If all you care about is Boston's tourist trifecta -- the Back Bay, Beacon Hill, and the Freedom Trail -- then you don't need a guidebook, because those parts of town will pull you into their orbit no matter what. However, if you're a visitor who suspects there's more to the Hub than pilgrims and patriots, high-tech research and high-speed drivers, Fenway Park and "funky" Harvard Square, then read on -- this local's guide to local guidebooks is for you.
Fanny-pack crammed to bursting? The guidebook in Fodor's Citypack: Boston (96 pages, $12) weighs only a few ounces more than the fold-out map it comes with. That's because the entries are even terser than Hemingway. Under the heading "Late Eating," for example: "Bostonians generally eat early." At least you won't feel guilty about throwing it away when you go back home.
Lonely Planet: Boston (192 pages, $17.99) and Frommer's Boston 2004 (308 pages, $16.99) were both written by locals -- but this turns out to be a handicap, because the authors can't bring themselves to say anything too negative. The antidote: Boston Neighborhoods (328 pages, $15.95, Globe Pequot Press) by local Lynda Morgenroth, who walks readers step by step through such ethnic enclaves as Roxbury's Dudley Square, Brookline's Coolidge Corner, and Watertown's Little Armenia.
The Time Out Boston Guide (304 pages, $14.95, Penguin Books) is a hefty tome produced by the self-anointed hipsters behind the listings magazines of London and New York. The out-of-town authors are unimpressed with Boston, a backwater afflicted with "college students who seem to treat the city like a bivouac" and "pedestrians who jaywalk like suicidal goats in Third World countries." Grating, but the jaundiced outlook makes one willing to accept the authors' claim that, for example, Quincy Market is a lousy place to drink while Allston's Model Café is a great one. The only downside? The most recent edition is three years out-of-date, and would have you believe that, for example, you can visit the Hancock Tower's observatory and smoke in Boston's bars and restaurants. You can do neither these days, which only confirms Time Out's low opinion of the city.
A Happy Medium
Let's Go Boston (352 pages, $16.99) published by the Cambridge-based student outfit Let's Go, and The Rough Guide to Boston (320 pages, $15.95) are neither entirely jaded nor too parochial. Both complain that Boston trumpets its illustrious past too aggressively -- "what might pass for a faded relic anywhere else becomes a plaque-covered tourist site here," gripes the "Rough Guide" -- but they still offer helpful tips to navigating the Freedom Trail, and point to such lesser-known attractions as the Christian Science Center's Mapparium, the MIT Museum, and the Arnold Arboretum's bonsai collection. If they appear to have been written by historically ignorant youth -- one guide claims Quincy Market is a triumph of urban renewal (debatable), while the other suggests the demolition of Scollay Square was good for the city (absurd) -- at least they ventured beyond Harvard Square and the South End.
For the History Buffs
The history sections of most Boston guidebooks are lamentably abbreviated and are often riddled with errors and half-truths; try these books instead. The recently reissued Boston Sites and Insights (368 pages, $20, Beacon Press), by former Globe history columnist Susan Wilson, provides lively detail about everything from the First Church in Roxbury to Park Street Station to Castle Island. And the title of Walt Kelley's What They Never Told You About Boston (Or What They Did That Were Lies) (128 pages, $12.95, Down East Books) speaks for itself.