As a frequent traveler, I love using guidebooks to plan my trips—and this Culture Smart guides review is going to introduce you to some of my favorites.
Guidebooks make great travel companions because they have all the necessary and practical information about your destination in one place. They inspire you with photos, teach you a little bit about the area, and a shelf full of them in the background is the best way to show off on Zoom. Money well spent.
However, even the best travel guidebooks traditionally lack the one thing we need more material on: the destination’s culture and local customs.
I’m all about sightseeing, don’t get me wrong, but somewhere in there I want to learn more about the culture, people, and customs of the country I’m visiting. Not only is that more interesting than a list of museums I’ll never get to, it’s also much more useful to visitors who want to get the whole picture before venturing into a foreign land. (Do I think of every trip I take like an Indiana Jones quest? Absolutely.)
What are Culture Smart guides?
Culture Smart guides are the answer to our biggest travel questions! Culture Smart! is a line of guidebooks coming to us from Kuperard, an independent London-based publishing house.
Culture Smart! launched in 2003 with just a couple of destinations, relaunched in 2021 with a new design and loads of new titles, and today offers the best travel guidebooks for over 100 destinations worldwide–from Afghanistan to Zambia.
Rather than focusing on sightseeing, logistics, and maybe one single page on “etiquette” like most other travel guides do, Culture Smart guides focus entirely on:
- Local customs and traditions
- Dos, don’ts, and cultural taboos
- Eating and drinking customs
- Spoken and unspoken communication
- History, religion, and politics
…and so many more practical travel tips so you can fully prepare for your first time in a new country. Or at least as much as you can prepare yourself to visit a country that serves poop-themed entrees out of a toilet for lunch. I’m looking at you, Taiwan!
Culture Smart guides are what you could call Fun Size—perfectly portable and proportional for packing. But also, stupendous for stocking stuffing! They come in at around 200 pages and are clear and concise without the bulk.
All Culture Smart guides are available as e-books and many of them are available as audio books as well.
Culture Smart Guides: the best travel guidebooks
I first learned about Culture Smart guides ahead of my trip to Chile. Before I even received my book I was hooked on their philosophy. I then found the information to be exactly what I was looking for since Chile would be an entirely new part of the globe for me.
Would Chile be like other South American destinations? How would it differ? How much wine will I have to drink? And other important questions crossed my mind.
Then, all during my week in Chile I found myself shouting, “OMG, that’s just like I read in my book!” (Really, I’m a delight to travel with.) My Culture Smart! Chile guidebook was incredibly, shockingly accurate. I’ve been a huge fan of Culture Smart guides ever since.
What makes Culture Smart guides different
Culture Smart guides are different than “regular” travel guidebooks because they cover all the topics and answer all the questions the big name guidebooks skip over.
Standard guidebooks tell you the most popular restaurants at which to eat; Culture Smart! advises you on how to act while you’re dining out abroad, what to expect as far as service, common need-to-know etiquette, and (bless) how much to tip.
Ordinary guidebooks show you the most popular sites to visit and things to do; Culture Smart! prepares you for interacting with the locals you’ll encounter while doing so.
Typical guidebooks may list some of the local holidays and festivals; Culture Smart guides give you the lowdown on cultural celebrations, how you can respectfully take part (or not), and what you need to know about local holidays.
And this is just a sampling of the many meaningful ways Culture Smart guides will impact your next trip and help you out in ways the other ones can’t. I am a huge devotee of these unique guidebooks and believe they should be in everyone’s carry-ons!
Culture Smart guides review: the chapters
Instead of focusing on attractions, things to see and do, popular places to eat, etc., Culture Smart guides feature chapters like:
Note: Each Culture Smart guide is slightly different so individual chapters may vary, but the overall theme is the same.
Land and People
These chapters focus on local climate and geography, a brief history of the country with all the most important highlights, what you need to know about local government and politics, and different ways the country has been influenced by others.
As an example, Culture Smart! Germany gives some insight on how the country was changed by World War II and what that means for visitors today.
Values and Attitudes
This section covers traditional family life, gender relations, religion, social tolerance, and other culturally-specific values.
For instance, Culture Smart! Italy has a section on the Bella Figura—the image-based priority of Italian living. Here’s an excerpt:
In Britain it’s humor, in France it’s ideas, in Germany it’s respectability, and in Italy it’s appearances that make the world go round. It’s true that in Italy how you dress and act speaks volumes about you and it is important to dress and act correctly.
And if you’ve never been to Italy, wow is this true! You’ll notice it almost immediately, fully absorb it the longer you spend there, and constantly feel inferior at how effortlessly chic everyone is. It definitely is something to prepare for.
Festivals/Customs and Traditions
This section covers such topics as national holidays, religious festivals, superstitions, how to behave in church, family affairs, and what you need to know about the all-important month of August in Europe.
This section deals with bars and nightlife, more gender relations, invitations, humor, greetings, attitudes towards foreigners (ahem, good to know), social customs, language, and more.
Culture Smart! Chile even has sections on the female perspective and timekeeping (in other words, how awkward is it going to be when I show up somewhere on time?). Culture Smart! Mexico’s corresponding section is titled “Fashionably Late.” If you know, you know.
The Locals at Home
This sections covers such aspects of local life as education, how the locals are brought up in the home, shopping, ecological awareness, what work and daily life are like for a country’s residents (#siesta), and more.
I particularly like Culture Smart! Germany’s section titled: “Are you Stammtisch?” And if you have to ask yourself this, you definitely aren’t… but this is definitely a concept you should know for your time in Bavaria’s beer halls!
This same section in Culture Smart! Japan covers the Japanese bath and sets the standards for visiting a Japanese home—something you may be totally unfamiliar with.
Time Out covers topics like food and drink, restaurant etiquette (answers the age-old question “How much do I tip?” for instance), drinking, outdoor life, popular culture, banks, sports, public transportation, kissing, coffee culture, and many, many more all specific to the destination (like Culture Smart! Turkey’s section on Turkish hammam tips and visiting a mosque). In other words, go ahead and bookmark this section.
For instance, the chapter on eating and drinking in Culture Smart! Italy is a must-read before heading over to the big beautiful boot. It clues you in to the sit or stand coffee game and how to save boatloads of money in the process.
Plus, you don’t want to get publicly shamed for ordering the wrong thing at the wrong time of day. Trust me, says the girl known in some circles as the blight on the landscape of Italian culinary tradition.
Culture Smart! Germany’s Time Out chapter even has a section dedicated to teaching you the difference between the many styles of beer you’re likely to encounter, proper drinking protocol, beer language to know, and all the different kinds of places you can drink beer in Germany. The best travel guidebooks come with tips for getting tipsy.
Travel, Health, & Safety
Ah yes, topics I talk about a lot here on My Wanderlusty Life. This chapter includes sections on topics like local transportation, train travel, health and security, police and bureaucracy (specifically Italy here and if you’ve read my post on getting robbed in Rome you’ll understand why), safety tips, and more related topics.
Unsurprisingly, Culture Smart! Netherlands has a section on cycling. Surprisingly, Culture Smart! Spain does not have a dedicated section on pickpocketing and petty theft—a chapter I’d be more than willing to write myself.
Culture Smart! Germany even includes a section on proper Autobahn etiquette which could not be more important! I, and the pants I almost peed in, cannot stress this enough.
The chapter on communication covers topics like language (and body language), seriousness and humor, personal space (HUGE), the media, and more. Culture Smart! Finland and Sweden both have sections on “silence,” so that’s probably some useful information you didn’t know you needed.
Again, this is just a general sampling of the kinds of chapters you can expect in the Culture Smart guides. Each country has destination-specific chapters that don’t disappoint!
Culture Smart guides review: the authors
So, who writes the Culture Smart guides? Culture Smart! handpicks all of their authors based on their individual knowledge, experience, passion for and familiarity with a particular country’s culture.
They utilize individuals who have lived, studied, and taught extensively in their respective countries, but who are foreigners themselves. This way, they can still observe a destination’s culture with an objective eye. (Because they probably haven’t gotten used to the smell of stinky tofu. I’m still looking at you, Taiwan.)
The Culture Smart authors are academics, adventurers, businessmen and women, and frequent travelers of the area in question. Through Culture Smart guidebooks they provide an account that is both deeply researched and simply relayed. In other words, I trust their interpretations completely!
How accurate are Culture Smart guides?
I’ve read many Culture Smart guides and they all have proven incredibly accurate. Much of the stuff in these guidebooks are things it took me months in a destination to learn, and only via the hard way. Want reinforcement? Read your Culture Smart guide again after your trip and you’ll recognize the accuracy in every statement.
While adventuring around Chile, we noticed certain things about the way people drive. My Chile Culture Smart guide cleared it up for me:
Outside the main centers Chileans drive slowly, tend to respect speed limits, and stop at pedestrian crossings. They also like honking with contempt at anybody who tries to break the rules.
This is so adorably accurate! There was also a fair share of warnings in the book as well:
Chile has not developed a strong coffee culture. Coffee is typically made with instant coffee granules.
And it was in my rented Santiago apartment that I learned about this foreign concept known as “instant coffee” (and why it should be avoided). Heed the warnings, prepare accordingly. Unfortunately my coffee maker would not fit in my carry-on.
If you’re planning to attend Oktoberfest, the “jaywalking” section in Culture Smart! Germany is a must-read. (Not to mention all the other chapters you definitely need to know!)
I am living proof
However, the most accurate statement I think I’ve read in all the Culture Smart guides can be found in Culture Smart! Italy:
Although it is possible to be seen by an optician on the Italian national health service, it is simpler to get things checked before you go. Remember to take a spare pair of glasses with you and a copy of your prescription.
Again, I refer you to the time I got robbed in Italy in which the thief stole, among other things, my glasses. And, being legally blind at the time, I was forced to get another pair made while in Italy. And what. a. job. that. was. Carry a copy of your glasses/contacts prescription—couldn’t agree more!
Culture Smart! USA: a little experiment
In an effort to gauge the accuracy of the Culture Smart guides, I also read Culture Smart! USA. ‘Tis time for the true test!
I set out to simply compare how the writers generalized life in the United States for foreign readers to our own beliefs as Americans. However, not only are the writers like 98% spot-on (nobody asks for lite maple syrup with their pancakes, right?), I also learned a good amount about myself and our own culture that I didn’t even realize was “American.”
For instance, the section on “Rising to the Occasion” references how Americans “ceremonialize” everything. The book talks about how we go all-in for even the most mundane of holidays like Valentine’s Day and Halloween, but also everyday “events” like kindergarten graduation ceremonies, youth participation trophies, and how even the coin toss at the Superbowl gets its own grand “show.” I am dying at this.
One of my favorite aspects of traveling internationally is getting asked questions about being “American.” Questions like: “Why is the American flag everywhere” and “Why don’t you have a fence around your house?” And this book answers such questions. Also, everything you need to know about fast food.
Culture Smart guides review: my initial concerns
I’m not going to stay I wasn’t a little skeptical when it came to Culture Smart guides. Before I opened one for the first time, I was afraid it would be too generalizing. Like, how can you describe the behavior and attitudes of all of a country’s people in just a few pages? There’s just no way.
Well, the same way you get a general view of a culture’s behavior and attitudes after visiting for just a short time, that’s how.
When traveling, chances are pretty high you’re not interacting with every single person on every single day of the year in every circumstance. Instead, you’re getting an overview of a destination, a general sampling of the population. And Culture Smart! translates that perfectly. Everything I’ve read in the Culture Smart guides perfectly matches up with my real-life experiences, so I’m convinced it’s possible.
Page 9 of Culture Smart! USA references the challenges of generalizing a country as huge and diverse as the United States perfectly (in a way that can and should be applied to all travel destinations) by stating: “Generalization is unavoidable. The rule of thumb is: be informed about cultural norms, but be flexible in applying this knowledge.”
More info for your next trip
Which of the Culture Smart guides are you interested in?
Let me know below!
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