Whether you need an inspirational book to give you the little kick you need to book your trip, or if you have long bus rides ahead of you, this list of classic, must-read travel books will undoubtedly keep you entertained and motivated to explore the world.
Side note: I think it’s important to separate books that actually are about travel, and books that are about self-searching journeys that accessorily mention travel along the way (e.g. Wild, Eat Pray Love), where the locale is the backdrop and the main focus in on the character’s inevitable and often quite dramatic quest for self-discovery. I wanted to stay clear from that faux travel writing nonsense that, frankly, doesn’t even remotely strike my fancy.
Here are 24 books that are not about melodrama, but rather about the journey and the destination. Happy reading, and happy travels!
Travel Books – Pre-Trip Inspiration
The Turk Who Loved Apples is about breaking free of the constraints of modern travel and letting the place itself guide you. It’s a variety of travel you’ll love to experience vicariously through Matt Gross—the celebrated Frugal Traveler columnist for the New York Times—and maybe even be inspired to try for yourself.
Founders of Lonely Planet Tony and Maureen Wheeler have produced travel guides to just about every corner of the globe. After thirty years in the business, they have been hassled by customs, cheated by accountants, let down by writers, banned in Malawi, berated for their Burma guide and had books pirated in Vietnam. Through it all, their passion for the planet and traveling certainly hasn’t diminished and comes shining through in this enthralling travelogue.
Part foreign affairs discourse and part twisted self-help guide, this book takes the reader from America to Iceland to India in search of happiness using a beguiling mixture of travel, psychology, science and humor to investigate not what happiness is, but where it is with engaging wit and surprising insight.
Marco Polo’s account of his journey throughout the East in the thirteenth century was one of the earliest European travel narratives, and it remains the most important. The merchant-traveler from Venice, the first to cross the entire continent of Asia, provided us with accurate descriptions of life in China, Tibet, India, and a hundred other lands, and recorded customs, natural history, strange sights, and historical legends.
John Cook led three famous expeditions to the Pacific Ocean in voyages that ranged from the Antarctic circle to the Arctic Sea, bringing back detailed descriptions of the natural history of the Pacific, Australia, and New Zealand. His journals tell the story of these voyages as Cook wanted it to be told, radiating the ambition, courage, and skill which enabled him to carry out an unrivaled series of expeditions in dangerous waters.
Through his signature signature humor and wry observations, Theroux recounts his early adventures on Asia’s fabled trains—the Orient Express, the Khyber Pass Local, the Frontier Mail, the Golden Arrow to Kuala Lumpur, the Mandalay Express, the Trans-Siberian Express—the stars of a journey that takes him on a loop eastbound from London to Tokyo, then onto the Trans-Siberian. Essential reading for both the ardent adventurer and the armchair traveler.
In Life is a Trip, Judith Fein takes readers on 14 exotic journeys where she learns from other cultures new and transformative approaches to family discord, death, success, fear, faith, forgiveness and overcoming trauma. This book is immensely readable, steeped in a spirit of connecting with place, with each other, and with our inner selves.
Rather than lavishing pages on the sumptuous taste of a sun-ripened olive in Provence, philosopher de Botton examines what inspires us to escape the humdrum and purchase tickets to Tahiti, tromp through the countryside, or wander Rome. Left to one voice, such an inquiry might grow dull, but de Botton uses the works of artists (Baudelaire, Wordsworth, Van Gogh) and writers to explore the premise. The Art of Travel is one of the wisest and most original travel books.
Chuck Thompson has spent more than a decade traipsing through 35 countries across the globe, and he’s had enough. Enough of the half-truths demanded by magazine editors, enough of the endlessly recycled clichés regarded as good travel writing, and enough of the ugly secrets fiercely guarded by the travel industry. This book takes readers on an irresistible series of adventures in Europe, Asia, the Caribbean, Latin America, and details the effects of globalization on the casual traveler while pondering the future of travel as we know it.
Travel Books – Novels & Fiction
Spanning 15 years, Wanderlust documents Eaves’s insatiable hunger for the unfamiliar. Young and independent, she crisscrosses continents and chases the exotic, both in culture and in romance. It’s more than a chronological conquest of men and countries: it’s a journey of self-discovery. She sheds light on a growing culture of young women who have the freedom to define their increasingly global lifestyles, unfettered by conventions of past generations.
Exquisitely researched and told at a galloping pace, this book, peopled with unforgettable characters, soars across the globe from London to Peru to Philadelphia to Tahiti to Amsterdam. But most memorable of all, it is the story of Alma Whittaker, who bears witness to the Industrial Revolution and that extraordinary moment in human history when all the old assumptions about science, religion, commerce, and class were exploding into dangerous new ideas.
As her candid coming-of-age journey takes her to Australia and South America, curious Rachel discovers and embraces her love of travel and unlocks more truths about herself than she ever realized she was seeking. Along the way, the erstwhile good girl finally learns to do something she’s never done before: simply live for the moment. A riveting and relatable read.
Paulo Coelho’s masterpiece tells the magical story of Santiago, an Andalusian shepherd boy who yearns to travel in search of a worldly treasure as extravagant as any ever found. The story of the treasures Santiago finds along the way teaches us, as only a few stories can, about the essential wisdom of listening to our hearts, learning to read the omens strewn along life’s path, and, above all, following our dreams.
Mark Twain acclaims his voyage from New York City to Europe and the Holy Land in a book so funny and provocative it made him an international star. Paris, Milan, Florence, Venice, Pompeii, Constantinople, Sebastopol, Balaklava, Damascus, Jerusalem, Nazareth, Bethlehem—for the first time he was seeing the great paintings and sculptures of the Old Masters. He responded with wonder and amazement, but also with exasperation, irritation, disbelief. Above all he displayed the great energy of his humour.
The Khao San Road, Bangkok—first stop for the hordes of rootless young Westerners traveling in Southeast Asia. On Richard’s first night there, in a low-budget guest house, a fellow traveler slashes his wrists, bequeathing to Richard a meticulously drawn map to “the Beach.” The Beach is a highly accomplished and spellbinding novel that fixates on a generation in their twenties, who long for an unruined landscape, but find it difficult to experience the world firsthand.
Hear the speech of the real America, smell the grass, tsee the colors—these were Steinbeck’s goals as he set out to rediscover the country with Charley, his French poodle. He drives the interstates and the country roads, dines with truckers, encounters bears at Yellowstone and old friends in San Francisco. Along the way he reflects on the American character, racial hostility, the particular form of American loneliness he finds almost everywhere, and the unexpected kindness of strangers.
Ernest Hemingway’s classic memoir of Paris in the 1920s, now available in a restored edition, includes the original manuscript along with insightful recollections and unfinished sketches. Hemingway beautifully captures the fragile magic of a special time and place, and he manages to be nostalgic without hitting any false notes of sentimentality. “This is how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy,” he concludes.
In 1911, Hiram Bingham III climbed into the Andes Mountains of Peru and “discovered” Machu Picchu. While history has recast Bingham as a villain who stole both priceless artifacts and credit for finding the archeological site, this book retraces the explorer’s perilous path in search of the truth. Turn Right at Machu Picchu is Mark Adams’ fascinating and funny account of his journey through some of the world’s most majestic, historic, and remote landscapes.
With a little math and a lot of determination, Janice cuts back, saves up, and buys herself two years of freedom in Europe. A few days into her stop in Paris, Janice meets Christophe, the cute butcher down the street—who doesn’t speak English. Through a combination of sign language and franglais, they embark on a whirlwind romance. But her dwindling savings force her to turn to her three loves—words, art, and Christophe—to figure out a way to make her happily-ever-after in Paris last forever.
Travel Books – Travelogues & Destinations
The most famous of Jack Kerouac’s works is not only the soul of the Beat movement and literature but one of the most important novels of the century. Like nearly all of Kerouac’s writing, This thinly fictionalized autobiography is filled with a cast made of Kerouac’s real life friends, lovers, and fellow travelers. Narrated by Sal Paradise, one of Kerouac’s alter-egos, this book remains a cross-country bohemian odyssey that not only influenced writing in the years since its 1957 publication but penetrated into the deepest levels of American thought and culture.
Based on Stephen Clarke’s own experiences and with names changed to “avoid embarrassment, possible legal action, and to prevent the author’s legs being broken by someone in a Yves Saint Laurent suit,” A Year in the Merde provides perfect entertainment for Francophiles and Francophobes alike. Paul West, a young Englishman, arrives to set up some “English” tea-rooms in Paris and gives a laugh-out-loud account of the pleasures and perils of being a Brit in France.
Holy Cow is Macdonald’s often hilarious chronicle of her adventures in a land of chaos and contradiction, of encounters with Hinduism, Islam and Jainism, Sufis, Sikhs, Parsis and Christians and a kaleidoscope of yogis, swamis and Bollywood stars. From spiritual retreats and crumbling nirvanas to war zones and New Delhi nightclubs, it is a journey that only a woman on a mission to save her soul, her love life—and her sanity—can survive.
Warned by a fortune-teller not to risk flying for an entire year, Tiziano Terzani—a vastly experienced Asia correspondent—took what he called the first step into an unknown world. Traveling by foot, boat, bus, car, and train, he visited Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, China, Mongolia, Japan, Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia. He consulted soothsayers, sorcerers, and shamans and received much advice—some wise, some otherwise—about his future.
Before his return to the U.S. after a 20-year residence in England, journalist Bryson embarked on a farewell tour of his adopted homeland. His trenchant, witty and detailed observations of life in a variety of towns and villages will delight Anglophiles. Veering from the ludicrous to the endearing and back again, Notes From a Small Island is a delightfully irreverent jaunt around the nation that has produced zebra crossings and Shakespeare, and places with names like Farleigh Wallop and Titsey.
In 1933, the delightfully eccentric travel writer Robert Byron set out on a journey through the Middle East via Beirut, Jerusalem, Baghdad and Teheran to Oxiana, near the border between Afghanistan and the Soviet Union. Throughout, he kept a thoroughly captivating record of his encounters, discoveries, and frequent misadventures. The book serves as a rare account of the architectural treasures of a region now inaccessible to most Western travelers, and a nostalgic look back at a more innocent time.