There’s something especially dreamy about an Italian vacation, but you don’t have to actually be in Italy to get a small taste of this wonderful country. Here are some of the best books about Italy to add to your reading list, whether you’re planning to read them on an Italian vacation or want something to read to help inspire your next trip!
To help narrow down the list, I’ve added my favorites, but I’ve also updated with the selections of some of my favorite travel writers.
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The Best Books about Italy
In no particular order…
Beautiful Ruins by Jesse Walters
Editor’s Choice: The cover is the Cinque Terre–enough said, right? This novel strings together the lives of an Italian hotelier, a failed musician, an American actress, Liz Taylor, a reality television mogul, and a World War II vet, among others. The characters are rich and sad, the landscapes are dripping with Italian culture, and Richard Burton is almost always drunk. At its center is a fight between the glamorous and the mundane, with the mundane coming out ahead more often than not. This novel is fantastic.
Beneath a Scarlet Sky by Mark Sullivan
Contributed by Vanessa Hunt from I Heart Italy: One of my favorite books set in Italy is called Beneath a Scarlet Sky by Mark Sullivan. The book is a historical fiction based on the true story of Pino Lella, one of the many unsung heroes of WWII.
Pino is a boy from Milan who proves his courage and bravery through his many heroic acts during the war, from smuggling Italian jews over the Alps into Switzerland to going undercover and spying on the Nazi leadership. The things that he does and sees in this book are truly astounding, and I found myself thinking this couldn’t be real life, but it was!
It was fascinating to learn more about the war from an Italian perspective, one not often heard, and it made me fall in love with Milan, Lake Como, and the Italian Alps! If you’re interested in history, particularly WWII history, and if you love Italy, this book is for you!
A Room with a View by E.M. Forster
Contributed by Larch from The Silver Nomad: First published in 1908, E.M. Forster’s third novel A Room with a View is a love story set first against the backdrop of Florence, then moves to Surrey in England.
The book starts in a pension in Florence with the arrival of Miss Lucy Honeychurch and her overprotective older cousin Miss Charlotte Bartlett for Lucy’s first visit to the city on her tour through Italy with their trusty Baedeker guide in hand. The rooms they are assigned do not have a view over the River Arno and they are offered a swap from the less desirable Socialist father and son, the Emersons, and Lucy moves into her room with a view.
As the story weaves its way around the sights of Florence and the countryside of Surrey, it explores Edwardian cultural values of class and the rigid morality of the time and pokes gentle fun at the straight-laced English middle classes. The naïve Lucy fights against her own feelings and what is expected of her as she is encouraged to follow her heart’s and her body’s desire in her choice of husband.
If you are looking for a short read that flits between Italy and England, “A Room with a View” is perfect and may inspire you to visit both Florence and Surrey.
Pompeii by Robert Harris
Contributed by Helen from Helen on her Holidays: I read Robert Harris’s book Pompeii a couple of years ago, just before I visited the part of Italy which lies in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius. I’d wanted to visit Pompeii ever since I first heard about it as a child, and had read history books about the volcano Vesuvius’ catastrophic eruption in 79AD, but it took a novel to really bring it to life for me.
Robert Harris’s novel begins a short time before the volcano erupts. Our hero is Attilius, an engineer who’s arrived from Rome to oversee the Aqua Augusta, an aqueduct which supplies water to the towns around the bay of Naples, including Pompeii. The waters have been failing, and Attilius realises that the problem lies on the slopes of Vesuvius – and that things are about to get a lot worse for the residents of Pompeii.
What follows is a fast-paced tale that’s surprisingly illuminating about Roman life in Pompeii. Real-life historical characters like Pliny the Elder appear in the novel, and it feels well-researched. To get the most out of a visit to Pompeii, it’s really important to do some research about Roman life at the time of the eruption, and Robert Harris’s Pompeii is a fantastically enjoyable way to do that.
If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino
Editor’s Choice: Italo Calvino was one of Italy’s most important authors of the twentieth century. If you’re headed to Siena, pick up If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, paying homage to this Italian great in the city that was his last home.
This novel is crazy. You will get dizzy. You will want to know the answer to questions that Italo Calvino refuses to answer. You will dive into novels within novels. You will have moments when you think that he has described the world as it really is, that you have awoken from a stupor and finally in front of your eyes someone has laid out all the world’s truth. And then you will think that’s silly. And then you will think about it again. And then there’s the way he describes the art of traveling itself:
“To fly is the opposite of traveling: you cross a gap in space, you vanish into the void, you accept not being in a place for a duration that is itself a kind of void in time; then you reappear, in a place and in a moment with no relation to the where and when in which you vanished.”
There are characters. There’s a plot. But this is more about the art of reading and the art of traveling in novel form–beautiful and challenging. And the parts that take place in Italy are a different Italy–dark and mysterious. Ah, I think I need to re-read this one, folks.
The Inspector Montalbano Series
Contributed by Mar from Once in a Lifetime Journey: Andrea Camilleri, who died in June 2019, is one of Italy’s most famous 21st century authors.
Aside from many novels, his most popular books are the series of crime detective novels starring Inspector Montalbano (named after Spanish author Manuel Vázquez Montalbán) which take place in the island of Sicily, more specifically in a fictional town called Vigata which corresponds to real-life Porto Empedocle the native town of the author.
The books have been translated into many languages and brought to the screen by the Italian national broadcasting company RAI which turned them into a TV show filmed in the UNSCO-listed city of Ragusa. If you visit Ragusa, you will almost certainly stumble upon the cast and the filming.
What makes Montalbano most interesting is not just the plot or his astute ways of finding the truth, but the fact that there is always a Sicilian and political undertone that reflects the author’s beliefs and criticism both of La Mafia as well as of the Italian and international governments. The Church does not escape Camilleri’s despise either. This gives each story a historical reference that is more reality than fiction.
While the author has now assed away, he wrote the last book in the series in 2012 and that one is yet to be published.
The Ghosts of Italy by Angela Paolantonio
Contributed by Donna Meyer for NomadWomen: Angela Paolantonio was born in New York, but her roots are planted deep in the soil of southern Italy. Both her grandparents were born in the small hilltown of Calitri, in Campania. It’s a couple of hours east of Naples, but in some ways, it’s a century behind.
Compelled to learn about her Italian grandparents and her own roots, Angela travels to Calitri, never suspecting she’s about to be drawn deeply into her Italian family, into the rituals and lives of their neighbors, and into a love affair with both a handsome man and an ancient village.
There are many kinds of love, and Paolantonio explores several of them in this memoir—love for a place, for history (both local and personal), for family, traditions, food. And love for a man. All these loves, and the ways in which they grow and change, are skillfully woven into her story as she meets her family—and herself.
The writing is rich with sensory detail—the smells of ravioli on the stove, the sweet taste of Nocino (the traditional walnut liqueur made in the village), the singing of women as a religious procession passes her house, the touch of ancient stone or a caressing summer breeze against your skin.
I loved this book, which made me want to get on a plane to Italy. It will appeal to lovers of Italy and travelers with curiosity in their minds, some romance in their souls, and a belief in the ties of family, even those yet unmet. I think the kind of women I write for on my blog, nomadwomen.com, will love it as much as I did.
The Magicians Trilogy by Lev Grossman
Editor’s Choice: Let’s say you get to go to Hogwarts. But you’re not a cute little kid. Instead, you’re an eighteen-year-old, hormone-crazed overachieving little asshole. And when you’re done with Hogwarts, you get to graduate and go to Narnia. And you’re still an asshole. And there’s alcohol everywhere. That’s basically the premise of The Magicians Trilogy. And it’s exactly as much fun as it sounds.
Now, what does that have to do with Italy? Well, there are some amazing scenes in a Venetian palazzo. And there’s a Venetian dragon. You’ll also really, really want to take a vacation to
Narnia Fillory. And the south of France. And Brooklyn. And Connecticut. And a really cool spa out West. And the English countryside. And the South Pole. And you’ll wish you could fly there with your own wings and then be transformed into a fox.
The Gondola Maker by Laura Morelli
Acqua Alta by Dona Leon
Contributed by Monique fromt Trip Anthropologist: Rivalled only by Inspector Montalbano as Italy’s most beloved detective, Commissario Guido Brunetti solves murders in his hometown of Venice. Over the years, Dona Leon’s hero has introduced us to the Venetian class system, Venice coffee shops and snack bars, how, what and when Italians eat, and the importance of love, family, literature and beauty in the lives of Venetians. This series is really a guide-book for Venice and you will learn much about contemporary Venetian life by reading these novels.
Dona Leon is an American who has lived in Venice for 30 years, now lives in Switzerland, and loves helping us navigate the corruption and incompetence of the Italian police forces and state bureaucracy. Besides being an exciting murder mystery, Leon’s characters are beautifully rendered – they are whole and complex and embody all the strengths, weaknesses and contradictions of contemporary Venetians.
Brunetti’s travails teach us about how difficult it is for Venice’s citizens living in an over-touristed travel Disneyland. We learn about the empathy the author has for African migrants trying to make a living on the streets. We also learn about the dwindling facilities and places for residents to shop and the difficulty of even walking the streets of their hometown due to the tourist throng.
Leon’s fifth novel, Acqua Alta (1996), is the novel most readers love. As well as a gripping mystery, it explores the devastating effects of rising sea waters and the resultant flooding known as the acqua alta.
Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
Contributed by Maire from Temples and Treehouses: Eat Pray Love is a classic modern memoir by American author Elizabeth Gilbert, and equally famous for the 2010 film version starring Julia Roberts. The book is set in three main locations and follows the writer’s real-life journey of self discovery (both literally and metaphorically) which she embarks on after a horrible divorce.
In Eat Pray Love, Elizabeth Gilbert travels from her home city of New York to Italy, India and Bali. But the Italy section of the book is my favourite because of its vibrant lust for life.
Elizabeth Gilbert began her journey with a 4-month stay in Rome, during which she made lifelong friends, experienced the laidback Italian culture based on enjoyment and happiness, and ate a lot of incredible Italian food — this experience is the “Eat” part of Eat Pray Love. The book’s descriptions of Italy’s indulgent lifestyle and cuisine are highly enjoyable.
You’ll like this book if you enjoy humorous and authentic memoirs, and are looking for a light read about life’s pleasures.
When in Rome by Penelope Green
Contributed by Jan Robinson from Budget Travel Talk: Penelope Green, the Author of travel memoir When in Rome is a print journalist from Sydney Australia.
When 28 year old Penelope’s life in Sydney Australia begins to feel like a beige coloured Groundhog Day and her high profile PR job leaves her feeling listless and uninspired, she knows a drastic change is needed.
With her long time personal relationship on the rocks, it’s time to entertain her long held dream of living in Italy. Penny resigns her job and with the advice of a friend to “say yes to everything” fresh in her mind, she enrols in a language course in Perugia Italy.
The story has equal amounts of ups and downs as Penny carves her own slice of la dolce vita. It chronicles her jobs, friendships, mistakes, success and lovers in a funny and frank manner. It describes the joy she finds in her very own Italian Romeo – the bicycle that never lets her down.
Her never say die attitude toward making a new life in her beloved Rome is music to the ears of anyone who has ever dreamed of starting life again in another country.
Although she struggles daily with the language, culture and occasional lecher, Penny doesn’t give up on her dream.
If you have ever strolled beside a famous bridge in Rome or hope to one day, you will love and learn from this memoir.
The Author writes two more consecutive books where this one leaves off – See Naples and Die and Girl By Sea.
Daisy Miller by Henry James
Editor’s Choice: This is the only novel on this list that I was assigned to read (Thanks to Professor Sullivan!), but ten years later it’s still with me.
I love a novel about a ruined woman (see also Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth for this wonderful sub-genre). Especially one that takes place in Rome. The scenes in the Coliseum are beautiful and damning. It’s a Taylor Swift song as high literature.
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
Contributed by Claudia Tavani from My Adventures Across The World: Elena Ferrante is the author of a series of 4 books that start with My Brilliant Friend. Not much is known about the author, who’s thought to have used a pseudonym and to be in fact either a man, or a couple.
Based in Naples, My Brilliant Friend is the story of the (sometimes troubled) friendship between Elena Greco, nicknamed Lenù, and Raffaella Cerullo, nicknamed Lina and which Elena calls Lila.
The book starts with Lenù finding out from Rino, Lila’s son, that Lila has disappeared without a trace. That’s when she starts reflecting on more than 60 years of friendship, starting with their early childhood in one of Naples most disadvantaged and dangerous “rione” (neighborhood) in the 1950s, when both are attending elementary school and are at the top of their class.
As years go by, both girls try to escape their destiny – one made of poverty, violence and gossip. Lenù strives to become the perfect student and – at a time when girls at most went to secondary school – goes to high school and then university. Lila stops attending school at age 10, when her father decides it’s time for her to start helping in the small family business.
The only way she has to escape poverty is then to marry Stefano Carracci, son of a usurer and friend of the Solara brothers, two youngsters known for being linked to the local mafia.
The Lemon Tree Cafe by Cathy Bramley
Contributed by Mica from Senyorita: On my first ever UK car boot experience, one of the items I managed to buy is a novel with a catchy cover art and title. “The Lemon Tree Café” is written by Cathy Bramley. It is a story of a thirty-something Creative Director named Rosie who suddenly found herself jobless when she fought for her principles in the workplace.
Coming to her grandma’s café in Derbyshire for some comfort, she realized that the place needs help – not in terms of food or service, but with paperwork and other things that I wouldn’t share here. She decides to stay despite her grandma’s skepticism. For her, it is better to keep busy than do nothing while waiting for the next job offer to come.
Her grandma is quite mysterious. All that she knows about her is that she moved to England from Italy by the time her mother was born and that her grandfather is an Italian who passed away. Later on in the story, a shocking twist about the past will be revealed.
I will not spill out the whole thing her, but some characters will find themselves in Sorrento, Italy. The Italian influence is very evident in grandma’s Lemon Tree Café. Eventually, Rosie fell in love with the café and decided to start anew in life. Of course, love is on the menu and she had a good shot with a special guy.
I enjoyed reading this novel because the lead character is an empowered woman who made sure that she sticks to her principles and that she will fight when she knows she is right. I also love how she was able to help her thriving community in this setting. Those who wishes to read something light but inspirational while on the road or on a break must read this!
Where Angels Fear to Treat by E.M. Forster
Contributed by Bridget Coleman from The Flashpacker: E.M. Forster was an early 20th Century English novelist, whose books explored class differences in society.
Where Angels Fear to Tread (1905) was his first novel, and the first of two of his works to be set in Italy, the second being the better-known A Room With a View (1908). The book is a deliciously dark comedy set in the fictional town of Monteriano, said to be based on San Gimignano in Tuscany.
Much to the outrage of her prim and snobbish in-laws, Lilia, an impetuous English widow, has become engaged to Gino, a younger Italian, whilst on an extended visit to Italy. Her brother-in-law, Phillip, is despatched to rescue her from this ill-advised match, setting in motion a chain of tragic and comedic events.
As much as Lilia viewed Gino as her escape route from her suffocating in-laws, Where Angels Fear to Tread will speak to those with a yearning to carve a path outside of societal norms. If you are a traveller who travels alone, you will relate to the book’s theme about the “otherness” of another country and the misunderstandings that can arise because of these differences.
But, ultimately, Where Angels Fear to Tread waxes lyrical about Italy herself:
Italy, Phillip had always maintained, is only her true self in the height of summer, when the tourists have left her, and her soul awakes under the beams of a vertical sun.
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
Editor’s Choice: Like Beautiful Ruins, this is a novel with many narratives connected across decades and geographies. Characters that individually run towards the shallow build upon each other to create a great, entangled web of lives and choices that are beautiful when taken as a whole.
While the bulk of the stories take place in New York and LA, Sasha’s time in Naples introduces a modern Italian city that is sweaty and dangerous, full of crevices and the thieves who hide in them. This is not an Italy of food and wine, it’s one of lost souls and starving pickpockets.
Angels and Demons by Dan Brown
Contributed by Laura from The Travelling Stomach: Set across Rome featuring some of the city’s iconic sites, Angels and Demons by Dan Brown is a racy thriller featuring Robert Langdon as the main character.
Drawing on century-old Catholic traditions surrounding the election of a new pope and the legendary Illuminati, an anti-religion organisation, readers are gripped from page one of this unputdownable book. Follow Robert Langdon and his ally Vittoria Vetra as they frantically follow an ancient trail of clues to find the kidnapped Preferiti in the hope of discovering the location of the canister of antimatter before a cataclysmic explosion.
Dan Brown’s vivid descriptions of Rome and the Vatican City transport the reader to the streets of Italy, and those exploring Italy after reading Angels and Demons will instantly be able to imagine the dramatic scenes taking place. Now a major motion picture, you can even take an Angels and Demons guided tour around Rome spending an afternoon visiting the key sites from the book including Piazza Navona and the Pantheon.
5 Things to Pack for Your Trip to Italy
The Lonely Planet Italy guidebook or the Rick Steves Italy guidebook for your trip. It can be kind of a pain to find the major guidebooks once you arrive in Italy, or you’ll find them overpriced. I always like to pick mine up ahead of time.
An Unlocked Cell Phone so that you can use an Italian sim card while here to help navigate the trains.
Backup Charging Bank for your cell phone since you’ll be using it as a camera, GPS system, and general travel genie.
A Great Day Bag so you can carry what you need with you (like your camera, snacks, water, sunscreen, cash, etc). My current favorite is the Pacsafe Citysafe, which is especially great for Italy (and it’s many pickpockets) because it has many anti-theft features.
More Italy Resources
If you’re going to be visiting Rome, check out my interview with Mike Duncan on the history of the Roman Forum. I also have three episodes about Rome on Rick Steves Over Brunch, including this episode on Rome recorded with Rick Steves himself!
Headed to Milan? Be sure to check out these beautiful ancient Milan churches while you’re there!
Don’t Forget Travel Insurance!
Before you leave for Italy make sure you have a valid Travel Insurance Policy because accidents happen on the road. I pay for World Nomads, and I happily recommend them. It’s especially important to get travel insurance if you’ll be hanging out in cities (like Rome…ahem) where tourists can be the victims of pickpockets. Italy is the only country I’ve been to (out of almost seventy) where I’ve had someone try to pick my pocket!
I have been a paying customer of World Nomads for travel insurance for two years, and I happily recommend them. If you get sick, injured, or have your stuff stolen, you’ll be happy to have the ability to pay for your medical bills or replace what’s stolen or broken.
Pin these Fabulous Books about Italy for Your Trip!