Few cities have inspired so many books as Paris, France. Renowned writers such as Victor Hugo, Marcel Proust, Gertrude Stein, and Ernest Hemingway all penned prose in the City of Light.
Before you visit Paris, I highly recommend reading books about the city that are not travel guides (which are fine, too), but memoirs and essays to help give you a sense of what it’s like to be there. (I’m partial to nonfiction in general, but might publish a post about fiction to read before visiting Paris…if I ever actually read any).
What I’ve included below are by NO means the only books you should read before going to Paris, but these are the ones I have personally read and would recommend. I have many on my reading list that I have yet to get to.
*Disclosure: This post has affiliate links, which means if you choose to buy one of the books, I get a tiny commission. Opinions are completely my own, and I only include books I actually read and recommend.
If you’re a writer or literature geek:
A Moveable Feast
by Ernest Hemingway
“In Paris, then, you could live very well on almost nothing and by skipping meals occasionally and never buying any new clothes, you could save and have luxuries.”
The man. The myth. The legend. Full disclosure: I am a tad bit obsessed with Ernest Hemingway and probably would have loved this book even if I never planned on visiting Paris.
Published posthumously in 1964, A Moveable Feast is a memoir crafted from Ernest Hemingway’s personal writings about his time in Paris during the Roaring Twenties. It offers a raw glimpse into the life of a young expat writer in the City of Light. Hemingway writes in a straightforward, sometimes humorous, sometimes heartbreaking, way that is typical of his style.
Reading this book gives you a chance to see so many famous writers whom society has placed upon a pedestal as just regular (albeit incredibly talented) people with their own faults. For example, F. Scott Fitzgerald, whom Hemingway knew simply as Scott, struggled with alcoholism and was pained by the fact that his third novel, The Great Gatsby, wasn’t selling well (it didn’t really take off until after his death). And at one point, Hemingway was so poor he had to borrow money from the Shakespeare & Company bookstore owner, Sylvia Beach, and instead of eating lunch, he would walk around the Luxembourg Garden for two hours and then return home and make up stories for his wife about the lunch he’d had.
What makes this book great for trip planning is that it includes the exact street addresses of Hemingway’s favorite places and his writer friends’ residences, such as Gertrude Stein on 27 Rue du Fleurus and F. Scott Fitzgerald on 14 Rue de Tilsitt. This makes it easy to take yourself on a literary walking tour of Paris.
If you decide to read A Moveable Feast, MAKE SURE TO GET THE “RESTORED EDITION.” In the first editions that came out, the editors took great liberties in heavily editing his original manuscripts, to the point that the meaning changed entirely in some sentences. Do yourself a favor and get the restored edition to read his original manuscript, along with some commentary and sketches that did not make it into the original versions.
If you’re traveling with a family member:
We’ll Always Have Paris
by Jennifer Coburn
This memoir was written by American Jennifer Coburn, and covers the three trips to Europe she took with her young daughter, Katie. Gripped by a fear of dying young due to her own father’s untimely death from lung cancer, Coburn takes her daughter on a whirlwind trip to Europe, hellbent on making memories that will last her daughter’s lifetime. Though the book touches on more cities than just Paris, it was really helpful in planning my trip. I actually found out about the English language bookstore Shakespeare & Company and its group of “Tumbleweeds” who are allowed to stay there for free, thanks to this book.
Coburn skillfully weaves stories of her father’s illness with stories of her life today. Somehow, she manages to balance the lighthearted, funny stories about her travels with the very raw and oftentimes devastating stories of her father’s suffering and death.
If you love to eat and laugh:
The Sweet Life in Paris
by David Lebovitz
“When they say, ‘The cheeses in France are the best in the world,’ they mean, ‘We are indeed a superior culture.'”
Crack open some red wine and gourmet cheese because David Lebovitz will have you craving French food and pining to live in Paris in this hilarious collection of short stories about his life as an American in Paris, interspersed with recipes crafted by the renowned chef himself. I started reading The Sweet Life in Paris while I was already living in Paris, and found myself cracking up and nodding in agreement with all his observations. Like the time he dressed up just to take the trash out (as he says, “the exact moment when [he] became Parisian”), or the stress of the influx of les visiteurs who impose their visits on him, or how everything in Paris states a closing time of 9 p.m. but actually shuts down at 8:40 (I once really needed milk from Monoprix, got there 15 minutes before the stated closing time, and stood at the door looking in at the security guard who took no pity on me and simply shook his head). And, most importantly, Lebovitz tells you exactly where to go to get the best chocolate, best baguette, and all the other foods you want to eat (and, really, that’s the main reason I went to Paris).