Nothing beats exploring new places, but sometimes, armchair travel gives us access to parts of the world we might not otherwise have the privilege of experiencing. Artfully curated photography collections have the ability to do just that. The following art-meets-travel books take readers all over the globe from the comforts of their homes, whether it’s a series of images shot in the most remote destinations on Earth, an insider’s guide to Chernobyl, or a visual love letter to air travel itself. Across continents, cultures, and aesthetics, these are nine coffee-table books every traveler should have.
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1. Mother: A Tribute to Mother Earth
At 320 pages, Marsel van Oosten’s Mother: A Tribute to Mother Earth is one of the most ambitious and exquisite photography collections of the year. Featuring 170 large-format images taken on five different continents over 15 years, the book not only pays homage to the world’s extraordinary biodiversity but also to Oosten’s award-winning career as a wildlife and nature photographer.
There’s more to this book than pretty pictures, however. Oosten compiled the collection with conservation in mind, aiming to raise awareness about ecological issues and encourage readers to respect and protect the planet. His images are paired with insightful commentary, as well as an in-depth interview with environmental activist Aleena von Storms. Evolutionary biologist Bret Weinstein penned the foreword.
You can purchase Mother: A Tribute to Mother Earth on Amazon. One hundred copies of a collector’s editions are also available, featuring 72 extra pages, 58 extra photographs, a handful of three-foot-wide double fold-outs, and more. A portion of the proceeds will be donated to The Canopy Project, which pledges to plant five trees for every book sold and 50 trees for every collector’s edition.
2. Seeing Silence: The Beauty of the World’s Most Quiet Places
Photographer and filmmaker Pete McBride traveled to the most remote corners of the globe, where the only ambient noise is the sound of nature, to capture the images in this book. Published in September 2020, his collection takes readers to places many people only dream of visiting, from Mount Everest and the Nile to the Amazon Rainforest, Atacama Desert, and Antarctic Peninsula. Each image captures the elements of the natural world that create the soundtrack to these destinations, notably the native fauna.
In addition to McBride’s crisp, vast, and striking photographs, Seeing Silence: The Beauty of the World’s Most Quiet Places includes an essay by Erik Weihenmayer, the first blind climber to summit Everest, and a foreword from environmentalist Bill McKibben. The book is available for purchase on Amazon.
3. Accidentally Wes Anderson, The Book
The Accidentally Wes Anderson Instagram account (AWA) could be the dictionary illustration for the term “Instagrammable” — the photos featured are vibrant, a little retro, and perfectly framed. But they do more than quickly please the eye during a frenetic scroll; they also allow followers to travel through time, cultures, and countries.
The incredible success of the Instagram account since its start in 2017 led its founders, husband and wife Wally and Amanda Koval, to take their followers’ talent one step further — from people’s phone screens to their sitting rooms. In October 2020, AWA released Accidentally Wes Anderson, The Book, a coffee-table book compiling 200 photographs from as many locations submitted by followers. And flicking through this book, all you’ll want is to see those places and buildings for yourself. The cover alone, a photograph of the Belvédère Hotel in Switzerland, is enough to make you want to pack your bags.
Although AWA is not run by Wes Anderson or by anyone on his team, the account and Accidentally Wes Anderson, The Book honor the movie director’s aesthetic to perfection. It highlights some of the best of global architecture, art, and design with a bright color palette, symmetry, and certain quirkiness. The foreword of the book has been written by Wes Anderson himself, who is said to have been thrilled by the project. You can purchase Accidentally Wes Anderson, The Book from Amazon.
4. Chernobyl: A Stalker’s Guide
After visiting Chernobyl 20 times on multiple-day trips, including once covertly with a “stalker” as those who visit the area illegally are known, Darmon Richter wanted to share his love and fascination for the infamous Ukrainian city in a photo guide-cum-travelogue: Chernobyl: A Stalker’s Guide, published in September 2020.
Richter, a writer and photographer, is deeply interested in the past and present of the evacuation zone and its people, and he wanted others to learn more about Chernobyl than the usual cliché spread by the often-sensational tours of the exclusion zone. He was keen to show that there’s much more to the 1,000 square miles of the zone than devastation and sorrow, strategically placed gas masks, and rusty Ferris wheels, so he included over 100 photographs of the unexpected beauty of the site, including its wildlife, murals, buildings, stained glass, forests, and more.
Although Richter does not encourage readers to do as he did and take an illegal tour of the exclusion zone, his experience will make them want to see the site for themselves and understand it beyond the 1986 nuclear disaster to know its extraordinary past and its hopeful future. Chernobyl: A Stalker’s Guide is available on Amazon.
At the very start of the COVID-19 pandemic when the US was almost entirely shut down, professional photographer Brian Bowen Smith and one of his assistants hit the road. In a quickly made decision, they drove a 1958 Ford F100 and a 1993 Winnebago 11,000 miles around the country to document life during this exceptional time in US history.
Shooting in black and white, Smith got his cues from Instagram followers excited about the project. For a month, with his Leica M10 Monochrom in hand, he went where people with good ideas for a picture dictated him to go. Among many others, he captured horse-riding cowboys and happy families, empty Times Square and a masked Elvis impersonator in a deserted Las Vegas, struggling dairy farmers and hospital staff — all from the large window of his old-fashioned truck. He then compiled them in Drivebys.
Like a visual memoir of life in the spring of 2020, Drivebys has the potential to become an iconic American book, one that in a few years will take readers back to a strange and almost surreal period of time.
After seeing the difficulties experienced by the people throughout the US, Smith decided to give the proceeds from the sale of the book to Feeding America.
Buy Drivebys now from Brian Bowen Smith’s website. Both paperback ($40) and leatherbound editions ($500) are available.
6. Airline Visual Identity 1945-1975
If you miss the golden age of plane travel when the seats were large and plushy, the food was free and plentiful, and the airline ads looked like they belonged in art galleries, then you need to get yourself a copy of Airline Visual Identity 1945-1975.
Although originally published in 2014, a new and limited collector’s edition of Airline Visual Identity 1945-1975 was released in the fall of 2020 and is filled with some of the industry’s most gorgeous airline posters that have ever existed. Because before television advertisements, low-cost airlines, and the deregulation of the airline industry in the US, all each airline could do to differentiate themselves and attract potential travelers was create beautiful, enticing posters that would make them choose TWA over Air France. Through vibrant colors and humorous, cheery, and glamorous modern illustrations hung in airports and travel agent offices, they caught people’s eyes and made them dream of faraway places.
Airline Visual Identity 1945-1975 is comprised of hundreds of high-quality poster reprints that are sure to transport you to a time when air travel was luxurious and almost beautiful.
7. America the Beautiful: A Story in Photographs
Released in October 2020, at a time when America was, and remains, extremely divided, National Geographic’s America the Beautiful: A Story in Photographs is a book that works as a unifying force.
Photographs from 130 years of National Geographic archives honors the undeniable beauty of the nation, from the Alaska wilderness to the California coast, and includes words from celebrities, conservationists, politicians, and more prominent figures, across all 50 states, six territories, and Washington, DC, expressing their love for their country.
The 384-page hardcover book is a reminder that even at one of the most uncertain times in US history there’s one thing all Americans can agree on and celebrate together: their country’s spectacular nature and dazzling majesty.
America the Beautiful: A Story in Photographs is available for purchase on Amazon.
8. Born to Ice
Famous National Geographic photographer Paul Nicklen released his gorgeous Born to Ice coffee table book in 2018, but there’s never been a better time to fully appreciate the world’s polar regions and their inhabitants, whether they be humans or animals.
Because Paul Nicklen is not all just a talented photographer and storyteller, he’s also a naturalist, as well as a passionate conservationist and climate activist. While showcasing the beauty and fragility of the wilderness of the Arctic and the Antarctic, he successfully triggers inside all of his readers the need for taking action against climate change, the ardent motivation to do our part to protect the planet and all its inhabitants, and the intense desire to see, with our own eyes, the beauty of the poles while they are still there to be admired. Buy Born to Ice from Amazon.
9. At Glacier’s End
Iceland has been a hot tourist destination, welcoming every year several times more international visitors than its entire population. And its popularity is due, first and foremost, to its grandiose landscapes — green hills, volcanoes, waterfalls, rugged coastlines, geysers, etc.
After taking many trips to the island nation, surf and adventure photographer Chris Burkard and writer Matt McDonald have learned to revere Iceland’s natural assets, particularly its threatened glacial rivers, which originate from the country’s highlands, an area often overlooked by visitors.
In At Glacier’s End, a gorgeous coffee-table book composed of Burkard’s aerial photos and McDonald’s words, they highlight the beauty of the Icelandic Highlands from where glacial rivers originate and advocate for the rivers’ plight as they remain unprotected and often damned.
By combining their talents, they are hoping to encourage tourists to Iceland to stray off the well-worn paths to visit the region and contribute to the conservation movement that would protect it and eventually lead to the area becoming Highlands National Park.
10. Gastro Obscura: A Food Adventurer’s Guide
This book is for the people who travel to eat, not eat to travel. The book was created by the team behind Atlas Obscura and the publication’s sister food site, Gastro Obscura, as well as the New York Times bestselling book Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to the World’s Hidden Wonders). There are foods and ways of getting said foods in here that will wow you (hello, tsamma melon in Namibia) and make you hungry (we see you pecan pie vending machine in Texas) from all seven continents.
The large format will take up a big portion of your coffee table, and demand attention, in the way that the best coffee table books do. Intricate drawings and photos compliment the snackable blurbs about various food-centric traditions and events, while helpful notes about how to try the foods are included so you can get out there and try what you’ve been reading about.
With the Gastro Obscura book, you can flip to any page and find something new and hunger inducing to seek out on your travels — no matter where you head next.
A version of this article was previously published on November 18, 2020, and was updated on November 19, 2021, with more information.