Vacation season is (finally) upon us, so for all of you with a wanderlust spirit and a quest for the unknown, we’ve rounded up a list of history books by to read before you hit the road. These books are whimsical, daring, informative and all things cultural. For intrepid souls everywhere, this list will guide you on a journey to the heart of cities you only think you know, with fresh insights into little known histories and untapped cultures waiting to be discovered. Go forth and experience history.
New York, New York
Adventures in Old New York
The Bowery Boys are known for their quirky, informative, and always entertaining podcast that focuses on the history of New York City. Adventures in Old New York compiles over a decade of the strange histories they’ve collected since founding their podcast in 2007. The featured locations still exist in NYC, which means the book also functions as a guide. You’ll experience the past of cobblestone streets and back alleyways from the early Dutch years to the Jazz age and beyond, including all the vice, scandal and intrigue that lies between.
A Journey Through Tudor England
Tudor England was an era of economic prosperity for England, rebounding from the destruction of the black plague that swept across Europe in the 14th century. Through site-specific chapters, Suzannah Lipscomb illustrates the stories and relationships of this well-known period, from Anne Boleyn’s childhood home to Tutbury Castle, where Mary Queen of Scots was imprisoned. Each locale evokes a rich and detailed past that gives the reader and traveler unique insight to one of the most interesting periods of British history.
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Carnival Under Fire
Part history book, part memoir, Carnival Under Fire is a vivid telling of Rio de Janeiro’s past from its early beginnings as discovered by Portuguese explorers to its rapid growth into the 21st century. Castro’s evocative storytelling brings to life a city and its people through anecdotes of a culture that embraces nightlife, passion, and Carnival.
A Rose for Winter
Andalusia is a region in southern Spain with a history rich in flamenco and bullfighting. According to author, Laurie Lee, it is also a passion, which drives his vibrant and poetic account of his second visit to Andalusia after 15 years of absence. Lee describes the magic of flamenco, the power and fluidity between the dancers and the music that entrances them; the brave and cultish nature of the bullfighting; the poverty of a post-war land. This is a book that will excite the senses and encourage an embrace of the quintessentially Spanish region.
The Volcano Lover
In The Volcano Lover, well-known essayist and philosopher Susan Sontag ventures into Naples, Italy to make a romance from the past come to life. This historical fiction tells the story of Emma, Lady Hamilton—born Amy Lyon—a lowly maid known for her exquisite beauty who rose through social ranks as the mistress of important men, finally marrying Sir William Hamilton and gaining the title of Lady. This is a story of empowerment, heartbreak, infidelity, prejudice and eventual abandonment in the high society of late 18th century Naples. Although fiction, Sontag grounds her story firmly in the reality of Naples, giving travelers a unique view.
Newly opened to Americans, Cuba still retains much of its mystery. Havana has held on to the past in a way unfamiliar to many travellers, while its socialist government fascinates people used to a capitalist world. Andrei Codrescu delves into Cuban culture with fervor and attention to detail. Ay, Cuba! is a visceral exploration of a complicated cultural history through the lens of an author who grew up under communism in Romania. It is rich with scenes of Cuban life and Codrescu’s own personal attempts to explain the multi-faceted sociohistorical narrative behind such a complex and vibrant culture.
City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi
According to early Islamic theology, Djinns are fire-formed creatures that live in the heart of Delhi, protecting the faithful and ensuring the city’s constant regeneration. William Dalrymple, who spent a year there with his wife when they were in their mid-twenties, delivers this and other historical and supernatural details to the reader. Part travelogue, memoir, and history, it is written in reverse chronological order, beginning with the anti-Sikh riots in 1984 and going backwards in time to ancient mythology, all the while interspersing personal anecdotes that color the narrative and root it firmly in the Delhi of present day.
Prague, Czech Republic
Prague in Black and Gold: Scenes from the Life of a European City
Prague is a city known for its intellectual capital, the beauty of its architecture, and the romance of its literature. Peter Demetz details the convergence of ethnicities (Germans, Jews, Italians, and Czechs) and cultures that influenced this unique and magical city. An extensive chronicle of Prague for travelers who want more than a cursory overview, Demetz provides a thorough cultural history from Prague’s mythological beginnings to the creation of Czechoslovakia and its dissolution in favor of the Czech Republic.
Riveria Maya, Mexico
Fire & Blood
If it is possible to encompass the whole of Mexican history—its many identities, parallel narratives and hybrid culture—into one book, T.R. Fehrenbach has done it. This is a riveting and all-encompassing look at the amalgamation of cultural events and historical figures that have contributed to the trajectory of Mexico, from the Amerindians of ancient civilizations to the Spanish conquistadors to modern day capitalism and its effect on the Mexican economy. With unique character studies of Cortes and Pancho Villa, to name just a few, Fehrenbach brings to life the rich and diverse history of a scrappy, oft-beleaguered, yet fiercely proud nation.
The Flâneur: A Stroll Through the Paradoxes of Paris
One of the most luxurious aspects of traveling in cities is the leisurely pace at which you can meander the streets, admiring every facet. Learning its buildings, its roads, its people; getting lost and finding yourself. In French, a flâneur is a wanderer, someone who strolls through a city seemingly unaware, but with a hidden connection to the history of their surroundings. Edmund White’s book is the perfect guide for a flâneur. Written in the lazy, poetic prose of a stroller, he touches on personal anecdotes and lesser known histories of Parisian places, from boutiques to palaces and the little unknowns in between. For an extra bonus and a female perspective, check out Lauren Elkin’s recent Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London .
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Featured photo: Jaromír Kavan / Unsplash