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European travel expert Rick Steves
European travel expert Rick Steves stands in Assisi, Italy. Steves says Italy is popular with Americans, but countries such as Spain, Ireland and Turkey offer great experiences. By JACCourtesy photo

EVERETT, Wash. - We recently caught up with European travel expert Rick Steves to ask what he was excited about for 2011.

For the first time, his popular "Europe Through the Back Door" tours will reimburse the cost of a U.S. passport to people who haven't left the country.

"We're tired of Americans going back to Hawaii," Steves said. "Try going to a place where they speak a different language, or eat at a different time."

Steves said Italy continues to be the most popular spot for Americans, but other countries offer great experiences, too.

"Spain is the new Italy," he said. "Ireland is Italy with rain."

Both Spain and Ireland have friendly populations, interesting cultures and beautiful sights for people who may have already experienced Italy, or want to explore less frequently traveled areas.

Turkey, too, is a favorite of Steves. The country continues to open up a gateway to the Muslim world while remaining a secular society.

For centuries, Constantinople, before it was renamed Istanbul, was the central capital of the Western world. The city essentially remained unchanged until World War I. Today, it's a mix of Greek, biblical, Ottoman and Islamic cultures, facing the tensions of a rising Islamic fundamentalism, Steves said.

"Turkey is just awesome," he said.

For more than 20 years, Steves, 55, has helped Americans explore Europe's diversity and learn about different cultures. He's become a best-selling travel guide author, host of his own PBS television series and now has a weekly radio show heard in 150 cities.

He shares his enthusiasm on television, over the radio waves and increasingly via his website,

"I feel as energetic now as I did 20 years ago," he said.

The hub of his business is based in Edmonds, where he grew up, and locals can browse a vast library of tour guides or book vacations abroad, including one of the dozens of trips led by Steves' expert tour guides.

"Europe is the springboard for world exploration," he said. "My hope is after Europe, that (it) will be the gateway to the rest of the world."

He recommends digesting travel like a massive dinner buffet. Don't pile on too much, he said, but pick a few items to savor.

"The trick is to be patient and focused and well prepared. Enjoy it one dish at a time," Steves said.

In 2011, Steves' tour company will offer smaller-sized tour groups, capped at two dozen. The intimate experience is just one of the ways Steves does business differently from other companies.

His guides also work exclusively for him, focusing their efforts on teaching visitors about their regions' cultures and history.

The "Europe Through the Back Door" experience isn't for every traveler, though.

He tends to choose smaller, simpler hotels. Visitors are encouraged to pack light and good walking shoes are a must.

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