Last week I needed some space in my office, so I got rid of a stack of Italy guidebooks that I haven’t referenced in several years. They looked pretty and had nice memories attached to them, but office shelf space is too valuable! And anyway, I’ve been advising my clients for ages to skip the paper guide books.
Unless you’re heading to Italy with absolutely nothing planned ahead of time and you plan to have no internet access – in which case a paper guide book would be useful – you don’t need one on your Italy trip. Here’s why, and how to make sure that you still have all the information you need at your fingertips.
This is really the bottom line. No guidebook will be tailored to your specific trip, which means you’ll be carrying information – and weight – that you don’t need. You can still have all the information you need at your fingertips by printing out a few sheets of paper before your trip, relevant to what you’ll see and do on that specific day. When you’re done with it, use the paper for your journal or recycle it. Or (for you risk-takers!), if you have enough battery life, skip the paper completely and use your smartphone. If you are going to add weight to your suitcase, wouldn’t you rather be carrying a bottle of wine or some hand-painted pottery?
A huge limitation of guide books is that hotel, restaurant, and attraction information can be outdated by the time the book hits the shelves. For hotel bookings (which you should be doing well in advance anyway), you need to cross-check recent reviews before you book, both to make sure a place is solid and that it’s a good fit for your specific preferences. So the recommendation of a single guide book author isn’t an ideal approach. The same goes for your Italy restaurants: no need to make all your restaurant reservations in advance, but print out information about ones you’ve picked that fit your preferences, budget and location. You don’t need an entire chapter of restaurant options for each city – just a few picks for each place.
Some of my clients want just the Top Ten Facts about main sights because they want to do a lot of discovering on their own, while others want in-depth explanations. Either way, before departure, run through your itinerary and print out information (allow about 30 minutes to do this, it’s quick!) For example, on the day you’ll be driving around the Tuscan countryside, you may just print the Wikipedia page for each of the small towns you’ll hit (like Montisi). You might also include information and opening hours of some castles or wineries in the area (like the Meleto castle). For more in-depth information about churches and religious sites, the Sacred Destinations site is wonderful. Print out other interests too: a list of foods you should try for each region; a history of wine or leather or pottery of that area; local festivals… the list goes on.
I still recommend carrying paper, just make each sheet of paper count. (And I would not recommend relying completely on a smartphone. Batteries can run out inconveniently; wi-fi can be less available than expected; or smartphones can go missing.)
In the days of guidebook travel, I would bookmark the maps with sticky notes. But now there are so many better options for a map strategy in Italy (do you really want to be pulling out a whole book when searching for a street?).
If you really want to make an effort to speak or learn some Italian, get a paper (yes!) phrase book. In this case, it’s worth carrying the paper in your bag. Rick Steves’ Italian phrase book and dictionary is a good one, and for food the Marling Menu Master is good. If you’re only going to be pulling it out occasionally (or have no smartphone battery life issues), an app like the Learn Italian Phrasebook is a great way to go.
Guidebooks cannot recommend places that will meet your specific interests (but I can do that) or put sights and activities together in a logical order that fits your travel pace and budget (I can do that, too), and then connect all the dots with specific transportation advice (yep, got that base covered here at Italy Beyond the Obvious too) but as far as books go, 100 Places in Italy Every Woman Should Go comes as close as I’ve seen. So I’m holding on to that one, and a few other useful Italy travel books too. Also in the Extremely Useful category of books still on my shelf: guides with detailed hiking and biking route instructions, and my pile of Bell’Italia magazines.
Guide book authors, albeit vastly underpaid, really know their stuff and it’s not their fault that guide books are basically obsolete. So if you have a guide book author (or Italy travel expert) whose advice you love, print out their advice and bring it with you! Erica Firpo is a great example – check out her Rome advice at Forbes Travel Guide.
What about you – are you buying this advice or are you still planning to carry a paper guidebook around Italy with you?
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