11 Books Every Wanderluster Should Read Before Traveling

Plus, a few movie and TV show recommendations.
Wanderluster book recommendations represented by a woman in a train station looking thoughtful.

Immersing yourself in a country’s culture and tradition when traveling abroad is part of what makes the experience so rewarding, but the question is: how best can travelers learn, and appreciate, the language, culture and traditions of another country?

While you could opt for a Spanish phrase book and a handful of Wikipedia facts, there are more enriching ways to learn about these traditions before you cross the border. Literature can transport readers to a place and time unknown to them — and it’s the perfect way to immerse yourself in another world. With this in mind, Babbel tapped the advice of ambassadors around the globe to compile this list of books to read before (or during) your summer travels.

“Traveling is a great opportunity to embrace and learn more about different cultures and languages,” comments Noël Wolf, Content Creator and Teacher at Babbel. “Looking at these recommendations, they provide wanderlusters with a great basis for understanding more about the countries they are traveling to, and what cultural and linguistic norms to expect.”

Ranging from classics such as Manuel Chaves Nogales’ Juan Belmonte: Matador de Toros to quirky new releases, such as Helen Russell’s The Year of Living Danishly, the recommended books offer a good starting point for tourists who long for a culturally enriched travel experience.

11 Books To Read From Around The World

Austria — Vienna: The International Capital (2021) by Angus Robertson

From playing a crucial role in world diplomacy to welcoming the most influential philosophers and composers, Robertson takes us on a brilliant journey through the European metropolis.

Denmark — The Year of Living Danishly (2015) by Helen Russell and Lucky Per (Danish title: Lykke-Per) (1898) by Henrik Pontoppidan, translated into English by Naomi Lebowitz

When Helen Russell, a British journalist and author, decided to move to the countryside of Jutland, she also decided to unravel the mysteries of the happiest people on Earth. How can the Danes survive the dark and cold winters of the North, and what can we learn from them?

Switzerland — The Black Brothers (German title: Die schwarzen Brüder) (1940) by Lisa Tetzner and Kurt Held

This two-volume novel written by the Swiss-German couple Lisa Tetzner and Kurt Held tackles the issue of forced child labour in 19th-century Switzerland and Italy. It tells us the story of the young Giorgio from Ticino, one of the two Italian-speaking cantons of Switzerland, who is sold as a chimney sweep in Milan after his parents’ death. Working under extreme conditions, he soon joins the community of the “Black Brothers”, with whom he starts a rebellion against the ones who mistreat them.

Spain — Juan Belmonte: Matador de Toros (1969) by Manuel Chaves Nogales

Chaves Nogales, one of the most important Spanish journalists of the first half of the 20th century, decided to depict the mesmerizing life of Juan Belmonte, a renowned bullfighter born in Seville in 1892. From his childhood in Seville to the years of arduous apprenticeship and the way Belmonte revolutionized the art of bullfighting, Nogales depicts the heart of Andalusian culture during the 20th century.

Latvia — Bille (1992) by Vizma Belševica

Vizma Belševica’s trilogy is one of the greatest works of Latvian prose and part of the country’s cultural canon. As an autobiography, it narrates the life of the little Bille, hence the author herself, who grows up in the late 1930s and during the Soviet occupation, before enduring the Nazi occupation in the 1940s and the post-war years under Stalin’s regime. Far from any romantic and idyllic childhood memories, she must endure starvation and help prisoners of Jewish ghettos. 

This selection is definitely for those already further along in learning Latvian, as an authorized English translation does not yet exist, but is available in Swedish, Russian, and Finnish. Approved English-translated excerpts can be found online, and an award-winning film of the book (with English subtitles) was released in 2018.

Belgium — Monstertrilogie (trilogy including Het goddelijke monster, Zwarte trangen, Boze tongen) (1997-2007) by Tom Lanoye and The Melting (Dutch title: Het smelt) (2015) by Lize Spit

After being accused of murdering her husband during their summer holiday in Southern France, Katrien Deschryver convinces everyone she is innocent and makes use of her influence, which leads to the disintegration of her rich and prosperous family. In his trilogy, Tom Lanoye writes about his love-hate relationship with Flanders, the Dutch-speaking Northern part of Belgium, and gives us a brilliant insight into a corrupted justice system and a country torn apart by inequalities.

Iceland — Independent People: An Epic (Icelandic title: Sjálfstætt fólk) (1934) by Halldór Laxness

Winning the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1955 with his contemporary novel, Halldór Laxness writes in a style recalling Icelandic sagas of the 13th and 14th century and depicts the humdrum of the poor farmer Guðbjartur Jónsson in the 1910s and 1920s. It also delves into the dreams, hopes and distress of the farmer’s family, and their aspirations for a better life.

Czech Republic — The Good Soldier Švejk (Czech title: Osudy dobrého vojáka Švejka za světové války) (1921-23) by Jaroslav Hašek

A classic of Czech literature and a bitter satire, The Good Soldier Švejk follows the story of Josef Švejk who serves in the Austro-Hungarian army during World War I. As a naive and simple-minded man, he is quickly dismissed by his supervisors and sent to an asylum, despite his ability to accentuate the irrationality and absurdity of war.

Lithuania: Vilnius City of Strangers (2008) by Laimonas Briedis

Through careful research and the tales of renowned foreign visitors, Laimonas Briedis portrays the past and present of Lithuania’s capital. From its birth in 1387 thanks to the Grand Duke of Lithuania, Jogaila, up to its recent occupation periods by Germany, the Soviet Union and finally, its independence in 1990, the writer gives us a brilliant overview of his home town.

Italy — Il Gattopardo The Leopard (Italian title: Il Gattopardo) (1958) by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

It is only in 1861 that Italy as we know it today was born, as a culmination of the Risorgimento (‘Rising Again’) movement of the 19th century. In his novel, published posthumously in 1958, Tomasi tells us the story of the aristocratic family reigning over Salina, a small island north of Sicily. In these times of civil violence and uncertainty, DonFabrizio, the Prince of the Salina family, tries his best to keep the family standing past the decline of nobility and the rise of Italian bourgeoisie.

Finland — Finntopia (2020) by Danny Dorling and Annika Koljonen

By analyzing the history, social policies and demographics of her homeland, Annika Koljonen describes what we could learn from the happiest country on the planet, while teaching us how to look past this simplified image and how equity would benefit all of us, without exception.

Bonus: Films And Shows To Watch From Around The World

For the film lovers, and perhaps less avid readers, several movies and TV series have also been included to help potential travelers gain a better understanding of traditions, cultural etiquettes and linguistic landscapes.

Austria — Before Sunrise (1995) directed by Richard Linklater

In a tale about the ephemerality of human connections, we follow Jesse, an American traveller, and Céline, a French student, who meet by chance on a train in Europe. Despite being strangers, they quickly form a deep connection and decide to spend a single night together in Vienna before Jesse’s flight back to the United States.

Denmark — Borgen [2010-present] co-written and developed by Adam Price

This Danish political drama series explores the fascinating power struggles and ethical dilemmas of Birgitte Nyborg, after she became the first female Prime Minister in Danish history. Addressing key issues of both our globalised world and Danish society, it tackles topics such as gender equality, social and economic justice and international politics.

Switzerland — Vitus [2006] directed by Fredi M. Murer

Vitus is only 5 years old and a true Wunderkind (“child prodigy”); he can play the piano like no one else. While he dreams of a regular childhood and playing with his friends, his parents force him to pursue his music career and become an international star. Thanks to his beloved grandfather, he soon feigns an injury and commits to his true passion: flying.

Latvia — Dream Team 1935 (Latvian title: Sapņu komanda 1935) [2012] directed by Aigars Grauba and The Blizzard of Souls (Latvian title: Dvēseļu putenis) [2019] by Dzintars Dreibergs

Latvia, an unknown country to the European nations of the 1930s, will make history by winning the first European Basketball Championship in 1935 in Geneva.

Belgium — Close [2022] directed by Lukas Dhont

Taking place in rural Belgium, Lukas Dhont’s drama tells the story of an intense friendship between two thirteen-year old boys named Leo and Rémi, and how they suddenly drift apart as they enter high school and are the subject of mockery and homophobic slurs. After a fight between the two and a tragic event, Léo tries his best to understand what has happened.

Iceland — Rams [2015] by Grímur Hákonarson

This Icelandic drama centers around two brothers, Gummi and Kiddi, who work as sheep farmers in a remote village but live in complete silence and do not talk to each other. Their flocks are their pride and joy, but when a deadly disease called scrapie threatens their sheep, forcing the authorities to take drastic measures to prevent the spread of the disease. Their lives are turned upside down, which forces them to embark on a journey of reconciliation.

Czech Republic — Kolya (Czech title: Kolja) [1996] by Jan Svěrák

This Czechoslovakian film is set in the capital Prague in the 1980s and features Louka, a middle-aged cellist, and Kolya, a young Russian boy abandoned by his mother on Louka’s doorstep. Faced with an unexpected responsibility on his shoulders in a Czechoslovakia entirely controlled by the Soviet regime, Louka brings up Kolya as his own and supports him through his childhood and teenage years.

These recommendations are endorsed by 11 London-based European ambassadors to the United Kingdom, providing an invaluable resource for literature and film enthusiasts: A cultural database that will continue to expand as more ambassadors make their contributions. As such, Babbel is encouraging ambassadors around the globe to give their recommendations (or perhaps comment on the ones above) via our social media channels. Using the lens of literature and film, we can  build an appreciation for every nation’s language and culture.

Another great way to immerse yourself in a country's culture? Learn the language!
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