The best books to savour the history of Paris

Who am I?

I’m a historian specialising in the French Revolution at the University of Glasgow. During my doctorate, my now wife and I stayed in Ménilmontant in the 20th arrondissement. There grew a knowledge and love of Paris that have never diminished. As part of my research, I explore the places and spaces where events unfolded, trying to understand how these sites have since changed and been overwritten with new meanings and historical memories: I have the worn-out boots to show for it. I’m currently writing a book on Paris in the Belle Époque, from the completion of the Eiffel Tower in 1889 to the outbreak of the First World War.


I wrote...

Rebel Cities

By Mike Rapport,

Book cover of Rebel Cities

What is my book about?

This book explores three cities – Paris, London, and New York - in the age of the American and French Revolutions. Beginning with the Stamp Act Riots in New York in 1765 and the popular protests in support of John Wilkes in London, the narrative encompasses the experience of revolution and the British military occupation of New York, the Gordon Riots and radical movement in London, and the start of the great upheaval of the French Revolution in Paris. 

It finishes by describing the Terror in Paris and the reactions in London and in New York. Central to the story is the part played by the streets, buildings, and meeting places that became the sites for these great struggles for democracy and freedom.

The books I picked & why

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The Invention of Paris: A History in Footsteps

By Eric Hazan, David Fernbach (translator),

Book cover of The Invention of Paris: A History in Footsteps

Why this book?

Hazan knows every nook and cranny of his city. He exults in the buildings and architecture, but his main subject is the people who wove the fabric of its diverse communities and their histories. He takes us on a historical journey that passes from the salons of the old aristocracy to the artisanal districts where popular, revolutionary activism was born. Hazan makes no attempt to conceal his left-wing sympathies, but he is equally at home admiring the Art Nouveau gems of the well-heeled 16th arrondissement as he is enjoying the vibrant, ethnically diverse northern districts of the city. Hazan’s love of the human life of Paris shines through.

The Invention of Paris: A History in Footsteps

By Eric Hazan, David Fernbach (translator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Invention of Paris as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Invention of Paris is a tour through the streets and history of the French capital under the guidance of radical Parisian author and publisher Eric Hazan. Hazan reveals a city whose squares echo with the riots, rebellions and revolutions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Combining the raconteur's ear for a story with a historian's command of the facts, he introduces an incomparable cast of characters: the literati, the philosophers and the artists-Balzac, Baudelaire, Blanqui, Flaubert, Hugo, Maney, and Proust, of course; but also Doisneau, Nerval and Rousseau. It is a Paris dyed a deep red in its convictions.…


Les Miserables

By Victor Hugo, Lee Fahnestock (translator), Norman Macafee (translator)

Book cover of Les Miserables

Why this book?

At first sight, Les Misérables is undeniably a hefty and rather daunting novel, but any initial hesitation will soon dissipate. Set in the years after the Napoleonic Wars and culminating in the republican uprising of June 1832, Victor Hugo’s novel – written between 1845 and 1862 – explores the great questions of law, redemption, love, revolution, and the grinding poverty of his day. At the same time, Hugo delves into the Parisian past and evokes the cityscape, the streets, and the histories of some of its neighbourhoods. 

There is even a chapter on the Paris sewers, through which the hero Jean Valjean escapes, carrying the wounded Marius to safety.  Hugo gives medieval Paris similar treatment in Notre Dame de Paris – the Hunchback of Notre Dame

Les Miserables

By Victor Hugo, Lee Fahnestock (translator), Norman Macafee (translator)

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked Les Miserables as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

NOW A SIX-PART MINISERIES ON MASTERPIECE ON PBS

The only completely unabridged paperback edition of Victor Hugo’s masterpiece—a sweeping tale of love, loss, valor, and passion.

Introducing one of the most famous characters in literature, Jean Valjean—the noble peasant imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread—Les Misérables ranks among the greatest novels of all time. In it, Victor Hugo takes readers deep into the Parisian underworld, immerses them in a battle between good and evil, and carries them to the barricades during the uprising of 1832 with a breathtaking realism that is unsurpassed in modern prose.

Within his dramatic story…


Paris: The Biography of a City

By Colin Jones,

Book cover of Paris: The Biography of a City

Why this book?

The subtitle Biography of a City disarmingly conceals the author’s success in telling the story of Paris while connecting it with the history of France as a whole. This history skilfully threads together the construction and growth of Paris as a city with its politics, its everyday life, and the humanity that has populated its streets and neighbourhoods. This is above all a well-paced narrative that captures the evolution of the city and its people – in turns turbulent, cultured, contentious, and refined.

Paris: The Biography of a City

By Colin Jones,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Paris as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From the Roman Emperor Julian, who waxed rhapsodic about Parisian wine and figs, to Henry Miller, who relished its seductive bohemia, Paris has been a perennial source of fascination for 2,000 years. In this definitive and illuminating history, Colin Jones walks us through the city that was a plague-infested charnel house during the Middle Ages, the bloody epicenter of the French Revolution, the muse of nineteenth-century Impressionist painters, and much more. Jones's masterful narrative is enhanced by numerous photographs and feature boxes-on the Bastille or Josephine Baker, for instance-that complete a colorful and comprehensive portrait of a place that has…


Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris

By Graham Robb,

Book cover of Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris

Why this book?

This ‘adventure history’ presents in a dazzlingly kaleidoscopic manner the city’s past since the years just before the Revolution of 1789. From a young Napoleon finding his way (and losing his virginity) in the 1780s to the author’s own explorations of the northern suburbs and the district of La Chapelle, this is far from being a conventional narrative. Instead, the story of Paris and its people is captured in snapshots: the shady police agent Eugène-François Vidocq hunting down criminals, the photographic skills of Charles Marville documenting old, disappearing Paris in the 1860s, the first Métro journey in 1900, Juliette Gréco’s arrest by the Gestapo during the Nazi occupation, an assassination attempt on Charles de Gaulle…

This is a history of Paris like no other.   

Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris

By Graham Robb,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Parisians as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This is the Paris you never knew. From the Revolution to the present, Graham Robb has distilled a series of astonishing true narratives, all stranger than fiction, of the lives of the great, the near-great, and the forgotten.

A young artillery lieutenant, strolling through the Palais-Royal, observes disapprovingly the courtesans plying their trade. A particular woman catches his eye; nature takes its course. Later that night Napoleon Bonaparte writes a meticulous account of his first sexual encounter. A well-dressed woman, fleeing the Louvre, takes a wrong turn and loses her way in the nameless streets of the Left Bank. For…


Paris: Capital of the World

By Patrice Higonnet,

Book cover of Paris: Capital of the World

Why this book?

At first sight, the title evokes a certain Gallic hauteur, but it does not take long to see that this is simply a foretaste of the rich exploration of the myths of Paris – how the great city has been depicted, imagined, and perceived over time. This is the story of Paris as the capital of modernity, art, fashion, revolution, sex, pleasure, science, and crime. With writers, artists, poets, and visitors as witnesses, and lavishly illustrated, this is a colourful meander through the myths and illusions that have shaped the many images of Paris. 

Whatever the actual realities beneath these multiple faces, asks Higonnet at one point, ‘who could, in our culturally unanchored world, imagine life without this city?’    

Paris: Capital of the World

By Patrice Higonnet,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Paris as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In an original and evocative journey through modern Paris from the mid-eighteenth century to World War II, Patrice Higonnet offers a delightful cultural portrait of a multifaceted, continually changing city. He explores Paris as the capital of revolution, science, empire, literature, and art, describing such incarnations as Belle Epoque Paris, the Commune, the surrealists' city, and Paris as viewed through American eyes. He also evokes the more visceral Paris of alienation, crime, material excess, and sensual pleasure.


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in Paris, France, and civilization?

7,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about Paris, France, and civilization.

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And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like 1066, The Belly of Paris, and Crime and Punishment if you like this list.