15 Best Books To Read Before Visiting Europe

Woman reading

Travel and writing go hand in hand. No trip is complete without a good book for company, and many a magnificent journey has resulted in published work. There is something about exploring a foreign land through the eyes of another that remains irresistible, whether the trip is in a metropolis or the middle of nowhere. Travel writing is wonderful, but you can’t beat a good old travelogue.

Europe’s myriad charms attract millions of visitors annually, and the history books are packed with gorgeous tomes penned about its many countries. These are the books to read before visiting specific cities, countries, or regions, and extra points if you can read them while following the journeys detailed within.

1 – Italo Calvino – Invisible Cities (Venice, Italy)

Italo Calvino - Invisible Cities
Image Credit: Giulio Einaudi/Martin Falbisoner – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0/Wiki Commons.

Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities is one of the great pieces of travel literature, but this isn’t your usual travelogue. It is ostensibly a piece of fiction, as Calvino imagines Marco Polo describing various cities to Kublai Khan, showcasing Kublai’s empire to its leader. Each city has its peculiarities, curiosities, and charms, but this spiderweb of poetic wandering eventually reveals a gorgeous truth. Calvino might be describing a broad range of places, but he is only describing Venice. Invisible Cities is a beautiful piece of work.

2 – José Saramago – Journey to Portugal (Portugal)

José Saramago - Journey to Portugal
Image Credit: Círculo de Leitores e Editorial Caminho/Diego Delso, CC BY-SA 3.0/Wiki Commons.

Most great pieces of travel writing try to get under the skin of a place, but José Saramago’s 1981 classic does more than that. Journey to Portugal is a trip into the very soul of the country, a meticulously intricate picture of Saramago’s nation down to the most intimate detail. It is as much a guidebook as a travelogue while not fitting into either, encompassing every aspect of Portuguese history, culture, and faith. It is a staggeringly triumphant work.

3 – Ryszard Kapuściński – Imperium (Former Soviet Union)

Ryszard Kapuściński - Imperium
Image Credit: Czytelnik /Contando Estrelas – CC BY-SA 2.0/Wiki Commons.

Ryszard Kapuściński is one of the most celebrated and influential travel writers that the 20th century produced, so it is only fitting that the Polish icon gets two books on this list. Imperium is the first, a 1993 piece of non-fiction that details Kapuściński’s travels around the Soviet Union as the state collapsed, along with his experiences of the Red Army entering his hometown of Pińsk in 1939. Kapuściński’s work is famously divisive, but Imperium showcases the man at his best.

4 – Henry Miller – The Colossus of Maroussi (Greece)

Henry Miller - The Colossus of Maroussi
Image Credit: Colt Press/George E. Koronaios – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0/Wiki Commons.

American writer Henry Miller might be best remembered for his intense fiction, but his enchanting ramble through Greece may be his best work. Readers shouldn’t expect to learn the ins and outs of Greece, but a thrilling dive into the human side of travel awaits, proving once again that good travel writing is as much about the writer as the destination. Miller spent nine months living in Greece, a tenure abruptly cut by the outbreak of World War II, but The Colossus of Maroussi is an incredible legacy.

5 – Kapka Kassabova – Border (Bulgaria, Turkey, Greece)

Kapka Kassabova - Border
Image Credit: Graywolf Press/Edal-Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0/Wiki Commons.

Borders are funny things. From a reductionist viewpoint, they are arbitrary lines drawn on a map, but boundaries do more than act as lighthouses for passport stamps. Kapka Kassabova’s Border is an achingly gorgeous exploration of her native Bulgaria’s border with Turkey and Greece, a tumultuous place where laws manage to be both fluid and set in stone, where survival comes hand in hand with innovation and tradition. It is a curious place, and Kassabova’s inimitable style brings it to light in beautiful technicolor.

6 – Jan Morris – Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere (Trieste, Italy)

Jan Morris - Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere
Image Credit: Da Capo Press/Nick Savchenko – CC BY-SA 2.0/Wiki Commons.

Welsh writer Jan Morris penned many a marvelous overview, with her work on Venice, Oxford, and Oman particularly special, but there is something about Morris’ tribute to Trieste that hits differently. Trieste isn’t your typical Italian city; it doesn’t have a standard history and stands alone in many ways, a myriad of characteristics Morris perfectly captures in this timeless work. There is nowhere like Trieste in Italy, and it is genuinely surprising that it remains off the radar of most visitors to the country.

7 – Jan Morris – Wales: Epic Views of a Small Country (Wales)

Jan Morris - Wales: Epic Views of a Small Country
Image Credit: Oxford University Press/Vvlasenko Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0/Wiki Commons.

Jan Morris wasn’t the most creative when titling her books, but the 400+ pages of this gorgeous book contain all the imagination one requires. Wales: Epic Views of a Small Country is an absolute must-read for anyone interested in Wales and the Welsh. A book dripping in love, Wales takes Owain Glyndwr as an anchor and explores everything from architecture to faith, industry, and song, bringing the brittle yet brawny Welsh character to the forefront. The Welsh are unique, and so is this book.

8 – Carlo Levi – Christ Stopped at Eboli (Southern Italy)

Carlo Levi - Christ Stopped at Eboli
Image Credit: Farrar, Straus and Giroux/Jacob Philipp Hackert – Public Domain/Wiki Commons.

Sticking with Italy, Carlo Levi’s memoir of exile in the south of Italy is a gorgeously weighted book. Levi’s gorgeously crafted sentences breathe life into ordinary life, although there was nothing ordinary about his presence in two impoverished towns in South Italy. The famous north-south divide is present throughout, as Levi comes to terms with an Italy in the throes of Mussolini and fascism. Christ Stopped at Eboli focuses on the genuine over the glitz, but Italy remains beautiful throughout.

9 – John McManus – Welcome to Hell?: In Search of the Real Turkish Football (Turkey)

John McManus - Welcome to Hell?: In Search of the Real Turkish Football
Image Credit: Weidenfeld & Nicolson/Arne List – CC BY-SA 2.0/Wiki Commons.

Don’t be put off by the title because this is a fabulous introduction to both Turkish football and the country itself. In Welcome to Hell?: In Search of the Real Turkish Football, John McManus travels the length and breadth of the country to better understand modern Turkey, using football as a vehicle. McManus covers a considerable amount in the book, approaching complex issues tactfully and providing ample laughs along the way. You don’t need to be a soccer fan to enjoy this brilliant book.

10 – Ryszard Kapuściński – Nobody Leaves (Poland)

Ryszard Kapuściński - Nobody Leaves
Image Credit: Penguin Press/Kgbo – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0/Wiki Commons.

The second Kapuściński title is focused entirely on his native Poland. The journalist gained fame for his work in Africa, Asia, and Central America, but his writings on the neglected parts of his homeland are every bit as vital. Nobody Leaves is a warts-and-all look at communist Poland, a country stuck between Stalinism and a different way, dealing with disappointment and hope all at once. It isn’t the cheeriest book, but it is gorgeously written and undeniably honest at every turn.

11 – Adam Gopnik – Paris to the Moon (Paris, France)

Adam Gopnik - Paris to the Moon
Image Credit: Random House Trade Paperbacks/Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot – CC0/Wiki Commons.

There are a million books about Paris, with new ones published every year, as the French capital continues to dig its claws into a new band of starry-eyed travel writers. Adam Gopnik’s Paris to the Moon is top of the pile, a charming collection of thoughts and musings on the famous city, a set that takes a step back from the city while living right in its heart. The essays originally surfaced as articles for The New York Times in the mid-’90s, but they still work beautifully as one cohesive unit. Paris to the Moon is Paris as you’ve never known it, yet comfortingly familiar all the while.

12 – John Bills – Via the Left Bank of the ’90s (Prague, Czechia)

John Bills - Via the Left Bank of the ’90s
Image Credit: John Bills/Savin – Own work, FAL/Wiki Commons.

A bit of shameless self-promotion never hurt anyone, right? The author was lucky enough to live in Prague for a few years, and he spent much of the time traversing the city on its marvelous metro system, exploring the neighborhoods, and painting a picture of Prague along the way. Via The Left Bank of the ’90s is a love letter to Prague, covering the entirety of the city’s history one metro station at a time, from early myths to the space race and beyond.

13 – Laurie Lee – As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning (England & Spain)

Laurie Lee - As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning
Image Credit: Open Road Media/Guillaume Baviere – CC BY-SA 2.0/Wiki Commons.

Laurie Lee’s seminal memoir details a very different Spain from the one beloved by millions of visitors in the 21st century. Lee’s Spain is rural, impoverished, and endlessly hospitable, but the shadow of the Spanish Civil War soon makes its presence felt. The story of a walk from the Cotswolds to Spain, the first part of the book deals with Lee’s days tramping on the English south coast before he heads across the channel to a new world. It is a marvelous book, eminently readable and packed with boyish charm.

14 – George Orwell – Down and Out in Paris and London (Paris, France & London, England)

George Orwell - Down and Out in Paris and London
Image Credit: True Sign Publishing House/Paris Museum Collection – CC0/Wiki Commons.

Born Eric Blair, George Orwell is best known for politically-charged works like Animal Farm and 1984, but Down and Out in Paris and London is equally vital. Published in 1933, it was Orwell’s first full-length work, and it pulls no punches in detailing poverty in the two famous capital cities of its title. The book caused a serious stir upon publication and remains every bit as vital in the 21st century. It isn’t the gentlest read, but it is an important one.

15 – Rebecca West – Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (The Balkans)

Rebecca West - Black Lamb and Grey Falcon
Image Credit: Macmillan//Faculty of Dramatic Arts in Belgrade, Public Domain/Wiki Commons.

It hasn’t aged particularly well, but Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon remains the standard-bearer for travel writing about all things Yugoslavia. West comes across poorly, but her in-depth analysis of cities, towns, and villages is as engaging today as it was when first published in 1941. West’s blow-by-blow account of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand is still the best thing written about that history-changing event.