With so many guides out there, many aimed at different types of travel, deciding where to start can be daunting. To avoid hours spent staring at shelves in the bookstore, check out our guide to the top travel guidebooks, and how best to use them.
Best for Basics: Frommer's
With over 50 years of guide-writing behind them, the team at Frommer's know what they're doing: namely, covering the facts. The guides give a solid overview of the usual hotels, museums and restaurants, and the history and culture sections help set the scene for any trip.
Best for Breadth: Lonely Planet
Possibly the most ubiquitous of guide books, Lonely Planet literally has the planet covered. With over 500 guides to over 195 countries, you'll find what you're looking for here. What's more, these well-written guides are jam-packed with information.
Best for Budgets: Rough Guide
Aimed at the slightly younger, budget-conscious traveler, Rough Guides are particularly good for rural and off-the-beaten-path locations. I used them in my backpacking days, and always found the food and accommodations suggested to be a good value for the money.
Best for Visuals: DK Eyewitness
For those who just don't enjoy sifting through endless paragraphs of tiny text while on holiday, it's DK Eyewitness guides to the rescue. These books are well-designed and photo-heavy, making flicking through them especially fun. I particularly like the Top Ten series, which are pocket-sized and chock full of images and information — perfect for weekend city breaks.
Best for Cities on the Chic: Wallpaper* City Guides
With an extensive range of color-coded City Guides, Wallpaper* magazine draws on its reputation as a tastemaker. Great for those who want to see the great cities of the world in style, they cover the best hotels, as well as art, architecture, food and drink, all grouped neatly by neighborhood.
Best for Eating & Drinking: Hg2
While Wallpaper* is focused on the most exclusive places a city has to offer, the Hedonists' guide to... is only concerned with the best, be it highbrow or down n' dirty. These beautifully-designed, discreet guidebooks focus on food and drink, culture, shopping, and nightlife; I've found the restaurant recommendations in particular to be spot-on.
Best for Europe: Rick Steves'
Rick Steves' eponymous guidebooks are aimed specifically at American travelers discovering Europe, and aim to make it more accessible to all. Personally researched and tested by Steves, they cover everything from accommodations and museums to how to overcome language barriers, all with an infectious enthusiasm for the subject.
Best for Local Culture: Time Out
Could it be anything else? Time Out guides distill the best content from their magazine into info-packed guides for culture-hungry travelers. Not overly concerned with history or hotels, they're especially useful for festivals, exhibitions and other events.
Best for Wannabe Locals: Not For Tourists
If you're preparing for a long visit, re-locating or have just exhausted all the "usual" things to do in a city, this is for you. Aimed at locals (but fun for all), NFT guides cover the usual shopping and nightlife, and well as emerging neighborhoods, tips and tricks for public transport, scoring tickets to the big game, and more.
Some Notes on Format
Many people are ditching guidebooks these days in favor of travel websites, blogs, apps and other, more modern means of travel research. Luckily, brands are keeping with the times: many of the companies above have app versions of their guides, as well as blogs and frequently-updated websites.
Personally, I think a combination of these techniques is best when researching a trip. I tend to use travel websites, larger-format guides and magazines in preceding weeks, but still like to take a small pocket guidebook with me to new territory. I use my phone for specific travel apps (say, one dedicated to the best pastry in Paris, or artisan gelato in Rome) but otherwise, like to preserve its battery for photo-taking and emergency map usage.
Guidebooks can be a helpful part of planning a trip and invaluable when you're actually on it, but remember: no book is ever going to replicate the results that hours of research, requesting recommendations, and (most of all) befriending locals can give. It's the combination of forward planning and flexibility which will make your trips worth every penny and moment spent.
So, what are your favorite guidebooks? Or do you prefer apps or websites these days? Share your recommendations and trip-planning strategies in the comments!