'What are the best books about Croatia?'
‘What should I read before travelling there...?’
'Who are the local writers I should know about?'
These are the most frequent questions I am asked by my readers.
You know what? Thank you for these questions. Your deep curiosity about Croatia makes my heart leap. It’s not only that you seek to uncover a place unknown to you, but you ask to do it through books!
In an increasingly digitalised world – this is gold.
And in a world that is increasingly reduced to a bulleted list of tourist attractions, reading local literature seems exceptional.
And I mean exceptional as both rare and excellent.
Also - here is my whole library of posts on Croatian culture.
Why every traveller should read Croatian literature
Have you ever thought of literature and travel guides as two opposites? The former as fiction and the latter as facts? If that was the case, no traveller would seek out foreign literature in translation.
So why do we read foreign writers when we want a deeper understanding of a place we are about to visit?
Here is a list of my 5 essential whys:
1. People love reading stories. Serviceable information in travel guides are not stories.
2. People love personal accounts and perspectives. Guidebook travel information strives to be accurate but not personal.
3. People connect to that which sounds real, even if it sometimes appears dark, troubled or chaotic. Tourist information is only postcard-perfect.
4. People are more interested in other people than museums, buildings or empty landscapes. Literature best reflects local people’s values and cultural customs.
5. When people are told what kind of experience to look for in a foreign place, they want to know why.
For example, when you learn that Zagreb coffee culture is one of the city’s highlights, having a cup is not enough. You’ll want to know why everyone in Zagreb seems to be lingering at café terraces, even during work times. Local writing has the best insights.
My take on what Croatia books to read
So let me quench your desire for the best Croatia books before you set off on your journey. Most of you will have heard of the Nobel Prize winner Ivo Andrić and his classic The Bridge Over The Drina or the popular travelogue Black Lamb And Grey Falcon by Rebecca West.
My Croatia essential reading list is a bit different. It includes Croatian fiction and non-fiction in the English translation. But I also added novels originally written in English which are set in Croatia. Apart from a couple of exceptions, all titles are published in the last 25 years.
Some books focus more on the early 1990s years and the topics of war and post-socialist transitions. Others are very recent, portraying the Croatia that you will meet if you go there now. I find both perspectives valuable, especially to observe how much and how fast the country is changing.
Best books about Croatia: Croatian novels
1. Zagreb Noir
This collection of crime stories features several Croatian writers. Each of their stories is set in a different location across Croatia’s capital, revealing its darker, funnier and slightly rougher side. If you thought that Croats, and East Europeans in general, have no sense of humour – think again. These stories may be noir-ish but they’ll teach you what the locals find funny too.
2. Farewell, Cowboy
This book is the debut novel by the Split-based writer Olja Savičević Ivančević. It’s a tough yet poetic, dark yet funny story filled with local colour and sentiment. The story follows a Western film being shot on the nearby 'prairie' but it also questions our childhood ideas of heroism. It’s not the postcard-perfect Dalmatia but it’s a wonderful Dalmatian holiday read.
3. Zagreb, Exit South
This is the only novel available in English by the acclaimed writer Edo Popović. It portrays the 1990s Zagreb and the lives of common people struggling with socio-economic shifts after the fall of communism. The novel deals with relationship break-ups and alcoholism, but Popović has a way of turning his prose into a vibrant and uplifting read. This of him as a Croatian Bukowski.
4. Hedgehog's Home
Most Croats still know a few lines of this story by heart. Branko Čopić created a timeless tale about a determined little hedgehog that loves his humble home above all else. Wonderful illustrations by the Croatian artists Sanja Rešček will appeal to the imagination of the little ones. But the book’s message carries over into the adult, especially with its sentiments for our natural habitat.
5. On The Edge Of Reason
This novel is a classic of the Croatian literature by the renowned writer Miroslav Krleža. It will especially delight those who appreciate East and Central European writers, such as Dostoyevsky, Hasek and Kafka. The novel was written in 1938, but Krleža’s dry and witty insights into the human nature are as fresh as ever. Don’t forget to visit his statue in Tuškanac forest in Zagreb!
Best books about Croatia: Croatian history books
6. The Culture Of Lies
This is a time-tested collection of darkly humorous essays about post-socialist Croatia. Anyone interested in the region’s politics enjoys Dubravka Ugrešić’s sarcastic but witty writing. The essays range from academic topics to satirical insights into soap operas and pop music. If you’re a fan of Kundera, don’t think twice about picking up this book.
7. Cafe Europa
This is one of many essay collections by the celebrated journalist Slavenka Drakulić. The title speaks of the 1990s when Eastern Europe yearned to acquire a more Western flair. And one way to do it was opening Vienna-style cafés. Some images of Croatia will seem out of date, but Drakulić’s writing is beautifully crafted. And the book is shows how much Croatia has changed in the last 25 years.
8. Zagreb: A Cultural History
This book was written by Celia Hawkesworth, the acclaimed translator of Croatian literature into English. Although it’s not well known as a travel guide, the book offers the richest account of Zagreb’s cultural and historical life. From coffee drinking and city walking to key artists that have shaped the city, this is a treasure trove of little known facts that will truly make you bond with Zagreb.
9. Chasing A Croatian Girl
Not a history book per se but a must-read for anyone married to a Croat or planning a long trip to Croatia. The book earned its author, Cody Brown, the title of the most famous Croatian son-in-law. Not merely because he married a Croatian girl, but because he writes so warmly and insightfully about the importance of close-knit families, where the mother(-in-law) figure exudes most authority but also most love. His observations about coffee-drinking rituals or the fear of draft in Croatia are a perfect introduction into the country’s culture.
Best books about Croatia: novels set in Croatia
10. Girl At War
Sara Nović’s debut novel delivers a moving story about a Croatian girl Ana who was 10 during the 1991 Homeland war in Croatia. We follow the storyline of her childhood, her adult life in NYC and finally her return to Croatia to face the ghosts of the past. Nović received heaps of praise for her accomplished style or writing in which she delivered the gravity and brutality of war and loss.
11. Running Away To Home
This memoir won Jennifer Wilson Best Nonfiction Book of 2011 by the American Society of Journalists. Already an established travel writer, Wilson embarks on a sweet journey of reconnection. With her husband and two kids, she travels to her ancestral home in Croatia to learn more about her immigrant story. In the process, Wilson shares with us her heartfelt epiphanies about ‘home’ and ‘family’.
12. The Hired Man
Aminatta Forna crafts a haunting, suspenseful story about wartime secrets in a small Croatian town. When a British family takes up residence there, they get assistance from a local man Đuro. As the trust between them depends, the town begins to talk. Slowly but surely we are let in on the secrets of the town and the house’s former occupants. Boston Globe and San Francisco Chronicle voted the novel the best book of the year.
13. Immigrant Daughter
In this much acclaimed memoir Catherine Kapphahn weaves together two narratives: the present-day journey of the daughter and her mother’s unspoken history. As Kapphahn discovers the tragic events during WWII Zagreb, she gives voice to her mother’s experience. Her cultural identity begins to take shape. Eventually, the overlapping stories merge into a whole as loss transcends into love through our own act of imagination.
14. Under A Croatian Sun
Plenty of books have been written about moving to places off the beaten path, but Anthony Stancomb delivers a truly charming story. It’s a lyrical and often funny account of his and his wife first year on the island of Vis. If you’re not ready to relocate to Croatia, make this book your holiday read. It’s a warm story about cultural difference and acceptance.
And talking about writing genres, you can also learn a lot about Croatia in my two cookbooks. For me, a cookbook is not simply a collection of recipes. The way we prepare and eat has so much to do with culture and traditions. So, have a look yourself.
Ultimate cookbook of traditional savory Croatian Dishes
This glossy, full color edition boasts: 100 step-by-step recipes, 386 pages, 700 images & expert cooking tips
What are your best books about Croatia? Drop me a comment and help other travellers discover the local culture.
I first visited ZG in December 1974. We arrived from Paris on the orient express. I remember visiting Nama on Ilica and it was almost empty of food goods.
Would love to read something from that era.
Hi David, what a great memory… Orient express and the mid 70s, sounds very cinematic 🙂 You should check Drakulic’s other book ‘How we survived communism and even laughed’ in which she writes more about shortages in those days.
Hi David and Andrea – I am reading ‘How we survived communism..’ at the moment – found it by chance at a book shop here in the Czech Republic and I can highly recommend it!
David, Nama didn’t sell food. But arround a corner, and at the main square, and 5min from the main square it was food to by.
Dear Andrea, thank you for your very interesting list of books. May we recommend our book about Slavonia, one of the most beautiful, but unknown regions of Croatia? Photos are made by professional photographer Damir Rajle from Osijek, the text is in german, english and croatian language.
Damir Rajle: Skizzen aus Slawonien/Sketches of Slavonia/Skice Slavonije
More informations and a look inside the book you will find here
Kind regards from Thomas
Hi Thomas, thanks for your tip. I am sure my readers will appreciate a book on a Croatian destination that is not as popular as the Adriatic coast.
Very interesting post.
When I moved here a croatian friend recommended me Drakulić books. Best books I read for a long time.
Hi Jesus, so you had good recommendations. Glad you liked the post and Drakulic’s books.
I’ve read Chasing a Croatian Girl (after I visited Croatia) and loved the insights of an American trying to understand Croatia through his wife. I loved it!
Yes, his perspective is really unique. And I love his humour too!
While not set in Croatia, the Bosnian-Croat writer Miljenko Jergovic’s “Sarajevo Marlboro” is a terrific book with a beautiful sense of observation and reflection. On the flip-side, I’ll read “Chasing A Croatian Girl” in advance of our impending adventure in the deep Balkans 🙂
I loved ‘Running Away to Home’ by Jennifer Wilson, a genealogy extended stay in her ancestors’ villages, eventually to realize cousins there, but it’s fun and funny and informative.
Thanks for another great suggestion, Gabriella!
Thanks for this! I have read many of these–I also love the writing of Josip Novakovic who has many short story and essay collections. One of my favorites.
Thank, Jennifer. Yes, Novakovich is a good choice too. I am so glad to see many people are reading Croatian authors!
Hi Andrea, thank you for a fantastic list, one thing or did I miss it, where can I buy these books, I am living in South London, many thanks..
Thanks, Martin. Good question about buying the books… I did spot Zagreb Noir at the Daunt Bookshop in Kensington, but others may be too obscure for a high street bookshop. They are available through Amazon.co.uk. If you click on the image of each book, you’ll be taken straight to Amazon and you can get them from there.
I love reading tons about a place before I visit and while I’m there, and it helps me get more from the visit. I enjoyed Cafe Europa so much that I read several other essay collections by the same author. Zagreb: A Cultural History was also a wonderful read. Never heard of A Culture of Lies or of the noir series – detective stories are often a fun way to get a sense of place. Thanks for a great list!
Hi Sarah, it’s always great to touch base with you. I hope to see you in Zagreb soon, for which occasion I suggest the great Zagreb Noir book. 🙂
Interesting list, one that I’ll look into. I’m currently reading one “open the window to remove your darkness” which deals with a boy growing up in Istria before and after Italian rule. Interesting read and has lots of insights on how people lived (and the poverty in the region) at the time.
Isn’t it great to learn about countries you visit through local fiction? I love doing that. Have a great read, Frank!
“I just finished reading Into Hell’s Fire by Douglas Cavanaugh while on my summer holiday. It was the best book I’ve read in a long time, it’s full of action, and covers many places in Bosnia and Croatia. That’s my choice for a great summer holiday read set in Croatia.”
Thanks for your suggestion, Harris!
Hi andrea, thanks for your blog, is very helpful. although i couldn’t find your book blue green in the link as it is expired, would love to read it, let me know when can i find it.
Thanks for your interest – I fixed the link and you can open it now.
Thank you so much, it’s really amazing, KEEP IT UP 🙂
Lavishly designed, detailed and enthusiastic site – wish I had spotted it before my first visit to Croatia! Would love to hear if (1) you have any literary recommendations specific to Istria, now or in the past, beyond “Open the window to remove your darkness”, and (2) if there is/are any crime series to date set in (especially Adriatic) Croatia along the lines of Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti novels.
Keep up the great effort and your high spirits!
I’m visiting Croatia with my Canadian-Croat girlfriend in August. We will be staying at her Nona’s in Istria before road-tripping around the country.
Naturally, I ordered “Chasing a Croatian Girl” about 10 milliseconds after I finished reading your blurb. Emily got “On the Edge.”
Thanks a lot for your tips and the time you took to make them! Will let you know how the reading goes. 🙂
Love from Montreal,
Thanks Rhys 🙂 I hope you have an amazing intro to the Croatian side of the family!
We spent a month in Croatia and before we got there I got several of the books on your list. I love reading books set in the country I am visiting. One I really loved, that didn’t make your list was Girl at War. I wonder what a Croat’s perspective on this book is.
Hi Mel, I haven’t read that one. Maybe some of my readers will comment and answer your question 🙂
Zagreb , autumn 2021. Rijeka as a first appetizer.
The two related by being introduced to the author " Kamov", in Rijeka, but told the only English translations would be to find in antiquaries.
No one in Zagreb knows any such that possibly could have a copy.
Are there anyone out there that can enlighten me.
Regards to all of you that take a big interest in this country, not to let out , their culture.
Regards . Per
Hi Per, the second hand bookshop Jesenski i Turk has several stores and the largest selection and they will let you get on their waiting list for a specific title. Get in touch with them through their website and ask to get on the waiting list for Kamov.
I read a romantic novel (probably in the last years of the 1990s) it wasn't Croation author but an English one. The novel was set in Dubrovnik, in fact their was a picture of the walled city on the dust jacket. It was a good romantic holiday read and I passed it on to a friend who had been to Dubrovnik, unfortunately my friend has passed away recently and my book seems lost!
It's annoying that the author and book title both escape me and I would really really love to get a replacement copy once I can identify it!!
I would appreciate any advice that you could give me.
Thanks in anticipation June Stone
I hope some of my readers can help you out with query, June.
So glad I have found your site! Exactly what I need in my quest for Croatian citizenship. Grandfather born 1893 in Zagreb. I’m going to read all of your suggested books. Thank you!
You are welcome, Catherine. I am glad I could help.
I’d be honored to have a book I wrote listed here. It is called ‘Into Hell’s Fire’ and was written entirely in Croatia(Rijeka) between 2003-2008 by an American Croat.
The trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qRby1e0KsJQ