The decision that will shape your experience in New York more than any other - more than what airline you take or which shoes you pack or even which iconic New York film you watch to get in the mood - is what guidebook to bring with you. - There are dozens of guides to New York City out there that you could lug around for a weekend, and their styles vary as widely as Manhattan pizza slices. - Here's the lowdown on six big names that have come out with recent New York editions.
In the neighborhood
You may think of Fodor's as dependably bland, but its New York City 2009 (Fodor's Travel, 552 pages, $18.95) is the can't-go-wrong choice for just about any first-timer to the Big Apple. First, it's beautiful - great layout, nice maps, easy-to-read font on thick paper. And design matters with guidebooks: They have to be legible in low light, on crowded buses and in airports when you're jetlagged and your contacts are killing you.
The best way to break up this mammoth city is by neighborhood, and Fodor's devotes about 200 pages to that task. The neighborhood guides pack information into breezy prose and have sections like "Where can I find. . . ?" which gives you two choices each for a coffee stop, "a quick bite" or cocktails in each neighborhood, eliminating possible excuses for entering a Starbucks or McDonald's. If you're browsing in the bookstore and you want a quick sense of why Fodor's stands out, look at their seven-page section on ground zero that starts on Page 48 and somehow manages to explain the site and the history in depth while also hitting the right notes about the tragedy.
A knowing look
The 2008 Time Out New York guide (Time Out Group, 416 pages, $19.95) is also glossy and colorful, and - as befits a company that puts on a weekly magazine about the city - deeply knowledgeable about what makes this city tick. It also has the only significant section for gays and lesbians, as well as a section that lists the fines for various New York City transgressions, from smoking in a bar to jumping subway turnstiles. On the downside, it's also packed with ads.
On the inside
Lonely Planet's New York City City Guide (Lonely Planet Publications, 432 pages, $19.99) displays insider savvy from the beginning: Its "Highlights" section leaves out the Empire State Building in favor of the Pierpont Morgan Library, the Frick Collection, Doyers Street in Chinatown and Tom's Restaurant in Brooklyn, great choices. (They're not trying to be total rebels, though: The Museum of Modern Art and the Statue of Liberty lead the list.) And like Fodor's, Lonely Planet also believes in neighborhoods, with mapped walking tours that distill each neighborhood to its essence in a well thought-out route.
Alas, here's the argument not to buy it: The thing looks awful. Small sans serif font on a gray background gives you a headache, and the maps are detailed but eye-straining, especially since the paper it's printed on is so thin the print from the other side shows through.
Voice of NYC
What you think of Frommer's New York City 2009 (Wiley Publishing, 416 pages, $18.99) depends on how much you enjoy the voice of its author, Brian Silverman. If you relate to him, he'll be a good guide to you. But is a first-person approach really capable of covering everything New York City has to offer? Can one guy have an opinion about everything?
As it turns out, no. The guide thus lacks the depth of some others, naming good places to visit without really explaining why they're so great, and occasionally tossing around some substance-free cliches. Its description of the restaurant Chanterelle under "Most Unforgettable Dining Experiences in New York" is a good example: It notes the "impeccable, personalized service," the "simple but lovely room" and the "exquisitely prepared food," but fails to mention what cuisine they serve.
The Wallpaper City Guide New York (Phaidon, 128 pages, $8.95) is one heck of a quirky, tiny book for people who want New York City handed to them on a silver platter of offbeat chicness. Museums are virtually absent, as are ethnic neighborhoods, in case either of those are important to you. But its 2009 edition contains more surprises than ever: In the Landmarks section, for example, Frank Gehry's IAC Building on the West Side replaces the Brooklyn Bridge as one of the picks. The Austrian Cultural Forum makes an appearance, while the Empire State Building does not.
Let good taste guide you
Hg2: A Hedonist's Guide to New York (Hg2, 228 pages, $18.95) sounds as if it's going to be like the Wallpaper guide - an introduction to how to blow all your money in a week. But hedonism gets a bad rap here.
Like Wallpaper, Hg2's choices are cherry-picked for a certain discerning crowd - particularly one that can pay $300 and up for a hotel room - but the choices are diverse and well thought-out. It works well for first-timers to the city who don't want to be overwhelmed by endless choices and have no problem letting people with taste choose for them. Though the maps can be a little confusing, the neighborhood summaries are right on target, and its division between "Eat" and "Snack" sections is priceless - separating places to stop for a bite from planned dinner destinations.