On my very first backpacking trip in 2001, the most indispensable item in my pack wasn’t my multipurpose sarong or blue bandana; It was a well-thumbed copy of Let’s Go Europe. Once upon a time, this student-written guidebook company was a powerhouse, going head-to-head with mega-brands like Lonely Planet. It outlined everything that was free and frugal and I designed my summer itinerary around which destinations earned a coveted “thumbs up” rating for their hostels. Thanks to my guidebook, I was spending less than $35 a day for accommodations, meals, and activities — even in pricy spots like London and Paris.
Today, my budget is higher and my trips look different, but I’ve never lost my love for a good guidebook and I’ve expanded well beyond the classic tried-and-true brands. If London or Paris is on your travel list, you’ll want to do the same. These busy destinations are crying out for visitors who are eager to explore in a slightly different way. Seeking out the weird museum, the funky artist quarters, or the flower-filled lanes will result in a trip you’ll never forget. These are some of the alternative travel books that inspire my trips to these two incredible European capitals.
A Writer’s Paris By Eric Maisel, PhD
You don’t have to be planning your next novel or even contemplating a short story in order to enjoy this little guidebook with black and white illustrations. If you’re searching for the artsy, romantic side of the city, this is the book for you. And, more to the point, if you’re searching for some part of yourself — be it your next plot point or perhaps a big decision in your life — you’ll appreciate having A Writer’s Paris (2019) by your side. This book includes a helpful appendix of places to read (from English language bookstores to public parks), vignettes on what it’s like to write in a place like a church, and snapshots of life in a literary city. If perchance you are indeed heading to Paris to write a book or undertake another creative pursuit, there are also practical tips on how to go about it and realize your goals in the limited time that you have.
The Little(r) Museums Of Paris by Emma Jacobs
This book boasts that you’ll be discovering a new side of Paris, one that’s hidden in plain sight and it just takes a quick glance at the included listings to know it’s right. Starting with the Museum of Fairground Arts and concluding with the Chateau of Malmaison, The Little(r) Museums of Paris (2019) covers attractions that you almost certainly have never heard of before. This is the perfect book for anyone traveling with a mixed group. No matter what someone’s niched interests are, you can bet the author found a museum that represents it in Paris. She covers everything from the Museum of Music to the home of Victor Hugo to the Museum of Counterfeiting. Every entry includes pragmatic information (including tour times, metro stops, and contact information) but, best of all, everything is hand illustrated. As such, this is the most charming book imaginable, immortalizing Paris’s little(r) museums with tiny watercolors. You’ll want to have this book displayed on your coffee table long after your trip.
Secret Paris By Thomas Jonglez
On a recent trip to Paris, I was very much on the proverbial beaten path, walking down a touristy street not far from St. Germaine. The sidewalks were crammed with bric-a-brac from the souvenir shops and, unless you happened to be hankering for a faux-brass Eiffel Tower keychain, the street didn’t have a whole lot to recommend itself. By chance, I glanced up at the corner and saw a small plaque on the side of a building. It detailed how a French soldier, born on that very street, had died as a German prisoner of war. It was a sudden, sobering reminder that history really is all around you in Paris, even when you least expect it.
It’s little moments like this that make me love the recommendations in Secret Paris (2019). This slim book is absolutely filled with “blink and you’ll miss it” experiences. There’s the cannonball embedded in the wall of the Hotel de Sens (a souvenir from the July Revolution of 1830), the last artesian well in the city, and the café where socialist leader Jean Jaurès was assassinated. This is the perfect book for both first-time visitors and those who have been to Paris so many times, they might be contemplating making their own guidebook. First-timers will be excited to discover so many “hidden gems” next to mainstream attractions (like a motif of spectacular painted tiles not far from the Louvre), while jaded, “seen-it-all-ers” will be amazed by all the attractions tucked away in the outer neighborhoods.
Pro Tip: Here’s What One Francophile Loves
I spoke to Jo Karnaghan, a passionate Francophile and the blogger behind Frugal First Class Travel, about what Parisian guidebooks she loves. She recommends Paris: Made By Hand by Pia Jane Bijkerk. Jo says, “Whether you want to find the most chi chi of haberdashery or the most unique artisan souvenir, Pia Jane is your lady. This book really is a jewel that personally I just love to read and savour whether I’m planning a trip to Paris or not.” I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that Jo has also published a book on Paris! The Ultimate Paris Address Book is the perfect resource for information on where to sleep, eat, and shop.
London’s Museums And Galleries By Eleanor Ross
I thought I had a pretty good grasp of London’s museums and galleries. Sure, there’s a lot of them, but thanks to my early days in bargain backpacking, I had a lock on every freebie London had to offer. But a quick look through London’s Museums and Galleries (2020) showed me just how much I had to learn. I discovered that London has a Garden Museum, a Windmill Museum, even a Vagina Museum! I especially appreciate how this book gives equal space to mainstream attractions (like the Tate Modern and the Imperial War Museum) and those that barely qualify as museums, like the Viktor Wynd Museum of Curiosities (an absinthe cocktail bar and a basement filled with unusual artifacts).
London’s Hidden Walks By Stephen Millar
What’s better than one book about London? Try three! London’s Hidden Walks (2014) is available by single volume but I think the three-pack makes for a gorgeous display and a much better time trip planning. I had always considered walking in London to be a pragmatic thing (I can move much faster than a bus stuck in traffic) and a matter of frugality (single-use Tube tickets are not cheap). Millar’s books showed me that a London walk could be an adventure all on its own. His work, complete will detailed maps, allows you to follow in the footsteps of politicians, writers, and scoundrels and it showcases sides of the city you didn’t even know were there. The Thames is not the only waterside walk that’s available! This would be lovely for any traveler with an uncertain travel schedule, as you can do these walks at just about any time of day and find starting points no matter where you’re based in London.
While it’s not technically a book, A London Floral: An Illustrated Guide by Natasha Goodfellow (2020) is a lovely companion for London’s Hidden Walks. Opening up as a beautifully illustrated map suitable for framing, this pretty booklet is illustrated by Clover Robin and is a gorgeous guide to seeing London’s bloomiest spots.
Public House: A Cultural And Social History Of The London Pub By Open City
Writing a book about London pubs is a tricky thing. For starters, there are so many. How can you possibly know what to include or leave out? Then there’s the tricky business of, well, the pub business. What’s trendy today could be shuttered tomorrow. However, Public House: A Cultural and Social History of the London Pub (2021), isn’t your typical drinking guide. It’s written and published by Open City, a charity dedicated to making London and its architecture more open, accessible, and equitable. Their work is a celebration of the London public house as a gathering place, a cultural touchstone, and a piece of heritage. Yes, reading through it will give you some great ideas on where to grab a pint (120 pubs across all 33 of London’s boroughs are covered). But this is the furthest thing from a tourist’s guide to watering holes and you’ll find yourself reading it again and again.
Pro Tip: What One London Resident Recommends
I asked Julie Falconer, the voice behind A Lady In London blog, if she had any recommendations for a great niche guidebook and she did not disappoint. Julie reports,
“I love the book London Style Guide by Saska Graville. It’s full of great tips for stylish local places and hidden corners, and the photography is excellent.” Time to add this one to my reading list!
For more of TravelAwaits’ best reads, check out these stories: