London is one of the most visited cities in the world, and one of the most written about. Whether you are a first-time visitor, a seasoned traveller, or just want to know more about the city, there is a vast choice to choose from: fiction, history and guidebooks. This is just a small selection of books to read before you visit London.
If you want to see the main sights, and to get a bit of an insight into the life of the city, then you can’t go wrong with Lonely Planet’s London Travel Guide. Returning visitors may like more specialised books that get under the skin of the place. I’ve previously reviewed London Peculiars (which details some of the city’s oddities) and Writer’s London (a compendium of places associated with London’s many literary figures). Another book I enjoyed is Secret London, which concentrates on lesser known places and sights.
If you’re travelling with younger members of the family Lonely Planet Kids have a range of guidebooks. These include City Trails: London (for ages 9-12), Pop-up London (for 3-5 year olds), and Brick City (8 years and above). The last one looks amazing, with instructions for buildings some of London’s iconic buildings from Lego!
History Of London
A Short History of London: the Creation of a World Capital by Simon Jenkins (2019) is a comprehensive and straightforward history of the city. Alternatively, try Peter Ackroyd’s London: the Biography (2001). Ackroyd has written many novels based in London, and his “biography” is more than just a conventional history, weaving social life and customs into the story.
If you like your history in fictionalised form then try London: a Novel (1997) by Edward Rutherfurd, a fast-moving tale moving from the pre-Roman era to the end of the 20th century. (Rutherfurd’s style may not be to everyone’s taste but you can’t beat his books for a broad historical overview.)
Memoirs And Poetry
For a personal account of London in the 17th century, read The Diaries of Samuel Pepys. Pepys was a high ranking civil servant who witnessed the Restoration of Charles II, the Plague, the Great Fire of London, and much more. A more recent memoir is George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London (1933), an observation of the lives of the underclasses in the 1930s.
London has also inspired many poets throughout the ages. Many of these have been collected in Favourite Poems of London (2018), featuring William Wordsworth, William Blake and John Betjeman among many others.
Novels Based In London
- Our Mutual Friend, Charles Dickens (1864). Dickens is probably the novelist most closely associated with London and several of his books are set in the city, often exposing the living conditions of the poor. Our Mutual Friend is based around the River Thames and the lives of its scavengers.
- The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle (1894). Sherlock Holmes needs no introduction, and the stories bring 19th century London vividly to life.
- The Clerkenwell Tales, Peter Ackroyd (2003). An evocative portrait of 14th century London, written as a series of narratives by different characters.
- King Solomon’s Carpet, Barbara Vine (1991). The protagonist of this novel is the London Underground and the part it plays in the lives of a varied cast of characters. (Barbara Vine is a pseudonym of the detective novelist Ruth Rendell.)
- Her Fearful Symmetry, Audrey Niffenegger (2009). A wonderfully spooky tale of two identical twins and their possibly not-quite-dead aunt, set against the backdrop of London’s Highgate Cemetery.
- White Teeth, Zadie Smith (2000). Set in north London suburbia, this is the tale of an unlikely friendship in a multicultural society.
- Brick Lane, Monica Ali (2000). Brick Lane is a lively street in London’s East End, and here we see it through the eyes of a newcomer from Bangladesh.
- 84 Charing Cross Road, Helen Hanff (1970). An enduringly popular story told in letters and featuring one of Charing Cross Road’s many bookshops in the 1940s.
There are many more that I could have added to this list. Do you have a favourite that I have missed out?
All of the books on this list are available via my Amazon Storefront.