A selection of some of the best books that dive deeply into the daily lives of cities and the hidden worlds that lie within.
This instalment of Armchair Travel dives deeply into cities around the globe through rich and engaging histories, compelling travelogues, and works of fiction where the city setting is as much a character as the protagonists. These books really are the essence of armchair travel, capturing the character of a place and time yet unvisited.
Here are 10 of the best books that explore cities around the world, plus a bonus that looks into what makes an urban environment so alluring.
The Language of Cities – Deyan Sudjic
This book is a bonus entry in this selection, and forms an ideal introduction to the others by looking at the components that make a city, the forces that shape their growth and evolution through the ages. Drawing on examples from around the globe, in a world now predominantly urban, Sudjic explores developments that have succeeded and failed, and the elements of design that enable cities to operate with an efficiency citizens take for granted. Read it here.
Venice – Jan Morris
Venice, Italy: First published in 1960, and updated in the 90s, this book is a product of Morris’s deep and long-lasting relationship with the city of Venice, which in writing becomes the key character in a dense and detailed biography. The richness of the description reveals a twisting world that is enthralling and intoxicating, filled with juicy scandals and fascinating cultures at every turn. It’s said the best way to get to know Venice is to wander the streets, and Morris is the ideal companion to get lost with, sharing engaging stories, and finding new delights around every corner. Get it here.
Venice is a cheek-by-jowl, back-of-the-hand, under-the-counter, higgledy-piggledy, anecdotal city. She is rich in piquant wrinkled things, like an assortment of bric-a-brac in the house of a wayward connoisseur, or parasites on an oyster-shell.Jan Morris, Venice
City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi – William Dalrymple
New Delhi, India: This incredible book is Dalrymple’s account of a year spent living in Delhi, which peels back centuries of history and reveals an extraordinary array of characters, myths and legends, festivals and traditions. Behind his explorations is the legend of the djinns, fire spirits said to ensure the city’s Phoenix-like restoration no matter how many times it is destroyed. The scope of the book is vast and lush, and he brings to it an open-minded curiosity and superb writing skills that make this a delight in which to immerse. Find it here.
Another Day of Life – Ryszard Kapuściński
Luanda, Angola: In 1975, Kapuściński was deployed to cover the lead up to independence in Angola, and remained in the country in the aftermath as it collapsed into conflict, a dogged proxy war played out as civil war between pro-Soviet and pre-Western factions. He documents the exodus of the Portuguese colonial presence from Luanda, and gives sharp observation of life in a city abandoned by those who manage and maintain the infrastructure of society. After some time embedded with troops at the front, he returns to the city to make sense of events. As with all of Kapuściński’s work, it blends history, reportage, and politics in an excellent book. Get it here.
Lanark – Alasdair Gray
Glasgow, Scotland: This sprawling dystopian epic seems to defy a simple genre definition; it is a complex, original and ambitious novel. Autobiographic notes, and a deep discussion on politics, blends with fantasy, switching back and forth between the rich allegorical landscape of Unthank, a surreal depiction of hell, and the gritty post-industrial realism of Glasgow in the 1970s as it follows the short, nasty life of Thaw/Lanark. Read it here.
Because nobody imagines living here…think of Florence, Paris, London, New York. Nobody visiting them for the first time is a stranger because he’s already visited them in paintings, novels, history books and films. But if a city hasn’t been used by an artist not even the inhabitants live there imaginatively.Alastair Gray, Lanark
Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found – Suketu Mehta
Mumbai, India: Built around the personal geography of Mehta returning the city of his youth as an adult, this book covers vast ground and approaches from unexpected angles. Diving into a dark criminal underworld of rival gangs, a gilded Bollywood fantasy, and the gritty reality of life on the streets for countless villagers in search of a better life, he meets a cast of remarkable characters. More than most cities, Mehta shows Bombay as place of extremes; here vast wealth and abject poverty, excessive vice and ultra religiosity coexist in close quarters. This is a city of corruption, poverty, and pollution, but also one of uninhibited optimism, groundless dreams, and irrepressible hope. Get it here.
The Shadow of the Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafón
Barcelona, Spain: In the years after World War II, as much of the world was returning to some kind of normality, Spain was held in the iron grip of Franco’s dictatorship. Against this backdrop, Zafón tells the tale of young Daniel as he becomes wrapped up in the mysterious life of writer Julían Carax. The Barcelona of the 1940s and 50s, gothic feeling with a hint of magic realism, is as dark and brooding as any of the characters, and rendered just as vividly. And the magnificent Cemetery of Forgotten Books is such a phenomenal creation, I long to stumble upon it in the narrow lanes of the Barri Gòtic one day. Read it here.
Havana: A Subtropical Delirium – Mark Kurlansky
Havana, Cuba: History with added cocktail recipes (Hemingway’s take on a daiquiri) always catches my attention, and it continued to be held by Kurlansky’s witty, conversational tone as he led me through the colourful history of Havana. Covering the arrival of Spanish conquistadors in the early 1500s, through the colonial period to the Castro era, this book captures the layers left on the city by different cultures, beliefs, politics, and the legacy of notable characters. Find it here.
If I were ever to make an old-fashioned film noir—with a cynical plot full of intrigue, violence, and sudden twists, filmed on dark and menacing streets in misty black and white—I would shoot it in Havana.Mark Kurlansky, Havana
The Museum of Innocence – Orhan Pamuk
Istanbul, Turkey: The novel revolves around a love between Kemal, heir to one of the wealthiest families in Istanbul, Sibel, from another prominent family, and Füsun, a beautiful but impoverished distant cousin with dreams of breaking into the acting industry, set against the background of Istanbul in the 1970s and 80s. The museum of the title is Kemal’s collection of hundreds of little mementos and stolen souvenirs of a relationship that borders on obsession. Life in the vibrant city where east and west collide, and cultures ebb and flow, is brilliantly observed, and captured in beautiful writing. Find it here.
Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City – Russell Shorto
Amsterdam, The Netherlands: A compact but comprehensive history of the city of Amsterdam, from early beginnings as a fishing village, through the growth of the medieval city on reclaimed land, to the Golden Age, when it became the wealthiest city in the world and the hub of modern capitalism, to the present day, with its reputation for liberalism. Shorto weaves his account of daily life in the city with colourful descriptions and vivid narratives of the events and individuals that shaped this city. Get it here.
Here is New York – E.B. White
New York City, USA: Originally an article written for Holiday magazine, this gem of an essay was published in book form in 1948, and evokes the vibrant, cosmopolitan New York of the time in sparkling prose. White’s stroll around Manhattan is perceptive, funny, and incredibly vivid in its descriptions.This beautiful essay is somewhat dated, and has a poignant nostalgia, but feels remarkably contemporary in some of the issues mentioned. Read it here.
Browse all my Armchair Travel selections here.
Which are your favourite books that really capture the character of a city? I’d love to hear your thoughts; let me know your recommendations in the comments below.
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