a few of Jolanta's guidebooks

“You are not, not, not to look at your Baedeker” – Travel and Guidebooks

The post below was written for a “Social Media and Analytics” class, taught by Leila Samii (@reallyleila), that I took in the fall of 2014, but I hope you’ll enjoy it anyway.

If you’ve read E. M. Forster’s A Room with a View, you may remember how despondent Lucy Honeychurch was upon entering a church without her trusty Baedeker (a guidebook), because without it, she could not “tell […] which, of all the sepulchral slabs that paved the nave and transepts, was the one that was really beautiful.”

As Nicholas T. Parsons explains in Worth the Detour: A History of the Guidebook, Forster’s “irony is directed at [the guidebooks] misuse as a surrogate for thought and a dampener of spontaneity.”

Lucy loosened up quite a bit over the course of the story, but the question remains: Should we travel with a guidebook, real or virtual , or just wander around, letting our eyes and chance guide us?

I admit, I am a bit like Lucy. I like guidebooks. I buy a lot of them. The cover photo shows just a few guidebooks from my collection.

Top Boston attractions according to reviewers on TripAdvisor
Top Boston attractions according to reviewers on TripAdvisor

I also rely heavily on TripAdvisor (“the worlds largest travel site“) to decide what to visit and where to stay, putting on the top of my list the places that other travelers praised, and on the bottom, those that are not as highly rated, though I admit I might be missing some interesting places by doing so. For instance, while I admit that Boston Public Garden is a great place to see, I’d suggest to  visitors of Boston to go on a DuckTour and to the Prudential Skywalk Observatory, rather than the Museum of Fine Arts or the Boston Symphony orchestra (as amazing as they are). (Though I do admit that the Skywalk Observatory is rather pricey, even if it includes the Acoustiguide audio tour, multimedia Skywalk Theater and Dreams of Freedom Immigration Museum, in addition to the views.)

So I’d say, guidebooks are useful, and nowadays, thanks to the Internet, and the ease to start a blog on WordPress, Blogger, or Tumblr, you can find travel accounts and tips on visiting places from around the world not only from established guidebook publishers, but also from a multitude of strangers, who like to write about their trips, just like we do.

A bit of guidebook history

Interestingly enough, according to Parsons, one of the first “documents having elements of a guidebook is the […] report on Palestine ordered by Joshua after the death of Moses and loosely reckoned to have been undertaken at the end of the thirteenth century B.C.”

Manuscript of Pausanias' Description of Greece at the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, downloaded from Wikimedia Commons
Manuscript of Pausanias’ Description of Greece at the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, downloaded from Wikimedia Commons

Fast forward a few centuries of guidebook history, skipping past Pausanias’ Periegesis Hellados (Description of Greece), written between 143 and 161 AD, the anonymous Itinerarium Burdigalense, a Bordeaux 333 AD account of travel to what came to be known as the Holy Land, the hugely popular in its time but discovered to be a fake The Travels of Sir John Mandeville of the 14th century, and the  the Grand Tours accounts written by the ladies in the mid-eighteenth century, and we arrive in the nineteenth-century, a time when the middle class started traveling as well, with a Murray or a Baedeker in hand.

John Murray’s firm, founded in 1768, published, among others, Lord Byron, Jane Austen, and Charles Darwin. But in addition to publishing these works, the company also had a strong list of travel guidebooks, starting with the Handbook for Travellers on the Continent: Being a Guide to Holland, Belgium, Prussia, Northern Germany and the Rhine from Holland to Switzerland. (You can also read this book online or download it to your Kindle.)

Kalr Baedeker’s family had been printing books since the seventeenth century, and had been printers to the Prussian court, but came to true fame with its travel guides, first of which were published in German in 1839, then in English in 1861.

As Parrsons points out “Baedeker borrowed [from Murray] the format of numbered routes, and […] the star system (asterisks) for highlighting important sights” but his guides “appeared to be more impersonal, less subjective, and […] more concise than Murray’s somewhat longer-winded texts.”

It is these books, the Murrays and the Baedekers, that tourists toted with them in the nineteenth-century wherever they went, though  challengers to the Murray and Baedekers dynasties sprouted up as well, including a series of cityguides Was nicht in Baedeker steht (“What’s not in the Baedeker”).

photo of a collection of vintage Baedekers from a post "Have Baedeker, will travel" on Classic Driver
photo of a collection of vintage Baedekers from a post “Have Baedeker, will travel” on Classic Driver

If you’re more interested in the history of Baedekers, read “The Guidebook That Went To Hell,” or “Have Baedeker, will travel” which also includes several beautiful photos of these vintage guidebooks, like the one on the right.

Contemporary guidebooks and their online presence

Fast forward a few more decades, and we’re in the time of Fodor‘s (founded in the mid-twentieth century), Lonely Planet (founded in the 1970s byTony and Maureen Wheeler), and DK Travel Guides (launched in 1993), to name just a few.

Out of these three, only DK Travel Guides does not have a robust travel web site, but merely lists their travel guides on a DK page (though I have to admit their full color travel guides are spectacular, and I’m glad they have a guide for my next year’s destination – Cracow – while Fodor’s and Lonely Planet do not).

Lonely Planet, which has a very attractive home page, has a “Destinations” section, a “Bookings” section, and a “Thorn Tree Forum” (launched in 1995). And you can follow Lonely Planet on Facebook and Twitter as well. Lonely Planet is also active on Google+, PinterestInstagram, and Vine. In addition, it runs photo challenges on Flickr, and has dozens of videos posted to its Lonely Planet YouTube channel.

Fodor’s not only sells its books on its web site, but also has a “Destinations” section with articles on popular destinations, a “Deals” section, and “Travel Talk Forums.” You can also follow Fodor’s on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Pinterest, and Instagram.

And even though DK Travel is not in the hotel or air booking business, it does have a presence in social media – you can follow DK travel on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Google.

However, while they might rate their attractions on a “star system” in their guidebooks, and have very attractive web sites, none of them have an easy to review online rating system, like TripAdvisor does, and that might be their drawback.

It’s just so much faster to look for a hotel on TripAdvisor, review the ratings, and book it straight from the site. No wonder TripAdvisor, a relative newcomer to the travel industry, founded in 2000 by Stephen Kaufer and Langley Steinert, and present only online, is so hugely popular.

10 thoughts on ““You are not, not, not to look at your Baedeker” – Travel and Guidebooks”

  1. I am a guidebook junkie (and I also love Room with a View!) When I first started traveling, a good guidebook was half of the adventure- I would plan and dream and get excited for months before the actual trip! Now I force myself just to use e-books for the space savings but I still miss being able to actually write in a book and add my own notes with a real pen!

  2. I do really love looking through guide books. I used to go straight for the travel section when I was a kid and just look through the guide books and dream about places I wanted to go. I think guidebooks as well as internet resources are great as a guideline, but it’s important to take other’s advice with a grain of salt and pave your own way and try to discover new things that speak to you personally in any location.
    Mags recently posted…BruFrou 2015 -An Intro to Colorado BreweriesMy Profile

  3. We definitely rely heavily on online reviews and suggestion platforms like TripAdvisor. Recently though we’ve been dabbling in guidebooks and we’re pretty impressed with what some of the newer companies have been producing. Definitely agree though – it is faster and easier to just go online and find the information you want with the click of a button!
    Carolann & Macrae – One Modern Couple recently posted…11 Wacky Inventions Found In JapanMy Profile

  4. I would say I’m somewhere in between. Guidebooks and recommendations are comforting because someone has already done the work for you and can vouch that something is worth seeing, or someplace is worth eating. But then there’s also teh adventure that comes with trying something different based on a local’s recommendation or just stumbling upon a hidden gem in a town. So, while I sometimes rely on guidebooks, I’m more of an off-the-beaten track kind of traveler wants to discover beyond the guidebook.
    Toccara recently posted…The Very BEST of Buda and PestMy Profile

  5. I am the worst with guide books! I do tons of research for our trips but none of them have been through guide books. I use Tripadvisor but sometimes I find that they have mostly touristy places on there but we’ve still had some great experiences. Maybe using these resources will help avoid that issue. This is such great information to have when I start planning for Hong Kong!
    Mia Herman recently posted…GRAND PALACE & WAT PO – BANGKOK, THAILANDMy Profile

  6. I’ve stopped using guidebooks but I do use TripAdvisor a lot. Mostly because I would hate to visit a place and miss out on seeing something magnificent because I didn’t know it existed! Although I’ve learned that many of the top attractions in a destination tend to be the most crowded so unless it’s really worth it I stay clear of those!
    Christa recently posted…Fat Girls Climb Mountains TooMy Profile

  7. Omg, I love this post! I use guidebooks as a starting point in my research and I had never thought of the history behind them. It’s so fascinating! I’d love to have a copy of an old Baedeker in my library. Some people are anti-guidebook, and I think if you only rely on them then you could be missing out, but I also think that they can be very helpful. If you’re looking at something but have no idea what it is or why it’s significant, then what’s the point?
    Vicky and Buddy recently posted…Malta: Europe’s Top Off The Radar DestinationMy Profile

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