A Guide to Guides
So you’ve decided where to go, maybe even when,and you want to know more about it. To your local bookstore! But when you get there, how on Earth do you decide which guide to get? Fret no more. Here’s a handy guide to guide you to the guide for you. I think.
The How-To Guides
The guides that tell you how to sleep, eat and make merry.
The guide book everybody knows. Lonely Planet is great if you want to rock up in a town, then turn to your book and find somewhere to stay, somewhere to eat and somewhere to party. It has great reviews of each place, the cost of each place and some pretty handy maps. It’s definitely targeted at those on a budget and many expensive and more established hotels and restaurants won’t be featured so don’t buy this book if you’re not looking for cheap digs. The main downside to Lonely Planet guides is they can be unreliably updated, and while the maps themselves are accurate, often useful buildings are marked a street or two out by mistake.
These guys are pretty similar to Lonely Planet, and indeed their main competition. They still have the reputation for targeting low budget travellers, but in fact contain a much wider range of lodgings and restaurants than LP. They also have more prosaic style information about each town, rather than just lists and reviews.
The high end of traveller guides, these are classy books. While they will still contain some of the better value cheap places, they do assume you have more spending money. There’s generally very few or no photos in these books, but they can write well enough to sell you a town or event in text. Footprint started off publishing South American guide books and in this area they are still the best, with a greater knowledge of the culture and simply more information than the others. The downside to these for some is that they are aimed so squarely at the more middle aged traveler there is little night life beyond traditional music mentioned.
The What-To Guides
The guides that tell you what is worth seeing and doing.
Coming with a recommendation from Michael Palin on the front tells you a lot about these guides immediately. They are for more unfrequented countries, or sometimes just regions of popular countries, they tell you what is good to go and see and do regardless of budget, and they talk you through every step of the culture. These books don’t always have all the details you’d want to help you book a hotel and with no colour or pictures they can be a bit drab, but they are endlessly fascinating, accurate and cover places no other books do, such as Eastern Turkey and Ethiopia.
A little known guide that treads a careful line between being full of history and arts but also very user friendly and accessible, Cadogan manage to fill most people’s criteria for a guide book. The downside to being so full of detail is that the writers have to select carefully what they include, inevitably leading to gaps. However, they generally pick very well and give a great overview of a place.
If you want to feel like you’re on a guided tour wherever you may be, buy a Blue Guide. While sparse on practical information, Blue Guides can tell you which churches to see, why that statue is so important and who once lived in that house. While they’re country guides are good, it is with city guides that they really shine. They also have a couple of literary guides if you want to try and read your way through a city.
Guides For The Nervous Traveler
The guides that take you through the basics.
Insight guides are beautiful guides in full colour with plenty of pictures to pique your interest, and a huge amount of history and information given. What is strange about these guides is that all of the practical information, such as where to stay and eat, is at the back, rather than distributed throughout the book with each location’s information. The listings are thin, and Insight guides are really best used by those who have booked all their accommodation and transport before setting off. However, they still have great practical advice about food, etiquette and language to help get you through.
Similar to Insight guides, Eyewitness go for a very visual design. Their main difference is that as well as plenty of colour photos, they also feature DK’s signature cut-away drawings. These show you both the inside and outside of famous landmarks, and as well as providing a different perspective to them, make for very handy maps. They also use their hand draw elements to make maps that people really use, such as where the bus stop is by ferries, or pedestrian routes around town. These are great family guides, but the clear pictures and simple prose doesn’t make it any less informative for adults.
By the same publishers as Cadogan guides, these are much less arty guides, and far more aimed at those on package holidays or beach breaks. However, they do feature some excellent pull out maps to aid those who want to explore a bit more.
Off on a short break, or just hate lugging a huge tome through the streets with you? These are the books for you.
These books are tiny and wallet-friendly, but they are simply crammed with information and pictures. They come with a listing of hotels and restaurants at the back, and sections dedicated to shopping, entertainment and children’s activities.
Thomas Cook may conjure up images of sunburned Brits on package holidays, but their guidebooks are superb. Not everyone wants to be an intrepid traveller, nor sit on a beach all day. These guides cover all the main tourist destinations in Europe, and few further afield, and are great if you’ve bagged your cheap holiday but want some culture with it. They have both tiny city guides, and slightly chunkier country guides, but most uniquely, they have books dedicated to tourist areas such as Red Sea resorts.
With all the maps at the very easy to flip to back of the book, and each chapter in the book colour coded, AA have successfully made their books very user friendly. All the information is arranged by location so you don’t have to turn back and forth repeatedly, and their top ten lists at the front are always a good representation of the city or country. They also have a blank page for notes in the back, so you can improve it yourself where you see fit.