Are you an avid reader?
We love to immerse ourselves in a good book – fiction and nonfiction alike.
As slow travelers, there’s nothing more experience enhancing than reading up on your next destination.
Learning about the culture and history of a place allows you to appreciate it on a much deeper level. There are many books about Spain to devour both before and during your trip, especially if you take advantage of Spain’s stellar high-speed rail system to get around. There is even a book village in Spain if you’re a true bibliophile (Read more in our post: Urueña: Spain’s Book Village in a Castle).
Whether you’re looking for some history of Spain books, books about specific regions like Catalonia, Basque Country, or Andalusia, novels written by the greats, or more contemporary memoirs about life in Spain, it’s all here!
History of Spain Books
Ghosts of Spain: Travels Through Spain and Its Silent Past
Ever wonder what it would be like to live in Spain as a British expat since the 80’s? The author, Giles Tremelet, has been doing just this, and in his time here has acquired quite the inside view of Spanish life and culture.
The extra bit of fun is that he’s a journalist, and as such, he provides a non-Spanish lense to view Spanish culture and its most defining moments in history, cultural contributions to the world, and traditions most undeniably Spanish. Whether it’s about how the Spanish Civil war discourse still opens up old wounds, if true flamenco still exists and where to find it, should a man be allowed to witness his wife giving birth, and what time we should eat lunch, Tremelet gives an honest, almost yearning at times (he discusses how he’ll never be a Spaniard but his kids, born in Spain will be) view into what it means to be Spanish.
This one is a favorite among expats, as it’s written by one of our own. For our personal expat story, read our posts: Why We Moved to Madrid and Why We’re Staying in Madrid.
The New Spaniards
Spain has changed incredibly rapidly in the past half-century, so rapidly in fact, that most people still think of the Spain of old when they visit. Many tourists are surprised to find a much more modern and progressive country than they anticipated. Spain is no longer a conservative Catholic country in which the majority of the population makes their living off the land, as was the case just within the last hundred years. The New Spaniards traces this transformation in society following the end of Franco’s dictatorship and how political liberty led to social, moral, and cultural liberties as well. Another must-read for those looking to understand current Spain through its past.
The Spanish Holocaust: Inquisition and Extermination in 20th Century Spain
While the first two books on this list are slightly more light-hearted looks at Spanish culture, this one is significantly heavier.
Most people aren’t aware of the brutality and atrocities that took place just within the last 100 years in Spain. The Spanish Holocaust takes a hard look at Franco’s dictatorship, discussing the 200,000 murders that took place covertly at the hands of death squads, vigilantes, and village rivals on both sides. The author looks at the differences between the violence that occurred on both sides – on one side it was systematized, while on the other it was a result of chaos and fear.
It’s truly startling that more people don’t know about this dark period in Spain’s recent history that has profoundly influenced Spanish life and culture today. While not a light read, this important topic is a must for any traveler in Spain looking to dig a little deeper.
Books About Catalonia
Especially with the recent Catalan referendum in 2017 and the subsequent removal and exile of the former President of Catalonia, Carles Puigdemont, all eyes have been on Catalonia lately. Though things have died down a bit in 2018, the situation isn’t exactly stable. Knowing a bit of Catalan history and culture will help illuminate some light on why exactly Catalonia wants its independence so much.
What’s Up with Catalonia?
While this book talks about the previous (2012) Catalan independence vote, the essays in this book are still relevant for understanding Catalonia’s history. Each essay is written by a different individual involved in some way in the Catalan independence movement, so you’ll get an array of perspectives (mostly from the pro-independence side though). Read more reviews here.
The Struggle for Catalonia: Rebel Politics in Spain
Another book written in the wake of the 2012 independence movement, The Struggle for Catalonia is written by the New York Times correspondent in Spain and draws on many interviews that the journalist did with various Catalan political leaders and other influential personalities. The book gives a cultural history of the region, looking to understand Catalan identity and the drive for independence. Click to read more about the book and get recent reviews.
Books About Basque Country
The Basque Country in northern Spain isn’t as well known as the south, famous for flamenco, sunny plazas, and bullfighting. But northern Spain is just as (if not more so, imho) fascinating, with a language, culture, and history unlike any other part of Spain.
The Basque History of the World
Basques have made it to almost every part of the world that Europeans went to, and often, before them. Often they’d follow whales for hunting. They also embraced the industrial revolution with Bilbao becoming one of the eminent steel producers. Generally Basque are attributed with bold and daring attitudes that have taken them to far-flung places in the world, including diasporas in Chile, South America, and even Boise, Idaho, USA. To learn more about the Basques and their huge impact on the world, don’t miss this book.
We both have Basque grandparents, so it was no surprise that we loved this one.
It was so popular that it was made into an audiobook. Get it in audiobook, Kindle, paperback, or hardcover.
Non-Fiction Books About Andalusia
Andalusia is probably the most frequented and easily the most romanticized region in Spain. The second largest region by area, Andalusia is pretty much what everyone thinks of when they think Spain: sun, flamenco, beers on a terrace, and orange trees everywhere you look.
The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain
The Ornament of the World discusses the time of al-Andalus, the Islamic dynasty that still profoundly influences Spain to this day. As Toledo, Granada, Sevilla, and Cordoba are on many visitors’ lists for a trip through Spain, reading this background of the region will put the Islamic art and Mudejar architecture into its historical context.
This was easily one of my favorite and most memorable books I read during college as a student of Spanish language and history. Read more reviews and information here.
Novels Set in Spain
From historical fiction in Spain to short stories and contemporary works, there’s no shortage of books set in Spain. This selection of the best novels set in Spain take place in Barcelona, Madrid, Granada, but even further afield in Morocco.
The Shadow of the Wind
One of the most popular recent novels originally written in Spanish, this New York Times bestseller is for the fantasy, historical fiction, and avid book lovers. The Shadow of the Wind takes place in post-Spanish Civil War Barcelona. Daniel, the young protagonist, discovers a forgotten book (in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, which is also the name of the series) and becomes engrossed in learning more about the mysterious author. Incredibly atmospheric, engaging, and beautifully written, it’s a fantastic read, a book about a book within a book! If you enjoy the likes of Umberto Eco, you’ll definitely like this one.
It’s available on Audible so you can get the audiobook for free as part of a 30-day free trial. Try Audible and Get Two Free Audiobooks!
Don Quixote may be the most quintessential Spanish book. In fact, it was the first Spanish novel, and arguably the first modern novel. While the book itself is quite long, it’s actually hilarious and worth taking a nose at just for the sheer amount of references to “The Quixote” that you’ll come across in Spain in the form of bars and restaurants, named after the book and its characters, statues (check out the statue to Don Quixote and his sidekick Sancho Panza in Plaza de España in Madrid), and markers to historical locations important to the author, Cervantes. You can even visit his home in Alcalá de Henares, a small city located about an hour away from Madrid. Every year in the autumn, the town has a Cervantes medieval festival celebrating his life and work.
For Whom the Bell Tolls//The Sun Also Rises
When most people think of writers in Spain, the first person that comes to mind is Hemingway. Two of his books take place in the country in which he spent so much time.
The Sun Also Rises is based on one of Hemingway’s trip to Spain to run with the bulls in Pamplona. In the book, a group of expat writers living in Paris travel to Pamplona for the Festival of San Fermín, or the running of the bulls and the ensuing bullfights.
For Whom the Bell Tolls is considered one of his greatest works and takes place in the mountains just outside of Madrid. The book is based on Hemingway’s experiences fighting in the Spanish Civil War and follows an American soldier in the International Brigade fighting alongside the Republicans. The book discusses the violence and death of the war, a war that is barely mentioned at all in U.S. history textbooks.
Tales of the Alhambra
Washington Irving ring a bell? Chances are you have heard of Rip Van Winkle or The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. But Irving also spent a good jaunt in Spain, staying inside the famous Alhambra, a Moorish castle known as the last stronghold of the Al-Andalus era of Spain.
Much of Tales of the Alhambra was written directly from his quarters while he stayed there. Although he had been living in Madrid, he requested access to the palace, where he received his own quarters, and now a plaque commemorates him there. Part myth, part history and part fiction, it’s a series of shorts stories attempting to capture the beauty and mystique of the area and landscape, to which even Irving said, “How unworthy my scribbling is of the place.” Alhambra, and its city, Granada, are truly a sight to see.
Winter in Madrid
A spy novel set just after the Spanish Civil War, the novel follows a British veteran of Dunkirk who is recruited to work in the British Secret Service in Madrid. The novel deals with issues faced by Spaniards as well as Spain politically in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War – which side should Spain join in World War II? The main characters are players in this bigger stage but with private and personal issues of their own that become intertwined.
Btw, if you’re actually going to be spending time in Madrid or Spain in general in winter, read our post: What to Wear in Spain in Winter. Contrary to popular belief, it does get cold!
Although I’m not personally a fan of this book, it is an international phenomenon, and many people list The Alchemist in their favorite books. While the book doesn’t take place entirely in Spain, it follows a young shepherd from the hills of Andalusia on a journey throughout the south of Spain and to the pyramids of Egypt. A quick read in the form of a fable, The Alchemist tells the tale of a spiritual quest to getting what you really want out of life.
The Time In Between
Now a successful TV series of the same name, The Time in Between takes place in the 1930s and follows the story of a young Spanish woman who is suddenly abandoned by her lover in Morocco and has to forge a new life and identity for herself there. The Spanish Civil War is about to erupt and she cannot return home, so she begins using her skills as a seamstress to support herself. She soon becomes wrapped up in the politics of the time when she is approached to become a spy for the Allied Forces.
While the first part of the book doesn’t take place during Spain, it’s a different perspective of the Spanish Civil War, written by a female Spanish author as opposed to an expat man.
Leaving the Atocha Station
While the above novels are mostly historical fiction, Leaving the Atocha Station is a recent success in novels set in Spain. The protagonist is an American poet on a fellowship to Madrid and much of the novel includes musings about creativity, art, and poetry. He witnesses the 2004 train bombings in Madrid, which affects his thought processes and art. Like Seinfeld, the book is generally about nothing and more of a stream of consciousness at times. So if you’re a fan of fast-paced plots, this one may not be for you. If you like meditations on creativity, pick this one up. Popular writer Jonathan Franzen even said it was one of his favorite books of the year. Pick it up here.
Memoirs Set in Spain
There’s just something about Spain that draws writers from around the world – but especially the country’s northern neighbors in the United Kingdom. This is just a small sampling of the best memoirs that take place in Spain.
Driving Over Lemons: An Optimist in Spain
I first picked up this book while we were house sitting in Granada as it was sitting on the bookshelf of the house as we were staying in. Expats in Andalusia read about other expats in Andalusia. It’s a pretty light read about the author’s move to Spain, a bit in the style of author Bill Bryson – aka things that will wrong do go wrong, and the author writes about it in a funny way. Chris Stewart, the author of Driving Over Lemons (and also the first drummer in the band Genesis), purchases a dilapidated farm in the Alpujarras mountains near Granada, complete with a live-in previous owner. Hilarity ensues as he and his wife learn to fix up the house, integrate with the neighbors, and generally make lemonade out of some pretty big lemons.
Homage to Catalonia
While George Orwell is probably known for his famous speculative fiction novel, 1984, like Hemingway, he also wrote of his experiences in the Spanish Civil War. However, while Hemingway’s books are fiction, Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia is a personal account of his time in Spain serving in the military. For many, Orwell’s book is their first introduction to the Spanish Civil War, as it isn’t covered too much in history classes across the pond. If you like to learn history in memoir format, definitely give this a read.
If you’re visiting Barcelona, you can stop by the Plaça de George Orwell, a plaza in Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter dedicated to the writer, complete with 1984-esque surveillance camera signs.
As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning
A fascinating book written by the British author Laurie Lee as he walks around Spain for a year right before the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. The memoir starts in England, where he then decides to leave for Spain because he knows one Spanish phrase. He lands in northwest Spain and begins to travel the country, supporting himself by playing his violin and picking up odd jobs along the way. Because of Lee’s poetry background, the book is beautifully written and evocative of that time in Spain.
South from Granada: A Sojourn in Southern Spain
South from Granada is more an intimate portrait of Spanish village life than any other book on this list. The author, another Brit, moves to a small village in the Alpujarras mountains, by way of La Coruña and Madrid. He fully integrates himself there and beautifully describes the various local festivals, customs, and general way of life there.
For our own story of spending time in a Spanish pueblo (village), read our post: Miedes de Atienza: A Day in a Spanish Pueblo.
Granada: The Light of Andalucía
Yet another in the vein of “expat moves to Andalusia” books, though this one blends history and culture with the author’s personal story of buying a small house in the Albayzin neighborhood of Granada. Living in the medieval quarter of Granada leads the author to delve deep into the history and culture of al-Andalus, the time period in which Muslims, Jews, and Christians lived together in Spain in harmony.
Roads to Santiago: A Modern-Day Pilgrimage Through Spain
At first glance, this book seems like a memoir solely focused on the Camino de Santiago. While that is part of it, Roads to Santiago covers much more than northern Spain. Part memoir, part history book, the author explores all of the cultures, governments, art, and historical figures that came before and influenced modern-day Spain.
Follow That Arrow: Notes on Getting Here From There
For lovers of personal transformation and books on strong women taking journeys such as Wild or Eat Pray Love, this one is for you. Follow That Arrow brings the reader across the United States and then across Spain in a raw account as the author, an American woman, begins to find herself again after her marriage dissolves. An emotional story that goes from the lowest lows to a feeling of hope, it’s a great and relatable read for anyone who has ever struggled with recentering themselves after a loss. Of course, Spain plays a large role in the story as she walks for 500 miles across the northern coast on the Northern Way. Grab your copy here.
If you plan on walking the Camino de Santiago, make sure to check out our Camino Packing List.
Spain Guide Books
Honestly, we’re not huge fans of general guidebooks like Lonely Planet, Fodor’s, Rick Steve’s, or Eyewitness. While they do give a general overview of a place, for more alternative travelers and those looking to delve deeper into a place, these kinds of guidebooks offer only a surface view and top ten lists. We prefer more specific guidebooks such as the following:
Hidden Madrid: A Walking Guide
This book is truly a gem. Even if you’re only planning to see the main sites, this book will help you find tucked away treasures among Madrid’s Plaza Mayor, Sol, the Palace, and Opera house. Every time someone visits, we crack open this book and discover something fascinating about a building we have passed by a million times. From ghostly apparitions and tales to stories routed concretely in Spanish Civil War history, this book is for anyone looking to go beyond the surface and learn more about Madrid’s past and its visibility in the present. We bought it in person in Madrid but you can still find it on Amazon.
Not for Tourists Guide to Madrid
Not for Tourists is a tremendously popular guidebook series that has books about cities around the world. They now have a Madrid version out fresh in 2018, featuring the lesser known places to spend time in the Spanish capital. Get it on Kindle or paperback.
Barcelona Vegan Guide
Wanna know the vegan word on Barcelona? Caitlin of popular vegan travel blog The Vegan Word has you covered. Not only is this the first vegan guide to Barcelona, it’s the only guide that you’ll need if you’re a traveling vegan. Caitlin maps out the city’s sights and includes all nearby vegan options. There’s so much detail, we can assure you that you won’t need wifi on your trip if you bring this book with you! Pick up your copy here.
Any other books about Spain that you loved? Stay tuned for our very own vegan guidebook to Madrid, coming out in June!