Italy travel guidebooks

A $30 investment for your $3,000 trip

Italy travel guidebooksYour guidebook is one of your closest travel allies, your pocket-sized friend with all the answers and the best insider's advice—and I felt this way even before I started writing the things.

Your guidebook is the one item in your pack that can tell you which bus will go to the castle outside town, which hidden bistro has the best local food, and which hotels accept Visa or give discounts to families.


Yes, I used to be a guidebook author, however:

(1) Except on rare occasions, since 2005 I no longer write print travel guides; just this site.

(2) Even when I did write guidebooks, I never received a single penny in royalties on any of my books—that's the percentage of each sale that an author would normally receive in most parts of the publishing industry; however, that is not how most guidebook publishers operate these days.

What I mean to say is that I neither have, nor have ever had, a vested interest in anyone buying these things.

But I did work hard on them, and thought they were pretty good, and it was nice to see folks carrying them around.
A travel guidebook can provide the background on that fresco in the cathedral, instructions for using the local subway, and exact prices for triple rooms and prix-fixe menus to help you watch that travel dollar.

It will direct you to the best shopping, the hottest discos, and the museums most worth your time and money.

People who travel without guidebooks usually regret it and end up buying one on the road (which, with the expectation of any locally-produced guides, will be imported and hence far more expensive).

Good guidebook writers change hotels every night or two to sample as many as possible personally, because simply touring a hotel won't let you know that perhaps the hot water works but the cold does not (yes, this has happened to me; twice), or the that market carts rumble past the bedroom windows at 5:30am.

How to pick the right guidebook for you

With so many series and specialty books, the travel shelf can be a confusing place; it's hard to tell which book may be right for you.

Make sure you choose a guidebook that fits your personality, budget, and travel style. Guides that cover all of Italy are great for planning and for whirlwind vacations, but for more focused trips you may also want regional and/or city guides. Me? I usually carry several guidebooks. It's such a tiny investment in money and luggage space for these powerful tools that can make or break your vacation.

We'll get more into the style and focus of each guide in a minute, but first, a few rules of thumb:

Top tips when buying travel guides

  1. Don't skimp on your guidebooks. The main rule when shopping around for one of these handy dandy travel companions is not to shortchange your vacation buy refusing to spend a paltry $60 to $90 on small stack of guidebooks.

    Buy two or three travel guides. (I usually buy five or six, but then again I'm a bit obsessive about research; goes with the job.) Get a selection of guidebooks that balance each other out. One may have great hotels and restaurants, another is packed with background and historical info for sightseeing, a third has all sorts of fun recommendations for things to see and do beyond the touristy stuff.

  2. Ignore the Price Tag. One mistake I see many people making in the bookstores—and I hang around the travel section an unhealthy amount —is buying a guide based on the cover price. Chances are, you're banking a trip worth several thousand dollars and a lot of happiness on the information in two or three books, so you want to get the best advice possible.

    Don't even look at the price when choosing a guide. I'll tell you right now: the most expensive books are the $29.95 visually oriented books on glossy paper with lots of pictures. Most hover around $10 to $20—that's peanuts to your vacation expense account.

    Two or three high-quality guides are the best vacation investment you can make, and they will pay for themselves a hundred times over. One of my favorite letters from a reader thanked me for saving them $450 in plane fares and car rental fees just with the advice in the planning chapter.

  3. Always pick the guide that best suits your own tastes, travel needs, and interests. People always ask me what guides I travel with. That's irrelevant (though to be fair, I will tell you later on). You should get the guidebooks that are the best for you.

    Me? I'm a fan a family-run restaurants, modest little hotels with funky charm, history and art and cultural context, and getting to know the locals wherever I go. (I also ain't rich, which dovetails nicely with my personal travel philosophy.) These tastes inform my choice of guidebooks.

    Though as a journalist I've covered more than my share of upscale restaurants and five-star hotels, they really aren't my cup of tea (nor are they in my personal price range), so for personal trips I don't ever bother with, say, a Fodor's or an Access guide.

    At the same time, I'm not a fan of hostels, nor of hanging out with students bent solely on partying their way through Europe, so I've no use for Let's Go and its ilk. There's nothing wrong with the student-oriented guides in of themselves—or the students for that matter; I'm just talking about the type who'd rather stay back at the hostel's pub, getting drunk and hooking up with fellow travelers, than head out to explore some residential neighborhood. I'm just saying the books aren't for me.

  4. Check the publication date. This is the copyright date, usually somewhere in the fine print in the first few pages of the book, before the good stuff starts (in some British publications it's on a page near the very back of the book).

    Keep in mind that these things take around four to six months or longer to research and write, plus another four to six months to go through the processes of editorial, printing, and distribution to your local book store. That means the information in those pages is probably at least a year old by the time it hits the shelves.

    In the interim, things will have changed. Restaurants do sometimes close down, the tourist office may have moved, some great new museum may have opened, and ferry schedules will undoubtedly have changed, and hotels nearly always raise their prices,.

    Furthermore, since the book stays on the shelf for at minimum one year (often two years, sometimes even three), that means the info in the copy you pick up may be getting very decrepit indeed. The copyright date is a good guide, but it only tells you which year (in rare cases down to the month) the book actually hit the store shelves.

    So cut your guide a little bit of slack when its info proves a little stale, and please stop insisting to hotel owners that they are somehow law-bound to charge the rates printed in your dog-eared 1996 edition of Let's Go (hoteliers complain about this to me all the time).

    In the end, even if all prices are $2 to $20 higher than the book states, for the most part they'll still be relatively on the mark. The budget hotels will still be the cheapest, and the luxury ones will be the splurges. Though, again, sometimes a run-down one-star flophouse will, between the research phase and the time you buy the book, have acquired new owners and been renovated into a mid-scale three-star inn. (I hate it when they do that.)

    I solve this problem by making one last run to the bookstore travel section just before leaving on a trip, hoping to find a brand-new edition of each of the books I've already bought for my trip (happens more often than you'd think).

    If there is a new one, I bite the bullet, spend the extra $20, buy the new edition and toss the old one—even if I had bought that older edition just a few weeks before. Remember, this is an investment in a tool that has the potential to save you hundreds of dollars on your trip. Twenty bucks is chicken scratch.

  5. Frankenstein your guides. I always get several guides to each destination, then ruthlessly rip them up and staple together related sections—say, every book's chapter on Rome—to make my own Frankensteinian guide to each city. This is what I stick in my day pack to carry around town, rather than lugging about a stack of massive books.

    When I leave town, I either keep the sections as souvenirs, pass them along to a new arrival, or toss them onto the exchange bookshelf at the hotel. Share the love, baby. Share the love.

  6. On occasion, ditch the guidbooks. Seriously. Find your own Italy, Enjoy the thrill of discovery. » more

A primer on the major series of guidebooks

Each of the many travel guidebook series out there caters to a specific audience:

Some focus on the sightseeing, art, and history (Michelin Green Guides, Blue Guides, Companion Guides, Insight, Italy's Touring Club Italiano).

Others focus on hotels and/or restaurants (Michelin famous Red Guides, Karen Brown's B&B and Inns guides—though, since KB now charges the hotels she lists for placement on her Web site, the series can no longer be considered true travel guides but rather an advertising venue for a carefully selected clutch of hotels).

Some series go for glossy presentation and lots of pictures and diagrams—but often at the expense of information (Eyewitness, Knopf, National Geographic).

Others focus on a style or means of travel: driving tours (Frommer's, Passport); walking tours (the "Memorable Walks" series from Frommer's, [ City ] Walks from Henry Holt); or shopping (Frommer's Born to Shop).

Leaf through many; buy the ones you like.

You can find most travel guides at Barnes & Nobles ( If you have a hard time finding a specialty guide, try (, an association of independent travel book shops around the country. Most shops reside in major cities, and are run by inveterate travelers who have personally road-tested half the books on the shelves. Bonus: most also carry a wide selection of maps, travel gadgets, and accessories (like Moneybelts and electrical adapters).

Which guidebooks are the best for first-timer travelers?

Rick Steve's Italy 2009The Rough Guide to ItalyFor novice travelers (or someone visiting a new destination for the first time), I recommend a one-two punch of Rick Steves and Rough Guides—the perfect combo of solid travel philosophy, good guidance on where to spend your precious vacation days, and cultural context to make all those sights and museums come to life.

Personal favorites

Now I know I promised to list my faves. But I cannot stress enough the importance of buying the guide that's best for you. Remember: I travel for a living, so I have a fairly good grounding in the basics, and that also informs my own choices (as do my personal tastes, budget, etc).

That said, here are the books I tend to buy first when planning my own trips, more or less in order of preference (though, remember, I usually buy several). "H&R" stands for "hotels and restaurants."

  • The Rough Guide to ItalyThe Rough Guide to Italy - A British series with a keen focus on background and history. Probably the best—or at least reliably good—all-around guides, with everything from practical info on train times and internet cafes as well as cultural background for the art, history, and life in modern Italy. The H&R listings are pretty good (sum up properties pretty well in just a sentence or two), and tend toward the inexpensive-but-good end along with a few worthy splurges.
  • Pauline Frommer's Italy: Spend Less, See MorePauline Frommer's Italy: Spend Less, See More - These new books aim to add more character to the Frommer's formula, and the end result is a cross between Rick Steves and traditional Frommer's, with a bit more emphasis on alternative accommodations. I should point out that I contributed some chapters to this Italy title (yeah, I know; this section is full of disclaimers). Also, I need to point out that Pauline is a personal friend. Doesn't mean she doesn't edit an amazing series of guides.
  • Eyewitness Travel ItalyDK/Eyewitness Travel Italy - Glossy books loaded with photographs, street maps, and cut-away plans of cathedrals and museums. Descriptions are cursory at best; H&R listings are pretty weak (mostly mid- to upscale, and just the most famous places). I use all those pictures to help plan trips, but don't usually take these heavy books with me. (Disclaimer: I've written three of these things, and have contributed to the last several editions of the Rome and Italy books.)
  • National Geographic Traveler: ItaliaNational Geographic Traveler: Italy - Gorgeous, glossy books with (as you'd expect) first-rate photography and truly insightful text. Lots of brilliant sidebar boxes and essays on cultural asides and history, good sightseeing info, fine self-guided walks, lame H&R (mostly the same, tired, famous high-end places everyone else lists). One drawback: the info can sometimes be shockingly out of date (I've read bits that I either knew, or soon discovered, to be years out of date—in one case, by more than a decade).
  • Footprint - British series; the best at giving all the niggly practical details, loads of cultural and historical background, a strong undercurrent of encouraging sustainable and responsible tourism, and a refreshingly different selection of H&R that has very little overlap with those mentioned in all the other guides.
  • Blue Guides - Like bringing along your own dry, boring, but infinitely knowledgeable professor of art and history. Encyclopedic, dreadfully dull, and absolutely necessary for us culture geeks. Lately, they've tried to add H&R and such, but they aren't doing it well. 

For some destinations, certain kinds of trips, or when a title is particularly well-done, my personal second round of choices include:

  • Cadogan - Fantastic quality, and charmingly written. My only (tiny) quibble is that the hotels and restaurants tend toward the middle to upper end (and excellent choices at that), where I prefer middle to lower. That's it—and it's thoroughly a personal taste matter. Otherwise: superb travel guidebooks.
  • Time Out - Especially good for big cities where I'll be spending more than a few days. Team-written, often by local experts in each field—the city paper's food critic will write up the restaurants, a history professor will cover the sights, etc. Best guidebooks for finding the hottest and latest in H&R, shops, and nightlife. Nice, breezily sophisticated style (think: alternative/events newspaper). Only problem: All they really do is cities. Also, they smell funny. (I have no idea why, but it'strue.)
  • Frommer's - The most in-depth coverage of H&R of any general guidebook, a wearisome amount of detail (though perhaps I only say that because it was once my job to collect it!), and a target audience of middle-aged, middle class folks for whom comfort takes precedence over price or character (most H&R are mid- to upscale). Also covers all the most important destinations, sights, and practical info. Could do with more cultural context (I'm guilty of trying to cram as much of that as I can in the Frommer's books I've written). Disclaimer: Although I do contribute to the Pauline Frommer's Italy guide, mentioned above, I no longer write any books in the main Frommer's guide series; however, a bunch that I did write—including Frommer's Tuscany & Umbria and Frommer's Northern Italy—are still being updated by other people, yet remain mostly my work (they even left in some personal anecdotes from my childhood).
  • Lonely Planet - Probably the world's most popular guidebook series at the moment, but about to take a big fall. Originally, LP was focused on the budget market and designed for backpackers who wanted an overview of absolutely everything they needed to know to travel a particular country. It offered good coverage of all the travel basics, but little in the way of in-depth reading or understanding. Info was cursory at best, with particularly light-weight coverage of sights and culture. Sadly, in 2004/05 they made two major missteps. First, they redesigned most of the books to appeal to a more mid-scale audience (now, regular LP are middle priced for middle aged travelers with middle class incomes; LP's "Shoestring" series still serves the budget backpacker crowd). Second and more important, a business decision forced out almost all their best writers in order to hire more inexpensive updaters. Quality will doubtless soon suffer. With such popularity, they often suffer from the same crowd mentality as do Rick Steves and Let's Go.
  • Companion Guides - Brilliant, old-fashioned, literary guides that are almost like getting a crash college course in art, history, and local culture from some charmingly erudite professor (like a Blue Guide, but with loads more character and not as encyclopedic). However, I often don't have the time to take their leisurely, day-long walks through each neighborhood, which is how they organize all the information. Also, the latest editions (after a long out-of-print hiatus) have, for some bizarre reason, been printed on thick, heavy paper stock in a large trim size when what you rally want out of a travel book—especially one designed to be carried around on every walk—is something as small and light as you can make it.

One final note: the author of any book can make a world of difference. For example, you'll notice Frommer's falls into my second tier of choices for my own travels, while Rough Guides and National Geographic are among my first choices. However, on a recent trip to Hong Kong, I discovered that the Frommer's Hong Kong was far superior and more up-to-date than either the Rough Guide, Nat. Geo. book, or Lonely Planet I also had with me. It became my travel bible to the point where I wasn't even carrying the other around with me each day.

(This realization came as a relief to me, since the Frommer's book happens to be written by a friend of mine and I knew I'd have to tell her what I thought of it—but even if Beth weren't a buddy, I'd still heartily recommend her book over any of the others.)

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