By Contributor Joni Sweet
The success of any great travel book can be measured not in awards, but in miles. The sheer distances they take our imaginations, and the miles they inspire us to hike, drive and fly—those are the things that matter when it comes to these books. And sometimes, reading a travel book can book can be as transformative as the journey itself.
Ready for a reading list that will change the way you travel? Here are the 15 must-read travel books, according to experienced globetrotters. Prepare for a serious case of wanderlust.
When asked for his pick for the best travel book, James Kay, editor of Lonely Planet’s website, chose a work that doesn’t quite fit into any genre.
“Travelogue? Memoir? Novel? W.G. Sebald’s account of a walking tour of the English county of Suffolk defies categorization. The narrator 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,” said Kay. “‘The Rings of Saturn’ contains a philosophy for travelers who want to scratch beneath the surface of a destination: Take it slow, seek out stories, strive to be a more thoughtful explorer. 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?”
Some of us live to travel, and travel to eat. And when you need a book to fuel a gourmand journey, “A Moveable Feast” has got you covered with this celebration of 38 foodie tales from around the world, said Debbie Arcangeles, host of the podcast The Offbeat Life, which highlights the lives of location-independent professionals.
“‘A Movable Feast’ is a compilation of short stories from famous chefs, writers and foodies around the world,” she said. “They all share a love of food and the power it has to bring people together. Reading the short stories will give you a glimpse of the culture and induce a serious case of food lust.”
With so much travel literature telling us where to go, we can lose sight of the purpose behind traveling at all. Alain de Botton’s “The Art of Travel” serves as a reminder of the how and why when it comes to hitting the road, said Michelle Halpern, travel blogger at Live Like It’s The Weekend.
“Many travel-themed books play to our daydreams about travel, but de Botton takes a brutally honest and philosophical look at why we travel and brings to light truths that we don't want to see or believe, namely that the fantasies we have about a place can often be better than the reality we encounter once we arrive,” she said. “He's incredibly articulate when describing the mundane moments of travel that we often glaze over in memory. It's not just about the moments of grandeur—every little element is part of the whole experience.”
Most travelers are searching for something on their adventures, whether it’s amazing archeological sites or the most delicious meal. But while you’re busy seeking something external, you usually end up discovering a piece of yourself you never knew was there. That’s exactly what happens in Paulo Coelho’s book, “The Alchemist,” said Cory Varga, travel expert and founder of the couple’s travel blog You Could Travel.
“‘The Alchemist’ tells the enthralling story of an Andalusian shepherd who wants to travel in search of treasure. But during his adventures, he finds himself, instead,” said Varga. “Coelho shows us the journey that matters—a journey of lessons and charming stories of snakes, love, dunes and alchemy.”
There’s a special place in every traveler’s heart for Anthony Bourdain. But between his award-winning TV shows and best-selling books, it’s hard to choose which part of his storytelling is most influential. Luckily, Meagan Drillinger, a travel writer and owner of women’s entrepreneurial retreat company Vaera Journeys, makes the decision a little easier with her pick, “Medium Raw,” Bourdain’s follow-up to “Kitchen Confidential.”
“Tony comes to us in this book a little older, a little more worn, and above all, wiser and apologetic for his staunch stances of the past. He's still the same Anthony Bourdain, with the same convictions about what makes good cooking, but the years on the road have softened his soul in this memoir,” she said. “Travel changed Anthony Bourdain. It opened his eyes to a world that was forgiving and kind, to a world of people less fortunate than him, but who were happier than he could ever be, and it taught him the importance of stepping outside your comfort zone as a means to growth.”
The drive to seek out the unknown is what’s behind many people’s urge to travel. But where do you go when you feel that every place on earth has already been visited by millions before you? Is there any place left to discover? Kate Harris contemplates these questions, and more, in her memoir about a year spent cycling the Silk Road.
“This book was like no other travelogue I've ever read—a meditation on remote places very rarely written about, history and borders,” said travel enthusiast Elizabeth Sile, senior editor at Real Simple. “Harris perfectly captures what it feels like to want to explore—not to take the perfect Instagram or tick off the top sights, but to be exposed to wildness and discomfort.”
The sheer number of “what ifs” when considering a solo trip is enough to keep many travelers at home. “A Woman Alone” will help you conquer the fear of exploring alone and encourage you to do it on your own terms, said travel influencer Tanyka Renee.
“My initial issue with wanderlust was that I never had anyone to take trips with me. I spent years pushing adventures to the back burner due to my fear of traveling alone,” she said. “‘A Woman Alone’ is filled with relatable stories from solo female travelers that are real, transparent and uplifting. This book will give you the push you need to face your fears and see the world all by yourself.”
What could be more inspiring to a young traveler (or older nomads who are still young at heart) than the action-packed adventures of a reporter and his little dog wandering the world? The visually-driven Tintin comic books gave Inma Gregorio, an experienced traveler who runs the travel blog A World to Travel, a sense of wanderlust as a child—and continues to influence her journeys now.
“‘The Adventures of Tintin’ by Belgian cartoonist Hergé was a comic series that took me to Egypt, Congo, Tibet and even the moon before I turned 8 years old. They gave me such great memories and I highly recommended the series for all ages,” she said.
Big cities draw the majority of tourists, but smaller towns have just as much to offer, according to author William Least Heat-Moon. His book “Blue Highways” inspired travel writer Chris Clemens, founder of Exploring Upstate, to focus on places around Upstate New York that you might not find on every map.
“Heat-Moon became intrigued by the little towns that most people pass by entirely, if they hear of them at all,” said Clemens. “What he found, and what I've found in similar places across New York, is that every place has a gem to discover. It may be a Main Street revitalization project, or a particular resident with an interesting collection, a historic site with an incredible backstory or an amazing bakery with a special recipe that only the locals know about. ‘Blue Highways’ is the perfect travel story of an average guy visiting average places and having extraordinary experiences.”
It’s easy to see why travelers love Judith Schalansky’s “Pocket Atlas of Remote Islands.” It easily slips into a bag, it features beautiful maps and, most importantly, it reminds you that there’s still so much left of this world to see, said Kristin Henning, travel blogger at Travel Past 50.
“This book simultaneously entices us with detailed discoveries and dissuades us with stark images of distant parts of the world. For travelers who pride themselves in finding less-traveled corners of the globe, this book humbles as much as it inspires,” she said. “Each of the featured islands is presented with the land’s vital statistics, including an intriguing timeline of human interaction, facing a delicately drawn map. A brief poetic essay follows, with tales of rare wildlife, accidental discoveries or abandoned hopes. What other travel book makes you yearn for places you know you’ll never visit?”
African safaris top many travelers’ bucket lists. But Paul Theroux’s book “Dark Star Safari” shows a deeper, more vibrant side of this fascinating continent, as he shares what happens on a road trip from Cairo to Cape Town, said Nicole LaBarge, who runs the adventure travel blog Travelgal Nicole.
“Most people would be put off by the dilemmas Theroux faced, but it ultimately inspired me to travel over land from Cairo to Cape Town in 2015. I reread the book on my trip and would smile and think, ‘Yes! That is so true,’ about the countries I was visiting,” she said. “Africa is a continent that is misunderstood, but [Theroux helped me see that] going beyond safaris is [where you find] the true Africa.”
Some people are so captivated by travel that the annual two-week vacation will never satiate them. They set out to create entirely nomadic life, making countless sacrifices along the way. The refreshingly frank “Vagabonding” teaches you exactly what it takes to build a life on the road, said Dane Faurschou, a surfer, alpinist and photographer who’s been traveling non-stop since 2007.
“Anyone who’s thinking about traveling for longer than the average weeklong Christmas vacation has something to learn from this book, whether it’s how to budget while traveling or changing your entire mindset toward money in the first place,” he said. “It influenced my relationship with money and possessions, it helped me minimize my life and taught me how to spend money in a way that would allow me to extend my travel for as long as I wanted.”
What traveler doesn’t daydream about that imaginary island surrounded by crystal clear waters and blanketed by golden sunlight? Yet, fantasies never live up to expectations—and that’s exactly what “The Beach” reminds us, said Clemens Sehi, travel writer and creative director at Travellers Archive.
“The book changes the way people think about the definition of paradise. Garland creates the picture of paradise, lulling the reader into thinking the characters have truly found heaven on earth, and then he begins pounding reality into them through betrayal, deadly secrets and violence,” said Sehi. “The book taught me that there is no such thing as paradise. This utopia isn’t worth looking for. Instead, beauty can be found in the reality of everyday life of the local people, and that is much more worthwhile to explore.”
Religion and travel go hand-in-hand. Even if you’re not practicing your own spirituality, you’re witnessing the devout practices of various cultures when you explore. And sometimes, you pick up a belief or two that fits your life. “What Makes You Not a Buddhist” helps travelers learn about Buddhism and use its principles to stay grounded, even when it’s tempting to get caught up in the vibrant new experiences of visiting a foreign country, said Kristin Addis, travel blogger at Be My Travel Muse.
“Though it sounds like a religious text, this book's more of a way to gain understanding of cultures in Asia that are Buddhist. The book goes through the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism with examples from a Western way of life,” she said. “It helped me to appreciate the constant change of traveling—both the highs and the lows—since Buddhism emphasizes acceptance of the ever-changing nature of life.”
Travel exposes you to the most rewarding and most heartbreaking parts of civilization. “The Haves and the Have Nots” can give you context on the latter, said Amanda Plewes, owner of travel blog Partway There.
“This book opens travelers’ eyes to the privilege of coming from a country like the United States. I loved that the book took gross domestic product, and normalized it to U.S. dollars in terms of purchasing power, so you could actually understand the true difference in income between people in different countries,” she said. “If you’re traveling to understand the world, this book focuses on one of the key cornerstones—money—to put wealth inequality into context.”
Guest contributor Joni Sweet is a New York-based wellness and travel journalist who has rafted down the Ganges, hiked the jungle of Borneo and hot air ballooned over Cappadocia. You can follow her on Instagram at @jonisweet.