Rick Steves (b. 1955) is a best-selling travel writer, businessman, philanthropist, and television personality whose work revolves around encouraging people to broaden their perspectives through travel. Widely considered America's leading authority on European travel, he wrote his first book, Europe Through the Back Door, in 1979. He is perhaps best known through his popular public television series, "Rick Steves' Europe." His overarching philosophy is one that encourages Americans to travel not just to major destinations, but also to places that are off the beaten path, where one can become more immersed in foreign cultures. Steves runs his enterprise from offices in Edmonds.
Edmonds in the Early Days
Richard John Steves Jr. was born on May 10, 1955 to parents Richard J. Steves Sr. (1930-2018) and June Erna Steves (1931-2012) in Barstow, California. In 1967, the family -- including his two sisters, Janis (b. 1956) and Linda (b. 1958) --moved to Kenmore, where they resided for a short time before relocating to the nearby town of Edmonds. Their father supported the family by working as a band director at several Seattle-area high schools. Later, he and June opened a import store called Steves Sound of Music that was known for its top-quality pianos. The Steves family regularly attended the nearby St. Peter by the Sea Lutheran Church, of which Rick's parents were founding members, and Rick is still a devout member of the Lutheran church to this day.
In 1969, when Steves was 14, his family took a trip to Europe to visit the various factories that manufactured the pianos sold at their store. This was his first visit abroad and it served as a pivotal experience in developing his love of travel. He documented the trip on the backs of postcards, which he still keeps at his home in a wooden keepsake box. During this European vacation, the family visited relatives in Norway. It was on this trip that Steves watched the Apollo 11 moon landing, and while celebrating the event with Norwegians, he gained a global perspective. Later, in an Oslo park, while observing Norwegian parents loving their children as much as his parents loved him, Steves had a spiritual epiphany, realizing "this planet must be home to billions of equally lovable children of God" ("Rick Steves Wants ...").
Steves graduated from Edmonds High School (now Edmonds-Woodway) in 1973 and returned to Europe soon after, this time without his parents. This would be followed by several other summer trips to Europe, sometimes with friends, where Steves learned to be thrifty and stretch his travel dollars. He traveled to as many foreign countries as possible, relishing his experiences along the way and recording these experiences in a growing collection of journals.
During this time, Steves attended the University of Washington (UW) and began teaching a travel class through The Experimental College, a student-run program at the UW that offered non-accredited classes. His class was called "Travel Europe: Cheap!" and proved to be quite popular, planting the seeds for Steves's eventual business plans. For extra income, he worked as a piano teacher and also started organizing his first trips to Europe as a tour guide who would lead small groups in a rented minibus. He graduated from the UW in 1978 with a degree in European history and business administration. The degree would serve him well, though Steves was already well on his way toward establishing the beginning of his travel empire.
Europe Through The Back Door
In 1979, Steves wrote his first book, Europe Through the Back Door, essentially transcribing the lectures from his travel classes as well as the notes from his summer trips. He self-published the book in 1980, having 2,500 copies printed by Snohomish Publishing Company, which he then stacked inside the studio space that he was using to teach piano lessons. Often the boxes of books were used for seating during piano recitals. Drawing upon his travel experiences, the book was an offbeat guide on how to frugally travel throughout Europe while still enjoying the richness of the cultures. The front page promised, "Anyone caught reprinting any material herein for any purpose whatsoever will be thanked profusely." The book had been hand typed on a rented electric typewriter, with whiteout used for any corrections, and was illustrated by his college roommate. Despite the unrefined appearance of this first batch of books, they sold out. For the second edition, Steves had the book professionally typeset, giving it a more polished and professional look. It was during this time that Steves married his girlfriend, Anne, in 1983. They would become the parents of two children, Jackie and Andy, and were involved in several social-justice causes together before divorcing in 2010.
In 1984, Steves finally landed a publisher when he met a fellow travel writer who introduced him to a "hippie" publishing house known as John Muir Publications. It was good timing, as they were looking to expand their line of travel books. As Steves recalled, "We were a perfect fit" ("A Log Cabin ..."). Steves was encouraged to write more books, which he took to heart. By 2022, he had written more than 50 European guidebooks, and Europe Through the Back Door was in its 39th edition. Steves' more recent books – which continued to dominate the American travel market – were published by Avalon Travel Publishing.
During his early years, Steves also started teaching travel seminars out of his Edmonds piano studio. As the travel classes became increasingly popular, he stopped teaching piano to focus all of his energy on his growing travel business, which was soon incorporated as Europe Through the Back Door (ETBD). In addition to the classes, Steves offered travel consulting and continued to organize a few group tours per year. This original storefront office, which stood next door to his parent's piano business, has since moved across the street.
Radio and Television
Steves produced his first video series, "Travels in Europe with Rick Steves," which debuted on public television in April 1991. These early video documentaries proved to be especially popular on Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) channels across the country, gaining Steves a loyal following while also helping to sell his books and boost the recognition of his growing travel business. The series ended production in 1998, though he would introduce a second show in 2000.
In 1992, Steves released his own series of videotapes that were extended versions of his original "Travels in Europe" series. This was followed by other videos, including "How to Get the Most out of Your Eurail Pass" in 1994, and a new "Travels in Europe" series in 1995 that focused on countries in Europe that were not previously covered. The Eurail video was given free to customers who purchased their Eurail passes through ETBD, and Steves' business quickly established itself as one of the top retail outlets for Eurail passes in the United States.
By the mid-1990s, ETBD had grown substantially, with increased annual tours of Europe and a wildly popular newsletter that had a large base of worldwide fans who have since become known as "Rickniks." In 2000, ETBD expanded its operations to a new building in downtown Edmonds that houses its corporate offices, an extensive travel library, and the company store. His second PBS show, "Rick Steves' Europe," premiered in September 2000, with a total of 11 seasons that had aired by 2022. In the early 2000s, the name of his business was changed to Rick Steves' Europe in order to be more brand consistent with his video series.
In 2005, Steves started a popular weekly radio show, "Travel with Rick Steves," on National Public Radio (NPR). A year later, he started writing a weekly travel newspaper column that is nationally syndicated by the Tribune Content Agency. Most recently, Steves released a six-hour miniseries called "Rick Steves Art of Europe," which began airing nationally on public television in 2022.
During his travels in the 1970s, in the interest of true cultural immersion, Steves tried cannabis while in Afghanistan. It was in the traditional form of hashish, and Steves enjoyed the experience. Ever since, he has become a vocal proponent of marijuana and an active supporter of reforming cannabis laws in the United States. As Steves said, "As a matter of principle, I believe the responsible, adult recreational use of marijuana is a civil liberty. I'm a hard-working, kid-raising, church-going, tax-paying citizen of the United States, and if I work hard all day long and want to go home and smoke a joint and just stare at the fireplace for three hours, that's my civil liberty" ("Travel Guru Rick Steves ...). He adds, "Marijuana is a drug, it can be abused and it should be regulated, but the federal prohibition against marijuana is a disaster – it is racist, it is stoking a thriving black market, and it is counter-productive" (Steves interview with author).
Steves has been a regular speaker at Seattle's annual Hempfest, and was a co-sponsor, leading funder, and official spokesperson of Washington's Initiative 502. The controversial initiative appeared on the November 2012 general ballot and was passed by Washington voters, legalizing the recreational use of marijuana for adults 21 years of age and older. Steves hosted an ACLU-sponsored video program called "Marijuana: It's Time for a Conversation," which was nominated for an Emmy Award, and long served on the Board for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), becoming the chairman of its board of directors in 2021.
As Steves' travel business became successful, he used his earnings to contribute to many of the social causes he believed strongly in. Much of Steves' philanthropy has revolved around helping those in poverty, as well as giving back to his community.
In the 1990s, Steves started investing in local real estate that was then used to house homeless mothers and their children. The plan was to use these buildings for a few decades of social good, and later sell them to help fund his retirement. He eventually worked his way up to investing in an entire 24-unit apartment complex in Lynnwood known as Trinity Place, which he decided to donate to the YWCA outright in 2017. By this time, he had made enough money from his business that he no longer needed the property to retire comfortably. As he saw things, "The mothers needed it more than I did" (author interview). The apartments have provided transitional housing for homeless mothers and children, and members of the Edmonds Rotary Club help maintain the buildings and grounds. Steves donates royalties from one of his books, Travel as a Political Act, to the group Bread for the World, an organization that helps fight world hunger.
In Edmonds, Steves remains an active member of his community and has contributed to various local causes. In 2011, after hearing that his local symphony was going through financial struggles, Steves gifted $1 million to the Edmonds Center for the Arts and the Cascade Symphony Orchestra. As Steves said at the time, "I see it as a civic duty for businessmen like me, who've directly benefited from our vibrant communities, to do our fair share" ("Rick Steves Gives ...").
In 2019, while addressing the harmful impact that air travel has had on the environment, Steves acknowledged his company's role in this process. "If we are in the travel business, we are contributing to the destruction of our environment," he said ("Rick Steves to Give ..."). As a result, he created an innovative program – a self-imposed carbon tax – that generated about a million dollars a year and is invested in a way that makes those who take his European tours do so in a way that is essentially carbon neutral.
Travel in an Unpredictable World
While Steves' business has been impacted by various world-wide tragedies, wars, and global events, it always managed to rebound. The events of September 11, 2001, for instance, had a devastating impact on world travel, though Steves's business was able to weather it and welcomed customers back when travel rebounded a year later.
Likewise, Rick Steves Europe was preparing for its biggest travel year on record when the COVID-19 pandemic triggered a global lockdown in early 2020. As a result, world travel came to an abrupt halt and the company was forced to cancel and refund its bookings. During this pause, Steves was able to keep his office staff on the payroll, though with suddenly diminished workloads, he asked them to instead take up volunteer positions throughout the community in order to help fulfill any social needs that arose during the pandemic. Rick Steves Europe was able to resume booking travel tours in 2022 when things began reopening.
On February 25, 2022, following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Steves announced that his company had cancelled all 2022 tours that include stops in Russia, as he didn't want to bring travel dollars toward supporting Vladimir Putin's military aggression. "There's a brutality in what Putin is doing, and I want nothing to do with it," Steves said ("Rick Steves Cancels ...").
It is during these times of uncertainty that Steves' personal philosophy has come to define his legacy. It is a worldview that sees travel as an important instrument in helping to bridge people from different cultures together and improve the state of humankind, especially during tumultuous times. Said Steves: "When we travel, we connect to the world, we embrace the world in all its diversity. We're more inclined to want bridges than walls. The existential challenges of our future are going to be blind to walls, borders, and conventional military defense systems. They're going to be led by science, good governance, and the family of nations working together — and if we don't travel, that makes it much more difficult" ("Travel Forecast 2022").