These fifty one top travel books may inspire your wanderlust, or they may simply reinforce an itch that you already have. Either way, reading these inspiring travel books will help you gain clarity on the transformative nature of travel, school you in the art of the quest, bring you to tears with touching moments of kindness, and make you grateful that you didn’t make a drunken bet to carry a refrigerator around Ireland.
Why Good Travel Books Matter
In addition to being a travel writer, I am a former bookseller and an unrepentant book nerd. For me, reading and traveling are symbiotic activities: books inspire travel and travel encourages reading. In my world, they live in intimate association with one another and by doing both, they add up to something larger than doing either as an individual act.
I always recommend that you read books set in a destination before or while traveling there. Well constructed prose will give you an acute sense of place. You can feel delight in learning that you and the author or character are on a similar path. Reading about other people’s bravery, frailty and follys will make you a more adventurous traveler.
I have curated this list of travel books to have a broad mix of that bravery, frailty and folly. I hope that by exposing you to these books, you will take their lessons and inspiration out with you into the great wide world.
(This article contains affiliate links. This means that if you choose to purchase, I’ll make a small commission.)
Inspiring Travel Books About Transformation
The best travel books always have an element of transformation. These authors have faced their demons, established connections, and discovered equal measures of bravery and maturity along the way.
What I was Doing While You Were Breeding, Kristin Newman
Newman is a television comedy writer and a veteran traveler who spent her 20’s and 30’s discovering herself during a series of extended trips abroad. She’s never quite sure that she’s made the right choices, but she’s having fun anyway. Her self-deprecating, cheeky tone is spot on.
Diehl’s travel itch started early. He left California at 18 and by ten years later, he had lived and worked in 45 countries. He gives voice to those who want to take a less traditional path. “…Diehl makes the case, beautifully here, for a deeper consideration of the very purpose of travel. He argues for a deeper appreciation of the people and culture of the places we visit along the way.”
Travel with Charley, John Steinbeck
In 1960, Steinbeck decided that he needed some more creative juice in his tank and he set off an an epic Americana road trip with his poodle Charley.
My Life on the Road, Gloria Steinem
Steinem has been on the road so much during her life that she didn’t even get her own home until she was in her ’50’s. She presents an honest view of a life spent doing community organizing and feminist activism. “…Taking to the road—by which I mean letting the road take you—changed who I thought I was.”
Where is the happiest place in the world…and what makes it so damn happy? Weiner approaches this philosophical conundrum with a well-thumbed passport and his tongue planted firmly in his cheek.
Worldwalk, Steven Newman
While the rest of us were trying to score cheap flights, Newman was fulfilling his childhood dream by walking the length or width of 21 different countries on five continents. During his 10,000 mile journey, he experienced the full range, from harrowing to heartwarming, and he came of age in the process.
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The Gutsy Girl: Escapades for Your Life of Epic Adventure, Caroline Paul and Wendy MacNaughton
Gutsy Girl is written as a “you can do it” guide, advising teenage girls on how to tackle the world. I read it at 55 and it worked for me. It offers up perky tips and stories of adventurous girl heroes like Laura Dekker, who circumnavigated the world in a boat when she was only 14.
Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, Cheryl Strayed
I am a firm believer that the book is always better than the movie. I read this one shortly before setting off on my own long march along the Camino de Santiago. Strayed had more demons to work through than me, which she managed to exorcise while humping along the Pacific Crest Trail.
Eat Pray Love, Elizabeth Gilbert
This book is unquestionably better than the movie, and no, it isn’t just about bedding down with a South American hunk in Indonesia. Gilbert’s journey of self-discovery helped to transport her from a place of crippling doubt to happiness.
Playing it safe gets you nowhere. When the normally cautious Friedman throws her caution out the window, she ends up on an unexpected year long odyssey. “…a personal narrative of facing fears, transforming internal ideas and metamorphosing into an adulthood, grounded in the art of wanderlust.”
Travel Adventure Books Featuring Trials, Tribulations and Wacky Derring Do
Don’t you experience a delightfully guilty schadenfreude when reading about other people’s travel disasters? The authors of these travel adventure books help us learn from their mistakes. But more importantly, they are great role models for the “go for it” philosophy that we all need to cultivate.
Round Ireland With a Fridge, Tony Hawks
Because of course, you drink a few pints too many and make a bet with your mate that you can hitchhike the circumference of Ireland with a refrigerator. If you are ever temped to take up that bet, read Hawks’ book first. You’ll be heartened by the generosity and “up for anything” nature of the Irish folks that he meets along the way.
Finding Gobi: A Little Dog with a Very Big Heart, Dion Leonard
Making new friends is part of travel. But ultramarathoner Dion Leonard wasn’t expecting that when he competed in a 155 mile race in the Gobi desert. Yet, to his surprise, this little dog joined the race and won Dion’s heart.
Couch Surfing in Iran, Stephan Orth
Orth spent 62 days traveling Iran the hard way. He eschewed the typical tourist trail and leveraged an underground couch surfing system to get an inside look at Iran seldom seen by Westerners.
Sometimes it takes an outsider to help you better understand your own backyard. British George and his buddy Mark stumble around the back roads of the US in a (not so) trusty Dodge van.
Like Cheryl Strayed, Mark Adams was woefully unprepared for the rigors of the trail. However, he persevered, producing a funny and informative historical perspective of Machu Picchu.
Love with a Chance of Drowning, Torre DeRoche
Do you believe in love at first sight? If it happened to you, would you follow that guy across the Pacific Ocean in a small, old sailboat? “A funny, irresistibly offbeat tale about the risks and rewards of living, and loving, with an open heart.”
The Sex Lives of Cannibals, J. Maarten Troost
Not every island is a paradise. Troost learns this the hard way when he ditches his aimless life and follows his wife to Kiribati. Bureaucracy, piles of garbage, oppressive heat and too much of the Macarena dog him as he attempts to adjust.
In Patagonia, Bruce Chatwin
You don’t even need to be interested in Argentina to appreciate Chatwin’s exquisitely composed travelogue. But, trust me, after reading about his efforts to chase down legends, find Butch Cassidy and seek out his Welsh forebears, you’ll put Argentina on your bucket list. I sure did.
Roughing It, Mark Twain
Twain moved to the Nevada Territories with his brother right at the start of the gold rush. He bumbled around the gold fields, accidentally set a forest fire, owed everyone money and ultimately found his calling as America’s first Great Writer.
Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain
As Twain’s success grew, he was able to pay off those Nevada debts and even afford to take the “Grand Tour” of Europe and the Middle East. He and his buddies tackle the trip with no small amount of hubris and white privilege, but ultimately the travel humbles him.
“Travel is fatal to prejudice”Mark Twain
I totally agree with you Mark, which is why I support Take Flyte, an organization that helps kids from under-served communities take their first educational trip abroad.
Walking, Henry David Thoreau
Thoreau’s essay on the meditative nature of walking is a good reminder that you don’t have to go far afield to travel. Exploring nature’s gifts can occur literally outside of your front door.
A Time of Gifts: On Foot to Constantinople, Patrick Leigh Fermor
Like Thoreau, Fermor was also up for a good long walk. A Time of Gifts chronicles part one of his epic journey on foot, which covered the Netherlands to Hungary. His walk occurred between the two world wars and he shows explores Europe with an innocent eye and a literate pen.
The Great Railway Bazaar (and other train travels) by Paul Theroux
Theroux’s books about travel always invoke a sense of old school adventure. He travels low to the ground, taking a small suitcase, some notebooks and a curmudgeonly attitude. His rail journeys are not luxury trips through the Raj, but rather dusty, cramped rides straight into the heart of local customs. The Great Railway Bazaar is the first volume, running a circuit of Asia (excluding China). But he has also written; Dark Star Safari (Africa), The Old Patagonia Express (The Americas), Riding the Iron Rooster (China) and Ghost Train to the Eastern Star (a reprise of Railway Bazaar).
Around the World in 80 Trains, Monisha Rajesh
For a female take on the great railway journey, Rajesh covers 40,000 miles. She features a more glorious version of train travel in one long marathon of an adventure.
The Best Travel Novels Featuring Quests and Road Trips
I did not choose these travel novels for their settings. I chose them because they feature a certain type of self-awareness that happens when you take to the road, tackle a quest or go beyond your comfort zone. Also, there are drugs, dogs, messed up family dynamics, a real (or maybe imaginary) tiger and lots and lots of duct tape.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, Rachel Joyce
Poor Harold. A deep sadness has compelled him to take a most unlikely 600 mile quest to visit an old flame. He becomes an unwilling media sensation and accrues an motley cast of disciples along the way. If you are feeling out of sorts, or up for a good long walk, or both, read this book.
The Wangs vs the World, Jade Chang
Charles Wang lost it all during the financial crisis. The Bel-Air house. The cosmetics empire. Everything. He has rounded up his self-entitled family and they set off on a cross-country road trip to Upstate New York. And, this is why when I turned 14, I boycotted my family road trips.
Hotels of North America, Rick Moody
Have you ever found yourself marooned in some dodgy hotel asking yourself, “Now what?” It happened to me in New Orleans in 1997. Moody’s Reginald Morse is the top reviewer for a hotel booking site. As his life spirals away from him, his hilarious hotel reviews reveal the blow-back from his terrible life choices.
The Martian, Andy Weir
Don’t you hate it when your car breaks down 33.9 million miles from the nearest service station? In the ultimate survival story, Weir’s Mark Watney gets stranded on Mars, and has to make do with good ole American ingenuity, gallows humor and a whole lot of duct tape. The movie is good but the book is better. Pro tip: never travel without duct tape, I can’t tell you how many times it’s saved my ass.
Life of Pi, Yann Martel
While emigrating to Canada, Pi Patel’s ship sinks, leaving him stranded in a life boat with a hyena, an orangutan, a wounded zebra and a 450 pound Bengal tiger. The fantastical adventures that ensue bend reality. Martel puts you into the lifeboat with Pi and takes you along for quite a ride.
The Beach, Alex Garland
Garland’s Richard searches for the mythical “Beach”, but once found, isn’t quite the idyllic Eden that he was seeking. “…this story takes you out of the comfort of your home and slams you into a foreign country on a bus to god knows where.”
Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes
Don Quixote is the arguably the first travel literature book ever written. It’s a road trip, a buddy comedy and a delusional romp.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hunter S. Thompson
Also a road trip. Also a buddy comedy. Also full of delusions, but of a different sort. This book is ostensibly non-fiction. But Thompson and Dr. Gonzo set off in a convertible to Las Vegas with: 2 bags of grass, 75 pellets of mescaline, 5 sheets of acid, a salt shaker full of cocaine, a pile of pills, a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Bud, a pint of raw ether and 12 amyls. So, there is no way that he remembered any of it, and I’m calling this rollicking ride a fantastic work of fiction.
On the Road, Jack Kerouac
Kerouac sends Dean Moriarty and Sal Paradise on a series of frenetic journeys back and forth across the country. It epitomizes the restless young generation emerging from the stifling culture of the late 50’s.
The Call of the Wild, Jack London
Many articles on top travel books choose to feature Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild. I’d like to suggest a different sort of wild Alaskan adventure. This book feature’s Alaska’s wild Gold Rush boom, and it includes plenty of “man against nature” moments. But ultimately, the book is about the transformation that results from a road trip between a man and his dog.
Quality Travel Essay Collections
These collections include some of the best travelogues available. They represent a diverse list of authors presenting very authentic travel. These stories are not about the best beaches in Bali, but rather, they are about the struggle for clarity and understanding.
Best American Travel Series, 2018 Edition edited by Cheryl Strayed
Hands down, the most consistent collection of the best travelogues that you will find. If you aren’t American, don’t let the title put you off. This annual compilation of well-curated travel stories will not only take you around the world, but it will do it in a most immersive and emotional way.
The Tao of Travel, Paul Theroux
Dear Paul, you’re kinda cranky but I love you anyway. This delightful volume revisits not only Theroux’s own work but mines the backlist of Freya Stark, Evelyn Waugh, Marco Polo, Thoreau and other literary gods for tidbits and quotables that will intensify your itch. “Be cautious but not timid.”
Curiosities and Splendor, Lonely Planet
Lonely Planet has reached into the way-back machine to compile an anthology of some of the best classic travelogues. It includes tales by Henry James, DH Laurence, Teddy Roosevelt, Edith Wharton, Robert Louis Stevenson and 25 others.
The Kindness of Strangers, edited by Don George
Kindness is the main ingredient in these 26 traveler tales featuring contributions from some of the best contemporary travel writers. These stories have a redemptive quality, even when the circumstances are dire (and trust me, some of these stories are pretty dire).
Better Than Fiction 2: True Adventures from 30 Great Fiction Writers, by Lonely Planet
Truth is often stranger than fiction. Yet, sometimes it takes a great fiction writer to spin a great truthful travel yarn.
Get Off the Couch Already
Good travel books inspire you to get off the couch and out the door. These volumes will give you the motivation to make time for travel and then give you great ideas for quirky, artistic, literate and gobsmackingly beautiful places to go.
Atlas Obscura, Joshua Foer
The Atlas Obscura is the travel bible for weirdos like me who like abandoned places, creepy forests, bizarre museums and arcane collections. Sure, you can use the website (check out my contribution for the Callejon de Hamel in Havana), but the book is a perfect coffee table companion for rainy days.
Literary Places, Sarah Baxter and Amy Grimes
I’m all about the literary travel, I’ve slept in a library in Wales, did the literary pub crawl in Dublin and love a lusty library. Baxter’s beautifully illustrated book explores evocative literary places through the authors who wrote about them. Visit Charles Dicken’s London, Elena Ferrante’s Naples and 24 other locations.
Guillebeau’s quest was to visit every country in the world by thirty-five. Mine was to tackle the Camino de Santiago. So many people set out into the world with a firm purpose. This book provides inspiration and practical advice for how to envision and execute your own quest.
The Art of Travel, Alain de Botton
These nine essays aren’t going to tell you where to go. Rather, they explore the psychological underpinnings that motivate travel with supporting stories from artists and authors as diverse as Van Gogh, Wordsworth and Boudelaire. “…I emerged on the other side of my reading as a different person, a more sensitive and attentive traveler. “
Vagabonding, Rolf Potts
Potts has inspired a generation of backpackers. He has a very specific philosophy that encourages life altering, extended travel…on a shoestring. “Although I have always enjoyed immersive and simple travel experiences, after reading this book I saw myself traveling in a more reflective manner.
Smith loves to fly and it shows. His book gives insight into the life of an airline pilot, while providing a straightforward look into the commercial airline industry. He debunks some myths and confirms others, with the steady hand of a calm, cool, collected plane captain.
Citix60 Guides, edited by Victionary
These pocket guides are works of art and worth buying for the illustrations alone, much less the content. Each one offers advice from creatives on where to shop, eat, and find the coolest design and architecture. They have guides for all of the coolest design cities like: Berlin, Copenhagen, Tokyo, Milan and 16 more.
Wallpaper City Guides, by Wallpaper
The Wallpaper guides also offer tight little packages of recommendations that include secret spots for design and art lovers. In addition to LA, they have pocket guides for 60+ cities.
Ultimate Journeys for Two: Extraordinary Destinations on Every Continent, Mike Howard and Ann Howard
Mike and Ann are the romantic duo behind the Honey Trek travel website. They are on a perpetual honeymoon and want you to take one too. These journeys include 5-star “honeymoony” locations, but it’s not all about the beaches. They cover 75 locations from Niagara to Norway to the Namib. And if you don’t know where the Namib is, you need to buy the book to find out.
1,000 Places to See Before You Die, Patricia Schultz
Anyone seriously interested in exploring the best travel books needs this one in their bathroom. From your perch, you can peruse this brick of a book for fresh ideas. Cartagena? Of course!. Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe? You can see Wild African Dogs there! Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland? Road trip it! The Pacific Coast Highway in California? Road Trip that too! Let this book expand your horizons as much as it has mine.
The Oxford Atlas of the World, Oxford University Press
I’m not a Luddite and I do use Google maps. But there is something about the heft of a beautiful atlas that triggers wanderlust much better than staring at a screen. This travel book deserves a prime place on your coffee table. I promise, you will use it more than you think.
More of the Best Travel Books (For Specific Cities)
What follows are a list of the best travel books, nonfiction and literature set in specific places. If you are traveling to any of these places (or even dreaming of it), check out these recommendations.
- Books set in Paris
- Guide books for Paris
- Books set in Cuba
- Books set in Scotland
- Books set in Ireland
- Books set in Iceland
- Books on the Camino de Santiago
- Books set in Sri Lanka
- Books set in Colombia
- Books set in Australia
One More Tip
Here’s a tip for how to save a little bit of money on Amazon purchases, while also reducing the intense pressure that they put on their warehouse workers. Don’t be in such a huge hurry to get your books!
Put all of the travel books that you are about to buy into a shopping cart, rather than using 1-click check-out. Then, when you check out, choose a slower delivery method. This will sometimes result in a small digital credit to your account and (hopefully) relieve some pressure on the fulfillment warehouses.
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