Picture a tourist. They’ve got a camera around their neck, they’re probably wearing shorts and socks and sandals and an anorak and in that anorak pocket is a guidebook. They are terrible people.
Are they? Because they wish to read about the place they’re visiting and learn more about it than they can from just looking at it? Better have them assassinated.
Hello, my name is Tony “Didn’t anyone else do the reading?” Stark. I like to read about where I’m going. For a start, I want to know if it’s worth going there. Second, I want to know if I need to pack my snowsuit or my swimsuit. Third, I want to have an idea of what I’m going to do. I don’t always want to make a day-by-day precise-t0-the-very-minute itinerary but I’d like to have a vague idea that I would like to see this church, this volcano, go to this pool, visit this part of this city and so on. I can and do get that from the internet. But when I’m there, there’s nothing quite like having it all collated by someone else in a handy-sized book.
I admit, details about hotels and restaurants and cafes and so on goes out of date almost before the book’s printed. But other things don’t. That church will still be there. So will the volcano. The pool price might have changed but whatever’s attracting me to it – the facilities, the view, the fact that it’s heated and outside – probably won’t. The guidebook will have a map to help me get there. I wouldn’t trust the public transport details not to have changed either but it might hint that there’s a bus to get there or a train.
And speaking of maps, I might go on a longer journey. I might go on the Golden Circle tour in Iceland for the first time – and back in December 2011, I did. I remember sitting in the big expedition truck that we were given because of the snow, staring out of the window and trying to figure out which road in the middle of nowhere we were on. I could see where I’d been. I could find the crater we’d been to, the name of which I hadn’t caught. The waterfall wasn’t marked but I could make a note of whereabouts on the map it was and find it later. I could match the noise the guide made to the word Þingvellir and find out which national park I’d stopped at. I could look at the map of the main sights in the national park and read about the geology and the plate tectonics that had formed it and the history of the parliament that began here. Having figured out how to spell it, I then had the option of going home and reading even more about it online.
And then there’s more general information. My guidebooks have a chapter on the history of the country or region I’m reading about. They often have pages about geology or flora or local traditions. They include snippets about local or relevant myths and legends within the chapters, or snippets about walks or history or anything else that comes up. They have a section in the front with suggested itineraries – what to do in one day/two days/a week etc, what to do if you’re into nature or into sightseeing or into a particular activity. There’s a big coloured section in the front listing the highlights of that place – and a warning that you can’t possibly squeeze them all in. My Paris one has several pages of really detailed maps in the back and includes a metro map.
There’s a lot of stuff in a guidebook and while you can’t beat visiting a place, you can definitely enhance it by doing some reading. Why do tourists get abuse for being interested in a place and Serious Travellers get credit for being more concerned about what they look like in a place? (When did I get so angry about Serious Travellers?)
FYI, my guidebooks of choice are the Rough Guides. I bought my first one when I was living in Switzerland because Angela had the Lonely Planet and I didn’t see the sense in both of us having the same one. Since then, they’ve become a habit but I like what they contain and how they’re laid out. My dad and sister prefer the Eyewitness Guides but I find them a bit too focused on the small details – I really don’t need an exploded diagram across a double page spread of every individual building. I have the Bradt guide to Lapland because the Rough Guides don’t cover that region as a region, although they cover it in each individual country (apart from Finland; they’re funny about doing a Finland book and it’s currently only included in the Scandinavia guide). I also have the Lonely Planet for New Zealand and it’s full of post-it flags for my imaginary trip to New Zealand one day when I have three times as much annual leave and four times as much salary as I currently do.
So – guidebooks are great. Please buy them and use them. If you’re afraid of looking like a tourist in public then read them in the privacy of your own room the night before you go somewhere or hide in the toilet to read about the place you’re actually in or whatever. But don’t go turning your nose up at them because they’re really useful things.
*please forgive the nasty stain on the spine of my old Switzerland guidebook in the preview picture. It’s elderly. Also yes, I have multiple Norways, Switzerlands and Swedens. I inherited the old Sweden after I’d already bought the newer one. I did upgrade my elderly Switzerland. And I did upgrade my Norway and my unpictured Iceland because I go there regularly enough to feel like they were justified.