The Best Travel Books

by Brenna Holeman

Best Travel Books 2

Perhaps nothing better than a giant order from Amazon

I read quite a bit – about a book a week. I like to read a variety of things, especially when I travel; I just finished Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath, for example, and had recently finished Nathan Filer’s excellent The Shock of the Fall before that. In between, I read two collections of essays on non-fiction narrative and George Saunders’ bizarrely wonderful Civilwarland in Bad Decline. I read a lot of wildly different things, but I think that’s both valuable and fun.

What I always go back to, though, time and time again, is travel writing. This makes a lot of sense, for very obvious reasons. Besides a personal interest in travel writing, I read it in order to become better at both my job (writing) and my degree (writing), as well as brush up on my favourite hobby (coin collecting. Hah! Just kidding. It’s writing). I certainly haven’t read every travel writer out there, and often disagree with those who are meant to be some of the best; I’m not a fan of Bruce Chatwin or Bill Bryson, for example, and don’t even get me started on Shantaram (I am shocked at how many people claim that this is their favourite book).

Here, then, are some of my recommendations for the best travel books. Read them at home, read them on holiday, read them to feel inspired, read them to reminisce. Just read them.

1. Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer

I recently did a giveaway of this book, and since then I actually read it while I was in Cape Town. It tells the true story of the 1996 Everest disaster, which Krakauer witnessed. It is really well-written, and horrifically sad. Someone once described this as the saddest book he’d ever read; while I certainly wouldn’t go that far (these people all chose to be on the mountain, and knew the risks involved), the way Krakauer writes the story is definitely worth a read. I also really enjoyed Into the Wild, which is perhaps his most famous book.

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Catching up on reading in London

2. Travels with my Aunt by Graham Greene

This is a fictional account of a middle-aged man who, after the death of his mother, starts travelling the world with his once-estranged aunt. She really steals the show, with her vibrant personality and over-the-top stories, but Greene manages to capture some of the best of travel writing, too.

3. Stasiland by Anna Funder

This isn’t so much a travel book as it is a book about a place and the people it ruined. Funder researched the stories of those trapped in East Berlin during the Cold War; her descriptions of the city, and her historical accounts, make for an incredibly moving and often infuriating read.

4. Wanderlust by Elisabeth Eaves

This is one of my favourite travel memoirs, and I wish to emulate Eaves’ writing. Telling her story from a teenager in Canada to a young woman in the Middle East, Australia, and Europe, Eaves captures both the confusion that comes from travelling and living abroad as well as the passion, excitement, and adventure that finds us along the way. I love this book.

5. To Hellholes and Back by Chuck Thompson

Thompson’s writing is an absolute delight. Funny, cynical, and self-deprecating, I’ve read his other book, Smile When You’re Lying, which is equally enjoyable. In To Hellholes and Back, he decides to visit the locations in the world he swore he would never visit; the locations range from the Congo to Disneyworld. It’s hilarious, and extremely well-written.

6. The Valley of the Assassins by Freya Stark

Freya Stark is one of my idols. Focusing mainly on travel through the Middle East, she paved the way for many of us solo female travellers. I am just starting Passionate Nomad by Jane Fletcher Geniesse, which is her biography.

7. The Beach by Alex Garland

Pretty much every backpacker who has ever set foot in (or anywhere near) Southeast Asia has read this one, but I think it really holds its ground, even after the so-so movie. I read it when I was much younger, but something about trying to find paradise really spoke to me, and still does.

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My coffee table in Canada

8. The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux

I have read quite a few of Theroux’s books, but this one, his first, remains my favourite. What’s not to love about train travel? I love all of his interactions with his fellow passengers; often, to me, travelling all comes down to the people you meet along the way.

9. Travels With Charley by John Steinbeck

I read a lot of Steinbeck when I was a teenager and really loved his descriptions of America. Perhaps one of my favourite lines comes from Travels With Charley, however, when describing the people he saw across the USA: “I saw in their eyes something I was to see over and over in every part of the nation – a burning desire to go, to move, to get under way, anyplace, away from any Here.”

10. A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace

You can read the entire essay here (it used to be called “Shipping Out”), which is absolutely brilliant, but I recommend buying the collection of essays by the same name. Although they’re not all about travelling, they are exquisite.

Others I recommend include Travels with Myself and Another by Martha Gellhorn, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson, Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell, Lonely Planet’s A House Somewhere and Stranger Than Fiction, and The New Granta Book of Travel. 

As for which travel books I’m reading next, I have Wild by Cheryl Strayed, Londoners by Craig Taylor, Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene, and In a Strange Room by Damon Galgut. I’m also extremely excited to read my mum’s new book next month, which is called The Devil on Her Tongue. She writes historical fiction, and this one is set in Portugal – I can’t wait!

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One of my bookshelves in my current London flat

I obviously couldn’t list every amazing travel book or travelogue out there… what do you think should make the list of the best travel books? 


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Jay May 21, 2014 - 9:46 pm

I’ve been meaning to read ‘Stasiland’ but it fell off my radar – will have to bump it up.

“Beyond the Sky and the Earth” by Jamie Zeppa is still one of my favourites. I reread it again in the last couple of years and it was just as good the second time around.

Brenna Holeman May 22, 2014 - 12:53 pm

Oh awesome, I will have to add that to my list! I hope you get to read Stasiland soon, it’s excellent.

Katie May 21, 2014 - 10:32 pm

I love Elizabeth Eaves’ writing too, and I’ve just started reading my first Paul Theroux book, Dark Star Safari. I’ll have to check out some of the others on your list!

Brenna Holeman May 22, 2014 - 12:52 pm

Ah yes, I’ve read Dark Star Safari, too. Happy reading, Katie!

Jessie broad May 22, 2014 - 12:47 am

Ooooh I can’t wait to try find these books!! New Zealand has a sucky amount of travel books (in shops and libraries!!) so I’m gonna have to start hunting online. I’m lucky if I can even get lonely planet mags!! Lol that’s for the great list and the great blog posts 🙂

Brenna Holeman May 22, 2014 - 12:53 pm

Good luck, Jessie! I hope you find some of these books somehow.

Sheherazade Draw May 22, 2014 - 2:23 am

I don’t think I’ve ever read a travel related book, so thanks for the recomendations

Brenna Holeman May 22, 2014 - 12:51 pm

I hope you’ll try one out!

Melissa May 22, 2014 - 6:51 am

I need to read more – definitely more travel books. Great suggestions to add to my list!

Brenna Holeman May 22, 2014 - 12:51 pm

Great, happy reading Melissa!

The Irie Explorer May 22, 2014 - 7:20 am

I just recently picked up A House In The Sky by Amanda Lindhout. It was recommended to me by two of my friends who are avid travellers themselves. The book – which is a memoir of Amanda’s real life horror story when she was kidnapped in Somalia – is apparently sad at times, but overall has a very positive and inspiring message. I’m about to start it tomorrow so I’ll keep you posted!

Liane xx

Brenna Holeman May 22, 2014 - 12:51 pm

Oh wow, I’ll have to check it out. Thanks for the recommendation!

Laura May 22, 2014 - 11:58 am

Thanks for the recommendations, Brenna! I agree with a lot of these excellent reads! (except chuck thompson, not his biggest fan). Wild is an amazing book, I’m sure you’ll love it! I’m definitely going to put some of these on my list!

Brenna Holeman May 22, 2014 - 12:51 pm

Thanks, Laura! I found Chuck Thompson to be hilarious, but I always love that dry, cynical humour. I can’t wait to read Wild…

Zalie May 22, 2014 - 5:26 pm

I want to get my hands on some of these! I loved To Hellholes and Back which you recommended to me and I have Wanderlust on my Kobo which I still have to yet to read( actually I forgot it was on there until I read your post)! I love the pictures of your bookshelf in London and your coffee table in Winnipeg…they are so you 🙂

Brenna Holeman May 23, 2014 - 12:17 am

Yes, definitely read Wanderlust! I think you’d really like it.

I can’t wait to decorate my new flat… and then have you come visit! xo

Craig May 25, 2014 - 11:41 am

DFW — good choice! I’ve always liked reading books that are centered in a foreign world, like Under the Sheltering Sky, Midnight’s Children, and just about anything that Graham Greene wrote. Those books aren’t about travel, per se, but they make me want to travel to better understand the worlds in which the characters live. I just read Paschal Khoo Thwe’s memoir, From the Land of Green Ghosts, about the strange path that led him from the hills of Myanmar — he’s a Padaung and a former student turned revolutionary fighter — to Cambridge in the early 1990’s. I could really picture the places he talked about since I had been to many of them (and it was beautifully written). So, in a way, I felt as though I were traveling in Myanmar again.

Brenna Holeman May 26, 2014 - 4:50 pm

Thanks for your comment, Craig! I also like reading books centred in a foreign world; those are some great recommendations. I love being transported to a place through words…

Katie @ Domestiphobia May 27, 2014 - 6:27 pm

I’m enamored with Freya Stark as well. One thing I found most striking about Passionate Namad was her fixation on her looks. The whole time, I was sitting there thinking, “But had you gotten your wish and looked different/better, you probably would’ve settled down, gotten married, and led an exceedingly boring life!” I almost hope that part isn’t accurate, because it really makes me want to smack her. 😉

Brenna Holeman May 27, 2014 - 7:04 pm

She’s definitely a fascinating and complicated person… I’m just happy she started travelling!

Cara-Mia T Siqueir May 30, 2014 - 7:42 pm

So glad Travels with Charley made the list as it is one of my favorites. xo

Brenna Holeman June 3, 2014 - 3:11 pm

Aw, I’m glad that you’re glad! x

rebecca June 5, 2014 - 2:57 am

just in time! always on the look out for new travel books. Thanks for this post

Brenna Holeman June 5, 2014 - 7:51 pm

Oh great, I hope you check some of these out!

Rebekah June 19, 2014 - 12:41 pm

Into this air is such a great book! I love it along with all his other books. I have both wanderlust and the beach on my reading list, they both look amazing. I read the great railway bazaar but honestly didn’t love it. Why the heck what he hanging out in child brothels? I loved the premise of the book… just not him. I read excessively too 🙂

Yvette June 27, 2014 - 4:21 pm

Hi Brenna, this looks like an incredible opportunity. My video is exactly 90 secs (1:30) but says 1:31 on the summary on youtube. Once the video is clicked it says 1:30 again. Will this be a problem?

Brenna Holeman June 27, 2014 - 9:35 pm

No, that’s not a problem. 🙂

archer July 16, 2014 - 3:37 pm

Hi Brenna,

After reading your book list, I picked up Wanderlust for my recent trip to Jordan and Thailand. I absolutely loved it and just didn’t want it to end. It really made me question my own life choices (or happenstance?) including my exchange abroad to France where I met my now husband. Love and travel are very much connected, aren’t they. Thanks for the recommendation!

I’d recommend reading “A House in the Sky”, I saw someone else also mentioned it in a comment.

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