By many criteria I have travelled a lot – it is my passion after all – but I love hearing about other people’s travels almost as much! Reading travel literature is inspiring – both in terms of travelling and writing. In fact if you aspire to be a travel writer I would advise reading as much quality travel writing as you can.
I have put together my list of the greatest travel books of all time, in my personal opinion based on my own reading. It’s a mix of travelogues and memoirs and novels that have inspired my world travel.
It does not include books that are merely about a place, however exotic and evocative, although a vivid sense of place is of course vital in good travel writing. I hope you find some ideas for your list of books to read while travelling, and that they inspire you as much as they have me!
This memoir by British poet Laurie Lee was published in 1969 and describes the author leaving his small English village for an epic walking journey that will take him first to London and then through Spain, where he becomes embroiled in the Spanish Civil War. The writing in this travel book is wonderfully poetic and Lee’s encounters with poor villagers and descriptions of beautiful landscapes get me every time. I also think this book affirms my opinion that the best way to really see a country is to get out of your car and walk.
Evelyn Waugh was a 20th century novelist and biographer. And quite the traveller! He attended the coronation of Haile Selassie in Abyssinia, he journeyed through the Belgian Congo in Africa and, in 1932, through British Guiana (now Guyana) in South America. It is this last journey that formed the subject of 92 Days and it was this novel that inspired the tagline on my travel blog. This was seriously tough travel, the like of which I doubt anyone experiences these days but his thirst to “make the pages of the atlas real” is in my heart and soul.
3. The Motorcycle Diaries: Notes on a Latin American Journey by Che Guevara
Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara’s memoir of his time spent motorcycling through South America in 1952 is a wonderful example of how travel can change your perspective, indeed your entire world view. The young Guevara and his friend witness poverty, injustice and find a true Latin American identity within themselves. The book and the 2004 film starting Gael Garcia Bernal had me desperate to rush out and buy a flight ticket to Buenos Aires!
This 13th century Venetian must be one of the world’s most famous travel dreamers. He travelled with his father and uncle looking for trade opportunities through Central Asia and China, visiting the court of Kublai Khan and returning after 24 years – now that’s a lot of travel. His travels inspired Christopher Columbus and I certainly got excited following in his footsteps through Uzbekistan!
5. The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux
Prolific travel writer Paul Theroux has made a career out of his sometimes frustratingly negative but always engaging travelogues. He’s the sort of traveler who despises tourist attractions and creature comforts. Like me, he is passionate about train travel and The Great Railway Bazaar is one of his best books on the subject, covering Europe, Asia and the Middle East on this one journey by rail. I also particularly love his observations and stories about encounters with local people.
Eric Newby’s description of an attempt to climb a very challenging mountain in Afghanistan is a classic of adventurous travel writing and self-deprecation. The ill-prepared and inexperienced, Newby, and his companion made a bit of a hash of climbing the mountain, but ah the tale to be told on his return!
Colin Thubron is often touted as the best travel writer of his generation and, having read four or five of his travel works, I have to agree. This is my favourite and the most impacting and personal of his travel books – a pilgrimage in memory of his dead parents to Mt Kailash, the mountain that is holy to four of the world’s religions: Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism and Bon. It is a gruelling journey to a starkly beautiful place and Thubron carries the reader through both the outer and his inner world with superlative prose.
In 1933 Robert Byron traveled through the Middle East, visiting Beirut, Jerusalem, Baghdad and Teheran to ‘Oxiana’ the country of the mighty Oxus River (now called the Amu Darya) that runs along the border between Afghanistan and Central Asia (at the time part of the Soviet Union). His diary is at times thrilling, humorous and dull, but always inspiring as he takes in the incredible architectural legacy of this part of the world. Much of his journey frequents my world travel dreams but I fear the instability in that region will keep me away for more years.
A well written and endlessly amusing collection of travel tales drawn from Martha Gellhorn’s stellar career as a journalist in some of the world’s most dangerous places – particularly during the Second World War. The sort of travel tales that make most people heartily thankful they are sitting safely in their armchair at home. Oh and she was married to Ernest Hemingway for awhile.
You can’t talk about travel books without talking about Bill Bryson, a writer who has sold millions of books and charmed as many readers with his wry observations on different parts of the world. This is one of his earliest works and another travel book that doesn’t skimp on being honest about when things go wrong. I love the dark humour of his descriptions of hunger, uncomfortable camping and the fear of bear attacks. And more walking, as Bryson tackles the famous (and very long) Appalachian Trail in the US. There really is no better way to travel!
I have to admit I have not read this book in its entirety but only excerpts over the years. Ibn Battuta is probably, quite simply the most well travelled person ever to have lived. The medieval book that recounts the 14th-century journeys of this Moroccan scholar is not in conventional print but James Rumford has retold the story with revealing detail.
Many of Hemingway’s works include travel writing of some sort but this is my favourite. A novel about Americans in Europe, from the Pernod-soaked cafes of Paris and then departing on a road trip to the mountainsides of the Pyrenees and the town of Pamplona, where the descriptions of the atmosphere and bullfighting exploits of the famous festival are absolutely gripping. I love the way he utilises the contrast between urban Paris and rural Spain to give energy to the journey.
I had to be introduced to this book by the recent film starring Mia Wasikowska, which I loved, but the book is perhaps even more rewarding. A young woman embarks on a solo journey across the pitiless but beautiful Australian desert, having obtained and trained a group of camels to carry her supplies. Totally engaging and thought-provoking.
I read Alex Garland’s novel of a British backpackers’ search for paradise on earth a couple of years after travelling in Thailand (and also after watching the film -for shame) and the book instantly transported me back to the experience of hitting the ‘banana-pancake-trail’ in South-East Asia, a three month trip that is now 10 years ago for me. I visited the Ang Thong Marine park near Koh Samui – where Ko Mae Ko, or Mother Island, inspired Garland’s novel with its lagoon within a volcanic cone. The sense of all-consuming escapism that travel can provide is brilliantly evoked in this novel.
This is the only piece of Greene’s travel writing I have read and I loved it. The title itself is what first grabbed me, even though it is somewhat of an authorial exaggeration. It is an account of a 350-mile walk (yes more walking) through the interior of Liberia in 1935. He was looking for a sort of ‘Heart of Darkness’ in his first travel experience outside Europe and certainly found privation and illness. In fact it was his travel companion and cousin Barbara Greene who proved a much more resilient traveller. I really want to read her memoir of the trip: ‘Too Late to Turn Back’. The book certainly makes the banana pancake trail seem like a walk in the woods!
By Natasha von Geldern
What would you add to my list of the greatest travel books of all time that have inspired you to travel? I am always looking for new inspiration for to travel and to write!
Just to let you know, I have included links to where you can buy the above books on Amazon and if you do then I will earn a tiny commission. Thanks!