For many Paul Theroux comes to mind as one of the most famous travel writers. Whether you enjoy reading William Least Heat-Moon, Jan Morris, Eric Newby, Kira Salak or more literary writers such as Samuel Johnson, Charles Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson, Hilaire Belloc, D. H. Lawrence, Rebecca West or John Steinbeck picking up one of these books while on vacation or to transport you to another world while at home is pure pleasure.
For aspiring travel writers, it also serves as a necessary tool to learn and understand the craft of writing in this genre.
In no particular order, here is a list of 52 recommended travel books, narratives, novels and anthologies worth a read.
1. Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Capetown by Paul Theroux
Dark Star Safari is a rich and insightful book whose itinerary is Africa, from Cairo to Cape Town: down the Nile, through Sudan and Ethiopia, to Kenya, Uganda, and ultimately to the tip of South Africa. Going by train, dugout canoe, “chicken bus,” and cattle truck, Theroux passes through some of the most beautiful – and often life-threatening – landscapes on earth.
2. The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux
First published more than thirty years ago, Paul Theroux’s strange, unique, and hugely entertaining railway odyssey has become a modern classic of travel literature. Here Theroux recounts his early adventures on an unusual grand continental tour.
3. Riding the Iron Rooster: By Train Through China by Paul Theroux
Paul Theroux, the author of the train travel classics The Great Railway Bazaar and The Old Patagonian Express, takes to the rails once again in this account of his epic journey through China. He hops aboard as part of a tour group in London and sets out for China’s border.
4. Pillars of Hercules by Paul Theroux
At last he has ventured to one of the most traveled places on earth, and returned with his most exhilarating, revealing, and eloquent travel book.
5. Sandstorms: Days and Nights in Arabia by Peter Theroux
Paul Theroux’s brother also wrote a great travel book. Theroux recounts his experiences in the Middle East of the 1980s. The author went to Egypt to teach English and wound up chronicling the disappearance of Lebanon’s Shia Iman Moussa Sadr. But Sandstorms is the human side of an American in Arabia: swapping dirty jokes, drinking till all hours in dirty cafes, reading Saudi literature to try to touch the Arabian soul.
6. Sea and Sardinia by D. H. Lawrence
In January 1921, D. H. Lawrence and his wife, Frieda visited Sardinia, a Mediterranean island west of Italy. Although the trip lasted only nine days, Lawrence wrote an intriguing account of Sardinian life that not only evokes the place, people, and local customs but is also deeply revealing about the writer himself.
7. Along the Ganges (Armchair Traveller) by Ilija Trojanow
An emigrant from Cold War Bulgaria now living in Cape Town, Trojanow brings a pan-religious enthusiasm to his writings on Asia, and in his journey from the Ganges’s source to the chaotic cities along its course, he treats the river and its Hindu devotees with fascinations, respect, and an eye for detail.
8. The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac.
One of the best and most popular of Kerouac’s autobiographical novels, The Dharma Bums is based on experiences the writer had during the mid-1950s while living in California, after he’d become interested in Buddhism’s spiritual mode of understanding.
9. On the Road by Jack Kerouac
Often touted as the launching pad for vagabonders, wherein the purpose of life is to simply “live.”Jack Kerouac’s classic novel of freedom and longing defined what it meant to be “Beat” and h as inspired every generation since its initial publication more than forty years ago.
10. The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America by Bill BrysonFollowing an urge to rediscover his youth, the author leaves his native Des Moines, Iowa, in a journey that takes him across 38 states. Lucky for us, he brought a notebook.
11. In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson
The David Sedaris of travel writing makes Australia, home to some of the oddest and most dangerous of earth’s creatures, endlessly entertaining. Bryson, who could make a pile of dirt compelling–and yes, Australia is mostly dirt–finds no shortage of curiosities. When he isn’t dodging Portuguese man-of-wars or considering the virtues of the remarkable platypus, he visits southwest Gippsland, home of the world’s largest earthworms.
12. Death in the Afternoon by Ernest Hemingway
A necessary piece for those traveling through Spain. Still considered one of the best books ever written about bullfighting, Death in the Afternoon is an impassioned look at the sport by one of its true aficionados.
13. Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway
“A Moveable Feast” is his memories, observations and experiences of living in Paris during the 1920’s as part of the “Lost Generation” of America writers and artists. It is an essential piece for those who dream of living abroad or are in the midst of piecing together their expatriate lives. A Moveable Feast remains one of Ernest Hemingway’s most beloved works..
14. The Road to Oxiana by Robert Byron
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.
15. Into the Wild by John Krakauer
John Krakauer’s study of Chris McCandles short life will shake you to the core. After graduating from Emory University in Atlanta in 1992, top student and athlete Christopher McCandless abandoned his possessions, gave his entire $24,000 savings account to charity and hitchhiked to Alaska, where he went to live in the wilderness. Four months later, he turned up dead. His diary, letters and two notes found at a remote campsite tell of his desperate effort to survive, apparently stranded by an injury and slowly starving.
16. The Book Bag by W. Somerset Maugham
An intriguing and entertaining collection of short stories by W. Somerset Maugham that include pieces set in Asia, Europe and the Americas. The tales will shock, captivate and amuse the reader as Maugham pulls the “skeletons out of the closet” of his seemingly conservative, ‘civilized’ characters.
17. The Summing Up by W. Somerset Maugham
“The Summing Up” by W. Somerset Maugham is a must-read for any aspiring writer. It represents Maugham’s life and philosophy in his own words. It is autobiographical in nature, though most of the work is concerned with Maugham’s unique and fascinating opinions on the theatre, writing, metaphysics and the interesting people he encountered in his long and successful career.Maugham emphasizes that the book is not his autobiography but are his reflections on the the craft of writing and the importance of travel, literature and philosophy.
18. The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham
From China to England, this is a novel that teaches the lessons of love as the character of Kitty, a shallow and confused socialite marries the passionate bacteriologist Walter Fane who she later cheats on with the Charles Townsend. When Walter Fane discovers her infidelity he takes her on assignment with him to China. Not only is the book about discovering the meaning of love, forgiveness and compassion, but also paints a vivid picture of China during the 20th century.
19. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thomson
A cult novel that is an account of Thomson’s drug-infused, paranoia ridden journey to Las Vegas. This is Hunter S Thompson’s ether-fuelled, savage journey to the heart of the American Dream.
20. Heart of Darkness (Norton Critical Editions) by Joseph Conrad
The story revolves around the character of Christopher Marlow and his journey through the Congo. An important and timeless piece posing questions on the concept of ‘civilization,’ the inner-struggle between good and evil, and colonialism.
21. The Call of the Wild by Jack London
A gripping story that follows the adventures of the loyal dog Buck, who is stolen from his comfortable family home and forced into the harsh life of an Alaskan sled dog. Passed from master to master, Buck embarks on an extraordinary journey that ends with his becoming the legendary leader of a wolf pack.
22. Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain
Discover the magic of life on the Mississippi.
23. The Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain
One of the most famous travel books ever written by an American, here is an irreverent and incisive commentary on the “New Barbarians'” encounter with the Old World. Twain’s hilarious satire impales with sharp wit both the chauvinist and the cosmopolitan.
24. The Places in Between by Rory Stewart
We never really find out why Stewart decided to walk across Afghanistan only a few months after the Taliban were deposed, but what emerges from the last leg of his two-year journey across Asia is a lesson in good travel writing.
25. The Rings of Saturn by W. G. Sebald
In August 1992, W.G. Sebald set off on a walking tour of Suffolk, one of England’s least populated and most striking counties. The Rings of Saturn is his record of these travels, a phantasmagoria of fragments and memories, fraught with dizzying knowledge and desperation and shadowed by mortality.
26. Blue Highways: A Journey into America by William Least Heat-Moon.
First published in 1982, William Least Heat-Moon’s account of his journey along the back roads of the United States (marked with the color blue on old highway maps) has become something of a classic. When he loses his job and his wife on the same cold February day, he is struck by inspiration: “A man who couldn’t make things go right could at least go. He could quit trying to get out of the way of life. Chuck routine. Live the real jeopardy of circumstance. It was a question of dignity.”
27. Under the Tuscan Sun: At Home in Italy by Frances Mayes
In Under the Tuscan Sun, Frances Mayes brings the lyrical voice of a poet, the eye of a seasoned traveler, and the discerning palate of a cook and food writer to invite readers to explore the pleasures of Italian life and to feast at her table.
28. Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere by Jan Morris
Primarily a travelogue, but at a deeper level, it’s autobiography. This small ‘free port’, ‘open city’, and ‘home of exiles’ on the Adriatic is an image for the author herself.
29. Four Corners: A Journey into the Heart of Papua New Guinea by Kira Salak
Following the route taken by British explorer Ivan Champion in 1927, and amid breathtaking landscapes and wildlife, Salak traveled across this remote Pacific island-often called the last frontier of adventure travel-by dugout canoe and on foot.
30. Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
Shipwrecked castaway Lemuel Gulliver’s encounters with the petty, diminutive Lilliputians, the crude giants of Brobdingnag, the abstracted scientists of Laputa, the philosophical Houyhnhnms, and the brutish Yahoos give him new, bitter insights into human behavior. Swift’s fantastic and subversive book remains supremely relevant in our own age of distortion, hypocrisy, and irony.
31. The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles
Paul Bowles has lived as an expatriate for more than 40 years in the North African nation of Morocco, a country that reaches into the vast and inhospitable Sahara Desert. The desert is itself a character in The Sheltering Sky, the most famous of Bowles’ books, which is about three young Americans of the postwar generation who go on a walkabout into Northern Africa’s own arid heart of darkness.
32. Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne
“Around the World in 80 Days” by Jules Verne set the stage for the future of adventure seekers everywhere. A classic novel that begins with Londoner Phileas Fogg, who makes a £20,000 bet with his friends that he can circle the globe in 80 days with his French valet Passerpout.
33. Travels with Charley: In Search of America by John Steinbeck
“Travels with Charley” is Steinbeck’s account of his journey through America during the 1960’s with his best friend, Charley the dog. A road trip across the country and back; his goal was to discover what Americans are like.
34. Chasing the Monsoon by Alexander Frater
On 20th May, the Indian summer monsoon will begin to envelop the country in two great wet arms, one coming from the east, the other from the west. They are united over central India around 10th July, a date that can be calculated within seven or eight days. Alexander Frater aims to follow the monsoon, staying sometimes behind it, sometimes in front of it, and everywhere watching the impact of this extraordinary phenomenon.
35. Chasing the Sea: Lost Among the Ghosts of Empire in Central Asia by Tom Bissell
Bissell journies to Uzbekistan to write about the rapidly deteriorating ecosystem of the Aral Sea. Once the size of Lake Michigan, the sea has already lost most of its water and will likely disappear by the middle of the next decade, leaving thousands of square kilometers of salty desert. Journalist Bissell examines that story, but also ponders broader questions about Uzbekistan and its people.
36. Cross Country: Fifteen Years and 90,000 Miles on the Roads and Interstates of America with Lewis and Clark, a lot of bad motels, a moving van, Emily Post, … kids, and enough coffee to kill an elephant by Robert Sullivan
Has a title ever described more of its contents? The book chronicles his family’s cross-country trips from Oregon to New York.
37. Great Plains by Ian Frazier
Frazier, staff writer for the New Yorker explores the Great Plains in this travelogue.
38. A Walk Across America by Peter Jenkins
Peter Jenkins recalls the story of his 1973-1975 walk from New York to New Orleans. Jenkins describes how disillusionment with society drove him out onto the road on a walk across America.
39. Road Fever by Tim Cahill
This is a hip and triumphant account of an attempt to break the Guinness Book of World Records time for a road trip from the tip of South America to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. Cahill drove 15,000 miles from the southernmost tip of Tierra del Fuego to the northernmost terminus of the Dalton Highway in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, from one end of the world to another, in a record-breaking 23 1/2 days.
40.From Heaven Lake Travels Through Sinkiang & Tibet by Vikram Seth After two years as a postgraduate student at Nanjing University in China, Vikram Seth hitch-hiked back to his home in New Delhi, via Tibet. From Heaven Lake is the story of his remarkable journey and his encounters with nomadic Muslims, Chinese officials, Buddhists and others.
41.Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes by Robert Louis Stevenson
The wild Cevennes region of France forms the backdrop for the pioneering travelogue Travels with a Donkey, written by a young Robert Louis Stevenson. Ever hopeful of encountering the adventure he yearned for and raising much needed finance at the start of his writing career, Stevenson embarked on the 120 mile, 12 day trek and recorded his experiences in this journal. His only companion for the trip was a predictably stubborn donkey called Modestine.
42. Through Painted Deserts: Light, God, and Beauty on the Open Road byDonald Miller
A record of a classic road trip. Miller’s tale is full of serendipitous adventures and thoughtful Christian reflection . . . offering the sort of deep-thought wanderings into meaning and significance that are the meat of college-age existence . . . a reminder that life was meant to be lived, not just gotten through.
43. Holy Cow: An Indian Adventure by Sarah Macdonald
Australian radio correspondent Macdonald’s rollicking memoir recounts the two years she spent in India when her boyfriend, a TV news correspondent, was assigned to New Delhi. She spends her sabbatical traveling around the country, sampling India’s “spiritual smorgasbord”: attending a silent retreat for Vipassana meditation, seeking out a Sikh Ayurvedic “miracle healer,” bathing in the Ganges with Hindus, studying Buddhism in Dharamsala, dabbling in Judaism with Israeli tourists, dipping into Parsi practices in Mumbai, visiting an ashram in Kerala, attending a Christian festival in Velangani and singing with Sufis.
44. Wanderlust: Real-Life Tales of Adventure and Romance edited byby Don George and forward by Pico Iyer
A collection of 40 essays culled from Salon.com’s “Wanderlust” section including a handful of brand-name travel writers such as Jan Morris, Peter Mayle, Pico Iyer, Tim Cahill and even Tony Wheeler, the founder of the Lonely Planet guidebooks.
45. The Beach by Alex Garland
The Beach, is the subject of a legend among young travelers in Asia: a lagoon hidden from the sea, with white sand and coral gardens, freshwater falls surrounded by jungle, plantsuntouched for a thousand years. There, it is rumored, a carefully selected international few have settled in a communal Eden.
46. A Search in Secret India by Paul Brunton
A Search in Secret India is the story of Paul Brunton’s journey around India, living among yogis, mystics, and gurus, some of whom he found convincing, others not. He finally finds the peace and tranquility which come with self-knowledge when he meets and studies with the great sage Sri Ramana Maharishi.
47. The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom by Slavomir Rawicz
Cavalry officer Slavomir Rawicz was captured by the Red Army in 1939 during the German-Soviet partition of Poland and was sent to the Siberian Gulag along with other captive Poles, Finns, Ukranians, Czechs, Greeks, and even a few English, French, and American unfortunates who had been caught up in the fighting. A year later, he and six comrades from various countries escaped from a labor camp in Yakutsk and made their way, on foot, thousands of miles south to British India.
48. On Foot Through Africa by Ffyona Campbell
Not only about a walk but fills the reader with an understanding and appreciation for Africa and its people and an awareness of the harms done by the arrogance with which the West has imposed on African people.
49. The Scorpion-Fish by Nicolas Bouvier
Although it’s called fiction, this book combines a special kind of travel writing with meditations on strange lands and cultures, a contemplative diary and some peculiar inquiries into nature, human and animal. The narrator, a Swiss historian in the final months of a long journey in the East, settles into the 117th room he has occupied en route, this one on a “chimerical island” in the heart of India.
50. Killing Yourself to Liveby Chuck Klosterman
About a drive cross-country to visit several of America’s most famous rock and roll death sites, from the Rhode Island club where more than 90 Great White fans died in a fire, to the Iowa field where Buddy Holly’s plane crashed.
51. Travels in West Africa by Mary Kingsley
An autobiographical classic that recounts the remarkable journeys undertaken by a sheltered Victorian woman who ventured alone into the territory of known cannibals in order to continue her father’s studies in West Africa.
52. In Patagoniaby Bruce ChatwinAn exquisite account of his journey through “the uttermost part of the earth,” that stretch of land at the southern tip of South America, where bandits were once made welcome and Charles Darwin formed part of his “survival of the fittest” theory.
So many books, so little time! Is your favorite travel book on the list? If not, leave your picks in the comments! We’d love to hear from you.
Alexa Meisler is the editorial director of 52 Perfect Days. Born in Paris, France she has since lived in Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Portland, Oregon. She currently resides in San Diego with her husband and son where they enjoy exploring California and Mexico.
Travel has always been a part of her life; traveling to such places as Morocco, Tangiers and Spain as a young child as well as taking many road trips to Mexico with her grandparents as a young girl. Since then, she has traveled abroad to locations such as Russia, Taiwan and throughout Europe.
Prior to working at 52 Perfect Days she was a freelance travel writer; focusing on family and women’s adventure experiences.