Travel

This "Shitty" Travel Guide Offers A Look At The Seedier Sides of Europe

As an antidote to overtourism, "Shitty Guide" only showcases the weird, trashy, and shitty.

shitty guide
Jason Hoffman/Thrillist
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Walking through Antwerp’s Old Town on a random Monday afternoon back in January, the crowded streets moved at a pace slower than a saunter. Hordes of tourists donned their H&M bags, lining up down the street at what is without a doubt Europe’s worst bakery chain. Along the harbor, a glorified carnival -- complete with a Ferris wheel and carnie-operated games -- has replaced the old dockyards. 

A few months before the global outbreak of COVID-19 would turn off the tourism tap, Antwerp -- like many other remarkably preserved, impossibly quaint European towns -- was caught in a crux: There were too many damn tourists. The Flemish city of 500,000 saw roughly 2 million overnight visitors over the last year, a 19-percent rise year-over-year -- and that’s not including the record 14 million same-day visitors

”I think about it and just want to shoot myself,” local journalist Freddy Van den Bril told me over beers. ”Overtourism is ruining Europe.”

Freddy’s one of the primary writers for Shitty Guide Antwerp, a sort of anti-Lonely Planet travel guide that takes participants through the “weird, trashy and above all shittiest” parts of a city. The guides exist as a form of protest against Antwerp’s meteoric, unsustainable rise in tourism -- which, according to founder Benni Booi, “is making the whole city feel like Disneyland on coke.” 

The Antwerp edition of Shitty Guide has well over 5,000 downloads (free online) -- many from locals looking to gain a new perspective of their city. Posts on the Shitty Guide website offer suggestions for “how to spend a shitty day and night” not just in Antwerp, but also Kiev, Brasschaat, and Brussels (the latter gleefully launched after Trump called the Belgian capital a “hellhole”). From 2016 until recently, the group offered on-the-ground city tours to curious participants (drinking was encouraged).

At its core, Shitty Tour traffics in the “experiences, lies, assumptions, truths, stories, bullshit, and exaggerations” about Antwerp institutions. It’s also a sly love letter to what makes Antwerp so special -- the side that average tourists fail to understand while zipping from one photo op to the next -- and a testament to what’s at stake when a city evolves far too quickly.

Antwerp Centraal Statio
Tourists gather at Antwerp Centraal Station, stop one for Shitty Guide. | Dennis van de Water/Shutterstock

The Disneyfication of a historic city

The Shitty Guide founders point to nearby Amsterdam for an example of their concerns manifested: A decade after promoting itself as a “must visit” destination, the Dutch capital was forced to tear down its “I <3 Amsterdam” sign and de-marketize itself because of mass tourism. Antwerp's neighbor Bruges stopped promoting day trips because, according to mayor Dirk De Fauw, “we don’t want to become a complete Disneyland here.” And in Greece, Santorini reacted to out-of-control tourism by limiting the amount of tourists disembarking from cruise ships to 8,000 a day (the city's population hovers around 10,500).

To Benni and Freddy, each step toward Antwerp's Disneyfication represents the slow death of the "real city.” Of course, with international travel slowing to a glacial -- nay, evolutionary crawl -- due to the current health crisis, it’s anyone’s guess as to whether foot traffic to these ultra-popular European destinations will resume at previous levels. 

Yet for a city like Antwerp, the damage may already be done: Within the last year or so, five of Shitty Guide's tour stops closed down permanently. And according to the guide team, active government policies serve to promote gentrification; one such policy is the “imagoverlagende taks,” which imposes an extra tax on the city's hookah bars and bodegas... establishments, it's worth noting, that are an integral part of the city's thriving immigrant community. 

Café 'In de Stad Aalst'
Look closer and you'll find Shitty Guide is steering you toward a gem. | Café 'In de Stad Aalst'

A love letter masquerading as a joke

Although Shitty Guide has since suspended their in-person tours, I was able to join Benni for a shitty tour around Antwerp in January. Traipsing through the city while stopping for sips of dirt-cheap pilsner, we hit hotspots like Stunt, a former Elvis memorabilia kiosk that’s now a thrift store for people very specifically interested in shoelaces. Next, a matrassenverhuur where you can rent a mattress and apparently score “the city’s cheapest car wash."

At the “cheapest cinema in Antwerp,” tickets cost 8 Euros, admission is good for a full day, and the only screenings are of men having sex with each other. After that, we file into an old-school "brown bar" where a 50-something man dances, completely alone, to KC and The Sunshine Band’s “I’m Your Boogie Man.” It’s 6pm on a Monday. 

“People who join our tours are looking for something a little extreme,” says Freddy. “You have to read between the lines and detect the sarcasm.”

At the onset, it does seem like the entire aim of Shitty Guide is to satirize the overly pretentious travel-sphere. Yet dig deeper, and you’ll quickly realize these aren't just random holes-in-the-wall. Each place in the meticulously curated guide opens a window into the unique, overlooked culture of a city full of complex histories.

Take, for example, the “brown bar” with KC and The Sunshine Band-dancer. Called In De Stad Aalst, it looks like an unapproachable dive from the outside. Step inside, and you'll find a place where everybody is welcome. It’s been around since the late 1700s, back when people in the city of Aalst (before “Antwerp” even stretched into this neighborhood) picked up their mail at the bar. 

That old sex cinema? Just decades ago, it was actually one of the few places LGBTQ people could comfortably hang out. Today, it’s one of the last remaining establishments from that era to survive gentrification, a place as key to the city's identity as any architectural wonder.  

Genuinely, it's the best "travel guide" I've ever encountered based purely on the human stories behind every stop. Most guides would recommend a restaurant with "the best Asian food;" Shitty Guide picks a restaurant that's most significant to the local Tibetan community... and holy shit, who knew Antwerp had a massive Tibetan community, and a street protected and maintained by the government of China?

Shitty Guide is dead. Long live Shitty Guide.

There's a sad, hilarious irony to the current version of the guide, one that isn't lost on its creators. By reporting on these locations and stories, Freddy, Benni, and the Shitty Guide are officially intertwined within the tourist landscape they loathe. 
Sarcastically, they say they’ve become “a victim of their own success.” So, in an unexpected or all-too-satirical move, they’ve masked their entire website with police tape as if it's a crime scene, inundated it with 1990s-era pop-ups, and ceased their in-person tours indefinitely.

The site looks absolutely shitty. But the guides are still up and easily navigable.“Copy-and-paste it into Word. It’s all there,” Freddy told me when asked how to access the guides. “We don’t plan on taking it down.” 

To be fair, the official, downloadable guide has always been… just a Word doc. With the world at a standstill and the future of tourism unclear, there's something almost poetic about Shitty Guide being preserved in lo-fi digital amber. For now, it feels like a time capsule highlighting a city at an impasse, and a cautionary tale ready to be dusted off when travel begins anew.

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Tom Burson is a contributor for Thrillist.