(Tribune Media Services) -- After two days in Florence, I had already met some fascinating people.
First there was the woman who runs the leather school at the Church of Santa Croce (established by her family and Franciscan monks after World War II to give orphaned boys a trade).
Then there was the likeable congressman from Florida whom I met while dodging a horse carriage near a Donatello statue. And while eating alone at one of my favorite restaurants, I chatted up a conductor from Switzerland with "Young Frankenstein" hair. All night we talked about pianos -- a passion we both shared.
The maestro and I had a wonderful chemistry. He was the kind of person I knew I could be great friends with -- and someone I probably never would have met had we not been dining alone that night. The nature of my job means that I spend a lot of time in museums, restaurants and bars by myself. But that's also the way I prefer to experience Europe.
When you're with a companion, it's easy to focus on that person and forget about meeting Europeans and other travelers. Without the comfortable crutch of a friend, you're more likely to know the joys of self-discovery and the pleasures found in the kindness of strangers. You'll be exploring yourself, as well as a new country and culture.
Solo travel gives you complete freedom and independence. You never have to wait for your partner to pack up. You decide where to go, how far to travel, how much to spend or when to call it a day. If ad-libbing, it's easier for one to slip between the cracks than two.
Of course, there are downsides to traveling alone: Accommodations typically cost more because you're not splitting the bill, and you may be more vulnerable to theft when you're alone. But the biggest struggle is loneliness.
Fortunately, the continent is full of lonely travelers and natural meeting places. Staying in hostels gives you a built-in family (hostels are open to all ages). Small pensions and B&Bs often have owners who have time to talk with you. City walking tours provide an easy opening to meet other travelers.
The idea of eating alone can be intimidating -- until you do it. The key is to keep busy. Use the time to learn more of the language. Practice your verbal skills with the waiter or waitress (when I asked a French waiter if he had kids, he proudly showed me a picture of his twin girls). Read a guidebook, a novel or the International Herald Tribune. Do trip planning, write in your journal, or scrawl a few postcards to the folks back home.
Consider quick and cheap alternatives to formal dining. Try a self-service cafe, a local-style fast-food restaurant, or a small ethnic eatery. Visit a supermarket deli and get a picnic to eat in the square or a park. Grab a slice of pizza and munch it as you walk along, people-watching and window-shopping.
If you like company, eat in crowded places that force you to share a table, or ask other single travelers if they'd like to join you. Most countries have a type of dish or restaurant that's fun to experience with a group. When you run into tourists during the day, make plans for dinner. Invite them to join you for, say, a rijsttafel dinner in the Netherlands, a smorgasbord in Scandinavia, a paella feast in Spain or a spaghetti feed in an Italian trattoria.
Evenings can be tough if you're feeling lonely. Use this time to visit an Internet cafe and send travel news to friends and family. Or go out and experience the magic of European cities at night. Stroll along well-lit streets, enjoying the parade of people, busy shops and illuminated monuments.
See Paris by night on a river cruise. Take advantage of the wealth of evening entertainment: concerts, movies, puppet shows and folk dancing. If you like to stay in, get a room with a balcony overlooking a square. You'll have a front-row seat to the best show in town.
If you don't feel comfortable traveling alone, consider joining a tour. With a tour, all of your hotel rooms are reserved, a guide plans most of your activities, and other tour members keep you company. If you're willing to give up the option of having a flexible itinerary, a tour may be the right way for you to scratch your travel bug bites.
I've talked to too many people who put off their travel dreams because they don't want to do it alone. Don't delay. Just think of Europe as one big gelato social. The first step is to show up.
(Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or write to him c/o P.O. Box 2009, Edmonds, Wash. 98020.)
COPYRIGHT 2010 RICK STEVES, DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.