12 Great Books to Read Before Your Trip to New York City

New York City may be one of the most written-about places in the United States. Here are some of the best reads about the five boroughs to build anticipation before you go.

New York City skyline at golden hour with Empire State Building in center

From history books to poetry collections and Pulitzer Prize–winning novels, there’s a book set in New York City for everyone.

Courtesy of Todd Quackenbush on Unsplash

I love to read about places I’ve traveled to, both to reminisce about their wonders and to whet my appetite for returning. New York City is a special case in point. I lived there for 14 years and during that time reveled in reading many books about it; now that I travel to NYC several times a year to visit friends, I rely on books to remind me of—and prepare me for—the special energy and astounding history of the city. Here are a few of the books about the Big Apple that have stayed with me the most over the years—plus a few more recommendations from AFAR editors to read before visiting.

Cover of The Colossus of New York on a gray background

Before Coloson Whitehead wrote two Pulitzer Prize-winning novels, he wrote this collection of essays about his hometown.

Courtesy of the publisher

1. “The Colossus of New York” by Colson Whitehead (2003)

Before Colson Whitehead won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for his novel The Underground Railroad in 2017 (and again in 2020 for The Nickel Boys), he crafted the beautiful essays about New York that make up this volume. Whitehead is a native of the city, and his affection for and frustration with his hometown show up in every essay. The relative brevity of each one also makes the book great to revisit on a subway ride.

If you can’t get enough of this prolific author, he’s already published two out of three novels in his Harlem Trilogy—Harlem Shuffle and Crook Manifesto—which are set in 1960s and 1970s Harlem, respectively.

2. “Poems of New York” edited by Elizabeth Schmidt (2002)

Part of the Everyman’s Library series of pocket-size books of poetry, this collection was published shortly after the events of September 11, 2001. It spans New York’s history and includes poems about the city from such luminaries as Walt Whitman, Elizabeth Bishop, Frank O’Hara, and Dorothy Parker. Even if you think you don’t like poetry, you’ll be surprised at how reading a poem a day can teach you about New York’s centuries of history and give you a feel for the scope and vastness of the city.

3. “The Bowery Boys: Adventures in Old New York” by Greg Young and Tom Meyers (2016)

Greg Young and Tom Meyers host their podcast as The Bowery Boys, telling tales of vanished New York several times a month. In their first book, they’ve honed their chatty, erudite style into a streamlined written series of short walking tours around Manhattan, astonishingly covering every neighborhood on the island from Wall Street to Washington Heights. Read this one before your trip to help plan out your itinerary, or bring it along to use as a guide book as you go. The passages about the city’s history are educational and delightfully bite-size: You’ll learn a lot without spending ages huddled over a book on a street corner.

4. “The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6,000 Miles in the City” by William B. Helmreich (2013)

To walk around Manhattan is to realize how much more there is to see than what any traveler can experience on a short trip. The author of this book, William B. Helmreich, is a lifelong New Yorker, but he understands that dilemma. His 2013 memoir about walking virtually every block in the city (that’s Staten Island, the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens as well as Manhattan!), will make you feel as if you saw much more of it than you could on your own.

Cover of "Fleishman Is in Trouble"

Fleischman Is in Trouble was also released as a Hulu miniseries in 2022.

Courtesy of the publisher

5. “Fleischman Is in Trouble” by Taffy Brodesser-Akner (2019)

New York Times Magazine staff writer (and AFAR contributor) Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s blisteringly funny debut novel won reviews to match the high-octane buzz. Toby Fleischman is a recently separated New Yorker whose new, carefree life is upended when his ex drops off their two kids for a visit . . . and doesn’t return. Lots of cutting laughs and a big twist follow. Stay tuned for her second novel, Long Island Compromise, which comes out in July 2024.

6. “Keats’s Neighborhood: An Ezra Jack Keats Treasury” by Ezra Jack Keats (2002)

You’ve probably interacted with Keats’s work before—his classic book for children, The Snowy Day, remains a favorite since it was published in 1962—but you might not think of him as a New York writer. A soothing read through this collection of nine of his most treasured stories will prove to you that he was. In page after page of his colorful, multicultural collage illustrations, children run down city streets, buy sodas at corner bodegas, and go to sleep in Brooklyn brownstones. You’ll be amazed at how much New York still resembles his pictures.

7. “Joe Gould’s Teeth” by Jill Lepore (2016)

For many travelers, The New Yorker is synonymous with the city that gave the magazine its name. Reading this book gives you a deep dive into that world: Current New Yorker staff writer Jill Lepore digs into the real story of Joe Gould, an eccentric denizen of the city who was the subject of “Professor Sea Gull,” a 1942 profile, as well as “Joe Gould’s Secret,” a 1964 follow-up, both by noted New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell. Gould claimed to be writing the longest book ever written; Mitchell avowed that his manuscript didn’t exist. What Lepore uncovers about Gould’s work—and the ways he was helped and hindered by some of the greatest writers of his era—is as disturbing as it is eerie and reads like fiction.

8. “The Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt (2013)

This Pulitzer Prize–winning novel is over 770 pages long, but it flies by as a glorious introduction to Manhattan life. The story begins with a terrorist bombing that forever changes the life of Theo Decker, a 13-year-old Manhattanite, and follows his life from that point on. The plot takes you from the Metropolitan Museum of Art to Greenwich Village to Queens. The story is absolutely page turning, and the book’s setting is so finely wrought as to feel like an atmosphere that can support life.

Red and blue cover of the book "Dominicana"

Dominicana was shortlisted for the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction.

Courtesy of the publisher

9. “Dominicana” by Angie Cruz (2019)

On New Year’s Day 1965, newly married 15-year-old Ana moves from the Dominican Republic to Washington Heights. She doesn’t love Juan, her husband, but hopes to help her entire family emigrate to the United States. What happens next to Ana—a tale of forbidden love and family loyalty set with a backdrop of 20th-century Manhattan—forms Angie Cruz’s widely praised novel.

Other editor-approved NYC reads

10. “When Brooklyn Was Queer” by Hugh Ryan (2019)

This book introduces readers to lesser-known members of Brooklyn’s LGBTQ community throughout history, such as Ella Wesner and Florence Hines, who performed as drag kings in the late-1800s, and Josiah Marvel, the Brooklyn Museum curator who created a treatment program for gay men arrested for public sex in the 1950s. Before this project became a book, author Hugh Ryan hosted the Pop-Up Museum of Queer History exhibit in his Bushwick loft.

11. “Just Kids” by Patti Smith (2010)

In this memoir, the artist Patti Smith writes about her coming of age in New York City during the late 1960s. The focal point of this book is Smith’s relationship with the celebrated photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, the ups and downs they experienced together living at the Hotel Chelsea, and ultimately how they influenced each other’s art.

12. “Open City” by Teju Cole (2011)

Brooklyn-based author Teju Cole drew on his own experience during an “unhappy year in medical school” for this novel about Julius, a young Nigerian doctor, who walks the streets of Manhattan to decompress from his residency. It’s a relatable topic for New Yorkers, who find therapy in the streets during conversations with strangers, moments of unexpected humor, and the grief of discovering a favorite place pushed out of business. Similarly, Julius processes his past, present, and future on walks that crisscross the city.

This article originally appeared online in 2017; it was most recently updated on March 29, 2024, to include current information. Additional reporting by Erika Owen.

Shannon Reed is a writer and professor living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
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