Last Updated on October 8, 2021 by Maggie McKneely
Planning a trip to England, Scotland, Wales, or somewhere thereabouts? These are the 17 best books about the UK to read before your trip!
Best Books about the UK to Read Before Your Trip
Few places are home to as many classic novels as the UK. Where would the modern-day romance genre be if Jane Austen had never given us Mr. Darcy? Or detectives if Sherlock Holmes had not first scoured the English countryside, looking for clues? Both the early English tome Beowulf and Tolkien’s Middle Earth were birthed here. For my generation, London’s King Cross Station will forever be synonymous with a certain boy-wizard and his lightning-shaped scar. And let’s not leave out the single most influential English author of all time, William Shakespeare.
In short, you’ll have no trouble finding books that you should read before any trip to the United Kingdom, no matter which part you’re visiting. But as part of my ongoing series, I asked fellow travel bloggers what they think are the best books about the UK that everyone should read before a trip across the pond. From travel guides, memoirs, classics, mysteries, and even rom-coms, you’ll find that there’s something for everyone on this list!
Book Lover’s Bucket List: A Tour of Great British Literature
The Book Lover’s Bucket List is the absolute quintessential guide to the UK for all bibliophiles. In this utterly delightful travel guide, author Caroline Taggart takes readers to literary locations all across the United Kingdom, explaining their connection to British literature and how you can visit them.
Yes, this book covers the sort of sites you’d typically think of visiting – authors’ homes and birthplaces (like Shakespeare’s Stratford-upon-Avon or Jane Austen’s Chawton house). But it is also chockful of locations (and tidbits about those places) that, while not on the typical tourist itinerary, were integral to the author’s life, served as inspiration for their stories, or are the real-life locations of fictional novels.
Taggart explains how you can take a walking tour of Birmingham, where J.R.R. Tolkien grew up, and whose industrial smoky air inspired the hellscape of Mordor. Or visit the University of London’s Senate House, whose imposing art deco architecture served as the real-life inspiration behind George Orwell’s Ministry of Truth. The book also features museums, such as the recently opened tribute to Roald Dahl. You can even visit the actual Birnam Wood made famous by that one Scottish play.
There are churches, estates (like Lyme Park, recognizable to any Pride and Prejudice fans), and small villages that are all, in one way or another, connected to British literature.
Practically every author of import in British literature is mentioned, including many recognizable names like Lord Byron and C.S. Lewis, Keats, Wordsworth, and Dickens. But included are also names I had never heard of and yet played an important role in Britain’s literature scene.
And perhaps most important, Caroline Taggart is an entertaining and thoroughly researched writer. Every entry is both educational and witty. This is one of the best books about the UK for any book lover planning a trip to the UK, or who just wants to do some armchair traveling.
Submitted by: Maggie (me!) from Pink Caddy Travelogue
Notes from a Small Island
If you are looking for a funny book about traveling around Britain, you will love Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson. He is an American who has lived a significant part of his life in the UK. It’s obvious Bryson has a special place in his heart for Britain.
In a national poll, Notes from a Small Island was voted the book that best represents Britain. It tells the story of Bryson’s farewell trip around Britain before moving back to the United States.
The book starts with his return to Dover where he recounts his first few days in the United Kingdom 20 years ago. He covers all parts of the island, sharing interesting facts, his observations, and plenty of laughs. The journey ends in some of the most remote areas of Scotland. Years later, Bryson did a similar trip and wrote about it in the Road to Little Dribbling.
After reading Bill Bryson’s book, you will be inspired to see more of the UK than just London. It’ll give you ideas of other cities and attractions to visit and learn about hidden gems. Notes from a Small Island also gives insight into some of the peculiarities of Britain and British English that would be helpful for those visiting the UK.
Submitted by: Anisa from Norfolk Local Guide
Scotland: A Concise History
If you plan to visit Scotland, get a copy of Scotland: A Concise History. Reading this in advance will allow you to have a much richer understanding of the country and provide you with many interesting topics of conversation with locals on your trip.
Scottish history is complicated, and this book helps the reader understand it in context. It begins with the prehistoric people who inhabited the land and concludes with modern concerns like Brexit and the independence referendum. In between, we learn about historical topics ranging from important figures to battles, the arts, and the economy.
This classic by the well-known Scottish author Fitzroy MacLean was originally published in 1970. It has been repeatedly updated and now concludes with three chapters covering modern history by the journalist Magnus Linklater. Chapters are relatively short and playfully written for a scholarly topic. The book is enhanced with a map that readers will frequently reference (especially those not from the UK), an ancestral tree of Scottish royals, and multiple illustrations.
For those who do a lot of research before a trip, this book will help you figure out what is fact and fiction in the movies, shows, and fictional books about Scotland that you enjoy. Once you are traveling through Scotland, you will find yourself frequently remembering passages as you visit major cities, historic sites, castles, islands, and natural wonders. This background will allow you a deeper appreciation and understanding of Scotland on your travels.
Submitted by: Erica from Trip Scholars
The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot
To truly get a sense of how the United Kingdom came to be the powerhouse that it is today, you need to head back to its roots. There’s no better way to do that than to travel the roads on which the country was built way back when. As most people don’t have enough time to walk thousands of miles during their holiday, you can metaphorically walk through time by listening to the stories, accounts, and interactions of Robert Macfarlane in The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot.
The Old Ways is for those looking for historical books about the UK that don’t read like a history textbook. This magical account of a unique adventure dives deeps into the history, culture, and almost spiritual act of walking the old roads of the UK and beyond. Starting from his hometown of Cambridge, England, as Macfarlane walks, you will learn. His ponderings will teach you some of the lesser-known stories of these ancient roads and take you on a journey through the nation’s most remote hills and forgotten paths.
So before you plan your holiday in the United Kingdom, take an interesting geographical tour with Macfarlane to discover some new, off-the-track destinations to add to your itinerary alongside the big hitters like London and Edinburgh. You never know, you might just be inspired to take a walk yourself!
Submitted by: Yulia from Miss Tourist
Novelist Anna Quindlen is famous for her novels as well as her New York Times articles. She even won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1992. But her 176-page book Imagined London gets to the heart of why bibliophiles worship this city, making it one of the best books about the UK. London is the home of English literature – that is is why the book’s subtitle is “A Tour of the World’s Great Fictional City.”
Long before Quindlen ever set foot on the city’s cobblestone streets or wandered down an alley in Bloomsbury in search of Virginia Woolf, she fell in love with London. As a young bookworm growing up in Philadelphia, she obsessively read mystery novels set in London.
What makes this book such a charming adventure for either the armchair or actual traveler is her city roadmap. She sets out to visit all the haunts of her beloved British characters. She is in search of Sherlock Holmes’s Baker Street and Charles Dickens’ debtors’ prisons in Southwark. Any backstreet pub might be where Adam Dalgliesh stops for a pint during a maddening search for criminals in one of P.D. James’ 14 mystery novels.
Regency London is also where Quindlen searches for the fictional Lydia Bennett from Pride and Prejudice. Author Jane Austen placed Lydia in London when she eloped with Wickham. As a huge fan of John Galsworthy’s Forsyte Saga, Quindlen also imagines the commercial upper class climbing the social ladder in London at the turn of the 20th century.
Whether physical or imaginary, traveling along with Anna Quindlen in Imagined London is worth the journey.
Submitted by: Terri from Female Solo Trek
The Salt Path
When it comes to inspiring real-life stories, you’d have to travel a very long way to find something more moving than The Salt Path by Raynor Winn.
After learning that her husband is terminally ill, in a twist of terrible timing, Winn loses both her livelihood and her home. With nowhere to go, the couple decides to embark on England’s South West Coast Path, an epic trail that spans 630 miles from Somerset to Devon.
Unlike other adventure-style books, this wasn’t a journey born out of a craving for unchartered horizons but rather out of necessity. Neither had ever attempted anything like the journey before and were physically unprepared. As the pair of them began their new lives on the trail, they were shocked by the challenge of life in the wild.
The result is a hugely inspirational tale that shows that through the power of nature, we can start again. It is one of the best books about the UK, partly because it showcases one of England’s most beautiful areas but also because it teachers us to appreciate life’s most simple pleasures.
Submitted by: Sheree from Winging the World
Ruth Galloway Mysteries
When visiting the UK and embarking on a bus tour from London to Stonehenge, I was so pleased to discover the Ruth Galloway Series by Kelly Griffiths. This series is for those readers who love a twist on a traditional detective novel!
Ruth is a forensic archaeologist who doesn’t intend to solve murder mysteries but, nonetheless, her expertise is needed time and again. I love that these books highlight a strong, intelligent female, who is also vulnerable and human. Ruth is independent and successful, but also insecure and finding her way.
Each book in this series intertwines history with modern forensic science and a slightly different setting is used for each book. While I haven’t actually visited the Saltmarsh, a key setting throughout the series and where Ruth lives, I feel as though I have traveled through it extensively and could pick a safe passage through it.
For me, as I toured Stonehenge, my vivid imagination stepped into Ruth Galloway’s shoes as I imagined all of the secrets lying underfoot. This series not only inspired me to visit ancient ruins and educated me about other destinations off of the main “tourist” path, but it helped me to appreciate the rich history of the English people in a deep way. The novels bring ancient history to life and is one of the best modern fiction books about the UK.
Submitted by: Julie from KoskersIdlewild
Bridget Jones’s Diary
Published in 2001, this modern take on being single in London remains as relevant today as it did when first published. The very likable Bridget is the child of stiff upper lip type middle-class parents who live in the Home Counties (the counties surrounding London). You just know she’s been well brought up, but Bridget’s life is a disaster!
She throws herself into all manner of situations with the sole purpose of finding “the one.” Bridget lives in a small flat in south London and regularly heads out and about in the capital, describing and detailing the city life in laugh-out-loud style.
Bridget starts an affair with her lothario boss, who she really falls for. They even take a country hotel mini-break together, a pinnacle of relationship status in Bridget’s eyes.
A sub-plot runs throughout the whole book around Mr. Darcy (a take on the character of the same name from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice). Our Mr. Darcy is also a “posh boy” who was brought up near Bridget in a country pile and is now a barrister. There is a frisson between them throughout the book which we believe to be mutual dislike…
From here, any more plot details would be a giveaway so you’ll just have to read the book and learn about quirky British traditions, how to swear (curse) properly, and why London is one of the best cities in the world. For comedy fans looking to learn about modern British culture, this is one of the best books about the UK you can read.
Submitted by: Izzy from The Gap Decaders
“Wuthering” is a Northern English word meaning “wild, exposed, and storm-blown.” And if you visit some of the rugged landscapes in rural parts of Britain, it’s easy to see why Emily Brontë named her classic novel Wuthering Heights.
Published in 1847, the book tells the story of Heathcliffe, a mysterious orphan, taken in by the Earnshaw family. He grows up favored by Mr. Earnshaw but is bullied by Earnshaw’s son Hindley. Gradually, Heathcliffe grows close to Earnshaw’s daughter, Catherine.
When Hindley inherits the estate, he forces Heathcliffe into the role of a servant. Catherine marries a neighbor, Edgar Linton, despite her love for Heathcliffe. Their tale of unimaginable love, suffering, and revenge wreaks havoc on their families. Set against the dramatic backdrop of the Yorkshire moors, this lonely and violent landscape enhances the chaos and the tragedy of the novel.
Wuthering Heights is a classic British novel that any traveler to the country should read. But especially if you are planning a visit to Yorkshire, where the Brontë sisters grew up. You can visit their home village of Haworth, which has changed little since their lifetime. You can even walk to Top Withens, the farmhouse that supposedly inspired the novel, and experience just how “wuthering” the UK can be!
Submitted by: Hannah from Get Lost Travel Blog
If you’re looking for the perfect book to transport you to the wilds of Yorkshire, then look no further than Charlotte Brontë’s Gothic classic, Jane Eyre. Published in 1847 under the pseudonym Currer Bell, this bildungsroman tells the story of the eponymous main character as she navigates a troubled childhood and a placement as a governess in a remote Yorkshire estate.
The novel follows Jane as she grows up in an abusive household, is sent to a grim boarding school, and eventually takes a role as a governess to the daughter of the mysterious Mr. Rochester at the haunting Yorkshire estate of Thornfield Hall. As the novel progresses, it becomes clear that both Rochester and Thornfield itself hold secrets and things are not as they seem.
Famous for the love story between Jane and Rochester and for the “crazy wife in the attic” trope, Jane Eyre’s descriptive language can also make you feel as if you’re in the haunting moors of the north of England and is the perfect read to accompany any trip to the UK. Covering themes like mental illness and feminism (though still within the confines of the Victorian period in which it was published), it is also an important piece of literary history in which to read.
Submitted by: Maggie from Books Like This One
Pride and Prejudice
Elizabeth Bennet navigates the world of marriage with money, manners, first impressions, and education while asserting her independence. Elizabeth Bennet is a relatable character that has withstood the test of time – an independent thinker focused on her personal happiness and growth. Jane Austen’s writing maneuvers seamlessly through storytelling and realism.
While most well known for being a love story, Pride and Prejudice has been used as a soothing story throughout history. Prime Minister Winston Churchill often cracked the book open in times of stress, and soldiers returning from World War II were often given the novel to help calm nerves. The book is soothing because Austen paints a peaceful picture of the English countryside – filled with rolling hills of green, beautiful country gardens, and of course, elegant parties.
Before visiting the UK, get wrapped up in the lives of the Bennets in 18th century England! While you visit, take a moment and remember the people who traveled and lived there before you arrived. Their history is what makes the UK a great place to visit.
Submitted by: Pamela from Directionally Challenged Traveler
The Lying Game
If thrillers are more your literary style, then one of the best books about the UK that should be on your list is The Lying Game by Ruth Ware.
After a dog pulls a wayward bone out of a tidal estuary known as the Reach, Fatima, Thea, and Isa receive the three-word text from Kate they wished they never would – “I need you.” The four friends were inseparable at Salten House, their boarding school on the cliffs of the English Channel, until the Lying Game got a little too serious.
The game involved telling various lies to fellow students and faculty, but the one rule was that they never lie to each other. The girls parted ways after they were expelled in their final year of school following the mysterious death of the school’s art teacher and haven’t seen each other since. Now, fifteen years later, the same is catching up with them and they must return to Salten to sort everything out.
If you’re a fan of thrillers, this is a must-read before visiting the UK, especially the English countryside. While you likely won’t be encountering anything quite so serious, it will get you in the mood to visit or be the perfect companion while you’re there. This is also a great choice if you want a thriller that doesn’t have much gore. It’s sure to have you wanting to see the marshes and local pubs along the way.
Submitted by: Megan from Red Around the World
The Hound of the Baskervilles
The Hound of the Baskervilles is definitely one of the best books to read before visiting the United Kingdom. One of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous works, it features the detective Sherlock Holmes on one of his most eerie mystery adventures.
The Hound of the Baskervilles is about a murder that is allegedly perpetrated by a supernatural hound. Sherlock Holmes and his assistant, Dr. Watson, must travel to the English countryside to separate fact from myth and solve the murder. Was it really the work of the supernatural, or was the cause something more devious and human?
Written in 1902, the book features the wild West Country region of England, particularly Dartmoor, which is one reason that makes this book great to read before going to that part of the UK. Doyle paints a vivid picture of the rugged, boggy, and eerie nature of England’s moors.
Sherlock Holmes is also an extremely famous figure in British literature and if you go to London, there are many tours and attractions you can do that involve the detective. By reading one of the best-known Holmes stories, these places in London will be much more fun and interesting to you! Also, there is a pub in London called “Sherlock Holmes,” which is one of the most instagrammable places in London.
Submitted by: Dymphe from Dymabroad
A Tale of Two Cities
Perhaps no classic British writer is as well-known as Charles Dickens. He penned some of the most famous English stories, and what made him so popular was that he wrote about the poor working classes, rather than only about the rich.
Such was the case with one of his most famous and best-selling novels, A Tale of Two Cities. Even if you never read it, you are probably families with its first line: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” This captures the duality of the rest of the book, taking place in the late 1800s when the rich were in the “best of time” and the poor were in the “worst of times.”
The story takes place in London and Paris during the time that led up to the American Revolution and the French Revolution with its Reign of Terror and therefore portrays the conditions at a time when the poor were forced to rise up against the rich. While not a work of non-fiction, this book still captures an accurate portrayal of the tensions at the time between the two classes, making it a great piece of historical fiction.
So, if you’re looking to learn more about the history of the UK in the late 1800s before traveling there, you might enjoy reading this piece of classic literature more than a non-fiction book. A Tale of Two Cities is one of the best books that you can “travel through.”
Submitted by: Natalie from Voyage Scribe
The Outlander series of books are historical fiction (and romance) novels written by author Diana Gabaldon. At present, there are 8 books in the series with a 9th in the process of being written.
The main character across the series is Claire Beauchamp Randall. In the first book, we follow young Claire as she travels to the Scottish Highlands with her husband, Frank. One day while out walking, Claire walks into an ancient stone circle and accidentally travels back in time.
From the 1940s, Claire travels back to 1700s Scotland and meets and falls in love with Jamie Fraser. The remaining books cover their life together as Claire travels back and forth through time.
The books (and TV series) are a fantastic way to learn about Scottish history, including the events around the battle at Culloden in 1746 when the Jacobite army of Charles Stuart was defeated by the English.
The books depict the rugged terrain of the Scottish Highlands and provide perfect preparation for anyone planning to visit this beautiful area of the UK.
After reading the books, fans will be interested to know that there are numerous Outlander-themed tours available to many of the film locations (and places mentioned in the books). These include visits to locations such as Glencoe (a must on any Scotland itinerary), Culross, Douane Castle, and Culloden Battlefield.
Submitted by: Tracy from UK Travel Planning
The action in Winston Graham’s epic historical Cornish saga, Poldark, takes place between 1783 and 1820, with the protagonist, Ross Poldark, returning from the American War of Independence to his home in the southwest of England. Yet it isn’t quite the homecoming he had hoped for. Fearing him dead, his former lover, Elizabeth, is set to marry his cousin, and the family copper mines now lay derelict.
Over the course of the next few years, the British Army officer sets about making a name for himself once again in the local community. He aims to restore his family names and fortune through mining, a trade that has made Cornwall famous. Indeed, the landscape today is peppered with ruined mines, which are very photogenic and fun to explore.
The books chart his battles with unscrupulous aristocrats and the law during the turmoil of the 18th century. The action takes place in locations throughout Cornwall, and anyone reading the books will be able to recognize where many of the scenes played out.
The rich descriptions of wild landscapes and rugged coastline will have you yearning to travels to this countryside idyll and get booking those flight tickets straight away, making it one of the best fictional books about the UK. There are lots of interesting things to do in Cornwall, and knowing a bit of background surrounding the places you visit, thanks to reading Poldark, will make your experiences all the more rewarding.
Submitted by: Heather from Conversant Traveller
Shetland Island series
When people think of Britain, they tend to think of the mainland. However, Britain has a lot of islands. A couple of years ago, we were lucky enough to go on a cruise around Britain and visit some of the Scottish islands. The Shetland Islands, the location for Anne Cleeves’ acclaimed murder mystery series of the same name, consists of more than 100 islands and is closer to Norway than mainland Scotland.
The eight novels in the Shetland Island series about the Shetland-based detective Jimmy Perez have recently been reissued with smart new covers. Her love of the islands and their flora and fauna shine through. Readers will learn about the islands’ past, their festivals such as the Viking festival of Up Helly Aa in midwinter, and the long days of summer. She also writes about the changes that the discovery of oil in the North Sea and the arrival of the internet brought to these remote islands.
The BBC series Shetland is based on Anne Cleeves’ books, which have won several awards and are very well written. The dark murder mysteries capture the claustrophobia of living on a small island where everyone knows everybody else’s secrets.
Submitted by: Ann from The Platinum Line
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