Florence is one of the loveliest cities in all of Europe. Famous for its medieval architecture and renaissance art, Florence has so much to see and do (and eat!).
Typically tourists all stick to a handful of sites and miss 95% of the truly amazing things to see and do here. My best-selling book Glam Italia! 101 Fabulous Things To Do In Florence takes you to more than 101 incredible places the tour bus crowds don’t visit, all within a maximum 20 minute walk from the Duomo. In fact most of these places are just around the corner from where you will be anyway!
But for now let’s look at 18 fabulous things to do in Florence, plus have a quick look at the magnificent Duomo.
Santa Maria dei Fiore, The Duomo of Florence
This one is a no brainer – of course you are going to visit Santa Maria dei Fiore, the Duomo of Florence. This one of the most beautiful buildings in the world and I recommend you walk past it as many times as you can while in Florence!
If you plan on climbing the dome of the cathedral be sure to book the earliest time slot possible. All access is timed entry and it gets packed all day long. The climb is steep and there are about a million steps (or 432) and in places the walls are narrower than your wingspan. Climbing the steps squished in between sweaty, smelly tourists is a total buzz-kill, so the earlier you can go up, the better!
Your OPA ticket to go up the Duomo also gives you entry to the ruins below the cathedral. These are the remains of the former cathedral, Santa Reparata. It is well worth a visit. Your ticket also gives you access to the Baptistery outside the cathedral, Giotto’s Campanile which is adjacent to the cathedral and the Opera del Duomo museum, which is behind the cathedral. All are fabulous to visit and of at all possible need to be on your must see list.
** Be advised the climb up to the dome is very claustrophobic.
1. Cross Ponte Vecchio Before 10 am
The magnificent Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge) is one of Florence’s most iconic sights. The problem is during the travel season it gets packed from about 10 am when the cruise ship crowds and big bus tours arrive in town until late in the evening. So if you will be in Florence between May and October try to get to the bridge before 10.
If you are staying overnight in Florence you should visit the bridge early in the morning before the shops open (8 am-ish). The shops that line the bridge have been there since the mid 1500’s. They have spectacular old doors with massive old locks, that are wonderful to see and you can only see them before opening time or later at night.
2. Explore Oltrarno
My favorite areas in Florence are on the other side of the Ponte Vecchio in the area known as Oltrarno (other side of the Arno river).
You will see vastly fewer tourists over here. It is filled with amazing little medieval streets full of artisan shops, non-touristy eateries and glorious places to stop for an aperitivo.
Florence is small and safe and you can’t really get lost, so be sure to go explore!
If you only go inside one church in all of Florence, let this be the one!
Basilica Santa Croce dominates the lovely Piazza Santa Croce, not even a 5 minute walk behind the Palazzo Vecchio. There is lots to see and do here including visiting the leather school behind the Basilica. The Basilica itself is sensational. It quite possibly has the very best church art in all of Tuscany, has the tombs of many notables including Michelangelo, and has beautiful cloisters to walk through when you need a little peace and quiet.
If choosing between going inside the Duomo or Basilica Santa Croce, I would do Santa Croce every time. (And I do visit Santa Croce every time I’m in Florence – it is that fantastic!)
4. Go Walking Early
If you are lucky enough to be staying overnight in Florence I sincerely recommend getting up early and going walking before the tourists arrive. If you hit the streets at 7:30 or 8.00 am all the statues, the art, the beauty will be yours and yours alone.
You get an entirely different appreciation for this gorgeous city when you can see it uncrowded. If out early be sure to visit Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise, the bronze doors of the Baptistery that face the Duomo. All day long they are hidden behind layers of tourists so you can hardly see them and definitely can’t get a clean photo of them.
At 7:30 in the morning they belong to you.
5. Eat Panforte
This amazing cake is actually from the Siena area but you will see it everywhere in Florence. Made from dried fruits and nuts, peppery spices and honey, and just enough flour to hold it together. A slice of panforte with your morning cappuccino is about the best breakfast you can have in Florence. Or anywhere else for that matter.
If traveling around Italy be sure to buy leather goods here in Florence. Florence leather is coveted and famous all over the world. Everywhere you go you will see leather jackets, handbags, shoes, belts and wallets.
In my book Glam Italia! 101 Fabulous Things To Do In Florence I have a chapter on how to buy leather. It tells you what to look out for, terms you need to know, my specific tips to make sure you get a great buy and don’t get ripped off, what you should be buying specifically in Florence, and I also give you my favorite shop to visit for leather.
My favorite item in my closet is a red leather jacket I got several years ago in Florence. It has been all over the world with me, just keeps getting better and better with age, and still feels like butter!
7. Visit At Least One Museum
Florence has really fantastic museums. Everyone knows about the Uffizi and the Accademia but few know about the others. Which is quite clear when you walk in and see almost no one there!
In Glam Italia! 101 Fabulous Things To Do In Florence I tell you about some of my favorite museums that fly below the radar of the tour bus crowd. There really is something for everyone. From art museums to Roman treasures to Leonardo da Vinci’s amazing creations to a super creepy anatomy museum to a museum of weapons – there are so many to choose from! Two of my absolute favorites are the Bargello and the Bardini. I tell you about them in the book, but you can also google the best museums in Florence and add at least one to your travel itinerary.
8. Take The Secret Passages Tour at Palazzo Vecchio
This is my favorite tour to do in Florence and I take most of my Glam Italia Tour groups on it too. The tour is at the Palazzo Vecchio and takes you inside the walls of the palace to see the secret rooms, secret doorways and escape routes, and secret passages. You get to go up into the rafters about the Salon of 500 (which you see in the movie Inferno) and end up n the Medici apartments and living quarters in the palace.
The tour only takes about 90 minutes but it really is fascinating and fantastic and I have never taken anyone on it who hasn’t been completely blown away by it!
Book the tour at the Palazzo Vecchio box office.
Florence has some of the best shopping in Italy. And not just the leather jackets, bags and handmade leather shoes. Florence is an artisan paradise, with little boutiques scattered throughout its medieval streets. From housewares to clothing to lingerie to jewelry – you name it, it’s here.
Plan to spend a little time in the markets and boutiques, do some Christmas shopping, and treat yourself to something special. Just make sure you leave some room in your suitcase for shopping in Florence!
10. Follow The Medici
Florence is the city of the Medici. This family was not only responsible for the Italian Renaissance art movement but also the Renaissance architecture of Florence.
Rather than be part of a giant big bus tour I am a huge advocate of hiring local guides to show you around. It is extremely difficult to become an official licensed guide in Florence. They have to have a degree, be multi lingual, go through a very intense training program and even then very few are awarded the coveted license.
A licensed guide can take your good travel experience and make it truly outstanding. They always know 1000 x more than just the tour they are taking you on, and pepper your experience with endless anecdotes and insider secrets, point out so many little details you would never otherwise notice and can answer every question you could ever think up. On top of crafting an amazing experience specifically for you and your little group they will also tell you about the best places to stop for an aperitivo, a coffee or a meal.
Want to know more amazing things to do in Florence? Download my free Secret Florence PDF to get the scoop on my favorite restaurants, chic bars, jewelry shops and more not-to-be-missed places! Get your Secret Florence PDF here
12. Go On An Aperitivo Tour
It’s no secret that apertivo hour is my favorite time of day in Italy. In Florence there are some absolutely incredible wine bars to enjoy aperitivo hour – a glass of wine or cocktail served with a selection of nibbles. There are also lots of tourist-centric aperi-trash bars which you should avoid like the plague.
I tell you my personal favorite places to enjoy an aperitivo in the book but another option is to take an aperitivo tour with a licensed guide. These are tremendous. The guides are often fully qualified sommeliers and will not only take you to places you would never otherwise know about – true insider secrets, but will also guide you on which wines to order and which foods to pair with them.
This is a quintessentially Florentine experience and you will love it!
13. Go Up High For Sunset
Florence is a city with exceptional views. I always recommend planning every sunset ahead of time to make sure you have a fabulous view of the colors as the last of the un washes over Florence for the day. I promise you you will never, ever forget it!
Whether walking up to Piazzale Michelangelo or San Miniato al Monte for the view alone, or going to a rooftop bar for a sunset aperitivo, plan ahead and get there a little early be sure of getting a good spot. (Again, I have a chapter on my favorite places to watch the sunset in the book.)
14. Eat Lampredotto.
Lampredotto is the most Florentine of street foods. You will see food trucks selling them all over town and you really must try one while in Florence!
Florence is a very small city and is easy to walk around. You will find that 95% of the tourists all stick to the same handful of places, which means those spots get very overcrowded, but everything else is wide open for you to enjoy exploring. The GPS on your phone will easily guide you back to the Duomo should you get lost, and you will never be more than a 20 minute walk (maximum).
Glam Italia! 101 Fabulous Things To Do In Florence actually has more than 101 fabulous places for you to explore, most of them away from the crowds. The best experiences you will have are the ones that happen off the beaten path, or away from the crowds. From the most sensational art to quiet piazzas to enjoy a coffee in, palaces, museums, churches and shopping, the best of Florence happens just off the beaten path!
RELATED POST: 10 Fabulous Day Trips From Florence By Train
16. Enjoy A Green Space
If you will be in Florence for more than just a day trip I definitely recommend enjoying at least one of the city’s nature spaces. Be it the Boboli Gardens, The Rose Gardens or the Bardini Gardens (for starters!) you just can’t beat a little peace and quiet combined with views of this historical city.
It is really easy to get tourist burn-out is a city with this many day trippers, but even just a short time a
17. Only Eat Artisan Gelato
Did you know that some of Italy’s best gelato is in Florence?
Typically tourists stop at the chain store, factory manufactured gelato spots adjacent to the big tourist sites, places no self – respecting Italian would ever eat at. Yet right around the corner there will be an artisan gelato shop.
Artisan gelato is the absolute best in the world. Handmade in small batches, normally on site, and always with seasonal, fresh ingredients. Florentines love gelato and will only eat the real deal artisan kind, so there are artisan shops quite literally everywhere. And in almost every case the real stuff costs the same as the artificial gelato, so you might as well taste the quality version!
My book tells you about my favorite 10 gelato shops in Florence (such as Perche No! and Carraia) and what flavors you really must try. In the meantime this post tells you all about artisanal gelato and why you must only buy artisanal when in Italy!
18. Walk At Night
Florence is a very safe city to go strolling at night. Every evening you will see both locals and fellow travelers out for walks, taking in the beauty of the city and no doubt imagining the centuries of life that have taken place on these very same streets.
By night Florence takes on a magical hue, and is quite frankly, breathtaking. Not only do I recommend a long after-dinner amble, but I also have another piece of advice: look up.
You will be amazed at the frescoes you see on the walls and ceilings of the private palaces and apartments throughout the city, visible from the street only when the lights are turned on inside at night.
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Even though we can’t travel right now we can still plan our future trips, hopefully trips we will be taking next year!
I’ve been spending time in Florence for more than 30 years now. Every time I visit I discover more amazing new (old) places. At this point have come to realize that’s just how it is with Florence – she has endless magical people, places and things and reveals something new every time you are there.
Florence gets masses of tourists. They all seem to hang out at the same handful of big attractions, keeping them overcrowded and making it difficult to see anything. Which just means that 95% of the most amazing things in Florence are wide open, waiting for you and me to discover them, love them, photograph them and soak it all up with no one getting in our way!
In this book I do take you to the big sites but I give you specific things to look for and strategies to escape the crowds when they get overwhelming (and believe me, they do get overwhelming!)
Some of the things you will learn about in this book are:
Fantastic museums you’ve probably not heard of but will really enjoy
12 churches you need to know about. Most people won’t want to visit all 12 but will really enjoy dropping in on a couple.
Shopping – Florence has some of the best shopping in Italy. Whether you want a leather jacket, handmade shoes, a vintage Gucci bag or some gorgeous tableware to take home (and much more!) you will love my guide to the boutiques scattered throughout the Renaissance city!
Aperitivo time – a guide to my favorite aperitivo bars for a pre-dinner drink and snack
Rooftop bars – my favorite places to get up high for a sunset glass of wine with a staggering view.
7 sensational piazzas you need to know about, their secrets and special things to look out for.
The Medici palaces, why you need to see them and what to look for.
What to eat in Florence.
My absolute favorite restaurants (and gelato bars!)
The best markets in Florence.
How to buy leather in Florence.
20 Unusual and Interesting things to look for in the historic center of town.
Whatever your interests are you will find things in this book just for you. The idea behind writing it was to get you away from the crowds, show you something new and help you build the trip of a lifetime. I want you to absolutely fall in love with Florence.
Whether you are a frustrated traveler stuck at home because of the pandemic, or an arm chair traveler who loves being whisked away to exotic locales through the pages of a book, this list is for you!
Each book is fantastic, some are hilarious, and all of them will make you fall in love with new places. Some of the books on this list took me to countries I will never travel to while others helped me to explore countries I did visit.
This post contains Amazon affiliate links. If you purchase a book through these links there is a chance I will make a few cents. All affiliate revenue helps to pay for the hosting of this blog.
1. In A Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson
This has to be one of the funniest books ever written. I have read In A Sunburned Country many times, and read it before each trip to Australia to see family because it is filled with fascinating places to see and things to do there. And it is hilarious! All of Bryson’s books are wonderful, but this is my favorite. I laugh til I cry every time I read it! Here’s the scoop:
Every time Bill Bryson walks out the door memorable travel literature threatens to break out. This time in Australia. His previous excursion up, down, and over the Appalachian Trail resulted in the sublime best seller A Walk in the Woods.
Now he has traveled around the world and all the way Down Under to Australia, the only island that is also a continent and the only continent that is also a country. Australia exists on a vast scale, a shockingly under-discovered country with the friendliest inhabitants, the hottest, driest weather, the most peculiar and lethal wildlife to be found on this planet, and more things that can kill you in extremely malicious ways than anywhere else: sharks, crocodiles, the 10 most deadly poisonous snakes on the planet, fluffy yet toxic caterpillars, seashells that actually attack you, and the unbelievable box jellyfish.
In a Sunburned Country is a delectably funny, fact-filled and adventurous performance by a writer who combines humor, wonder, and unflagging curiosity. Wherever Bryson goes he finds Australians who are cheerful, extroverted, and unfailingly obliging. They are the beaming products of a land with clean, safe cities, cold beer, and constant sunshine. Australia is an immense and fortunate land, and it has found in Bryson its perfect guide.
2. The Sex Lives of Cannibals, Adrift In The Equatorial Pacific by Maarten Troost
This is another one that has you crying laughing. You should put it at the top of your must read list. (You probably won’t want to travel to Tawara though!) Here’s the scoop on The Sex Lives of Cannibals:
At the age of twenty-six, Maarten Troost—who had been pushing the snooze button on the alarm clock of life by racking up useless graduate degrees and muddling through a series of temp jobs—decided to pack up his flip-flops and move to Tarawa, a remote South Pacific island in the Republic of Kiribati. He was restless and lacked direction, and the idea of dropping everything and moving to the ends of the earth was irresistibly romantic. He should have known better.
The Sex Lives of Cannibals tells the hilarious story of what happens when Troost discovers that Tarawa is not the island paradise he dreamed of. Falling into one amusing misadventure after another, Troost struggles through relentless, stifling heat, a variety of deadly bacteria, polluted seas, toxic fish—all in a country where the only music to be heard for miles around is “La Macarena.” He and his stalwart girlfriend Sylvia spend the next two years battling incompetent government officials, alarmingly large critters, erratic electricity, and a paucity of food options (including the Great Beer Crisis); and contending with a bizarre cast of local characters, including “Half-Dead Fred” and the self-proclaimed Poet Laureate of Tarawa (a British drunkard who’s never written a poem in his life).
With The Sex Lives of Cannibals, Maarten Troost has delivered one of the most original, rip-roaringly funny travelogues in years—one that will leave you thankful for staples of American civilization such as coffee, regular showers, and tabloid news, and that will provide the ultimate vicarious adventure.
3. What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding by Kristen Newman
My first thought reading this was oh my God her parents must have read this!!! Then I bought it for all my friends. I have given this book to so many people before they have gone on a big trip. It is terribly funny, raunchy and pretty fantastic. Here is the scoop on What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding:
A funny, sexy, and ultimately poignant memoir about mastering the art of the “vacationship.”
Kristin Newman spent much of her twenties and thirties buying dresses to wear to her friends’ weddings and baby showers. Not ready to settle down and in need of an escape from her fast-paced job as a sitcom writer, Kristin instead traveled the world, often alone, for several weeks each year. In addition to falling madly in love with the planet, Kristin fell for many attractive locals, men who could provide the emotional connection she wanted without costing her the freedom she desperately needed. Kristin introduces readers to the Israeli bartenders, Finnish poker players, sexy Bedouins, and Argentinean priests who helped her transform into “Kristin-Adjacent” on the road–a slower, softer, and, yes, sluttier version of herself at home. Equal parts laugh-out-loud storytelling, candid reflection, and wanderlust-inspiring travel tales, What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding is a compelling debut that will have readers rushing to renew their passports.
4. The Lost Girls: Three Friends, Four Continents, One Unconventional Detour Around The World.
This would have seemed like a great idea when I was approaching 30. Or at any other time actually. Wouldn’t you love to just walk away from it all and go find yourself somewhere in the world? Here is the scoop on The Lost Girls:
“A triumphant journey about losing yourself, finding yourself and coming home again. Hitch yourself to their ride: you’ll embark on a transformative journey of your own.” — Allison Winn Scotch, New York Times bestselling author of The One That I Want and Time of My Life
Three friends, each on the brink of a quarter-life crisis, make a pact to quit their high pressure New York City media jobs and leave behind their friends, boyfriends, and everything familiar to embark on a year-long backpacking adventure around the world in The Lost Girls.
With their thirtieth birthdays looming, Jen, Holly, and Amanda are feeling the pressure to hit certain milestones—score the big promotion, find a soul mate, have 2.2 kids. Instead, they make a pact to quit their jobs and set out on a journey in search of inspiration and direction.
Traveling 60,000 miles across four continents, Jen, Holly, and Amanda push themselves far outside their comfort zones to embrace every adventure. Ultimately, theirs is a story of true friendship—a bond forged by sharing beds and backpacks, enduring exotic illnesses, trekking across mountains, and standing by one another through heartaches, whirlwind romances, and everything in the world in between.
5. Love, With A Chance Of Drowning by Torre Deroach
Just the premise of this book tells you it’s going to be a compelling and funny travel read! But you have to ask yourself, would you do it? Here is Love With A Chance of Drowning:
New love. Exotic destinations. A once-in-a-lifetime adventure. What could go wrong?
City girl Torre DeRoche isn’t looking for love, but a chance encounter in a San Francisco bar sparks an instant connection with a soulful Argentinean man who unexpectedly sweeps her off her feet. The problem? He’s just about to cast the dock lines and voyage around the world on his small sailboat, and Torre is terrified of deep water. However, lovesick Torre determines that to keep the man of her dreams, she must embark on the voyage of her nightmares, so she waves good-bye to dry land and braces for a life-changing journey that’s as exhilarating as it is terrifying.
Somewhere mid-Pacific, she finds herself battling to keep the old boat, the new relationship, and her floundering sanity afloat. . . .
This sometimes hilarious, often harrowing, and always poignant memoir is set against a backdrop of the world’s most beautiful and remote destinations. Equal parts love story and travel memoir, Love with a Chance of Drowning is witty, charming, and proof positive that there are some risks worth taking.
This one is timeless. It will make you want to take your own year off and go find yourself in some fabulous and exotic place somewhere other than home. Eat Pray Love:
Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love touched the world and changed countless lives, inspiring and empowering millions of readers to search for their own best selves. Now, this beloved and iconic book returns in a beautiful 10th anniversary edition, complete with an updated introduction from the author, to launch a whole new generation of fans.
In her early thirties, Elizabeth Gilbert had everything a modern American woman was supposed to want—husband, country home, successful career—but instead of feeling happy and fulfilled, she was consumed by panic and confusion. This wise and rapturous book is the story of how she left behind all these outward marks of success, and set out to explore three different aspects of her nature, against the backdrop of three different cultures: pleasure in Italy, devotion in India, and on the Indonesian island of Bali, a balance between worldly enjoyment and divine transcendence.
7. Wild: From Lost To Found On The Pacific Coast Trail by Cheryl Strayed
At twenty-two, Cheryl Strayed thought she had lost everything. In the wake of her mother’s death, her family scattered and her own marriage was soon destroyed. Four years later, with nothing more to lose, she made the most impulsive decision of her life. With no experience or training, driven only by blind will, she would hike more than a thousand miles of the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert through California and Oregon to Washington State—and she would do it alone. Told with suspense and style, sparkling with warmth and humor, Wild powerfully captures the terrors and pleasures of one young woman forging ahead against all odds on a journey that maddened, strengthened, and ultimately healed her.
One of the Best Books of the Year: NPR, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly,Vogue, St. Louis Dispatch
8. The Year Of Living Danishly by Helen Russell
I had planned on being in Copenhagen in December so was fascinated to read this book. It’s not hard to see why Denmark is the happiest place on earth. This book is both enjoyable and really quite funny. The Year Of Living Danishly:
When she was suddenly given the opportunity of a new life in rural Jutland, journalist and archetypal Londoner Helen Russell discovered a startling statistic: the happiest place on earth isn’t Disneyland, but Denmark, a land often thought of by foreigners as consisting entirely of long dark winters, cured herring, Lego and pastries.
What is the secret to their success? Are happy Danes born, or made? Helen decides there is only one way to find out: she will give herself a year, trying to uncover the formula for Danish happiness.
From childcare, education, food and interior design to SAD, taxes, sexism and an unfortunate predilection for burning witches, The Year of Living Danishly is a funny, poignant record of a journey that shows us where the Danes get it right, where they get it wrong, and how we might just benefit from living a little more Danishly ourselves.
9. Less by Andrew Sean Greer
Just so fantastic! Angst + travel led to a Pulizter prize for author Andrew Sean Greer. You need to read Less:
Who says you can’t run away from your problems? You are a failed novelist about to turn fifty. A wedding invitation arrives in the mail: your boyfriend of the past nine years is engaged to someone else. You can’t say yes–it would be too awkward–and you can’t say no–it would look like defeat. On your desk are a series of invitations to half-baked literary events around the world.
QUESTION: How do you arrange to skip town?
ANSWER: You accept them all.
What would possibly go wrong? Arthur Less will almost fall in love in Paris, almost fall to his death in Berlin, barely escape to a Moroccan ski chalet from a Saharan sandstorm, accidentally book himself as the (only) writer-in-residence at a Christian Retreat Center in Southern India, and encounter, on a desert island in the Arabian Sea, the last person on Earth he wants to face. Somewhere in there: he will turn fifty. Through it all, there is his first love. And there is his last.
Because, despite all these mishaps, missteps, misunderstandings and mistakes, Less is, above all, a love story.
A scintillating satire of the American abroad, a rumination on time and the human heart, a bittersweet romance of chances lost, by an author The New York Times has hailed as “inspired, lyrical,” “elegiac,” “ingenious,” as well as “too sappy by half,” Less shows a writer at the peak of his talents raising the curtain on our shared human comedy.
10. Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres
This one will have you dreaming of travel to Kefalonia. Don’t confuse it with the horrible movie made from the book – the book is gorgeous! I’ve been watching The Durrels In Corfu on Amazon Prime lately and dreaming about getting back to the Greek Islands. Then my friend Martine from the Orangerie Retreat in Basilicata sent me this photo, updating me on her Sunday afternoon on her terrazza. Maybe it was a sign? Captain Corelli’s Mandolin:
Set on the Greek island of Cephallonia during World War II, this is the story of a beautiful young woman and her two suitors: a gentle fisherman turned ruthless guerrilla, and the charming mandolin-playing head of the Italian garrison on the island.
Carol Drinkwater was a beloved British actress, famed for her role in British TV’s All Creatures Great and Small. This book is part of a series, each book of which is fabulous. This is The Olive Farm:
After all, they are newlyweds of limited means, and Carol is still adjusting to her role as stepmother to Michel’s two daughters. But the splendor of the region becomes a force they are unable to resist. Michel presents their life savings to the real estate broker as a down payment for the farm, embarking the family on an adventure that will bring them in close contact with the charming countryside, querulous personalities, petty bureaucracies, and extraordinary wildlife (including a ravenous wild boar) of Provence. In the spirit of Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence and Frances Mayes’s Under the Tuscan Sun, The Olive Farm is a splendid tour of southern France, from the glamour of Cannes to the Iles de Lérins and a Cistercian monastery on the tiny isle of St. Honorat, to Carol Drinkwater’s own small piece of land, which she transforms from an overgrown plot of weeds and ivy to a thriving, productive farm, transforming in the process her own dream of a peaceful and meaningful life into reality.
12. World Travel, An Irreverent Guide by Anthony Bourdain
How is it possible to miss someone you never met? I truly miss Bourdain. I miss his voice, his travels and his irreverence. So I loved this book. World Travel, An Irreverent Guide:
A guide to some of the world’s most fascinating places, as seen and experienced by writer, television host, and relentlessly curious traveler Anthony Bourdain
Anthony Bourdain saw more of the world than nearly anyone. His travels took him from the hidden pockets of his hometown of New York to a tribal longhouse in Borneo, from cosmopolitan Buenos Aires, Paris, and Shanghai to Tanzania’s utter beauty and the stunning desert solitude of Oman’s Empty Quarter—and many places beyond.
In World Travel, a life of experience is collected into an entertaining, practical, fun and frank travel guide that gives readers an introduction to some of his favorite places—in his own words. Featuring essential advice on how to get there, what to eat, where to stay and, in some cases, what to avoid, World Travel provides essential context that will help readers further appreciate the reasons why Bourdain found a place enchanting and memorable.
Supplementing Bourdain’s words are a handful of essays by friends, colleagues, and family that tell even deeper stories about a place, including sardonic accounts of traveling with Bourdain by his brother, Chris; a guide to Chicago’s best cheap eats by legendary music producer Steve Albini, and more. Additionally, each chapter includes illustrations by Wesley Allsbrook.
For veteran travelers, armchair enthusiasts, and those in between, World Travel offers a chance to experience the world like Anthony Bourdain.
13. A Year In Provence by Peter Mayle
This was the first book I read about packing up your life and moving to Europe, in this case the south of France. Since it first published in 1991 I have read every book in this genre that I can get my hands on. It’s such a fabulous dream! This book is hilarious too. A Year In Provence:
In this witty and warm-hearted account, Peter Mayle tells what it is like to realize a long-cherished dream and actually move into a 200-year-old stone farmhouse in the remote country of the Lubéron with his wife and two large dogs. He endures January’s frosty mistral as it comes howling down the Rhône Valley, discovers the secrets of goat racing through the middle of town, and delights in the glorious regional cuisine. A Year in Provence transports us into all the earthy pleasures of Provençal life and lets us live vicariously at a tempo governed by seasons, not by days.
14. The Woman Who Fell From The Sky: An American Woman’s Adventures In The Oldest City On Earth by Jennifer Steil
I absolutely loved this book! Jennifer paints such a beautiful picture of Yemen and describes the people she met so clearly you feel as though you know them yourself. As war and famine have raged in Yemen these past few years I have constantly wondered if they have all survived and how their families are doing. The Woman Who Fell From The Sky isn’t that well known but trust me, it is fantastic. Here is the scoop:
“I had no idea how to find my way around this medieval city. It was getting dark. I was tired. I didn’t speak Arabic. I was a little frightened. But hadn’t I battled scorpions in the wilds of Costa Rica and prevailed? Hadn’t I survived fainting in a San José brothel? Hadn’t I once arrived in Ireland with only $10 in my pocket and made it last two weeks? Surely I could handle a walk through an unfamiliar town. So I took a breath, tightened the black scarf around my hair, and headed out to take my first solitary steps through Sana’a.”—from The Woman Who Fell From The Sky
In a world fraught with suspicion between the Middle East and the West, it’s hard to believe that one of the most influential newspapers in Yemen—the desperately poor, ancestral homeland of Osama bin Laden, which has made has made international headlines for being a terrorist breeding ground—would be handed over to an agnostic, Campari-drinking, single woman from Manhattan who had never set foot in the Middle East. Yet this is exactly what happened to journalist, Jennifer Steil.
Restless in her career and her life, Jennifer, a gregarious, liberal New Yorker, initially accepts a short-term opportunity in 2006 to teach a journalism class to the staff of The Yemen Observer in Sana’a, the beautiful, ancient, and very conservative capital of Yemen. Seduced by the eager reporters and the challenging prospect of teaching a free speech model of journalism there, she extends her stay to a year as the paper’s editor-in-chief. But she is quickly confronted with the realities of Yemen—and their surprising advantages. In teaching the basics of fair and balanced journalism to a staff that included plagiarists and polemicists, she falls in love with her career again. In confronting the blatant mistreatment and strict governance of women by their male counterparts, she learns to appreciate the strength of Arab women in the workplace. And in forging surprisingly deep friendships with women and men whose traditions and beliefs are in total opposition to her own, she learns a cultural appreciation she never could have predicted. What’s more, she just so happens to meet the love of her life.
With exuberance and bravery, The Woman Who Fell from the Sky offers a rare, intimate, and often surprising look at the role of the media in Muslim culture and a fascinating cultural tour of Yemen, one of the most enigmatic countries in the world.
This was the first of Khaled Hosseini’s books, followed by A Thousand Splendid Suns and And The Mountains Echoed. Each of these books are hauntingly, achingly beautiful. After reading Hosseini I read as many books set in the region as I could find. These books let me be an armchair traveler to places I know I won’t ever go. Here is the scoop on The Kite Runner:
The unforgettable, heartbreaking story of the unlikely friendship between a wealthy boy and the son of his father’s servant, caught in the tragic sweep of history, The Kite Runner transports readers to Afghanistan at a tense and crucial moment of change and destruction. A powerful story of friendship, it is also about the power of reading, the price of betrayal, and the possibility of redemption; and an exploration of the power of fathers over sons—their love, their sacrifices, their lies.
Since its publication in 2003 Kite Runner has become a beloved, one-of-a-kind classic of contemporary literature, touching millions of readers, and launching the career of one of America’s most treasured writers.
16. A Honeymoon In Purdah by Alison Wearing
Reading this book my first thought was, I wish I had thought to do this! I can’t imagine risking traveling through Iran now but had I read this when I was younger I would have in a heartbeat. Just a really fantastic story. A Honeymoon In Purdah:
The beautifully written travel memoir of a Western woman’s journey in Iran.
With a love of travel, Alison Wearing invites us to journey with her to Iran–a country that few Westerners have a chance to see. Traveling with a male friend, in the guise of a couple on their honeymoon, Wearing set out on her own at every available opportunity. She went looking for what lay beneath the media’s representation of Iran and found a country made up of welcoming, curious, warmhearted, ambitious men and women.
With humor and compassion, Wearing gives Iranians the chance to wander beyond headlines and stereotypes, and in doing so, reveals the poetry of their lives–those whose lives extend beyond Western news stories of kidnapping, terrorism, veiled women, and Islamic fundamentalism.
“With this engrossing account, Wearing casts a sympathetic eye on the real people of Iran, so often invisible to the West.”–Publishers Weekly
17. The Caliph’s House: A Year In Casablanca by Tahir Shah
There is something so magical about people buying homes in foreign countries, navigating a new culture and (always) meeting a cast of characters! This time it’s in Morocco. Here is The Caliph’s House, A Year In Casablanca:
In the tradition of A Year in Provenceand Under the Tuscan Sun, acclaimed English travel writer Tahir Shah shares a highly entertaining account of making an exotic dream come true. By turns hilarious and harrowing, here is the story of his family’s move from the gray skies of London to the sun-drenched city of Casablanca, where Islamic tradition and African folklore converge–and nothing is as easy as it seems….
Inspired by the Moroccan vacations of his childhood, Tahir Shah dreamed of making a home in that astonishing country. At age thirty-six he got his chance. Investing what money he and his wife, Rachana, had, Tahir packed up his growing family and bought Dar Khalifa, a crumbling ruin of a mansion by the sea in Casablanca that once belonged to the city’s caliph, or spiritual leader.
With its lush grounds, cool, secluded courtyards, and relaxed pace, life at Dar Khalifa seems sure to fulfill Tahir’s fantasy–until he discovers that in many ways he is farther from home than he imagined. For in Morocco an empty house is thought to attract jinns, invisible spirits unique to the Islamic world. The ardent belief in their presence greatly hampers sleep and renovation plans, but that is just the beginning. From elaborate exorcism rituals involving sacrificial goats to dealing with gangster neighbors intent on stealing their property, the Shahs must cope with a new culture and all that comes with it.
Endlessly enthralling, The Caliph’s House charts a year in the life of one family who takes a tremendous gamble. As we follow Tahir on his travels throughout the kingdom, from Tangier to Marrakech to the Sahara, we discover a world of fierce contrasts that any true adventurer would be thrilled to call home.
18. Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi
Extreme bravery doesn’t always involve running around with a gun. As you read this you have to calculate the risks involved for all the women in the group. In this case I have to think reading these books was an act of extreme bravery. This is Reading Lolita In Tehran:
Every Thursday morning for two years in the Islamic Republic of Iran, Azar Nafisi, a bold and inspired teacher, secretly gathered seven of her most committed female students to read forbidden Western classics. Some came from conservative and religious families, others were progressive and secular; some had spent time in jail. They were shy and uncomfortable at first, unaccustomed to being asked to speak their minds, but soon they removed their veils and began to speak more freely–their stories intertwining with the novels they were reading by Jane Austen, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James, and Vladimir Nabokov. As Islamic morality squads staged arbitrary raids in Tehran, as fundamentalists seized hold of the universities and a blind censor stifled artistic expression, the women in Nafisi’s living room spoke not only of the books they were reading but also about themselves, their dreams and disappointments.
Azar Nafisi’s luminous masterwork gives us a rare glimpse, from the inside, of women’s lives in revolutionary Iran. Reading Lolita in Tehran is a work of great passion and poetic beauty, a remarkable exploration of resilience in the face of tyranny, and a celebration of the liberating power of literature.
19. A Fortune Teller Told Me by Tiziano Terzani
If a fortune teller told you not to fly for a year because you might die, would you listen?
Italy’s most famous foreign correspondent, Tiziano Terzani, was living in Bangkok and reporting from all over Southeast Asia for the German magazine Der Spiegel when a Hong Kong fortune teller warned him. So he spent the next year traveling overland and wrote this book, telling his fantastic story. It’s tremendous. A Fortune Teller Told Me:
“An utterly charming and engaging travel book that offers vivid portraits of unusual corners of Asia, told by a skilled raconteur whose eyes were open wide.” —Los Angeles Times Book Review
Warned by a Hong Kong fortune-teller not to risk flying for an entire year, Tiziano Terzani—a vastly experienced Asia correspondent—took what he called “the first step into an unknown world. . . . It turned out to be one of the most extraordinary years I have ever spent: I was marked for death, and instead I was reborn.”
Traveling by foot, boat, bus, car, and train, he visited Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, China, Mongolia, Japan, Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia. Geography expanded under his feet. He consulted soothsayers, sorcerers, and shamans and received much advice—some wise, some otherwise—about his future. With time to think, he learned to understand, respect, and fear for older ways of life and beliefs now threatened by the crasser forms of Western modernity. He rediscovered a place he had been reporting on for decades. And reinvigorated himself in the process.
20. Lands of Lost Borders: A Journey On The Silk Road by Kate Harris
A brilliant, fierce writer, and winner of the 2019 RBC Taylor Prize, makes her debut with this enthralling travelogue and memoir of her journey by bicycle along the Silk Road—an illuminating and thought-provoking fusion of The Places in Between, Lab Girl, and Wild that dares us to challenge the limits we place on ourselves and the natural world.
As a teenager, Kate Harris realized that the career she craved—to be an explorer, equal parts swashbuckler and metaphysician—had gone extinct. From what she could tell of the world from small-town Ontario, the likes of Marco Polo and Magellan had mapped the whole earth; there was nothing left to be discovered. Looking beyond this planet, she decided to become a scientist and go to Mars.
In between studying at Oxford and MIT, Harris set off by bicycle down the fabled Silk Road with her childhood friend Mel. Pedaling mile upon mile in some of the remotest places on earth, she realized that an explorer, in any day and age, is the kind of person who refuses to live between the lines. Forget charting maps, naming peaks: what she yearned for was the feeling of soaring completely out of bounds. The farther she traveled, the closer she came to a world as wild as she felt within.
Lands of Lost Borders, winner of the 2018 Banff Adventure Travel Award and a 2018 Nautilus Award, is the chronicle of Harris’s odyssey and an exploration of the importance of breaking the boundaries we set ourselves; an examination of the stories borders tell, and the restrictions they place on nature and humanity; and a meditation on the existential need to explore—the essential longing to discover what in the universe we are doing here.
Like Rebecca Solnit and Pico Iyer, Kate Harris offers a travel account at once exuberant and reflective, wry and rapturous. Lands of Lost Borders explores the nature of limits and the wildness of the self that can never fully be mapped. Weaving adventure and philosophy with the history of science and exploration, Lands of Lost Borders celebrates our connection as humans to the natural world, and ultimately to each other—a belonging that transcends any fences or stories that may divide us.
21. Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts
This book seems to be at the top of every avid traveler’s list of must read travel books. It is fiction based on real life. The book is huge, some 900 pages, yet no one ever complains about the size. It is fantastically written and my guess is Shantaram has made more treks around the world with backpackers than any other book. Here is the scoop on Shantaram:
Lindsay, a convicted bank robber, and heroin addict arrives in Bombay after escaping from an Australian prison. Intended only to be a step in his journey, Bombay became his home. Together with “Linbaba”, we learn about India – very often the poorest India – as he lost all his money and found himself living in the slums.
“It took me a long time and most of the world to learn what I know about love and fate and the choices we make, but the heart of it came to me in an instant, while I was chained to a wall and being tortured.”
So begins this epic, mesmerizing first novel set in the underworld of contemporary Bombay. Shantaram is narrated by Lin, an escaped convict with a false passport who flees maximum security prison in Australia for the teeming streets of a city where he can disappear.
Accompanied by his guide and faithful friend, Prabaker, the two enter Bombay’s hidden society of beggars and gangsters, prostitutes and holy men, soldiers and actors, and Indians and exiles from other countries, who seek in this remarkable place what they cannot find elsewhere.
As a hunted man without a home, family, or identity, Lin searches for love and meaning while running a clinic in one of the city’s poorest slums, and serving his apprenticeship in the dark arts of the Bombay mafia. The search leads him to war, prison torture, murder, and a series of enigmatic and bloody betrayals. The keys to unlock the mysteries and intrigues that bind Lin are held by two people. The first is Khader Khan: mafia godfather, criminal-philosopher-saint, and mentor to Lin in the underworld of the Golden City. The second is Karla: elusive, dangerous, and beautiful, whose passions are driven by secrets that torment her and yet give her a terrible power.
Burning slums and five-star hotels, romantic love and prison agonies, criminal wars and Bollywood films, spiritual gurus and mujaheddin guerrillas—this huge novel has the world of human experience in its reach, and a passionate love for India at its heart. Based on the life of the author, it is by any measure the debut of an extraordinary voice in literature.