Traditionally, guidebooks have been the traveler’s bible, and I think they’re still a great resource for planning your journey. Although, over the past few years there has been a proliferation of online travel resources and it is now easier than ever to find out about the best Europe has to offer. I think any good travel planning should include both printed travel books and online guides.
I often hear people mention that they don’t want to plan their trip, but they would rather “play everything by ear.” They have romantic notions of “finding that great little cafe” by accident. I think this is a terrible idea (trust me, I was one of those people). European cities are full of little gems—but they’re often hidden away and you’d never find them unless you knew exactly where to look. Without some foreknowledge you’re going to waste a lot of precious time and you’re going to miss out on many great things.
There are hundreds of guidebooks and travel guide websites out there, but I am going to mainly focus on the ones geared towards budget and younger travelers.
In this guide I will review “traditional” travel guidebooks, but I will also review new sources of travel information—like online guides.
Independent Online Guides—Written By Locals
Spotted By Locals: Having a local show you around is the best way to experience a city, but many of us don’t have that luxury. This is where the multi-award winning site Spotted By Locals steps in. I really like these guides because they’re written by hand-picked locals. I believe that most of their writers are students/young professionals so the reviews are geared toward the twenty-something budget-conscious traveler.
The guides are currently available for 30 popular European cities, and unlike guidebooks, these are updated multiple times a year. You’re not going to find much information about “tourist” stuff, but you will find plenty of information about local restaurants, bars, clubs, specialty grocery stores, shops, markets, and plenty of other “under-the-radar” spots. I find that these guides have a fairly heavy focus on restaurants/bars (with plenty of budget options).
InYourPocket: I believe I first saw these free guides when traveling in Krakow. They now offer free online guides to numerous cities throughout Eastern Europe (and a handful of Western European cities). These guides are written by local English speakers and are available for free download on their website. They still print free guides (available at various hostels) or you can buy the printed guides before you go (5€-8€ w/ postage included).
I like InYourPocket guides because it gives you a lot of practical information about the city (public transportation tips/maps, city maps, money saving tips, helpful words/phrases, upcoming events, etc). The guides are updated every few months so the information is current. There is a lot of good information about stuff to see and do at every price point. You’ll find a decent amount of advertisements, but it’s free.
Unlike.Net: If you want to know where the hip people hang out, head over to Unlike.Net. The guides are written by culture-savvy journalists, fashion, art, music professionals, and other people way cooler than we’ll ever be. You’ll find trendy bars, restaurants, shops, concerts, and other interesting things. Right now they have about a 8 European cities. Unfortunately, most trendy things are expensive so a lot of the stuff on this site skews toward the pricier side—although there are still some budget friendly suggestions.
What really sets this site apart is its iPhone/iPod Touch/iPad city guide app. The city guides can be downloaded (so you don’t need to be online to get info) and you can customize your own tour. The app will allow you to see all the cool stuff that is within proximity so you don’t have to do a lot of searching while you’re on the go. The Unlike App cost 3.99€/city and you can find a bunch of free info on their site.
Superfuture SuperGuides: Are you a trendsetting traveler that loves to drop a lot of cash? Well, Superfuture’s SuperGuides might be perfect for you. The SuperGuides are geared toward travelers on the cutting edge of fashion and design, and that want to know the coolest new shops and places to visit. The information is updated every month so you can be sure you’re only reading current reviews. The true budget traveler probably won’t find this too helpful because a lot of the stuff in these guides are fairly high-end. Each guide costs $20—so, it too, is on the high end of the spectrum.
Crowdsourced Travel Guides
TripAdvisor: The mecca of user generated travel reviews. This is one of my favorite sites to visit when first planning a trip. The reviews are written by a wide range of travelers, each with different expectations, so not everything you read is going to be from the point of view of a young budget traveler. You have to read into the reviews a bit, but I still think it is a great resource.
WikiTravel: The wikipedia of travel. There is a lot of really good, practical information about European countries/cities. All the major tourist things will be highlighted and some guides will give recommendations for hostels/shops/restaurants/etc. I like to go here to get a good overview of each city.
I think a good guidebook can be very valuable. Personally, I like to use guidebooks to find out about the tourist things (museums, sights, attractions) but I would rather find non-tourist things (hostels, restaurants, shops, bars, etc) from the online resources I listed above—although a guidebook will still list many good “non-tourist things.” There are many guidebooks available and each one caters to a different audience/niche. It is important that you get one that fits your travel style.
Guidebooks are generally split between focusing on all of Europe or focusing on a specific country/city. I think the country/city specific ones have better information, but if you visit multiple countries it doesn’t make sense to take multiple books with you (this is why I think having electronic guides on your smart phone/iPod Touch is a great idea). On the other hand, if you only plan on visiting one country it doesn’t make sense to get a book that covers all of Europe (duh).
I recommend going to a bookstore to check out the travel guidebooks in person. You’ll find tons of travel books at Barnes & Noble, Borders, or any other bookstore. Take a few that look interesting and flip through them for a few hours. If you don’t want to spend money, you can always write down the things that look interesting in your homemade travel guide and not buy the book. I like to buy my books on Amazon because the prices are so much better than in the store.
Lonely Planet: The most popular guidebook series—especially with young, budget orientated travelers. There is a lot of good information in these books and I think they’re worth checking out. Their “Europe on a Shoestring” is especially designed for budget travel. The guides are only updated every two years so some information might be out of date (although, this is fairly common among guidebooks). Although, be warned that any place that gets featured in a Lonely Planet book will likely be overrun with tourists—this makes some travelers shun the LP series.
Lonely Planet allows you download guides in PDF format and you can pick which sections you want to buy. I think this is a really great idea—I usually just cut out the pages that are interesting anyways.
Rick Steves—Europe Through the Back Door: Rick Steves is a seasoned travel writer/television show producer and he has published multiple travel books. His “Europe Through the Back Door” series is very popular with travelers of all ages. It is written for independent travelers who want to get away from the touristy stuff. He also has a bunch of country/city specific guides. In addition, he also has a few travel guide iPhone Apps.
Rick Steves also has all 66 of his PBS travel shows available on Hulu for free (US Only).
Fodor’s Guidebooks: Fodor’s publishes some high quality guide books and I know a lot of people who really like them. I think you should check them out.
Rough Guides: Another popular series that is popular with younger travelers.
Let’s Go: These guides have been a long time favorite of student travelers, but I’ve heard the quality is starting to go downhill (I guess they were purchased by a different company). There have been many reports that the 2010 versions on the books have less content and are less helpful than earlier editions. You can always buy the 2007-2009 versions, but much of the info could be out of date. Although, I hear the maps in these books are really good. If you see one at a bookstore you might want to thumb through one, but I don’t think I would recommend buying one.
Eyewitness Guides: The eyewitness guides seem to get good reviews but I think they are better for travelers with deeper pocketbooks. They do have a lot of pretty pictures so these are great to read through at the bookstore, but I probably wouldn’t buy one to take with me while I traveled.
Miscellaneous Travel Guide Sites
Time Out: Time Out is a pretty good online travel site (they also publish travel books) that caters to younger, more budget-oriented and culturally hip travelers. They have guides to a lot of the major cities in Europe so you’re bound to find something interesting. The website is free and they also offer iPhone apps for a bunch of cities that cost £2.99/city.
Do you have a favorite website or guidebook? Leave me a comment and I will check it out!
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