Books for Travelers to Italy

As we wind up the Christmas season, I’m usually wrapping, cooking, listening to Christmas music, drinking wine…..and panicking because I’ve forgotten someone I need a gift for. My answer to that quandary is always books, especially books for travelers. There is no better gift than books in my opinion, although keep in mind that my happy memories of high school consist entirely of the interior of the library near my house. I’ve compiled a short list of some of the books I’ve enjoyed the most on the topic that I like most, Italy. These would be great for a traveler or armchair travel dreamer, or for anyone who enjoys learning. I’m a non-fiction kind of girl for the most part, but I’ll throw in a couple of fiction choices for good measure. Not a one of these is boring or a waste of time, promise.

If you are a true procrastinator, Amazon has the delightful option of emailing a Kindle book, and you don’t even need a Kindle to do it, just the free app on a laptop, tablet or smartphone. I tend to buy travel books in electronic format these days, so that I can take my library with me. I send ebooks to my friends abroad even on the day of the holiday, no customs or shipping fees to deal with and the shopping takes place in my PJs with a glass of wine in hand. No paper cuts from wrapping, either. Score!

Books for Travelers

Venice, A New History by Thomas Madden- There are thousands upon thousands of books written about Venice, but this is the one for me. I have read it and reread it, bought it for friends and colleagues. The history of Venice is pretty amazing and improbable, and I’ll bet you have no idea that there is much more to this city than gondolas. This is a city unique in the world that was once the most powerful place in the west. The writing in this book is readable and entertaining, more like hearing a great story teller than reading a history book. You’ll see Venice with a new respect.

Lost to the West by Lars Bronworth- The word “Byzantine” in modern English means “needlessly complicated and difficult to understand”, which is probably why nobody seems to know much about the Byzantines. I love to teach about the Byzantine Empire on my tours because it is a history unknown to most and has such a huge impact on the course of European history. If you don’t get the Byazntines, you really can’t get the Middle Ages. Finding a good, enjoyable book on the topic is pretty hard, though, because it’s been mostly academics who’ve taken an interest in this topic. This book is written by an enthusiast, not a scholar, sort of like a fan writing about their favorite thing. That is to say that the writing is a little simplistic, which is actually a virtue in the case of this topic. Some of the stories in the book are fun and almost hard to believe, and it reads a little like a soap opera. The author has a fun series of podcasts called “Ten Byzantine Emperors” which is sort of like an outline for the book. Listening to the podcasts before you buy will give you a sense of what to expect.

Absolute Monarchs by John Julius Norwich- This book is the one that got me hooked on the author. Norwich is a colorful character in his own right, but has made a name for himself with a TV series in Britain and by writing history in a popular style. That is common these days, however he’s been writing since the 60’s on historical topics and back then history was relegated to text books, not enjoyable nighttime reading. This book is a history of the papacy, a selection of the good, bad and ugly popes and their stories. If you are very devout, it may raise the hairs on you head since you may not know some of the background on the Vatican. Understanding the Catholicism from a historical rather than dogmatic perspective is very enlightening, and in this Jubilee Year it’s even more interesting for understanding the current Pope. Everything Norwich writes is a winner in my book, but I’m sort of a groupie.

Brunelleschi’s Dome by Ross King- Ross King is the more current version of Norwich, someone that takes complex historical topics and makes them fun and entertaining to read about. This book wasn’t his first, but is his most famous and arguably his best. It centers around the story of the building of the Florence Duomo and the conflict between the two great Renaissance masters, Ghiberti and Brunelleschi. The historical context for the project is brought to life, including the intrigue behind the scenes. I’ve read and reread this several times, it’s a great companion for a Florence visit. It’s also great for the engineer in your life who complains about office politics, it will make them feel better about their work.

The Liberator by Alex Kershaw- My son is very interested in WWII, and on our visit to Italy I took him to a museum in Sicily on the topic of the Allied invasion. After that visit, I looked everywhere for good books or museums for us to learn more about WWII in Italy and didn’t find as much as I had expected. This book is my favorite because it tells a true and almost unbelievable story of one man’s journey from Sicily to Germany, his encounters with famous figures and cultural conflicts. History is interesting, but a personal story is much more compelling for me. This is a page-turner, even for people with little interest in military history.

As the Romans Do by Alan Epstein- What happens when a writer wriggles his way into the Vatican, hoping to expose its inner workings and secrets? Not much as it turns out. Having hit roadblocks in his desire to be a journalist in Rome, Epstein instead writes a revealing account of how living in Rome actually works. I lived there briefly in college and spend weeks there every year, so I can attest that he speaks truth. I read this a while back and recalling some of his stories still makes me giggle from time to time. This is a good choice for a study-abroad candidate or anyone who longs to move to Italy permanently who may need a reality check.

The Day of the Owl by Leonard Sciascia- If you have a “Godfather” fan in your life, this would be an interesting choice. When I guide tours in Sicily, I give people exactly one day to ask questions about the Mafia and then we move on to more interesting things because the island is about so much more. I don’t want to focus on something that is such a tiny part of its history. But it doesn’t matter, that association is so strong in the cultural mindset, the fascination with the mafia is still strong. Sciascia is one of the island’s most famous writers, and this book is a short and riveting account of what life under the mafia was actually like at its height. It’s fiction, but seems to have been based on actual events. The book is quite short, more like a novella, but may whet the appetite for more meaty bits from the writer.

Death in Sicily (Inspector Montalbano) by Andrea Camilieri- For a different, fictional twist on Sicily, this series of books is a delight. This particular volume is the first three books in the series about a police inspector working in Sicily in the 90’s. He encounters mafia issues, that’s true, but he also encounters the situations that can only happen in Sicily. His relationship with his girlfriend cracks me up, it’s so true in Italy. If you have a mystery book addict on your list, this will be their new fix. You’d better buy several, they are fun and fast to read. This is also a series on PBS, but read the books first.

Books for Travelers on the Tour Guide Wish List

I have a couple of books I really really want (hint hint to my family). I can’t vouch for if they are good or not, but the reviews are good so I feel comfortable suggesting them anyhow.

Sicily: An Island at the Crossroads of History by John Julius Norwich- Did I mention that I’m a Norwich fan? Yeah, I’d probably read his grocery lists, I’m sure that they are also riveting. This newest book by the elder statesman of popular history writing is the one I’ve been waiting for. He has written passionately for years about the Byzantines, Venice, the Mediterranean and all of the connections between the east and west in history. This book is apparently pieces of things from his past writing and some new things added along with the help of family members. The reviews are pretty good, I look forward to seeing how he tells this incredibly complicated history.

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard- I need another book about the history of Rome like a hole in the head, but I want this one anyway. I heard the author being interviewed on NPR and I liked her instantly, she has the same passion for Rome that I feel. The excerpts I’ve read are well written and she adds many interesting facts and anecdotes that are known to people like me, people that spend weeks in the Colosseum every year, but are little known to the average person.

I’ve got more books that I can suggest, and on topics outside of Italy as well. Please feel free to comment and I’ll get back to you. Happy reading!


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Sarah Murdoch is a tour guide and guidebook writer for Rick Steves Europe. Her blog, Adventures with Sarah, focuses on packing tips, travel stories and advice for planning the best trip possible.

4 replies on “10 Books for Travelers to Italy”

  1. Thanks for an inspiring list to begin 2016 and to remind me of the great trip to Siciliy in September with you and 27 other interesting people. I have read several Camilieri books since I returned home and now I’m ready for non-fiction.

    An aside: my local Pasadena deli market owner is from the Messina area, coming to the US as an 11 year old boy (after WWII) to work in his cousin’s deli. He is about 5 feet tall, reminding me of the many old ladies we saw in Ortygia from the same era showing the effects of WWII.

    1. Outside of the RS guidebooks, I know of a few good ones. The most obvious one is The Diary of Anne Frank, worth a read even if you read it as a kid. There are two historical fiction books that come to mind, both by Tracy Chevalier- The Girl with the Pearl Earring and The Lady and the Unicorn One is set in Belgium and the other in Holland. Both are enjoyable. I have enjoyed some of the books written about the tulip trade in the past, since I grow tulips in my garden. It’s a history that is surprisingly fascinating. I’ve read Tulipomania and thought that was interesting. The Black Tulip by Andre Dumas is another classic. I like the Blue Guide as a companion to the RS books, they are more in depth. Happy reading!

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