Great Expeditions: The Top 10 Cities for Literary Travelers

Castle from Calton Hill in Edinburgh, Scotland/Photo © Shutterstock

Editor's Note:

Shannon McKenna Schmidt has been published in National Geographic TravelerArriveFrance TodayThe New York Daily NewsThe Miami Herald, and other magazines, newspapers and websites, and she is a regular contributor to the book industry news publication Shelf Awareness. Here, Shannon shares a list of the top ten cities for book lovers everywhere.

Does your idea of the perfect getaway combine the excitement of a city with literary pastimes? Head to one of these ten locales where there is plenty for book lovers to discover.

London, England
Lively London is the ultimate destination for indulging literary wanderlust. The abundance of bookish sites and activities could keep even the most tireless sightseers busy for weeks. For starters, join one of London Walks’s entertaining strolls. More than a hundred are offered weekly, including the popular London of Oscar Wilde. Pay a call at Charles Dickens’s elegant Georgian-era residence or one of several other author abodes, or maybe sleuth your way to Sherlock Holmes’s study. Admire the British Library’s treasures (like manuscript pages of Persuasion sitting atop Jane Austen’s writing desk) and take in a production at Shakespeare’s Globe (for just £5, “groundlings” can stand in front of the stage). Cap your visit with a pint at seventeenth-century tavern Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, where a replica of the oversize, twenty-two-pound Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary is on display (the lexicographer lived around the corner). To paraphrase Dr. Johnson, the traveler who is tired of London is tired of life.

Dublin, Ireland
In the Irish capital, you don’t have to look far to find a literary connection. Streets and bridges are named for writers, statues of scribes stand in public parks and on pedestrian thoroughfares, and in pubs you’re as likely to see their photos lining the walls as you are to find Guinness on tap. Sample some of those watering holes on the must-do Dublin Literary Pub Crawl led by engaging actor-guides. For a different perspective, the Dublin Writers Museum offers an overview of Ireland’s literary legacy from Celtic times through the twentieth century with intriguing items on display (look for Samuel Beckett’s custom-designed phone that could exclude incoming calls). The museum can be combined with a stop at the James Joyce Centre, which in addition to exhibits gives walking tours related to the author and his famed Dublin-set work, Ulysses. The ultimate Joycean pilgrimage is a visit to the James Joyce Tower and Museum, a seafront stronghold where he once stayed and used as the setting for the opening scene in Ulysses.

Edinburgh, Scotland
Writers have trod the cobblestone streets in Edinburgh’s atmospheric Old Town for centuries, from Robert Burns, who last visited in 1791, to J.K. Rowling, who conjured some of Harry Potter’s adventures at the Elephant House coffee shop. On the itinerary is a literary pub crawl, the Book Lovers’ Tour, and excursions specific to Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus, Rowling’s young wizard (suitable for Muggles), and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. If you have time for only one site, make it the Writers’ Museum located in a seventeenth-century building reached by a narrow stone passageway. It’s packed with memorabilia related to a powerhouse literary trio: Burns, Stevenson, and Sir Walter Scott.

Paris, France
Before the Lost Generation scrawled in notebooks at café tables in the 1920s, avant-garde Paris attracted other expatriate writers, Oscar Wilde and Edith Wharton among them. It’s French scribes who have pride of place in the city, though, with house-museums devoted to Alexandre Dumas, Honoré de Balzac, and Victor Hugo, whose 1831 novel, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, inspired readers to visit the namesake cathedral and save it from disrepair. A hardy trek to the top of the cathedral’s towers is rewarded with stunning views of Paris. Next browse the book stalls along the Seine, take the “Hemingway’s Paris” walking tour of the Latin Quarter to visit sites described in his memoir, A Moveable Feast, see a recreation of Proust’s unusual cork-lined bedroom, or dine at c. 1686 Le Procope (Voltaire’s desk is on display). Just don’t act like Oscar Wilde, who banged his walking stick on the table at Le Procope to attract a waiter’s attention.

Oxford, England
Immortalized by poet Matthew Arnold as “that sweet city with her dreaming spires,” medieval-era Oxford is home to the oldest surviving university in the English-speaking world. (Be sure to see the charming Alice in Wonderland-themed stained glass window at the university’s Christ Church cathedral.) Oxford is the territory of Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse, one of Britain’s most popular contemporary sleuths. Follow in the inspector’s footsteps – including favorite bars such as the Bear Inn – on one of numerous literary-themed tours offered by the Oxford Tourist Information Centre. The creative spirit lingers at the Eagle and Child and the Lamb and Flag, two pubs where J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis met with their literary group in the mid-twentieth century. Allow plenty of time at Blackwell’s Bookshop on Broad Street, an Oxford fixture since 1879, where the 10,000-square-foot Norrington Room alone houses more than 250,000 tomes on some three miles of shelving.

Washington, DC
Begin exploring the U.S. capital city’s literary side at the Library of Congress, founded in 1800 and the world’s largest library. The library’s palatial Thomas Jefferson Building is a visual feast with murals, mosaics, and sculpture galore and a Great Hall rising seventy-five feet from marble floor to stained-glass ceiling. Make time to visit the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site, the author-orator’s last residence, an estate less than a hundred miles from where he was born into slavery. Lay eyes on a rare First Folio at the Folger Shakespeare Library and catch a production in the Elizabethan-style Folger Theater. At indie bookstore Politics and Prose, sit in on a book group discussion (no need to reserve a spot; just read the featured selection and show up) or attend one of the regularly held author events. Sustenance for mind and body can be found at Kramerbooks and the adjoining Afterwords Café, open until at least one o’clock AM daily.

Chicago, Illinois
Chicago has a must-visit site for book lovers: the first and only museum in the U.S. dedicated to the written word. The American Writers Museum (opening May 2017) explores the country’s literacy legacy through dynamic, interactive exhibits. One is a “surprise bookshelf” that reveals facts about legendary works through features like audio, video, and hidden windows. Windy City visitors can also buddy up with a local bibliophile for a literary-themed tour given through Chicago Greeter, a free service of Choose Chicago that uses volunteer guides. Have more time? Venture to the Ernest Hemingway Birthplace Home and Museum in a Chicago suburb, or shop till you drop at the city’s plethora of bookstores. And you might want to time your visit with the Chicago Tribune Printers Row Lit Fest. Held annually in June, it’s the largest free outdoor literary event in the Midwest.

Key West, Florida
A brief stopover in this tropical city in 1928 turned into a years-long stay for Ernest Hemingway. Quirky, cultural Key West has lured other writers, too, like poets Robert Frost and Elizabeth Bishop and playwright Tennessee Williams, who is credited with inspiring the nightly sunset celebration in Mallory Square by toasting it with a gin and tonic. Today literary travelers can tour the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum (six-toed cats are in residence), peruse the Tennessee Williams Key West Exhibit, take the Old Town Literary Walking Tour, and browse or buy at Books and Books at The Studios, co-owned by novelist Judy Blume. It’s almost always cocktail hour in Key West, so stop by Sloppy Joe’s for a Papa Doble, Hemingway’s favorite. And if you’re up for some Hemingway-style adventure, head by boat or seaplane to Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas, where rough seas once stranded the writer and a band of fishing buddies for seventeen days.

San Francisco, California
The San Francisco literary scene is a vibrant mix of classic and contemporary. Start by stocking up on page-turners at some of the area’s more than thirty-five bookstores, from Beat-era icon City Lights and the warren-like Green Apple Books to shops covering specific topics like culinary, comics, and science fiction. Since the literary tradition includes nearly as much imbibing as writing, enjoy a tipple at Vesuvio, a cozy saloon where Jack Kerouac drank and discoursed (once so late into the evening he missed a meeting with Henry Miller in Big Sur). For a swankier outing, glitzy Novela has illuminated, color-coordinated bookshelves and a literary-themed cocktail menu. If you like your detective fiction hard-boiled, stand in the spot where Sam Spade’s sidekick, Miles Archer, met his maker on the Dashiell Hammett Walking Tour, or check out the Beat Museum for insight into Kerouac and his contemporaries. For true literary immersion, attend Litquake, an annual nine-day extravaganza that includes hundreds of author readings and a Lit Crawl through the Mission District.

New York City
Glamorous and gritty, dynamic and diverse, New York City has long attracted writers of all types, many of whom immortalized the city in print. Seek out locales mentioned in a favorite novel, perhaps The Catcher in the Rye or Edith Wharton’s Gilded Age fiction. Fans of Dorothy Parker can uncover her haunts on the Algonquin Round Table Walking Tour. Another top-notch outing is the Greenwich Village Literary Pub Crawl, a booze- and gossip-fueled foray through the legendary neighborhood where Edgar Allan Poe (his cottage is in the Bronx), Jack Kerouac, Henry Miller, and other writers lived, wrote, drank, and brawled. At Pete’s Tavern, sit at the table where O. Henry penned The Gift of the Magi. Further uptown, E. L. Doctorow worked in the chandelier- and mural-bedecked reading room at the New York Public Library’s main branch. For pivotal scenes in Ragtime, Doctorow chose as a setting the nearby Morgan Library and Museum. Financier J. P. Morgan’s private library is a sight to behold. Three levels of bookshelves are surrounded by gilding, tapestries, paintings, and stained glass – truly a literary lover’s dream.