I travel a lot and so it’s not surprising that my bookshelves are filled with guidebooks from all over the world. The guidebooks I choose have changed as I’ve got older and as technology – via sites like this one - has opened up a whole world of additional information available for free. The guidebooks I needed as a student backpacker were very different from those I need today. Twenty years ago I favoured Rough Guide or Lonely Planet with their back-packer insights and listings for cheap accommodation and cheap eats. Today I mostly want guidebooks that will inspire me rather than tell me everything I could ever want to know about a place. I don’t need detailed prices and opening times – if I am interested enough to want to visit a museum or aquarium, then I’ll go and look it up on the internet for absolute up to date info.
After many years, many guidebooks and many disappointments, my vote for the series of guidebooks that never fails to inspire has to go to Dorling Kindersley and their Eyewitness travel guides.
Last year my parents kindly paid for me and my husband and my sister and her partner to go to Australia to visit relatives. We knew that aside from the time we would spend on a dive boat near Cairns, the rest of our trip would be in Sydney so I bought us the DK Eyewitness Travel guide to Sydney. It proved to be a fabulous buy.
DK guides win for me because they are filled with pictures, maps and inspiring ideas. The Sydney guide I have was published in 2008 but because it contains very few prices, it dates less quickly than many of its competitors. It’s not a big or heavy guide and has only 264 pages, but the layout makes it easy to use and DK guides are designed with clever little features such as ‘flaps’ on both covers to help you mark the pages of interest.
Let’s start at the covers – why not? The front flap reminds us of the contents of the guidebook and is beside the inside cover with a map of the districts with a colour code to tell us the names of the districts and where we can find the info on that district inside the book. Inside the back cover the map is repeated again, this time with a Sydney Transport overlay of all the main bus, train and ferry lines. Knowing that the maps are just inside the cover makes it really easy to find them quickly. The back flap carries a guide to the main symbols that are used elsewhere in the book. The covers and flaps are both in a stiff ‘wipe-clean’ finish that keeps the book in good condition despite all the abuse the average traveller may subject it to.
Onto the contents. The guidebook kicks off with a helpful guide on how to use the guidebook. I know that sounds a little over the top but DK guidebooks are different from most and it’s worth reading through to make sure you understand the philosophy behind them. The first big section is called ‘Introducing Sydney’ – a rather eclectic and sometimes illogical set of short sections that pull out extracts from the main book and arranges them by themes. This introduction starts with four suggested day-trips in the city and is followed by a series of maps and a history of the city. The Introduction section then gives us ‘Sydney at a Glance’ which takes us on a whistle-stop tour of the top attractions, pointing us towards the pages where more detail can be found. Information is clustered in themes such as Museums and Galleries, Architecture, Cultures and Parks. Next is ‘Sydney through the Year’ with an overview of the big events season by season and month by month along with information on weather. The 'Introducing Sydney' section then continues with sections on sport and the shoreline. The final part of the introduction focuses on sports and the shoreline.
If I think about how I used the guidebook, the introduction section was something I really only looked at briefly but the next big section – Sydney Area by Area – was the most useful part of the book though we really only found how good this was once we were on the ground, in the city, standing with guidebook in hand looking at the buildings in the book as they surrounded us. This section is split into 6 key districts of the city plus a few pages on attractions that are ‘further afield’. It includes suggestions for guided walks. Each of the areas starts with a map and a list of the sights that will be described. Then there’s a ‘three dimensional’ map that helps to bring a different perspect. Each of the listed attractions has a photo and key details including the address, contact details, public transport tips, and details such as whether cameras are allowed, whether disabled access is possible and whether there’s a fee. Having all the details about a particular area makes it much easier to plan a visit than if you try to use a book that only groups attractions by type. I’ve too often missed something that was just round the corner for not better reasons than I just didn’t know it was there. I’ve also had times when I’ve been standing around wondering where the heck something is, only to discover that it’s right in front of me but I can’t see it because I have no idea what it looks like. As well as practical ‘how to visit, where to go’ type info, the major attractions like Sydney Harbour Bridge have lots of extra info including how the bridge was constructed and key events during its history. As you’d imagine, the Opera House gets a lot of coverage.
I spent a lot of time before we went to Sydney looking for attractions that we wanted to see and then going to their websites for info on costs. I marked these all up in the book before we went so that I didn’t have to go back online to check again. You might suppose that with relatives in the city we shouldn’t really have needed a guidebook. However, my cousins and aunt and uncle all agreed that in just over a week my husband and I had seen more museums and galleries than their entire family had managed in many decades.
The Beyond Sydney section offers 16 pages of advice on what to see outside the city including places like the Hunter Valley, the Blue Mountains and the Southern Highlands. We didn’t have long enough to head out of the city but the guide left us with plenty of suggestions for next time.
The final two sections are Travellers’ Needs and a Survival Guide. We didn’t use the Travellers’ needs section because it covered places to stay (we were with relatives so we didn’t need that) and advice on where to eat. We just muddled around and found things without too much planning. My parents – who borrowed the book after we left – used the Shops and Markets pages and my sister and her partner who stayed longer than us used the Entertainment ideas. The Survival Guide is full of tips about tourist offices, etiquette (to tip or not to tip and so on), info for disabled and gay travellers, immigration advice, and other bits and pieces like where to find public loos and how to stay safe and sound. Avoiding sun burn, snakes and spiders and how to find a lifeguard or recognise what a policeman looks like, all feature in this section along with info on where to change money, how to use a phone (duh!) and how to post a letter (double duh!) The final part of this section contains travel info which really is very valuable and includes things like how to get around and what different types of tickets are available for different transport methods. We used the trains every day and the ferries several times and it was much easier to do so after a bit of background reading. At the back of the book – just before the very useful index – there’s a set of street maps which are scarred with lots of biro marks where I’ve marked up the things we wanted to see.
I’ve been using DK guidebooks for about 5 years now and whenever one is available for a place I want to visit – which isn’t always the case, these are my first choice for both ease of use and inspirational ideas. I guess each traveller’s mind works in slightly different ways and for me, the layout, structure and image-centred layout of DK Eyewitness guides work fit with the way I think and organise information. They won’t be ideal for everyone but they’re the best I’ve found for my travel guidance