You’re going to London. Maybe for the first time. Maybe for the hundredth time. What to read before visiting London? If you have time, of course, you can read the collected works of Charles Dickens. But in case you’re just looking for some quick reads on the plane, we’ve got you. Here’s what our correspondent Abbie Martin Greenberg suggests you peruse before a visit to London: selected reads to unlock the true spirit of London.
what to read before visiting London?
London is undeniably one of the greatest cities in the world. Birthplace of Peter Pan, Oliver Twist, and so many other real and fictional greats, it sometimes seems that magic seeps down the streets.
Whether this is your first visit or your hundredth, a trip to London can be overwhelming. There’s so much to do – incredible museums, fabulous theater, historic landmarks – it can be hard to get into the right mindset. To lend a hand, we’ve assembled a reading list to help you unlock the true spirit of London. So when you land, you’ll be ready to experience London at its absolute fullest. Here’s what you need to read before you visit London.
the Perfect Plane Reading List on the Way to London
After you’ve watched Paddington and Love Actually, binged on The Crown or perhaps viewed some vintage James Bond or The King’s Speech, you can turn your attention to these suggestions. We’ve included both classics and contemporary items, so there’s something here for every possible mood and preference. And also for every time allocation – even if you have only 10 minutes, there’s still time to read a poem.
Here’s what to read before visiting London.
1. London by William Blake
The hardest part about compiling a list of what you need to read before a visit to London is that there are so many options. London has produced renowned writers across every century. For those who are not frequent readers of poetry, William Blake is at the top of our list for recommended reading. Blake is one of the most famous writers in London history, and is considered a forerunner of the Romantic age. The much-read poem “London” by William Blake first appeared in his collection Songs of Experience, which was published in 1789.
The poem paints a picture of the city during the industrial age. And though it provides a rather severe image, it will transport you back to a pivotal moment in the city’s past. For a quick history lesson, as well as exposure to one of its most prominent figures of this era, this is a great poem to read. Or to read again.
2. Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802 by William Wordsworth
Here’s another poem about London by a William of the Romantic age – and another poem worth your time as you compile your reading list for this London trip. Wordsworth’s sonnet “Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802” provides a more lush and admiring snapshot of the city.
The work presents a singular image: the view of someone standing on Westminster Bridge, looking out at the River Thames. Famous for his descriptions of nature, Wordsworth is another staple of the London literary canon whose poems will make the perfect primer for your vacation. You can read this beautiful poem on the plane ride over, and then stand on Westminster Bridge yourself to feel some of what Wordsworth himself experienced.
3. The London Scene by Virginia Woolf
Flying ahead about a century and a half, The London Scene: Six Essays on London by Virginia Woolf is a collection of essays from another one of London’s most beloved authors. Any of Woolf’s books would be perfect to read before visiting London. But this work of nonfiction about London in the 1930’s is ideal in two ways: it exposes you to Woolf’s writing, and gives you a perspective on life in London itself.
Woolf’s writing is so gorgeous, the essays read like a blend of poetry and prose. They’re wonderfully detailed and imbued with a particular kind of magic that makes them an easy, delightful read. You can read them all at once, or one at a time. Either way, they’re sure to transport you back in time in the best possible way.
4. NW by Zadie Smith
If you have a bit more time to commit to your reading list, here’s a full-length novel from another British author who everyone should read. Prepping for a trip to London is the perfect excuse! NW by Zadie Smith is set in North West London. It offers a very different, more contemporary take on life in London.
The story revolves around four characters making their way through adulthood. Touching on race, community, romantic and familial bonds, the topics are urgent and timely. Smith is the kind of writer who can make you feel as if you are really experiencing a particular part of the world. This book will do an excellent job of enriching your experience of the city.
5. Londoners by Craig Taylor
Next up on our list of what you need to read before a visit to London is a series of interviews. Published in 2012, Londoners: The Days and Nights of London Now – As Told By Those Who Love it, Hate it, Live it, Left it and Long for it by Craig Taylor is a collection of interviews about everyday life in the city. It adds a strong new element to our list of what to read before visiting London: the authentic voices of the people of who live there.
The book is lengthy, but because it’s not a narrative piece, you can read it in smaller bits. It will give you an insight into how Londoners circa 2012 felt about their lives and their city. And give you a window into a perspective on the city that isn’t a tourist’s.
6. What is Brexit? by Benjamin Mueller
If you’re heading to London on business, or even to visit well-informed friends, you need to have a basic grasp of the current state of play on Brexit. Because it’s constantly evolving, we recommend reading a summary from one of the best global newspapers. What is Brexit? A Simple Guide to Why it Matters and What Happens Next from the New York Times is our pick. The piece is updated regularly, and written in comprehensible language. Brexit is understandably a very delicate subject across the pond, so we wouldn’t bring it up proactively if we were you. But if someone else does, this will help you keep up with the conversation.
7. Spark London
OK, strictly speaking, this one is not something to read. But if you’re looking for another way to connect with the experiences of real Londoners, this podcast will make the perfect listening companion for your trip. In the same vein as the Moth, for Spark London, Londoners tell real stories about their lives in five minutes or less.
If you like what you hear, you may even want to check out a live taping of the podcast while you’re in town. The best way to connect with a new city is through the people who live there, and these stories will help you do just that.
8. [London, my beautiful] by F.S. Flint
Last but not least on our plane reading list for London, F.S. Flint was a poet of the Imagist movement from the late nineteenth century. His poem, [London, my beautiful] is addressed to London. Chalk full of beautiful images, reading it will give you a goal as you arrive in the city. If you can leave feeling you have seen a London as beautiful as the one Flint describes, then you’ll know you have had a good trip.
That’s it! Our list of what you need to read before a visit to London. What’s at the top of your plane reading list for London ? What else should we have on our list?
Once you get to London, if you need more reading material, you’re in huge luck. If you haven’t had a chance to read up before visiting London, you can do it while you’re there. Stop by one of our favorite bookstores in the world, Hatchard’s. On the same stretch of Piccadilly, you will also love Waterstone’s. And Maison Assouline. Definitely stop by Daunt bookstore in Marylebone. And say hi to our friends at The Beaumont in Mayfair.
Dang it. Now we really want to go to London! Have a great trip.
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Abbie Martin Greenbaum grew up in New York City and currently lives in Brooklyn, where she drinks a lot of coffee and matches roommates together for a living. At Oberlin College, she studied English and Cinema, which are still two of her favorite things, along with dessert and musical theater. She believes in magic.