Planning a trip to the land of Chianti and Michelangelo? Here are the best books about Italy to read before your vacation!
14 Best Books About Italy to Read Before Your Vacation
Italy: the home of so many things universally loved. Wine, giant bowls of pasta, baked dough topped with tomato sauce and fresh mozzarella, cappuccinos, the best artwork in the world. Sure, you can find knock-offs of these in any other country, but there’s just nothing like trying Nona’s freshly pressed tagliatelle in her sidewalk cafe rather than the dried box version from the grocery store.
There are about a thousand and one reasons for you to travel to Italy at some point in your life, so chances are that you’ve already been or have it on your to-go-to travel list. Whether you’re actively planning a trip, planning on planning a trip, feeling nostalgic about past trips, or just want to travel from your couch, books are a great source of inspiration!
So as part of my ongoing series, I asked some fellow travel bloggers for their recommendations for the best books about Italy to read before your vacation to that blessed country. This list includes a little of something for everyone, from nonfiction historical books, travel memoirs, classics like Romeo and Juliet, and contemporary rom-coms involving gelato.
The House of Medici: Its Rise and Fall
If you are planning a visit to Tuscany and you are interested in history, then you should definitely get yourself the book The House of Medici: Its Rise and Fall by Christopher Hibbert. In 360 pages, the book tells the story of the powerful Medicis, the famous Italian merchant family who essentially shaped the heyday of the Renaissance. The book describes the enormous influence of the clan on the political, economic, and cultural history of Florence and Tuscany. It begins in the early 1430s with the rise of the dynasty under Cosimo de Medici and through to the decline and bankruptcy of the Medici line in 1737.
The book is well worth reading and it’s also thrilling! On a tour of Tuscany, you will immediately realize that almost every attraction, every historic church, the countless works of art, and even the Uffizi Gallery in Florence can be traced back to this family. The influential family was filthy rich and had influence even beyond the borders of Italy. A great book that explains the history of the Medici in a fantastic way!
Recommend by: Martina and Jurgen of PlacesofJuma
Eat Pray Love
Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert is an autobiography of the then 34-year old Liz Gilbert as she embarks on a trip around the world to discover what she really wants in life, through spiritual devotion and self-discovery.
Leaving her longtime home in New York City, she takes a journey that will change her forever spiritually, mentally, and physically. Starting her trip in the historic Italian capital of Rome, she peruses the streets finding quaint shops and dining solo in the most picturesque squares of the city. Living like a local grants the heroine access to undiscovered and hidden gems of the Eternal City, and unlikely friendships with the older generation of Roman residents.
Colorful and ivy-covered facades, winding cobblestone alleyways and atmospheric trattorias are romantically described by Gilbert, making you itch for your next trip to Rome.
After her stint in Rome, Gilbert continues her journey onward to India and Bali, where she connects with a mysterious man. So while it is one of the best books about Italy, it’s also a perfect read before trips to those countries as well!
Recommended by: Haley of HaleyBlackall.com
Pasta Pane Vino
Pasta, Pane, Vino by the James Beard award-winning writer, Matt Goulding, is a must-read for any foodie visiting Italy. Goulding guides you through Italy with the stories of regional Italian foods, traditional dishes, and the artisans and Nonas who prepare them.
His descriptions transport you to Italy through taste and smell, delighting the senses through words. You will visit everywhere from Lake Como to Sicily, Blogona, Rome, Puglia, Sardinia, and more. You will stretch pizza and mozzarella, meet the medicine man, and learn to drink like an Italian.
Perhaps even more importantly, this book is filled with helpful tips and things you need to know before you visit Italy. You’ll learn the Italian restaurant, trattoria, and osteria hierarchy, tips for visiting the markets, and valuable food culture norms.
The book begins with correspondences between Anthony Bourdain and Goulding. Although entertaining, we gain an understanding of the passion of the food and the book by both men, and soon you will have it too.
Recommended by: Denise of Chef Denise
Brunelleschi’s Dome by Ross King tells the story of how Fillipo Brunelleschi, a medieval architect, designer, and sculptor, achieved his dream to build the largest domed room in the world. A surprisingly easy read, Brunelleschi’s Dome doesn’t just tell the story of Florence’s cathedral and its dome but also manages to bring the early years of the Renaissance to life.
Widely considered to be the founding father of Renaissance architecture, Brunelleschi spent years doing what many considered impossible – building a monument that echoed the magnificence of the ancient Roman buildings. To build a dome comparable (and ultimately larger) to that of the Pantheon in Rome, Brunelleschi had to reinvent the engineering techniques to do so, which had been lost through the centuries.
The book embellishes slightly on what was known about his life and includes a commentary of interactions between him and his workers as patrons. It also illustrates many of the social constructs of 15th century Florence and touches on influential people and landmarks in the city. This book is a wonderful read if Florence is part of your Italy itinerary – the roof on the Duomo is still the largest brickwork dome in the world today.
Recommended by: Roxanne from Faraway World
Vroom with a View
Vroom with a View is a travel memoir by Australian author Peter Moore. The novel follows the author, who was approaching 40 at the time, as he takes off to explore Tuscany on a 1960s Vespa.
Readers travel with him as he explores the Italian Alps, Tuscany, Lazio, and Lombardy. Peter rides from Milan to Cinque Terre, the Chianti Way (aka the Wine Road in Tuscany) with its many small hill towns, right down to Rome.
He takes the back roads and visits a mix of tourist hot spots and places familiar from American films, like France Mayes’s villa, to little towns so vividly described that you will instantly add them to your next Italian itinerary. This is armchair travel at its best.
His green 1961 125cc Vespa, which he names Sophia (after Sophia Loren), serves him well, forcing him to “slow travel” and providing plenty of opportunities to interact with the locals he comes across along the way.
This is an easy read that will transport you to Italy. I think it’s best served with a glass of wine and a side of olives!
In conclusion, this is one of the best books about Italy for those planning a trip or who just want to travel from their couch. It is not just another travel memoir but a great introduction to the culture of Italy for those wanting to visit or live there.
Recommended by: Paula from Australia Your Way
Beneath a Scarlet Sky
Whether you’re a serious history buff or just love harrowing, true-life stories, Beneath a Scarlet Sky should be on your reading list. This is the biographical story of forgotten hero Pino Lella, as he fights undercover for his family and beloved country during the WWII Nazi occupation of Italy.
Pino Lella’s life story is almost too wild to be believable. He starts out as a normal Italian teenager who wants nothing to do with the war, but everything changes when his home in Milan is destroyed during an Allied bombing raid. In order to protect him, Pino’s family forces him to join the German forces. But after he’s injured, he’s hired as the personal chauffeur of one of the German’s highest-ranking officials. As the story progresses, he becomes a spy for the resistance while working as a chauffeur for a Nazi commander, smuggles Jews from out of the Italian Alps into Switzerland, and falls in love with a beautiful widow named Anna.
Readers follow Pino all over Italy, from the high mountains in the north and the passes into Switzerland, through the old narrow streets of Milan, to the idyllic shores of Lake Como. The twists and turns and unbelievable circumstances of Pino’s story will have you on the edge of your seat.
This is one of those must-read books about Italy for anyone interested in life during WWII!
Recommended by: Me! (Maggie) from Pink Caddy Travelogue
My Brilliant Friend
For anyone in love with Italy, books can be a great escape that can Introduce you to a whole different country and culture you couldn’t possibly see on a short visit as a tourist. Elena Ferrante is one of Italy’s most acclaimed authors. Her classic novel, My Brilliant Friend, is the type of book that will grab you and send you directly to the streets of Naples, put you on a beach in Ischia on the charming Amalfi Coast, or send you exploring fabulous Florence with a local.
The story of the two “brilliant friends,” Elena and Lila, will guide you through their upbringing on the streets of a poor Naples neighborhood, where violence and crime were a common thing, and where every family had their secrets kept behind closed doors.
While the stories aren’t based on any real person, the four-book series feels like a journal, presenting real life in one of the most dangerous Italian cities. It’s one of the best books about Italy and should be on any Italian lover’s reading list.
Recommended by: Ingrid from Zen Moments
Love & Gelato
This is a great book if you are looking for a light, breezy read about Italy. Love & Gelato is a sweet coming-of-age story of a teenage girl who visits Tuscany to get to know her father, as this was her mother’s dying wish.
She isn’t initially charmed by the country’s beauty, but Italy gradually starts to grow on her. Even more so, when a cute Italian-American boy enters the plot. When she finds her mother’s old diary, she begins tracing her journey through Italy and the path her own love story took.
The book is replete with vivid imagery of Tuscan streets, Vespas touring the roads, formidable buildings – and of course, a lot of gelato. What’s not to like?
With charm, heart, and romance at its core, Love & Gelato is one of the best contemporary romance books about Italy to read before your Italian adventure.
Recommended by: Tanya from My Right Sock
Angels and Demons
In the middle of Rome is Vatican City, the smallest country In the world and the headquarters of the Catholic Church. It is also a symbol of peace in this world: an iconic representation that we as people hope to cling to in the midst of all these major conflicts around us.
In Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons, Professor Langdon arrives in Vatican City, where the Pope has recently died, and four cardinals, from whom one will be chosen to be the new pope, have disappeared. Langdon discovers that The Preferiti (the cardinals) have been kidnapped by the Illuminati, a centuries-old underground organization with a vendetta against the Catholic Church. Langdon and Victoria, a bomb scientist, must find the cardinals before they die and Rome gets destroyed in the name of the “Path of Illumination.”
As Langdon and Victoria race against the clock, readers get to explore Rome and the Vatican and learn the secrets of Vatican city by visiting the Vatican archives and the papal palace.
For both Italy and thriller lovers, this is one of the best books about Italy and the Vatican that genuinely inspires you to learn more facts about Vatican City.
Recommended by: Ania from The Travelling Twins
Alessandro Manzoni’s novel I Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed) is a book that every schoolboy in Italy knows. In Italy, children study this novel as part of the school curriculum. Written in 1827, I Promessi Sposi was the first historical novel written about Italy, and it is considered the pinnacle of Italian prose of the Romantic era.
Suppose you are going to travel to northern Italy and want to visit the magnificent Lake Como and Milan. In that case, you should definitely read The Betrothed, because the story’s action is set around Lake Como and in Milan. After reading this book, you will feel like a hero of the novel when you travel to Lake Como.
The Betrothed is a beautiful story about two young lovers, about the fight for love, the desire to live, the power of love for man and God. The lovers, Lucia and Renzo, are prevented from marrying by the tyrant Don Rodrigo, who wants Lucia for himself. The lovers are forced to flee and then are separated. Throughout the story, they must overcome hardships and face dangers, and they meet many interesting strangers along the way.
To me, the most fascinating part of the novel was the descriptions of the historical events that really took place in Milan at this time: the crop failures, the great famine in Milan, the bread riots and plundering, and the plague in Milan.
This is one of the best books about Italy if you want to truly understand Italy and the Italians of the Milan region. While the original novel is quite lengthy, there are much shorter abridged versions available if you want to save yourself some time.
Recommended by: Sasha from The Alternative Travel Guide
Under the Tuscan Sun
Under the Tuscan Sun is a 1996 travel classic by Frances Mayes, recounting her experience in buying and restoring an abandoned villa in the Tuscan countryside. The bestseller is a mix of memoir, travelogue, and cookbook. It also describes the traditions and life of Tuscany.
Frances fell in love with the villa on her frequent trips to Cortona with her boyfriend Ed and decided to buy it as a vacation home. Once bought, they start renovating it only to find out that there’s a lot more to fix than they thought. In the journey of renovating the villa, Frances finds unexpected delights while setting up the garden and the kitchen.
Do things end well for Frances and Ed? Well, you have to read Under the Tuscan Sun or watch the feature film based on the book to know more.
Mayes is an excellent wordsmith, and her book Under the Tuscan Sun is amongst the best books to inspire wanderlust. This memoir about taking chances will help you know Italy and will draw you towards its little countrysides.
Recommended by: Pooja from Fairytale Studios
Donna Leon has lived in Venice for 30 years and her series of books about Commissario Guido Brunetti celebrate her expertise about the popular tourist destination. While Commissario Brunetti solves chilling murders, readers get taken on a literary tour in and around the most famous Italian landmarks.
We sit with Brunetti in coffee shops, snack bars, at enormous family dinners at home, and go to his parents-in-laws’ palazzo – always getting on and off boats in the beautiful Venetian canals.
This series is really a guidebook for Venice and you will learn much about contemporary Venetian life by reading these novels. The dreaded Venetian bureaucracy, the difficulty of being a local in a city drowning in tourists, and the hard lives of African migrants on the streets of Venice are all shown in Leon’s novels.
While there are 31 and counting novels in the Commissario Brunetti series, Acqua Alta is one of the most well-known. This is in part because it shows just how hard it is to save Venice when mass tourism and climate change collide. Of course Brunetti solves crime (in this case, involving the brutal beating of an old friend), but he does it while the city prepares for the annual floods, called “acqua alta.”
Recommended by: Monique from Trip Anthropologist
Pompeii by Robert Harris takes place in the ancient Roman city in the days before it was destroyed by a volcanic eruption. It tells the story of a water engineer, Marcus Attilius Primus, who arrives in the bay of Naples to maintain the aqueduct that supplies the towns in the area with water. When the aqueduct suddenly stops supplying water, Attilius investigates the broken section near Mount Vesuvius and begins to suspect something is very wrong with the mountain.
Robert Harris’s book is a fictional novel, but it has been praised by Pompeii historians for its historical accuracy. Pompeii is great at describing domestic life at the time and gives readers an understanding of how Roman society worked. Some of the characters in Pompeii really existed, most notably Pliny the Elder, a Roman author, philosopher, and naval commander and uncle of Pliny the Younger, whose account of Vesuvius’ eruption is critical to our understanding of what happened at Pompeii.
Reading this book before you visit Pompeii is a fantastic and hugely entertaining way to understand what happened when Vesuvius erupted.
Recommended by: Helen from Helen on Her Holidays
Romeo and Juliet
Italy is known as the country of love, so it is only fitting that a love story as famous as Romeo and Juliet takes place in Italy too. As one of the most important works in literature, this is one of the most important books about Italy to read before a visit there.
Romeo and Juliet tells the story of a man and woman who fall in love, but their love is made forbidden by their two powerful but rivaling families. They attempt to marry in secret, but due to a series of unfortunate events, this never happens and Romeo and Juliet end up taking their own lives out of the love they have for each other, as they cannot be together.
The story, written by William Shakespeare, is set in Verona, which was a mostly unknown town until the story made it famous. Nowadays lovestruck couples flocks to the streets of Verona to see where the world’s most famous love story took place. Locations to visit include the balcony of Casa di Giulietta, from which Romeo and Juliet first confessed their love. There is also Juliet’s Statue, in the Casa di Giulietta’s courtyard, as well as Juliet’s tomb, where both lovers took their own lives. And don’t miss Basilica di San Zeno Maggiore, the church where Romeo and Juliet were supposed to be married in secret.
The novel is fiction, of course, so nothing actually happened at any of these locations, but they’re fun to visit and give readers a chance to step into the fictional shoes of Romeo and Juliet.
Recommended by: Tom and Zi from Craving Adventure
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