I am a planner, and that goes for travel as well as many other aspects of my life. I’m also someone who can no longer imagine life without the internet, despite the fact that the internet didn’t even exist until I was out of college. Put the two together, and you have a person whose copious volumes of pre-trip research are mostly done online.
Except when I return to some well-loved travel guidebooks.
While a paper book can’t be updated with the speed or regularity of a travel guide online, there are some travel guides that are absolutely worth getting. Here are some of my very favorites, books that I keep reading, recommending, and – where possible – updating.
Check a few out of your local library to see which one feels most suited to you, but then – if you’re anything like me – you’ll have to buy your own copy in order to scribble notes in margins and put sticky-tabs on pages you want to reference later.
A couple notes: These are affiliate links below, which means I get a little something if you buy through one of those links, but it won’t cost you any more to do so. Also, I got a free review copy of DK’s 2016 edition of Top 10 Rome, but I’ve had DK guides (that I purchased myself) on my bookshelf for years.
Craving more choices than just the few I’ve listed below? Then browse a longer list of books I love plus travel gear I recommend for an Italy trip at the Italy Explained Store – including my books Italy Explained: Italian Trains and Italy Explained: Gelato!
Rick Steves has long been my favorite guidebook writer. He writes about more than just Italy, of course, but he writes about Italy with such a fondness that it’s hard to not think it’s a favorite destination for him. I like that he makes people who are afraid of traveling feel at ease – I call him the “gateway drug to independent travel,” and I mean that as a compliment.
There’s a folksy tone in every Rick Steves guidebook that makes the reader (well, this reader, anyway) feel like I’m getting travel advice from a friend. And since that’s the same feeling I want my readers to have on Italy Explained, that definitely resonates with me.
That said, the folksy thing isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, and some people find Steves a little too dorky for their tastes. If that describes you, I’d still suggest getting a copy of his latest Italy book out of the library to skim for tips on destinations and sights worth seeing. (His tips really are great.) Then you can do more in-depth research with another book more suited to your style.
This is a Rick Steves book (with Gene Openshaw), but it gets its own category because it’s one of my most prized travel book possessions – largely because it’s out of print. This book was a compendium of Steves’ self-guided tours of major museums and cities all over Europe, and the instructions in the book are to tear out only the sections you need for your specific trip. Mine, therefore, is held together with rubber bands. The sections I’ve removed always go back into the book when I return from a trip.
My understanding is that many of these self-guided tours are now contained in Steves’ guidebooks for individual destinations, and others can probably be downloaded from iTunes. With the latter, you get the added bonus of having Steves himself walk you through a particular attraction or city. Still, I love my old copy of Mona Winks. It’s one of very few books I own that I’ll never loan out.
Once I graduated from the Let’s Go! guidebooks of my college years, I moved on to Lonely Planet. While the Rick Steves guides don’t cover an entire country, Lonely Planet does. What this means is that you’ve got to winnow your options down on your own rather than having a smart traveler do it for you, but it also means that less-visited parts of the country are at least in the book with a little bit of information to get you started.
Lonely Planet has gone through some changes in recent years, and to be honest I’m not sure I’ll be using the newer LP guides… But I still pull my old one off my bookshelf, even if it’s partly out of date, for basic research and starting points for more in-depth reading.
The first DK guide I ever had was for Paris, and I think I drooled when I opened it. To go from the text-only approach of the Lonely Planet guides I saw back then to the quirky hand-drawn maps of Rick Steves books, it was almost sensory overload to see the detailed and colorful images in the DK guide. I recall the cutaways and diagrams to be particularly thrilling – a drawing of a church in Paris with some walls removed, pointing out where to see the various things the book was describing.
The only problem was that the thing weighed a ton. The pages were thick and glossy, so even though the Paris guide I had was thin, it was heavier than either of my other Paris guides. I left it at home on the trip.
The DK Top 10 Rome guide I received is still full of colorful pictures and diagrams, but it’s light enough that it came with me on my recent Italy trip. And, contrary to what the title might lead you to think, it’s not just 10 things to do or see in Rome. It’s basically a collection of a whole bunch of (really well-thought-out) top 10 lists – top 10 green spaces in Rome, cultural festivals, free things to do in the city, ancient sites, underground sights… The list goes on. Then there are top 10 lists for different neighborhoods, including Trastevere, Piazza Navona, and the Pantheon area.
There are wonderful fold-out maps inside the book’s covers, including a removable map tucked into the back of the book that I carried with me on my Rome sojourns even when the book stayed in my suitcase.
I have loved this book since I found it before my first Italy trip, and I still adore it. It’s the perfect dining companion for an Italy traveler, broken down by regions and including a menu translator. This is another of those prized-book-possessions, also out of print, and also never loaned out. I wasn’t going to include it on this list because it’s almost impossible to find a reasonably-priced used copy (which means if you do, you should scoop it up ASAP), but I can’t talk about my favorite Italy books without at least mentioning this one.