I don’t historically enjoy binge watching. Rapidly consuming television, movies, YouTube videos, TikToks, whatever else, is simply a mechanism to kill time. It’s mindless, easy entertainment for a year where actually partaking in the basic rituals of my pre-pandemic life runs the risk of illness or even death. But in a year of feeling isolated and stuck in my apartment, my personal affinity for traveling to a new place taken away from me, one show I can recommend in good faith is Rick Steves’ Europe. It’s a PBS travel show in which host Rick Steves traverses across Europe, mostly alone save for energetic locals at his destination, detailing his adventures with the familiarity of a home movie and the expertise of a documentarian. Think of it as obvious distraction from the constricting walls of your bedroom—I do.
For the uninitiated: Rick Steves is a 65-year-old travel writer, television personality and cannabis legalization and reform policy activist. He’s a sweet boomer man who has made a name for himself with travel guides, both in the book format and in his wildly popular PBS series Rick Steves’ Europe, a family-friendly program that has existed in some variation since the early 1990s. Though travel programming has become extremely dynamic (and largely food-centric, which Steves touches upon but doesn’t dive deep; it’s not his expertise) in the last few years, Steves became famous decades ago by suggesting his audience explore less touristy destinations like Greece’s Peloponnese beyond Olympia or Denmark beyond Copenhagen—and barring that, finding the obscure, lesser traversed charms of cities traditionally littered with Coach bus and cruise line clientele.
Perhaps that doesn’t sound like a novel idea now, but it once was. The Travel Channel’s programming in the late ‘90s and 2000s—shows like Lonely Planet, now Globe Trekker, specialized in educational, adventurous international travel—the opposite of what an anxious tourist would attempt in their own lives. Steves’ show offered an unintimidating alternative: travel curiously, with an open mind, but within your boundaries. Here was a gentle man with smooth Bob Ross affectations guiding you through the back streets of Western Europe with the proficiency of someone who has resided there for a considerable amount of time. Famously, he’s never lived outside the United States, but his travel expertise is across the Atlantic. And that’s not limited to Europe, though the continent is his flagship: He’ll also take you up and down the Nile River, to Israel and Palestine, to Guatemala and Ethiopia.
And though Steves’ calming public radio tonality relaxes viewers, he strikes a balance between sedation and enthusiasm—never once veering into anything resembling elitism, though he very well could. It simply isn’t his style. As The New York Times pointed out last year his first ever book, credited with kickstarting his career, 1980's Europe Through the Back Door, began with the statement: “Anyone caught reprinting any material herein for any purpose whatsoever will be thanked profusely.” Such is his personality, and his skillset: a penchant for accessible, friendly, discernible criticism with wide appeal.
Full episodes of Rick Steves’ Europe are available to stream, for free, on his website (others can be bought the ol’ analog way, a box set of DVDs, which allows PBS to continue with support from viewers like you!) Episodes vary in content, but the structure remains fairly consistent: Steves appears somewhere in the world, grinning ear to ear, offering a brief description (often with a pun of some kind, like riding in a horse carriage in Bulgaria and commenting on having “plenty of horsepower”, or rowing a boat—“getting a cultural workout”—in Slovenia) followed by a vintage intro title card sequence straight from the ’90s, and a breakdown of the day’s activities with generous and approachable, poetic phrasing like, “Oslo... gives an sight to a people who in a thousand years have evolved from fearsome viking marauders to proud hosts of the Nobel Peace Prize.” He offers brief history lessons in his travels, and more often than not teams up with locals for a more authoritative approach, learning as he teaches.
The obvious charm of Rick Steves’ Europe, beyond his earnestness and his ability to guide viewers through a place regardless of their knowledge of it, is in the soothing escapism of the program. To travel with Steves is to plan cautiously yet minimally, to be prepared just enough to experience some of the wonders of a new locale without closing yourself off from spontaneous adventure. It’s likely that even if you are familiar with a region, he’ll introduce you to something or someone new—and if he doesn’t, surely his generous ardor will entertain.
As 2020 comes to a close I find myself behaving strangely, bargaining with no one in particular as I grieve the loss of certain personal freedoms and a quality of life I’ve come accustomed to. In the spring and summer months, I did not experience denial so much as anger and depression. I do not miss hugging acquaintances the same way I miss traveling to a new place and exposing myself to new people and thoughts and priorities, and so I often play a losing game of “I’d give x-thing up just to go anywhere.” It’s not productive. But for 25 minutes, the average duration of an episode of Rick Steves’ Europe, the bartering stops—I can watch him travel and consider myself in those locations, cherrypicking which of his suggestions align with my interests. I’ve watched him navigate the Rhine River in Germany, close to where I grew up, and cross from Europe to Asia in Istanbul in the same lazy afternoon. And I can forget, for just a few moments, that my world is small now—and remember that it won’t always be.