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City guides in the pre-smartphone era

I came across this stack of old Wallpaper city guides while reorganizing a few things over the weekend (because that’s what happens on the weekends now). They are pretty beat up and color faded from travel. It looks like these guides are still being published by Phaidon (along with an app), but it’s been well over a decade since I bought one.

I know the exact time period of the above books because I used to do really nerdy things like date and location stamp them when I got them. The Rome book was July 2007 and I picked it up in Dublin, while I was there working for a real estate developer before the global financial crisis. I also discovered old phone numbers and email addresses written inside of them. Usually it was a Hotmail address.

What I liked about these guides is that they were fairly condensed — good for a long weekend — and they were generally design-focused — perfect for architecture nerds like me. Their restaurant, bar, and club selections were also just fine as a jumping off point. After that it was up to you to make your own adventure.

I sent this photo to my friend Alex Feldman over the weekend — he also went without any sleep in Berlin — and he reminded me what it was like at this time. This was 2007. The first iPhone was just being released. Its map functionality was nowhere near what it is today (or didn’t exist). And I certainly didn’t have one. I had a Blackberry with a plastic wheel on the side. It was basically a giant pager.

To navigate a city at this time meant using a physical map. It also meant getting repeatedly lost and having to ask real people where to go. Alex also reminded me that I made him wander all around Berlin so that I could buy a new pair of glasses. What can I say, this was pre-laser Brandon and I needed cool architect glasses. They ended up being red.

As frustrating as this must have been at times, there’s something nice about traveling without knowing each and every step and without being able to summon an Uber at any point in time to take you exactly where you want to go. In fact, this is probably the central ingredient of all good travel: you need to allow yourself to be open to new experiences.

One of the great lessons of Anthony Bourdain was that you have to get out of your comfort zone. Cities have both highs and lows, but there’s real value and authenticity in the lows if you’re willing to engage beneath the surface. Perhaps that is the irony of old fashioned guide books in the pre-smartphone era. They were supposed to tell you exactly where to go, but they actually helped you find the opposite.

The only city that I never actually got around to visiting from the above stack is São Paulo. As you can tell, Brazil has been on my list for many years. I did make it to Rio de Janeiro a few years ago and São Paulo was supposed to be October 2020. But I’m pretty sure that trip will need to wait. Maybe I should leave my phone at home.


  1. George

    Your nostalgic review led me to my travel bookshelf to leaf through Richard Saul Wurman’s ACCESS guides from the ‘80s and ‘90s. Like you, the half dozen or so copies I have contain notes and thanks from friends returning them after visits to LA, Washington and Paris.

    Liked by 1 person

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