I love to travel. And I especially love to travel in Europe. To me, Europe is the perfect travel destination for middle-aged independent travellers. It’s clean, safe, beautiful, modern, packed full of great things to see and places to stay, full of art and history, and it’s easy to get around. (Click here to see my favourite European country which perfectly encapsulates all those features).
But Europe is also huge. And a trip there is expensive. So how do you make the most of your limited budget – in both time and money?
Well you can book a guided tour of course. But many midlifers still prefer to travel on their own. So for them, the answer is to take a good Europe travel guidebook. When you’re spending thousands of dollars on a European vacation, why would you scrimp on investing $25 or $30 on a good up-to-date guidebook? Especially since the book can make the difference between an okay trip and a great trip.
Why you need a travel guidebook
Let me give you an example. Every day in peak season tourists from around the world line up for hours at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence to buy a ticket and enter. But readers of the guidebook I recommend know that for just 4 euros you can reserve ahead your entry time, so that they arrive at a special booth across the street, buy their tickets and join a short express line to enter the gallery. They’ve just saved an hour or more that could be better used to see something else or to just linger over lunch in a lovely piazza.
So that’s why I wanted to make a list of the best Europe travel guidebooks for travellers over 40.
In fact, you may want to invest in more than one. As we will see, there are differences between the popular guidebook series. So a combination of two or more can give you the best of everything you need. (if you read to the bottom you’ll see which combination I chose)
Choose which series you like – then get their book for region you’re going to
Below, I’ve listed my favourite guidebooks to all of Europe. (click on any of the images below for more info or to buy – by purchasing through these links you can help keep this site going at no extra cost to you. Thanks!) Of course, if you’re only going to one country within Europe, then you’d be better off getting the guidebook for that country from your preferred series. All of my recommended guidebook series will have a guidebook for specific European countries (sometimes grouped with a few adjoining countries into a regional guidebook). Or if your travels will be limited to a few countries within a region of Europe, get the guidebook for that region.
For example, the Lonely Planet series has guidebooks for Western Europe, Central Europe, Mediterranean Europe, Eastern Europe, etc.
Within each guidebook series, the writing and format are pretty consistent. So what I have to say about each series’ Europe-wide book will also apply to each of their separate books on individual countries or regions. So, I won’t list each book within a series. But I will provide links for some of the most popular European countries.
Okay, here goes. My favourite European travel guidebook series for middle-aged people is…
1. Rick Steves: Best of Europe
Rick gets it that you have limited time and money to devote to your European trip, and so his approach is to recommend the top cities and sights to see within a given time frame; and give you loads of time- and money-saving tips to make the most of that time. Unlike some of the other popular guidebook series he will not list all the major cities and towns in a country – just what he considers the ones worth making the trip to see.
Rick’s opinionated approach may not appeal to everyone. By limiting his books’ coverage to just what he considers really worth seeing, he may leave some experienced travellers annoyed that he left out places they consider also worthy of a visit. But for first-time visitors with only a couple or 3 weeks, I think his approach makes sense. More experienced travellers to these countries may want to look at some of the other recommended series for more complete coverage of their selected countries.
What I like about Rick’s books is he gives you suggested itineraries for a chosen time period. Yes, some other books also give you suggested itineraries but I find Rick’s better thought out and more complete down to the number of days recommended for each city. But he doesn’t stop there. He also provides suggested walking tours of the major cities that will get you to the major sights while also giving you a feel for the town. Even better, you can download to your smartphone his walking tours in an audio guide format. He doesn’t stop there. He also provides a suggested touring plan of each major museum or castle, with commentary on the major sights within.
If his books sound like a tour guide in book form, that’s because that’s his other gig. If you’d rather be led by a real person rather than a book, you can just book a Rick Steves’ Europe tour (although it’s not likely to be led by Rick himself).
It may sound like you are locked into Rick’s itineraries but you’re not. They’re just suggestions. He also uses a rating system for each suggested site (from “worth it if you can make it” to “must see”) so you can pick what suits you (Michelin Green Guides also offer extensive ratings).
The other thing I like about Rick Steves’ approach is that it follows what he calls his ‘Europe through the back door’ philosophy. That basically means travelling light and as much like a local as possible, which has the advantage of being cost-effective. In practice this means his preferred accommodations are usually small, family run hotels and guest-houses. Same with restaurants. He even has an introductory European travel tips book which fleshes out this approach to Europe under the same title: Europe through the back door.
To quote Rick…”many Americans miss the real Europe because they enter through its grand front door. This Europe greets you with cash registers cocked, $8 cups of coffee, high-rise hotels and service with a purchased smile. Instead, you can give your trip an extra, more real dimension by coming with me through the back door, where a warm, relaxed, personable Europe welcomes us as friends.” Sounds good to me.
|Rick Steves Best of Europe||- Points you to the best places to see|
- Value oriented
- Lots of tips for making the most of your time and money
- Worthiness ratings help you decide what you want to see
- Suggested itineraries
- City walking tours
- Good list of value hotels and restaurants
- Written for American audience (tips on differences; puts cost guidelines into $)
|- May leave out too much for some people
- Some may find him too "folksy"/ unhip
- Most maps in b/w (has added more colour recently)
- Written for American audience (may be less helpful for others)
Okay what about the other guidebooks? Well, first thing to note is that all the ones I list are well-written and useful. You won’t go wrong with any of them.
In addition to Rick Steves’ I also like Fodor’s guidebooks quite a lot…
What I particularly like is they are well laid-out with good use of colour and white-space which means they’re exceptionally readable (Rick Steves’ maps and photos are generally black and white, although he is adding more colour to his books in 2018). This contrasts with the Lonely Planet series (which I have listed under “Other” below) which I find are too densely written with small text, making them hard to use for quick reference when on the road.
Fodor’s are easier to read and worth reading – packed with good advice.
But the drawback to Fodor’s is that their idea of budget accommodation does not match my idea. But, if you’re more of a “price-is-no-object” traveller, you may well like the Fodor’s books best.
|Fodor's Essential Europe||- Good layout, nice use of colour|
- Excellent readability
- Good overviews of major places
- Good maps
|- Recommended hotels and restaurants are mostly high-end
- Idea of "budget listing" may not align with user
3. Frommer’s Europe
Frommer’s is the grand-daddy of European travel guidebooks but seems to have lost its way due to multiple changes of ownership over the years. It’s now back in Arthur Frommer’s hands so it will be interesting to see if and how it develops.
The main guide to Europe has not been updated since 2015, but the country-specific guides are generally kept up to date. I looked at the Ireland guide and found it well written and colourful. It seems to be taking Rick Steves cue and including more budget-friendly listings than it was once known for. And they have suggested itineraries. They’re also colourful – almost garishly so. But their maps leave something to be desired.
I especially like the idea behind the small chapter – “most overrated sights”.
These wouldn’t be my first choice, but some readers may prefer the style in the country-specific guides.
|Frommer's Europe||- Recently revamped, more like Rick Steves|
- Lots of color
- Good advice
- Some itineraries
|- Poor maps
- Not updated annually; check date published before buying
4. Michelin Green Guides
When you hear Michelin Guides, exclusive gourmet restaurants may come to mind. But that’s the Michelin Red guide. Michelin also produce good European travel guides – the Green Guides. They are another good choice for the midlife traveller, particularly if you plan to tour by car.
Unfortunately, they do not produce books covering more than one country at a time (al least not that I’ve found). In fact, many of their books are subregion-specific (particularly within France).
They give good suggested driving tours of a country or region. They contain great mini maps, but Michelin also produces excellent stand-alone maps (available separately) and their books’ listings are cross-referenced to their maps making them a great combination.
Michelin Green Guides provides more historical background on the regions covered than most other guidebooks and leans to more exhaustive coverage of each country’s towns and sights, but with useful ratings of visit-worthiness.
Still they’re hefty tomes – some may find them too wordy.
|Michelin Green Guide||- Lots of background info, history|
- Excellent colour maps
- Best for touring by car
- Listings cross-referenced to separate road maps
- Exhaustive list of towns
- Accommodations by budget
|- Only available on a per-country or part of country basis
- Not all are updated annually, check date published before buying
- Perhaps too many towns, too much information
- May be too "wordy" for some
Other Guidebook series to consider
Lonely Planet Europe
The Lonely Planet series are some of the most popular travel guidebooks on the planet. Within Europe they offer a variety of regional and country-specific guidebooks. So how come I don’t recommend them more?
Well, I don’t like them that much. For the readability factor mentioned above – i.e. their pages are so densely packed with small text that they can become tough to read, especially if standing on a street corner trying to find your way. In addition, in their attempt to list way more towns and sites than, say Rick Steves, I find they say too little about each place, and you can become overwhelmed with place names without context, i.e. you lose the context of where each listed town is in relation to where you are or want to go.
It’s as if they design the guidebook as an on-the-road reference for when you stumble into a town and need to look up what to see there, as opposed to helping you develop a touring plan and itinerary before heading out.
Finally, at heart, the Lonely Planet series are written for young backpackers, not our demographic. But, if you want good listings for youthful nightlife they’re hard to beat.
|Lonely Planet Europe||- Lots of versions available - Europe, Western Europe, Eastern Europe, Country-specific, etc.|
- Good listings of value accomodations (hostels and budget hotels)
- Best for younger hostel hoppers
- Good guides to city nightlife for younger travellers
- Extensive coverage of towns
|- Poor layout, dense pages of small text
- Poor maps
- Long listings of towns without context
Rough Guide to Europe on a Budget
If you’re drawn to the Lonely Planet approach, then take a look at the Rough Guide series – another UK-based publication.
They also supply good value listings, but I find them a touch more useful and complete. For me, a Rick Steves and a Rough Guide would be a solid combo for planning a European trip – in fact that’s just what I did on my last European trip in October 2017.
|Rough Guide to Europe on a Budget||- Similar to Lonely Planet but better layout, more info|
- Best for independent budget travellers
- Good listings of hostels and budget accomodations
|- Primarily directed at long-stay, backpacking travellers
- Country-specific guides are better than Europe-wide guide
- Can get lost in the town list without context problem