What to Read Before a Journey

When taking an international trip, I spend a lot of time preparing myself, physically and emotionally, by reading a variety of books about or set in said country. Here are the types of books that I typically read prior to a journey.

Travel Guides
I always begin with travel guides, but the difficult part is deciding which travel guide to choose from. Lonely Planet, National Geographic, Rick Steves, Rough Guides, Frommers and many more! Don’t just buy what’s at your local book store simply because it’s there, you can spend a lot of money on information that is free online or difficult to navigate. After purchasing more than a couple of travel books from a variety of Publishers, here are my top publishers:

Lonely Planet: This is by far my favorite, and it’s the easiest to find in your local book store. I think they do an excellent job of laying out information in an easy to read and interesting manner. My least favorite is by Bradt. I find the information is dense, doesn’t intrigue, and is generally more tedious to read. Before you buy any travel books, be sure to check out your local library. I found the Iran Lonely Planet there, saved myself $20.

In addition to tradition travel guides, keep your eye out for cultural and language guides. I’m currently reading a well written cultural guide to Iran published by Culture Smart Guides. Remember, even if you’re going to an English speaking country, the culture can still be quite different than our own!

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Who has time for work with all of these books?!?

Historical Fiction
Reading fiction stories set in your destination country can help understand a culture and ignite your imagination. Prior to my trip to Turkey, I read a number of entertaining stories by Jason Goodwin, setting the stage of the Ottoman Empire and the age of the Sultans. I read “The Persian Boy” about Alexander the Great’s time in Persia in preparation for my upcoming trip to Iran. To find a good historical fiction set in a particular country, just do some googling (and let me know if you need help!).

Non-Fiction
Non-fiction is an especially good way to understand more about the political situation in a certain country. For Iran, I’ve already read “Jasmine and Stars: Reading More than Lolita in Tehran” as well as “Iran Awakening.” I’m also currently reading a couple of memoirs written by women (modern and not) who have lived and traveled in the Middle East. I’ve learned a lot about the current political setting as well as some history of how we got where we are now. And, I’ve been inspired by the people who have traveled before me. Again, a good Google search will be a great source of suggested books.

Culturally Important Books
Last, but certainly not least, I try to read books or stories that have cultural significance for the locals. Reading books that they love and admire can give you a great window into the culture. For example, in Iran I’m reading the Shahnameh, or Book of Kings. It is the National Epic Story of the Iranian people, detailing the historic (and non-historic) link between the early Zoroastrians and the Muslim conquest and subsequent rule. I’m also reading Hafez, an Iranian poet who is beloved by Iranians. I’ll even be going to his tomb while I’m there.

Reading prior to a trip is a great way of traveling long before your actual trip takes place. It helps mentally gear you up while teaching and entertaining you at the same time.

Literature

Here are the books I’m currently reading in preparation for education and to gather ideas of where to go and what not to miss:

Rick Steves’ Istanbul” – I started with this book because I’ve seen some of Rick Steves’ shows, and I liked that this particular book was written by two women who are from Istanbul.  I am currently about 1/3 of the way through it and using it just as an introduction to the city’s top historical sites to see.

Istanbul: Memories and the City” by Orhan Pamuk – I borrowed this one from a friend. It’s a portrait of Istanbul written by somebody who was born and raised there.  I’m not very far into it, but thus far I’m already learning quite a bit about how the fall of the Ottoman Empire really affected the people of Istanbul. In addition, I love his descriptions of the city.

Insight Guides, “Istanbul: Step by Step” – I actually only bought this book because it has a map in it of Istanbul that I put on my bedroom wall for inspiration.  I couldn’t find a map without a book unfortunately.  But I think it’ll be fun to explore some of the walks of the city.  I haven’t started it yet though.

Byzantine Istanbul: A Self-Guided Tour” by Robert van den Graven – I haven’t started reading this one yet, but I think it’s not going to be your typical run-of-the mill tour book.  There seems to be a lot more history, which I will thoroughly enjoy.

These will probably be enough for a while, but do any of you have other suggestions?  Even web-sites I should check out? (Keep in mind that I’m not only going to Istanbul…see a future post for more information on that topic).