A guide to the best travel guides

Travel guidesSo you’re organising a holiday…or perhaps you’re just dreaming about it. If you’re like me, the first stop is a bookshop, on-line book retailer or a library for a few guide books to get your head around everything there is to know about the chosen destination.

Yes, yes…you can do a heap of research on-line (and believe me…I’m the Queen of Google research) but there’s nothing quite like the formal approach of a guide book to orientate yourself. Guide books are great for establishing the initial framework of your itinerary and for quickly flicking through to check facts, distances, maps and details.

I’ve amassed a huge number of these volumes over the years. (And every now and then I have a clean out of the ones that are now well past their useful life. Today I tossed out a “Where to Stay in London 1996” edition.)  With such a huge range of guides now on the market, it can be confusing as to which one will suit your needs best. So here’s my guide to the best travel guides.

Lonely Planet: they have everything covered

Encounter GuidesLonely Planet is one of the originals when it comes to travel guides. It doesn’t matter what kind of traveller you are – a family with young kids, older couple, backpacking young single, adrenaline junkie with a love of the outdoors – there will be a Lonely Planet guide that covers what you need.  There’s everything from “On a Shoestring” guides for those travelling on the cheap, through to comprehensive country guides, specific city guides, and phrase books. I quite like the tiny Encounter guides which I can slip into a handbag.

In my experience, Lonely Planet guides are comprehensive, down-to-earth and honest. I have the Lonely Planet Northern Territory Guide to thank for adding the word “execrable” to my vocabulary. It was used to describe the food at a particular roadhouse on the Stuart Highway north of Tennant Creek. We had to agree.

Wallpaper* City Guides: perfect for the design-conscious

Wallpaper* City Guides are distinctive small guide books that look like Pantone colour samples. They are available for many of the world’s most fascinating cities and inside you’ll find a very selective range of that city’s best restaurants, bars and hotels as well as shops, activities and interesting landmarks. There is a surprising amount of information packed into such a small guide, and what I really like about them is that they highlight the best design and architecture features of each city, and point you in the direction of some lesser-known locations off the standard tourist-beat.

Luxe City Guides: full of quirky detail

Luxe City GuidesLuxe City Guides are also tiny gems that can be slipped into a handbag.  These are The Poolboy’s personal favourite guide books, and he would be happy to read nothing else. The format is a single fold-out card, stored in a plastic sleeve. No maps, no photos, no graphics…just “hyper-opinionated, irreverent, bright and fun to read” information about that city’s best shopping, food, entertainment, activities and landmarks.  And they are updated every year (with online monthly updates) so you know the information is good to go. We’ve found some fabulous restaurants, quirky shops and interesting sights via the Luxe City Guides.

DK Eyewitness Guides: they show what others tell

DKEyewitnessGuidesI was an early adopter of this range of guides that revolutionised travel guide books, and 20 years later, I remain a huge fan.  The DK Eyewitness Travel Guides were launched in 1993, and unlike most other comprehensive guide books at the time, they were completely full-colour with thousands of photos, illustrations and graphics.  The initial four titles has now grown to over 100 titles and various guides have been translated into over 30 languages.

The extremely visual nature of these guides appeals to me.  The Street-by Street 3-D walking maps are easy to follow and provide just enough information to pique your interest. Cross-sections of buildings explain all the detail you may otherwise miss, and the list of sights at a glance provides a little checklist for each area you plan to visit.

The one downside of these books is their size. They’re just that bit too big to comfortably carry around.

DK Eyewitness Top 10 Guides: for quick and dirty checklists

For those who like their DK Eyewitness Guides to be a bit more portable,the DK Eyewitness Top 10 Travel Guides fit the bill. They are a much more condensed version of the guides above, without the fabulous graphics and illustrations. Filled with lots of ‘Top 10’ lists, these pocket guides can fill a role as a checklist to ensure you see all the sights in an area.

Rough Guides: they tell it like it is

Like Lonely Planet, there’s a Rough Guide for pretty much every destination as well as maps, phrasebooks and specific subject guides (health, adventure etc). Rough Guides have been around since the early 1980s and have a reputation for having a ‘tell it like it is’ attitude, accurate, up-to-date content and informed contemporary writing. I took a copy of The Rough Guide to Vietnam with me on one of our trips to Vietnam, and each night I particularly enjoyed reading some of the Context portion at the back of the book. The Context section offers background on subjects such as history, religion, ethnic minorities, culture and books.

City Walks cards: each one is a little adventure

CityWalkCardsFor something a bit different (particularly if you are staying in a city for a while…or revisiting an old favourite city…or even to use in your own city), I like the City Walks decks of cards. Each deck contains a set of 50 cards, with each card containing the instructions for a self-guided walk of a particular neighbourhood on one side, and a map of the walk on the other. It’s a good way to explore a smaller area in detail, and it’s easy to slip a few of the relevant cards into your pocket for the day ahead.

But then of course, there’s the big question…hard copy or e-book versions of the travel guides?

This is a tricky one. I’ve tried e-book guides on the iPad…really, I have. While I LOVE the idea of the portability of e-books, for me there’s something not quite as satisfactory or user-friendly about electronic versions of travel guides. I know I can electronically bookmark pages…and that I can probably add annotations, but perhaps I’m just an old-fashioned gal at heart, as it doesn’t seem quite the same as having a multitude of mini post-it notes marking pages, and handscrawled notes in the margins.

I’m a bit the same when it comes to maps too. I love Google maps and GPS systems to find unknown places, but I like nothing better than to pore over a hard copy map of a city. (And btw…the best ever map book for New York City is Michael Middleditch’s The New York Mapguide.  I can thank my bestie, M for that recommendation, and she was totally right.)

I do, however, like some of the app versions of the travel guides, but I use them as an adjunct to the book itself rather than a replacement.

What about you? E-version or hard copy? And what are your favourite travel guides?


Disclosure: this post contains affiliate links to The Book Depository, which is where I order all my own travel guide books from.

This post is linked to:

Wanderlust linkup at My Brown Paper Packages

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