It wasn’t long ago that people had to rely on print publications like “National Geographic” to learn about foreign places and unknown populations. Today, information about faraway places is readily available thanks to the internet and browsers like Google. While that’s the case, travel books remain the best way to have an intimate experience with a place you’ve never visited.
Although there are exceptions, travel books largely consist of tomes written by authors who’ve had their “boots on the ground” in the location they’ve written about. For the most part, their tales inform readers about their firsthand experiences, whether they be good, bad, joyous, unfortunate, hilarious, or heartbreaking. Their accounts aren’t meant to sway our opinions, but their stories certainly have the power to break down preconceived notions about others, foreign places, and even ourselves.
It’s true that some travel books are transformative in nature. It’s equally true that others are simply great stories that are wildly entertaining and a worthwhile read. And it’s accurate to say that still others fall between those two extremes.
What separates travel books from other genres isn’t just the myriad of locations that they’re based on. As you familiarize yourself with these books, you’ll quickly realize that it’s the diverse group of people who’ve penned them throughout the centuries that make them distinct.
From celebrity chefs to noblemen, adventurers, “nobodies,” and more, members from just about every societal caste have taken a stab at writing a travel book. And that diversity combines with the unique nature of each subject written about to make travel books as compelling today despite the availability of “instant information” as they’ve ever been.
Adventures From Scratch
While they’re not travel books per se, Adventures from Scratch has two books that are travel-friendly.
Adventures from Scratch: Family Edition includes 55+ scratch-off challenges families can do all together. Each challenge has a description you can read before you scratch, which ensures you’ll pick an activity that’s conducive to your current location and available resources. The adventures in the book are highly adaptable, so you can do them from anywhere you decide to travel.
Adventures from Scratch: Date Edition is also a collection of challenges, but its scratch-off activities have an adult theme. All of the book’s activities are intended to bring couples closer together and deepen their shared bonds. Activities are broken into various categories, such as “create,” “sugar and spice,” and “play,” so finding an activity that’s mood appropriate is a breeze.
24 of the Best Travel Books
1. Don Quixote
Regarded as the world’s first modern novel and the best-selling novel ever, Don Quixote consists of two books, with the first published in 1605 and the second released in 1615. While Don Quixote is a work of fiction, it’s a realistic account of nobleman Alonso Quixano’s attempt to rebrand himself as the hero Don Quixote, as he labors to reclaim the virtues of wronged women and deliver hand-handed justice to wrongdoers.
Quixote enlists the help of Sancho Panza and the duo embarks on a trek across Spain. The following occurrences are delusional yet real to Quixote. As a result, the book forces readers to consider whose version of reality is the right one, the world’s generally accepted perception, or an individual’s understanding as the person has experienced it.
Don Quixote is a timeless paradox of reality and madness. Like Quixote saw them himself, the book gives readers the gift of tilting windmills as a metaphor for humanity’s problematic existence, which will remain at the forefront of your mind long after you cross the tale off your must-read list.
2. The Good Girl’s Guide to Getting Lost: A Memoir of Three Continents, Two Friends, and One Unexpected Adventure
A travel memoir, The Good Girl’s Guide to Getting Lost recounts its author’s yearlong adventure across three continents. Upon graduating college and faced with real-life decisions, normally predictable Rachel Friedman decided to take a trip to Ireland, a country she’d never visited.
While overseas, Friedman befriends a free-spirited, somewhat unhinged Australian who proceeds to introduce the author to new friends and ignite her passion for adventure. As Friedman travels from Ireland to Australia and South America, she learns to embrace her fondness for travel and learns intricate things about herself.
By the end of her odyssey, Friedman learns to do something she never thought she would, something that should be a lesson to us all. And that lesson is to live for and in the moment.
As is the case with most if not all of the other books included in this list, The Good Girl’s Guide to Getting Lost is available on Amazon. Just 320 pages in length, The Good Girl’s Guide to Getting Lost is a quick read with a lasting impact.
3. A House in Bali
A timeless example of travel writing, A House in Bali remains the only tome about Bali that was written by a musician from the West. Initially published in 1947, the book details the obsession Colin McPhee had with Balinese gamelan music.
After first hearing Balinese gamelan music by chance in 1929, writer and composer McPhee made it his life’s mission to visit Bali to hear the music firsthand. McPhee realized his dream a short while later, and he resided in the country for a decade beginning in the 1930s.
McPhee’s writings and compositions are largely responsible for introducing the West to Balinese gamelan music. His intriguing book unveils a mystifying picture of Balinese society, which was noticeably poorer than most societies in the West. While that’s the case, the tome portrays a society that’s rich in happiness and spiritual beliefs. The book describes a culture that prizes the arts, with music reigning supreme.
As you’d expect given McPhee’s skillset, A House in Bali is lyrical and its words somehow relay the spirit if not the sounds of Balinese gamelan music. One of the best travel books for music lovers, McPhee’s narrative may inspire you to fly overseas to hear Balinese gamelan music and experience a new culture for yourself just like he did generations ago.
4. A Moveable Feast
Written by Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast is a travelogue about the author’s time in 1920s Paris, France. “A Moveable Feast” is far and away one of Hemingway’s most enduring narratives, and the book’s been scrutinized by critics and literary enthusiasts for decades.
The book is now available in a restored version on Amazon. Hemingway’s grandson Sean edited the restored version and the author’s sole surviving son wrote a personal forward for the release. The latest version of the classic includes never-before-published sketches of other luminaries the literary artist hung out with during his time in Paris, including F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ford Maddox Ford.
If you haven’t read the book before, you should bypass earlier editions and buy the latest release of A Moveable Feast. The restored version of the book provides insights into the family life, experiences, and perceptions of one of the greatest literary geniuses of all time.
5. A Tourist in the Arab Spring
While others fled the region after the Arab Spring uprising, Tom Chesshyre chose to visit the area as a hapless tourist. Chesshyre’s book tells the story of his experience in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt as the countries strived to recover from the Arab Spring. During his stay, Chesshyre visited sites that few had seen in recent years, and he gloriously describes them in great detail in his book.
A Tourist in the Arab Spring is heartwarming, amusing, and harrowing all at the same time. From Chesshyre’s kidnapping in Libya to his conversations with struggling locals, his listening to the Kalashnikovs at night, and more, the book allows you to share Chesshyre’s experiences without forcing you to get off the couch let alone leave your home or travel to another continent.
Just 256 pages in length, A Tourist in the Arab Spring is like a mini tour of select parts of the Middle East that unfolds in what feels like real-time. We encourage you to buy this gripping read on Amazon.
6. A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail
A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson documents the author’s failed attempt to walk the full length of the 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail. Given the author’s lyricism and proven descriptive abilities, this book allows you to experience some of the most breathtaking terrain in America, such as the incredible mountains, shimmering lakes, and magnificent forests travelers pass along the trail.
Just like Bryson introduces you to the landscape, he also shares accounts of his exchanges with some of the quirky people he met during his journey. If you love the outdoors, you’ll enjoy this fool- and foot-hardy autobiographical tale by Bill Bryson.
7. Arctic Dreams
Equal parts bestseller and groundbreaker, Arctic Dreams details Barry Lopez’s observations from his 15 trips to the Far North in Canada that stretched over five years. Lopez’s account introduces polar bears, narwhal, musk oxen, and other creatures from the Last Frontier in incredible detail. The author discusses the area’s history as well as the culture of the indigenous people who occupy the land.
Lopez magically presents the Arctic as the austere, perilous place that it is to this day while simultaneously presenting a land filled with unparalleled beauty, intrigue, and wonder. Arctic Dreams will both fashion your dreams and haunt them at the same time. Buy the book on Amazon now.
8. A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush
After working in the fashion industry for a decade, haute couture specialist turned travel writer Eric Newby decided he needed a change. After taking a brief four-day course in Wales, Newby and his friend Hugh Carless traveled from Mayfair to Afghanistan. From there, the pair explored the mountains of Hindu Kush, which are just north of Kabul.
Newby and Carless launched their adventure back in 1956. Despite their inexperience and lack of preparation, the two survived a month of raw adventure and hardship, with Newby sharing his firsthand experience in A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush
With things currently up in the air in Afghanistan, this book may be the closest you’ll come to visiting the historic country safely. Given the inherent beauty of both the Hindu Kush and Afghanistan, A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush remains a must-read decades after it was originally penned.
9. A Week at the Airport
One of the busiest airports in the world, Heathrow Airport is located in London, England. In 2009, the bestselling author of The Art of Travel, Alain de Botton, was named the airport’s writer-in-residence. As a result, de Botton enjoyed full access to all aspects of Heathrow Airport.
During his time at the facility, de Botton spoke to front-line employees, executives, pilots, and a countless number of international passengers. Using information from those conversations along with his own observations, de Botton created the insightful look at airport life that is A Week at the Airport.
The author’s work is almost a meditation involving a place that most people take for granted as they hurry between gates. A Week at the Airport is an enjoyable reminder to slow down and consider all the individual pieces that make up the grandiose whole that is known as Heathrow Airport. That powerful lesson is one that you should consider applying to all aspects of your life, not just your means of transportation.
10. The Art of Travel
While another travel writer may provide advice about you where you should go, Alain de Botton prefers to tell readers why and how they should travel. Using all the skills he demonstrated in How Proust Can Save Your Life and A Week at the Airport, de Botton explores the pleasures of anticipation, the irresistible intrigue of the beguiling, and the implicit value of noticing even the little things that most overlook.
The Art of Travel discusses de Botton’s observations, but it also draws from the experiences of other famed travelers, including:
- Van Gogh
- Alexander von Humboldt
- Xavier de Maistre
If you want to read a travel book that’s truly unlike any other, The Art of Travel is for you. From the moment you read the first of the book’s 272 pages, you won’t be able to put the book down. It’s simply that good.
11. In a Sunburned Country
Another book by the famed Bill Bryson, In a Sunburned Country is a hilarious yet fact-filled account of the author’s stay in Australia. The only island that’s also a country and its own continent, Australia is home to some of the deadliest creatures in the world, including sharks, toxic caterpillars, and the 10 most poisonous snakes on the face of the globe.
In Bryson, Australia has found the perfect travel guide to introduce all the country’s many wonders to readers located around the world. From cold beer to the nation’s friendly inhabitants, sunlit beaches, attacking seashells, crocodiles, bustling cities, and more, Bryson shows them all off with his humor and firm command of the written word.
12. The Colossus of Maroussi
An exceptional example of travel writing, The Colossus of Maroussi is the brainchild of famed author Henry Miller. Miller got the idea for this captivating travel memoir after he heard a women’s alluring description of Greece.
Miller and his friend Lawrence Durrell went to Greece to explore the country’s beautiful countryside. After the pair arrived in Greece, they experienced a series of calamitous events, such as being nearly trampled to death by a flock of sheep as Miller and Durrell lied on a beach in their birthday suits. Miller recounts each cold hard-boiled eggs after they were warmed up in a village’s only stove.
As only he could, Miller also tells of the stays he and Durrell shared in accommodations that had seen better days, “but which have an aroma of the past.” The wordsmith described how the Greek poet Katsmbalis, who serves as the colossus of Miller’s tome, would roust every rooster near the Acropolis with his own noisiness.
13. On the Road
A pioneer of the Beat Generation, Jack Kerouac was an American author who is still widely celebrated for his unique spontaneous prose writing style. Kerouac scripted multiple books that proved to be transformative for generations, including On the Road which was released in 1957.
Inspired by Kerouac’s own experiences with Neal Cassady, this book tells the coming-of-age tale of two buddies who embark on cross-country trips looking for life’s meaning and real-life experiences. The book combines naivete and unharnessed ambition to tell a story that expresses the author’s love for America and his compassion for the “human condition.”
The quintessential tale of American hope and freedom, On the Road has had a lasting impact on everyone who’s taken the time to read it. For a transformative reading experience, order a copy of this book from Amazon. While you’re at it, consider ordering some other books by Jack Kerouac, such as:
- The Town and the City
- On the Road: The Original Scroll
- Big Sur
- The Dharma Bums
- Desolation Angels
- Maggie Cassidy
- Mexico City Blues
14. A Cook’s Tour
Scripted by celebrity chef and TV personality Anthony Bourdain, A Cook’s Tour was the inspiration for Bourdain’s long-running television show on The Food Network and, subsequently CNN’s “Anthony Bourdain, Parts Unknown, which is arguably the best travel television show of all time. A Cook’s Tour is a travel memoir that details Bourdain’s travels through 11 countries as he tries local cuisines and immerses himself in global cultures.
Whether you’re a bibliophile, a foodie, or a fan of all things whacky and unusual, you’ll enjoy this book from start to finish. Here are some other books that were penned prior to Bourdain’s untimely death that you’ll want to check out:
- A Cook’s Tour: Global Adventures in Extreme Cuisines
- Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook
- World Travel: An Irreverent Guide
15. Eat, Pray, Love: One woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India, and Indonesia
This heartfelt memoir tells the story of American author Elizabeth Gilbert. As a career woman, wife, and homeowner, Gilbert made the choice to leave everything she had behind her to uncover the things that she really wanted out of life.
Eat, Pray, Love chronicles Gilbert’s travels and experiences as she studies different aspects of nature in three countries. In Italy, Gilbert investigated the art of pleasure. During a stay in India, Gilbert explored the art of devotion. While visiting Bali in Indonesia, Gilbert tried to find the balance between the two subjects of her previous studies.
The journey Elizabeth Gilbert was brave enough to embark upon is so compelling that the author’s book was made into a Hollywood blockbuster of the same name that starred Julia Roberts. While the movie is great, there’s nothing like reading the firsthand account penned by Gilbert. Filled with touching moments and hard realities, the book is a moving tribute that will make you question what’s really important to you.
16. Figures in a Landscape
Figures in a Landscape is a non-fiction collection of fascinating essays scripted by Paul Theroux. The author’s observations and keen writing skills serve up the world’s steaming underbelly while simultaneously giving readers the opportunity to celebrate love, longing and, of course, wanderlust and wonder-lust in equal measure.
Theroux’s third collection of essays, Figures in a Landscape includes literary critiques of works by Muriel Spark, Hunter Thompson, and Henry David Thoreau. The collection also includes brutishly honest personal profiles, a tale of taking a helicopter ride with the deceased Elizabeth Taylor, a raw look at the daily life of a dominatrix in New York City, and intimate details of a tour of New York alongside comedian Robin Williams.
Should you decide to order just one book from Amazon this month, make it Figures in a Landscape Theroux’s razor-sharp writing combine with his real-life experiences so well that you’ll feel like you were part of the action as you read his essays. This collection is an irrefutable must-read that’s as close as you can get to a guidebook through Theroux’s thoughts, journeys, and experiences.
If you decide to go to The Big Apple to try to retrace Theroux’s steps as he walked alongside Williams, consider signing up for a Let’s Roam scavenger hunt. We offer nine app-led New York scavenger hunts that will help you get to know the city like the back of your hand.
17. The Alchemist: A Fable About Following Your Dream
This novel by Paulo Coelho is a wondrous tale filled with an idyllic blend of simplicity and wisdom. The story centers on the journey of Santiago, an Andalusian shepherd boy. In a quest to find treasure among the pyramids in the Egyptian desert, Santiago travels to Spain and then on to Egypt. During his travels, the boy meets a gentleman who refers to himself as King, a female gypsy, and an alchemist.
Everyone Santiago meets attempts to steer him in the direction of the treasure he seeks. While no one knows what the treasure is exactly, it turns out not to be important because the story is actually a meditation about the treasures that lie within us all.
As are some of the other books on our list, The Alchemist is a transformative narrative that demonstrates the eternal power of dreams and the need to listen to your heart. This book is, far and away, a fantastic example of travel writing at its finest. As such, The Alchemist deserves a spot on your bucket list of life-changing books not to miss.
18. Peter Mayle’s Provence
Peter Mayle and his wife left England to live in southern France. This book recounts their experiences away from British life, such as participating in goat races and listening to Pavorotti perform under a star-filled sky. The stories contained in this book are enchanting, endearing, and sometimes utterly bewildering. Taken together, the glimpses of the Mayles’ life paint the picture of a happy couple’s decades-long life together in a beautiful part of a foreign country.
While Peter Mayle and his wife didn’t manage to escape it all when they moved to southern France, Provence shows they’ve had plenty of fun and laughs as they tried to do so. For a feel-good read, get yourself a copy of Peter Mayle’s Provence.
19. Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster
Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer isn’t for the faint of heart. The book is the authoritative account of what was the deadliest season for climbers in the history of Mt. Everest. An accomplished climber himself, Krakauer reached the summit of the mountain on May 10, 1996 in the early afternoon. As he began his descent from the summit, other climbers were still struggling to reach it.
While Krakauer was safe in this tent six hours later, six climbers still hadn’t reached the camp. A storm hit, leaving five of the unprotected climbers dead. The sixth suffered such severe frostbite that he subsequently had to have his right hand amputated.
In his book, Krakauer examines why so many people are drawn to Mt. Everest and why they’re eager to risk their life and limbs to reach its storied summit. It’s an honest look into what proves to be a deadly endeavor for too many skilled climbers. Given his firsthand experience, Krakauer’s account is heart-wrenching in its presentation.
Although we normally recommend that people read a book rather than experiencing it another way, this is an exception. Rather than reading Into Thin Air, we suggest you order the audio version of the book. Narrated by actor Campbell Scott, the audio iteration of the tome will haunt you in just the right way.
20. Into the Wild
Also written by John Krakauer, Into the Wild is a non-fiction account of the demise of Christopher Johnson McCandless. After giving his savings to charity, a young McCandless abandons his life and his belongings and heads to Alaska. McCandless eventually walks alone into the wilderness just north of Mt. McKinley and eventually finds himself trapped for the remainder of the season. Lacking sustenance, McCandless dies in the abandoned school bus he’s been living in.
Into the Wild starts as a neat adventure of self-discovery, but it invariably and necessarily morphs into a tale of familial despair. Made into a movie starring William Hurt and other recognizable names, McCandless’ story lives on for all to see.
21. Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail
Named a bestseller by The New York Times and an Oprah’s Book Club favorite, Wild was declared one of the best books of the year by NPR, “The Boston Globe,” and other literary authorities. This non-fiction book tells the story of one woman’s journey of self-discovery and healing against all odds.
When she was just 22 years old, Cheryl Strayed feared she’d lost everything she’d worked so hard for. Her mother had passed away and her own marriage fell apart shortly thereafter. Four years later, Strayed was at her wit’s end, which led to a desperate decision that would change her life for the better.
With no training or experience, Strayed embarked on an odyssey that would take her from the Mojave Desert, through California and Oregon, and ultimately to Washington State on foot. From beginning to end, Strayed hiked more than 1,000 miles along the Pacific Crest Trail to find herself. Strayed completed her journey the same way it started, alone.
Strayed’s memoir is suspenseful and filled with warmheartedness and good-natured humor. At times tough to read because you want to jump in and help, Wild will open your eyes to a life-changing event that eventually gave its author the peace of mind, satisfaction, and self-acceptance she so desperately craved and deserved.
22. Lonely Planet’s Ultimate Travel: Our List of the 500 Best Places to See…Ranked
This travel guide purports to be the definitive bucket list of places to go and see. From popular sights like the Eiffel Tower to lesser-known places you might not have heard of, this guide tells you about them all and more. If you’re looking for destination ideas, we strongly encourage you to order this guide from Amazon.
23. Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel
If you’ve always wanted to be a backpacker but couldn’t figure out how to make your dream come true, you need to get a copy of Vagabonding from – you guessed it – Amazon. The practice of vagabonding typically involves people taking lengthy chunks of time away from their usual lives to experience the world and all its offerings on their own terms.
Scripted by seasoned travel writer Rolf Potts, Vagabonding explains how people can get in on the trend that is extended travel overseas. His guide explains various facets of the practice, such as:
- How to finance your vagabond travel
- How to select a destination
- How to adapt to the vagabond lifestyle and way of life
- How to address adversity during your journey
- How to readjust to your usual life when your adventure comes to an end
Anyone who wants to literally walk off the beaten path will get a kick out of this book. Even if you don’t embark on an overseas journey, the book is still worth the time it takes to read it because, once you’re done, you’ll have the skills to vagabond should you ever want to down the line.
24. American Shaolin: Flying Kicks, Buddhist Monks, and the Legend of Iron Crotch
Matthew Polly was a scrawny lightweight who was the frequent target of school-aged bullies as he grew up in Kansas. As a result, Polly dreamed of visiting the Shaolin Temple in China from a young age. Once there, he hoped he’d become the globe’s toughest fighter.
American Shaolin recaps Polly’s two-year stay in China, a time he spent living, studying, and training with the Shaolin monks. As his training progressed, Polly quickly learned the meaning of “chi ku,” which is Chinese for eating bitter.
While this book is very much about Polly’s experience, it offers a simultaneous look into the day-to-day routine of the Shaolin monks. Loaded with good humor and cultural insights, this book is a coming-of-age tale that unfolds in an ever-evolving country ruled by an allegedly corrupt, restrictive authoritarian government.
Frequently Asked Questions
Authors script travel books for an array of reasons. Some, like Cheryl Strayed and Elizabeth Gilbert, write them to share experiences and triumphs. Others write travel guides to inform readers about a given location or a number of places.
The answer to this question is largely subjective because it involves personal opinions. A book that speaks to one person may not resonate with another reader. If pressed, we say that you could pick any three books on our list and make a strong case that they’re the best.
Again, the answer to this inquiry will vary based on who you ask. With the varied writing styles represented in our list, you can say any one of the authors mentioned is the best even if he or she isn’t the most prolific.