The Best Travel Books of 2009

Travel Books: Frank Bures picks a dozen, from an Amazon adventure story to a tale of the old Hippie Trail

12.23.09 | 11:07 AM ET

Photo by Jim Benning

It’s that time of year again, when we look back at the year in travel books. There were plenty to choose from in 2009. Here are our picks.

The Photographer: Into War-Torn Afghanistan with Doctors Without Borders by Emmanuel Guibert and Didier Lefèvre

A mix of photography and graphic novel, this book tells the story of Lefèvre’s journey across Afghanistan in the 1980s during the Soviet Union’s invasion. Gripping, gritty, honest and raw, it’s a fascinating look into a place most of us will never see.

An Irreverent Curiosity: In Search of the Church’s Strangest Relic in Italy’s Oddest Town by David Farley

The story of the quest for Jesus’ foreskin will be, I hope, the first of many books about Italy on subjects other than the Mafia or some discovery of timeless wisdom via real estate. Farley’s humor and curiosity make him the best kind of travel companion. A frequent World Hum contributor, he spoke to us about the book in July.

Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Super Athletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen by Christopher McDougall

This may be the best book I read this year—from any genre. McDougall travels deep into the Sierra Madres looking for the answer to a question about human evolution. A worthy successor to (and with a more robust conclusion than) Bruce Chatwin’s “The Songlines.”

Murderers in Mausoleums: Riding the Back Roads of Empire Between Moscow and Beijing by Jeffrey Tayler

Easily one of the best travel writers working today, Tayler, a frequent World Hum contributor, turns out yet another fine book about a rich journey, all the while posing larger questions about what unites us with and divides us from the people he meets along the way.

Nomad’s Hotel: Travels in Time and Space by Cees Nooteboom

While Nooteboom is known more for his novels, this welcome collection rounds up some 40 years of his travel writing about places like Italy, Ireland and Africa. But Nooteboom’s real journey is through the world of ideas—among other feats, he constructs his perfect hotel from all the places he’s traveled in life. In this way and others, Nooteboom pushes the borders of travel writing a little further.

Off the Tourist Trail: 1000 Unexpected Travel Alternatives

Normally I hate these kinds of list books, but this volume won me over. A beautiful book (with a short introduction by Bill Bryson), it doesn’t insist that you go anywhere, but merely gives alternatives to the usual beats. It’s a great reminder of just how big the world is.

Chucking It All: How Downshifting to a Windswept Scottish Island Did Absolutely Nothing to Improve My Life by Max Scratchmann

Not exactly the “War and Peace” of travel writing, but you have to love the concept, as well as Scratchmann’s cojones for skewering a narrative that is getting more and more tired.

Earthbound: A Rough Guide to the World in Pictures

Make no mistake, though this is billed as a guide, it isn’t one. It’s essentially an art book, which harks back to the “Day in the Life” series, and the photos capture aspects of people’s daily routines with sections such as “Belief,” “Keepsakes” and “Transport.” This is the best kind of travel book: a book about life.

Magic Bus: On the Hippie Trail From Istanbul to India by Rory MacLean

This book about going across Asia by land along the “Hippie Trail” is full of insight and history. It’s a great journey into the past as well as through the present—and one that MacLean spoke to us about in January.

Far Flung and Well Fed: The Food Writing of R.W. Apple, Jr.

This collection gives us some of the best food writing by the beloved and venerable journalist, R.W. Apple, who died in 2006. A man of legendary appetite, he traveled the world musing on everything from porridge in England to dim sum in Singapore to bratwurst in Wisconsin.

The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon by David Grann

Vivid and fast-paced, Grann’s account of his search for the mystery behind the death of explorer Percy H. Fawcett became the year’s breakaway bestseller, and rightly so, given its seamless mix of old and new stories. We interviewed him about it in March.

The New Age of Adventure: Ten Years of Great Writing edited by John Rasmus

Alas, a great magazine goes out with a bang. This anthology of writing from National Geographic Adventure magazine, which shut down shortly after the book was released, is full of great travel writing by Tim Cahill, Kira Salak, Scott Anderson and others, and will sit nicely next to great anthologies like Out of The Noosphere and Wild Stories. Rasmus spoke to World Hum about the book in September.

Bangkok Days by Lawrence Osborne

Far and away the best book written by an outsider about Bangkok, if not Thailand. Osborne, featured in a World Hum interview earlier this year, captures the city and all its various currents better than anyone has done so far, and better even than I imagined it would be possible to do.

Frank Bures is a contributing editor at World Hum, where his stories have won several awards. More of his work can be found at

8 Comments for The Best Travel Books of 2009

AirTreks Nico 12.23.09 | 5:25 PM ET

I read Bangkok Days a couple of months ago in preparation for my second trip to SE Asia next year. I found it to be transcendent. His descriptions brought me back with a grace and ease not quickly duplicated. Glad to see this book on your list!

Zach 12.23.09 | 7:18 PM ET

The Lost City of Z??? This was one of the more poorly written books of 2009!

Rebecca 12.24.09 | 11:08 AM ET

“Off the Tourist Trail: 1000 Unexpected Travel Alternatives” seems like an interesting read.  Thanks for a great list of reading material.

Paul Karl Lukacs 12.27.09 | 1:05 AM ET

Johnny Apple as “beloved”? By whom exactly?

One of the best portraits in “The Boys On The Bus” by Timothy Crouse is of the annoying, ass-kissing, social-climbing, hyper-competitive Apple. At one point, the various journos in Saigon had a rule that anybody who complained about Apple had to pay a fine. In later life, Apple became a “news analyst” of such pompous predictibility that even his NYT obit conceded that he often regurgitated conventional wisdom.

Apple was many things—including a successful journalist—but he was a big taker, and guys like that are usually unloved by anybody outside their immediate family.

BigBoi 12.27.09 | 1:44 PM ET

Paul: I’ve never been a huge fan of Apple’s writing, either, but the description of him in the above text is true: he is beloved by many people—much to my amasement.

Zach: congrats for falling into the extreme minority in thinking Lost City of Z was one of the worst written books of the year.

Rosalind Gardner 12.28.09 | 1:26 PM ET

Thanks for pointing us to “Off the Tourist Trail: 1000 Unexpected Travel Alternatives”.

I just checked out the Amazon listing and based on the all 5-star ratings and descriptions, this is one that I’ll definitely order… despite the ‘vacuous’ foreward by Bill Bryson. Who would’ve thunk it? :-)

Nathan Comp 12.28.09 | 7:48 PM ET

All of these books are great Frank! Some I will read a third time.

Wendy 12.28.09 | 10:43 PM ET

I have read the book named Lost the City,it’s good!

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