The Book Club

How To Out-Travel Your Travel Guide

My trip to Chicago began fantastically, thanks. On Sunday morning, I jumped out of bed early and headed to the Maxwell Street Market, the city’s famous once-a-week open-air bazaar. In recent years, the city’s Mexican population has boomed, and the market now hosts a veritable food fair of Mexican delicacies. Squeezed amid the booths hawking used car fenders, lacy underwear, and $15 bootleg copies of Microsoft Windows ’98 are makeshift restaurants, constructed for the day out of tarps and folding chairs. I wandered for two hours, sampling a ceviche-like fish salad, spiked with lime, cilantro, and hot sauce; tamales coated in a green mole sauce that tasted differently with every second it lingered on my tongue; and for dessert, golden empanadas filled with creamy rice pudding. Nothing I ate cost more than $3. I want to go back next Sunday, so I can try the cold shrimp soup, the goat tacos, and the Bavarian-cream-flavored churros.

But I didn’t find out about the market’s delights from any of my Chicago guidebooks. Its charms are no secret—in the past few years, the market has been written up in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, and Saveur magazine—but Fodor’s (which boasts of its coverage of “off and on the beaten path” sites) and Access (the cover of which claims to make “the world your neighborhood”) don’t mention the market even once. Insight Guide describes its past incarnations—as a center for Eastern European peddlers in the 1880s, a Southern-style farmer’s market in the 1930s, and a place to watch busking blues musicians in the 1940s and 50s—but says it’s now just a place to buy fake Rolex watches. My Compass Guide dismisses the current market a “sanitized successor” to the old. And Lonely Planet, with its orthodox adherence to alternative travel, has some good historical scraps—a block of the old market once seceded from the United States and established an anarchist country—but barely mentions any reasons to go now.

Oddly, Frommer’s did Maxwell Street Market more justice than the others, mentioning the food vendors, if not their offerings. Even better, it lists the market’s Web site. The other books contain a smattering of travel sites, but Frommer’s is alone in listing Web addresses for every restaurant, hotel, and attraction that has one. This is an easy and obvious solution to one of the biggest weaknesses of guidebooks, which is that they’re out of date from the moment they’re printed. Yesterday, for example, you could have theoretically logged on to the Statue of Liberty’s Web site to find the correct departure time for the ferry.

However, this was pretty much Frommer’s only virtue. The first page of the book unironically quotes a Travel & Leisure review calling the book “the Walter Cronkite of guidebooks—with all that implies.” Clearly, this is not a guidebook for jetsetters, adventure travelers, or anyone else who might consider Cronkite a less-than-ideal tour guide. As you say, Frommer’s is very much our father’s Oldsmobile.

But even older and tamer travelers deserve better than Frommer’s. The book breezes through the architecture of the Loop—Chicago’s spectacular downtown–in four pages. Most buildings are dismissed in two or three sentences. Dates and architects for some buildings are listed, but others are mysteriously omitted. (In contrast, the Insight Guide gives Loop architecture 19 pages, Fodor’s 14.) Frommer’s devotes an average of 10 times more copy to hotel décor than to the design of Chicago’s great buildings. For example, the nine-sentence review of the Hampton Inn notes that its interior “takes inspiration from the Prairie architectural style, and the two-story woodsy lobby with slipcovered furniture and a few Chicago architectural artifacts, feels like a friend’s great room. Guest rooms are residential and warm, with framed collages of vintage Chicago postcards on the walls.” Meanwhile, the Rookery Building and its famous Frank Lloyd Wright lobby get one line. I also found a historical error—Frommer’s says that Chicago’s first recorded settlement was established in 1781. Not to quibble over two years, but Frommer’s could have checked the Chicago Public Library’s timeline or the other guidebooks, which list the correct date as 1779.

What fun it was to write that last paragraph. Did I detect a similar note of triumph in your voice when you caught the guidebooks flubbing the Statue of Liberty schedules? Maybe this is the answer to your (excellent) question about why we buy and tote around guides we know are flawed, outdated, and out of style. My trips often become contests between myself and my guidebooks: Can I do them one better, finding more inside information, local color, novel tastes, and great prices than the experts? When I saw the paltry descriptions of the Maxwell Street market, I felt a small rush—I had out-traveled the travel experts.

Or at least I’ve out-traveled my fellow tourists. You’re right about how quick these books are to ridicule other voyagers. Rather than showing real concern for the impact of camera-toting hordes or knee-jerk irreverence, I think the books are dispensing garden-variety flattery, making you feel superior to the next guy on the museum ticket line. Traveling has become subtly competitive, with all of us vying for maximum independence, authenticity, and adventure. Buy me, boast the books, and you won’t be the Ugliest American.

But there’s only so much exoticism to be had, especially in well-trodden cities like Chicago and New York. In fact, hipster travel magazines like Time Out and Wallpaper have recently been taking a camp approach to oft-visited locales, telling their readers to embrace their tourist status, to take Circle Line cruises in New York and ride to the top of the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Could this be the backlash to the never-ending search for novelty and virgin territory? I’m not sure where the backlash would hit in Chicago, but I’ll keep my eyes open for fashion models wearing Hawaiian shirts and white patent-leather shoes.

Thanks for the thumbnail sketches; I’ll try to cover more books tomorrow. In the meantime, if you had to take one guidebook to New York, which would it be? And which one have you already chucked into the Hudson?