Looking for good books to read for travel inspiration?
Perhaps you seek recommendations for books to get an insider’s take on a specific city, region, or group of people?
Look no further.
In no particular order, here is our list of the best travel books to read, whether you’re an adventure junkie, armchair traveler, or anyone in between.
On the Road: the Original Scroll – Jack Kerouac
Jack Kerouac is already a household name, but as a traveler, I’ve come to appreciate his writing even more so. He writes with this innocent exuberance, and his hunger for life, travel, and fun are manifestly evident.
On the Road is considered to be Kerouac’s defining work, the peak of his literary oeuvre. This book places Kerouac in a postwar America, during the “Beat Generation,” a name which Kerouac himself coined. It’s a story of his travels across the US, and his accompanying characters are friends of his, all famous literary figures themselves from that time, such as Neal Cassady and Allen Ginsberg.
On the Road was a controversial in its own day, where Kerouac questions his life and choices and seeks outside answers in a time of conformity. I suggest reading the “Original Scroll” version, as it has the unique style of Kerouac’s famous non-paragraphed typing; he was notorious for typing and typing away, never breaking for paragraphs, and the Original Scroll shows this at its best. The Original Scroll is also a good option because it leaves names as is – unchanged are the names of himself and his cohorts as they were during the book’s first publication.
Lunch in Paris – Elizabeth Bard
Elizabeth Bard’s first book, Lunch in Paris: A Love Story with Recipes, is full of short stories that will take you on a roller coaster-type ride of emotions. Revolving around food in her new home of Paris, Bard recounts various instances in her life that are beautifully funny and others that are heart-wrenchingly sad.
The book has recipes at the end of each chapter, but what I think she does even better is to describe the differences between French and American cultures. She struggles throughout the book to sustain her American qualities, while adopting other French ones.
There’ve been countless authors who’ve taken on the venerable city of Paris, usually telling of their acclimation to life in the City of Light. Bard, on the other hand, describes several short stories about her failures to fall under the enchanting spell that so often befalls one in Paris. The story progresses with her dear husband Gwendal and his family as they come to terms with each other and the differences in culture and overcome each instance one by one. This is a beautiful read, and I couldn’t put it down; she describes Parisian culture and cuisine better than anything else I’ve come across yet.
The Sex Lives of Cannibals – J. Maarten Troost
J. Maarten Troost, a Netherlands-born American, is an acclaimed writer and essayist. His most popular writing centers around his travels in the Eastern Hemisphere, both in China and the Equatorial Pacific Islands.
The Sex Lives of Cannibals: Adrift in the Equatorial Pacific spans the two years which he and his then-future wife spent in the nation of Kiribati during the 1990s. When his fiance Sylvia lands a job with a governmental agency on Kiribati’s most populous island of Tarawa, Troost tags along. He is appalled at everything he sees at first, as he tries to pass his time away with writing; soon, however, he comes to love the island and the I-Kiribati people that call it home.
The Sex Lives of Cannibals is well-written, full of self-deprecating humor and witty commentary in a style similar to Bill Bryson at his finest that cause the pages to fly by; you’ll finish the book far too soon, wanting more. The story offers a unique perspective of island life on a Pacific atoll far removed from the news, fashions, and influences from abroad. The book is beautiful and shines a light on staying optimistic in the most dire circumstances, as Troost learned during his time on Tarawa. Highly recommended travel reading!
Pink Boots and a Machete – Mireya Mayor
Mireya Mayor is a first-generation American, her family struggling to adapt to new life after leaving their Cuban home with nothing more than the clothes on their backs. Born and raised in Miami, Mireya loved all sorts of creatures from when she was little, going as far as storing some bugs under her bed (to the dismay of her grandmother). She went on to do a brief stint as a professional cheerleader with the Miami Dolphins football team, before she gave that up for the life she was meant for – to explore the world as a scientist and explorer.
Pink Boots and a Machete: My Journey From NFL Cheerleader to National Geographic Explorer is sort of an early memoir for the relatively-young Mayor. In it, she first describes her childhood, growing up in a large, Cuban expat community with her “three mothers.” She tells of her inability to truly fit in with any group during her school: she was too nerdy for some, and too fashionable for others, a paradox she would come to accept. After her brief time as a cheerleader for one of the most famous professional sports teams in the world, the Miami Dolphins, she left to pursue her dream as a scientist studying various animals, particularly the endangered ones.
This book is a great inspirational guide for anybody who has dreams abroad which they want to chase, yet feel that they are ill-equipped or not worthy. At first, only a handful of people took Mireya seriously as a scientist; she was a girl who had previously worked as a cheerleader. What’s more, she liked to stay fashionable out in the field, with her pink boots and name-brand clothing and gear. However, she stood her ground and proved her capabilities, going on to become a renowned explorer for National Geographic with much recognition under her belt, including being the discoverer of the smallest primate in the world.
Notes from a Small Island – Bill Bryson
Notes from a Small Island is a humorous book by Bill Bryson, something of a travelogue of his adventures through the United Kingdom. Bryson, after living in the U.K. for almost 20 years, decided that he and his family would move back to his birth home, the United States, where he would settle in New Hampshire. Before he leaves, he makes up his mind to do one more tour of the island nation that he has fallen in love with.
Bill Bryson has a knack for words, and his take on some Britishisms are quite hilarious. Apart from being funny, he is vastly curious, and he writes in a way that paints a detailed and accurate picture in the reader’s mind. He tells local tales, talks about British heritage, and complains in an endearing way; listeners of BBC Radio 4 voted Notes from a Small Island as the book which best represented Britain during World Book Day in 2003.
With Notes from a Small Island, Bryson damn sure delivers. For places you may be familiar with, Bryson’s words will cause a smile of fond recognition as they’re read. For the others, his expert writing describes each destination or establishment in such vivid, colorful detail that you most definitely feel as if you are familiar with it. Bryson, the American so enamoured by Britain, communicates this book in such a way that Americans and the British alike are equally proud of the man and delighted with the book, as you are sure to be soon after you pick it up.
Married to a Bedouin – Marguerite van Geldermalsen
Contributed by Franzi of Tourist Jordan:
Married to A Bedouin is a fascinating book about a nurse from New Zealand who married a Bedouin man from Petra whilst traveling in 1978. The story explores the life of the Bedouin people and Marguerite’s own personal experience of moving into a cave with her new husband and embracing the Jordanian culture. The book provides an insight into the traditions of the Bedouin people, something which is difficult to find in Jordan today.
The Old Patagonian Express – Paul Theroux
At first, I couldn’t understand how this guy, who writes with an old-school eloquence and style, could be so negative throughout his travels. It seemed that at every station Theroux departed, he would walk into town, complain, return to his train, ride to the next town, and complain anew. However, I quickly became engrossed in his writing, curmudgeon though he may be.
In The Old Patagonian Express: By Train Through the Americas, Paul Theroux recounts his solo train adventure across the Western Hemisphere, from north to south. Starting off in Massachusetts, he heads to Chicago, down through Mexico and Central America, across into South America, and down to his destination of Patagonia, the southern tip of South America. Throughout, Theroux displays his wry, witty humor in the conversations he has, as well as in the cranky way he describes anything even infinitesimally less than pleasing. Despite his seemingly perpetual sore mood, it shows an honest side of solo travel, how it’s tough on the mind rather than simply enchanting and exotic. He documents his fear in dangerous places, disgust in dirty ones, and joy for simple pleasures.
Aside from being a study on human characteristics, the book is replete with humorous conversations, precarious situations (also funny), and even an appearance by the renowned Jorge Luis Borges. Theroux may most have in his favor a compelling and enlightening examination and commentary on the culture, traditions, and economy of the peoples he comes across, something that many travel writers seem to forego nowadays.
That Bear Ate My Pants! – Tony James Slater
Contributed by jme & Bryan of Travel with jme & Bryan:
[One] travel writer we like is Tony Slater of That Bear Ate My Pants! fame. As founders of Motley Zoo Animal Rescue in Washington State, the teaser for this book caught my eye: an inexperienced traveler from England goes to Ecuador to work at an animal sanctuary (with no animal experience).
The story is pretty funny – mostly about what not to do, as Tony seems to get himself into trouble all the time without even trying (although sometimes he tries). Through the series of books, you see him travel to Australia, get engaged, travel to the US and then back to England, where you learn more about him and his background.
These books (his “Humorous Travel Memoirs” series) are hilarious, perhaps partially because you just can’t fathom how much trouble he gets into – or how he really gets out.
The Rings of Saturn – W.G. Sebald
Contributed by James Kay, editor, lonelyplanet.com:
Travelogue? Memoir? Novel? W.G. Sebald’s account of a walking tour of the English county of Suffolk defies categorisation. The narrator – who remains nameless, but might or might not be the author – meanders a few miles down the coast, but his mental journey feels far greater.
This book blends beguiling descriptions of the places and people he encounters with meditations that range from the history of herring fishing, to colonialism in the Congo, to the reign of a Chinese empress.
Not a travel book in a conventional sense, and not a feel-good book in any sense, The Rings of Saturn nonetheless contains, among many other things, a philosophy for travellers who want to scratch beneath the surface of a destination: take it slow, seek out stories, strive to be a more thoughtful explorer.
Whenever I’ve applied these principles to my own rambling (which have included a rough retracing of Sebald’s route along the Suffolk Coast Path), it has made a real difference to the quality of the travel experience. So take a copy of this one-off with you, and cultivate your sense of curiosity with every step – who knows where it might lead you?
Flow – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Contributed by Sam Maizlech of Glacier Wellness:
Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience is one of the most innovative books on the market, combining actionable psychology with modern self-help theory. The modern classic is perfect for travels since it teaches readers how to tap into their ultimate self and truly experience life by balancing chaos and order. Likewise, Flow beautifully illustrates the necessity of fully immersing oneself into experiences in order to live a truly meaningful existence.
The Art of Travel – Alain de Botton
Contributed by James Cave from Portugalist:
The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton is an absolute must-read for anyone who travels. It is essentially a “how-to” book that teaches you how to travel, something that most of us probably don’t think we need. Surprisingly, it is incredibly useful.
The book poses a number of philosophical questions, such as why trips often don’t live up to expectations. It not only answers those questions, but also shows you how to get the most out of your next trip. It’s definitely worth reading at least once, and you never know, it may even make your next trip that little bit better.
Sci-fi writer James Cambias suggests a few of his best books for travelers:
Venice – Jan Morris
The book that made Morris’s reputation as a travel writer, Venice focuses on the city as Morris knew it in the 1960s, already a tourist center but not utterly swamped by visitors as it is today.
The Companion Guide to Rome – Georgina Masson
This is a straight travel guide, except that Masson is so knowledgeable and discursive that it turns into a portrait and a history of the city. Worth reading even if you aren’t planning to visit Rome – though after reading it you probably will be.
The Great Railway Bazaar – Paul Theroux
A fascinating account of a railroad journey around Asia in the 1970s. The final section, his narrative of riding the Soviet-era Trans-Siberian Railway all the way from Vladivostok to Moscow, is the diary of a man slowly going insane.
You Can Never Find a Rickshaw When It Monsoons – Mo Willems
Before he became a successful children’s author and illustrator, Mo Willems bummed around Europe and Asia for a year, writing and drawing his adventures in this delightful book.
Still not enough? Here are even more adventure books and travel books to read:
Annapurna – Maurice Herzog
Contributed by Josh Edwards of Dharmatrips.com: One of my favorites is Annapurna, by Maurice Herzog. Annapurna really describes the now-famous Annapurna trekking region in amazing detail, and shows how remote this region was just 70-ish years ago.
Wild Coast – John Gimlette
Contributed by Michael Motylinski of Wanderlust Bay Ministries: Wild Coast: Travels on South America’s Untamed Edge – I’ve read this book twice. Fun, spirited and invoked the wanderlust in me. You secretly learn a lot more about history and culture and humanity than you realize because the darn story is so easy to read.
Italian Journey – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Travel influencer Luisa Ruocco donates this great travel book: Italian Journey is one of my favorite reads when traveling around Italy (which everyone should do at some point in their life!). Love the vivid descriptions, particularly the ones about Rome.
Dirty Havana Trilogy – Pedro Juan Gutiérrez
Contributed by Boaz of WhyNotCuba.com: My personal favourite is the Dirty Havana Trilogy. It is such a good description of the realities of the city, past all the posturing and Instagram pictures, that it was banned in Cuba. Yet another reason to read it.
The City and the Mountains – Eça de Queirós
Contributed by Jayme Simões of Azores Adventures: This lovely book (The City and the Mountains, original title in Portuguese A Cidade e as Serras) by Eça was one of his last. It tells the tale of a young nobleman, raised in Paris, who rediscovers the wonders of his homeland.
Invisible Cities – Italo Calvino
Contributed by Matthew Lubin of Booze, Food, Travel: I would definitely put Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities on the list as it’s about how we tell stories about places. It’s a brilliant work of literature.
And just a few more travel books, from the authors, themselves:
Behind the Flight Deck Door – Brett Manders
Brett Manders offers his book: I am an international airline pilot and author of Behind the Flight Deck Door: Insider Knowledge about Everything You Have Ever Wanted to Ask a Pilot. I wrote this book after a school reunion where I was asked lots of questions when friends found out I was a pilot. Since 9/11, pilots are somewhat of an enigma, and people are genuinely fascinated with what we do and never really get the chance to ask. All told with a dash of humor, this book will demystify the art of airline travel, address those urban legends, and settle the nerves of any anxious fliers. Simple, concise explanations cover a multitude of things passengers have asked Brett and his colleagues over the years: What is a small technical delay? Can the cabin door be opened mid-flight? How much do pilots really earn and do they get free flights? Can you get stuck to the toilet? Is it still possible to view the flight deck?
Italians of Brooklyn – Marianna Biazzo Randazzo
Author and Garibaldi-Meucci Museum commissioner offers hers: I recommend Italians of Brooklyn for a regional insight to the lifestyles and the immigrant experience of Brooklyn’s melting pot vibes over the last 100 years. The uniqueness of Brooklyn is defined in this book by its people, it is diversity in the truest form. Although the focus is on Italians, it is about all people, their similarities, differences, and idiosyncrasies.
The book touches upon Brooklyn’s moniker as the “borough of churches” and how they evolved. It also reflects today’s society by depicting a modern tattoo shop in the heart of Park Slope. Today, Brooklyn still evolves and changes, while never losing its essence or its worldliness. It still attracts people from all over the world, just as it did 100 years ago. Perhaps it is because, today as in the past, Brooklyn does not condemn, only accepts.
Travel Tales Women Alone!: The #MeToo of Travel – Michael Brein
Dr. Michael Brein, The Travel Psychologist, offers his travel book for consideration: Travel Tales Women Alone!: The #MeToo of Travel – Here is a travel book I’ve written that is NOT pleasure travel reading; it’s a book that every mom and dad should discretely stuff into the backpacks of their venturesome daughters about to head off solo across the globe!
Well, what do you think? Are you adding them to your Goodreads’ to-read shelf? Got any others that deserve a spot on this list of books? Let’s chat in the comments, and thanks for reading!