The Pros and Cons of Guide Books

I used to be anti-guide book. I used to be just certain of the research that I could do online and intuition. My first two trips abroad were with school groups, so by the time I was going to Europe for vacation, I was certain of my worldliness and self-appointed expertise.

When I went to Vienna for my first solo trip, I bought a copy of Lonely Planet’s Vienna. Vienna, compared to Paris and Berlin, was something of a mystery to me. I didn’t know much about it and it was not nearly as popular of a destination as Paris.

My guide book saved me a lot of heartache while I was in Vienna. I finished different museums quicker than I intended or I nixed sites. With my guide book, I was able to improvise on the go and find new activities to do. Without consistent access to WiFi, it was helpful to have lists of activities and sites with a pull-out map.

If I’m going on a trip with another person, I probably wouldn’t worry too much about having a guide book with me. I figure that traveling with a partner at least gives you the option to collaborate or talk while figuring out what to do. Traveling solo is a whole different beast, so I would buy a guide book for any solo trips I will take in the future.
So far I’ve only bought Lonely Planet guides, which I like for their sheer density of information. I’ve also used Rick Steves books in the past, which I also like. They are a little more opinionated and curated than Lonely Planet. Rick Steves’s travel writers will give more subjective opinions (ex: “don’t go there, try this one.”), which can be helpful for beginner travelers.

All guide book publishers have their little niches and angles. Many of them will cover the same destinations and cover many of the same sights at those destinations, so the difference here is in the details.

Popular Guide Books:

  1. Lonely Planet: One of the most popular books with probably the largest number of destinations. These are packed full of information and don’t editorialize, preferring to provide the readers with tons of information. They do offer specialized lines of guide books, for specific types of travelers, who want more or less structure. If you can’t find your destination from another company, Lonely Planet will be your best bet.
  2. Rick Steves: This line only has Europe destinations. Rick Steves is a little more opinionated than other guide books, with a specific viewpoint on how travel should and can be. He does provide walking tours in his book that you can follow along with.
  3. Frommer’s: This guide book line tends to highlight the highlights of a destination, meaning that if you are looking to get off the beaten path a little, this would not be a good one for you.
  4. Fodor’s: Like Frommer’s, these books tend to do the highlights. They will give you the top 25 of a location, which is nice, but they lack the off-beat help that a Lonely Planet will be able to give you.
  5. Rough Guides: This is the book for anyone who wants something off-the-beaten-path. It is oriented towards more of an adventurer: hiking, off-roading, anything athletic. While that is not my speed, I know that others will find this series useful.
  6. Moon Travel: Like the Rough Guides, this is for adventurers, especially people who like camping. That’s a valuable well of information since this kind of travel will not be covered at all by many of the major travel books.
  7. DK Eyewitness: This is an aesthetic masterpiece of a travel book. These travel guides will have hand drawn pictures of different architectural wonders or of different sights. It’s more expensive than the others, which can be pricy too, but they are worth it if you want to see cross-sections of the Sydney Opera House.

Trip Planning: Amsterdam

My next trip is to Amsterdam. One of my favorite parts of traveling is planning. I’m something of a planner. I will write and rewrite my schedules and plans all over my notebooks. I will rewrite notes that I have laying around in order to better remember what I’ve been working on.

Handwritten notes

I think a place to start with is a destination. When you figure that out, borrow a travel guide from the library and start to put together a list of activities and sites that you want to see. Then start to figure out which are the things you need to do versus things that you would like to do, but will fill in your free time with.

One of the most useful things that I’ve discovered is, going through the activities listed on a discount card that might be available for your destination. Once I decided that I wanted to go to Amsterdam, I went through the activities listed in the iAmsterdam card booklet to see what I was interested in. From there, I decided to add up what the fees would be if I didn’t buy the card. Then, I compared fees to the cost of the iAmsterdam card and found that the iAmsterdam card was a good value.

After I’ve gotten that settled, I usually buy a travel guide to bring along with me, for easy reference, for easy improvisation, especially when I’m traveling alone. I prefer Lonely Planet and Rick Steves books, preferring Lonely Planet‘s breadth of topics and Rick Steves’s details. Another fun thing to do is to watch Rick Steves’s episode on my destination; this has worked for me since so far, all of my trips abroad have been to Europe.

I will probably rewrite these at some point, too. I might even accumulate more places I want to go to. Hopefully, slowly, I will be able to put together a useful schedule of some kind.

Schönbrunn Palace Audio Guide

Schönbrunn Palace’s audio tour is a serviceable guide through the grand halls of the Habsburgs’ excessive summer home. The rooms are crowded with tourists with their headsets pressed against their ears, struggling to hear the tour of the din of whispers and leaking audios over everyone else squeezed into too small studies and bedrooms.

The beloved Franz Joseph and Sisi seemed to be the only inhabitants of note. Sisi casts her shadow over Vienna, with her museum in the Hofburg, a museum complex in Vienna proper, while Schönbrunn Palace lays outside, a short train ride away, too vast to contain in a bustling city.

The audio tour takes you through the palace. You get antsy with the desire to see more of the building but want to stay in specific rooms to study all of the details laid out by the curators of the building. Fake plans are laying surreptitiously on the Emperor’s desk, as though he left for a second or, perhaps, evaporated just as a French tourist with ripped jeans entered the study at 11:30 AM.

It’s standard. It’s very usual for an audio tour. It’s far better than the Salzburg Residenz’s audio tour: too long, too boring and too much information, all squeezed into a too short period, while I was worried about catching a bus back to Vienna. The Schönbruun Palace audio tour is just fine enough until you get into the Great Gallery, a cavernous gilded room with a grubby raid rug laid protectively over the parquet floor.
Schönbrunn Palace’s staff’s genius move is to play the beginning movement of Johann Strauss’s iconic “Blue Danube Waltz.” The song opens with a horn waking up and calling, waiting for a response from a few light woodwinds. The two types of instruments call and respond, as the strings swell beyond.

I looked up at the ceiling, a huge mural of angels among clouds blue sky. It made me want to waltz, to swirl along with the Blue Danube.

Graphic Travelogues

Lucy Knisley is a comic artist, who has created a few graphic novels that are focused on travel, particularly cuisine. The first book I read by her is Relish, which is about her love of food as the daughter of a chef.

Knisley has an appealing, cartoony style that is very easy to digest. Her stories tend to revolve around her relationships with her family and how they impact her trips. French Milk, An Age of License, and Displacement detail her travels either with her family or on her way to family.

My favorite was probably An Age of License, which was about a trip she took to Europe for a book tour and her subsequent travels across the continent to meet up with old flames, friends, and her mother. The trip is integral to her understanding of what she imagines her future to be and how she thinks of herself.

Displacement is also great, but I find the subject matter a little more difficult for me. It details a cruise she takes with her elderly grandparents, who have lost their capacities to live by themselves and their memories.

French Milk is probably her least sophisticated, due to its status as her first published work, but remains very enjoyable nonetheless. It is about her six-week-long stay in Paris with her mother. Knisley details what she had for every meal and documents her growing love of different French delicacies.

Knisley has an eye for food, which she depicts accurately and appealingly. Everything she writes about food comes from someone who truly appreciates the artistry of cooking.

Best Apps for While You’re Waiting

One of the worst parts of traveling is waiting. There’s always a lot of waiting, whether it’s at the airport, on the plane, or in line. As a dedicated user, I can usually find different apps that can entertain me or even help me plan my trip while I wait.

  1. Libby by Overdrive. This is an e-reader service that allows you to borrow books from your library to read on your tablet. All you need is your library card.
  2. Cloud Library. Like Libby, Cloud Library is an e-reader service that allows you to borrow books from your library. It is a fantastically easy to use service. You just need your library card.
  3. Hoopla. Hoopla is a little different than Libby and Cloud Library in that in addition to e-books and e-audios, it allows you to borrow comic books and movies. The movies can be downloaded to watch offline.
  4. Flipster. This is probably my favorite app of all time. It allows you to borrow magazines from your library. Most magazines you can download and keep on your tablet indefinitely, but others do have some limits. It is such an easy and useful app that most people don’t know about.
  5. Viator. This is a very helpful app, which collects tons of tours and activities from many different sources, that allows you to purchase these activities to fill your trip. In order to purchase anything, you do have to be connected to WiFi.
  6. Duolingo. Learn a language while you wait with this app that makes learning into a game. You can collect coins to get different benefits within the app.

Podcasts and Travel

I always listen to podcasts when I travel. I will listen while I’m waiting, while I’m on the plane, and even while I’m walking around a new city.

I’ve seen travel tips recommending against wearing headphones when in a new place. I can understand what the worry could be, but I find it too cautious. Take a look around you. Are other people wearing headphones? If locals are wearing headphones, I would say that it’s plenty safe for you to listen, too. Still, be aware and cautious.

When I travel by myself, podcasts become a safety blanket. Often, I feel like I know the hosts of my favorite podcasts and emotionally settle into a place that makes an unknown destination knowable. I feel like I’m traveling with a friend.

Favorite Podcasts (And Best Episodes):

  1. Reply All: P.J. Vogt and Alex Goldman explore how the world is influenced by the Internet, and how in turn, the Internet is affected by the World. They find strange and interesting stories that can show how we are all connected in unexpected ways.
    Best Episode(s): #102 & #103 Long Distance, Parts I and II. Alex gets a call from a telephone scammer that leads him on a journey to India, in an attempt to get to the bottom of what kind of company is making these calls.
  2. My Favorite Murder: Karen Kilgarif and Georgia Hardstark narrate true crime stories as though you are at a friend’s sleepover and her cooler older sister and her friend want to spook you.
    Best Episode: #137: Gloogle. Karen recounts the horror movie-scary story of Danny Laplante.
  3. Punch Up the Jame: Miel Bredouw and Demi Adejuyigbe talk about pop songs that could be better and ultimately make their own, to truly make them better.
    Best Episode: #18: In the Air Tonight. There are other episodes with better parody songs, but there is a lot to like about how excited Phil Collins’s masterpiece “In the Air Tonight” makes both hosts.
  4. Thinking Sideways: This is a pleasant podcast about mysteries of all types, covering missing people, murders, urban legends and more. Although it is no longer running, this podcast has a deep catalog. It is hosted by Devon, Steve, and Joe.
    Best Episode: GhostNet. In 2009, a massive cyberspying operation was discovered in the Dalai Lama’s computers. Despite its size, no one knows who created it.
  5. What Really Happened: Andrew Jenks is a compassionate and curious researcher and listener, who wants to understand the true and lesser-known stories behind major headlines.
    Best Episode: Her Brother’s Revenge: The Death of General Custer. Jenks investigates the story of General Custer’s death, hoping to find clarity on who killed him. Jenks wants to reconstruct a narrative that is little heard by white American audiences by referring to the oral traditions of the Northern Cheyenne present at the battle.

Why is the Mona Lisa so famous?

Now probably known as the most famous painting in the World, the Mona Lisa, or La Gioconda, wasn’t always the highlight of the Louvre.

The painting was not an unknown or disrespected painting. It was even a beloved painting by artists during the Belle Epoque as a stunning example of Renaissance portraiture. Napoléon supposedly even displayed it in his bedroom for a period. The Mona Lisa was just merely overlooked by the general public.

Leonardo da Vinci painted Lisa del Gicondo, on commission for her husband, a wealthy silk merchant from Florence, completing it in either 1506 or 1517, before the painting was sold to King Francis I of France.

The painting remained in the possession of the French Kings, first at the Palace of Fontainbleau and later at the Palace at Versailles. After the French Revolution, it was moved to the Louvre.

It remained in the Louvre between 1797 and 1911, when the painting was stolen. At first, there was confusion was the painting was even missing or if it had been removed for cleaning. Famous poet, Guillaume Apollinaire, and his friend, Pablo Picasso, were briefly suspects.

The painting’s whereabouts remained unknown until 1914 when the Uffizi Gallery briefly displayed it before returning it to the Louvre.

A Louvre employee, Vincenzo Peruggia, had stolen the painting, claiming he was an Italian nationalist. According to Peruggia, since the Mona Lisa was created by an Italian painter, it should be displayed in an Italian gallery. However, fearful that he would be arrested, Peruggia kept the painting in his apartment for two years, ultimately selling it to Uffizi Gallery.

The painting developed a rather high profile during its disappearance due to the heavy coverage by newspapers. It became the most famous painting in the World and later the subject of innumerable selfies.

How to Eat Abroad

Every trip should include a food tour. It’s an invaluable experience that I feel enriches every travel.

I’m not a foodie, which is probably why I like them so much. I couldn’t tell you anything about palates or pairings. I’ll taste whatever you give me and comment “that tastes good.”

Tour guides will tell you what your destination is known for, how people buy food, and what to look for when you are purchasing.

One of the best food tours I’ve ever taken was with my mother in Paris. The mere act of being in Paris everything better and it’s a city bursting with great food. The very fact of Paris is great food.

The food tour in question was one where our guide took us through the steps of assembling a charcuterie in Montmartre. He showed us how to identify good butchers, bakers, and fromageries (lots of little plates dangling from door handles). We ducked from shop to shop, since the French prefer the qualify of qualified tradespeople to the convenience of a Super Stop and Shop, or god forbid a Target, where you can buy clementines and garden hoses at the same time.

In the basement of the Secret Food Tours Paris headquarters, our guide went over different cheeses, sausages, and breads are supposed to taste; how the combinations unlock something on your tongue. I couldn’t tell you really if it tasted that much better in certain combinations. I just liked it.

He gave us head cheese, a kind of meat jelly I recall as fairly pleasant and light. It was smooth to spread on the baguette, almost foamy. Head cheese is made of the head meats, far more enjoyable in practice than in concept.

Because I’m fairly certain it’s illegal to end dinner without a pastry, we ate two different types of éclairs (chocolate and pistachio, if you were concerned). According to our guide, the chocolate-covered custard-filled éclairs on American shores would be considered crimes in France. NOt just because of obvious inferiority, but because in France éclair toppings must match their interiors: a chocolate eclair must have a chocolate filled, a pistachio éclair must have a pistachio filling.

If I never went on a food tour, I would have never known that I abetted food crimes.

Why does Paris look the way it does?

Like most European cities of a certain age, Paris was once cramped with narrow streets and dense populations.  It was not built for convenient travel for carts or even travel across neighborhoods, but instead, it was developed chaotically and haphazardly.  It was the natural development of human congestion.

Paris of the 1840s had a reputation of being dirty and disease-ridden.  The population had exploded after 1815, but the city had barely grown.  It was also the center of the political turmoil France had developed over the decades since Napoleon was removed from power:  the July Revolution of 1830 pushed the deeply unpopular Charles X from power and the June Rebellion of 1832 was an anti-monarchist uprising against the more liberal Louis-Philippe.

The Revolution of 1848 had led to the abdication of Louis-Philippe, with the intention of instituting Universal Male Suffrage.  Unfortunately for the revolutionaries of Paris, left-wing policies were not favored by the more conservative National Assembly.

Just four months after the Revolution of 1848, the National Assembly was attacked by Parisian leftists after the highly popular Nation Workshops were shut down by the conservative Assembly.  The National Workshops were a highly popular works project that provided welfare and work placements.  With the closure of the National Workshops, Parisian leftists feared the work of the Revolution of 1848 was for nothing.  This event was called the June Days Uprising (not to be confused with the June Rebellion, as portrayed in Les Miserables).

This energized leftist movement swept Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte into the Presidency.  Bonaparte had reaped the rewards of his highly popular uncle, Napoleon I, former Emperor of the French, and his populist economic visions, with his pamphlet, “The Extinction of Pauperism.”  Bonaparte won broad support from all populations in France.

By 1851 Bonaparte had vastly expanded the power of the President, to the point where he was able to seamlessly declare himself Emperor, ushering in the age of the Second Empire.  As Emperor, Bonaparte was able to stave off unpopularity by making modernization of French infrastructure a priority, particularly that of Paris.

Bonaparte hired Georges-Eugène Haussmann as the Prefect of the Seine to head the project.  Haussmann expanded the streets, creating broad avenues, which connected neighborhoods.  The new Paris was expanded and updated with railroads, parks, new buildings, and improved plumbing.  The reconstruction of Paris employed thousands of men, with the new infrastructure also providing opportunities, also functionally addressing the National Workshops-related concerns of the June Days Uprising.

Like his uncle, Bonaparte was able to maintain broad popularity within France but was deeply flawed at maintaining a successful foreign policy.  Much of this popularity was due to his familial relationship with Napoleon, his populist public agenda, and his association with the modernization of France.

Bonaparte and Haussmann’s influence can still be seen in the wide Champs-Elysées, which connects the Arc de Triumphe (honoring Napoleon’s victory at Austerlitz) to the Tuileries Gardens, then housing the Tuileries Palace.  The Île de la Cité saw the expansion of the Notre Dame complex and the construction of the major government buildings on the island.  They also expanded Paris to include eleven more arrondissements, notably Montmartre and Belleville, enabling to the blossoming artist community to be a part of the city.

Tourists and native Parisians walk along Haussmann’s streets and spend days in the parks Haussmann modified.