Guidebooks have always held a particular fascination for me. When I was (much) younger and couldn’t travel on my own, I used to flip through my parents’ guidebooks in awe.
Most were of the DK Eyewitness variety, where photos and maps take precedence over text. I devoured them, getting familiar with Paris and New York through their pages.
A couple of decades later I finally got to New York. That old guidebook I’d pored over with such dedication when I was a child made the trip with me, but surprise surprise, most of the information was out of date.
Prices were wildly different, many restaurants had closed down, and opening hours had changed. The guidebook was really only useful as a map: at least the streets had stayed (mostly) the same.
Print guidebooks have been going through a bit of a crisis in recent years. With online sources gaining ground and old favorites in turmoil, it seems like nobody has space in their luggage for them anymore. Printed guides are heavy and expensive, and their information is often out of date by the time it reaches the shelves.
The guidebook’s dead… or is it? Depending on your definition, maybe not. While physical paper guides are largely obsolete for younger travelers, a few web and app-based versions are still thriving.
We’ve pored over a bunch of them, and found six of the best guidebook apps and sites to download before your next trip.
Best for Traveling Locally, for Real: Spotted by Locals
Travel like a local. Many a guidebook has tried to bring that experience to travelers, but if any has succeeded, it’s Spotted by Locals.
The brainchild of Amsterdam-dwellers Sanne and Bart van Poll, the website has one mission: to show global cities through the eyes of those who live in and love them.
The site spans 80 cities across Europe, North America, and the Middle East. Each destination is covered by a team of locals (“spotters”) who point out their favorite places in town.
From international bookstores hosting Harry Potter trivia nights in Madrid to the last stone gates in Zagreb and a bar replicating a Le Corbusier building in Brussels, the recommendations are as varied and as local as it gets.
Spotted by Locals is also available as an app, which works offline and has new recommendations added regularly. The app is free for both Android and iOS, but each guide sells for $3.99, including updates for life.
Best for Those Who Still Want a Physical Guide: In Your Pocket
Launched in 1991, In Your Pocket is one of the oldest online guidebooks out there. Born on a cold December evening in Vilnius (a town that at the time didn’t even have a phonebook), the goal was to create comprehensive locally-sourced guides to European cities that were regularly updated and fully print-friendly.
Since then, the company has expanded its scope to include cities in South Africa, Australia, and several Caribbean countries. The company has guides to well over 100 places, generally focusing on less-covered destinations. You won’t find coverage of Paris or London, for example.
If you miss print guides, In Your Pocket gives you the solution: the convenience and regular updates of an online guide, with a downloadable PDF version you can print as a physical guidebook. Most cities have both versions available, although a handful are online-only.
Each guide dives deep into the destination it covers, whether that’s well-known cities like Amsterdam or Prague, or less popular places like Tirana or Pärnu. As well as general info on each destination, the guides include themed itineraries such as Nelson Mandela’s Johannesburg or Krakow’s old ghetto.
Best for Getting Right off the Beaten Track: Atlas Obscura
Think you’ve seen it all? Atlas Obscura is here to prove otherwise.
This online guide takes off-the-beaten-path to the next level. Combining articles on travel sites and sights with journalistic pieces on unusual news about history, science, and gastronomy, Atlas Obscura focuses on the weird and surprising parts of travel. Recommended sights span the globe, with over 20,000 entries covering 188+ countries and over 1,500 cities.
The obscurity of the sights varies. Some are relatively well-known secrets, like New York City’s City Hall subway station or Paris’ Catacombs.
Others are much-publicized geographic oddities, like Turkmenistan’s Gates of Hell or Australia’s Lake Hillier, and then there are the WTF-is-this-real variety, like South Africa’s baobab pub or Spain’s Baby Jumping Festival.
Around since 2009, Atlas Obscura has expanded its business to include events in US cities such as workshops or talks on all things quirky, and organized trips to places like Chernobyl’s Forbidden Zone or Bhutan’s mountaintop temples.
Best for Those Who Want a One-Stop Travel Service: Arrival Guides
Combining travel content and booking capabilities into one website, Arrival Guides is a travel powerhouse. Focusing on locally-owned, independent businesses and agencies, the company tries to cover several aspects of the trip-planning process, from choosing a destination to making accommodation arrangements.
Arrival Guide’s homepage showcases destinations Pinterest-style, in photos with short blurbs designed to pique your curiosity. If you’re just deciding on a destination, this layout offers a wealth of tempting options.
If you already have a place in mind, you can look for it in the drop-down menu. With 600+ destination guides, chances are you’ll find it there.
Now owned by Lonely Planet, Arrival Guides creates some of its own content, and partners with local tourism boards and agencies in other destinations. Where info is provided by third-party companies, it’s disclosed appropriately.
Either way, all guides are full of details and practical information, as well as a date stamp: you can see at a glance when the guide was last updated.
If you choose to make your bookings with Arrival Guides, the company unsurprisingly makes it simple. Each guide has a button that takes you to the company’s hotel booking engine, showing you options and taking payment. Easy peasy.
Best for Those Who Rely on Their Smartphone: Tripwolf
Tripwolf puts its information right where you need it: in your hands. The company’s guides exist only within its app, so they’re available with a couple of taps whenever you need them.
The app pulls information from established, well-known names in the travel publishing world, turning it into highly visual, easy-to-navigate guides. There are over 600 destinations covered, available offline and in several languages, and spanning the globe from Angola to Guyana to Mongolia.
The guides combine information from several services including Fodor’s, Yelp, and Foursquare. Throw in useful tools like geolocation, direct links to booking services, and syncing across devices, and you have a powerful travel tool in your hands.
The app is available for Android and iOS, and is free to download. The guides themselves, however, require payment.
For Those Looking for Itineraries: Cool Cousin
Just as its name suggests, Cool Cousin is the online equivalent of having a well-traveled, hip family member giving you travel advice. In this case, however, there are thousands of “cool cousins” around the world, waiting to show off their home cities.
The site offers online city guides, tips, and info on 100+ cities across four continents. Each destination has profiles of local guides, full of recommendations and insights on sights to see, places to eat, and what not to miss.
Recommendations from each local are also presented on city maps, with colorful dots marking the unmissable spots. Usefully, if you look at several profiles from the same city, all the tips get collected on a single map. You can take those tips on the road via the free iOS and Android app.
For now the site solely focuses on the guides, but there are plans to add booking services as well. Customers will be able to directly book services and tours from the guides, and Cool Cousins will be able to monetize their inside knowledge and put together itineraries for travelers.
Images via Andy Arthur (guidebook facing down), Spotted by Locals (girl in red coat), Atlas Obscura (old map), Travellers travel photobook (Brighton changing cabins)