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A Guide’s Guide to the Best Travel Guide Books

by ExperiencePlus! - Tuesday, July 27, 2010 reviews

 

A Guide’s Guide to the Best Travel Guide Books

Rick Price's Guide to the Best Travel Guide Books, based on over 30 years of guiding experience

As I write this in April 2004, I’ve just returned from a week in the Republic of Macedonia. Before I went I looked for a guidebook to Macedonia and found nothing. While there I collected a copy of Macedonia : The Bradt Travel Guide by Thammy Evans. It bears a June 2004 imprint but came out in the United Kingdom in March 2004. My hosts in Macedonia included a copy of this book in our departure packet (even they couldn’t get it for our arrival April 17). So here is a fresh, new look at a fresh new country: the Republic of Macedonia was established in 1991! Not even Lonely Planet has come out with a Macedonia guidebook yet.

Any guidebook you pick up and pack around with you had better be worth its weight! That’s why I say it depends on your specific needs and wants in a guide book. Here is my brief review of how to find the best travel guide book for you:

First, a few general comments and questions for you:

  • For your travel, are you interested mostly in a packing list, weather information, and information on health issues, visas, hotels, restaurants and shopping opportunities?
  • Or do you need historical and cultural background information for your travel?
  • Or perhaps you want detailed guides to museums, art, and architecture?
  • Or, do you need a general overview of the country you are about to visit?

The answers to these questions will determine the books you buy and pack.

 Here is my brief survey of the best guidebooks series:

Michelin Guidebooks and Touring Club Italiano Guides

Michelin’s Green travel Guides provide extensive information about culture, history and landscape while the Red Guides have almost become the bible for hotels and restaurants, especially in France.

Italy’s automobile club, the Touring Club Italiano (which began as a bicycle advocacy group in 1894!) does the same in Italian. For decades the TCI has published extensive series of books interpreting art, history, culture, geography and landscape in Italy. In 1997 they began to publish their tour guides in English.

I’ve always found both the Michelin and the Touring Club Italiano guides excellent. Both groups publish regional guides to the regions of France (for Michelin) and Italy (TCI) that are unmatched in quality and content (though the Italian regional guides are available ONLY in Italian and they are encyclopedic, so beware).

I like the Italian travel guides, in particular, because they are written by geographers and historians who have a real professional interest in their topic. The same is true of the Michelin green guides.

Both travel Guide series are available from your local bookseller and online.

Michelin does not sell directly to the general public so check with your local or online bookseller.

 

A. Guidebooks for Planning your Trip

I find that some guidebooks are good for planning your trip but not for carrying around. You should have a look, "weigh" your choices (literally) and decide.

Insight Guides and DK (Doring Kindersley) Eyewitness Travel Guides

Online:

B. Guidebooks that Hold Your Hand (and tell you where to go)

Arthur Frommer: Europe on $5 a Day

Rick Steves: Europe through the Back Door

In the 1950s, Arthur Frommer began publishing travel guidebooks for American GIs returning to Europe to visit the battlefields where they fought during WWII. He became the leading writer of guidebooks for that generation and for young baby boomers in the 1960s and 1970s. Who hasn’t traveled in Europe with Europe on $5-a-Day? Frommer’s publisher actually had the brilliant idea of suggesting that travelers rip their guidebooks apart to cut down on the weight they had to carry once they finished traveling in one country. This prevented the guidebook from being passed on to a friend!

Arthur Frommer’s books offered two innovations that distinguished them from traditional travel guides of the time. He ranked sights in order of importance to the visitor and he included budget travel suggestions, including readers’ suggestions on inexpensive places to sleep and eat. This latter innovation has been dropped in current issues but the ranking of sights is still a part of Frommer’s (as it is in the Michelin Green and Red Guides). 

Rick Steves published his first guidebook, Europe through the Back Door, in 1980 and has since become a publishing phenomenon with something like 27 published guidebooks today. Rick Steves took Frommer’s idea of promoting budget travel not, so much, as a way to save money but as a way to get close to the local culture. But Rick Steves took his idea one step further and actually prescribed specific itineraries to follow. He literally tells you how many "days" to budget for Rome and Florence, for example, and how to "spend" your time in each. He’ll even suggest where to go in Italy or France if you have only 7 days or 14 days.

I’ve never actually cared for Rick Steves travel books because he dismisses some places out of hand. I can still remember him writing years ago that Germany’s Black Forest was "overrated." Don’t waste your time with it, he advised. Yet it is one of the most beautiful parts of Europe for hiking. I also was quite offended in the early ’80s when one of his first guidebooks included phrases in five languages. Included were one hundred ways to insult Italians in Italian. Using one of those insults in Naples or Sicily would likely get you killed in an instant. I found the whole idea to be in very poor taste. Still, his series is very popular.

C. Guidebooks for Carrying with You

Lonely Planet Guides

Search Google for the term "world’s best guide books" or just "best guide books" and you’ll go straight to the Lonely Planet guidebooks. Indeed, they not only offer the best guidebooks, but they literally "cover the planet" (with the exception of Macedonia at the moment!) Ask any travelers to southeast Asia and they’ll tell you that Lonely Planet is their bible. Lonely Planet guides are packed with information, they’re compact and easy to carry, and they are updated regularly. They are so ubiquitous that you can find inexpensive used copies online fairly easily. Be sure you get the most current edition, though, if possible.

In honor of the Olympics, the 6th Greece edition just came out (March 2004). And if you are just going to the Greek Islands you can buy just the regional guide to the islands (also March 2004), to the Peloponnese (March 2003), Corfu and the Ionian Islands (February 2002), or Crete (also February 2002). Interested in Greek food? Try the World Food Greece guidebook (also available for France, Italy and Spain in Europe).

You’ll find hours of browsing at the Lonely Planet web site and even more at their Thorn Tree travel forums. This latter takes Arthur Frommer’s readers comments into the 21st century. (Don’t blame us if you get lost for hours here!)

Cadogan Guides

I like the Cadogan guide series. These travel guides are not comprehensive (as are the Blue Guides or the Michelin Green Guides), nor are they budget guides (as Frommer or Rick Steves), but they are written by travelers with a passion and enthusiasm for travel that comes across in the book. They have wonderful historical narratives, anecdotes and stories that will inform and entertain you as you travel.

Greece is covered by one large volume and three regional volumes while Italy is included in one large and seventeen regional guides (so you don’t have to carry the massive, thousand-page Italy volume). The series includes France, Spain, the UK, Belgium, Germany, Holland, Ireland, Portugal, Turkey, Malta, Prague, Budapest and St. Petersburg.

The Cadogan travel guides are not always updated but even the older ones have good content and the writing is timeless.

Bradt Travel Guides

So this brings me back around to Hillary Bradt and the Bradt travel guides. This is the only guidebook I can find at the moment for Macedonia (Lonely Planet includes a few pages in their Eastern Europe and Mediterranean Europe volumes). Indeed, they seem to have discovered the Balkans in 2004 with an entire series, including Albania, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Montenegro. No other series has this coverage.

Bradt also publishes books such as the award winning Eccentric America Guide (also, Eccentric Britain, France, and London). Or perhaps you are interested in the Ukraine, North Korea or Iraq (yes, Iraq – June 2002; it probably needs updating!) 

So have a look at Bradt travel guides. They may be the only guide available for some destinations!

D. Guidebooks for Academic Study

Blue Guides

Interested in ALL the details about Tuscany? Roman archeology? Greek mythology? Sicily? The Blue Guide counts its lineage directly from the famous 19th century German guidebook publisher, Baedeker. Findlay Muirhead, the English-language editor for Baedeker launched this series after World War I made it politically incorrect to continue to publish a German guidebook. Muirhead came up with the "blue" part of this series to distinguish it from the red-covered Baedeker and its English competitor, Murray’s Handbooks for Travelers (which also had a red cover). To this day the Blue Guide continues to be almost encyclopedic in its coverage. Carry it at your peril, though! The Tuscany guide has 575 pages! (There is a separate Blue Guide to Florence). Sixty different titles are in print for Europe.

E. Summary of Online resources:

I hope this page has helped you select your own best travel guide. If I’ve missed any real good guidebooks, please let me know.

 Addendum: Both these travel Guide book series are richly illustrated and I might even carry a Doris Kindersley guide with me because they are quite useful. But both series are heavy! I find the illustrations wonderful for planning and dreaming about your trip. Great color photos and wonderful maps make them especially useful in trip planning. The Doring Kindersley guides also have cutaway architectural and geological drawings that help you understand the inner workings of both the landscape and historic buildings.