Exploring the suburbs on your own, strolling the little streets, following no other itinerary than the path drawn by your steps, letting your nose take you to the tastiest local food… It does sounds like the best way to explore a city, doesn’t it? Except you may have too little time to figure out everything yourself. Or you might find yourself ravenously hungry in an area that only seems to give you the choice between a greasy kebab and the same old fast-food chains.

In this kind of situation, a guidebook comes in handy: sure, it won’t quite match the pleasure of finding fabulous spots all by yourself (or with the help of your new local friends). But it will give you a few guidelines to start with, and introduce you to the main landmarks — plus to a few remarkable places that you would’ve had trouble sighting alone!

Picking which travel guide to take with you is a crucial part of travel prep, but the jungle of editions, collections and titles can be quite confusing. Here is a little guide to help you pick the guidebook that’s perfect for you!

P1030083 copy Travel guide jungle 

The golden rule

The right guidebook is a recent one. A very recent one. Unlike good wine, travel guides (even great ones) don’t age well. Restaurants close, art galleries open, suburbs once deemed unsafe turn into the city’s trendiest spots, and bus times always change (always). I once read that 50% of a guidebook is already obsolete a mere 5 years after it was published! Don’t venture into the Amazon rainforest with your cousin’s 2004 Lonely Planet; you need the freshest information available.

One or two?

Some people say you should always travel with two guidebooks, because none of them is perfect. I’ve done this in the past, and the truth is I rarely had time to go over the two when arriving somewhere new.

That’s why my advice would be to pick one, go over it before leaving for your trip to make sure that it suits your needs, and then complete the missing info with online resources while travelling.

5546648039_59f81ce055_z Photo via Carmen Moreno on Flickr

Define your needs

To help you define more specifically what you’re after, here are a few questions you should answer before hitting the travel section of your local bookstore:

  • Are you going to visit one city or explore numerous regions of the country? — If you’re going to Berlin for the weekend, you probably don’t need the 500-page guidebook presenting all there is to see in Germany.
  • What kind of trip are you planning? — If you’re going to mainly focus on one particular activity (be it vintage-shopping in London or biking through the mountains of Tibet), opting for a specialised guidebook will: a) be a lighter option; b) provide you with more accurate information.
  • What do you expect from your guidebook? — Glossy paper travel guides with panoramic photos will look amazing on your coffee table, and help you pre-plan what it is that you want to see. However, if you’re intending to use your guidebook for orientation while sightseeing, you’ll be better off with the thin-shitty-paper-with-no-pictures-but-lots-of-maps option.

I strongly recommend going to the bookstore rather than ordering online when it comes to travel guides, as being able to leaf through the book before buying it is the best guarantee to not be disappointed. Furthermore, most cities have at least one bookshop dedicated to travel, where the staff will be able to give you precious advice!

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A few options

Lonely Planet

Comprehensive, convenient, easy to read and complete with generally accurate maps: no wonder why Lonely Planet is revered by travellers and Travelettes the world over — sometimes leading to a somewhat worrying addiction. Two drawbacks though:

1. It’s heavy. Like a brick. As in, it will often stay in your hotel room rather than come with you on your day travels, and you will be left on the streets unguided. (Easy hack: take pictures of the pages focusing on the areas that you’re planning to visit that day with your smartphone before leaving your room in the morning, and delete them when you’re done. Boom.)

2. Everybody reads it. Sure, it will lead you to the quirkiest parts of town and best hidden eateries. You, and dozens of sunburnt tourists with strong accents.

It’s still the guide I take on most of my travels: not the most original, but surely the most reliable.

2536810975_d8bd96320f_b Photo via Geoff Kim on Flickr

Secret Paris, Secret London etc.

Jonglez Publishing’s collection of Secret… guides is written by locals who pride themselves on recommending the most unusual sights and experiences: try the ‘boat-in’ (local, floating version of the drive-in) in Amsterdam, check out the stuffed mermaid in London, have a taste of a fountain that flows with wine in Provence…

I wouldn’t recommend these for a first visit (they won’t give any information about popular sights), but they are a treasure-trove for little-known peculiarities, and might even teach you a lot about the city you live in!

secrettt Photo via Jonglez Editions

Wallpaper City Guides

These super-hip and beautifully designed travel guides will make you look stylish even when you’re lost at a crossroads. They’ll help you get the most out of a city even when you have very little time thanks to their convenient tabs layout, and are filled with reviews of trendy hangouts that will make your Facebook friends drool every time you ‘check-in’.

They’re the perfect travel companion for cosmopolitan artsy types and design-lovers on a not-so-tight budget: most of the suggestions are not on the cheap side!

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Time Out City Guides

Time Out’s resident teams have taken to publish city guides in paper form. The result? Lightweight, well-informed guidebooks that are fun to read and will feel like a local friend is whispering advice in your ear. These insiders tell you all about what’s cool in the world’s most vibrant metropolises, quickly immersing you inside the city’s pulse.

They’re perfect for shopping-addicts and party animals on the hunt for out-of-the-ordinary spots; but avoid them if you’re the contemplative, historical monuments-enthusiast type.

timeout Photo via Time Out

Hg2 (A Hedonist’s Guide To…)

Amazingly well-written and extremely good-looking, these guides feature numerous beautiful photographs and will point you towards the most stylish places in town: no tacky, touristy faux-pas here. Crafted by proud city slickers, these guides remarkably capture the spirit that makes each city unique.

You probably won’t be able to afford any of the hotels recommended in here; however the ‘Drink’ and ‘Party’ sections indicate plenty of cool places to hang out at. You can also buy a PDF version for pretty cheap if you’re not ready to splash on the paper edition!

hg2 Photos via Hg2

Cartoville

My all-time favourite when I need a city guide for a short stay, which sadly only exists in French… They do have an English edition for Paris though, which you can find here. These are certainly not the most stylish guides out there, but they are hands-down the most convenient: the pages dedicated to each suburb unfold to reveal detailed maps, complete with few (but accurate) recommendations for places to see, eat and stay at. Getting lost when you have one of those in your hands is pure bad will.

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Herb Lester Associates maps

These are no comprehensive guides, but rather collections of very subjective tips you probably won’t find anywhere else — and what’s more, they’ll look spectacular on your wall upon return. Find out more about them here!

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Free guides, guides for free

When you’re only going on a short trip, check your town library for copies of your guidebook of choice rather than buying one. And pick up a novel set in the place you’re about to visit while you’re at it!

On arrival at destination, remember to drop by the tourist office: they often give out free maps and small guides.

There also are pretty good free online guides out there: Red Visitor is particularly nice to read. And of course, remember to check the ‘Destinations’ section of Travelettes.net for eat/drink/sleep/shop recommendations and travel inspiration!

Write your own guidebook

That’s what Moleskine allows you to do with its City Notebooks. Only providing you with basic city and transport maps, it leaves plenty of space for you to record your itineraries, favourite hangouts and rare finds!

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What have been your favourite guidebooks to travel with? Tell us about your experience.

 

All photos by Marie Colinet, unless specified otherwise.

mariecolinettravelettes Marie Colinet was part of the Travelettes team from 2013 to 2015. Originally from Toulouse, France, two years lived in Australia left her speaking English with an awkward Fraussie accent. In September 2015, Marie is starting the epic 6-month-or-who-knows-how-long road-trip along the Panamerican Highway that she’s been dreaming of since her teenage years — all the way from the U.S. to the very tip of South-America. You can follow her on Instagram @mariecolinet!