Best Guidebooks? It's Michelin Hands Down

Most of the Michelin Red Guides for 1997 are out and we are looking over our copies of the German and Switzerland versions (there is no Red Guide for Austria).

These hardbound books are the number one reference and trip-take-along guides for independent travelers to Europe. No single guidebook series approaches their scope and accuracy.

In addition to the country Red Guides, Europe's major cities, including Prague, Budapest and Vienna, which are located in countries for which there are no Red Guides, are included in Michelin's Europe Red Guide.

Though we often disagree with Michelin's ratings and are sometimes dumbfounded when certain hotels and/or restaurants are left out of the guides, they remain the essential reference. Not only are the Red Guides always in our suitcase, they are valuable year-round bookshelf references for trip planning and for settling dinner table arguments.

Through an ingenious system of symbols, the bright red 1997 guides rate thousand of restaurants and hotels in Germany and Switzerland. The format provides an incredible amount of information about each establishment.

In Switzerland, for example, the guide rates 1,211 hotels in more than 900 locations. The Germany guide lists more than 10,000 hotels and restaurants in about 8,000 cities, towns and villages. Listed under each city is the town's population, altitude, telephone area code, tourist office address plus phone and fax numbers, airport phone number, dates of local festivals, key tourist sights with map coordinate references, addresses and phone numbers of local golf courses, road distance to nearby towns and a lot more.

Provided for each establishment listed is all the basic information concerning price, phone, fax, address and the availability of such services as TV, air-conditioning, nonsmoking rooms, rooms for disabled guests, modems, swimming pools, exercise rooms and so on. The symbols highlight quiet, secluded hotels, especially pleasant hotels and hotels with special features such as good views, rustic interiors and/or extraordinary furnishings.

Also identified are good restaurants in several categories, the best-known of which are the expensive, starred establishments. The 1997 Switzerland guide, for example, lists 864 restaurants but only 77 of them get one or two stars. The big news this year is that famed Girardet in Crissier lost its three-star rating. Michelin now finds no Swiss restaurants worthy of three stars. Germany has two three-star restaurants, Im Schiffchen in Kaiserwerth near Düsseldorf and the Schwarzwaldstube of the Hotel Traube Tonbach near Baiersbronn in the Black Forest.

To describe all the features offered is not possible here, but we will mention a few of the elements which make these books so helpful, especially for motorists.

  • There are very good maps which facilitate driving in and around medium to large cities. Many of the hotels listed in the guides are spotted on the maps and thus much easier to find.
  • The guides list hotels and restaurants in order of preference in their category.
  • For each town there is a notation of the distance in kilometers to several nearby and/or important towns and cities. It is a simple matter to determine the exact driving distance from your location to whatever city in Germany you wish to travel. And since there is a distance table to most major European cities as well, one can easily calculate the distance and driving time to these cities also.
  • There are, of course, restaurants with the famed Michelin stars (or rosettes). These are expensive but provide an outstanding dining experience.

However, there are three other symbols for noteworthy restaurants: In the Switzerland guide, restaurants below the star level, but offering "good food at moderate prices," are denoted by the words "Menu" or "Repas" or "Pasto" in red type. In the German guide, such restaurants are identified by the word "Menu" in red. German restaurants "serving a simple meal for less than 25 DM" ($15), and Swiss restaurants serving a "dish of the day" under 20 Sfr. ($14), have a new 'two coin symbol' in the left margin of their listing. It has been our experience that these restaurants usually serve three courses for this price and that the food is good as well as inexpensive.

  • The Switzerland guide uses a series of regional maps that help the reader locate the position of very small towns in relation to larger, better known ones.

For example, you may not know where Ardon is. its Red Guide listing, however, notes the town is 21 kilometers from Martigny. The word Martigny is in blue which tells the reader that Ardon is on the Martigny regional map. Turning to the Martigny listing the reader will quickly see that Ardon is on the Rhône river northeast of Martigny.

  • One of Michelin's most clever and rewarding features involves several pages of maps of the country at the front of guide. Next to the names of the towns are symbols representing special hotels and restaurants which, in the main text of the guide, are:
  1. Starred restaurants.
  2. Restaurants with "good food at moderate prices."
  3. "Very quiet or quiet, secluded hotels."
  4. "Pleasant hotels."

From these maps one can then refer to the guide's main text to determine the address, phone number, price, facilities, etc. of these more highly recommended establishments. This system's beauty is that it allows a traveler passing through a region to pinpoint a nearby fine hotel or restaurant and be confident of a happy experience. In most cases there will be a choice of several such places within a short drive.

The Michelin Red Guides, used in conjunction with detailed maps 1:200,000 (lcm = 2km) scale and Michelin Green Guides for sights, are the auto travelers most important tools.

February 1997