When planning a trip, my favorite way to prepare and get into the culture is by reading. It’s like a vacation before the vacation! So if you’re looking for the best books about Italy to read before you visit, you’re in luck – here are my top five favorites.
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Death in Venice by Thomas Mann
This is really a novella, but it’s a must-read if you’re going to visit Venice. (And if you’re going to Italy, you definitely need to go to Venice!) Death in Venice sounds grim – and the book delivers what the title promises – but it’s a beautiful, slow, precise meditation on escape and love and, yes, death.
And since we’re currently living through a plague of our own, those scenes of death and fear and escapism have become especially relevant. This is a quick and beautiful book to read before you go to Italy. Buy it on Amazon.
The Comfort of Strangers by Ian McEwan
If you read these two books about Venice in a row (as I did), you’ll certainly feel a certain… vibe about the city. It’s what I love most about Venice actually – the sense of incredible beauty and imminent decay and love and loss deeply entwined.
(This is a long-winded way of saying, this novel is even darker than Death in Venice.) But Ian McEwan is a skillful and entrancing writer, so if you’d like to fully lean into books that take place in Italy that really give you a dark and beautiful vibe, check this one out. Buy it on Amazon.
The Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante
Technically this recommendation is for a four-book series, but once you begin the first one, My Brilliant Friend, you will want to tear through the whole set in a week. (You won’t be able to – they’re long – but is there anything more pleasurable?) Elena Ferrante wrote these incredibly absorbing books about a friendship between two women that begins in their childhood in the rough neighborhoods of Naples and continues through their lives.
It’s not a glamorous portrayal of a city that often gets a bad rap, but they’re so enticing that they inspired many people to travel to Naples. So many, in fact, that there’s a companion book to take you to the places where the most important scenes took place. Oh, and there’s an HBO series too. Buy them on Amazon.
The Last Supper by Rachel Cusk
One more literary heavy-hitter – this is a nonfiction work by one of my favorite writers (she’s also on my list of Greek must-reads) who details the time she and her husband and children packed up and moved for a summer from England to Italy. They meet fellow expats, learn to love eating the simple Italian food, and visit several beautiful works of art.
As is typical in Cusk’s books, not a lot actually happens, but the beauty of them lies in her way of describing ordinary things with strange and clarifying metaphors and looking at things in her oddly charming way. This is not Under the Tuscan Sun (also I do love that movie), but it’s one of the most interesting books that take place in Italy I’ve read. Buy it on Amazon.
Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walters
I have recommended you enough depressing, difficult books that I feel the need to share a lighter variety of books to read before visiting Italy: the fluffy film-star romance. This is a perfect vacation book, or a pre-vacation book, to get you in the mood for that Italian sunshine and sea and movie stars and writers and love.
It’s about a vacation that turns into a love affair – with a person and with a country as well. It will make you dream about the possibilities of your upcoming trip, and put you in a lighter and lifted mood before you leave or while you’re sitting in the sun under a cafe umbrella on the Amalfi Coast. I tore through it in two days sitting in the summer sun by a pool – the ideal setting. Buy it on Amazon.
And don’t miss: My Favorite Books About Travel