Bookstore categories can be deceptive, particularly when it comes to travel guides. Store shelves or websites can be teeming with typical vacation guides that sell briskly as summer beckon, and then disappear into thrift stores as next year's editions roll out in the fall. But there are travel-oriented books that have lasting value, whether for "armchair" travelers or those desiring an alternative to well-beaten paths of rest, relaxation, and haute cuisine. Here are five sterling examples that are just as captivating about other subjects – history, architecture, and ecology – as travel. And they are certain to appeal to anyone who enjoys "the road less traveled."
ANCIENT ATHENS ON 5 DRACHMAS A DAY (Thames & Hudson, $18.95)
Suppose you could imagine yourself planning a journey to the Greece of 2500 BC? British historian Philip Matyszak has created a comprehensive – and deliciously hilarious – travel guide to ancient Greece utilizing all the modern categories of lodging, dining, recreation, and cultural sightseeing. For example, shoppers are advised that "Shopping itself is remarkably basic. The Athenians are not great materialists, and their homes are surprisingly, well, Spartan." By cleverly shifting historical frames of reference, he advises that "While Athens is not much bigger than an average 21st century market town, a truly incredible amount of brainpower is currently packed within its walls." Celebrity watchers are told how to spot Socrates, and there's a guide to useful phrases in Greek, including a classic by Aristophanes on the requirements to be a politician: "horrible voice, bad breeding and a vulgar manner." Beyond the value of the guide's great historical overview, a traveler to today's Greece would derive delight in discovering how much the democratic ideals of ancient Athens have endured.
The striking interpenetration of past and present found in today's Athens is plentifully apparent in contemporary Cairo. Middle Eastern historian Caroline Williams, building on the foundation of historians Richard Parker and Robin Sabin, has penned a finely detailed overview of Cairo's extraordinary concentration of sacred Islamic architecture. For any reader interested in Islam as both a religion and a channel for monumental artistic expression, this culturally sensitive guide is essential. Although only a few color photographs, line drawings, and simple maps supplement the text, Williams has an uncanny knack for making you feel that you're actually reverently and perceptively traveling across centuries as you enter ancient mosques or turn your gaze heavenward, sighting stately and ornately designed minarets.
Unlike Athens or Cairo, Los Angeles has been remarkably successful over the years in bulldozing crumbling ancient architecture, and has not been widely identified as a spawning ground for a major world religion or philosophy. Yet Los Angeles is a world-class destination when it comes to examples of iconic modern architecture, with Frank Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall attracting a steady stream of international visitors. And Art Deco lovers have long savored L.A.'s hotels and monuments from that glittery era. This is not the only architectural guide to L.A. – but it outshines its competition. Author Judith Paine McBrien and architect-illustrator John F. DeSalvo combine breezily concise prose sketches and charming line drawings, concentrating on walking tours, making this petite guide a primer for car-free architectural sightseeing in a city stereotyped as impossible to meaningfully navigate sans automobile.
1000X LANDSCAPE ARCHITECTURE (Braun, $125)
Weighing as much as many1-year-olds, this massive and spectacularly produced showcase of international landscape architecture from the past decade is packaged in its own cardboard suitcase, useful for travel from one room of your dwelling to another, if not beyond. For any lover of gardens, parks, public monuments and squares, it is a peerless reference filled with glowing photographs and brief descriptions sparking curiosity. Unusual entries include a "Singing Ringing Tree," a public art monument in a pastoral part of England where stacked steel pipes of various lengths produce an otherworldly music when breezes flow just so. Of equal note is the Jean Monet Roof Terrence in Lausanne, Switzerland, where metallic umbrellas are festooned with white wisteria that shower blossoms in summer and offer shelter in winter. Just be aware that the book has no maps or travel routes – but Google Earth makes this remarkable tome eminently useful.
DESTINATION WILDLIFE (Perigee Books, $20)
This "international site-by-site guide to the best places to experience endangered, rare, and fascinating animals and their habitats" – this is a direct quote from the book's cover crowned by a photo of searing lion eyes – offers plentiful opportunities for ecotourism and ecovolunteering. Pamela K. Brodowsky and the National Wildlife Foundation offer detailed descriptions and contact information for more than 200 sites, including everything from plush safaris to rough-and-tumble DIY treks to obscure nature reserves. This is that rare ecology guide that merges science and travel with literature, as when the authors link the black howler monkeys at the Community Baboon Sanctuary in Belize to Henry Hudson's classic novel, "Green Mansions."