Books to Read Before You Visit London

London Books
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A note to my readers: The world is gradually easing Covid-19 lockdown restrictions, but it will be a long time before we can travel freely again. For many of us that will mean staycations and more local travel, but I will continue posting new content for you to read at home and to inspire your future travels. Happy reading and stay safe!

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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 read: fiction, history and guidebooks.

London Guidebooks

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 (if you are just looking for information on one part of the city you can buy individual chapters as pdfs). 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 Memoirs 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.

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5 thoughts on “Books to Read Before You Visit London”

  1. Fantastic, I definitely will look up some of these even though I’ve been to London many times, fantastic choices there.

  2. What a great selection of books to help prepare for a visit to London. I’ve been many times but was planning to make another trip this year, before . . . So now I have plenty of time to read a few of these for my visit that will now be postponed until after . . .

  3. Nice mix of genres. When the time comes to visit London again, this list will come in handy.
    Thanks for such an extensive list.

  4. Brick Lane by Monica Ali (2000) would be my first choice as I lover going there on Sunday afternoon. The is always a new mural to see! Good line up of books.

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I have been writing and travelling for many years (almost 70 countries at the last count), and I’ve visited every continent except Antarctica. This website is my attempt to inform and inspire other travellers, and to share some of the things I’ve discovered along the way. Read more…

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