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Updated: February 1, 2021
The books below are not strictly travel books – but books that celebrate the magic of adventure and exploration. Or maybe just books that I like to read while traveling.
The 16 Best Travel Books of All Time
1. The Worst Journey in the World
This is the best travel book ever written. The magisterial memoirs from a disastrous trip to the South Pole in the early 20th century.
“The Worst Journey in the World is to travel writing what War and Peace is to the novel. A masterpiece.” – The New York Review of Books
2. The Song of the Dodo
The perfect mix of travel, exploration, and science. Stunningly awesome.
“Here is what a book can be.” – The New York Times Book Review
3. The Last American Man
Gilbert wrote this before Eat, Pray, Love – and it’s way better.
By the time Eustace Conway was seven years old, he could throw a knife accurately enough to nail a chipmunk to a tree. By the time he was ten, he could hit a running squirrel at fifty feet with a bow and arrow. When he turned twelve, he went out into the woods, alone and empty-handed, built himself a shelter, and survived off the land for a week. When he turned seventeen, he moved out of his family’s home altogether and headed into the mountains, where he lived in a teepee of his own design, made fire by rubbing two sticks together, bathed in icy streams, and dressed in the skins of the animals he had hunted and eaten.
4. In the Heart of the Sea – The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex
“A vivid account of a 19th-century maritime disaster that engaged the popular imagination of the time with its horrors of castaways and cannibalism. Just west of the Galapagos Islands, the Nantucket whaleship Essex was struck on November 20, 1820, by an 85-foot bull sperm whale. Yet the sinking was only the beginning of a fantastic voyage.
For three months the 20 men who escaped the Essex drifted in three smaller open boats, enduring squalls, attacks by sharks and another whale, starvation, dehydration, madness, and despair, capped by eating the flesh of comrades who had begun to die offand, in one instance, casting lots to see who would be killed and eaten next. When eight remaining castaways were retrieved off the coast of Chile, they had sailed almost 4,500 nautical miles across the Pacific.” – Kirkus Reviews
5. The English Patient
A riveting tale of explorers, spies, and lovers during the Second World War. The story bounces between the deserts of North Africa, a villa in Tuscany, and London during the blitz.
“A rare and spellbinding web of dreams.” – Time
6. The Fatal Shore – The Epic Story of Australia’s Founding
If a book has more adventure in it than this one I don’t think I’ve read it. Australia’s rip roaring history is recounted with color, passion, and narrative flare.
“An extraordinary volume – even a masterpiece – about the early history of Australia that reads like the finest of novels. A brilliant and enduring achievement… history of the highest order.” – Arthur M. Schlesinger
7. My Life in France
A memoir of Julia Child’s 10 plus years living in France, where she transformed herself from a diplomat’s wife to the author of a fantastically popular French cookbook.
“The result is a delight. On one level, it’s the story of how a 6-foot-2-inch, 36-year-old, rather loud and unserious Californian discovered the fullness of life in France. On another, it recounts the making of “Julia Child,” America’s grande dame of French cooking. Inevitably, the stories overlap.” – NY Times
8. Rimbaud – A Biography
“Superb… the single best work to read about this haunting and haunted poet.” – New York Times Book Review
In the last three years, Rimbaud had spent about fifteen months at home and about twenty-one at sea or on the road. He had visited thirteen different countries – excluding coastlines seen from the deck of a ship – and traveled over 32,000 miles. He had worked as a pedlar, an editorial assistant, barman, farm laborer, language teacher, private tutor, factory worker, docker, mercenary, sailor, tout, cashier, and interpreter, and he was about to add a few more jobs to the list. On almost every occasion, he had done something for which he was not previously qualified.
Though he lacked the most ordinary qualification of all – the baccalauréat – he had a working knowledge of five languages, had seen more sights and experienced more interesting intoxications than an English lord on the Grand Tour, published a book, been arrested in three countries and repatriated from three others. The most he had ever earned from his writing had been a free subscription to a magazine, but he had left behind a body of work that would one day open up new regions of the mind to poetic explorers. He had begged, been to jail, committed approximately twelve imprisonable offenses with impunity, and survived war, revolution, illness, a gunshot wound, his own family, and the Cape of Good Hope. He had been on intimate terms with some of the most remarkable writers and political thinkers of the age.
The Arthur Rimbaud who eventually washed up on the shores of East Africa was not a helpless innocent.
9. Midnight’s Children
The story of India’s rise to nationhood as experienced by one uniquely positioned family.
“A marvelous epic. Rushdie’s prose snaps into playback and flash-forward… stopping on images, vistas, and characters of unforgettable presence. Their range is as rich as India herself.” – Newsweek
10. The Education of Henry Adams
Henry Adams was the son of one President and the grandson of another. He recounts his life and travels – and with it the major events of 20th century history.
“The pleasure of reading The EDUCATION is the pleasure of seeing history come alive, of seeing it move, of seeing behind history to the actions and actors. It is the pleasure of seeing revealed the humanity so often concealed in history.” – Alfred Kazin
11. Angela’s Ashes
A memoir of a boy’s miserable – yet strangely magical – youth in the Irish town of Limerick.
When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.
People everywhere brag and whimper about the woes of their early years, but nothing can compare with the Irish version: the poverty; the shiftless loquacious alcoholic father; the pious defeated mother moaning by the fire; pompous priests; bullying schoolmasters; the English and the terrible things they did to us for eight hundred long years.
12. The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down
The story of one young Hmong child who has severe epilepsy and her family’s background, their difficult experience with Western Medicine, and the culture of the country they escaped from.
“Into this heart-wrenching story, Fadiman weaves an account of Hmong history from ancient times to the present, including their work for the CIA in Laos and their resettlement in the US, their culture, spiritual beliefs, ethics, and etiquette.” – Kirkus Reviews
No novel has the spirit of travel and exploration at its core like Kim. The Great Game is the non fiction version and almost as thrilling.
14. A Peace to End All Peace – The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East
Want to know more about the Middle East? This is the book.
“Ambitious and splendid. An epic tale of ruin and disillusion. Of great men, their large deeds and even larger follies.” – The Wall Street Journal
15. Dragon Hunter – Roy Chapman Andrews and the Central Asiatic Expeditions
The riveting biography of the explorer Roy Andrews Chapman.
“On his first journey to East Asia in 1909, when he was 25 years old, Andrews spent two weeks stranded on a deserted island; fended off sharks after his boat was capsized by a finback whale; survived typhoons, heatstroke, poisoned bamboo stakes, headhunters and 20-foot pythons. Employing his rudimentary knowledge of medicine, he delivered two babies, pulled several teeth, and amputated a man’s mangled hand. He also sampled opium; befriended Mother Jesus, Yokohama’s most famous madam; enjoyed the pleasures of Shimonoseki, ‘the hardest-drinking port in the East’; and along the way collected 50 mammals, 425 birds, and a new species of ant. And that’s in just the first 35 pages of this propulsive, nonstop biography.” – NY Tiimes
16. Atlas Obscura
The subtitle says it best: An Explorer’s Guide to the World’s Hidden Wonders.
Can you recommend a few good inspiring travel books? (Travel books that would make a good Christmas present for someone who loves Paris.)
Not sure if this is what you have in mind but no book has ever made me want to move to Paris more than Adam Gopnik’s Paris to the Moon. Wonderful!
Traveling to Paris in a month and would love to read a few books set in Paris, about Paris, living in Paris, etc. Recommendations?
My favorite book that has Paris as a main character is the biography of Rimbaud by Robb. For other suggestions: My favorite books about Paris.