How to Choose A Travel Guide Book For Your Holiday Destination

I would like to, if I may, share a few thoughts with you about travel guides in general: the good ones and the bad ones.

Good travel guides come in all shapes and sizes. It is fairly difficult to generalize about them in any way. Bad ones, on the other hand, generally fall into one of two categories.

Bad Travel Guide Category One is often quite a glossy affair, something that has been released by one of the major publishing houses. It has shiny pages, loads of colorful maps and pictures and appears eager to cover all the bases. Its authors – because there is normally more than one – have compiled these guides diligently and dutifully. Perhaps a little too much under the assumption that their readers would approach the foreign city or country they are writing about with the same frame of mind. These books appear to be based on the conviction that people don’t travel for fun but out of a sense of solemn duty.

The persons these books talk to are academics on a field trip. Who else would be interested in lengthy descriptions of 13th century masonry techniques or painted-glass windows or the antics of long-dead despots or, worse still, their annoying little mistresses? Why, by the way, are all French kings called Louis? And why are they all named after Super Bowls?

And who else would want to spend most of his time (judging from the space these guides devote to them) in musty museums, places that have been designed to sap your will to live and that, quite often, on a hot summer’s day to boot?

It is in books like these where you can find a possible destination for a day trip summarized as follows: “Village with a 14th century church, Gothic with some later elements, a 16th century Renaissance town hall, and a museum with two minor Tintorettos”.

Now what’s wrong with that? Everything. Because it tells you nothing about the place you would really want or need to know. It’s like being at a party, and someone approaches you to introduce one of his friends. “You must meet Bill”, he says, “Bill broke his ankle last year while playing tennis and lost a tooth when he was a little boy.” Uhhh, yes, Bill, so pleased to meet you…

Bad Travel Guide Category Two is a different animal. Generally, there is only one author, and his or her name is displayed on the front page. We understand immediately: This is a much more personalized account, and we are, for better or for worse, invited to experience the city or country through the eyes of one particular person.

In principle, this can and often does work very well indeed. Unfortunately, however, some authors are much more interested in talking about themselves than about the city or country they have been hired to talk about. I once read a walking guide of Paris where one of the contributors suggested that the reader follow her to all the places where she and her Lesbian friend had been having a good, or, as their affair progressed towards its bitter end, increasingly less of a good time. I mean: puh-lease.

What the writers of travel guides must understand is this: the book is an instrument to assist the reader in organizing a successful trip, essentially not all that different from a map or a compass. It is not a piece of literature. It is not a stage for you to express yourself. It is not about You.