It’s a simple fact that the majority of people in the world live in
urban areas. In the United States, the figure is even more stark: It’s estimated that 83% of U.S. residents currently reside in cities. And here and around the world, debates are currently unfolding about the best policies for land usage, policing, and redevelopment — issues that have their roots in decades-old conflicts. If you’re interested in the future of cities, one of the best things you can do is learn about their history. And what better way to do that than by reading?
Of course, there’s a lot more to cities than urban planning. Cities have long been the refuge of outcasts, artists, and bohemians. On this list you’ll find both expansive historical investigations of political conflicts — like Robert Caro’s iconic, door-stopping tome
The Power Broker — and some reads that focus on the underground side of city life, like Eve Babitz’s love letters to Los Angeles, or a pioneering study of LGBTQ+ life in New York. You’ll also find a few novels that capture the essence of urban life better than history book ever could.
Below, 20 must-read books about the history and cultural life of cities.
We only include products that have been independently selected by Bustle's editorial team. However, we may receive a portion of sales if you purchase a product through a link in this article. 1 London: The Biography
If you’re interested in learning about the history of cities, there’s no better guide than prolific historian and novelist Peter Ackroyd, whose 900-page classic
London: The Biography traces the evolution of London from its prehistorical days through the 20th century. The book is organized thematically, although it progresses in a roughly chronological order, and is full of vivid anecdotes that bring the place and its residents to life. 2 The Diary of Samuel Pepys
If you want to dive into a primary source,
The Diary of Samuel Pepys offers an unparalleled window into Restoration-era London. Written between 1660 and 1669, Pepys’ diary records everything from world-shattering events — the Great Plague of London and the Great Fire of London being the two most dramatic examples — to his increasingly strained relationship with his wife, all with the same obsessive detail. This edition, edited by Richard le Gallienne, offers a judicious and entertaining sample of Pepys’ diaries. It’s a portrait of a man without much self-awareness, who nevertheless captured a great deal of the world around him. 3 New Grub Street
There are plenty of excellent nonfiction books about London in the 19th century, but the best way to learn about the city during that era is to read one of the many great novels written by those who lived through it. Charles Dickens is the author most commonly associated with Victorian London, but it’s George Gissing, his artistic inheritor, who penned the hard-to-top
New Grub Street. A gloomy portrait of the city’s writers struggling to make ends meet, it rings startlingly true today, while still feeling rich with distinct period detail. 4 The Judgment of Paris: The Revolutionary Decade That Gave the World Impressionism
Art historian Ross King paints a vivid portrait of 19th century Paris by focusing on two painters, “Father of Impressionism” Edouard Manet and the now-obscure Ernest Meissonier, a Classicist painter who was hugely famous during his lifetime. King chronicles how Impressionism slowly gained popularity, despite the rejection and derision the school faced from Paris’ artistic establishment. He also gives valuable social and political context, tracing the movement’s growth against the backdrop of Louis-Napoléon’s Second Empire, the Paris Commune of 1871, and more.
5 Down and Out in Paris and London
Though George Orwell is primarily known today for his dystopian novels
, he was also a prolific journalist and literary critic. 1984 and Animal Farm Down and Out in Paris and London, a (possibly fictionalized) memoir published in 1933, was his first book. In it, Orwell describes living in poverty in Paris and London in the late 1920s, offering a window into the grueling restaurant industry in Paris and the hostility toward “tramps” he faced while living on the street in London. 6 Black London: The Imperial Metropolis and Decolonization in the Twentieth Century
Often, when people outside the United Kingdom think of British history and culture, they don’t imagine much beyond Queen Elizabeth and Jane Austen. This study by Marc Matera offers a valuable corrective, delving into the culture of Black London during the 20th century — a particularly volatile time for Britain’s crumbling empire, and consequently a vibrant period for Black intellectuals and activists in the UK’s capital city.
7 The Age of Innocence
If you’re interested in reading about cities on this side of the Atlantic, you’re spoiled for choice with books about New York City. Among these must-reads is Edith Wharton’s indelible tale of thwarted love in the city’s upper crust,
The Age of Innocence. Although it was published in 1920, it is set in the 1870s, when Wharton herself was growing up amongst the wealthy elites she depicts in the novel. Wharton is scathing about her own set, but her book also feels, paradoxically, a little wistful about a bygone New York — especially if you’re reading it 100 years later. 8 The Gay Metropolis: The Landmark History of Gay Life in America
When this pioneering history by Charles Kaiser was first published in 1997, its sweeping yet detailed history of LGBTQ+ communities — primarily gay men — in New York and other American cities was groundbreaking. Today,
The Gay Metropolis, which was reissued in an updated edition in 2019, still feels fresh, optimistic, and illuminating about the history of gay life in New York. The symbiotic relationship between LGBTQ+ people and the city comes through clearly in Kaiser’s history of both, to moving effect. (Readers interested in a broader history of LGBTQ+ history in America, with a more significant focus on women, should check out Lillian Faderman’s .) The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle 9 The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York
If you want to read one book about New York, it should be Robert Caro’s legendary biography of Robert Moses, the powerful public official and urban planner who reshaped the city — and Long Island — through his construction and renovation of highways, bridges, parks, swimming pools, and countless other features of the urban landscape. Caro’s enormous biography comes in at over 1,300 pages, but it’s endlessly readable. Every page is rich with carefully researched detail about the history of the city (and the men who shaped it) in ways that are still affecting residents today.
10 The Death and Life of Great American Cities
First published in 1961, this classic work of urbanism by Jane Jacobs was written in large part as a critique of Robert Moses’ urban planning decisions in New York. Jacobs’ ideas about what makes a good city don’t only apply to New York, though: She critiques freeway construction and urban renewal projects, which were taking place across America in the mid-20th century, and instead advocates for denser, more walkable cities that prioritize a sense of community. If you’re interested in how cities function — and in questions of redevelopment and how to use urban space, which remain crucial in cities worldwide today — this is a must-read.
11 Fear City: New York's Fiscal Crisis and the Rise of Austerity Politics
Historian Kim Phillips-Fein offers both a compelling narrative and a persuasive argument in her chronicle of New York City politics in the 1970s. Phillips-Fein critiques the leaders who embraced austerity during a fiscal crisis by prioritizing private enterprise over social services, a decision that led to the end of the tuition-free college at the city’s university system. The book can also be read as a guide to other austerity crises that have arisen in the years since the 2008 recession.
12 Eve’s Hollywood
If you want to read a book that captures the dreamy, zany, bohemian Los Angeles of the 1960s and 1970s, there’s no better option than Eve Babitz’s
Eve’s Hollywood, a playful, fragmented paean to the City of Angels. The daughter of an artist and a violinist — her godfather was the composer Igor Stravinsky — Babitz was born into the city’s cultural milieu, and she chronicles her wandering observations of the city and its troublemakers with a gleeful and sardonic eye. 13 Very Recent History: An Entirely Factual Account of a Year (C. Ad 2009) in a Large City
Fear City offers a big-picture view of how a city’s government can mismanage a financial crisis, this short, miraculous book by Choire Sicha documents the mundane reality of living from paycheck to paycheck during a recession. Though written like a novel, Very Recent History follows several real young men through their lives for one year in New York. Their problems are as mundane as any average person’s, but are observed and described with such care that they feel monumental — just like our own. 14 Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America Los Angeles Times reporter Jill Leovy offers a more sobering portrait of L.A. in Ghettoside, a look at how the LAPD handles murder cases in South Los Angeles. Leovy balances the story of one such investigation, headed up by dedicated veteran detective John Skaggs, with broader reporting and data about the LAPD’s policing practices in minority communities, raising questions about the department’s priorities and approaches to crime-solving. 15 Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families
The Power Broker, J. Anthony Lukas’ Common Ground is a classic work of late-20th-century American nonfiction. Although it’s not quite as long, coming in at just under 700 pages, it feels just as detailed and immersive — and as readable. In addition to giving rich context for Boston’s institutions, from the Catholic church to the Boston Globe, Lukas tells the story of Boston’s busing crisis through the lens of three families, charting their genealogies back as far as the historical record could take him. There is no better book about Boston or about the 20th-century American city. 16 City of Devils: The Two Men Who Ruled the Underworld of Old Shanghai
In this true crime tale about the rise and fall of two temporary kings of commerce, financial analyst-turned-crime writer Paul French brilliantly depicts the old world of international, crime-ridden Shanghai. French is clearly enamored of the period’s glamour and lawlessness, but doesn’t shy away from describing the darker side of 1930s Shanghai, including the extreme poverty faced by many residents.
17 Tokyo Ueno Station
This short novel — narrated by Kazu, the ghost of a man who lived in a park close to Ueno Station before he died — packs an emotional punch
and, given its length, offers a surprisingly rich history of postwar Tokyo. Though readers interested in a comprehensive, academic history of the city should look elsewhere, more casual readers — or those who don’t mind learning through fiction — will find Miri’s depiction of Japanese history, in particular her acerbic take on the 1965 Olympics, fascinating. 18 Dancing with the Devil in the City of God: Rio de Janeiro and the Olympic Dream
Juliana Barbassa explores the damaging effects of hosting the Olympic Games in her nonfiction book
Dancing with the Devil in the City of God. Barbassa, who is Brazilian, offers wide political and cultural context for Rio de Janeiro’s endemic problems, along with the direct crises sparked by the decision to host the Games — among them, the clearance of the city’s favelas. Like so many great books on this list, Barbassa’s work is highly specific to Rio, but will also resonate with readers in other cities that face similar issues. 19 Down & Delirious in Mexico City: The Aztec Metropolis in the Twenty-First Century
In this romantic portrait of the largest city in the Western Hemisphere, Mexican-American writer Daniel Hernandez chronicles experiences in Mexico City. Hernandez focuses on the city’s artistic subcultures, though not entirely to the exclusion of larger observations about politics and history; still, this is primarily a personal travelogue — one that will make you wish you could hop on the next plane and experience a little of what Hernandez did.
20 Every Day Is for the Thief
This novel by Teju Cole was autofiction before the term autofiction came into vogue. It tells the story of a Nigerian writer who returns to Lagos after many years away and reconnects with old friends. Most of the book, though, is occupied with the narrator’s reflections on how Nigeria and Lagos have changed over time. Cole, who writes both fiction and nonfiction, flirts with the border between the two here in an almost essayistic novel. His characters feel almost like vehicles for his primary project: exploring and reflecting on the city of Lagos.
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