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Paris Travel Guide

10 Books to Read Before You Go to Paris

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An iconic character in films, plays, and books, Paris has morphed into a destination so romanticized that it's easy for travelers to be skeptical about the city's charms. And yet the city's bridges, bistros, and bookshops inspire wonder time after time—they are just as we imagined, just as we remember them from our favorite movies and magazines.

If a trip to Paris is on the horizon, familiarize yourself with the boulevards and gardens of the French capital through the eyes of writers lucky enough to have called the City of Light home. Here are 10 classic and contemporary books that will transport you to the streets of Paris from page one.

1. The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy

Some of the best books set in Paris are well-known, while others deserve to be discovered; The Dud Avocado falls in the latter category. Set in the late 1950s, American Sally Jay Gorce leaves her life behind to experience the many pleasures of Paris. A semi-autobiographical novel, this portrait of the city follows the charming narrator—just out of college, living on the Left Bank—along a comical path that includes romance, plenty of Champagne cocktails, and the inevitable mishaps of living abroad.

2. The Sweet Life in Paris: Delicious Adventures in the World's Most Glorious and Perplexing City by David Lebovitz

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For a more contemporary take on the “drop everything and move to Paris” tale, put yourself in the hands of pastry chef David Lebovitz. This memoir highlights the everyday trials and tribulations of life in the city, from simple tasks that somehow become maddening when living abroad, to simple pleasures of Lebovitz's new home, the vibrant Bastille neighborhood. Cooks will particularly enjoy more than the book's 50 recipes for sweet and savory dishes.

3. A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway's account of expat life in Paris in the 1920s is a classic that seductively portrays the romance of days past. Published posthumously, this memoir features encounters with other literati who lived in Paris during this era, from F. Scott Fitzgerald to Gertrude Stein. While Paris plays a central role, this is also a love story, depicting Hemingway's life with his first wife, Hadley. In addition, A Moveable Feast captures the creative, free-spirited atmosphere of Paris in the post-World War I era. 

4. The Flaneur by Edmund White

The best city portraits grant access to daily life that tourists don't encounter during a typical visit. The Flaneur accomplishes just this, leading the reader on a stroll through Paris without any particular goal, but to observe the everyday theater of the city streets. This very French concept of strolling and loitering without any particular place to go comes to life in White's pages. After living in Paris for almost two decades, he accurately captures Paris in all of its intricacies.

5. Paris Journal 1956–1964 by Janet Flanner (Genêt)

Originally a series that appeared in The New Yorker for 50 years (from 1925 through 1975), this collection describes the rich cultural life of Paris in the 1950s and 1960s. People and politics, literature and art—American journalist (and New Yorker Paris correspondent) Janet Flanner dives into the many topics discussed over dinner at bistros throughout the city. These glimpses into dialogues and debates of the times add up to a perceptive portrait of Paris during this era of change.

6. Paris France by Gertrude Stein

For many expat writers that came through Paris, interactions with Gertrude Stein—who supported the work of numerous writers and artists—were at the core of their experience. In this memoir, poet, writer, and critic Stein tells her story. She first settled in Paris in 1903 and tells the tale of her lifelong experiences with France, from her earliest childhood memories, to the writers that crossed her threshold during the roaring '20s, to the Nazi occupation of Paris during World War II.

7. Paris to the Moon by Adam Gopnik

Writer Adam Gopnik set out on two journeys simultaneously: moving to a new country and settling into parenthood. In 1995, Gopnik moved to Paris along with his wife and infant son. In addition to learning a language and fumbling through unfamiliar cultural traditions, Gopnik was also faced with the challenges of raising a child in a foreign city. The result is a humorous, touching book that discusses the everyday challenges of being a stranger in a strange land.

8. My Life in France by Julia Child

Many food enthusiasts have flipped through Julia Child's iconic cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking—but not all know the tale of how the student became the master. Child first moved to France in 1948 with her husband, not speaking a word of French and fairly clueless on what made the culture tick. These pages reveal her determination to learn, from taking cooking classes at Le Cordon Bleu to rejections from publishers. Readers will happily follow Child to markets and restaurants during her French education.

9. Flowers of Evil by Charles Baudelaire

The city of Paris has inspired countless volumes of poems, but perhaps one of the most insightful is The Flowers of Evil by Charles Baudelaire. First published in 1857, this collection explores a range of topics from decadence, to physical love, to the bourgeois movement. Scandalous upon publication (six poems were banned in France until 1949), this collection is still relevant for travelers seeking to understand the city.

10. Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris by A.J. Liebling

According to The New Yorker's A.J. Liebling, a good appetite is essential for writing about food. He brings an insatiable appetite to this Parisian romp, highlighting all the nuances of French eating along the way. This ode to overindulging arouses an appetite for everything from oysters to steak to cassoulet. The shocking amount of calories Liebling ingested as research for this book may have not been healthy, but it surely makes for pure pleasurable reading.

Jessica Colley is a freelance travel and food writer. Follow her on Twitter @jessicacolley.

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