Biographies of places offer readers a unique insight into a particular region or city by an author who is deeply immersed in its culture, history and traditions. The best examples are so vivid in their detail that you almost feel like you’re experiencing the place yourself through the eyes of the writer. All of the following 10 books fall into this category, so why not take the opportunity to experience some of the world’s most interesting places vicariously through the medium of writing?
Old Lhasa: A Biography
In Old Lhasa, author Michael Aldrich shines a light on the history, culture and architecture of Tibet’s most famous city. The former US lawyer has lived in Asia for over 30 years and his passion for the region is evident in this comprehensive, yet intimate, portrait of Lhasa.
Described by one of America’s foremost sinologists, Professor Victor Mair, as “a well-informed tour through time and space of the religious, political and cultural center of the indomitable Tibetan nation”, Old Lhasa makes perfect reading for anyone looking to immerse themselves in the rich cultural heritage of this unique city.
Crossed Off the Map
Shafik Meghji’s Crossed Off the Map: Travels in Bolivia brings vividly to life many fascinating aspects of this diverse country’s history and geography that had previously remained off-limits to most outsiders. In this intriguing book, Meghji also explores how 21st-century Bolivians are coping with today’s most pressing issues, such as climate change and Indigenous rights.
Crossed Off the Map was shortlisted for several awards in 2022 and The Washington Post, National Geographic Traveller and Smithsonian Magazine all named it as one of their travel books of the year.
Venice: The Lion, the City and the Water
Celebrated Dutch author Cees Nooteboom first fell in love with Venice as a 30-year-old in 1964, and in this book pays tribute to the city which has captivated him for more than half a century. Translated skillfully from the Dutch by Laura Watkinson, Nooteboom achieves the seemingly impossible feat of finding much new and original to write about Venetian history and culture, whilst at the same time perfectly capturing the essence of Italy’s ageless city. The Sunday Times likened the experience of reading his masterpiece to that of “being shown around by a wonderfully self-effacing, but impressively erudite guide."
Four Seasons in Rome
Several years before Anthony Doerr won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, he was awarded the Rome Prize by the American Academy and set off to spend a year in the Eternal City with his wife and newly born twin sons. Part memoir, part travelogue, Four Seasons in Rome chronicles his yearlong experiences in the Italian capital.
In this book, Doerr seamlessly intertwines an entertaining account of day-to-day life in the city as a writer and new father with plenty of fascinating insights into Rome’s incomparable architectural and artistic treasures. The Boston Globe described it as “a passionately rendered love letter that will appeal to anyone interested in the Eternal City."
The Pine Barrens
Pulitzer Prize winner John McPhee is the author of over 30 books, including the 1967 classic, The Pine Barrens. In this book, the “grand master of narrative non-fiction” (The Guardian) focuses on the history and ecology of this relatively unknown part of southern New Jersey, which takes its name from the vast pine forests covering the area.
McPhee also brings all his considerable journalistic skills to bear in describing the distinctive culture of its inhabitants. His evocative portrait of this unique place still resonates today in an era when even remote areas like the Pine Barrens are threatened by the spread of urban development.
The Gardens of Mars
No other place on earth can match Madagascar’s rich biodiversity, with a dizzying variety of plant and animal species that are unique to the island. As well as exploring Madagascar’s awe-inspiring landscapes and extraordinary flora and fauna, English travel writer John Gimlette delves deeply into the history of the world’s fourth largest island and engages with the Malagasy people. He excels at portraying Madagascar’s unique otherworldliness in what the Literary Review described as “a beautifully written depiction of the history of this beguiling island."
The Amur River
Colin Thubron has long been recognized as one of the most accomplished travel writers of his generation and the veteran author does not disappoint with his latest book, The Amur River: Between Russia and China. The intrepid Thubron recounts his epic 3,000 mile long journey traveling along the Amur River from its source in the Mongolian mountains to the Pacific Ocean, made all the more extraordinary by the fact that he embarked on this expedition in his 80th year.
Described as a “miraculous late-style masterpiece” (Daily Telegraph), Thubron’s breathtaking account provides many fascinating insights into the history and culture of the people that live near the Amur River, which for much of its course forms the border between Russia and China.
This Cold Heaven
American travel writer Gretel Ehrlich traveled extensively in Greenland during the 1990s and recalls her experiences in the critically acclaimed 2001 book, This Cold Heaven. The New York Times Book Review described it as a “stunning portrait of a people and the landscape that shaped them.”
In her heartfelt tribute to the icebound land that she came to adore, Ehrlich intersperses her own personal experiences of Greenland and its Inuit people with those of the Danish explorer and anthropologist, Knud Rasmussen, who was the first outsider to document the history and culture of this region during the 1930s.
London: The Biography
A New York Times Notable Book, Peter Ackroyd’s 800-page biography of London, first published in 2001, represents the culmination of a lifetime’s research on the city by the acclaimed English author and is rightly regarded as one of the definitive studies of the English capital.
Ackroyd relates London’s 2,000-year history in a thematic, rather than chronological, format, with each chapter covering a different topic, which allows readers to dip into the book at random. Yet he also skillfully weaves together the story of London’s past and present into a cohesive whole, resulting in what the Chicago Tribune described as “a treasure of information and anecdote about one of the world’s great cities, a book to be taken up again and again for the pleasures that lie within.”
On the Plane of Snakes
In this 2019 book, Paul Theroux journeys deep into the heart of modern Mexico, after first driving the entire length of the country’s border with the USA. This “warm and insightful account of contemporary Mexican culture, politics and everyday life” (Sunday Times) proves yet again why he is the undoubted master of US contemporary travel literature. There is much to savor in Theroux’s vivid portrayal of the Mexican landscape and his illuminating insights into the country’s history and literature, but he is also not afraid to raise controversial contemporary issues such as tensions at the border.