Travel writing is a glamorous but difficult genre. To a reader it’s an easy sell: you get to go to fantastic places and see unusual things without spending the money. In a back-to-school, nose-to-the-grindstone season like the one we’re in now, that’s a mixed blessing at best. But for a writer, getting your tone right can be tricky. The speaker’s narration of the exotic wonders of the place they’re visiting can quickly turn condescending and even racist. Only the most skilled writers can toe the line. Like, you know, Steinbeck.
In this list, I’ve observed the following parameters: no recent blockbusters, like Eat, Pray, Love or Wild, as many of the world’s regions as one could possibly fit, and steering away from the older, 19th-century popular travel books unless there was something particularly remarkable about them.
Travels with Charley: In Search of America by John Steinbeck
Steinbeck. A poodle named Charley. A road trip. What’s not to love?
Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West
Yugoslavia in the shadow of Nazism, with one of the great women intellectuals of the 20th century.
The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux
All about trains. Per the author: “The trains [in a country] contain the essential paraphernalia of the culture: Thai trains have the shower jar with the glazed dragon on its side, Ceylonese ones the car reserved for Buddhist monks, Indian ones a vegetarian kitchen and six classes, Iranian ones prayer mats, Malaysian ones a noodle stall, Vietnamese ones bulletproof glass on the locomotive, and on every carriage of a Russian train there is a samovar. The railway bazaar with its gadgets and passengers represented the society so completely that to board it was to be challenged by the national character. At times it was like a leisurely seminar, but I also felt on some occasions that it was like being jailed and then assaulted by the monstrously typical.”
As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning by Laurie Lee
A poet’s memoir about walking through the English, and later Spanish, countryside.
In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin
Some people say parts of it are fictionalized, but it’s still a classic. For those who need a pop-culture hook, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid — who spent some time there themselves — make multiple appearances.
Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson
An American says goodbye to Britain — and, according to a poll of BBC viewers, pretty accurately represents the country in the process.
Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell
A memoir of sorts of his experiences in the Spanish Civil War, it’s not precisely a travelogue.
An Area of Darkness by V.S. Naipaul
Naipaul reverses the fish-out-of-water premise of the travel narrative by using its conventions to explore his own home country of India.
As They Were by M.F.K. Fisher
More of a collection of nostalgic essays than a document of a single trip, but the one about her kitchen in Provence, particularly, is not to be missed.
The Emperor by Ryszard Kapuściński
Parts of this book are known to have been fabricated, but many journalists argue that Kapuściński’s manipulation of the facts lets him get closer to some essential truths about Ethiopia and Haile Selassie. Read up, and see if you agree.
Letters from Egypt: A Journey on the Nile, 1849–1850 by Florence Nightingale
The title says it all here. Nightingale is likely more familiar to you as a medical icon, but she was also an excellent writer. A bit hard to get your hands on this book, but Amazon has it.
Coasting by Jonathan Raban
Raban sails around the coast of Britain without a compass, just navigating by the shoreline.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter F. Thompson
Thompson framed this as a novel, but its heavy leaning on autobiographical incidents means it speaks to the heart of darkness at the center of America’s most fabulous city-in-the-desert.
Great Plains by Ian Frazier
Possibly the inveterate storyteller Frazier’s greatest work, this book is the result of three years wandering in America’s heartland. A land, he told People in 1989, where breakfast was a sight to see: “You’ve got to have either eggs or waffles with that whipped white junk on it. It’s not butter, and it isn’t marshmallow. It’s put out by whatever the opposite of the heart association is.”
The Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain
Still one of the best-selling travel books of all time, Twain’s account of a voyage that ultimately culminates in the Holy Lands.
The Lycian Shore by Freya Stark
Stark is a now forgotten explorer-ess, and unjustifiedly so, as this fascinating book about the coast of Turkey demonstrates.
The Muses Are Heard by Truman Capote
Capote follows a traveling opera into the USSR. Hilarious, but also somewhat invented, as Gerald Clarke detailed in his biography of Capote.
The Pine Barrens by John McPhee
The New Yorker’s McPhee is celebrated for his ability to make anything interesting — as substantiated, here, by his absorbing account of an unused stretch of New Jersey.
Skating to Antarctica by Jenny Diski
Half-memoir, half-travel piece, London Review of Books contributor Diski details her own complicated family history against the backdrop of a journey south.
Their Heads Are Green and Their Hands Are Blue by Paul Bowles
A collection of essays about various journeys that showcase Bowles’ beautiful prose. A bit less intellectual than some of the other books here, but as a result it goes down easy, a good beach read.
Travels With Myself and Another by Martha Gellhorn
One of these is with Hemingway, FYI.
The Cruise of the Northern Light by Courtney Letts
This recommendation comes from our literary editor, Jason Diamond, who wrote about Letts for Outside.
Sea and Sardinia by D.H. Lawrence
The strained marriage of a famously bizarre writer and strange Italians, on the eve of fascism. What more could you want?
Venice by Jan Morris
One of the 20th century’s best travel writers covers one of the world’s most beautiful cities.
A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor
The first book of a trilogy about Fermor’s walk, at 18, from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople. Many barns and many monasteries followed.
The Way of the World by Nicolas Bouvier
Mid-century Swiss men bumble through the Middle East. Self-aware and, originally, self-published.
An African in Greenland by Tété-Michel Kpomassie
A Togolese teenager dreams of Greenland, and eventually gets there, finding it not entirely consistent with the image he’d have of it.
West With the Night by Beryl Markham
I’m being sneaky with this one, which is more of a memoir of growing up in Kenya and then traveling the world as a pilot, but it’s so good, and the fish-out-of-water-ness of it so palpable, that it deserves a revival.
China As I See It by Pearl S. Buck
This is the item where I recommend you a book you will find it hard to get! But this is more like a command for someone to reprint this book, which I borrowed from an Ottawa library in 1993 and was really taken with.
In an Antique Land by Amitav Ghosh
The celebrated novelist covers the history of Egypt while delving into his own upbringing.
Original Letters from India by Eliza Fay, annotated by E.M. Forster
Jane Austen-like figure goes on a Raiders-of-the-Lost-Ark-like journey, if Raiders of the Lost Ark were set in the 18th century.
Tracks by Robyn Davidson
A hilarious memoir of a woman’s solo journey across the Australian desert — and one of the few travel memoirs by a really young woman available. Soon to be a movie starring Mia Wasikowska.
Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer
This account of a failed attempt to summit Everest cuts awful close to my “no recent blockbusters” rule, but since Into the Wild has recently eclipsed its reputation I decided to include it.
The Lost City of Z by David Grann
Combines a detective story with a travelogue as only a great New Yorker writer like Grann can do.
A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit
Solnit’s something of a cult writer, insofar as those who are into her work (like me), are really into her work (also like me). It’s just as much philosophy as travelogue.