Few cities have been romanticized quite as much as Paris, France. Its status as the European capital of culture, art, love, food, fashion and more is certainly deserved in many respects, but an idealized image can cover up reality. Some tourists report getting hit with Paris syndrome, where people experience symptoms ranging from anxiety to hallucinations when the city doesn’t match the perfect idea they had of it. Rather than going off clichés and stereotypes, dive into the reality of the city by reading some of the best books about Paris.
It’s hard to capture a city, even in a list of 100 books. Think of these choices as entry points that look at Paris from a variety of angles: fiction and nonfiction, historic and modern. Many of these books were originally published in French — and we encourage you to read them in French if you’re learning — but all of them are available in English as of writing. Bon voyage!
Nonfiction Books About Paris
For The Straightforward Historian: How Paris Became Paris By Joan DeJean
The way some people talk about Paris, it can seem like the city burst out of the ground fully formed. That’s of course not the case, and in How Paris Became Paris, Joan DeJean traces the origins of the modern city back to the 17th century. In discussing how the medieval capital progressed through the centuries, she shows how Paris was a model for cities all around the European continent.
For The Foodie: My Life In France By Julia Child And Alex Prud’homme
There are countless stories of Americans traveling to Paris and having their lives changed, but few are quite as charming as Julia Child’s. Written toward the end of her life, My Life in France is both a memoir and a love letter to the country that inspired her to become a chef. Child played her own part in romanticizing the culinary aspects of France to Americans, but it’s hard not to fall for the French lifestyle as seen through her eyes.
For The World War II Buff: When Paris Went Dark By Ronald C. Rosbottom
The history of the city of lights can’t be told without what was perhaps its darkest moment: Nazi occupation. In When Paris Went Dark, Ronald C. Rosbottom explores this strange period through the records of those who lived then, revealing how life went on despite the oppressive presence of an occupying force. While not the only book on the subject, Rosbottom’s stands out for its recounting of the lives of regular people rather than just the rich or famous.
For The Cultural Historian: Black Paris By Bennetta Jules-Rosette
Throughout the 20th century, Black artists traveled from the United States to Paris in the hopes of escaping racial persecution. James Baldwin, Langston Hughes and countless other authors found a city that was far more welcoming to them than those they’d lived in. In Black Paris, Bennetta Jules-Rosette writes about the three generations of Black writers who made their home in the city, and how it forever changed Paris.
For The Curious Tourist: Paris By Design By Eva Jorgensen
Go to the travel section of almost any bookstore and you’re sure to see the Paris shelf absolutely packed. There are many good resources out there, but one of the standout books is Eva Jorgensen’s Paris By Design, which combines the traditional recommendations of a travel guide with cultural insights, interviews with artists and other tips a visitor to the city might need. Plus, the book itself is absolutely beautiful, meaning it’ll hold up on your shelf better than a more traditional guide.
Fiction Books About Paris
For The Classics Reader: Les Misérables By Victor Hugo
Victor Hugo might be the author most associated with Paris, and Les Misérables is arguably his masterwork. The story of Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert has been told and retold countless times by now — most famously, perhaps, as an epic musical — but it’s impossible to see the intricacies of the work in anything but the original. It’s certainly very long, but most readers find that this story of the French Revolution is hard to put down.
For The Person Who Tears Through Novellas: Gigi By Colette
Colette is one of the most influential authors of 20th century Paris, and her life is possibly more interesting than any of her writing (she was a journalist and a mime). Gigi is the story of a young Parisian girl whose family has fallen on hard times, and so she’s being prepared to be a courtesan. Plans change when she meets a wealthy man and falls in love, however. The story is a bit dated for a modern reader, but in the 1950s, it launched Colette’s name onto the international stage (and was further helped when it was turned into a movie musical).
For The Lover Of Vast Narratives: Suite Française By Irène Némirovsky
You don’t have to look hard to find a novel depicting Parisian life under Nazi occupation, but very few were written contemporaneously. In Suite française, a series of two novels by Irène Némirovsky, characters react to the capture of the French capital in various ways. The story often ventures outside of Paris, but the city is undoubtedly its center. The series was intended to be five novels, but Némirovsky — a Ukrainian-born Jew who moved to France — was sent to Auschwitz and killed before it could be completed.
For The Crime Reader: The Adventures Of Arsène Lupin, Gentleman-Thief By Maurice Leblanc
As London has Sherlock Holmes, Paris has his almost exact opposite: Arsène Lupin. The Adventures of Arsène Lupin — a collection of novellas published at the start of the 20th century — follows the adventures of Lupin, a master criminal who gets into all manner of adventure (in fact, he faces off against Holmes himself, as well as “Herlock Sholmes”). The character appears in dozens of novels, as well as a modern Netflix adaptation, but this book is the earliest series of Lupin stories. With fun disguises and ingenious plots, Lupin is a lot of fun.
For The Modern Reader: The Elegance Of The Hedgehog By Muriel Barbery
The Elegance of the Hedgehog has two narrators: a middle-aged concierge who loves both art and judging the people in her building, and a precocious young girl who feels the need to conform to the expectations around her. While not the likeliest pair, the two find each other and explore art, culture and philosophy. While at the outset seemingly a book about a single apartment building in Paris, it spirals outward to become about the nature of life itself.