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The 10 best travel books to get you out of bed each morning

by | Oct 7, 2019

The joy of travel writing lies in its ability to tell the story of a location — to give life to both the exotic and the mundane, making either seem equally remarkable. The best travel books have a certain unquantifiable magic that’s unlike anything else you’ll ever read.

Some books have the power to get you packing your suitcase and searching for flights before you’re even halfway through chapter one.

Whether it’s the chronicle of a pilgrimage by a sixth-century monk, a hilarious account of a calamity-prone journey across Europe — or simply a piece of literature that evokes the atmosphere of a specific country or city — a good travel book can inspire a lifetime of adventures.

With that in mind, today we’re sharing the 10 best travel books (according to us). Let’s get started.

 Canterbury Cathedral, destination of the pilgrims in Chaucer’s tales. Credit: Zoltan Tasi

‘The Canterbury Tales’ – Geoffrey Chaucer

Chaucer’s remarkable — and unexpectedly racy — tales of the pilgrimage to Canterbury might well be the first mainstream travel book ever written.

A story of how a group of around 30 people traveled from London to the shrine of St. Thomas Becket in Canterbury, Chaucer’s tales prove that travel is about the journey as much as the destination. They also suggest that “having your mind in the gutter” is by no means a new phenomenon.

‘From the Holy Mountain’ – William Dalrymple

Inspired by the wanderings of a sixth-century monk, William Dalrymple embarked on an extraordinary journey through the Middle East, chronicled in this book.

The book is part travel-journal, part history, and part religious commentary. Dalrymple explores the fascinating traditions of the lesser known pockets of Eastern Christianity, as well as more recent political and social upheavals in a beautiful but often troubled region.

A truly eye-opening piece of literature, From the Holy Mountain will get your feet itching with wanderlust.

Hakluyt’s ‘Voyages’ may or may not persuade you to take up sailing. Credit: Katherine McCormack

‘Voyages and Discoveries’ – Richard Hakluyt

If you’re considering a voyage across the Atlantic, you could do worse than to consult this classic, 16th-century text.

The clergyman Richard Hakluyt may not have traveled far and wide himself, but he collected first-person narratives from the most adventurous and daring explorers of his time — including Sir Francis Drake, Sir Walter Raleigh, William Baffin, and Henry Hudson (yes, that Hudson).

Voyages remains a truly extraordinary account of the first British explorations of the New World, though with any luck your own trip will involve a little less colonialism and scurvy.

‘A Time of Gifts’ – Patrick Leigh Fermor

For any hiking fans out there, this is the gold standard of walking books.

Patrick Leigh Fermor’s memoir of his frankly baffling journey from Holland to Istanbul — on foot — is a true masterpiece.

A coming-of-age story, a travel journal, and an incredible piece of social commentary — Fermor’s trilogy describes a Europe before Communism, when old cultures and traditions still held sway, at a time when Hitler’s rise to power was only just beginning.

Inspiring, mind-opening— and often moving, as an old man’s recollection of his youth — A Time of Gifts is one of the best travel books you’ll find.

One of the marvellous things I saw at the pyramids should not be omitted: there are heaps of stone-chips lying in front of them . . . like lentils in both form and size. They say that what was left of the food of the workmen has petrified.” — Strabo on the Pyramids of Giza. Photo credit: Les Anderson

‘Geography’ – Strabo

One of, if not the oldest surviving work of literature that could be described as “travel writing” — Strabo’s ‘Geography is a comprehensive account of every place or people known to the Romans during the Augustan Age.

Published in 7 BC, it is somewhat out of date, and many of the hotels listed are no longer in business. But there’s something to be said for comparing his notes with your own travels through the region. His descriptions of travel distances and local legends remain relevant to this day.

At the time it was published, the Geographica was truly groundbreaking — and it continues to provide today’s travelers with a vivid first-hand account of the ancient world.

‘Neither Here nor There’ – Bill Bryson

The genius of Bill Bryson is finding the hilarity in otherwise mundane, everyday situations. His knack for turning his (often calamitous) travel experiences into laugh-out-loud prose is almost unmatched – and it’s all described with a genuine love for both travel and the destinations he ends up in.

Neither Here Nor There is a wonderful description of the Bryson’s travels around Europe in 1990, with regular and inevitably comical flashbacks to his summer travels to the same places as a young college graduate in the 70s.

Pilgrims ascend Adam’s Peak, in Sri Lanka. It was one of the many spots visited by legendary traveler Ibn Battuta. Credit: Dhanura Munasinghe

‘The Travels of Ibn Battuta’ – Ibn Battuta

By reading The Travels, you can follow in the footsteps of Ibn Battuta, a famous 14th-century traveler from Morocco who embarked on incredibly exciting adventures.

Battuta originally set out on a Hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, but miraculously ended up traveling for 29 years – visiting the equivalent of 44 modern countries.

Along the way he encountered bandits and pirates, narrowly avoided drowning in a shipwreck, and escaped a beheading at the hands of a vicious tyrant. Ibn’s Battuta’s journey makes for a compelling read that will perhaps convince you that travel itineraries are made to be broken.

‘Our Man in Havana’ – Graham Greene

Not technically a travel book, and of course entirely fictional, Our Man in Havana still paints an incredibly evocative and beautiful picture of pre-Castro Cuba.

Greene was extremely effective at conveying the true sense of a place, and it’s no surprise that he wrote several straight travelogues (such as Journey Without Maps), alongside his more famous fictional works.

The Indian Railways – expertly described by Theroux in ‘The Great Railway Bazaar’. Credit: JK

‘Born to Run’ – Christopher McDougall

Another book that doesn’t neatly fit the “travel” category, Christopher McDougall’s astonishing account of the Rarámuri – the ‘running people’ of northern Mexico – nevertheless possesses all the best merits of the genre. See if you can read it and not immediately reach for your trail shoes.

As you read McDougall’s descriptions, you can almost hear the landscapes of the Barrancas del Cobre calling your name.

Born to Run is unquestionably one of those books that relights the old travel flame!

‘The Great Railway Bazaar’ – Paul Theroux

One of the quintessential works of travel writing, Paul Theroux’s Great Railway Bazaar lets you accompany the author on his four-month-long railway journey from London to Southeast Asia along the ‘Hippie Trail’, and back again via the Trans-Siberian Railway.

Theroux’s epic journey covers Europe, the Middle East, India and Sri Lanka. He explores legendary train routes, and describes the various people he meets in a wry, warm and engaging style.

A true classic of travel writing, and an absolute must-read for any budding explorer.

Time to get book-hunting

That’s it for our ten best travel books! We’ve barely scratched the surface of the genre, and you’ll never run out of quality travelogues to read – but we hope this selection gives you all the examples you need to dive in.

Check out our blog to learn more about things like the best way to book flights, the art of slow travel, hiking adventures, and more.