The 50 Greatest Travel Books of All Time

by Michaela Lola Jan 3, 2008
With a book in hand, travel becomes a two-fold adventure.

NOT ONLY ARE YOU personally experiencing a new culture – you are simultaneously seeing it through the eyes of another, during a different period in time.

Reading is a great form of entertainment and inspiration. However, for aspiring travel writers, it also serves as a necessary tool to learning the craft of writing. Books become your teachers, and who better to learn from than the legends of literature?

Who better to guide you through the streets of Paris and teach you how to make your words sing than Hemingway? What better way to learn how to recreate the details of a train ride than Paul Theroux?

Though your aching back may come to despise you for loading your rucksack with travelogues, your mind will thank you. Here is a list of 50 recommended books to choose from for your next travel adventure.

1. Death in the Afternoon by Ernest Hemingway

A necessary piece for those traveling through Spain, most especially for those planning on watching a bullfight. It’s an enviable work of journalistic skill that studies the art of bullfighting and its meaning within Spanish culture.

2. The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux

Paul Theroux’s “Great Railway Bazaar” captures the spontaneous pleasures of travel. Rich in observation and detail, this book is best read during solitary moments on a train. The route takes place from London’s Victoria Station to Asia and finally through the Trans-Siberian express. Capturing the idiosyncracies of train travel, the circumstances Theroux finds himself in, as well as the characters he encounters are a comical portrayal of life on the road.

3. Finding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin

One of the most in-depths books on Burma to date. The book is simultaneously a political analysis on Burma, a literary study of George Orwell’s work, and an intoxicating travelogue.

4. When We Were Orphans by Kazou Ishiguro

This mystery novel will take you to the depths of Shanghai in the 1900’s and London in the 1930’s, as esteemed detective Christopher Banks searches for his parents, who had disappeared when he was a child. It is a startling look at loss, ambition, and the power of memory.

5. Four Corners: Into the Heart of New Guinea-One Woman’s Solo Journey by Kira Salak

An inspiring read for women travelers, as Kira Salak proves that gender is not a barrier for a life of risk and adventure. It is both a story of survival and a personal reflection on a life lived without borders.

6. On the Road by Jack Kerouac

Often touted as the launching pad for vagabonders, wherein the purpose of life is to simply “live.” It’s an iconic book that has fueled the imagination of several generations of readers. A piece of pure voltage as the characters traipse their way through America in search of enlightenment. A bible for those “on the road” in search of meaning and adventure.

7. Into the Wild by John Krakauer

John Krakauer’s study of Chris McCandles short life will shake you to the core. It’s a story of a young man who decides to give up all his worldly possessions and head towards the Alaskan wilderness. Aptly changing his name to “Alexander Supertramp,” McCandles’ unwavering dedication to the journey is both awe-inspiring and ultimately heartbreaking.

8. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress: A Novel by Dai Sijie

Written like a fable or a tale, this book is a comical, yet touching account of life during the Cultural Revolution in China. Light in its delivery but profound in meaning, it serves as a reminder regarding the importance of intellectual freedom.

9. The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown

Although this book is often looked down upon by the “literarati,” it is an exciting read, especially for those planning on making a trip to the Louvre museum in Paris. Not only interesting for conspiracy fans but also a passion to read for art lovers. It is guaranteed that you will see art in a different light.

10. Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie

At midnight, on August 15, 1957, one thousand and one children are born possessing supernatural powers. With them, like the country, the burden of freedom weighs heavily. Not only is it a stunning work of magical realism, it’s a historical view of the hopes, dreams, and passions of post-colonial India.

11. America Is in the Heart by Carlos Bulosan

Written by Carlos Bulosan, the first Filipino to be published in the United States of America, it is the story of his migrant experiences in the so-called ‘land of plenty’ in the 1930’s. The book is about his journey through the American landscape and discusses life as an exile, dislocation, racism, and poverty.

12. Balkan Ghosts: A Journey Through History by Robert D. Kaplan

Kaplan’s ‘Balkan Ghosts: A Journey through History’ is not only a travelogue, but a political analysis of the past and present struggles within the region. He not only provides an interesting account of the Balkan peoples, but also gives insight to the roots and effects of hatred and terrorism.

13. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

The story revolves around the character of Christopher Marlow and his journey through the Congo. An important and timeless piece, especially for post-colonial studies, it poses questions on the concept of ‘civilization,’ the inner-struggle between good and evil, and colonialism.

14. Video Night in Kathmandu: And Other Reports from the Not-So-Far East by Pico Iyer

‘Video Night in Kathmandu’ is a collection of essays set in Asia from Pico Iyer, one of the most prolific of contemporary travel writers, which aims to dissect the the cross-cultural relationships between East and the West.

15. The Castle by Franz Kafka

A great piece for any traveler that has felt completely lost and alienated in a strange new city. It is an eerie novel of disambiguation as the character by the name of ‘K’ arrives as a land surveyor in an unamed village and seeks to gain entry into the castle but his path is blocked by mysterious authority figures and indifferent locals.

16. Life of Pi by Yann Martel

The character of “Pi” (Piscine Molitor Patel), a young boy from Pondicherry whose father is a zookeeper, is shipwrecked in the Pacific Ocean for 227 days. With him in the life raft are various animals, the most intriguing of which is the Bengal tiger who becomes Pi’s only friend, as well as enemy. A shocking and absorbing story that examines religion, spirituality, and the psychological effects of traumatic experiences.

17. The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera

A great book for those planning on traveling through the former Czechoslovakia, or even those simply seeking artistic and philosophical insight. A novel about love, desire, and the struggle between logic and emotions; it follows the lives of artists during the invasion of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact Allies in the country.

18. The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

An absorbing masterpiece by Henry James that emphasizes the differences between America and Europe. It is the confrontation of the New World versus the Old World, where the character of the American Isabel Archer travels to Europe to find her destiny. The novel is about the search and loss of freedom and a grand overview of an American in Europe during the Victorian era.

19. The Dark Room by Rachel Seiffert

“The Dark Room” is a profound novel that recounts the events of 20th century Germany through the lives and struggles of three characters all connected by their love-hate relationship with the city of Berlin.

20. The Tale of Murasaki: A Novel by Liza Dalby

Written in the form of a diary, the book is a display of Dalby’s skill for imagination and recreating Japanese literary history. It captures the essence of Murasaki Shikibu, who wrote “The Tale of Genji” and is full of philosophical and cultural insight.

21. The Call of the Wild by Jack London

A great adventure story told through the eyes of Buck, a domesticated dog who returns to his primal nature in order to survive the harsh landscape of the Yukon. Though expressed through experiences of an animal, it is a timeless tale of tapping into the savage instincts that lay buried within all of us.

22. 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 in order to fulfill an assignment for Rolling Stone Magazine. Not only is “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” wildly entertaining as a novel, a travelogue, and a biography, but is an important study on the idea of the “American Dream.”

23. A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway’s “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 toghether their expatriate lives.

24. Lord of the Flies by William S. Golding

“The Lord of the Flies” tells the story of a group of British schoolboys marooned in an island and have to learn to fend for themselves. In their efforts, they create their own democracy which goes awry as violence and chaos ensues. Set in the midst of World War II, it is an allegorical tale of a society without authority and the loss of innocence.

25. Dubliners by James Joyce

“Dubliners” is Joyce’s portrayal of Ireland’s middle-class in the 20th century told through a collection of 15 stories. Written during the wake of the Irish nationalist movement, the pieces reflect the people’s search for identity and the struggles of everyday life.

26. The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling

Though mostly popular due to the Disney cartoon classic, the book is a collection of stories set in India. The book is not only interesting for children, but for adults as well, as it details the different customs and traditions in India, as well as a criticism of British colonial powers.

27. The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint Exupéry

An inspiring novella for those searching for a sense of meaning and purpose. Though largely viewed as a children’s book, “The Little Prince” is about an aviator who lands in the Sahara desert and comes to meet an alien in the form of a boy who teaches him the value of seeing the world through the eyes of an innocent.

28. Maximum City Maximum City by Suketu Mehta

“Maximum City” is Mehta’s account of returning to the India he had left behind as a child when his family migrated to New York. The author paints a picture of modern Bombay and the complexities of living between two opposing cultures.

29. In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin

One of the most creative and entertaining travelogues to date, “In Patagonia” is Chatwin’s account of trying to reconstruct the legendary adventures of his grandmother’s uncle through South America. This book, in its literary depths, historical accounts, and adventurous undertakings, set the standard for travel writing.

30. Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes

For anyone who has aspired to start afresh and ‘build a new home,’ so to speak , “Under the Tuscan Sun” is a rich and deeply moving account of her efforts to restore a villa in Italy. It is a memoir that reminds us of the sensual pleasures of food, life, and the importance of making a leap of faith.

31. Seven Years in Tibet by Heinrich Harrer

A breathtaking true story of Austrian adventurer Heinrich Harrer and Peter Aufschnaiter escape to Tibet after being imprisoned in India by the British during World War II. An insightful novel that gives an insiders account of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan way of life, that is rarely seen by outsiders.

32. Going Solo by Roald Dahl

“Going Solo” is Roald Dahl’s biography and is an account of his life as a pilot in North Africa during World War II. Not unlike his captivating children’s books, this book is rife with exciting adventures, interesting encounters, and laugh-out-loud humor.

33. I Dreamed of Africa by Kuki Gallman

Kuki Gallman’s memoir of her life in Africa is simultaneously inspiring and heart-wrenching. In the wake of a tragedy that occured in her homeland in Italy, Kuki moves to Africa with her family and lover and is about overcoming and embracing the challenges of living in a world so different than her own.

34. The Sex Lives of Cannibals: Adrift in the Equatorial Pacific by J. Maarten Troost

“The Sex Lives of Cannibals: Adrift in the Equatorial Pacific” is J. Maarten Troost’s hilarous yet discerning account of living in Tarawa for two-years. The novel touches on the romantic image of “Paradise” we often attach to island living and the sad realities that need to be acknowledged.

35. Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Marie Rilke

“Letters to a Young Poet” is a collection of letters between Rainer Marie Rilke to an aspiring young poet by the name of Franz Xaver Kappus. Not only is it inspiring to read while on the road, but also a necessary piece for those of us searching and striving to live an authentic life.

36. The Living City by Frank Lloyd Wright

For architecture buffs or those that enjoy reveling in a bustling metropolis, Frank Lloyd Wright’s vision of a Utopian city is an enthralling look into his views on society, urbanization, and freedom.

37. Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon

This masterpiece by Thomas Pynchon raises the bar for what any would-be-author would aspire to create. A postmodern epic set during the end of the 2nd World War where its protagonist, Tyrone Slothrope search for German V-2 rockets is linked with the pattern (specifically, constellation) he created to keep track of the women he has slept with. Although a difficult read, its complexity, subplots, and confusion are allegories to the challenges of the modern world.

38. The Beach by Alex Garland

After the movie of the same title came out, hoards of adventurous backpackers made their way to Thailand in search of snake blood and hidden maps. However, the book is more exciting than the film version as it highlights the travelers quest for the unknown, yet also reveals the pitfalls of exploitation travel.

39. The Size of the World: Once Around Without Leaving the Ground by Jeff Greenwald

“The Size of the World” by Jeff Greenwald is an inspiring book for travelers searching for creative ways to explore the world. It begins with Greenwald’s goal to travel the globe without leaving the ground, and before he begins his journey he posts a query in the personals section of a newspaper to find a female travel companion. Thus, the story is not only an adventurous chronicle of the 9-months spent traveling by buses, trains and boats, but also a hilarious account of the women who respond to his ad.

40. Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles

A dramatic piece of literature set in Morocco, where the desert becomes an untamed character in itself. Set in the 20th Century, the characters of Kit and Port Moresby are a married couple from New York who travel to North Africa in the hopes of re-igniting the passion in their marriage, however they must learn to battle the elements, circumstances, and sense of dislocation brought on by the “sheltering sky.”

41. 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.

42. The Road to Oxiana by Robert Byron

Written in the form of a diary, Byron’s “Road to Oxiana” is a moving account of his travels through Persia and Afghanistan. Each page never fails to entertain, as Robert Byron’s skill in painting an image of his personal experiences, opinions and encounters to the reader.

43. Travels with Charley 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. His prowess as a writer is unchallenged, as he weaves together his observations of modern America and highlights the value of surrendering oneself to the journey.

44. The Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain

Published in 1869, it is Twain’s travel story through Europe and the Holy Land via a pleasure cruise. A pleasure to read, not only for Mark Twain’s clever observations, but also because it highlights the relationship between the Americans and Europeans during the 19th century and how each viewed their place in the world.

45. 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.

46. The Summing Up by W. Somerset Maugham

“The Summing Up” by W. Somerset Maugham is a must-read for any aspiring writer. 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.

47. The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham

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

48. Collected Poems 1947-1997 by Allen Ginsberg

What better way to walk the uncommon path than through the works of Beat poet, Allen Ginsberg. The voice he creates through his poems calls out for spiritual liberation and passionate causes.

49. Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie

An exciting read, especially for those planning on traveling by train; Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express” will have you on the edge of your seat as esteemed detective, Hercule Poirot tries to solve the case.

50. Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman

Whitman’s collection of poems in “Leaves of Grass” creates an image of America, the horror of war, and the nature of man through his raw and sensual verses.

What books would you add to the list? Leave your picks in the comments!

It all began with a volcanic eruption. Caught in a storm of ashen rain and almost walking into the ocean, Michaela Lola realized at the tender age of eight that life was meant to be an adventure. Her escapades include riding the midnight train to Marrakesh, partying with the katoys in Thailand and sampling insects in China.

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