Why We Travel

In times of crisis and challenge, we ask ourselves: What is the true value of travel? Is it just hedonism...or something more powerful? After a lifetime of exploring Europe — and inspiring Americans to see Europe as the springboard for world exploration — Rick Steves shares his reasons why. This special episode is a sonnet to travel — an introspective love story, set in Europe, that vividly celebrates the rewards of exploring our world and the joy that awaits those who travel.

Script with Featured Sights and Locations

Key locations and works of art featured on-screen in this episode are indicated with italic text.

Hey, I'm Rick Steves. After four decades of travel — and with lots more to come — I've been reading my old journals. These go back to the 1970s. I've been reflecting on why I love to travel. Travel is leaving home, leaving the familiar behind — why do we do this? Well, to experience new things; to simply have fun, and be amazed. To learn — to become students of the world. And for some, like pilgrims, to search for meaning. Join me now as we explore why we travel.

The joys of travel are wherever your journey takes you: Peaceful parks, great cities, across the sea, or just across town. Even when we can't travel physically, we can venture out in spirit. Travel is a mindset. Travelers follow their dreams — and mine generally take me to Europe.

Hiking in the Cinque Terre, Italy
Atop the Duomo in Florence

We travel as tourists, to have experiences, to have fun. Going to new places invigorates us; it's exciting.

On the road, we get more out of our lives — seeing our first Michelangelo, exploring our first castle, savoring something straight from the sea, reaching for high-altitude thrills, being enthralled.

Pietà (Michelangelo), St. Peter's Basilica, Rome
Burg Eltz, Mosel Valley, Germany
Hiking below the Mönch and Jungfrau peaks, Berner Oberland, Switzerland
Reichstag (parliament building) dome, Berlin

Of course, travel is fun — relaxing with abandon, not acting our age, going for broke, joining the party.

Dancing at the April Fair, Sevilla, Spain
Barging on the Burgundy Canal, France
Sommerrodelbahn (summer luge), Schwangau, Germany
Riding a fast boat on Aurlandsfjord, Norway
Champ de Mars, Paris

Travel is also sensual. We see like an artist…we listen like a poet…we taste the unfamiliar — we celebrate with all our senses.

Gondola ride, Venice
Vineyards, Tuscany
Castlerigg stone circle, North Lake District, England
Eating a pickled herring, Amsterdam
Oktoberfest, Munich
Palio di Siena festival, Siena, Italy
Sampling red wine at Contucci Winery, Montepulciano, Italy

Travel heightens our emotions. It makes us really feel — deeply — the beauty, vividly — the power, and thoughtfully — the humanity. This enhanced experience changes us; it stokes our appetite for life.

Eiffel Tower, Paris
Sledding above Mürren, Switzerland
Atop Catbells fell, Lake District, England
Running of the Bulls (
Festival of San Fermín), Pamplona, Spain
Easter in Nafplio, Greece
Children in Palestine
Canoeing through
polder land, Waterland, Netherlands
Running at the Highland games, Airth, Scotland

Travel is also about people; relationships. We savor conviviality with old friends and with new friends. We laugh with abandon. Shared experiences become lifelong memories.

Palio di Siena party, Siena, Italy
Vernazza, Cinque Terre, Italy
Pub scene, Dingle, Ireland
Canal barge, Burgundy, France
ginjinha, Lisbon, Portugal
Speeding through the Venetian lagoon, Italy
Student party at the University of Coimbra, Portugal
Ærøskøbing, Isle of Ærø, Denmark
Pub scene, Scotland
Jumping on
polder land, Waterland, Netherlands
Meals in Hydra, Greece; Rome; Prague

My earliest travel experiences — captured on the road decades ago in journals and postcards — remain some of my most treasured memories. The writing kept telling the story of how travel makes the world your friend.

Journal entry: June 3, 1980, Dingle Peninsula. I really didn't know where I was going. I just stuck out my thumb, and whichever direction the car was going… 1981, July 7, York. The evening was spent enchanted in the church, listening to a Bach Mass in B minor… …after a second day of drizzle, the landlady looked out the window and cheered to me, saying "Ah, another day of soft weather!"… …is precarious, but I have a strange, almost cocky optimism — a feeling that things will somehow work out for the best.

Travel can change our perspective — we discover there's more to life than increasing its speed. As we experience new things, we pause, we reflect; we let the experience breathe.

Tuscan countryside
Sognefjord, Norway
Matterhorn, near Zermatt, Switzerland
Wild ponies, Dartmoor, England
Dun Aengus fort, Aran Islands, Ireland
Gullet boat ride near Antalya, Turkey
Balloon ride, Cappadocia, Turkey

With less hurry, we're able to appreciate nature — to be overwhelmed by it; to notice its power, its richness, the sweep of the weather, the roar of the river, the freshness of springtime.

Plitvice Lakes, Croatia
Newlands Valley, Lake District, England
Aurlandsfjord, Norway
Géant Glacier, near Chamonix, France
Plitvice Lakes, Croatia
Trümmelbach Falls, Lauterbrunnen Valley, Switzerland
Tuscan countryside

We notice the light — we savor it. We marvel at the beauty it creates. Every sunset is a devotional, reminding us that life is good.

Crete Senesi, Tuscany
Seine River, Paris
Dead Sea, Israel
Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, Esfahan, Iran
Seaside dining, Rovinj, Croatia
Sunset beach picnic, Isle of Ærø, Denmark
Sunset meal, Kaminia, Hydra, Greece

Travel engages us in every sense. This is why we travel — we travel for the experience.

Grand Canal, Venice
Wine cellar, Montepulciano, Italy
Bastille Day fireworks, Paris
Antica Trattoria da Tito, Florence
Fado performance, Lisbon, Portugal
Palio di Siena horse race, Siena, Italy
Sledding near Gimmelwald, Switzerland

As travelers, we learn. Deepening our understanding of history, art, and culture, we better appreciate those who came before us. And it helps us to better prepare for and contribute to what's next. Gaining context and perspective, we become wiser.

Wherever we travel, we see reminders of our collective past. History speaks; travelers listen, and we learn.

Pont du Gard, Provence, France
Temple of Hephaestus, Athens
Gate of All Nations, ruins of Persepolis, Iran
Sanctuary of Olympia, Greece

We appreciate the long march of human progress. Great civilizations arc: They rise, they peak, and they fall.

San Marino
Ruins of Persepolis, Iran
Temple of Abu Simbel, Egypt
Acropolis, Athens

Via Labicana Augustus statue, National Museum of Rome
Colosseum, Rome
Telamon statue, Agrigento, Sicily
Ephesus, Turkey

We're inspired by their achievements — the ancient foundations of our own society. Prehistoric pagans — mysteries still held in their megalithic wonders; the Egyptians with the extravagance of their art and the immensity of their architecture; the Greeks, whose magnificent temples and passion for bringing gods to earth established what became a standard for beauty; and the Romans, whose empire taught the West how to organize society — [and] to engineer, inspiring those who followed to build big and dream bigger.

Temple of Hephaestus, Athens
Roman aqueduct, Segovia, Spain
Theater of Epidavros, Greece
Ring of Brodgar, Orkney Islands, Scotland
Stonehenge, Wiltshire, England
Skara Brae, Orkney Islands, Scotland
King Tut's funerary mask, Egypt
Great Pyramid of Giza, Egypt
Temple of Concordia, Agrigento, Sicily
Parthenon, Acropolis, Athens
Artemision Bronze, National Archeological Museum, Athens
Venus de Milo, Louvre Museum, Paris
Arch of Septimius Severus, Rome
Roman Forum
Colosseum, Rome
Aqueduct Park, Rome
Pantheon, Rome
Duomo dome, Florence

Travelers trace the progress out of ancient times through the ages as if enjoying an epic play. Fear and feudalism, pillage and plagues, sacred monarchs, profane popes.

Library of Celsus, Ephesus, Turkey
Mont St-Michel, France

We witness the birth of our modern age: the Age of Enlightenment — that spark that lit the Age of Revolution; then, with the rise of the masses, the fall of kings.

The School of Athens (Raphael), Vatican City
Liberty Leading the People (Delacroix), Louvre Museum, Paris
La Marseillaise (Rude), Arc de Triomphe, Paris

History teaches us that evil also plays a role in the human story; that the struggle for justice, for liberty, for democracy has always been expensive. Horrific wars — so many dead. We mourn the losses, we celebrate the victories, we honor the cost of freedom.

Benito Mussolini
Nazi rally, Nürnburg, Germany
Warsaw Uprising Monument, Warsaw
Statue of James Larkin, Dublin
Normandy American Cemetery, Arromanches-les-Bains, France
Douaumont Ossuary, Verdun, France
Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial, Oświęcim, Poland
Normandy American Cemetery, Arromanches-les-Bains, France

Travelers learn to appreciate the past as if they actually lived it. We marvel at glitter and gilding — dazzled as if duped by a king's propaganda. We gape through a dome as if it actually does connect mortals with the gods, and we gaze at the divine like an illiterate peasant filled with fear and faith.

Climbing the ramparts of a Moorish castle, Sintra, Portugal
Hall of Mirrors, Château de Versailles, France
Pantheon, Rome
Chartres Cathedral, France
Sainte-Chapelle, Paris

My journals capture how travel was becoming my teacher, and the road was my school.

Journal entry: August 7, 1983, Hexham. We spent an exciting hour climbing along Hadrian's Wall, built by the Romans 2,000 years ago as the northernmost border of their vast empire… …August 14, Santorini. It was a small boat. I felt quite safe, but said several prayers nevertheless… …I was inspired by a a 74-year-old man, on the piazza. He had more enthusiasm for life and respect for the world than… …I thought that idealism matures into realism as you wander through your 20s — but I found I've made a surprising turn…

Each chapter of the human story has been interpreted by the genius of artists illustrating our story, expressing it more deeply than mere words [can].

From the primitive beauty of pigment on rock to the canvas of a master, familiar stories told and retold, one age speaking to the next — medieval, Renaissance, modern.

Lascaux cave paintings, Dordogne, France
The Night Watch (Rembrandt), Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Art heralds our progress — the leap from medieval to modern; humanism — showing the human body as beautiful, the human spirit as powerful, confident, a worthy child of God; and humankind — you and me rather than the divine — as the shaper of destinies.

Art captures sorrow — the heartbreak of tragedy, the true cost of war; it gives voice to tears. Art captures triumph — the statue that faced the darkness and declared, "I can do this — we can do this"; the people who demanded freedom for all. It speaks truth to power.

Monolith (Vigeland), Frogner Park, Oslo
David (Michelangelo), Florence
Liberty Leading the People (Delacroix), Louvre Museum, Paris

Art proclaims faith — frescoes painted as a form of prayer, a crucifix painted as the artist wept.

Ecstasy of Saint Teresa (Bernini), Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome
Annunciation (Fra Angelico), Convent of San Marco, Florence
Crucifixion with St. Dominic (Fra Angelico), Convent of San Marco, Florence

And art proclaims joy — timeless joys: the love of life, the love of love.

Music is art — it speaks to our soul. When we sing, we pray double. And from the street to the pubs — to concert halls, to cathedrals — music pulls out all the stops.

Christmas Mass, Salzburg Cathedral, Austria
Norwegian Girls Choir, Old Aker Church, Oslo
Roma musicians in Sacromonte, Granada, Spain
Traditional music night, Dingle, Ireland
St. Sulpice Church and its organ, Paris

Dance is art — art in motion. It speaks to the heart. It keeps tradition alive. It ignites our passions.

Irish dancing troupe, Aran Islands, Ireland
Strauss waltz, Kursalon, Vienna
Tirolian folk dance, Hall in Tirol, Austria
Flamenco, Casa Patas, Madrid
Tablao Flamenco Los Gallos, Sevilla, Spain

And architecture is art as well — ornate palaces stoking royal egos, grand entries, and gardens fit for a king. Fortresses of faith built by people knowing they'd never see them finished, arches holding sacred stories carved in stone, spires reaching for the heavens.

Belvedere Palace, Vienna
Pena Palace, Sintra, Portugal
Blenheim Palace, Woodstock, England
Schönbrunn Palace, Vienna
Chartres Cathedral, France
Tympanum, Church of St. Trophime, Arles, France
Church of Our Lady Before Týn, Prague
Milan Cathedral
Uspenski Cathedral, Helsinki
Village church, Slovenia
Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière, Lyon, France
Chartres Cathedral, France

Travelers learn that art and history mix and meld into culture.

Palio di Siena festival, Siena, Italy
Olive harvest, Palestine

We learn to value the importance of culture. Like cultural chameleons, we blend in. We join in — relishing the differences, enjoying the similarities. And everyone celebrates the town square: der Platz, la plaza, la piazza.

University students, Padua, Italy
Festival of the Crosses, Córdoba, Spain
Carving a tombstone, Cairo
Playing backgammon, Güzelyurt, Turkey
Town squares in Haarlem, Netherlands; Rothenburg, Germany; Salamanca, Spain; Siena, Italy

It's on the road that we learn that every culture has a soul. It's the combination of the art, the history, and the people that creates that soul. This is why we travel — we travel to learn, to touch that soul.

Passeggiata in Siena, Italy
Dancing in Plaza Mayor, Madrid
Viktualienmarkt beer garden, Munich
Carnevale, Venice
Rollerblading in Paris
Prague Castle Orchestra, Prague
Güzelyurt, Cappadocia, Turkey
Vernazza, Cinque Terre, Italy
Aquavit with smørrebrød, Copenhagen, Denmark

On the road, like pilgrims, we can become seekers. Even in this age of unprecedented abundance, many of us hunger for something more — for meaning. By leaving home we learn more about home, more about ourselves. We pause, reflect, and hope to grow.

Throughout the ages, people have looked beyond the physical world to get close to God, or some heavenly creator; to ask the eternal questions: Where did we come from? Why are we here? Where will we go? It's always been a mystery. Fertility, abundance, the cycle of life, the promise of something after we die.

Stonehenge, Wiltshire, England
Poulnabrone dolmen, the Burren, Ireland
Pyramids of Giza, Egypt
Maison Carrée, Nîmes, France
Scorhill Stone Circle, Dartmoor, England
Devotional candles, Fátima, Portugal
Vernazza's cemetery, Cinque Terre, Italy

We sing. We perform rituals. We celebrate. We sit with someone of a different faith and accept their love. We go to war, often mixing up love and fear — pawns of the powerful, killing often in the name of God. We struggle to understand. We trust, or at least we hope, someone up there is listening.

Singing by candlelight, Taizé Community, Burgundy, France
Botafumeiro thurible, Catheral of St. James, Santiago de Compostela, Spain
Easter dancing, Nafplio, Greece
Imam at the Mosque of Omar, Bethlehem, Palestine
Martyrs' Cemetery, Esfahan, Iran

Whether religious or not, travelers can learn from the holy books of the great monotheistic faiths, each the story of refugees and nomads, of pilgrims and travelers. In the Torah, the people of Israel wandered in the wilderness. In the Bible, Jesus' disciples left home and set out to share their good news. In the Quran, Mohammed said, "Don't tell me how educated you are…tell me how much you've traveled." [This quote is not from the Quran.]

Scala Santa (Holy Stairs), Rome
Western Wall, Jerusalem, Israel
Pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago
Mevlani dervishes, Konya, Turkey

These holy scriptures are the stories of travelers — lessons from those for whom the road was church, synagogue, or mosque — people who traveled to find something bigger. Pilgrims trek today — some to get close to God, others to better understand themselves.

Pilgrims, Santiago de Compostela, Spain
Blue Mosque, Istanbul, Turkey
Pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago, Spain
Kaaba, Mecca, Saudi Arabia
Pilgrim on the Camino de Santiago, Spain

My journals have helped me reflect on how being small is actually being big; how being alone is actually being connected.

Journal entry: June 30, 1980, the Schilthorn. I hiked out, only a little afraid, past the top of a snowfield and onto the tip of a nearby peak, where I felt very close to God.… …Needing some alone time, I snuck out to a remote spot beyond the temple. And, among broken Roman columns, just got windblown in lovely salt.… …along the beach I strolled, and then sat on a stone throne. A bit cold, loving the silence, I thought, "Nobody knows where I am."

Traveling makes us appreciate — appreciate what we have rather than what we don't have. Savoring the luxury of a simple meal, embracing solitude, valuing each summit earned.

Dinner at Santa Giulia winery, Tuscany
Bar sing-along, Volterra, Italy
Dinner in Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina
Clapper bridge, Dartmoor, England
Reaching the top of Catbells fell, Lake District, England
Atop the Schilthorn peak, Berner Oberland, Switzerland

Religious or not, we count our blessings — blessings of plenty, of stability and community, of family bonds, and deep friendships.

Easter feast, Bela Krajina, Slovenia
Sharing cheese, Gimmelwald, Switzerland
Biking through vineyards, Burgundy, France
Axum, Tigray, Ethiopia

Why do I see humanity as one? Because I've traveled.

Jerusalem, Israel
İstiklal Street, Istanbul, Turkey

Why am I curious? In spite of my privilege, why do I care? Because I've traveled.

Above Vernazza, Cinque Terre, Italy
Palestinian refugee, West Bank
Stadio dei Marmi, Rome

Why am I grateful, and why do I want to contribute? Because I've traveled.

Gimmelwald, Switzerland
Western Highlands, Guatemala
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

This is why we travel, and why we keep traveling. Through traveling, we find meaning.

Martin Luther trail, Rome

By traveling thoughtfully, we connect. Even for those of us who can only travel as a state of mind, travel can result in a deeper connection.

Travel connects us face to face with reality. It's not virtual. It's not through a viewfinder. Travel is candid, honest — being in the moment.

Woman with firewood, Ethiopia
Martyrs' Cemetery, Esfahan, Iran
Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Berlin
City on the dump, Guatemala City
Shiraz, Iran

In a world hungry for authenticity, we yearn for connection.

Hay farmers, Maramureș, Romania
Güzelyurt, Cappadocia, Turkey
April Fair, Sevilla, Spain

Travelers connect with different cultures, different people. On the road strangers are just "friends we've yet to meet."

Pub, Ironbridge Gorge, England
Farmer's cart, Maramureș, Romania

Travel frees us from routine. It creates room for serendipity; serendipity leads to connections.

Circumcision party, Cappadocia, Turkey
Shepherd's shop, Konya, Turkey
Capuchin monk, Palermo, Sicily

Travel forces us to bend, and to flex. It makes us more tolerant and inspires us to celebrate diversity.

Street markets, Cairo

The lessons I've gained from exploring Europe — the land of my heritage — are universal. For me, these lessons are affirmed, and then stretched, when travelling farther afield.

Notre-Dame Cathedral, Paris
Sognefjord, Norway
Jerusalem, Israel
Cappadocia, Turkey

As a child ventures beyond his backyard, I ventured beyond Europe. Year after year, I pushed my boundaries. The world opened wide with a montage of wonders and lessons learned.

1969, first trip to Europe, Boeing Field, Seattle
1973, graduation trip with Gene Openshaw, Frankfurt, Germany
1978, Kashmir, India
1977, eastern Turkey
1978, making hay, India
1978, Taj Mahal, Agra, India
1985, with children in Sri Lanka

Traveling beyond my comfort zone, culture shock became constructive. The growing pains of a broadening perspective — my ethnocentrism challenged. The celebration of difference and oneness at the same time, the recognition that love is love in their home just as in mine.

1999, camel ride, Giza, Egypt
2000, police check, Kurdistan, eastern Turkey
2000, nomad's tent, Turkey
2008, Iran
2014, family dinner, Bethlehem, Palestine

Through travel we see a world filled with joy, with compassion, and with good people. We learn the more we reach out, the more we receive. We learn that we all share the same world, and we all share the same window of time.

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Tehran, Iran

Travelers seek bridges rather than walls. Every wall has two sides, and two narratives; for one to be truly understood, both must be heard.

Wall between Israel and Palestine, Bethlehem

Traveling, we realize the challenges of our future will be blind to borders and best overcome not by conflict and walls, but by community, and bridges.

Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina

There's so much fear these days. The flip side of fear? It's understanding, and we gain understanding when we travel.

Guatemala City
El Paraiso, Guatemala
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Birzeit University, Birzeit, Palestine
Great Mosque, Esfahan, Iran

Travel is more than a holiday. It gives us new experiences, acts as our greatest teacher, makes our lives more meaningful, and connects us with a global family. We can't all travel physically, but anyone can live with a traveler's mindset. It's a choice. Travel makes us more comfortable with the world, our hearts bigger, and our lives richer. And it makes us happier. And that is why we travel.

Faces from rural Romania