Guidebooks with a Difference: New Ways to See the Bay

For me, one of the best parts of traveling or moving somewhere new is the planning process. I spend my time finding bakeries on Google maps and searching for the best overlooked sites. It’s an exciting process, although the further you dig the more overwhelming it seems, and suddenly there’s not enough time to include everything on your list (there are always more bakeries to explore, trust me.) I work as a bookseller here in the Bay Area, and our hefty travel section brings in travelers of all types looking for guidance. We have a lot of guidebooks available, and so the question I’m asked most often is: “What is the difference between all these?” There are dozens of guides per destination, so how do you differentiate between them?

The short answer is that they tend to cover the same ground. There will be differences in the specific content, but choosing one over the other will not significantly alter your trip. All of these books will offer a robust itinerary to hit the major sites on your vacation.

But guidebooks are for highlighting, dog-earing, and tearing out maps. When I speak with people who have recently moved to the Bay Area, who identify not as travelers but as new residents, I like to encourage them to look at other forms of travel literature to learn about their new home. Outside the realm of guidebooks, there are atlases, photography collections, children’s literature, and history books that will capture the spirit of a region better than all the guidebooks combined.

For those new to the Bay Area, or those looking to share a corner of their world here with family or friends living elsewhere, the following is a list of unique guidebooks that bring the bay to life on the page. These books are versatile, too: they serve as an introduction to newcomers, as a reference for temporary travelers, and as mementos for life-long residents.

Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas by Rebecca Solnit

One of the Bay Area’s best-known writers, the incomparable Rebecca Solnit has reinvented the atlas out of love for her home city. Working with a team of cartographers, artists, and writers, Solnit has crafted an atlas that is a work of art, with twenty-two original and inventive color maps examining San Francisco and its surrounding areas.

Solnit digs into the layers that make up San Francisco, understanding that it’s the “many worlds in one place” that work together, culturally and historically, to create what we understand to be a city. These maps catalog a fascinating range of topics: from film history to coffee economics, from queer spaces to butterfly habitats. You’ll be inspired by the original perspectives in these maps, and maybe even motivated to reassess your viewpoint of other cities you call home.


This Bridge Will Not Be Gray by Dave Eggers and Tucker Nichols

Guidebooks - Golden Gate Bridge

Another well-known local writer, Dave Eggers has often used the area as setting and inspiration for his books. In This Bridge Will Not Be Gray, Eggers and San Francisco artist Tucker Nichols bring to colorful life the history of the world’s most famous, and most orange, bridge.

The combination of Egger’s heartfelt storytelling and Nichol’s vibrant paper cut-out artwork will keep readers of all ages engaged. This playful picture book is an illustrated history lesson of how a bridge once argued over being painted gray (or yellow, or red, or black…) got its famous orange coat. While the winning hue is obvious, it’s the battle over color that keeps readers flipping pages. In the end, Eggers and Tucker not only celebrate a beloved bridge but also cheer for the power of creativity and inspiration.


The Mission by Dick Evans

Some of the best city-tours I have done while traveling have been focused on the street art that defines a city. In San Francisco’s Mission district, public art is the storyteller of history. The street art is loud and colorful, an unmissable and integral character trait of the vibrant neighborhood.

Local and worldwide photographer Dick Evans turns his lens on the Mission in his new collection. Meshing photography with the poetry and quotes shared by residents of the Mission, Evans captures the multi-layered spirit of the neighborhood known for its rich Latin American culture. This collection also shows how the artists of the Mission have responded to the evolution of the neighborhood, with works of art that engage and challenge the recent and escalating gentrification. Like the neighborhood itself, this collection is a testament to the integral role art plays in recording history.


Cool Gray City of Love: 49 Views of San Francisco by Gary Kamiya

Guidebooks: The Ferry building

As the tip of the peninsula, San Francisco has no shortage of stunning views, waterfront and mountainside. I’ve made my way to the top of Coit Tower and across the bay to Marin Headlands, but there are over forty more exciting and original recommendations in Kamiya’s ode to the foggy city.

This is travel writing at its best, a complete nosedive into the soul of a city, sharing both landmark sites and hidden gems of a city that Kamiya loves and calls home. This was the very first book I received as a gift when moving to the Bay Area last year and I would recommend no other to explore the city. It’s an immersive journey, both personal and historical, and a necessary read for both newcomers and lifelong locals.

There are a lot more books set in and around the Bay, here are more recommendations.

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All of these guidebooks, as varied as they are, will inspire your sense of wonder for the Bay Area. But, as all great travel literature should, they will hopefully also inspire your sense of place, and allow you to see the world in a different way.

About Santiago Nocera

Although I’ve lived in three different countries on three different continents, I never imagined I would end up living in California. But after a cross-country trek in a mini-van stuffed with boxes of books and some clothes, I officially became a Bay Area resident. My partner and I have been here for just over a year and are still tackling our very long list of hikes, vistas, beaches, and restaurants that this area has to offer. I have spent my time in the Bay Area finally working my dream job as a bookseller, which means I’ve also spent the past year reading more than ever before. I love books, but I also love food and the outdoors, so my unexpected life in California has offered me a lot in each of those categories!

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