Book lover's guide to Paris

Image credit: Mike Ellis for Penguin Random House

Paris. Is there a word in any language that more succinctly conjures hunchbacks in bell towers, weapon-grade coffee in cobbled squares, moonlit bridge-kissing, resistance, romance and pondering existence in a black turtleneck?

And books, of course. Lots of books. There is a reason why the French capital is one of the most written-about cities on earth. Hemingway said 'there is never any ending to Paris,' and it's true its boulevards, bars and bohemia inspired many other great writers including F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, George Orwell, Samuel Beckett, Sebastian Faulks and Charles Bukowski - and those are just the foreigners.

If you're heading to the City of Light, you're going to need a reading list worthy of it. Which is why we've rounded up some of the greatest books – classic and modern, fiction and non-fiction – inspired by its unique romance, along with some key sites of literary pilgrimage to enjoy them in. 

Paris Echo by Sebastian Faulks (2019)

Two lives, one city – this is the tale of Tariq, a Moroccan teenage runaway who meets Hannah, a 30-something American academic in Paris. He is searching for information about a dead mother he barely knew. She is there to study the wartime experiences of women living there under German Occupation, while still licking the wounds of a painful, decade-old romance.

Paris Echo knocks on big subjects such as the legacy of empire and identity, but mostly it's a heart-warming masterclass in storytelling that weaves and winds and brims with a deep affection for Paris: its otherworldliness, and the ghosts of history that lurk around every beautiful, tree-lined avenue.  

Paris For One And Other Stories by Jojo Moyes (2015)

This is a love story set in the city of love, which begins with a heartbreak. Nell, a meticulous and organised 26-year-old who has never even been away with her boyfriend, arranges to go to Paris with him. But when he doesn't show up, she is forced to go it alone.

Having never even eaten in a restaurant by herself, Nell embarks on a journey of self-discovery and chance encounters as she makes new friends, and enemies, including an American business woman, a handsome French waiter and a quick receptionist. 

A short story by one of our most celebrated chroniclers of the human heart, Paris for One hums with both romance and underrated pleasures of solo travel. Perfect for a weekend break.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo (1831)

The French have a tendency to turn to classic literature in times of national anguish. And in the days after the fire that ravaged Paris' 850-year-old cathedral, Hugo's 188-year-old classic, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (known in the Francosphere as Notre Dame de Paris), became the nation's number-one bestseller.

This is partly because the book is set among its gargoyles and crenellations but also because it is about as painfully romantic as literature gets, covering complex notions like unanswered love, dark secrets, fate, melodrama and morality.

Set in 1482, the epic novel tells the story of a beautiful Gypsy dancer Esmeralda who steals the hearts of many men – but none more so than the hunchback Quasimodo, a deaf bell ringer who observes the world from the shadows of Notre-Dame’s bell tower. Perfectly showcasing Hugo's brilliant flair for description and keen historical imagination, it is one of France's most famous books about one of France's most famous landmarks. It needs no further introduction.

Au Bonheur des Dames by Emile Zola (1883)

A searing social commentary on the birth of consumer culture - where better to read this book than in the capital of fashion? Au Bonheur des Dames (The Ladies' Delight in English) is about the world-famous shopping Shangri-La, Le Bon Marché, a vast department store on Paris' ritzy Rue de Sevres, that's as thriving now as when it first opened in 1838.

A prescient and sharp-witted account of early capitalism, greedy customers and gossiping staff, the novel follows unscrupulous silk mogul Octave Mouret as he exploits his young female staff and seduces his lady customers with lavish displays of iridescent silks, satins, velvets and lace. All this, until a beautiful provincial girl arrives to work as an assistant and he finds even his lustful heart can be tamed. 

A Certain Smile by Francoise Sagan (1955)

Francoise Sagan was 21 (21!) when she wrote A Certain Smile, two years after she shot to fame with the wildly scandalous Bonjour Tristesse (which even earned its author a papal denunciation). In the years before the sexual liberation of the 60s, writing stories about confident young women, unbound by the lopsided moral codes of patriarchy, was deliciously eyebrow-hoiking. You'd expect that from Sagan – a hedonistic, tomboy beauty herself, who drove racing cars barefoot and took so many drugs that her pet dog allegedly overdosed from sniffing her handkerchiefs.

A Certain Smile follows Dominique, a 20-year-old country girl who travels to Paris to study at The Sorbonne. She gets a nice boyfriend, but she quickly grows bored of him, her law books, and Paris. But then her boyfriend introduces her to his uncle. She sees him as a ‘man of the world’, exotic, enigmatic and unattainably married. Except that, in Sagan's world, marriage never stopped anybody from doing anything...

Poems of Paris edited by Emily Fragos (2019)

A slow-cooked casserole of parts and pieces, each with its own seasoning, smells and flavours, Paris is at times just too lyrical to be held hostage by prose. Sometimes, for some writers, only a poem will do.

Deschamps, Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Samuel Beckett, Vladimir Nabokov, Zelda Fitzgerald, Oscar Wilde, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, Charles Bukowski and many more were moved to verse upon seeing the city. And they're all in this excellent collection.

So, too, are all the sights, from Notre Dame to the Eiffel Tower, not to mention such classic Parisian tropes as food, drink, art and love, as well as key events from the past, from the Revolution to the Resistance. Take this book to the banks of the Seine, or to the tranquil verdure of the Jardin du Luxembourg, to feel more Paris than the Notre-Dame.

A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway (1964)

Food, art, alcohol and some serious Lost Generation gossip provide the background to this breathtaking account of Hemingway's early life in the bars and cafes in 1930s Paris – a city that ‘was always worth it and you received return for whatever you brought to it.’

Thanks to the alluring triumvirate of favourable exchange rates, free-flowing booze and a booming art scene, Paris became a mecca to some of the most magnificent creative minds of the early 20th Century. James Joyce, Wyndham Lewis, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Pablo Picasso and Gertrude Stein were all there along with 'Papa'.

Written with wisdom and nostaliga for a time when he was still finding his voice, this beautiful memoir recalls the time when, poor, happy and writing in cafes, Hemingway started his career. He described Paris as a ‘moveable feast’ because its people, its food, its aromas and its memories stay with you. So, too, will this book.  

Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell (1933) 

It's not all set in Paris, but the half that is will change the way you eat in the world's capital of gastronomie. Beautifully-worded, forensic and hilariously honest, it'll take you on a journey through the steam and sweat of Parisian kitchen culture of the 1930s, where a young Orwell was forced to work in as a penniless potwash, or ‘plongeur’.

Unlike Hemingway and Fitzgerald, he wasn't interested in the glass-clinking flâneurie of the ‘Lost Generation’. He was there to see how Parisians lived, starved and died. He wanted to lift Paris' lid, to see what writhed ‘underneath’.

This is a vivid memoir of life living on a dingy, cobbled street in the Latin Quarter of Paris, a bohemian part of town which he describes as ‘a ravine of tall, leprous houses, lurching towards one another in queer attitudes, as though they had all been frozen in the act of collapse.’ Describing in brilliant detail the vagrants, hustlers, lowlifes and others who had ‘fallen into solitary, half-mad grooves of life and given up trying to be normal or decent,’ Orwell learns timeless truths about poverty and inequality and what you find if you peer into society's cracks.  

Paris: Biography of a City by Colin Jones (2006)

Paris is a stoic city, resilient to the end. It has survived Vikings, Romans, Black Death, Nazis and more to emerge as the heart of a resurgent Europe. It is a city where soaring feats of architecture tower over tiny medieval churches; historic book markets bustle on the banks of ancient tree-lined waterfronts; modern art galleries border old-world cafes.

In Paris every street, alley, nook and cranny has its own story... and Colin Jones does a very good job in telling many of them. With an absorbing array of facts, figures, folklore and anecdotes, he walks us through the city that was a plague-infested charnel house during the Middle Ages, the blood-soaked staging area of the French Revolution, the muse of nineteenth-century Impressionist painters. His prose has lightness of touch that makes for an accessible but thrilling companion for Francophiles, distant observers and travellers alike.  

And here is where to read them...

Harry's New York Bar: 5 Rue Daunou

It's said the way a city drinks reveals how a city thinks, and Harry’s New York Bar is a good place to start, for a taste of the city's expat literary life. It has several claims to fame: Gershwin composed his hit musical, An American in Paris, in the downstairs piano bar; Fitzgerald allegedly drank himself unconscious with Hemingway on a regular basis, and the establishment even claims to have invented the Bloody Mary.

The Bouquinistes of Paris: along the banks of the Seine

Even Fitzgerald, the party king himself, occasionally needed somewhere to get his head together. When he did, he would often pop to the bouquinistes, an idyllic procession of book stalls by the river Seine which now carry Unesco world heritage status. Many of Fitzgerald's contemporaries did too, thanks to more than 217 riverside stores where patrons could, as they can now, find new and old literature, vintage magazine covers, thinning antique maps, and souvenirs.

Shakespeare and Company: 37 rue de la Bûcherie

This is arguably the most famous, and celebrated, bookshop in the English-speaking world (even though it's in Paris). First opened in 1931 by American publisher Sylvia Beach, it became a haven for expat writers such as Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, F Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein. It closed in 1941 and was reopened by fellow American George Whitman a decade later, who said of it: 'I created this bookstore like a man would write a novel. Building each room like a chapter, and I like people to open the door the way they open a book, a book that leads into a magic world in their imaginations.'

Les Deux Magots: 6 Place Saint-Germain des Prés

Few bars have served more drinks to modern history's most famous artistes than this. It's still a calmly introspective place, with leather benches and big windows. Poets Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud drank there in the late 19th century, followed by Hemingway (of course), Andre Breton and Pablo Picasso in the 1920s and Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir in the 1950s. Long gone are the days when the café's twin magots (statues of Chinese merchants) peered down upon Sartre and de Beauvoir, but the literary couple's names are commemorated on brass plaques behind the seats they liked to occupy, as indeed is Hemingway's.

Cimetière du Père Lachaise: 8 Boulevard de Ménilmontant

As literary haunts go, this takes some beating. Moliere, Chopin, Edith Piaf, Jim Morrison, Marcel Proust, Oscar Wilde – if these souls were raised at night, it would be some party. They are just a few of the most famous bodies buried beneath the ground at Paris' most visited necropolis. The 44-hectare site contains 70,000 graves, from Gothic tombs to Haussmanian burial chambers and ancient mausoleums. But it's also leafy and tranquil and the perfect place to take a good book... if you don't mind a literary ghost reading over your shoulder.

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