Jump directly to the Pre-Trip Reading List tips.
Some of my earliest memories are travel-related. There was the trip to Disneyland when I was—I dunno, 5?—where I remember being very warm and covered with itchy spots. Turned out I was allergic to penicillin. I remember a doctor coming to the hotel, a blurry night with strange fried chicken served to me in bed, and then the Pirates of the Caribbean. My sister Lisa has one picture, which someday I will get hold of. This is not it.
Later trips with my family included Victoria Island in Canada, complete with a stay at the legendary Empress Hotel; I distinctly remember my mother flirting with my father in the dining room. We traveled to Baja California, where I got sun poisoning, but recovered enough to dare my brother to throw his beloved Hot Wheels Mongoose into the ocean. He did it, then cried for hours. I felt bad about that for many a moon. Sister guilt!
And again, no pictures.
But the first trip I remember actually preparing for was one that the four of us—Mom, Dad, my brother Jon, and I—took to Spain when I was a junior in high school; at this point, my 3 sisters were all out of the house, so we were more mobile. We had had a copy of the Arthur Frommer classic Europe on $10 a Day lying around the house, which I’d picked up and read avidly. When I realized that Frommer’s had a whole series of guidebooks that counseled you on how to get by for cheap in a slew of European countries, I got hold of their guide to Spain.
Thanks to my research, we left our 10-day base camp in Torremolinos for the caves of Nerja (awesome). We then drove hours through the countryside from Nerja to Granada. We had rented a Seat (pronounced in 2 syllables, kinda like “Fiat,” who I think they were related to), a very small car, and Dad’s 6’6″, 240-pound frame was jackknifed into the driver’s seat as we went up and down a million hills, stopping in some no-name town to eat a pile of deep fried rings—well, we tried to eat them. They were squid, apparently, and hadn’t been tenderized, and they tasted like rubber bands. Proving that not everything tastes good deep fried. Bacon wouldn’t’ve worked either.
There was, of course, no GPS to help us. There wasn’t even MapQuest. I mean, in case you haven’t figured it out yet, when I was a young whippersnapper, there was no internet. Taft was president. OK, one of those sentences is a lie. We arrived in Granada at rush hour, circled endlessly through Seat- and donkey-filled streets. At one point, a 10-year-old kid in a school uniform started directing us through an alley so tight, my brother and I could reach out the windows and touch the walls. Dad was so desperate he followed him.
Somehow, we finally squeezed out of that alley and wound up a hill to our hotel, which my trusty guidebook had promised had fine views of Granada’s primary attraction, the glorious Moorish palace the Alhambra. We trudged upstairs, opened our curtains, and had a spectacular view indeed: of a garbage-covered mountain on which goats happily chomped away. The Alhambra was on the side of the hotel where our rooms weren’t.
We went to the Alhambra the next day, were robbed by peasant women on the way out—I actually saw one woman take money out of my dad’s wallet and grabbed her wrist, and he shot me a panicked look, so I let go—and found a freeway back. One hour into the drive, Dad pulled over, got out of the car, opened his wallet and said, in utter disbelief, “That bitch took my money!” It was the first time I had ever heard my dad swear, which I think only proves that of all of his kids, I spent the least time with him.
It was a grand adventure. And, yet again, I have no pictures.
My next European escapade was the following summer, with Mom. She and I joined my high school on a 6-country spree; ok, #6 is the Vatican, but, well, it’s considered a nation-state or principality or something, which is handy if you count the countries you’ve been to, because it’s kind of a gimme. I researched again, using Frommer’s. Mom and I became expert at dodging the group activities and the group in general; if you’ve ever toured with high schoolers who, when asked by polite Europeans where they’re from, reply, “Rexburg!”, you’ll understand our desire to flee. Thanks to my trusty pocket manual, we always found interesting places to go. You’re used to hearing what’s next: No pix. Sorry. I mean, seriously, so much sorrier than you are. I don’t even think Mom and I took a camera.
That trip, and a month in Paris with a boyfriend—from whom, soon after, I broke up—had to sate my wanderlust for 2 and 1/2 decades. I saw a fair amount of the US in that time, lived in New York for a good amount of it, popped into Canada once or twice, and managed to hit Jamaica, but….no Europe for me. Researching, reading guidebooks: that was as close as I got to traveling outside the U.S. for years. You know what? It was a decent substitute. And when traveling in the US, I was in the habit of reading as much as I could about anywhere I was going. Of course, you’ve got a head start when you live in a particular country; I mean, you should have one, right?
Now that I’m fortunate enough to travel a lot, those long-established habits serve nicely. Frankly, there are many places I’d love to go—I’ve craved a visit to Afghanistan since I read about it as a kid in an art book my dad gave me—and I know I’ll never see them live. These steps work for those places as well, for, as Simple Jack says, a Head Movie in which I am the star, waltzing through Middle Eastern bazaars in the shadow of the Hindu Kush—back when that was a thing a person could think about doing. A pre-trip reading list is my first step to getting there, even if it’s the only step I’ll ever take.
The Pre-Trip Reading List: Tips
Pre-Trip Reading Tip #1. 36 Hours from NYTimes, and 48 Hours from everywhere else.
The 36 Hours in…. features at the New York Times are great gateways for a bunch of world capitals, state capitals in the US, and big cities that aren’t capitals, like San Francisco, Barcelona, Casablanca, and a ton of others. Probably half of each feature is food, booze, and something called “clubbing,” and at least two of the places mentioned will be outrageously expensive. Steve and I very rarely splurge on a meal. Still, the NYT 36 Hours articles showcase lots of cool, less obvious stops. They also have nice shopping tips. I am easily overwhelmed when it comes to shopping pretty much anywhere, so I’m always happy to get pushed someplace.
Just googling “36 Hours [your destination]” is going to pull up a bunch of sites, though. Yeah, the NYT will be at the top, if they’ve done one. But they haven’t been everywhere. Through this search, you’re going to turn up some good finds, including travel bloggers who’ve spent a fair amount of time in a particular area. This is how I found the brilliantly funny Lia of practicalwanderlust.com; she’s helped us prepare for our trip to Peru better than almost any other source.
You can easily go down multiple rabbit holes in this quest, so try to find a couple of voices you like. Subscribe to their blogs, click on their affiliate links and buy stuff so they get a little cut if you’re so inclined. (Bloggers are required to disclose whether they’re affiliated with the merchandise provider, and since no one pays you to write this stuff, I’m all for throwing people a little dough.)
Pre-Trip Reading Tip #2. Culturetrip.com
Culturetrip.com is a truly extraordinary resource, with dozens of articles on all sorts of locations, written in a super-swell, accessible voice. Culturetrip has an app as well. Just type in a city, and voila.
Pre-Trip Reading Tip #3. Frommers.com, or the mainstream guide of your choice.
My first pre-trip reading is invariably Frommers.com, my go-to of the big mainstream guides. I’m sure it’s an age thing. People (my age) have long asked me why Frommers over Fodors. I know it’s partly my history with Frommers being the first guide books I ever read (see above). But I also find that they provided more suggested itineraries, similar to 36 hours, whereas Fodors and Lonely Planet (the latter of which skews a little younger) lay out all the sites for you and trust you to be a little more on your own.
I think because I try to hit a lot of stuff, I really appreciate the way Frommers says, on Day 1, do this. The website has guides day by day for many (but not all, by a long shot) destinations, some even with special interest trips, like romantic or for kids or history nerds. There are print Day by Day guides to a bunch of cities, although you can find some of that info online. Still, you may want to grab a current copy from the book retailer of your choice.
Of course, if Lonely Planet or Fodors or Insight Guides are more for you, go to them. I also recently discovered Moon, which is nicely nerdy. This photo features a pile I grabbed from the library, and I also had a Lonely Planet and some other one on my online library service, Scribd. (I LOVE Scribd.) I very, very rarely buy a guide, but we have a great library system in Michigan. Anway, I had time to compare, and what can I say, Frommer’s still wins for me, which is, of course, just me.
Pre-Trip Reading Tip #4. Novel (preferably a Mystery) by Destination
I try to pound through at least one fiction or non-fiction book tied to my destination before I leave. Novels, and especially mysteries, can be nice entryways; after all, it’s the author’s job to take you to the place that you otherwise probably won’t visit. Due to mysteries’ focus on trying to figure out a particular puzzle, they tend to make for perfect plane or train reading; you don’t have to think too hard, and if they’re written with any skill at all, they make the time fly by. And if the mystery is written not by a native of the country but by someone from the outside looking in—just as you’ll be—even better.
A couple of examples:
Before we went to Vienna over New Year’s, I found a book called A Death in Vienna by Daniel Silva, a Michigan native (as opposed to an Austrian one). It’s long, has some truly tortured descriptions, and is a great distance from being the finest book I’ve read in a while, or even in December. BUT it is set during the beginning of the Viennese Secession movement, which is Klimt (The Kiss, see below) and Egon Schiele, who, unless you’re an art history freak, is the only other artist you’re likely to know, but they’re both insanely important if you visit Vienna because they are freaking everywhere.
Below, Steve and I try, unsuccessfully to do our own version of The Kiss in front of the actual one. But let me tell you, bending your head quite that far to one side and then trying to get a selfie with your eyes closed = Not Easy. Getting sexually ecstatic look on face while doing same = Impossible. I look a little worried, but really, it’s just the selfie and the crowds. Well, ok, maybe I thought I was really nailing the sexual ecstasy thing and I was feeling nervous. No need!
Here’s a not great picture of the Secession building. But it was super cool to pass it, and then go, hey, wait a minute. I just read about this place…
Freud is a character in that book. So are various Viennese cafes. Steve stops in every cafe because he is a pastry freak. But this is Freud’s favorite cafe, which I knew from reading my mystery. Whatever would dear Sigmund have said about the state of my coffee?
The Riesenrad, the big Ferris wheel, makes a dramatic (if silly) appearance in A Death in Vienna. It’s also a character in the best Vienna movie of all time, The Third Man. We went on it. I had to sit the whole time because the car rocks and I’m afraid of heights. Why am I going to the Andes?
So yeah, Death in Vienna is basically OK and a relatively painless way to learn a fair amount about pre-WWI Vienna. And from reading it, I had a better-than-average feel for the city before I even got there.
For our upcoming trip to Lima, I read another mystery, written by a non-Peruvian. The Dancer Upstairs, by Nicholas Shakespeare, IS a well-written novel. I had already begun Death in the Andes, by Peru’s most famous writer, Mario Vargas Lhosa. Both books use the civil war between the military and the Maoist group the Shining Path as their kick-off points.
But The Dancer Upstairs, well-researched but written at something of a remove, worked as the better intro for me. Its narrator is an Englishman trying to understand what happened in the country, who, naturally, stands in for those non-Peruvians among us who are entering cold. Once I finished it, I began devouring Peruvian history (from the excellent anthology The Peru Reader). I also felt good about switching to Vargas Lhosa’s comedic delight Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter; still dark, but very, very funny. If I get back to Death in the Andes, I’ll definitely appreciate it better, but for God’s sake, that’s a rough period in history. I completely welcomed the break into a brighter side of Lima. Here, btw, is my Peru Reading List.
Pre-Trip Reading Tip #5. Memoirs and Travelogs
The personal nature of memoir and travelog lends an intimacy to a place that you won’t get from a history book. For Chile, I read Isabel Allende’s My Invented Country. Allende’s a prolific writer, and I’m not alone in finding her uneven. When she’s great, she is indeed. That does not happen with every book. But as a memoirist, she’s an absolute delight. Here’s a pic from Santiago, Chile, by the way, appropo only of the fact that Allende grew up there. Those words and dots are on the very clean glass between me and the artwork.
Last year, I loved Bad Times in Buenos Aires by Miranda France, from which I learned not to refer to the Falklands but instead to the Malvinas, and that Buenos Aires has an extraordinarily high ratio of psychotherapists to non-psychotherapists. This was something, by the way, made somewhat famous by Anthony Bourdain’s visit to one in his Buenos Aires episode on his show. Of course, Bourdain’s schtick, and the reason people love him, is because everything is all about him.
But knowing—in part from being familiar with a little history but in greater depth from France’s book—BA’s place as the center of Argentina’s horrible Dirty Wars, and that thousands of young people were simply pulled off the streets and disappeared—and by “young” I mean high school and early college—well, suffice it to say that there are a lot of people in BA who need therapy, for reasons way beyond not being happy with lives that most folks envy.
This mural, from the La Boca neighborhood, shows a grieving and rightly furious mother with faces of disappeared children; there’s a high probability they were tortured before being thrown out of helicopters to drown in the Rio Platte, the huge river that runs alongside BA to the sea.
It’s likely that when you google “What to read before going to….”, the list of books that appears will have at least one memoir and at least one travelog. Grab ’em. Bonus: They’re usually pretty short. I like a short book.
Pre-Trip Reading Tip #6. Cookbooks
Go to your library. Look up the country or region’s cuisine. Get a real book with lots of pictures, because that’s a lot more fun than reading online. Read the intro material. Rick Steves (and every guidebook on the planet) will tell you about Sachertorte in Vienna, which is frankly pretty dry and about the last thing you should order in a Viennese coffee shop. A cookbook will show you the much tastier Doboschtorte (caramel topped chocolate cake), Linzertorte (jam filled tart with this amazing nutty-flavored pastry), Gugelhupf (a big pillowy cake with ridges and powdered sugar), and, well, a whole lot of stuff that’s pretty fun to watch out for. Take it from me: The rather oddly named Punschkrapferln is the most delectable thing I’ve ever eaten. And pretty darned adorable when topped with a good luck New Year’s mushroom. More, please.
Pre-Trip Reading Tip #7. Art
Big massive books documenting the art of a particular place are wonderful even if you don’t read any of the accompanying text. They acclimate your eye to the color, themes, shapes, faces, and animals of the place you’ll be going.
This is where your library comes in super handy. Libraries ROCK. Seriously. No matter how deluxe your monitor is, even if you’re projecting stuff on your entire wall, looking at pix online cannot compare to the much more intimate, literally hands-on process of leafing through a book. Someone spent time selecting, from tons and tons of stuff, a group of images that have something to say: about a culture, an environment, an artist, the subject material, the raw material. I had to special order this book on Martín Chambi, the pioneering Andean photographer, from my library, and it is completely worth it. Didn’t cost me a nickel, and inspired the hell out of me.
Moon guidebooks have extensive lists of recommendations; try to find one for the place you’re going (or wish you could go to) and check out the “further reading” section.
Pre-Trip Reading Tip #8. History.
There are some glorious histories out there. Just this year, I read Midnight in Chernobyl—not because I’m going to Ukraine, although they have opened Chernobyl up to visitors, which is bizarre and slightly insane and people go—but because I’d heard it’s a great book. It is, if terrifying and sad.
However, writing history is a tough gig. There are all those facts to deal with. If you can find a great true ripping yarn about the place you’re headed to, cherish it. Typically, I get a decent hit of history from whatever guidebook I’m reading; they all have them, and the NatGeo and Insight guides tend to be, logically, quite good at this. Understand that you’ll get plenty of history on the ground once you’re there. In fact, I often enjoy history books more once I’ve been to a particular location. It’s good to know a few basics, but let the place tell you where you want to dig deeper.
I did have a copy of Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey’s classic memoir of living in Arches National Park in Uta, when we went there last summer. But after being there and watching Steve attempt to unsuccessfully balance a bottle on his head—why? I don’t know!—we took turns reading it to each other on the drive through the state.
Pre-Trip Reading Tip #9. For Die-Hards: Magazine Archives
If you subscribe to a magazine that has online archives going back a ways—NatGeo, Harpers, the New Yorker—it can be interesting to search for material about your destination. NatGeo is going to focus on science, and their reporting in that area continues to be superb. Harpers and the New Yorker tend to focus more on political situations. This can easily get overwhelming and I only recommend it if you have something specific in mind. Like, Philip Hamburger on Argentina under Peron over at the New York. Hamburger was a superb reporter; reading these back when I worked on a special edition of Evita (for laserdisc!) back in the late 90s, made me want to go to Buenos Aires.
But…I think we’ve probably had quite enough at this point. Yes? So get to that library and read. And if you like, check out my list for my upcoming Peru trip.