Before traveling, I always recommend travelers look beyond the Top 10 Lists or bucket list items and read books from another culture to better immerse yourself into the culture and traditions of that place. While guidebooks and travel blogs provide valuable insight into the practice aspects of travel, they often fail to capture the essence of a culture. Reading the local literature, whether it’s fiction, non-fiction, or even poetry, diving into the literary works of a country before visiting can offer an unparalleled understanding of its history, people, customs, and beliefs.
By exploring the pages written by authors deeply rooted in their cultural heritage, travelers can enrich their experiences and forge deeper connections with the places they visit. If you’re planning a trip to the U.K., immersing yourself in literary traditions such as capturing the absurd, formalism, and an exploration of gender and sexuality and its history can provide valuable insights into its society, customs, and values.
Whether you’re an avid reader, or simply interested in learning about your journey before it begins, here is a curated list of books to read before visiting the United Kingdom that will transport you to Britain’s past and present while enriching your visit with knowledge and a deeper appreciation for all you see and do.
If you want to bring your books on vacation with you, a Kindle is essential. With a Kindle Unlimited Subscription, you could get the majority of these titles at a much lower price than buying them individually.
Or, you can buy these great books while on the road. If in London, see my guide to the best bookstores in the city.
Check out my United Kingdom Travel page to see more info on visiting the U.K.
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The most nostalgic and reflective of Evelyn Waugh’s novels, Brideshead Revisited looks back to the golden age before the Second World War. It tells the story of Charles Ryder’s infatuation with the Marchmains and the rapidly-disappearing world of privilege they inhabit. Enchanted first by Sebastian at Oxford, then by his doomed Catholic family, in particular his remote sister, Julia, Charles comes finally to recognize only his spiritual and social distance from them.
Rebecca is a Gothic novel by Daphne du Maurier that tells the story of an unnamed young woman who marries a wealthy widower and moves into his imposing estate, Manderley. The new Mrs. de Winter is overshadowed by the memory of Rebecca, her husband’s first wife, and soon finds herself trapped in a web of deceit and danger.
Mrs. Dalloway takes place over the course of a single day in a woman’s life in 1920s London. There are flowers to buy, outfits to choose, but also a visit from a past lover, and the tragic fate of a young war veteran who cannot adjust to life in post-war London. Virginia Woolf’s supple and mesmerizing account of an ordinary day draws the reader into the minds, perceptions, and emotions of an astonishingly varied and vivid cast of characters. Woolf reminds us that each day, hour, and even minute of our lives harbors the potential to transform us and those around us. The novel ranks among those rare, timeless books that speak to us anew with each reading.
Set in the west Yorkshire moors, Wuthering Heights is the story of two gentry families — the Earnshaws and the Lintons — and their turbulent relationships with Earnshaw’s adopted son, Heathcliff. Now considered to be a timeless classic, it was a polarizing and controversial work in its own day, with its frank depictions of mental and physical cruelty and ahead-of-its-time challenges to Victorian conventions and mores.
Emily Brontë’s only published novel, it has established her as one of the most significant and most beloved novelists of the nineteenth century, and Wuthering Heights is often listed among the greatest novels of all time by critics and readers alike. It has been the subject of countless highly successful TV and movie adaptations.
Marianne Dashwood wears her heart on her sleeve, and when she falls in love with the dashing but unsuitable John Willoughby she ignores her sister Elinor’s warning that her impulsive behavior leaves her open to gossip and innuendo.
Meanwhile Elinor, always sensitive to social convention, is struggling to conceal her own romantic disappointment, even from those closest to her. Through their parallel experience of love – and its threatened loss – the sisters learn that sense must mix with sensibility if they are to find personal happiness in a society where status and money govern the rules of love.
On a hot summer day in 1935, thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis witnesses a moment’s flirtation between her older sister, Cecilia, and Robbie Turner, the son of a servant and Cecilia’s childhood friend. But Briony’s incomplete grasp of adult motives—together with her precocious literary gifts—brings about a crime that will change all their lives.
As it follows that crime’s repercussions through the chaos and carnage of World War II and into the close of the twentieth century, Atonement engages the reader on every conceivable level, with an ease and authority that mark it as a genuine masterpiece.
The Queen of Mystery, Agatha Christie’s beloved sleuth, Miss Marple, encounters a compelling murder mystery in the sleepy little village of St. Mary Mead, where under the seemingly peaceful exterior of an English country village lurks intrigue, guilt, deception and death.
Colonel Protheroe, local magistrate and overbearing land-owner is the most detested man in the village. Everyone–even in the vicar–wishes he were dead. And very soon he is–shot in the head in the vicar’s own study. Faced with a surfeit of suspects, only the inscrutable Miss Marple can unravel the tangled web of clues that will lead to the unmasking of the killer.
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde- Robert Louis Stevenson
“The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” (commonly known as “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”) is by the Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson and first published in 1886. It is about a London lawyer named Gabriel John Utterson who investigates strange occurrences between his old friend, Dr. Henry Jekyll, and the sinister Mr. Edward Hyde.
The work is known for its vivid portrayal of a split personality, split in the sense that within the same person there is both an apparently good and an evil personality each being quite distinct from the other. The novella’s impact is such that it has become a part of the language, with the phrase “Jekyll and Hyde” coming to mean a person who is vastly different in moral character from one situation to the next.
Immerse yourself in the enigmatic world of Sherlock Holmes with “A Study in Scarlet,” the inaugural masterpiece that introduced the world to the inimitable detective and his loyal friend, Dr. John Watson. “A Study in Scarlet” is not just a novel; it’s a journey through the labyrinth of 19th-century London’s underbelly, with Sherlock Holmes, the master of deduction, leading the way. This tour de force mystery begins with a bizarre murder that seems insolvable until Sherlock applies his scientific methods, unfathomable acuity, and uncanny knack for spotting the seemingly invisible.
Read Also: Literary Travel Guide to Edinburgh
A novel of intense power and intrigue, Jane Eyre has dazzled generations of readers with its depiction of a woman’s quest for freedom. Having grown up an orphan in the home of her cruel aunt and at a harsh charity school, Jane Eyre becomes an independent and spirited survivor-qualities that serve her well as governess at Thornfield Hall. But when she finds love with her sardonic employer, Rochester, the discovery of his terrible secret forces her to make a choice. Should she stay with him whatever the consequences or follow her convictions, even if it means leaving her beloved?
Set in a small English village during 1812, this classic novel is one of the greatest love stories ever told. A poor country squire is trying to find husbands for his five daughters. When one of them, Elizabeth, meets rich Mr. Darcy at a dance, they don’t find much in common. But during the next few months, they overcome their differences and fall in love.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” so begins Charles Dickens’s famous novel concerning the contentious time leading up to and during the French Revolution. In these first words Dickens exemplifies the dichotomous relationship that existed between the aristocracy and the lower classes of the time and the universal themes that would be depicted throughout the book.
“A Tale of Two Cities,” is set in London and Paris, the titular two cities, at the end of the 18th century, and principally concerns the lives of Dr. Alexandre Manette, his daughter Lucie, who marries a French nobleman, Charles Darnay, and their close family friend, barrister Sydney Carton. Despite the union of Lucie and Darney, Carton confesses his love to Lucie, declaring to “embrace any sacrifice for you and for those dear to you,” a promise that he will uphold in dramatic fashion by the end of the novel. Dickens considered “A Tale of Two Cities” to be the best novel that he had ever written.
I don’t think any UK book list would be complete without the hugely successful Harry Potter series. For those that don’t know: Harry Potter has no idea how famous he is. That’s because he’s being raised by his miserable aunt and uncle who are terrified Harry will learn that he’s really a wizard, just as his parents were.
But everything changes when Harry is summoned to attend an infamous school for wizards, and he begins to discover some clues about his illustrious birthright. From the surprising way he is greeted by a lovable giant, to the unique curriculum and colorful faculty at his unusual school, Harry finds himself drawn deep inside a mystical world he never knew existed and closer to his own noble destiny.
Read Also: Must-Visit Harry Potter Edinburgh Locations
Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” is the novel that introduced the fictional creature known as the vampire to millions. It is considered by many as the single most important work in the gothic vampire horror genre. “Dracula,” while not the first appearance of the vampire in literature, is certainly the work that is most readily identified with the vampire genre and has spawned countless imitations and references.
The novel is set sometime in the late 19th century and begins by being told from the perspective of Jonathan Harker, a young English legal practitioner who is traveling to the castle of Count Dracula, in the Carpathian Mountains on the border of Transylvania, to perform some legal services for the Count.
Harker upon meeting Count Dracula finds him a strange and eerie man, one with a dark secret. Dracula needs the help of Harker to execute his plan to relocate to England in order to find new blood and spread the curse of the undead. The only thing standing in his way is a small group of people led by Professor Abraham Van Helsing, who know what he secretly is and have vowed to stop him.
Winston Smith toes the Party line, rewriting history to satisfy the demands of the Ministry of Truth. With each lie he writes, Winston grows to hate the Party that seeks power for its own sake and persecutes those who dare to commit thoughtcrimes. But as he starts to think for himself, Winston can’t escape the fact that Big Brother is always watching…
A startling and haunting novel, 1984 creates an imaginary world that is completely convincing from start to finish. No one can deny the novel’s hold on the imaginations of whole generations, or the power of its admonitions—a power that seems to grow, not lessen, with the passage of time.
Bridget Jones’s Diary is the devastatingly self-aware, laugh-out-loud account of a year in the life of a thirty-something Singleton on a permanent doomed quest for self-improvement.
Caught between the joys of Singleton fun, and the fear of dying alone and being found three weeks later half eaten by an Alsatian; tortured by Smug Married friends asking, “How’s your love life?” with lascivious, yet patronizing leers, Bridget resolves to: reduce the circumference of each thigh by 1.5 inches, visit the gym three times a week not just to buy a sandwich, form a functional relationship with a responsible adult and learn to program the VCR.
With a blend of flighty charm, existential gloom, and endearing self-deprecation, Bridget Jones’s Diaryhas touched a raw nerve with millions of readers the world round.
After nearly two decades spent on British soil, Bill Bryson – bestselling author of The Mother Tongue and Made in America-decided to return to the United States. (“I had recently read,” Bryson writes, “that 3.7 million Americans believed that they had been abducted by aliens at one time or another, so it was clear that my people needed me.”) But before departing, he set out on a grand farewell tour of the green and kindly island that had so long been his home.
Veering from the ludicrous to the endearing and back again, Notes from a Small Island is a delightfully irreverent jaunt around the unparalleled floating nation that has produced zebra crossings, Shakespeare, Twiggie Winkie’s Farm, and places with names like Farleigh Wallop and Titsey. The result is an uproarious social commentary that conveys the true glory of Britain, from the satiric pen of an unapologetic Anglophile.
Bringing the story of Scotland up to date, this revised fifth edition of Fitzroy Maclean’s classic work includes additional chapters by distinguished journalist Magnus Linklater. Linklater examines how the new Scottish parliament has fared and discusses significant events, such as devolution and the transfer of taxation rights from Westminster, the release of the Lockerbie bomber, and the fallout from the 2008 global financial crash.
This edition also touches on the independence referendum, the future of the United Kingdom now that the Scottish National Party is in power, and Britain’s impending exit from the European Union.Written with wit and scholarship, Scotland presents a highly readable account that disentangles the complex history of Scotland from its beginnings to the present. This book offers a rich record of Scotland’s art, politics, intellectual life, and national identity.
For more, check out this post on books to read before visiting Scotland.
In this exquisitely written book, which folds together natural history, cartography, geology, and literature, Robert Macfarlane sets off to follow the ancient routes that crisscross both the landscape of the British Isles and its waters and territories beyond. The result is an immersive, enthralling exploration of the voices that haunt old paths and the stories our tracks tell.
Macfarlane’s journeys take him from the chalk downs of England to the bird islands of the Scottish northwest, from Palestine to the sacred landscapes of Spain and the Himalayas. He matches strides with the footprints made by a man five thousand years ago near Liverpool, sails an open boat far out into the Atlantic at night, and commingles with walkers of many kinds, discovering that paths offer a means not just of traversing space but also of feeling, knowing, and thinking.
Here are two thousand years of London’s history and folklore, its chroniclers and criminals and plain citizens, its food and drink and countless pleasures. Blackfriar’s and Charing Cross, Paddington and Bedlam. Westminster Abbey and St. Martin in the Fields. Cockneys and vagrants. Immigrants, peasants, and punks. The Plague, the Great Fire, the Blitz.
London at all times of day and night, and in all kinds of weather. In well-chosen anecdotes, keen observations, and the words of hundreds of its citizens and visitors, Ackroyd reveals the ingenuity and grit and vitality of London. Through a unique thematic tour of the physical city and its inimitable soul, the city comes alive.
Read Also: Literary Travel Guide to London
George Mikes provides a complete guide to the British Way of Life. Born in Hungary, he eventually spent more than 40 years in the field, and the fruits of his labor include insights on important topics including the weather, how to be rude, and how to panic quietly.
How to Be a Brit contains Mikes’s three major works: How to be an Alien, How to be Inimitable, and How to be Decadent. The advice includes such gems as how to plan a town (“Street names should be painted clearly and distinctly on large boards. Then hide these boards carefully”); queuing (“An Englishman, even if he is alone, forms an orderly queue of one”); and sex (“Continental people have sex lives: the English have hot water bottles”).
Why It’s Important to Learn About Other Cultures
Exploring and understanding different cultures is a valuable aspect of personal growth and global awareness. Whether you are traveling to new places or a destination is not feasible, reading about other cultures can offer an introduction to a culture you’ll soon experience, or provide an enlightening alternative. There are three main reasons of why it’s important to learn about other cultures:
1. Promoting Cultural Understanding: Reading about other cultures allows us to gain insights into their traditions, customs, values, and ways of life. By exploring diverse perspectives through literature or non-fiction works, we develop empathy and understanding for people from different backgrounds. It helps break down stereotypes and fosters appreciation for the complexity and richness of human experiences.
2. Expanding Our Worldview: Through reading about other cultures, we expand our worldview beyond our immediate surroundings. Our own cultural lens often limits our understanding of the world; however, delving into literature from various regions lets us examine different historical events, social structures, political ideologies, and religious beliefs that shape societies across the globe.
3. Enhancing Empathy: Understanding the experiences of others cultivates empathy within ourselves. Literature provides a medium through which we can step into another person’s shoes and see life through their eyes – be it a coming-of-age story set in Japan or a memoir detailing life in Africa. Such stories help us relate to individuals who may have vastly different lives from ours but share universal emotions like joy, pain, love, or loss.
And there we have it, my list of books to read before visiting the United Kingdom. While there is no way I could list every book that I think you should read, we would all be reading for eternity (maybe that’s not a bad thing), but this list is a great introduction to British culture, politics, and life through the eyes of writers and novelists from the country.
Are there any books I need to add to my list of books to read before visiting the United Kingdom? Let me know so I can scope them out!
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**All Book descriptions come from Goodreads
Are you ready for The U.K.?
- Book Your Flights– To find the cheapest flights, flexibility is a must. Some great options are Google Flights for the calendars to find the cheapest options, Skiplagged, and Skyscanner. For more options, see our resources page. Heathrow and Gatwick (London) are the main entry points for long-haul flights but Manchester and Birmingham are options for those coming from Europe. Belfast in Northern Ireland is also an option.
- Find Transportation- If you’re driving, look into Rentalcars.com before arriving to find the best rates. Rail and bus services are frequent and easy. A BritRail pass can help save you money. For convenience, choose a train, for low-price choose buses.
- Book Your Accommodation– Look at Booking.com, Hotels.com, or Expedia for hotels in the U.K. You can also look at AirBnB or VRBO as we’ve had great luck finding inexpensive, large, and clean homes to rent.
- Book Tours and Experiences- Check Viator or Klook for some of the best tours and attractions for a great price for experiences like the Tower of London, Stonehenge, Edinburgh Castle, or Warner Bros Studio Tour.
- Stay Connected– If your phone’s data plan is going to be expensive, order an eSIM card before you go, or just head to an airport kiosk upon arrival or a store like Tesco or Boots.
- Buy Travel Insurance- I always recommend World Nomads for insurance. It’s better to protect yourself in case of mishaps. Learn more about World Nomads in this FAQ post.
- Pack Your Bags– Check out my packing lists, or my favorite travel gear to help you remember all of the essentials.
- Learn About the U.K.- Learn about the U.K. with guidebooks like Lonely Planet, or, novels and books about the country, or, shameless plug, search around my site for more info.