Books to Read Before Visiting Spain

Last updated on June 24, 2023

If you’re heading to Spain, then you should use the incredible trove of fascinating books about this beautiful country to get you up to speed on the history, culture, and people. Spain is not only big, but it has a complicated past and a similarly complicated current era. With people alive today still remembering Franco (which is rarely, if ever, discussed), and several regions with active tensions (Basque country and Catalunya), reading well-chosen books about Spain before you visit provide context that you will need if you talk to locals.

Even with the Sagrada Familia mere feet away, this traveler is completely engrossed in his book about Spain. ;-)

The books below will also allow you to better understand the varied local customs, architecture, and cuisine. Depending on the books you pick, you can journey through the art, architecture, and music that have shaped Spanish culture, as well as typical customs and behaviors. Each book promises to impart tidbits you’ll enjoy learning about the varied landscapes and regions of Spain, from the beaches of the Mediterranean coast to the mountains of the Pyrenees.

Plus, some of the unique memoirs below may even give you ideas for things to see and do while you’re traveling around Spain—and they certainly all provide necessary cultural context about Spains different autonomous regions. Plus, a few of these may even teach you basic Spanish phrases. Ultimately, you’ll get more out of your trip—and have a more meaningful, immersive travel experience—if you dive into the many incredible authors who have written both fiction and non-fiction books about Spain.

Best Non-Fiction Books About Spain

This collection of non-fiction books tells a unique story about various aspects of Spain’s long and complex history.

Why read non-fiction? Well, many Spaniards alive today lived under Franco and remember life in a very different Spain. By beading recent and older historical accounts, you’ll have more intelligent conversations with locals. In Spain, not only is the Franco history important to understand, but below are several accounts that delve deeper into Catalonia and Basque country—both areas that have tricky and interesting political situations you should at least having a passing understanding of before you visit that region of Spain.

You certainly don’t need to read every book on this list, but pick two or three that tickle your fancy and choose books that represent a mix of modern and historical fiction and non-fiction stories about Spain.

1. “Driving Over Lemons” by Chris Stewart

Driving Over Lemons is a funny, heartwarming, and inspiring tale of one man’s journey to find a new home and a new way of life. It tells the story of his adventures and experiences living in rural Spain. After leaving his job as the drummer for the rock band Genesis, Stewart decided to move to the remote Andalusian village of Las Alpujarras, where he purchased a small farm called El Valero. The book follows Stewart as he struggles to adapt to life in a foreign country, learn the ways of the local people, and overcome various challenges, including unpredictable weather, difficult terrain, and the various animals that he encounters on his farm. Along the way, he meets a cast of colorful characters and learns about the rich history and culture of the region. Read the reviews on Amazon.

2. “Homage to Catalonia” by George Orwell

This memoir chronicles Orwell’s experiences as a volunteer in the Spanish Civil War, and provides a firsthand account of the political and military events of the time. Orwell writes about his experiences on the front lines, as well as his observations of the political and social climate in Spain during the war. I have called Barcelona home for more than five years now, so it’s interesting to read about this region’s past. Read the Amazon reviews here.

The Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain.

3. “Imperial Spain: 1469–1716” by John Elliott

This book is a comprehensive history of Spain during the period of the Habsburg dynasty, which stretched from the late 15th to the early 18th century. It covers a wide range of topics, including the country’s political, economic, and cultural developments, as well as its relationships with other European powers and its overseas empire. Read the reviews on Amazon.

4. “Ghosts of Spain: Travels Through Spain and Its Silent Past” by Giles Tremlett

There are many great history books on this list, but history books can be heavy reading. Instead, this book is a thought-provoking and engaging exploration of the hidden corners of Spanish history and culture—it gives a phenomenal overview of the most pressing modern and historical issues in Spain.

The book is structured as a series of travel narratives, in which Tremlett visits various parts of Spain and delves into the country’s complex and often tumultuous past. Along the way, he encounters a variety of characters, including historians, artists, and ordinary people, and learns about the many different ways that the past continues to shape the present in Spain. The book covers a wide range of topics, including the Spanish Civil War, the Franco dictatorship, and the country’s transition to democracy, as well as more esoteric subjects like the myths and legends of the region. Read the Amazon reviews here.

5. “The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain” by Maria Rosa Menocal

As far as way-back history books go, this one makes for a fun ride through the details. The book explores the cultural and intellectual achievements of medieval Spain, which was home to a diverse and vibrant community of Muslims, Jews, and Christians. Menocal argues that this period, which is often referred to as the “convivencia,” was marked by a high degree of tolerance and cooperation among the three groups, and that this period of peaceful coexistence had a lasting impact on the region’s history. Read the Amazon reviews here.

Sweeping views while hiking the Camino Frances to Santiago through the French Pyrenees and into Spain.

6. “The Spanish Holocaust: Inquisition and Extermination in Twentieth-Century Spain” by Paul Preston

The Spanish Inquisition forms the fabric of history for far more than Spain, given its impact across Europe. Read this book a detailed and unflinching look at the dark period of Spanish history known as the “Spanish Holocaust.” It covers the repression and violence that took place during the Spanish Civil War and the Franco dictatorship, including the mass killings, torture, and forced disappearances that occurred. The book also explores the ongoing efforts to come to terms with this dark chapter in the country’s history. Read the Amazon reviews here.

7. “A Year in the World: Journeys of a Passionate Traveller” by Frances Mayes

Sometimes you need a bit more of a lighthearted look at Spain. This book offers a collection of travel essays that chronicle the author’s adventures as she traveled through Spain and a number of other countries around the world. Mayes writes about her experiences in a lively and engaging style, and her love of travel and discovery is evident on every page. The book includes chapters on her travels through the Spanish regions of Andalusia, Galicia, and Catalonia, as well as her visits to a number of other destinations in Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. If you’re looking for a fun and inspiring travel narrative, “A Year in the World” is a great choice. Read the Amazon reviews here.

8. “Discovering Spain: An Uncommon Guide” by Penelope Casas

This book provides a unique and off-the-beaten-path guide to exploring Spain. The book is organized by region and features a wide range of suggestions for things to see and do in each area, including local festivals, outdoor activities, cultural attractions, and more. The book also includes information on local history, customs, and culture. In addition to traditional tourist destinations like Barcelona and Madrid, the book also covers lesser-known areas of Spain, such as the Basque Country and Andalusia, offering a more authentic and immersive experience for the reader. Overall, Discovering Spain is a comprehensive and informative guide that will appeal to travelers looking to discover the real Spain beyond the usual tourist hot spots. Note the date of publish though—it’s nearly 30 years old, so you’re really looking for the flavor offered by her book, rather than any practical trip planning details. Read the Amazon reviews here.

Best Fiction About Spain

A unique collection of novels and short stories that capture the imagination, while also imparting a fair bit of cultural information about Spain’s food, history, and people.

While I love non-fiction for the cold hard facts about a country and the influences that shaped it in the place I want to visit today, novels and short fiction stories are sometimes just a lot easier to digest. The fiction books in this collection range from the classics to the contemporary, and a lot in between.

10. “The Shadow of the Wind” by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Set in Barcelona, this mystery novel follows the story of a young boy named Daniel Sempere who becomes obsessed with a mysterious book called “The Shadow of the Wind” after discovering it in a secret library. As he delves deeper into the book’s history, he becomes drawn into a web of secrets and intrigue that stretches back to the dark days of the Spanish Civil War. It’s a classic fiction read on every list of books about Spain for a reason—it’s both fun and informative. Read the Amazon reviews here.

The beloved Plaza Real in Barcelona.

11. “The Last Jew” by Noah Gordon

If you prefer to get your history lesson through a novel, then start here. This historical novel is set in medieval Spain and follows the story of a young Jewish doctor named Yankiel who converts to Christianity in order to save his life. Despite his conversion, Yankiel finds himself caught up in the intense religious and political conflicts of the time, and must use all of his wit and cunning to survive. Read the Amazon reviews here.

12. “Stories from Spain” by Genevieve Barlow and William Stivers

This book features a collection of traditional tales and legends from Spain. The book includes a variety of stories, ranging from myths and fables to folktales and historical accounts, all of which are presented in an engaging and easy-to-read style. The stories in the book are drawn from a wide range of sources and cover a wide range of themes and topics, including love, adventure, magic, and more. In addition to the stories themselves, the book also includes notes and commentary from the authors, providing background information and cultural context for the reader. Stories are presented in both English and Spanish, which is why this book about Spain is higher than other more notable fiction books—it’s the perfect book for anyone with intermediate- or higher-level Spanish who wants to brush up on it before visiting Spain. Read the Amazon reviews here.

13. “The Sun Also Rises” by Ernest Hemingway

Set in the 1920s, this novel follows a group of expats living in Paris who travel to the Pamplona region of Spain to participate in the annual Running of the Bulls festival. The main character, Jake Barnes, is a World War I veteran who is struggling to find his place in the world and trying to come to terms with the emotional and physical scars he has suffered. Read the Amazon reviews here.

The topography of Spain is as varied as its people and cultures.

14. “Don Quixote” by Miguel de Cervantes

Buckle up with this read for a book straight out of high school reading lists. It’s not the easiest book, but it’s a classic novel for a reason. It tells the story of a Spanish nobleman named Alonso Quixano who becomes so enamored with the tales of chivalry he has read that he decides to become a knight-errant himself. Accompanied by his squire, Sancho Panza, he sets out on a series of adventures, which often turn out to be comical and absurd. Along the way, the two characters encounter a host of colorful characters and have a number of mishaps and adventures. Read the Amazon reviews here.

15. “The Back Room” by Carmen Martin Gaite

This novel tells the story of a group of young people in Franco’s Spain who are struggling to find their place in the world. The main character, a young woman named Beatriz, becomes involved in a secret society called “the back room,” which serves as a kind of underground resistance to the oppressive regime. Read the Amazon reviews here.

16. “Iberia” by James A. Michener

Celebrate some of the most fascinating aspects of Spanish culture with a master storyteller. This book is a sweeping epic that covers the history of Spain from prehistoric times to the present day. It tells the story of the country through the lives of a number of fictional characters, and provides a rich and detailed portrayal of Spain’s culture, history, and landscape. Read the Amazon reviews here.

17. “Spain: A Traveler’s Literary Companion” by Peter Bush and Lisa Dillman

With stories arranged by region, you can’t do much better than this book as a collection of stories written by Spaniards (rather than the couple of memoirs written here) and translated into English. The book includes stories, poems, and essays by a variety of authors, all of which explore the rich history, landscape, and people of Spain. The writers included in the collection come from a range of backgrounds and time periods, and offer a diverse range of perspectives on the country. The book is intended to provide readers with an immersive and enlightening literary experience as they learn about Spain through the eyes of its writers. Read the Amazon reviews here.

The main cathedral is a popular spot in Barcelona, Spain.

18. “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho

For a breezy read, choose Coelho. This inspiring novel tells the story of Santiago, a shepherd boy who dreams of finding treasure at the pyramids in Egypt. Along the way, he meets a series of wise and magical characters who help him on his journey and teach him about the true nature of his “personal legend.” The novel takes place in a variety of locations, including Andalusia in southern Spain. Read the Amazon reviews here.

19. “The Time in Between” by Maria Dueñas

This historical novel is a beautiful read. Set in Madrid and Morocco, it follows the story of a seamstress named Sira Quiroga, who becomes embroiled in espionage during World War II. After her lover betrays her and leaves her pregnant and alone, Sira travels to Morocco, where she becomes involved in a plot to aid the Allies in their fight against the Axis powers. Read the Amazon reviews here.

20. “The Art of Racing in the Rain” by Garth Stein

Maybe the most unique novel on this list, which includes some fun bits about Spain and is just a great read. It’s narrated by a dog named Enzo, who reflects on his life and the experiences he has had with his human family, including a trip to Spain. Throughout the book, Enzo offers his unique perspective on life, love, and the human condition, and provides insight into the bond between humans and animals. Read the Amazon reviews here.

21. “The Adventures of Don Juan” by Lord Byron

This epic poem follows the fictional character Don Juan as he travels throughout Spain and has a series of romantic adventures. The poem is structured as a series of cantos, or sections, and covers a wide range of topics, including love, politics, and religion. Read the Amazon reviews here.