5 Tips to Creating the Ultimate City Guide
There are few better ways to spend your time and money than traveling the world. Whether it’s a weekend getaway upstate or a longer, extended stay abroad, travel allows you to broaden your horizons and experience what the world has to offer.
But that doesn’t mean it’s easy.
Travelers depend on the work of travel writers to extract the most out of any trip. And as a professional copywriter, becoming a city guide means your words are sherpas, your recommendations roadmaps, and your insights the hidden secrets that will make the trip memorable.
In which case, if you’re creating a city guide, it’s important to consider the below tips:
- Living in the city
- Listening to locals
- Doing tourist stuff, too
- Valuing your readers’ time
- Considering a varied audience
The following sections break down each of these tips in vivid detail, sprinkled with examples pulled from cities across the US and worldwide.
Tip #1 Live There...Fully
The best city guides are animated by a wealth of experience. And the best way to build up your bank of experience is to actually live in a city—not visit, not pass through.
Living in a city is the only way to feel its pulse.
Take Athens, Greece, for example. Countless ancient ruins poke the streets, belying modern developments and framing Monastiraki street vendors like traders in the old agora. There are dozens of nearby islands accessible via quick boat trips from Pireaus, and not enough hours in the day to explore any of them.
But the city doesn’t even really open up until the late evening.
Every night the locals shoot Tisporo, munch on mezes, and smoke thin cigarettes end to end, listening to bouzouki music and dancing zeibekiko into the wee hours of the morning.
The flavors and sounds of Athens make it what it is for Athenians. But there’s no way to grasp what that’s like in a quick stop-through on your way to Mykonos. A successful city guide needs to capture the feeling of life as it’s lived in a city, not how it’s experienced from afar.
That said, not every city guide is written by a person living in the city. Still, if you can, you should approximate the feeling of living in a city before writing about it.
Tip #2 Listen to Locals
When you live in a city long enough, you start to become a local. But you only achieve that status once you’re integrated in the community.
These people are your most valuable resource.
Of course, locals aren’t the only people who live in cities—there are also transplants. But there’s a big difference between a local who’s lived in a neighborhood since early childhood and a transplant who moved there more recently (say six months ago).
For example, let’s think about a neighborhood in New York City—specifically, the township of Flushing in the borough of Queens:
- Any newcomer can walk you through the luscious Chinese food spots, nameless holes-in-the-wall tucked away in underground malls or between more established chains. But an older local can help you find the best deals on everything from bubble tea to streetwear.
- Only a lifelong resident can walk you through subtleties, like getting a cab on Main Street. You need them to show you where the Q44 bus used to let off and explain how, even to this day, most cab drivers stick to those same areas due to muscle memory.
This is not to say that either person’s perspective is necessarily better than the other! They’re just different. You need the texture of both to fully flesh out a successful city guide.
However, it’s also important to remember that no two locals are the same, either. Just because people live in the same area, that doesn’t mean they do the same thing or have the same interests. There are as many Londons as there are Londoners—a Paris for each Parisian.
You should be sure to talk to as many people, in as many different circles, as you can.
Tip #3 Do the Tourist Stuff, Too
There’s a certain strain of thinking among some travellers—practicing and aspiring—that you should never waste your time visiting touristy locations and attractions. The idea is that anything catering to tourists will be overcrowded, overpriced, and unenjoyable overall.
Some people consider so-called tourist traps to be inherently vapid or inconsequential. And in many cases, these arguments are valid. In the US alone, there are far too many empty or lackluster attractions to count, like:
- The model white house in Atlanta
- The most photographed barn in America
- The world’s largest office chair (yes, really!)
When things are famous for nothing other than being famous, skipping out on the hype is understandable. Still, you shouldn’t disqualify tourist attractions when writing a city guide.
Not all tourist attractions are bad—often, they’re famous for good reason. If you’re writing a guide to San Francisco and completely ignore the experience of walking or driving the Golden Gate Bridge, you’re doing your readers a disservice. Ditto gawking at the bean in Chicago.
With respect to touristy locations and activities, the trick is not to avoid writing about them.
You need to treat them as what they are and give your readers a fair sense of what to expect. Include plenty of hacks, like how to get the best camera angle or which particular foods to avoid. And don’t shy away from alternatives and nearby attractions to round out the day.
Tip #4 Value Your Reader’s Time
One of the main reasons people read city guides is to plan out itineraries for trips. More often than not, travellers are operating under constraints of time and money. It’s important to keep that in mind and offer options that are widely adaptable to any reader’s budget and schedule.
The best way to show your readers you care about their time is to provide detailed itineraries based on different trip durations. For example, you might describe the priorities and “must-see” necessities within a 7-day stay in Buenos Aires. Or you might walk readers through the pace and scope of what a whole month in Chiang Mai (and surrounding towns) could look like.
The more details, the better—you should factor in jetlag and travel time by car or public transit.
On another level altogether, your guide should value readers’ time as readers. They may pick up your guide five months before takeout, or it might line their pocket the duration of the trip. In either case, you should lay out information in easy-to-find sections, complete with useful indexes and visual guides (maps, checklists, etc.).
Make your guide a tool that’s easy to use.
Tip #5 Consider a Varied Audience
Finally, you need to make sure that your city guide accommodates the varied interests of your potential readers. As we said of locals above, no two travellers are the same, either. Not everyone looking to visit the city is looking for the same exact experience.
Your job as a city guide writer is to highlight attractions for every possible traveller.
Take, for example, the city of Tokyo. Depending on a visitor’s interests, they might take a vastly different route around the city’s many cultural and natural landmarks:
- Lovers of nature and animals – The verdant hills of Nara are a quick JR ride from nearly anywhere in Tokyo. Be ready to feed (and get followed around by) the thousands of miniature deer, a protected animal with free reign throughout the park.
- Fashionistas and art connoisseurs – Harajuku district in Shibuya is home to dozens of artisan clothiers, curated vintage shops, and major fashion houses. Plus, find some of the hippest art galleries in the world, flanked by outstanding restaurants and bars.
- Barflies and nightlife enthusiasts – The Golden Gai offers a nightlife experience unlike anywhere else in the world. About two hundred tiny bars occupy six alleyways in Shinjuku, and all have themes, each crazier than the next (like Deathmatch in Hell).
- Gamers and anime aficionados – For the “weeaboo” types visiting Japan, the gigantic multi-floor arcades of Akihabara are like heaven on earth. All powerhouses in the Japanese video game economy have a flagship presence in the “Electric Town.”
The point is not to cater your guide toward one niche interest in particular. Instead, you should provide options for all readers. Ideally, these different slices of the culture should be easy to find in sections clearly marked, and you should also note any crossover between interests. For example, those interested in nightlife may also be foodies more generally.
Copycat Copywriters, Copywriting A City Guide to Life
Now, with these five tips in mind, you’re well on your way to writing the perfect city guide. However, no matter what kind of travel writing you’re hoping to produce, professional help can be the difference between captivating active readers and shouting into the void.
Enter Copycat Copywriters: your in-house writing team.
Our dedicated engine produces high-quality content at any scale, across any number of verticals. Our writers have experience living in and travelling to cities all over the world, along with writing chops honed across marketing, technical, and creative fields.
Reach out below to see how enticing your city guide can be!
Amuse. Professional Traveller | Meet the 27-Year-Old CEO of Lonely Planet. https://amuse.vice.com/en_us/article/j54m8y/lonely-planet-ceo
Atlas Obscura. Atlanta White House. https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/atlanta-white-house
Business Insider. I visited 'the most photographed barn in America… https://www.businessinsider.com/most-photographed-barn-america-jackson-hole-wyoming-2019-7
Earthtripper. The World's Best Roadside Attractions: World's Largest Office Chair. Alabama.
Nomadic Matt. What’s the Matter with Lonely Planet? https://www.nomadicmatt.com/travel-blogs/lonely-planet/