Literature in Lieu of the Tour Guide: Fiction (and Non) to Take on Vacation

February 17, 2009 | 15 books mentioned 21 3 min read

covercoverOn the last Sunday in November, book critic Adam Begley scooped Frank Rich and Maureen Dowd for the top spot in the New York Times most emailed list. Not with a review though. Instead, he wrote an excellent piece about Florence for the travel section, in which he recommended E.M. Forster’s Room with a View as a kind of literary guidebook to the city. The Florence piece came several months after Begley employed the same tactic to tour Sicily, that time with Giuseppe de Lampedusa’s The Leopard in his pocket.

Those two pieces inspired me to think about other novel-city pairings. Last June, The Millions ran a guest post from novelist Joan Silber, in which she detailed some of her favorite books for enriching a trip abroad. Here I have something slightly different in mind: novels that allow you to follow Forster’s advice to leave the guidebook at home (and instead replace it with a great work of fiction). So, without further ado:


The American southwest: Try Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House for its stark descriptions of a New Mexico mesa.

If you don’t know Boston already, let Henry James introduce you with The Bostonians, his story of love and politics in the 19th-century city.

It feels cheap, I know, to make John Grisham your tour guide, but I devoured The Client on a boat trip up the Amazon and don’t regret it a bit. If, for some reason you’re looking to weigh down your trip to Brazil, go with Claude Levi-Strauss’ Tristes and Tropiques

See the Windy City through the eyes of Dreiser’s classic Sister Carrie, which renders a teeming, if not always hospitable portrait of Chicago.


I like Graham Greene for Cuba, with Our Man in Havana. Greene recurs a lot in this list, so in order to get it out of the way all at once: London (The End of the Affair); Mexico (The Lawless Roads or The Power and the Glory); Switzerland (Doctor Fischer of Geneva); Vienna (The Third Man); Vietnam (The Quiet American)


There’s still no better guide to Dublin than James Joyce (The Dubliners).

Greece: Bring along The Colossus of Maroussi by Henry Miller.

E.M. Forster’s good for Florence. He’s also good for intrigue in colonial India: A Passage to India.

It’s always a decision, do you want to see a place through the eyes of a perceptive foreigner or a local? In Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul: Memories and The City you get both.

Jerusalem: Mark Twain voyages to the ancient capital in The Innocents Abroad. How can you resist?


London: OMG. Ready to party? Try and keep up with Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies. A jaded post-colonial? Nick Hornby’s About a Boy. Prefer to delve into immigrant life? Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. Or, if you take your London straight up, there’s no better pour than Bleak House by Dickens.


Try Joan Didion’s Miami if you have half a mind not to come back.

I can think of nothing finer than New York in the hands of E.B. White: Here is New York.

Paris: Again, are you going for the expat experience or the genuine article? If the former, go with James’ Portrait of a Lady or Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. But for my money, see the city like a native. Stendahl’s The Red and the Black.


The great Russian novels are like a trip abroad no matter where you read them. Try Crime and Punishment or Gogol’s “The Nose” and “The Overcoat” for St. Petersburg.

Switzerland has inspired some great books in addition to the aforementioned Greene. There is Twain again with A Tramp Abroad and Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain.

I conclude the list with wanderlust. Books and foreign places are a fitting pair. There will always be more of both than there is time. This is of course anything but an exhaustive list. I’d love to hear what books you recommend in lieu of a tour guide.

, a staff writer for The Millions, writes the Brainiac ideas column for the Boston Globe and blogs about fatherhood and family life at You can follow him on Twitter at @kshartnett.


  1. I don't recommend this trip, but Paul Bowles' THE SHELPTERING SKY is an expat travel classic. For Budapest in the heady 1990s, try Arthur Phillips' PRAGUE.

  2. Thanks for this list! I've only read a few of these — now my list of books to read has grown substantially…

  3. James' Portrait of a Lady isn't set in Paris. It's an English country estate followed by Italy. Perhaps you are thinking of The Ambassadors?

  4. My sweetheart and I took turns reading John Brandon's _Arkansas_ to one another when we visited the South for the first time last summer. (We also listened to a lot of John Hiatt as we drove.) It was a perfect accompaniment to the region, if not to a particular city.

  5. Buenos Aires-Tomas Eloy Martinez's The Tango Singer
    Mexico City- first half of Roberto Bolano's-The Savage Detectives
    Chicago- James Farrell's- Studs Lonnigan

  6. Camus' "The Fall" is the classic Amsterdam novel. Don't forget "Down and Out in Paris and London" by Orwell (for both cities), Hemingway's "The Sun Also Rises" and "For Whom the Bell Tolls" are great for Spain. It's a trifle bit difficult to come up with a novel that best captures ones own home city, but for New York there's really no substitute for Catcher in the Rye.

  7. What about imaginary places? (Well, arguably Hell counts). If they're fair game, I'll pack 1984 as a guide to Oceania and Slaughterhouse-Five when journeying to Tralfamadore. This is making me think, though, of Borges' map as big as the territory…

  8. Hotel Honolulu by Paul Theroux is spot on for character studies of locals and a real gem if you're in Hawaii (beats Michener's Hawaii by more than the proverbial mile).

  9. Thailand: The Life Plan by Sybil Baker, quotedly also "the most original, no-holds-barred, well-informed and readable traveler’s guide to Thailand." -Xu Xi

  10. For Tokyo, Haruki Murakami (several short stories and novels, esp. Wind-up Bird Chronicle).

    On Gdansk, in addition to Grass there have been some recent Polish contributions by Pawel Huelle (Mercedes-Benz) and Stefan Chwin (Death in Danzig).

    On the Kaliningrad region of Russia (and its East Prussian legacy), there's Yuri Buida's The Prussian Bride.

    There's a lot on Vienna (esp. by Schnitzler & Musil), but I like the autobiographical works by Stefan Zweig (World of Yesterday) and Elias Canetti (esp. Torch in My Ear [which also has some good sections on Berlin] and the Play of the Eyes).

    For Bruges, Belgium there's Bruges-la-Morte by Georges Rodenbach.

    Finally, Margaret Atwood coined the term 'Sowesto' for southwestern Ontario — roughly, the region between Toronto and Detroit. Alice Munro is the undisputed master of that still-kinda-Calvinist territory.

  11. Cartagena, Colombia: Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The most beautiful portrait of the heart and soul of a city and its people/culture.

  12. When in the Czech Republic, read Kundera's THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING. When going to Norway, bring along Sigrid Undset's KRISTIN LAVRANSDATTER trilogy, the prose and the poetic EDDAS,and Per Petterson's OUT STEALING HORSES and TO SIBERIA. Lampedusa's THE LEOPARD is must reading for a trip to Sicily.

  13. It seems slightly simplistic after mentioning writers like James and Kundera to include Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind, but it's provides a wonderful history of Atlanta, Georgia. Also Biely's Petersburg is a great one for St. Petersburg.

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