Before the internet, TV or even radio, books have long had the power to transport the reader to other lands and create empathy and understanding for different characters and cultures. For me personally, many of my desires to visit a place have been inspired by a lifelong love of reading. Covering a selection of travel memoirs, travel fiction and travel guides, this list pulls together just some of the best travel books that have captured the imagination of readers far and wide.
Warning though – reading any or all of the books on this list may just give you the impetus to go and book a ticket right now!
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10 Best Travel Books
The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux
The Great Railway Bazaar documents American writer Theroux’s overland rail journey from London to Tokyo across the well-trodden “hippie trail”. Over the course of 4 months in 1973, he took trains covering Europe, the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent and south-east Asia, and looping back through Russia on the Trans-Siberian Express.
Now considered a modern classic among travel writing books, Theroux’s memoir is a wry account of his journeys, impressions of the countries he travelled through, the people he met along the way and some very funny accounts of conversations he had with them.
In the course of the book, Theroux does not actually cover much about the cities he travels through, so The Great Railway Bazaar should not be read as a travel guide. It is however a witty and vivid story that doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to describing his journey and encounters. Check the latest price on Amazon.
Wild – From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed
Wild shot to fame after Oprah Winfrey selected the book for her Book Club right after it was published in 2012, and was subsequently made into a film with Reese Witherspoon portraying Strayed.
Left utterly bereft after losing her mother to lung cancer, her marriage ending and a foray into drug use, Strayed made an impulsive decision to hike the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert up to Washington state.
Strayed’s memoir of her epic hike should not by any means be considered as a how-to guide – she embarked upon the hike utterly unprepared and made a number of undoubtedly questionable decisions along the way.
The book is very much a story of self-discovery and growth, and Strayed writes with a raw honesty and humorous voice that compels you to keep reading to the end. Check the latest price on Amazon.
Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson
Bill Bryson is one of the most well-known contemporary travel writers around and has authored some of most hilarious travel books ever written. No list of top travel books would be complete without one of his volumes, and Notes from a Small Island is our pick for this list.
US-born Bryson wrote this book after making the decision to move back to his home country at the end of 20 years living in the UK. He took one final trip around the UK before he departed, attempting to use only public transport.
Notes from a Small Island covers this trip, but overall is a warm, laugh-out-loud homage to the country he called home for two decades.
Within the UK and given the Brit penchant for self-effacing humour, it is one of the most loved books about the country ever written. In 2003, it was voted in a radio opinion poll as the book that best represents the UK. Check the latest price on Amazon.
On the Road by Jack Kerouac
No list of travel books would be complete without it. Considered as one of the best travel books of all time, On The Road was the defining book of the postwar Beat generation. Starting in 1947, the book follows the travels and (mis)adventures of the main protagonist Salvatore “Sal” Paradise (based on Kerouac) and his friend/sidekick Dean Moriarty (based on Kerouac’s friend Neal Cassady) over three years as they travel around the US.
Woven around themes of jazz and poetry, sex and drug use, the book was published in 1957 to a critical backlash. However, over the years it has cemented its place among the great American literary works.
Interesting fact – Kerouac typed up the book manuscript for On The Road over the course of three weeks onto a single continuous scroll of paper measuring over 36 metres long. The original scroll was bought in 2001 for $2.4 million – worth around $3.35 million today. Check the latest price on Amazon.
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Backpacker Business – One Girls Journey from Wide-eyed Traveller to Worldwide Entrepreneur by Nikki Scott
A familiar name to many a backpacker and travel blogger, Nikki Scott is the founder and creator of South East Asia Backpacker magazine, the first and only magazine for backpackers in South East Asia. She set up the magazine at the tender age of 23 years old.
Backpacker Business documents Scotts journey from being an inexperienced backpacker in Nepal to an established publisher in Thailand, covering some eye-opening ways of doing business deals in the developing world.
In addition, the book documents some of the experiences she encountered along the way including anti-government riots in Bangkok, and the loss of her father.
Backpacker Business serves as an inspirational story to aspiring backpackers and wannabe digital nomads everywhere. Check the latest price on Amazon.
The Beach by Alex Garland
The first of our travel fiction books and one that inspired a generation of gap-year travellers to visit Thailand for the first time.
The book follows the protagonist – a young traveller called Richard – to Khao San Road in Bangkok where he meets a man who gives him a map to a secret paradise beach, banned to tourists and known to only a few backpackers. Richard sets out to find the beach, along with a couple he meets along the way.
Without spoiling the book for anyone who hasn’t read it, the story gets markedly darker and more sinister as it goes on. Despite that it was first published 20 years ago now, the story in The Beach has not really aged and it still stands as one of the best travel novels of its generation.
The book contains subtle implications about the irony of privileged Western tourists looking for places that are unspoilt by privileged Western tourists that stand just as true for travellers today. Check the latest price on Amazon.
Life of Pi by Yann Martel
This Man Booker Prize-winning novel by Yann Martel is a beautiful masterpiece in storytelling. We meet the eponymous hero Pi at the beginning of the story, when he is a child living in Pondicherry, India with his parents at their family zoo.
When the family leave India in the seventies, they embark on a journey by sea together with the zoo animals, and their vessel is shipwrecked. Ultimately, Pi is abandoned on a lifeboat together with only a 450-pound Royal Bengal tiger named Richard Parker for company.
They both miraculously survive together for 227 days on the lifeboat as it floats across the ocean.
Martel subtly explores themes of spirituality, religion, beliefs and zoology with mesmerising prose. By the end of the book, you feel as if you have been taken on a transformative journey, and are left to make up your own mind about the nature of that journey and ultimately choose what you believe. Check the latest price on Amazon.
1000 Places To See Before You Die by Patricia Schultz
One of the worlds best selling travel books, 1000 Places to See Before You Die is a cross between a travel guide and a bucket list. Listing the top cultural, historical, natural sights in most countries of the world, the book is also a practical visitors guide.
Each entry has a full description as well as directions on how to get there, the best times to visit, phone numbers and website addresses.
Patricia Schultz is a veteran of travel writing with 30 years experience, so is a true voice of authority. 1000 Places To See Before You Die does not just cover the main tourist hotspots, there are plenty of offbeat and off-the-beaten-path recommendations too, including some local cultural events and festivals that you may not even know existed.
This is more of a coffee-table book than a guide to take on the road with you. Just be prepared to get your wander-list out once you start digging in. Check the latest price on Amazon.
Vagabonding is a cross between a how-to guide for long term travel, and a series of musings on why travel is important. It is one of the best travel books and essential reading for anyone who is considering doing any kind of extended travel, be it for a few months or a few years.
Potts covers how to finance your travels, deciding where to go, working on the road, handling the difficult situations you will inevitably encounter on the way, and critically, how to adjust back into your normal life at the end of a long trip.
The current version features a foreword by Tim Ferriss, darling of the digital nomad movement and a self-confessed huge fan of the book. Check the latest price on Amazon.
Epic Bike Rides of the World by Lonely Planet
Another book to add to your coffee-table travel book collection, Epic Bike Rides of the World will satisfy the wanderlust of any two-wheeled adventure lovers.
Featuring 200 bike rides from all over the world -Thailand and Tuscany, Buenos Aires and Bhutan, easy short cycles and epic multi-day adventures.
This hardback volume is beautifully illustrated with photography and maps, as well as practical tips and guides on how to get to start and finish of each trip and where to stay.
It also explains how cycling that route is a way to get to know a place, it’s people and their culture. Check the latest price on Amazon.
These are just ten books from the dozens of best travel books that we could have chosen to put into an article like this. Reading travel books is a bit like travelling itself – one you start, you won’t want to stop!
If you have any great suggestions for travel books that you love reading that we haven’t featured here, leave a comment in the section below so our readers can see your recommendations!