Doing a little reading (or even movie viewing) can be so inspiring before a trip. You might come up with ideas for sites to add to your itinerary, and it will generally build your excitement (Like you need to build your excitement. You are going to Paris after all!) Here are my recommendations for books to read before going to Paris.
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✅ If you only read one book to prepare for your Paris trip, this is my #1 pick.
I have read each of these books and can recommend them without reservation. There are, of course, many more books available about Paris which I look forward to reading so that I can expand this list in the future.
Books to read before your trip to Paris
The first thing you need to read before you create your Paris itinerary is a good quality guidebook. And by that, I mean of course, a Rick Steves Paris guidebook. If you’re planning to spend more than three days in Paris, I recommend getting the full guidebook. For a short trip or stopover in Paris, the Pocket Paris Guidebook is a good option.
If you prefer a lower key guidebook to provide ideas for sites, accommodations and dining option then Rough Guides guidebooks might be more to your liking. If you want nitty-gritty details on everything for your itinerary, you definitely want to go with Rick Steves.
Read More → 1 Day in Paris: Complete Itinerary
If you only read one book (outside of a guidebook) before traveling to Paris I recommend The Sweet Life in Paris. It’s a delightful read. I found myself nodded and hmmm-ing as I read stories of Lebovitz’s experiences in Paris. At one point I even gasped aloud, laughed and shouted out “That happened to me!” No one else was in the room at the time, but that’s not the point.
Lebovitz doesn’t pull any punches about the things he dislikes about Paris…but don’t let that discourage you from going. I think traveling to Paris with your eyes wide open will make you enjoy it more rather than find yourself unpleasantly surprised by any rudeness you might encounter. (Psst. He doesn’t pull any punches about Americans either.)
The book includes some mouthwatering recipes (the author is a pastry chef), and he also offers his personal recommendations for Paris bakeries, chocolate shops, cheese shops and more.
*sigh* Now I really need to go back to Paris.
Elaine Sciolino’s The Only Street in Paris is a great study of a single historic street in Paris, the rue des Martyrs. Sciolino was the New York Times Paris bureau chief, so she can definitely write. Though not as fun and light-hearted a read as The Sweet Life in Paris, this is a book I strongly wish that I had read before going to Paris…and it made me hunger to return to Paris far more than any of the other books on this list.
When Julia Child arrived in Paris in 1948 with her husband Paul (who had been sent there by the U.S. State Department) she didn’t know anything about the culture or language. But soon was engaging in the culture…and as a result discovered her hidden talent for cooking.
Child’s willingness to try new things and stretch herself led directly to her changing the face of cooking in America. Child’s autobiography was used as part of the basis for the screenplay for the film Julie & Julia.
Published posthumously, A Moveable Feast is the memoir of young Ernest Hemingway’s time in Paris as a writer following World War I. It includes his personal stories and memories and features other notable Lost Generation figures like F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, and Ford Maddox Ford.
I picked up my copy at Shakespeare and Company on my trip to Paris. I love how the cover has a photo of Hemingway standing out in front of the original Shakespeare and Company shop with the store’s founder Sylvia Beach. While you’re in Paris, do stop by this iconic bookstore. Though it’s not the original shop that Hemingway and James Joyce spent time in, it’s a great place to kick back and relax in Paris…and pick up a lovely literary souvenir.
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The Nightingale is the story of two French sisters with very different personalities—Vianne and Isabelle—as they struggle through World War II in France. Vianne has to care for her daughter alone after her husband goes off to fight while Isabelle joins the Resistance.
I think I could confidently put The Nightingale on my list of the best novels I’ve ever read. Kristin Hannah is a great writer. Once I got into this book (sometimes I read books slower at the beginning—no fault of the author), I literally couldn’t put it down. So definitely read this one even if you’re not heading off to Paris.
Set in Paris in the 1930’s, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, tells the story of a young boy who lives in a train station after the death of his father. He’s managed to hide out in the station undetected, but then runs afoul of the elderly man who runs the toy kiosk.
The Invention of Hugo Cabret is part novel, part graphic novel (the illustrations are used to continue telling the story rather than just illustrating what was read), and a thoroughly enjoyable read. It’s not just for kids…trust me.
Gaston Leroux’s classic tale of The Phantom of Opera should be on your Paris trip prep list. You especially should read this if your Paris itinerary includes a tour of the Palais Garnier opera house, the setting for the book.
Our guided tour of the Palais Garnier was hubby’s favorite thing we did on our trip to Paris. He loved it so much in fact that he went back later for a self-guided tour while I did some window shopping at Galeries Lafayette a block away.
Beautifully written (and translated), The Elegance of the Hedgehog tells the story of 12-year-old Paloma (resident of an upscale Paris apartment building) who has decided she’s going to kill herself on her 13th birthday. There is also Renee, the apartment building’s concierge who hides her intellectual side from the tenants. Then they meet the building’s newest resident Ozu.
The Red Notebook is a charming book that tells the story of bookseller Laurent who comes across a woman’s handbag in the street. When the police are unable to take his report right away, Laurent decides to investigate the and track down the owner of the bag himself. It’s an enjoyable read that reminded me a bit of the movie While You Were Sleeping.
Bonus! Here are some great movies to watch before a trip to Paris
Midnight in Paris (2011)
This has been described as a love letter to Paris and I heartily agree. It’s one of my all-time favorite movies, and it should be required viewing before your trip to Paris. And then also watch it when you get home so you can point at the screen and say “I’ve been there!” Also try watching it after reading Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. Stars Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams and Marion Cotillard.
How to Steal a Million (1966)
It’s a heist movie set in Paris starring Peter O’Toole. Enough said. Oh, and Audrey Hepburn is also in it.
Martin Scorsese’s 3D film adaptation of The Invention of Hugo Cabret. I prefer the book, but the film was enjoyable. Stars Asa Butterfield, Chloe Grace Moretz and Ben Kingsley.
Funny Face (1957)
More Audrey Hepburn! This classis Fred Astaire musical includes songs from the Gershwin Brothers. Also stars Kay Thompson.
And still more Audrey Hepburn in Paris! This Hitchcock-esque thriller (with a touch of 1930s screwball comedy) should be on your movie list even if you’re NOT going to Paris. Also stars Cary Grant.
What books (or movies) would you recommend that people read before traveling to Paris?