According to us and actually read by us.
No coffee table books full of pictures of top 100 best destinations or worst destinations or …. destinations included. No affiliate links here. Just some of our all-time favorite travel reads. Check out our Top Eleven Best Travel Books!
Our blog is called The Book of Wandering for a reason. We do read actual books from time to time… a little bit less since, you know, The Internet… And now that we are all sitting home in corona times, travel book lists are popping up all over the place. Curious to see if there are any new discoveries on those lists, we read them all.
But – surprise surprise – at least half of these lists are full of books that are not really for reading. Or about travelling. Top 101 best or worst or …. [whatever] destinations included. Best hikes, best roadtrips, best whatever-books. Coffee table books full of pictures, full of travel inspiration but without any travel tales.
Books and travelling
On our first backpacking trips, we carried kilograms of books on our back. But after a couple of weeks all were finished! Without a smartphone we had to find some way to keep ourselves busy on lon boat journeys. During 24-Hour bus rides we craved distraction. Just waiting in some bus station where some bus should have departed five hours ago, we could only exercise patience. So we traded some of our treasured travel books for old, damaged, cheap thrillers.
Always having wanted to write a book post, now finally, we did. So here are some actual travel stories that will take you across continents and on adventures you never thought possible.
Check out our Top Eleven Best Travel Books!
Top Eleven Best Travel Books
Here is our highly personal list of Eleven Greatest Travel Books Ever Written, Read by Us, None of Them Containing Top 10 Destination Lists.
by Dervla Murphy
Ever since Footsteps in the Andes lured us to Peru, we’ve been reading Dervla Murphy’s travel books. Her books read like classic travel journals. In Full Tilt she sets off from Ireland to travel to India by bike. Dervla passes through Afghanistan and Pakistan, amongst other countries, in the 1960s. There is no other travel writer like her. And Full Tilt, her first book, may just be one of her most impressive books. But don’t let this stop you to read any of her 26 (!) books on her travels. The way Dervla Murphy genuinely engages with the people she meets is unsurpassed by most travel writers. She is not shy of having an opinion but is hardly ever judgmental.
by Robyn Davidson
Another inspiring woman travel writer that belongs high on any list of travel reads is Robyn Davidson. Her best know book is her account on her preparations for and track through the outback of Australia. With a couple of grumpy and jolly humpbacks. Apart from a travel book this is also very much a book about the character of camels. One scene had such an impacted on me: her stark description of the impact of colonisation by cattle ranches in Western Australia. Coming out of the untouched, seemingly barren outback between central Australia and the West Coast, she finds herself hardly believing the destruction that ovegrazing has had on the already parched desert landscape.
But the book is much more than that. It is a book about strength and perseverance, but also dapper fragility. A must-read for anyone that feels they are trapped in the daily grind and want to imagine a different life. Another book by Robyn Davidson, hard to come by, is Desert Places: her account on travelling with the camel drivers of Northwestern India. Different, but just as genuine and intense.
by Redmond O’Hanlon
In an age where you’d think there is no real exploration or adventure to be found anymore, Redmond O’Hanlon stands to correct you. In his ‘Congo Journey’, part of a trilogy on jungle explorations including Amazon to Corinoco and Borneo, he searches for the story and reality behind the mythical creature Mokolo-Mbemne, a sort of African Loch Ness Monster, hidden deep in the jungle of Central Africa. The myth brings him along the Congo River on over-populated river boats (described by others, but his account has stayed with us) and beyond.
O’Hanlon’s hilarious, dry writing style makes you feel the sweat, anxiety and practicalities of travelling like few others really do. Our copy of the book (in Dutch) is falling apart from reading again and again. And because it was a cheap edition. We used to buy anything and everything on the cheap shelves with travel books. Back when we were students in the early 2000s). Redmond O’Hanlon has planted the seed for us to explore jungles across the World. Though we have yet to follow in his footsteps to visit the Congo.
by Jon Krakauer
This book is about pure intentions. Nowadays everything seems so controlled and controllable. Is it still possible to just step out your door, draw it behind you and venture out without a set plan? This book is a grim and hopeful tale at the same time. Into the Wild is Jonn Krakauer’s attempt to reconstruct the last months of the life of Chris McCandless aka Alexander Supertramp.
By piecing together the stories of the people McCandless met, the postcards he sent and excerpts of his journal, a drifting image emerges of a guy edging away from mainstream society. The book expresses a feeling of what travelling may really be about, surviving on the road, getting away from any bucket list and just go and being on your way. At the same time, the book is a stark reminder of the fact that things can get horribly ugly after one simple, wrong choice. A captivating read, even if you’ve seen the movie.
by Bruce Chatwin
Reading Bruce Chatwin’s Songlines you can smell and taste the dust of Australian’s outback. This travel book is like no other, half travel tale, half almost mystical experience of the landscape and encounters. But there is no false romanticism here. We read a Dutch translation of the book in which Bruce Chatwin meets up with Arkady Voltchok. This guy, an Australian with Ukranian roots who speaks several aboriginal languages, has dedicated his life to mapping Aboriginal holy places throughout Australia. This book you can read and re-read again and again.
Chatwin’s Songlines is unparallelled in travel literature. This book also opened my eys to the surprising book Journey to Horseshoe Bend. That book was written by an outback anthropologist and priest called Strehlow. This man catalogued (after his father) disappearing aboriginal ‘songs’. Back in 2017, while travellling Australia for five months, we visited the old Strehlow compound in Hermannsberg. It is located to the south of the Western MacDonnels, which is one of the sites featuring in The Songlines.
by Alex Garland
We’ve long hesitated to read this book after the film with Brad Pitt became a hype. Same goes for visiting Thailand. We long put it off, but in 2018 we finally got ourselves travelling Thailand for a month. By that time the ‘beach’ where much of the movie was filmed had been closed for vistors because tourism had all but destroyed the natural habitat. On this trip we finally read the book. And we were glad we did.
It proved to be a dark piece of writing, portraying a new generation of ‘travellers, not tourists’ always seeking the next ‘not yet discovered’ destination. But the book is not (just) about the destination, but very much about the personal journey of a normal guy finding himself in extraordinary circumstances. Not giving away too many spoilers, this is definitely a must-read if you feel awkward with the effects of ‘independent’ mass tourism: we are all unique…
by Joseph Conrad
Maybe the thinnest book on this list, this classic is more a feeling than a memory after we read it years ago. Any and every writer about travelling in central Africa will refer to this book so we thought we should read it ourselves. Written in 1902 it is still surprisingly accessible to the reader, the Dutch 1994 translation at least. Spiralling into fear and tension, this book is at first sight a work on the boredom of river travel during colonial times. And Belgian Congo was perhaps the darkest of the darkest of colonial regimes, scarring millions of people figuratively and literally while the country was raided for its natural treasures for the enrichment of the Belgian king. But the story of this book goes beyond and shows how one can loose themselves when detached from the ‘normal’ World, how what you encounter becomes your new reality.
by Ryszard Kapuściński
Ryszard Kapuściński may be one of the most fascinating writers on this list. This book is the only work on this list compiling shorter stories. Often we find that does not deliver the best travel books. But the experience and writing captured here is unique and incredibly rich. As a journalist from Poland, Kapuściński experienced the turmoil of African independence upclose. It is said that he reported on 27 revolutions and coup d’états on the continent. This book is a unique compilation of personal stories and journal exceprts from all over the continent. This is not boring, distantiated journalism. The writing is very personal, to the point where he takes you with him in how it feels to live through a malaria attack. We have a nice little row of Kapuściński’s books in our book case and I recommend each and every one of them.
by Paul Theroux
One of the things we love about travel books are the maps that writers include at the start of their work. Maps that are not too precies, but precise enough to give you an idea that you can travel where they have travelled. The map and the book open up the idea that it is truly possible to do this. We started travelling before digital maps were normal and still we get much more of feeling from regions, countries and continents from paper maps. Dark Star Safari actually contains two maps at the start, one from the Mediterranean to Dodoma (Tanzania), the other from the Victoria Lake to the southern tip of Africa. A small inset highlights the Capetown region in South Africa on the latter. Theroux’ insight and understanding comes from having lived in Africa and a connection to both its intellectuals and the people he encounters by chance.
The book is published in 2002, right around the time our own travel sense awoke. This is the ultimate travel book on overlanding Africa, the eastern route. We bought it second hand and it still contains a card from the previously owner saying ‘have a great time with your book!’. And as for the book itself: just read it! You will be taken on a journey of encounters with Egyptians, Sudanese, Ethiopians, Kenyans, Ugandans, TanzaniansMalwaians, Zimbaweans, Mozambiquans and South Africans. Very encounter is different but what remains throughout is Theroux’ genuine writing that goes beyond a mere travel journal, but never drifts away from what he really experiences.
by V.S. Naipaul
We feel it is a bit controversial to put this book on the list. Still we list it here as it is a grand piece of writing. It is a surprising, unique view of a global movement, observed around 1980, right after the Iranian revolution, made real through Naipaul’s travels and encounters that he puts down on paper in this work. Naipaul travels to four different Islamic countries over six months and tries to grasp what trajectory these countries are on: Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia. These are four countries we have not visited ourselves yet, but desparately want to. An we have visited multiple countries in the Middle East.
Yes, Naipaul’s views can be criticized, but it is easy to discard this as a book about religion and culture. At its core this is a travel book. A book about landscapes, about the people Naipaul meets, about the inconveniences of travel (yeah, Naipaul often experiences inconveniences, as all travellers do, but he does not paint over with rosy images of how lovely a destination is). It is an attempt at a true dialogue like few other travel books have done. More than any other writer we have read, Naipaul seeks out people to talk to and interview and this makes for an almost documentary-like style.
This book is a must-read if you want to get under the skin of your travel destination. Not only for the countries portrayed in this book, but also to understand that you can always delve deeper than your first observation. To get a full grasp of Naipaul’s viewpoints we do recommend reading the follow-up Beyond Belief where he revisits his journey of Among the Believers after almost twenty years and sharpens his opinions. To be complete, do read the numerous critiques as well!
by Sally Morgan
Browsing back through the book My Place I realise there is relatively little travelling in this book to put it on this list. Still, a more profound journey we haven’t found elsewhere. In this book Sally Morgan retraces her discovery of her Aboriginal roots long hidden from her by her mother and her grandmother. The book is a stark reminder of the schizophrenic relation Australia has with the original inhabitabts of this country.
After the eyeopening moment that her Nan is ‘black’, she seeks out relations around Western Australia and shows us as readers what is below the surface in the country we travelled for five months in 2017. After having read this book, you cannot un-see the darker side of beautiful Australia. Reading while travelling is not always fun, but this book will leave you with a real and deeper impression of ‘country’ than if you just enjoy the beaches along Australia’s endless coastline.