The best travel guidebooks to Paris

Here are some of my favorite guidebooks to Paris

And some pocket-sized guides

Guidebook tips

What's the best Paris guidebook for first-time travelers?

For first-time travelers—or for those traveling to Paris for the first time—I recommend a one-two punch of Rick Steves Paris and Rough Guides Paris.

This will provide the perfect combo of solid travel philosophy, good guidance on where to spend your precious vacation days (sights, hotels, restaurants, etc.), and the background and cultural context to make all those sights and museums come to life.

Why travel with a guidebook?

Your guidebook is one of your closest travel allies, your pocket-sized friend with all the answers and the best insider's advice—and I felt this way even before I started writing the things.

Your guidebook is the one item in your pack that can tell you which bus will go to the château outside town, which hidden bistro has the best local food, and which hotels accept Visa or give discounts to families.

It can provide the background on that sculpture in the cathedral, instructions for using the local subway, and exact prices for triple rooms and prix-fixe menus to help you watch that travel dollar.

It will direct you to the best shopping, the hottest discos, and the museums most worth your time and money.

People who travel without guidebooks usually regret it and end up buying one on the road (which, with the exception of any locally-produced guides, will be imported and hence far more expensive).

With so many series and specialty books, the travel shelf can be a confusing place; it's hard to tell which book may be right for you.

Make sure you choose a guidebook that fits your personality, budget, and travel style.

Guides that cover all of Europe are great for planning and for whirlwind vacations, but for more focused trips you may want a more specific guide to just France or just Paris.

Don't skimp on your guidebooks

The main rule when shopping around for one of these handy dandy travel companions is: don't skimp on your guidebooks.

Buy two or three.

Get books that balance each other out. One may have great hotels and restaurants, another is packed with background and historical info for sightseeing, a third has all sorts of fun recommendations for things to see and do beyond the touristy stuff.

Ignore the price tag

One mistake I see many people making in the bookstores—and I hang around the travel section an unhealthy amount —is buying a guide based on the cover price.

Chances are, you're banking a trip worth several thousand dollars and a lot of happiness on the information in two or three books, so you want to get the best advice possible.

Don't even look at the price when choosing a guide. I'll tell you right now: the most expensive books are the $30 visually oriented books on glossy paper with lots of pictures. Most hover around $10 to $20.

That's peanuts to your vacation expense account.

Two or three high-quality guides are the best vacation investment you can make, and they will pay for themselves a hundred times over.

One of my favorite letters from a reader thanked me for saving them $450 in plane fares and car rental fees just with the advice in the planning chapter in the book. (I trust this site will help perform the same service for you. If so, please send along the money you saved in the form of a check. OK, OK, maybe just half of it.)

Check that expiration date

Keep in mind that print guidebooks take around six months or longer to research and write, plus another six months to go through the editorial, printing, and distribution to your local book store processes.

That means the information is probably at least a year old when you buy it.

In the interim, things will have changed somewhat.

Restaurants do sometimes close down, hotels always raise their prices, the tourist office may have decided to move across town, some great new museum may have opened, and bus schedules will undoubtedly have changed.

Furthermore, since the book stays on the shelf for at minimum one year (often two years, sometimes even three), that means the info in the copy you pick up may be getting very old indeed.

The copyright date printed on the page with all that fine print near the very front of the book (in British-published books, sometimes it's at the back), is a good guide, but it only tells you which year (in rare cases down to the month) the book actually hit the store shelves.

So cut your guide a little bit of slack when its info proves a little stale, and please stop insisting to hotel owners that they are somehow law-bound to charge the rates printed in your dog-eared 1996 edition of Let's Go (hoteliers complain about this to me all the time). In the end, even if all prices are $2 to $20 higher than the book states, for the most part they'll still be relatively on the mark.

The budget hotels will still be the cheapest, and the luxury ones will be the splurges. Though, again, sometimes a run-down one-star flophouse will, between the research phase and the time you buy the book, have acquired new owners and been renovated into a mid-scale three-star inn.

I solve this problem by making one last run to the bookstore travel section just before leaving on a trip, hoping to find a brand-new edition of each of the books I've already bought for my trip (happens more often than you'd think).

If there is a new one, I bite the bullet, spend the extra $20, buy the new edition and toss the old one—even if I had bought that older edition just a few weeks before. Remember, this is an investment in a tool that has the potential to save you hundreds of dollars on your trip. Twenty bucks is chicken scratch.

Frankenstein your guides

I always get several guides to each destination, then ruthlessly rip them up and staple together related sections—say, every book's chapter on Paris—to make my own Frankensteinian guide to each city. This is what I stick in my daypack to carry around town, rather than lugging about a stack of massive books.

When I leave town, I either keep the sections as souvenirs, pass them along to a new arrival, or toss them onto the exchange bookshelf at the hotel. Share the love, baby. Share the love.

Synopses of the major guidebook series

Each of the many travel guidebook series out there caters to a specific audience:

Some focus on the sightseeing, art, and history (Michelin Green Guides, Blue Guides, Companion Guides, Insight). Others focus on hotels and/or restaurants (Michelin famous Red Guides, Karen Brown's B&B and Inns guides—though, since KB now charges the hotels she lists for placement on her Web site, the series can no longer be considered true travel guides but rather an advertising venue for a carefully selected clutch of hotels).

Some series go for glossy presentation and lots of pictures and diagrams—but often at the expense of information (Eyewitness, Knopf, National Geographic)

Others focus on a style or means of travel: driving tours (Frommer's, Passport); walking tours (the "Memorable Walks" series from Frommer's, [ City ] Walks from Henry Holt); or shopping (Frommer's Born to Shop).

Leaf through many; buy the ones you like.

Links to the major guidebook publishers
Pointers & pet peeves

People always ask me what guides I travel with. That's irrelevant. You should always pick the guide that best suits your own tastes, travel needs, and interests.

I'm a fan a family-run restaurants, modest little hotels with funky charm, history and art and cultural context, and getting to know the locals wherever I go. (I also am not rich, so that dovetails nicely with my personal travel philosophy.) These tastes inform my choice of guidebooks.

Though as a journalist I've covered more than my share of upscale restaurants and five-star hotels, they really aren't my cup of tea (nor are they in my price range), so for personal trips I don't ever bother with, say, a Fodor's guide. It just doesn't fit my travel style.

At the same time, I'm not a fan of hostels, nor of hanging out with students bent solely on partying their way through Europe, so I've no use for Let's Go and its ilk. There's nothing wrong with the student-oriented guides in of themselves—or the students for that matter. I'm just talking about the type who'd rather stay back at the hostel's pub getting drunk and hooking up with fellow travelers than head out to explore some residential neighborhood. So these books aren't really for me, either. For others, they're perfect.

Find your zen. Buy the books that seem to speak best to your likes and budget.

Disclaimers

Yes, I used to write guidebooks for a living. Does that color my perception? perhaps. But it also gives me enormous insight into the topic. Plus, consider this:

(1) Except on rare occasions, since 2005 I no longer write print travel guides; just my web sites.

(2) Even when I did write guidebooks, I never received a single penny in royalties on any of my books (that's the percentage of each sale that an author would normally receive in most parts of the publishing industry; however, that is not how most guidebook publishers operate these days).

What I mean to say is that I neither have, nor have ever had, a vested interest in anyone buying a travel guidebook.

On the other hand, I did work hard on them, thought they were pretty good, and it was nice to see folks carrying them around.

 

 

 



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