There's a world of travel guidebooks out there. So which to pack in your bag and clutch while navigating an unfamiliar street? Here, F&W rates the big titles and the small specialists, evaluating them for usefulness, armchair appeal and hipness.

The Classic Guides

The Alternatives

Full disclosure: I, travel editor at FOOD & WINE for the past four years, was a walking guidebook. I've written a dozen of these volumes from scratch and have updated, coauthored, edited and consulted on many more. I love guidebooks. I also know their weaknesses. You'll get the benefit of my experience (plus my colleague Jessica Blatt's take) in the guidebook assessments on the following pages.

A few things to bear in mind. First, remember that some guidebook publishers update every volume in a series annually; others update only their most popular titles each year; still others update on an erratic, rolling schedule. Before buying a book, always check the publication date, knowing that even the freshest information may be a year old. Also remember that guidebooks vary in quality within a series depending on the writer, and that different writers will leave their mark on a given title. To find a writer whose opinions you trust, you need to read between the lines.

That's what we did as we evaluated the strengths and weaknesses of the 26 series highlighted on the following pages, analyzing their characters and grading them. Scores are based on three essential attributes:

Usefulness Will a book earn its keep in your suitcase? By usefulness we mean accuracy and range, but also depth, clarity and navigability.

Armchair appeal Is the book worth the shelf space at home? It should be gorgeous, intelligent, evocative and a helpful research tool. It might even be better for reading at home than for taking on the road.

Hipness Is the information on restaurants and hotels up-to-date, including hot new openings? Does the book tell you what the tourist office can't?

In the interests of matchmaking-guide to traveler-here are our highly opinionated views on the major titles and the smaller operations. This guide to the guides should help you pick the book that's right for you.

    By Kate Sekules and Jessica Blatt