My Look at Travel Guide Books

By: Sandra B. Wilkins, M.A
Senior Agent,
[email protected]

When only the best will do…

“True ease in writing comes from art, not chance, as those move easiest who have learn’d to dance…”

Alexander Pope (1688-1744)

I’ve been in the word business longer than the travel business, 25+ years now. I worked for Private Eye Magazine in London in the 70s, a totally irreverent romp of a satirical publication, making mince of the Royal Family long before it was fashionable. I was a high school English teacher for a couple of years, until I realized I spent far more time babysitting students than teaching them anything. Journalism and language as career were sat aside for several years as I dove into every aspect of the travel industry. My voyage with OutSmart these past 5 years as travel editor has joyously re-united me with the written word, and allows me the luxury of writing about my own travel experiences. Not only do I plan travel for others as a career, I too TRAVEL, and I travel quite a lot. Like you, I prepare relentlessly for my trips, whether they are to new places, or to places I’m re-visiting. What do we do when we start dreaming of far-off places? We consult travel guidebooks.

Since I’m both a travel agent and a journalist, I am familiar with the entire gamut of travel guides. I’ve spoken often of the merits of this one or that one; some are good for one thing, others are good for another. For instance: Fodor’s are excellent for what, where, when, how much.  Stephen & Alexandra Mayes Birnbaum’s Guides provide essential information with a good deal of excellent writing and sensitivity to time and place. I enjoy Rough Guides, though their presentations on paper are truly “rough”, by which I mean all black and white text with lots of gray screened highlights. The Lonely Planet guidebooks are thorough, well written and many are lovely to the eye, employing good color photography to accompany their text. Who doesn’t like the geeky Rick Steves, whose publications have been pumped-up by his “Europe Through the Back Door” series on TV? There is a plethora of travel “guide books” out there. There are wonderful travel journeys and personal travel accounts, written as narratives instead of “guides”, as I discussed in a previous column.

But, to my mind, the most excellent and least known guidebook series are INSIGHT GUIDES, whose motto is “Only the writing outshines the photography.” These exquisite books are published by a company that was founded in 1856 by Gustav Langenscheidt, and are now in their third decade of publishing in the U.S..

These guides have shaped my recent trips to Italy and France. During my June visit to rural France, the information obtained from the “Provence” series guided every move for my trip with sister Jamie. Last year’s trip to the Italian region of Umbria, where I shared three beautiful villas with friends and family was inspired by their “Umbria” guide.

What makes these books so appealing and indispensable to the savvy traveler? Two things: The depth and breadth of the text, written by experts on each area covered, and the visual bliss that results from the breathtaking photography. Very few travel guides include color photographs at all, much less such a wealth of magnificent color photos to accompany the text that go hand in hand with every INSIGHT GUIDE. Upon seeing her first INSIGHT GUIDE, sister Jamie exclaimed, “my God Sandra, these pictures are better than National Geographic.” Upon her remark I realized that these guides are indeed self-contained, single subject equivalents of National Geographic. If I were just an armchair traveler, having a copy of any of these exceptional guides would be almost enough to take me there.

Each guide is beautifully organized into meaningful sections that take the reader on a progressive journey that results in genuine understanding of the place. They begin with two sections, History  and Features, which cover the country’s culture in lively, authoritative essays written by specialists.

The largest section of each guide is devoted to Places, which gives a full run-down of the attractions worth seeing. Then follows the Travel Tips section, full of useful information about planning, money, services, transportation, where to stay, nightlife etc. Throughout each guide there are photographs which have been chosen not only to illustrate geography and buildings but also to convey the many moods of the country and the everyday activities of its people. There is not a single page in any INSIGHT GUIDE that does not include a full color photograph to accompany and enhance the text.

In the latest edition of INSIGHT GUIDE ROME, there is a wonderful piece in the Features section about the Italian cinema. Under the Fascists the best directors went into hibernation, to emerge again after World War II. Stimulated by the ruins and post-war wretchedness, they gave birth to the genre known as neorealism – a vivid kind of realism which has laid the foundations for modern film.

Let me share: “Federico Fellini, who helped Rossellini write Roma, Città Aperta (Rome, Open City), summarized the unique atmosphere in Rome that had produced neorealism. ‘We discovered our own country…we could look freely around us now, and the reality appeared so extraordinary that we couldn’t resist watching it and photographing it with astonished and virgin eyes.’

Roma, Città Aperta was one of the most influential films of the time, and its unflinching confrontation with truth still unnerves audiences…and has a complex symbolic structure. Each character represents a larger element of contemporary society as well as an individual. The film elevates squalid drug addicts, priests, German lesbians and Austrian deserters until they carry symbolic import without sacrificing unique personalities.”

Interestingly, it was this film that brought Ingrid Bergman into Roberto Rossellini’s life. After watching the film in New York, she wrote to Rossellini: “If you happen to need a Swedish actress who can speak good English, has forgotten all her German, can express herself in barely comprehensible French and can only manage ‘ti amo’ in Italian, I would be prepared to come.” Shortly thereafter “Bergman arrived, and so began one of the most dramatic love stories in Roman cinematic history.”

So, I’ve been familiar with the INSIGHT GUIDES since I bought my first, their guide to the city of Berlin, Germany. During the early 90s I was blessed to work with large groups from all over the USA traveling to the annual International AIDS Conferences. One year the chosen sight was Berlin, and with this book in hand I was able to counsel and suggest and direct my 300+ clients to all that was essential in Berlin, though I had never been there personally.

There are now more than 180 individual titles of INSIGHT GUIDES available, running the alphabetical range from Alaska to Waterways of Europe.

BUT GUESS WHAT? They can’t seem to stop creating innovative travel publications. Within the past year INSIGHT GUIDES has teamed with the DISCOVERY folks to publish a new series of travel books that inspire and astound. The new series go under the title of DISCOVERY TRAVEL ADVENTURES, and they intend to provide travelers with a new kind of resource to “explore a passion, not just a place.”  We now have Insight Guides and Discovery Publishing introducing a whole new breed of travel guides. The first 6 in the new series “represent a dramatic break from traditional destination travel guide publishing, as each takes the reader deep into the heart of a special interest with evocative essays by renowned authors and experts, rich and colorful historical background, travel tips, destination profiles, maps, and more than 250 full-color photographs.”

John Gattuso a seasoned traveler, writer, and editor/veteran of several INSIGHT GUIDES, has served as director of this project.  Mr. Gattuso says, “You could say creating DISCOVERY TRAVEL ADVENTURES  has, in itself, been a true publishing adventure. The challenge has been to create books that give travelers both the inspiration and practical information needed to pursue their special interests.”

What I’ve seen as a travel planner these past five years is more and more of my clients calling me to plan quality trips to wonderful places. Some of the destinations are far-flung and outrageous; many are textbook standards…Paris, Rome, London and those country’s rural areas. But almost without exception, my clients want to experience the rich history and culture of their destination.

What I hope to do is inspire my readers to reach out and grasp the rich rewards of their destination.   Along these lines, you won’t do better than the INSIGHT GUIDE series.

For a complete list of their titles go to their website:

You can purchase these guides from,  and buying a used copy is just fine!

Remember your 1st Popsicle from the “here comes the ice-cream man”? Remember your 1st crème brulée? You get the point. We’re beyond Let’s Go Europe and Europe on $10 a Day…go for the gold my friends, and

go far, live well and have fun.

Sandra B. Wilkins, M.A
Senior Agent,
[email protected]