Around the World in 40 Books

Headed to Rio, Paris, or Cape Town this summer? We asked distinguished writers and thinkers to pick their favorite books about 20 of the world’s great cities.

Ever wondered what a list of Foreign Policy summer reads would include? Wonks and geeks, look no further. Come for Balzac’s Paris, stay for a history of Kyoto pulled straight from The Tale of the Genji.


Cape Town, South Africa


The Number: One Man’s Search for Identity in the Cape Underworld and Prison Gangs (2004),
Jonny Steinberg

In the true story of Magadien Wentzel, leader of the 28s, a notorious prison gang, Steinberg offers a rare glimpse of Cape Town’s criminal networks and life on the margins of one of the world’s most beautiful, violent, and unequal cities. — Tau Tavengwa, co-editor and publisher of  Cityscapes 


Bom Boy (2011), Yewande Omotoso

Omotoso’s Bom Boy is a contemporary Cape Town novel that no South African — black, white, or brown — could have written. She has cultural distance from the racial morass that is South Africa, and she skillfully captures the tensions at the country’s heart.  Olufemi Terry, author of “Stickfighting Days 

Lagos, Nigeria


Lagos: A Cultural and Literary History (2012), Kaye Whiteman

A delicious exploration of sub-Saharan Africa’s biggest city, Whiteman’s book is written in elegant prose. It is for readers who wish to understand Lagos beyond stereotypes of slums and corruption — and for those who enjoy good writing.  Chika Unigwe, author of  Night Dancer 


Every Day is for the Thief  (2014), Teju Cole

This is a brilliantly quiet Lagos novel — a counterintuitive description, as anyone who knows Nigeria’s cacophonous metropolis will note. Cole sets a meditative flâneur loose, camera in tow, to wander the city, effortlessly painting a nuanced portrait of people, place, and paradox. — Taiye Selasi, author of  Ghana Must Go

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia


King of Kings: The Triumph and Tragedy of Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia (2015),
Asfa-Wossen Asserate

A superb biography of the fascinating Emperor Haile Selassie — worshipped by Rastafarians and dubbed “black Christ” by Marcus Garvey — Asserate’s book is also a history of Addis Ababa and modern Ethiopia’s evolution. — Simon Sebag Montefiore, author of  Jerusalem: The Biography


Beneath the Lion’s Gaze (2011), Maaza Mengiste

Mengiste situates the fight for political control after Ethiopia’s revolution, and the rise of government surveillance, in an urban family and neighborhood. The result is a personal view of community in a period of intense social, economic, and political change. — Lahra Smith, author of  Making Citizens in Africa: Ethnicity, Gender and National Identity in Ethiopia


Hangzhou, China


Cities of Jiangnan in Late Imperial China (1993), Linda Cooke Johnson (editor)

Before the 1830s, Hangzhou was a more significant urban center than Shanghai; even as far back as Marco Polo’s time, it was a leading cultural center in the Lower Yangzi region. This book helps put the city into comparative, historical, and regional perspectives. — Jeffrey Wasserstrom, author of  China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know


Lenin’s Kisses (2013), Yan Lianke

China isn’t known for absurdist novels, but this one is outstanding. The satire centers on a scheme to buy Lenin’s body from Russia and put it in a mausoleum as a tourist attraction. There’s a real flavor of the money worship sweeping China since the 1990s. — Lijia Zhang, author of  Lotus (forthcoming)

Varanasi, India


Banaras: Sacred City of India (1988), Raghubir Singh

Singh shows how Varanasi is and has been for centuries: the men who offer combs and ointments by the side of the river, the bodies being carried to the pyres, and the children drawing on the walls with charcoal. — Akhil Sharma, author of  Family Life


Sevasadan (1918), Munshi Premchand

Premchand’s brilliant novel about traditional courtesans being pushed to the city’s edges depicts Varanasi at the turn of the 20th century as gentrifying and unfaithful to its older, rasa-bhara self (meaning “full of flavors”). Under colonialism, Varanasi’s soul began to slip away. — Nilanjana Roy, author of  The Girl Who Ate Books

Kyoto, Japan


The World of the Shining Prince: Court Life in Ancient Japan (1964), Ivan Morris

In this ravishing evocation of Kyoto’s court during the 10th and 11th centuries, Morris unveils a hyper-refined world in which gentlemen competed in incense-sniffing competitions and lovers habitually inscribed “next morning” letters. The book conjures up a long-ago Kyoto whose traces are everywhere in the city of today. — Pico Iyer, author of  The Lady and the Monk: Four Seasons in Kyoto


The Temple of the Golden Pavilion (1956), Yukio Mishima

Arguably the best work of the celebrated writer, this novel set around the end of World War II captures the destructive consequences of a crusade for purity — a theme of concern not just for residents of postwar Japan, but for those seeking insight into ideological extremism worldwide today. — Frederick R. Dickinson, professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania

Adelaide, Australia


Roma the First: A Biography of Dame Roma Mitchell (2007), Susan Magarey and Kerrie Round

South Australia has always been progressive on gender equality; it was the second place in the world, after New Zealand, to grant women the vote, in 1894. Dame Roma Mitchell, Australia’s first female judge, exemplified this trend. She lived in Adelaide her whole life, from 1913-2000. — Kerryn Goldsworthy, author of  Adelaide


Slow Man (2005), J.M. Coetzee

Showing contemporary Adelaide through the eyes of a cyclist who loses part of his leg, the novel maps the city’s grid and highlights the surprising encounters it facilitates across class and cultural boundaries. — Nicholas Jose, author of  Original Face


Beirut, Lebanon


Beirut (2010), Samir Kassir

Written by a Lebanese journalist and scholar before he was slain in 2005, this comprehensive survey traces the history of Beirut from ancient times. It concludes with a passionate critique of the soulless postwar reconstruction of the city’s downtown. — Waleed Hazbun, director of the Center for Arab and Middle Eastern Studies and associate professor of political studies at the American University of Beirut


An Unnecessary Woman (2014), Rabih Alameddine

Capturing the essence of modern-day Beirut — its complex, magical, yet infuriating aspects and its dual identity as a Westernized Arab city — the novel portrays life as Lebanon descends into civil war. It aptly channels the emotions of citizens and the incongruity of normality amid chaos. — Kim Ghattas, BBC journalist and columnist for

Jerusalem, Israel


Kitab al-I’tibar (Book of Contemplation) (1213), Usamah ibn Munqidh

The gripping, often-hilarious memoir of an Arab-Syrian knight, courtier, and poet who fought Christian crusaders and knew everyone from the king of Jerusalem to Saladin — who routed the former — this text depicts 12th-century Islamic culture and the roots of present-day religious tensions. — Simon Sebag Montefiore, author of  Jerusalem: The Biography


Someone to Run With (2000), David Grossman

Following teenager Assaf as he chases a stray dog, Grossman’s novel evokes not just the scenery, smells, and sounds of Jerusalem, but also the eccentric characters in its underbelly (runaway kids, street performers, criminals). It also skillfully captures the city’s restless energy. — Ayelet Tsabari, author of  The Best Place on Earth

Istanbul, Turkey


Midnight at the Pera Palace: The Birth of Modern Istanbul (2014), Charles King

Today, one barely sees Istanbul’s multicultural, multireligious past: Greek and Armenian churches are hidden behind high walls, and synagogues in places like Beyoglu are heavily guarded. In his detailed exploration of Istanbul’s shift from part of the Ottoman Empire to the Turkish Republic, King brings that faded history to life. — Steven A. Cook, Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations


A Strangeness in My Mind (2015), Orhan Pamuk

To navigate this ever-expanding city of commerce, construction, and finance, Pamuk’s new novel is a great place to start. It brings to the fore the phenomenon of migration and how it has shaped present-day Istanbul. — Kaya Genç, author of  The House on Arundel Street (forthcoming)


Paris, France


Roissy Express: A Journey Through the Paris Suburbs (1994), François Maspéro and Anaik Frantz (photographer)

In this unique ethnography of suburban Paris, a writer and a photographer step off the RER B train in order to understand the people who live along its tracks. They find an unsung world of stadiums, factories, graffiti, and housing projects (including the infamous Drancy, the former transit camp to Auschwitz), and the people touched by them. — Alice Kaplan, author of  Looking for The Stranger (forthcoming)


Le père Goriot (Old Man Goriot) (1835), Honoré de Balzac

Unsurpassed as a manual of arrivisme, the story of provincial Eugène de Rastignac moving from the dingy Latin Quarter to the aristocratic Faubourg Saint-Germain still resonates. Thomas Piketty puts Rastignac’s dilemma (to work or to inherit) at the heart of his theory of inequality. — Alice Kaplan, author of  Looking for The Stranger (forthcoming)

Sarajevo, Bosnia


Bosnia: A Short History (1996), Noel Malcolm

Sarajevo’s location at the crossroads of Europe makes it one of the most intriguing cities in the world and one of the most troubled. Malcolm’s book puts its tragic history in context. It was recently updated to include the 1993-1995 Bosnian war. — Barbara Demick, author of  Logavina Street: Life and Death in a Sarajevo Neighborhood


Sarajevo Marlboro (2012), Miljenko Jergović

Sarajevo cannot be reduced to the siege, yet that might be a good beginning, because the resistance was heroic. Jergović’s short stories are invested in the particularities and details of people’s lives, thereby restoring their value. It is not a book for tourists, but for readers. — Aleksandar Hemon, author of  The Making of Zombie Wars

Thessaloniki, Greece


Farewell to Salonica: Portrait of an Era (1946), Leon Sciaky

Sciaky’s evocative, moving memoir is about growing up in the Ottoman Empire’s last years. Thessaloniki’s streets, classrooms, homes, and markets are seen through a young boy’s eyes as war looms and an imperial pattern of urban life teeters on the edge of obliteration. — Mark Mazower, author of  Salonica, City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims and Jews 1430-1950


Z (1966), Vassilis Vassilikos

Z is based on the assassination of a leftist deputy that occurred in Thessaloniki in 1963. The killing shone a light on the right-wing para-state then powerful in Greece, which led in 1967 to dictatorship. Its memory still haunts the country. — Mark Mazower, author of  Salonica, City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims and Jews 1430-1950

St. Petersburg, Russia


Petersburg: Crucible of Cultural Revolution (1995), Katerina Clark

St. Petersburg accurately reflected Russia’s cultural evolution in its architecture, literature, music, and other artistic tastes. Clark’s book is very accessible reading for Western visitors, weaving the great names of Russian culture into the broader tapestry of history: Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, and more. — Anton Fedyashin, director of the Carmel Institute of Russian Culture and History at American University


The Overcoat (1842), Nikolai Gogol

Gogol depicts the city as mystical and, at times, downright terrifying, permeated with an unbearable chill. Man’s very existence seems aimless and futile. Much has changed since it was written, but dark, Gogolesque undertones still lurk beneath St. Petersburg’s colorful surface. — Elena Chizhova, author of  The Children of Zaches


New York City, United States


Beyond the Melting Pot (1963), Nathan Glazer and Daniel P. Moynihan

A classic account of New York in the mid-20th century, when its population comprised mainly Jews, Irish, Italians, African Americans, Puerto Ricans, and white Protestants, the book discusses the cultural, economic, and political pathways these groups took and the impacts they had on the city. — Nancy Foner, professor of sociology at Hunter College


A Meaningful Life (1971), L.J. Davis

The novel about Brooklyn before it became Brooklyn, Davis’s book follows a man who attempts to renovate a crumbling mansion in crime-ridden Clinton Hill. The novel casts a spotlight on New York’s singular relationship with real estate, showing a city bent on reinventing itself. — Joshua Henkin, author of  The World Without You

Minneapolis, United States


Somalis in Minnesota (2012), Ahmed Ismail Yusuf

Yusuf depicts life in “little Mogadishu,” a nickname for one Minneapolis neighborhood, and examines why such a large Somali community settled throughout the city and state. (Jobs, cost of living, and hospitality are the key ingredients.) He also addresses the community’s purported links to terrorists — a pressing topic in the era of the Islamic State. — Frank Bures, author of  The Geography of Madness


The Things They Carried (1990), Tim O’Brien

One of the 20th century’s great works of fiction is the story of a small-town Minnesota kid who, drafted into the Vietnam War, tries to make sense of combat and, later, home. O’Brien examines how the war threatened to overwhelm America’s sense of its role in the world. — Frank Bures, author of  The Geography of Madness

Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic


A Tale of Two Cities: Santo Domingo and New York After 1950 (2010), Jesse Hoffnung-Garskof

This book is about the most important change to 20th-century Santo Domingo: its close relationship with New York. More than a million people of Dominican descent live in America, many of them in the Big Apple — including Oscar de la Renta and A-Rod — and they’ve made the city their own. — Alan McPherson, author of  The Invaded: How Latin Americans and Their Allies Fought and Ended U.S. Occupations


Papi (2016), Rita Indiana Hernández

A tour of 1980s Santo Domingo, this novel dives into organized crime and the merengue dance craze — all told in a delirious, frantic way by a little girl. It is a unique recounting of how Santo Domingo grew into the metropolis it is today. — Frank Báez, author of  Last Night I Dreamt I Was a DJ

Mexico City, Mexico


Mexico, Biography of Power: A History of Modern Mexico, 1810-1996 (1997), Enrique Krauze

The city is the home of Mexico’s centralizing impulse, which has stifled opportunity for millions. Krauze’s book reveals this unappealing side of the country, and the formation of one of the largest cities in the world, through the stories of the (relatively few) indispensable men it produced. — Sam Quinones, author of  Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic


The Savage Detectives (1998), Roberto Bolaño

Bolaño’s novel feels like a permanent part of Mexico City’s identity. No other book better captures the metropolis’s gritty grandeur and multifarious character — its chaotic, desperate, charismatic, dark, and brilliant energies. — Francisco Goldman, author of  The Interior Circuit: A Mexico City Chronicle

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil


Samba: The Making of Brazilian Carnival (1990), Alma Guillermoprieto

Guillermoprieto lived for a year in the favela of Mangueira as she prepared to join the annual, glittering Carnival parade as a dancer. This is a thoroughly researched, well-written exploration of Rio’s quintessential rhythm and the culture of Black Brazil. — Juliana Barbassa, author of  Dancing With the Devil in the City of God


The Hour of the Star (1977), Clarice Lispector

Readers see the city through bewildered Macabéa, a Brazilian migrant who comes to Rio for opportunity only to eke out a miserable living under crushing circumstances. The novel is an intimate exploration of a character for whom urban life becomes a revelation in the limits of freedom. — Juliana Barbassa, author of  Dancing With the Devil in the City of God

Panama City, Panama


In the Time of Tyrants: Panama, 1968-1990 (1990), Guillermo Sánchez Borbón and Richard M. Koster

One of Panama’s most famous books about its recent dictators is also a scathing critique of Washington’s Central American policy, particularly under Ronald Reagan. The Panamanian co-author was exiled to the United States for denouncing his country’s military regime. — Ana Graciela Méndez, journalist at the Brown Institute for Media Innovation at Columbia and Stanford universities


Tailor of Panama (1996), John Le Carré

Panama City was once at the center of Central American espionage. This satire is about spies who lie and spymasters who go along with the game because so little is at stake. The plot is far-fetched and darkly comic, but — as in Panama until the late 1980s — violence is pretty much an afterthought. — John Dinges, author of  Our Man in Panama: The Shrewd Rise and Brutal Fall of Manuel Noriega

A version of this article originally appeared in the July/August issue of  FP magazine.

Britt Peterson is a contributing editor and columnist for Washingtonian magazine, as well as a freelancer for the New York Times Book Review, Slate, and Elle. Previously, she was an editor at Foreign Policy, where she oversaw the magazine’s culture section. (@brittkpeterson)