T+L Test: Between the Lines
Despite increasing competition from the Internet, guidebooks are big business—roughly $140 million a year, and growing. For travelers, this means a dizzying array of choices. This month, we road test the best, to find out which one belongs at the top of the heap.
PLUS A look at niche guides and the Rick Steves phenomenon
How do the major guidebooks stack up?We dispatched T+L reporter and former Los Angeles resident Jeff Wise to test six of the highest-profile books on the streets of L.A.—a sprawling, challenging city for travel guides. To find out where each title excels and where it falls short, he considered them from several angles: navigability; cultural and historical perspective; writing style; and hotel, restaurant and shopping recommendations. He also gave them his personal litmus test, carrying each on an expedition through downtown. Here's how they fared.
• GOOD •• VERY GOOD ••• EXCELLENT
•• DK EYEWITNESS
Overview Eyewitness Travel Guides: California (ETG) is a skimmer's delight: glossy, dense, and full of photos. I paired it with DK's urban-focused Los Angeles Top 10, which truncates listings to the best picks by topic. Coverage Full of museums and tony stores, ETG addresses a well-heeled, though unadventurous, reader. Top 10, however, picks up on the city's more countercultural sights. Style A picture is worth a thousand words, especially when the writing is bland and poorly edited. Top 10 claims that Angelyne, a billboard pinup (and would-be governor), is "one of Hollywood's biggest icons." Most Angelenos would disagree. The Downtown Test The sightseeing section of the heavy-to-tote ETG is fantastic, especially the innovative photo-and-map combos. But the listings—14 hotels and six restaurants—are spotty. Top 10 includes great maps and, you guessed it, 10 restaurants, but no listings by neighborhood of hotels or bars. Best For Sightseers. Last Updated 2003 (ETG), 2004 (Top 10).
Overview An all-purpose directory of the city's sights and services, eschewing color photos and minimizing maps in favor of more text. It contains the requisite sections (nightlife, arts, shopping) interspersed with a few conventional sidebars. Coverage The yeoman of guidebooks, Fodor's got me from restaurant to hotel to museum, but offered little in the way of history and context. One nice touch: the "Fodor's Choice" section, with good (if unsurprising) top picks of hotels and restaurants. Style Aiming for the middle of the well-beaten path, the guide's conservative approach sometimes turns timid. In its section on surfing, the book opines that a "huge piece of flying fiberglass beneath you could kill someone." The Downtown Test The listings for 10 restaurants and 13 hotels, and extensive coverage of sightseeing spots, are adequate, though uncritical. The book describes Olvera Street as "the rich Mexican heritage of L.A.," without mentioning that it's somewhat tacky. Worse: only four bars are listed. Best For General-interest travelers. Last Updated 2004.
Overview A text-heavy, kitchen sink–style guide, enlivened by some cosmetic touches (a detachable road map) and lots of tips and Fun Facts. Coverage The focus is on listings, but sidebars ("L.A.'s Top Tourist Traps," "L.A.'s Best Sushi & Stir-Fried Crickets") add a bit of spice. The book sometimes hews a little too closely to conventional wisdom, recommending, for instance, a trip to the La Brea tar pits—an underwhelming tourist spot. Style The single-author approach makes for interesting prose. But can one person cover a city of 10 million?Maybe not: the book plugs El Coyote's Mexican cooking; everyone knows Coyote's fare is best tasted with tequila. The Downtown Test Plenty of maps make it easy to figure out where the eight hotels and 13 restaurants are—though the inclusion of a restaurant in Silverlake was a mystery, since no one in L.A. thinks of this area as downtown. Frustratingly, Frommer's doesn't list bars by neighborhood, and includes only two downtown picks. Best For General-interest travelers with a slightly offbeat sensibility. Last Updated 2004.
•• LONELY PLANET
Overview The original backpacker's bible has grown up, allowing the Ritz-Carlton to slip in with the hostels. It remains excellent at orienting readers with maps and cultural and historical background. Coverage Some entries (a half page on Six Flags Magic Mountain) skewed young, but L.P.'s city listings are as astute as ever. The dining section directed me to such under-the-radar gems as Cheebo and Buddha's Belly. Style A pair of authors cowrote the book with the help of several contributors, lending it authority and personality. Their attempts at being breezy can be grating, such as when they call West Hollywood WeHo. The Downtown Test This guide covers a lot—10 hotels, 29 restaurants, and 10 bars—by keeping the listings short. Sometimes too short: the book plugs the rooftop bar at the Standard Downtown, omitting the fact that it's often impossible to get into. Another downside: the neighborhood map is all the way in the front of the book. Best For Stylish backpackers and boho professionals. Last Updated 2005.
••• ROUGH GUIDE
Overview A handbook for the thoughtful and curious—one that puts the city's sightsinto context and studies their consequences. Coverage Flanked by color photos and maps, the main text is freewheeling, with sections on extreme sports, live music, and gay and lesbian travel; sidebars on such topics as L.A. street gangs; and wide-ranging restaurant coverage. Rough Guide is sometimes hamstrung by its progressive attitude: this is the only guidebook that didn't mention the storied Hotel Bel-Air, and it sneered (unjustly) at Beverly Hills' "fur-clad poodle walkers" (nobody wears fur in L.A.). Style Eclectic and budget-conscious, with a decidedly iconoclastic British wit that, depending on your perspective, can be either refreshing or annoying. The Downtown Test A long write-up with extensive maps and sidebars pairs sightseeing advice with the most insightful overview among all the guidebooks reviewed. Listings for 14 hotels, eight restaurants, and six bars are just what they need to be. Best For Budget travelers with an edge. Last Updated 2003.
•• TIME OUT
Overview A colorful and savvy guide that excels at listings (shopping, restaurants, bars, and entertainment). It also includes color photos and maps, plus a few offbeat sidebars. Coverage Frankly urban in both subject and tone, the guide celebrates the latest buzzworthy stops, with digressions into the high-endtea craze, retro-kitsch motels, and Mexican wrestling. Unlike several of its competitors, however, the book doesn't play favorites, which left me to separate the wheat from the chaff. Style Cheerful and informal, this team-written guide indulges in some welcome snarkiness. It calls the music of the Dresden Room's lounge singers, Marty and Elayne (of Swingers fame), "a quite unspeakable noise." The Downtown Test The listings of 10 hotels, 19 restaurants, and 13 bars are comprehensive and fun, especially in the sightseeing section, which says that the Museum of Neon Art "lurches from the affecting to the disgusting." But Time Out gave only short shrift to R-23, the city's sleekest sushi joint. Best For Roaming hipsters. Last Updated 2004.
Marvel, for a moment, at the cult of Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com). How did this ordinary guy come to be the face of a $20 million–a-year travel empire?A quarter-century has passed since Steves first published Europe Through the Back Door (ETBD), his guide to the Continent's more obscure corners—quirky villages and overlooked cities that were "more real" than the usual tourist haunts. The book also unraveled the quotidian mysteries of European travel (how to wash clothes in a sink, or say "tap water" in French). Refreshingly personal and occasionally funny, ETBD reinvented, or at least revived, the travel guidebook.
In its wake came spin-off titles, a tour company, and, not least, a PBS television series, hosted by Steves. Most of today's million-odd Rickniks first encountered their guru on TV, where his earnest chipperness evokes Ned Flanders of The Simpsons. Indeed, Steves is something of a professional enthusiast. His exuberance has coaxed many a first-timer across the Atlantic.
These days Steves's books sell 500,000 copies a year, altogether. Ironically, ETBD's success has created a sort of parallel traveler's universe, wherein Italy's Cinque Terre and the Swiss hamlet of Gimmelwald—two of Steves's beloved "back doors"—now rank alongside the Louvre and the Colosseum as must-sees on any European vacation. Even if 500,000 other Rickniks are already there.
—PETER JON LINDBERG
As the guidebook industry has flourished, so has the number of specialty guides. Here are some of our favorites.
The Living Abroad series (Avalon Travel Publishing), written by Americans who are doing just that, covers the practicalities: which visas or permits you'll need, how to navigate each country's health-care system, and whether to rent or buy a house in places such as Belize, France, and Japan.
All 10 volumes of the Traveller's Companion anthologies (Interlink Books) excerpt letters, memoirs, and novels that pay homage to great cities. The Prague edition includes selections from George Eliot, as well as Philip Roth's memories of a louche party at the Campa palazzo.
Lovers of contemporary art and design should not be without the Art-Sites books, written by San Francisco–based art historian Sidra Stich. The latest edition, on northern Italy, is a comprehensive guide to the region's best galleries, architecturally interesting shops, and design houses.
Aid workers, journalists, and extreme travelers turn to the ever-practical Bradt Guides (Globe Pequot Press) for advice on safety and health in emerging destinations and NGO-zones such as Namibia, Sudan, even Iraq.
WEB TIP Visit guidebook publishers' Web sites to see their latest electronic offerings. The Internet's ability to update by the minute has left some traditional publishers scrambling. But most have started treating the Web as a companion rather than a competitor, creating downloadable content, exclusive Web sites with expanded reviews and coverage, and even CD versions of guidebooks.