You’re the type who reads every museum exhibit placard to the letter—and five books about the gallery and its works before you’ve walked through the door. For history buffs with a travel habit—and vice versa—rote city guides just don’t do the trick. Whether you’re a recent grad planning a Euro trek or just making good on a lifelong travel dream, chart your own route from London to Berlin with these entertaining biographies about Europe’s best-loved cities. These riveting memoirs-slash-histories will teach you more than you’d learn from the standard travel fare. Discover something new, then visit the places where history was made.
In his über-comprehensive London: The Biography, British novelist and biographer Peter Ackroyd tells the story of the English metropolis by stitching together true tales about the people and neighborhoods that have defined it. In his follow-up Thames: The Biography he uses the same methodology, recounting the history of the river that divides the great city through dozens of interviews, illustrations, and maps that make for a colorful, textured read.
In Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris, acclaimed biographer Graham Robb ( Balzac) uses a human, nonlinear approach to tell the story of the City of Light, taking readers on a tour of the town through tales of its most famous residents and visitors. Weaving together vignettes about figures such as Marie Antoinette and Emile Zola (and many others in between), Robb paints an unusual, highly entertaining portrait of the world’s most romantic—and romanticized—city.
Few cities loom larger in the mind than Rome, writes former Timemagazine art critic Robert Hughes in his sumptuous book about the Italian capital, Rome: A Cultural Visual and Personal History—and for good reason. An ancient seat of Western civilization built by thinkers whose philosophies formed the foundation of Western thought, Rome was and remains a cultural center of unmatched importance. While telling the city’s story—and bringing to life ancients such as Seneca and Caravaggio in vividly drawn portraits—Hughes also describes the city’s role in his own intellectual maturation, crafting a layered history that’s as intimate as it is informative.
Before Amsterdam became a haven for the world’s pleasure seekers, it was a city built at a confluence of rivers. Founded by people who claimed the unwanted, mud-soaked land without interference from outside political forces, it became a thriving port city defined by a free-thinking philosophy that persists to this day—the topic at the core of Russell Shorto’s new book, Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City.
Berlin’s renaissance is one of the greatest city stories of the 20th century: Split in two for the better part of three decades, the German capital had a second act after its reunification following the destruction of the Berlin Wall. History scholar David Clay Large explores both of Berlin’s unifications (the first happened in 1871, with the disintegration of the kingdom of Prussia and the establishment of the German Reich) in his comprehensive and engaging Berlin.
This article was updated September 25, 2014