pétanque at the local park. (Video: Monica Rodman/The Washington Post)

You don’t have to spend much time in Edmonds to see why Rick Steves never considered leaving.

The city — population roughly 42,000 — sits on a majestic inlet. You can get to a major international airport in about an hour. The community is so courteous, it has an “umbrella share” program in case people forget their own on a rainy day. As Steves walks around town, he greets people by name. He lives within walking distance to both his favorite diner and a pétanque court, the French answer to Italian bocce. He plays bongos at his church on Sundays.

In 1967, Richard “Dick” Steves moved the family here because he was worried about Rick Junior.

“I was hanging out with dangerous kids and going down the wrong trail,” Steves said. Seriously.

His dad, an Army veteran, got by in the upscale suburb as a piano technician and importer. When Steves was 14, his parents dragged him on a work trip to Europe to visit piano factories; it was a radical experience that sparked his lifelong passion for travel.

Back in Edmonds, Steves started teaching piano, eventually turning his savings into trips abroad of his own — not only to Europe, but Turkey, Nepal, Afghanistan. He went to college nearby, earning degrees in European history and business from the University of Washington, where he played in the Husky Marching Band.

Steves goes on vacation by playing the piano at his home in Edmonds, Wash. (Video: Monica Rodman/The Washington Post)

After graduation, Steves figured he could keep up his routine: give piano lessons during the school year, then travel during the summer. He started teaching travel classes in the same recital hall where his piano students performed. This was back when there was no internet and few guidebooks to consult for trip planning.

The classes were a hit. At 25, Steves turned his lecture materials into a 180-page book, and self-published “Europe Through the Back Door,” in 1980.

Four years later, he hosted his first European minibus tour group, serving as both bus driver and guide.

His businesses have evolved — his bus tours now take up to 28 travelers, a number Steves says is a sweet spot between making the tour more affordable yet enjoyable for customers and profitable for the company. But his mission has remained the same: to be the best resource for European travel and help Americans travel better.

“I just focus on that and I love it,” he said. “It takes my life out of balance — which is not good — but it lets me do a lot of stuff that I believe in and that’s good.”

Steves has been open about the challenges of being a travel mogul. As he built his empire, he was also raising a family. Being “married” to both took a toll. In 2010, Steves and his wife, Anne, divorced after 25 years of marriage.

Up the hill from his junior high, Rick Steves’s modest beige home offers a window into his many lives. There are family photos on the walls, from older relatives to his baby grandson, Atlas. He hosts political fundraisers on the sprawling deck. A painting of Kerala, India, nods to one of his favorite countries (people forget Steves did four editions of “Asia Through the Back Door”).

Next to his grand piano, there’s a stuffed creature that Steves calls his “Silver Fox” baring its teeth and wearing novelty sunglasses with cannabis leaves on the lenses — a nod to two of his interests: taxidermy and marijuana activism.

“It’s the civil liberties … it’s the racism … everything about it is wrong,” he said of keeping weed illegal.

As for the toothy fox, Steves doesn’t do typical souvenirs anymore, but he makes an exception for stuffed animals.

“The wooden shoes and the pewter Viking ships are so obvious,” he said. “I like to do something a little more organic and a little more striking and it takes me back there — I like it.”

He’s a very good piano player. He can also play the sousaphone and the trumpet — which he did regularly during the pandemic, performing taps for his neighbors at sunset.

Covid-19 was a nightmare for the travel business, but a miracle for Rick Steves’s love life.

After running in the same social circles for years, he and Shelley Bryan Wee, a prominent local bishop, started dating at the end of 2019. They had a lot in common. Both are progressive Lutherans. Both are divorced with adult children. But neither worked a typical 9-to-5, and one of them spent three months of the year in Europe.

Then lockdown happened. Steves, who couldn’t remember if he’d ever had dinner in the same place 10 nights in a row, spent 100 nights at the same table with Wee. It solidified their relationship.

“Shelley is a constant,” Steves said. He still struggles with the balancing act between work and love.

When the stars align and they’re both in Edmonds, Wee cooks, and Steves plays sous chef. They walk Jackson, Wee’s labradoodle, creating their own version of the passeggiata, Italy’s traditional evening stroll. They play table tennis before dinner.

When the world reopened, they started traveling together. They’ve made time for a few big vacations: a trip to Morocco, where they were caught in a windstorm that blew the windows out of their car; a luxury barge cruise through Burgundy, France, “that was embarrassingly expensive,” Steves confessed, followed by a week hiking in the Swiss Alps; and another hiking trip between remote lodges on Mont Blanc.

Before their first trip, Steves edited the contents of Wee’s suitcase, because packing light is part of his philosophy.

“What do you say?” she asked. “You’re talking to Rick Steves.”

During the pandemic, Steves started playing taps every sunset to signal the end of another day. (Video: Monica Rodman/The Washington Post)

Editing by Gabe Hiatt. Additional editing by Amanda Finnegan. Design editing by Christine Ashack. Photo editing by Lauren Bulbin. Videos by Monica Rodman. Senior video producer: Nicki DeMarco. Design by Katty Huertas. Copy editing by Jamie Zega.


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