Best Travel Books

I think an important part of traveling is reading good travel books. And by travel books, I don’t mean Lonely Planet guides or step-by-step guides on finding “the 3 best coffee shops in Paris.” Ugh. I mean books that give raw, honest accounts of actual boots-on-the-ground experience by someone who has journeyed to a new place and has an interesting story to tell.

Reading books about travel helps me understand how to prepare for travel, learn more about the mental game of travel, and open my mind to what kinds of experiences await me someday in the future as I explore. Over the years, I have read a lot of books on traveling: some are fantastic, some are just okay, and some are pretty bad.

Based on my experience, I decided to create a list of some of my favorite travel books. You might look at some of these titles and think: “Huh? That isn’t a travel book, why did he list it here?” — trust me, if it’s on this list, it’s because it’s worthwhile. What I’ve found is that a lot of books that embody all the values and goals of travel aren’t necessarily “travel books” per se.

Sometimes they’re just memoirs from someone who traveled a lot in their lifetime, and I thought that the accounts of their experience were worth putting in this list. Sometimes, they’re fictional novels, but have enough relevant content to the travel-minded individual that I think they’re worth sharing because they’ll inspire you to seek new adventures in real life. And, of course, many times even fictional books are based heavily on real-life experience by the authors, who decided to create stories with some truth and some embellishment. So, having said all that, below is a list of books I recommend based on travel and exploration.

List of Best Travel Books

Book Cover: The Man Who Would Be King by Rudyard Kipling

The Man Who Would Be King

Rudyard Kipling

The Man Who Would Be King

This is a fictional story about two British soldiers who venture into a fictional land in the Hindu Kush mountain range and are changed forever. It’s an exciting, thrilling tale that will resonate with anyone who wants to leave their normal life behind and forge a new life in a new place. My only criticism is that it’s technically a short story, so it’s over sooner than you want.

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My rating: 5 out of 5 stars.

Book Cover: In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson

In a Sunburned Country

Bill Bryson

In a Sunburned Country

This is probably, I think, the funniest book I have ever read. I don’t just mean the funniest travel book; I mean the funniest book I have ever read. I couldn’t stop laughing out loud at the absurdities that Bryson discovers is the home of Aussies. They are truly a nation like no other. As far as I’m concerned, this book is perfect. And the more I meet people from the “land down under,” the more I love their unique culture, bizarre animals, extreme way of life, and silly phrases (“sharp end of a pineapple,” anyone?)

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My rating: 5 out of 5 stars.

Book Cover: The Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux

The Mosquito Coast

Paul Theroux

The Mosquito Coast

This is one of the rare stories where the movie is just as good (or almost as good) as the book. The movie “the Mosquito Coast” starring Harrison Ford is truly a worthy retelling of this excellent story. A cautionary tale about people who want to leave the rat race and start over in a new world, Alley Fox serves as a composite character of many cult leaders who have done just that: traces of Jim Jones, Marshall Applewhite, and David Koresh are easy to see in his insistence that the world is going to be destroyed and only he can save his family by moving to an uncivilized jungle and start from scratch. Bonus: I saw the movie a decade or two before reading the book, and, after reading the book, was impressed with story overall more than I had been in the past, and was even more impressed with Ford’s portrayal of the main character.

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My rating: 5 out of 5 stars.

Book Cover: Adventures in the Unknown Interior of America by Cabeze de Vaca

Adventures in the Unknown Interior of America

Alvar Nunez Cabeza De Vaca

Adventures in the Unknown Interior of America

This is a true story: a narrative of a Spanish conquistador who left Spain and ended up landing in what is now Haiti, then went to modern-day Cuba, then Florida, then Mississippi, then Texas, and on into the interior of Mexico, where we was separated from his party and had to survive, lost, naked, afraid and on the run for several years. I first read this in college and couldn’t understand how narratives of actual people like this who really existed had somehow escaped my attention up until that point.

Note: due to variations in translation from the original Spanish, this story can be found under the following titles (if not more):

  • The Narrative of Cabeza de Vaca
  • La relación of Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca
  • Adventures in the Unknown Interior of America
  • The Account: Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca’s Relacíon
  • Chronicle of the Narvaez Expedition

My rating: 5 out of 5 stars.

Book Cover: The Not-Quite States of America by Doug Mack

The Not-Quite States of America

Doug Mack

The Not-Quite States of America: Dispatches from the Territories and Other Far-Flung Outposts of the USA

This was one of the most delightfully obscure books I’ve ever found. While taking a trip across Florida’s panhandle, I listened to this amazing little account of the “far-flung” regions of the USA, including: the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, American Samoa, Puerto Rico, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands (CNMI). Who knew these were a part of America? And who knew that since they aren’t states, they have no political representation whatsoever and all the inhabitants live a life in the shadows as not-quite Americans? And what American has ever even heard of of Saipan, or the CNMI for that matter? What an enjoyable read packed with enlightening research, well told altogether. I wish I could have tagged along with the author as he flew huge distances to discover these tiny fragments of the USA.

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My rating: 5 out of 5 stars.

Book Cover: In Tuscany by Frances Mayes

In Tuscany

Frances Mayes

In Tuscany

Mayes is the author of another, more famous work: “Under the Tuscan Sun.” Both of these books detail her experiences in what I imagine is the most beautiful region of Italy (or, perhaps the entire world). In “In Tuscany,” she essentially shares her diary of daily life in Tuscany, without frills or bombast. It’s just a simple retelling of a life in a region that care left behind. It’s almost maddeningly beautiful in that she goes on and on, describing the most magical, delicious, aromatic scenes that apparently occur on a daily basis in Tuscany until the poor reader (me, in this case) wants to shout loudly at her: “All right, all right! Stop! I get it! I’ll buy a damn ticket to Italy now! Ugh—why am I wasting my life in anywhere on earth but there?” Unless you already live in Tuscany, Mayes does quite an amazing job of ruining your contentment anywhere else on earth. My goodness. I must go to Tuscany at some point, to live or visit, many, many times.

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My rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

Book Cover: Travels with Charley In Search of America by John Steinbeck

Travels with Charley

John Steinbeck

Travels with Charley: In Search of America

After his massive success with major literary works like Cannery Row, The Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden, and Of Mice and Men (all of which I’ve read), Steinbeck (my favorite storyteller), decided to hop in a small RV and travel the country with his poodle, Charley. While I don’t like dogs at all, and would never take one with me on a cross-country trip, this book reminds me of what I would do if I had the chance. It’s a very humble, simple, no-frills travelogue of a simple trip back to California to meet with old friends and family. Honestly, it reads like an average Joe taking a trip to see a few folks, reminisce about old times and drink a few beers, as though it wasn’t written by a man who would go on to win the Nobel Prize in Literature a few months after this was published. Amazing. I’d give it five stars, except I’m docking it a star because he took his dog with him, which is annoys me and made his trip unnecessarily complicated.

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My rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

Book Cover: A Year in the Merde by Stephen Clarke

A Year in the Merde

Stephen Clarke

A Year in the Merde

If you’ve ever wondered why you often find wannabe-Bohemian Americans drooling over Paris and just how beautiful, artistic, poetic, and wonderful it is… but how they never actually move there, this book is really good at explaining why. “Merde,” for those unfamiliar with the crass vocabulary of the French, literally means “shit.” So, yes, this book is an account of “a year in the shit,” and he isn’t kidding. Fraud, deception, red-tape, bureaucracy, corruption, bribery and more abound in this journalistic story about one man’s attempt to live in France for a year. It’s much, much harder than it sounds. If you, like me, have heard newly-minted college grads drone on about the romance of France and have sarcastically wondered: “if the City of Lights is truly so fantastique, why don’t you just go there permanently?” The answer is: it’s hard. Harder than merde, apparently.

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My rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

Book Cover: Do Travel Writers Go to Hell? by Thomas Kohnstamm

Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?

Thomas Kohnstamm

Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?: A Swashbuckling Tale of High Adventures, Questionable Ethics, and Professional Hedonism

This book, more than any other, illustrates why Lonely Planet and all the other crappy tour book companies out there should die a slow, painful death. If what Kohnstamm claims in this book is true, that means every glossy travel guide you’ve ever read is a compilation of lies, filled with made-up garbage and paid insertions that amount to straight-up, unabashed bribery. Nearly everything recorded in this book details practices that break every single tenet of journalistic codes of ethics.

It’s one thing to write an industry exposé, drawing attention to the corrupt practices of an entire trade that has gone so far beyond the pale that intervention is required (Sinclair’s The Jungle, for example). It’s another thing altogether to participate—nay—revel in all the Bacchanalian debauchery, drug use, lawlessness, and utter contempt for any ethical framework whatsoever while doing your work, while also cashing in on exposing the underbelly. Honestly, if Thomas Kohnstamm is even a real person, I hate him. I’m grateful that he has—ostensibly—exposed the corrupt and hypocritical world of travel writing, but I hate him for being one of them.

Having said all that, it’s an eye-opening read, and if you want the wool removed from your eyes, give it a gander. It’s a fascinating, engrossing, voyeuristic look at a life that will fill you with wanderlust. I’m embarrassed to admit I liked it, but not to embarrassed to list it here.

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars (for the book, that is). For the industry as a whole and the author’s own habits, 1 out of 5 stars).

Book Cover: A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

A Walk in the Woods

Bill Bryson

A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail

This was an inspiring tale from Bryson, who, by the time I read it, I had become very familiar with. It does border on becoming obnoxious in the sense that he somehow chose to bring along the worst possible travel companion on his hike along the Appalachian trail—a drunk, morbidly obese friend named Katz who he clearly doesn’t even like. It’s a bummer that about 20% of this story could have been trimmed and we wouldn’t miss anything. Most of the banter between Bryson and Katz is irritating and borders on implausible. But the background on the Appalachian trail itself, the people who hike it, and the sheer enormity of the challenge make it worth it. Did it inspire me to someday perhaps hike a portion of the Appalachian Trail? Yes, yes it did.

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My rating: 3 out of 5 stars.

Book Cover: Neither Here Nor There by Bill Bryson

Neither Here Nor There

Bill Bryson

Neither Here Nor There: Travels in Europe

By the time I read this book, I was quite used to Bryson’s famous deadpan delivery and malicious sense of getting even with everyone on earth he doesn’t like (and the fact that this includes almost everyone on earth). There were times when I just rolled my eyes when I can tell he’s just trying too hard, and I wish he could just let things go and focus on what happened in his travels rather than trying to retell every minute detail of every conversation with every strange person he encounters. Having said all that, this book is packed with tons of valuable advice about traveling in Europe and I found it a quite valuable read.

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My rating: 3 out of 5 stars. (Bill, if you’re reading this—just take a chill pill and relax a bit. We’re all rooting for you. We’ll like you more for it.)

Honorable Mention

Travel as a Political Act – Rick Steves

An Arabian Journey: One Man’s Quest Through the Heart of the Middle East (Levison Wood)

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail (Cheryl Strayed)

Lost in My Own Backyard: A Walk in Yellowstone National Park (Tim Cahill)

Ghost Rider: Travels on the Healing Road (Neil Peart)

Gulliver’s Travels (Jonathan Swift)

The Grapes of Wrath (John Steinbeck)

Sailing Alone Around the World (Joshua Slocum)

I’m a Stranger Here Myself: Notes on Returning to America After 20 Years Away (Bill Bryson)

The Most Beautiful Walk in the World: A Pedestrian in Paris (John Baxter)

Into the Wild (Jon Krakauer)

The Wonder Trail: True Stories from Los Angeles to the End of the World (Steve Hely)

Life on the Mississippi (Mark Twain)

Around the World in 80 Days (Jules Verne)

Treasure Island (Robert Louis Stevenson)

The Long Haul: A Trucker’s Tales of Life on the Road (Finn Murphy)

Braving It: A Father, a Daughter, and an Unforgettable Journey into the Alaskan Wild (James Campbell)

In addition to this list, I also have a list of the best travel movies I’ve seen.

Disclaimer: this list may use affiliate links, so if you purchase any of these items, I may get a small commission at no cost to you. For more details, please visit the disclosures page.