Tag: Top 30 Travel Books

Top 30 Travel Books: Now It’s Your Turn

We just finished posting our top 30 travel books of all time, and we know you don’t agree with every selection on our list. Did we leave off your favorites? What’s in your top 30—or at least your top five? Let us know.

  • No. 1: “Arabian Sands” by Wilfred Thesiger

  • No. 2: “The Road to Oxiana” by Robert Byron

  • No. 3: “The Great Railway Bazaar” by Paul Theroux

  • No. 4: “The Soccer War” by Ryszard Kapuściński

  • No. 5: “No Mercy” by Redmond O’Hanlon

  • No. 6: “North of South” by Shiva Naipaul

  • No. 7: “Golden Earth” by Norman Lewis

  • No. 8: “Video Night in Kathmandu” by Pico Iyer

  • No. 9: “The Innocents Abroad” by Mark Twain

  • No. 10: “In A Sunburned Country” by Bill Bryson

  • No. 11: “The Snow Leopard” by Peter Matthiessen

  • No. 12: “The Songlines” by Bruce Chatwin

  • No. 13: “Travels with Charley” by John Steinbeck

  • No. 14: “Riding to the Tigris” by Freya Stark

  • No. 15: “Europe, Europe” by Hans Magnus Enzensberger

  • No. 16: “City of Djinns” by William Dalrymple

  • No. 17: “A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush” by Eric Newby

  • No. 18: “All the Wrong Places” by James Fenton

  • No. 19: “Hunting Mister Heartbreak” by Jonathan Raban

  • No. 20: “River Town” by Peter Hessler

  • No. 21: “Road Fever” by Tim Cahill

  • No. 22: “When the Going was Good” by Evelyn Waugh

  • No. 23: “Behind the Wall” by Colin Thubron

  • No. 24: “Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere” by Jan Morris

  • No. 25: “A Time of Gifts” by Patrick Leigh Fermor

  • No. 26: “Baghdad Without a Map” by Tony Horwitz

  • No. 27: “The Size of the World” by Jeff Greenwald

  • No. 28: “Facing the Congo” by Jeffrey Tayler

  • No. 29: “Venture to the Interior” by Laurens van der Post

  • No. 30: “A Turn in the South” by V.S. Naipaul


    No. 1: “Arabian Sands” by Wilfred Thesiger

    To mark our five-year anniversary, we’re counting down the top 30 travel books of all time, adding a new title each day this month.
    Published: 1959
    Territory covered: Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan, Arabian Penninsula (now Yemen, Oman, Saudia Arabia, United Arab Emirates)

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    No. 2: “The Road to Oxiana” by Robert Byron

    To mark our five-year anniversary, we’re counting down the top 30 travel books of all time, adding a new title each day this month.
    Published: 1937
    Territory covered: Persia (Iran) and Afghanistan

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    No. 3: “The Great Railway Bazaar” by Paul Theroux

    To mark our five-year anniversary, we’re counting down the top 30 travel books of all time, adding a new title each day this month.
    Published: 1975
    Territory covered: India, Sri Lanka, Southeast Asia and Japan

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    No. 4: “The Soccer War” by Ryszard Kapuściński

    To mark our five-year anniversary, we’re counting down the top 30 travel books of all time, adding a new title each day this month.
    Published: 1978
    Territory covered: Africa, Central America, Cyprus and Israel

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    No. 5: “No Mercy: A Journey to the Heart of the Congo” by Redmond O’Hanlon

    To mark our five-year anniversary, we’re counting down the top 30 travel books of all time, adding a new title each day this month.
    Published: 1997
    Territory covered: Central Africa

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    No. 6: ‘North of South’ by Shiva Naipaul

    To mark our five-year anniversary, we’re counting down the top 30 travel books of all time, adding a new title each day this month.
    Published: 1978
    Territory covered: Kenya and Tanzania

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    No. 7: “Golden Earth” by Norman Lewis

    To mark our five-year anniversary, we’re counting down the top 30 travel books of all time, adding a new title each day this month.
    Published: 1952
    Territory covered: Burma/Myanmar
    In 1951, not long after Southeast Asia had been a bloody battleground in World War II, a quiet, unobtrusive man set off from Wales for Burma, where he would spend three months traveling for one of the classics of travel writing, Golden Earth. It was not the only classic he would write: For more than 60 years, Lewis traveled the world and wrote some 30 travelogues and novels. During his travels Lewis had his skull fractured, watched men brain each other with femurs and, at 80, tried to get into Irian Jaya to interview some tribe members who had apparently barbecued and eaten 13 missionaries. According to another (possibly apocryphal) story, Lewis was sent by Ian Fleming to check in on Ed Scott, the model for James Bond. While the two were talking, unbeknown to them Graham Greene was watching, and used the scene for “Our Man in Havana.” But Lewis was our man in many, many places: India, Guatemala, Vietnam, Sicily, Spain, the Middle East and, of course, Burma, which he wrote, “spread as a dark stain into the midnight sea.” Lewis spent three months there and the going was rough: His train from Rangoon to Mandalay was delayed when explosions damaged the rail in front and behind him. But compared to the road he traveled, Lewis’s prose is smooth. It is also full of the humor and the humanity of the people he met along the way. As Pico Iyer says, “Out of marvels he makes melodies.” “Golden Earth” shows both Burma and Lewis at their most marvelous.

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    No. 8: “Video Night in Kathmandu” by Pico Iyer

    To mark our five-year anniversary, we’re counting down the top 30 travel books of all time, adding a new title each day this month.
    Published: 1988
    Territory covered: East and South Asia

    A collection of 11 essays chronicling the cultural fusion of East and West in the 1980s, Iyer’s literary debut is an answer to all those critics who claim that great travel writing died once the terra incognita was mapped. As this Asia-themed collection shows, the final frontier of adventure isn’t located on some distant mountain or impenetrable jungle, but in the intimate (and often comical) cross-cultural fascinations and discoveries that arise from an ever-shrinking world.

    Amid his sharp reportage and analysis, Video Night in Kathmandu‘s greatest strength is Iyer’s refusal to draw prim moral conclusions as Western popular culture bumps up against the traditions of the East. Instead, he casts things in terms of a tenuous romance.

    “When Westerner meets Easterner,” Iyer writes, “each finds himself often drawn to the other, yet mystified; each projects his romantic hopes on the stranger, as well as his designs; and each pursues both his illusions and his vested interests with a curious mix of innocence and calculation that shifts with every step.” Moreover, the author’s eye for ironic juxtapositions—Rambo-inspired musicals in India, baseball fever in Japan, Mowhawk haircuts in Bali—proves so keen that he practically inaugurates the now-common “cultural-contradiction” travel-story template. Even if the specific cross-cultural obsessions of “Video Night” (Michael Jackson, Rambo) seem a bit dated, the ensuing rise of globalization and reach of the Internet have only underscored how relevant Iyer’s observations were.

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    No. 9: “The Innocents Abroad” by Mark Twain

    To mark our five-year anniversary, we’re counting down the top 30 travel books of all time, adding a new title each day this month.
    Published: 1869
    Territory covered: Europe and the Holy Land
    Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad marks a turning point for both the author and American travel writing. In 1867, Twain boarded the ship the Quaker City for a five-month Journey through Europe and the Holy Land, and he convinced the Daily Alta California, a San Francisco newspaper, to pay him $1,250 to file letters from abroad for publication. He sent 51, and those, along with a few others written for newspapers in New York, comprise “Innocents Abroad.” The dispatches, followed by lectures he delivered based on his travels, helped establish Twain’s voice as an American original. During Twain’s lifetime, “Innocents” was his most popular book, and today it remains perhaps the most celebrated travel book by an American writer. Some critics credit its longevity to its fresh approach: It was written from a different angle than most travel books of its time. As Twain writes in the preface:

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    No. 10: “In A Sunburned Country” by Bill Bryson

    To mark our five-year anniversary, we’re counting down the top 30 travel books of all time, adding a new title each day this month.
    Published: 2000
    Territory covered: Australia
    Bill Bryson, like many of the best travel writers, fuels his books with a keen eye for detail and an historian’s ability to research. In In a Sunburned Country, for instance, he cites a whopping 66 books in his bibliography. But what sets Bryson apart is his ability to process everything he’s learned and experienced with the voice of a seasoned comedian. “Sunburned” is laugh-out-loud funny. “This is a country that…is so vast and empty that a band of amateur enthusiasts could conceivably set off the world’s first non-governmental atomic bomb on its mainland and almost four years would pass before anyone noticed,” he writes. “Clearly this is a place worth getting to know.” Bryson travels from Sydney to Perth and throughout the continent’s Martian-like desert middle, and his affection for Australia’s people and its varied landscapes is obvious. In fact, it’s infectious. If an armchair trip through Australia in the company of Bryson doesn’t make you want to go there, it’s doubtful any book will.

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    No. 11: “The Snow Leopard” by Peter Matthiessen

    To mark our five-year anniversary, we’re counting down the top 30 travel books of all time, adding a new title each day this month.

    Published: 1978

    Territory covered: the Himalayan Dolpo region of Nepal

    Matthiessen’s Zen-flavored masterpiece is as much a classic of nature and spiritual literature as it is of travel writing. Documenting a 1973 journey into the remote Dolpo region of Nepal, Matthiessen officially sets out to help zoologist George Schaller study Himalayan blue sheep. As he takes the reader deep into the mountains, however, we realize that Matthiessen is using this scientific journey as a metaphor to reflect on much broader matters of life, death and existence itself. The famous irony of The Snow Leopard is that Matthiessen never spots the elusive creature during his adventure.

    Thus, robbed of the climactic moment, the author leads us into the simple essence of his journey: “the common miracles—the murmur of my friends at evening, the clayfires of smudgy juniper, the coarse, dull food, the hardship and simplicity, the contentment of doing one thing at a time: when I take my blue tin cup into my hand, that is all I do.” In this way, the spiritual lessons of this book aren’t relegated to romantic abstractions or heady epiphanies, but to a gentle reminder that life consists of what each moment brings us; that it’s futile to obsess on the workings of the past and future if you’re missing out on experience of the present moment.

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    No. 12: “The Songlines” by Bruce Chatwin

    To mark our five-year anniversary, we’re counting down the top 30 travel books of all time, adding a new title each day this month.
    Published: 1987
    Territory covered: Australia
    Early on in The Songlines, British-born Bruce Chatwin recalls his childhood as one of “fantastic homelessness.” His most treasured possession was a conch shell his father brought back from the West Indies that he called Mona, which he held to his ear to listen for crashing waves. Perhaps this accounts for the peripatetic life Chatwin would go on to lead, and his journey to explore the traditionally semi-nomadic Australian Aborigines and their “Songlines”—creation myths that “tell of the legendary totemic beings who had wandered over the continent in the Dreamtime, singing out the name of everything that crossed their path…and so singing the world into existence.” With its sharp dialogue and philosophical digressions, Chatwin’s evocative account reads almost like a novel—some people he included in the book, in fact, accused him of playing fast and loose with the facts, writing more fiction than fact. Chatwin is among the most enigmatic of modern travel writers, and one of the few to be recalled in a biography. He died of AIDS-related causes in 1989 at the age of 48. “The Songlines” endures as a travel-lit classic from a writer whose life ended all too soon.

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    No. 13: “Travels with Charley” by John Steinbeck

    To mark our five-year anniversary, we’re counting down the top 30 travel books of all time, adding a new title each day this month.
    Published: 1962
    Territory covered: The United States
    Some readers may question the inclusion of John Steinbeck’s best-known work of nonfiction, Travels with Charley, in our list of the top travel books. It is, after all, about a man driving across the United States in a camper named after Don Quixote’s horse in the company of a poodle named Charley. On the face of it, that doesn’t sound like a work to be taken seriously. But “Travels with Charley” is no Marley & Me. The dog, for the most part, remains in the background, and the Salinas, California-bred Steinbeck trains his Nobel Prize-winning eye—he was awarded the Literature Prize the same year “Charley” was released—on what he believed to be a decaying America. Beginning in Long Island, New York, Steinbeck rolls to the west and, eventually, into the south, sticking to backroads and reflecting on life, politics and the places and people he meets along the way. In lesser hands, such a book could turn into a rambling mess. But Steinbeck, one of America’s most treasured writers, holds it together. The result is a vivid snapshot of “this monster land” between two of its most significant and tragic events, World War II and the Vietnam War, as well as an engaging meditation on the power of travel.

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    No. 14: “Riding to the Tigris” by Freya Stark

    To mark our five-year anniversary, we’re counting down the top 30 travel books of all time, adding a new title each day this month.
    Published: 1959
    Territory covered: Turkey
    More than halfway through her 100 years on earth, Freya Stark, the “poet of travel,” headed alone on horseback across the Turkish plateaus to the Tigris River. By that time she had been traveling for decades, mostly in the Middle East, where she had learned Arabic as well as French, Latin, German, Italian and Persian. For her Turkish travels, she threw in Turkish. Stark always stayed in places long enough to write with an insider’s knowledge of a culture. Stark believed in the power of travel and of its capacity to open minds. She once wrote that, “Only with long experience and the opening of his wares on many beaches where his language is not spoken, will the merchant come to know the worth of what he carries.” Stark, who thought the world was divided into two kinds of people, the settled and the nomad, and who climbed Annapurna at 86, was fearless in her traveling. Early on, she abandoned the restrictions of her era for her love of the horizon, which she called “the eternal invitation to the spirit of man.” And while the collection, “Journey’s Echo,” might be a better introduction to her overall work, Riding to the Tigris is one of her finest and most reflective books.

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    No. 15: “Europe, Europe” by Hans Magnus Enzensberger

    To mark our five-year anniversary, we’re counting down the top 30 travel books of all time, adding a new title each day this month.
    Published: 1989
    Territory covered: Sweden, Italy, Hungary, Portugal, Poland, Spain, Germany, Holland, Finland, Romania
    Once upon a time, Europe was fascinating. There was much more to the continent than the endless pension and immigration debates we hear so much about today. In Europe, Europe: Forays into a Continent, Hans Magnus Enzensberger captured some of that old fascinating place. His book is filled with the rich, complicated, maddening, exhilarating patchwork of cultures that have mixed and clashed on the continent for thousands of years. Visiting just before the fall of communism, Enzensberger was concerned with politics, but mainly as a window into culture. He explored and skewered national character without reverting to stereotypes. In fact, he investigated stereotypes, turned them inside out, and made them at once amusing and insightful. Enzensberger has a gift for this, and for identifying minutiae that make even the most boring country in the world (Sweden) riveting. “Europe, Europe” is one of the few books written about the continent before the fall of communism that remains as relevant, vibrant and hilarious as when it was first published. What’s more, it’s one of the best travel books written about Europe in any era.

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    No. 16: “City of Djinns” by William Dalrymple

    To mark our five-year anniversary, we’re counting down the top 30 travel books of all time, adding a new title each day this month.
    Published: 1993
    Territory covered: India
    An intrepid Scotsman who undertook the adventures chronicled in his first book, “In Xanadu,” at the tender age of 22, William Dalrymple spent a year in Delhi to research City of Djinns. He and his wife, Olivia, set themselves up in a small flat near the Sufi village of Nizamuddin. The common characters who enter their lives—from an opinionated Sikh taxi driver to their frugal and frenetic landlord—are as carefully revealed as the eunuchs and dervishes Dalrymple meets. All prove inextricable from the city’s diverse fabric. The djinns—“like us in all things, but fashioned from fire,” spirits invisible to the naked eye and only seen during times of fasting and prayer—seem as elusive as the richly layered city itself in the end. Dalrymple’s informative historical narrative, carrying the reader from Delhi’s Muslim and Hindu roots to partition, never becomes dull or droning. It’s one man’s impression of one of the planet’s most fascinating cities. For those who love travel for travel’s sake and travel writing for the vicarious ride it can deliver, “City of Djinns” is a classic.

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    No. 17: “A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush” by Eric Newby

    To mark our five-year anniversary, we’re counting down the top 30 travel books of all time, adding a new title each day this month.
    Published: 1958
    Territory covered: Afghanistan
    In A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, one of the classic mid-century travel adventures, Newby sets out to climb one of Afghanistan’s highest peaks with just four days of mountaineering experience under his belt. His inexperience shows. Near the 20,000-foot summit, he has an ice axe in one hand and a climbing manual in the other, trying to learn how to carve steps in the ice. Known for his wry and self-deprecating humor, Newby is a delightful traveling companion and his descriptions of the high-altitude Kush convey a shimmering sense of wonder. His failure to reach the summit becomes almost irrelevant, because the tale is about the journey, not the final destination. At his side for part of the trip (but not the climb itself, which he did with a friend) is his stolid wife Wanda, who helped save Newby’s life during World War II when he escaped from a POW camp. That story is related in Newby’s “Love and War in the Apennines.” Like his contemporary, Wilfred Thesiger, Newby was an intrepid explorer who helped define the modern travel narrative with sly commentary on our common humanity.

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    No. 18: “All the Wrong Places” by James Fenton

    To mark our five-year anniversary, we’re counting down the top 30 travel books of all time, adding a new title each day this month.
    Published: 1988
    Territory covered: Vietnam, Cambodia, South Korea and the Philippines
    James Fenton is not only one of the great characters of travel writing, having starred as the poet-sidekick of Redmond O’Hanlon in his Into the Heart of Borneo. He also happens to be one of the great travel writers, having authored classics of the genre like The Snap Revolution, about the chaos surrounding the fall of Marcos in the Philippines. At the time, the entire region was convulsing in the Cold War, and having been given an award for “traveling and writing poetry,” Fenton had to pick a place to go. “Looking at what the world had to offer,” he wrote, “I thought either Africa or Indochina would be the place to go. I chose the latter, partly on a whim.” Once there, Fenton watched governments rise and fall, and many of his stories in All the Wrong Places read like semi-comic thrillers. They are required reading for anyone traveling through Southeast Asia who wants to understand the background against which their travels take place.

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    No. 19: “Hunting Mister Heartbreak” by Jonathan Raban

    To mark our five-year anniversary, we’re counting down the top 30 travel books of all time, adding a new title each day this month.
    Published: 1990
    Territory covered: The United States
    Like a modern-day Alexis de Tocqueville, Jonathan Raban has traveled the length and breadth of the United States, observing Americans with the keen eye of a foreigner. His book Hunting Mister Heartbreak traverses the pathways of American immigration from late 19th-century Ellis Island to late 20th-century Seattle. In the book, Raban fully inhabits each place he visits, even borrowing an old black labrador named Gypsy in Alabama to feel more at home among the locals. He investigates whether a foreigner can truly become an American. In the end Raban realizes that one can adopt American ways but can never become completely American. And he seems quite relieved about that.

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