Anti-tourist travel guides from the 1920s & 1930s advise: ignore all highlights!

Do you turn your nose up at the crowds of people queuing for Checkpoint Charlie, the Rijksmuseum or the Palmengarten? Then the ironic, anti-tourist travel guides Was nicht im Baedeker steht and Wat niet in Baedeker staat will appeal to you. Assistant professor Rob van de Schoor wrote an article about them. ‘Instead of highlights, those guides contain everything you don't want to know.’

In the first half of the nineteenth century, the German publisher Karl Baedeker launched the first Baedekers: travel guides that excelled in reliability and detail, contained practical information about hotels, restaurants and transportation, and provided orientation and rating of places of interest. At the time, tourism was only for the privileged few, but by the end of the nineteenth century, increased prosperity meant that traveling abroad was also available to a wider community. ‘That prosperous part of the bourgeoisie had a kind of perfect picture for the trip: I must be able to develop intellectually, see something of the world’, says Dutch scholar Rob van de Schoor. ‘The Baedekers responded to this with a bourgeois way of traveling. Places of interest were indicated by asterisks in order of importance. If you had missed something that Baedeker considered important, it was almost as if you hadn't been there.’


This bourgeois way of traveling, the ticking off of highlights and the emergence of mass tourism aroused increasing resistance. In the late 1920s, a kind of counter-movement arose with an alternative travel guide entitled Was nicht im Baedeker steht (What is not in Baedeker). In the seventeen German travel guides and three Dutch guides (Wat niet in Baedeker staat), highlights were deliberately ignored; the guides were mainly about the amazement about everyday life, explains Rob van de Schoor, who compared the German and Dutch anti-travel guides with each other and the official Beadekers.

What is not in Baedeker is a pursuit of authenticity that had been destroyed by flat mass tourism’, says Van de Schoor. ‘The Baedekers contain very factual information: where is the entrance, how much does a ticket cost, and so on. The alternative travel guides contain everything you don't want to know. For instance, the guide about Frankfurt will lead you straight to a beautiful, large tree when you get out of the station. The anti-Baedekers prefWas nicht im Baedeker stehter to draw attention to what goes on behind the scenes of the tourist facades. And that critical attitude is accompanied by irony.’ One of the writers in the anti-Baedeker about Amsterdam, for example, criticises the idea that the traveller in the Rijksmuseum is expected to complete a fixed list:

‘They told me to look at… Well! You will be told which paintings to look at and which ones to buy! But on our walk just now you did not ask me: may I look at that bridge, that tree, that woman. Enjoy what attracts you, but not too long! A visit to a museum should remain a pleasure. It shouldn't exhaust you. The thought ‘How much was painted!’ should never occur to you. As soon as it tires you, go shopping, go for a walk.’ (The Book of Amsterdam, p. 96, translated from Dutch)

Between 1927 and 1938, the German publisher Piper published seventeen volumes of Was nicht im Baedeker steht. In the Netherlands, the Amsterdam publisher A. J. G. Strengholt published three guides under the title Wat niet in Baedeker staat, about Amsterdam (1930), Rotterdam (1931) and The Hague (1931). Although both the German and Dutch guides are anti-Baedeker, the Dutch guides do not match the German version, says Van de Schoor. According to him, this is mainly due to the more commercial nature of the Dutch guides. They participate in city promotion, which is reflected, among other things, in a foreword by the mayor and a large number of advertisements. In addition, there are contributions in which companies, shops, hotels and restaurants that advertise in the booklet are also recommended separately. Van de Schoor: ‘The project was discontinued after three guides. More titles had been announced, but apparently the publisher saw no merit in it in the long run.’


The alternative guides thus emphasize that traveling is meant for viewing. ‘The experiencing of small moments’, says Van de Schoor. ‘Walk with the people in Berlin when they go to work at 6 in the morning. Observing how they are dressed. The girl who wears stockings that are actually too expensive for the salary she gets, just fantasising about how she got those stockings. Realising what that means, what kind of life those people are leading.’

Traveling to observe was especially appreciated by a group of critical intellectuals, who distanced themselves from the mass tourist. Van de Schoor: ‘To someone who went to Piazzo San Marco in Venice, they would say: but have you been in that small alley, where no one ever comes, and the laundry hangs outside? There you can taste the real Italian atmosphere.’ With that, they disqualify the group that travels according to the bourgeois Baedeker.’

Ignoring the highlights does not imply a cheap way to travel. ‘It is not the case that those travel guides invited people to go camping’, says Van de Schoor. ‘You can see that in the way they were addressed: there is talk of places where the traveller can park their car or have it washed. The hotels that are recommended are the very best and most expensive ones. These were the people who had the money to undertake the journey as stated in that guide. The alternative was not in a lack of luxury, but in a different way of looking. Getting lost on purpose. Just walk a long way and you might accidentally see the Colosseum on the way.’


Can we learn from the alternative travel guides of the 1930s for our contemporary way of traveling? ‘I don't really think so’, says Van de Schoor, laughing. ‘They are not very pretentious - and that's what makes them so charming. Nowadays, each new travel guide promises to show something that the others have not shown yet. This is called a Geheimtipp in German: that which only the locals know. An idyllic lake where only people from the neighbourhood go for a swim. And that is then printed in a travel guide. Of course, that is very paradoxical.’

Nevertheless, we may be able to learn something from the underlying layer of self-reflection, thinks Van de Schoor. ‘Anyone who is going to make a long journey to get all kinds of deep impressions has never properly taken the train from Berlin to Magdeburg, says one of the guides, because you can get all of those impressions there as well. Look out of the window and you will see the exact same thing. The relativity of the desire to be somewhere else and to see the new, while you will actually see the same thing over and over again, may be a comforting thought in corona times: just stay at home, because it is the same everywhere.’

In the Dutch article for Internationale Neerlanditstike - ‘De Nederlandse navolging van een Duitse reisgidsenreeks, Was nicht im Baedeker steht: Alternatieve verkenningen van Amsterdam, Rotterdam en Den Haag in Wat niet in Baedeker staat’ Rob van de Schoor discusses the travel guides in the context of Sabine Boomer's research on nomadic travel (Boomer, 2004).