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Guidebooks-which ones do you prefer?

Like all travelers, the Web is normally the first place I go to when researching the particulars for an upcoming trip. However, as someone in the information profession and a hater of e-books (regardless of the brand), guidebooks in their physical form are still my preferred method of learning about a destination. The 910s section (geography and travel) in the library and I are “kindred spirits” in the words of Anne of Green Gables.

When it comes to guidebooks, I’m usually swayed by glossy color pictures. It’s probably not the most discerning manner of selecting a one, but the pictures are usually what make me really excited about an upcoming trip. This is the reason why I am such a big fan of Dorling Kindersley’s Eyewitness Travel Guides. Their photographs are stunning, the illustrated maps exquisite. While touring the Vatican Museums, their guide to Rome was a savior when trying to identify the dozens of symbolic frescoes in the Sistine Chapel (mobs of people+incredibly high ceilings=nearly impossible to take your time trying to guess what each fresco is of). But on the other hand (as based by the fact they are a bit costlier than the average guidebook), many of their hotel and even restaurant recommendations are a bit out of reach for me, a young and almost always, budget traveler.

Five years ago when I studied in Spain for the semester, my go to guide was the Let’s Go guide to Spain and Portugal. Researched, written, edited, and run entirely by students at Harvard University, its guidebooks are aimed at the student traveler, although older budget savvy travelers have started to use them as well. Overall, I was very impressed with the series. I found many neat finds in it including a venue that performed Sephardi music (Sephardi referring to Jews descended from the Jews of the Iberian Peninsula after they were expelled by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella during the infamous Spanish Inquisition), a delicious North African eatery on a side street in CΓ³rdoba, and the best recommendation of them all which was to avoid the port of Algeciras at all costs when traveling across the Straits of Gibraltar to Morocco. Of course there were recommendations I was disappointed with incuding a  hostal in Madrid which was an utter miss (creepy owners), and a cafe in Seville that supposedly served tropical fruit smoothies (back when it was still in business).

However, I had never encountered a guidebook I couldn’t have disagreed with more until I came across Rick Steves’ Snapshot of Bruges and Brussels. In the “Planning Your Time” section of the orientation chapter, Steves writes, “Brussels is low on great sights and high on ambiance. It could even be done as a day trip by train from Bruges or a stopover on the Amsterdam-Paris or Amsterdam-Bruges ride. The main reason to stop -the Grand Place-takes only a few minutes to see.”

“What? One of Europe’s most historic and majestic cities, and it’s deemed a stopover?”

Prior to going to Brussels, one of the stops on our whirlwind honeymoon, I had never been before. But my parents and grandparents had and they loved it. All savvy travelers in their own right, I knew their thoughts and opinions of the city would be the truth. Of course when we went, my husband I found Brussels every bit as charming as we knew we would. We were there for only 2 nights and still didn’t see everything we would have liked to so I can’t begin to imagine a person arriving in Brussels only to visit the Grand Place and have a Chimay and some pommes frites at one of the many cafes there.

I’ve found that fans of Rick Steves’ guidebooks usually treat him like a messiah in the traveling industry, and his “word” to be gospel. Although we had fantastic experiences with many of his recommendations in his Paris 2010 guidebook including our hotel in the seventh arrondissement and a wonderful meal on the Rue Cler, traveling is still an entirely subjective experience. What one person may not like, another person may love. While Steves deems Brussels suitable for visiting as a stop-over between other European cities, another person such as myself may love it and wish for more time there.

I don’t have a preferred guidebook, rather I utilize a variety for I tend to find that each one usually offers a recommendation for a restaurant or hotel that another one does not. And it’s almost always a great choice.

Anyone out there with their own preferred guidebooks?

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  • Reply
    April 13, 2011 at 6:02 am

    It’s funny you bring up this subject because I have met Rick Steve worshippers. I, however, have never been “attracted” to his guidebooks. It’s not the first one I gravitate to in the bookstore. I’m with you, I’m easily swayed by the ones with the pretty pictures. For practicality, I’ve found Frommer’s guidebooks to be the best help for myself. I like the way the information is set out for you. A lot of people have recommended the Lonely Planet ones but I used one in Thailand and couldn’t stand the way the information was laid out. It seems so out of order and everywhere that it made my type A personality a little crazy. LOL! I finally used Rick’s guide to Paris and found it most helpful for doing the selfguided tours of things like the Louve & Versailles. I used the book in conjunction with the pod casts and it turned out to be great. I loved the drawnings in the book to help get oriented to places and point out interesting details. I’m still a Frommer’s girl though. =0)

  • Reply
    the red headed traveler
    April 13, 2011 at 11:18 am

    Yes, I agree about Frommers (I also like Fodors too) being the best for convenient, right at your fingertips (in a normal semblance of order) information. I didn’t make it out to Versailles on my last visit but we did use Steves’ selfguided tours for the Louvre like you said and the Musee Orangerie in the Tuileries. Extremely helpful to know what was what and where it was (sometimes the museum paper pamphlets really leave out a lot). I’m just happy now I have a bookcase (somewhat small) that is exclusively travel related (guidebooks and memoirs). I felt (especially the guidebooks) that they needed their own place of honor πŸ™‚

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