20 of the best travel books of all time

Posted on 7 August 2014

Next time you need some vicarious travel, these travel books won’t let you down! Check out my pick of 20 of the best travel books of all time.

Best travel books

20 best travel books of all time


The Worst Journey in the World

Apsley Cherry-Garrard

This is a memoir of the 1910-1913 Antarctic expedition led by Robert Scott. It was written in 1922 by a survivor of the journey, Cherry-Garrard, and is justly praised for its candid treatment of the expedition and the causes of its demise.

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The Road to Oxiana

Robert Byron

Written in diary form, this travelogue is perhaps the first example of modern, literary travel writing. It concerns a journey in 1933-34 through the Middle East to Oxiana on the border between Afghanistan and the Soviet Union. The book is a witty account of Byron’s adventures and the architectural treasures of the region.

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WG Sebald

During a 30-year conversation that unfolds in travellers’ stops and train stations across Europe, we learn about Austerlitz’s efforts to understand himself. He embodies the universal human search for identity and the struggle to impose coherence on memory. Part travelogue, part novel, this is one of the finest books you’ll ever read.

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The Snow Leopard

Peter Matthiessen

In 1973, Matthiessen trekked into the mountains of Nepal to study the Himalayan blue sheep and try to glimpse a snow leopard. The journey was also a spiritual quest. As he climbs, Matthiessen charts both his inner and his outer path, offering a deepening understanding of reality.

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William Dicey

This journey down the Orange River by kayak interweaves the history of South Africa with white-water adventures. Illustrated with the author’s own photographs, it’s an evocative story of discovery about our past, ethnicity and, ultimately, the self. Perhaps the finest SA travelogue.

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From Heaven Lake

Vikram Seth

After two years as a student at Nanjing University, Seth hitchhiked back to his home in New Delhi via Tibet. This is the story of that journey and his fascinating encounters with nomadic Muslims, Chinese officials, Buddhists and fellow travellers.

Arabian Sands

Wilfred Thesiger

Published in 1959, this is an account of an epic journey through Arabia. Over the course of five years, Thesiger records the lives of remote tribes in the desert. His tales of adversity and friendship in an age now passed have a timeless appeal.

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Among the Russians

Colin Thubron

A vivid account of a journey from St Petersburg to Armenia at the end of the Brezhnev era. It brilliantly portrays the lives of ordinary Russians in the clutches of a harsh communist regime.

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A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush

Eric Newby

Newby humorously describes a badly planned attempt to scale one of Afghanistan’s most challenging peaks. His inexperience proves his undoing, but along the way readers are treated to a string of entertaining episodes.

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Slow Boats to China

Gavin Young

Seven months and 23 ill-assorted vessels transport Young from Piraeus to Canton. His account distils the people, places, conversations, ships and history he encounters on the voyages.

As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning

Laurie Lee

This is a lyrical account of Lee’s journeys as a young man in the 1930s. It recounts his departure from a sleepy Cotswolds home bound for Spain armed with little more than an adventurous spirit and his trusty violin.

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Notes from a Small Island

Bill Bryson

This is Bryson’s farewell journey across Britain, delivered with characteristic humour and nostalgia, while offering insights into modern society. His antipathy towards the less glamorous spots makes for hilarious reading.

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Homage to Catalonia

George Orwell

Political history meets travelogue in this description of Orwell’s role in the Spanish Civil War. It gives a vivid account of Barcelona and northeast Spain during that turbulent time.

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Passage to Juneau

Jonathan Raban

The story of a voyage up the Inside Passage from Seattle to Juneau, 1 000 miles alone in a 35-foot yacht. With rigorous observation and lyrical evocations of place, this is the best work of arguably the finest living travel writer.

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Travels with Charley

John Steinbeck

In 1960, Steinbeck and his French poodle Charley set out in a converted pick-up truck to tour America. The result is a compelling account of the landscapes and people he encounters.

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Voices of the Old Sea

Norman Lewis

In the late 1940s, Lewis settled in a remote Spanish fishing village. He lived there for three years and recorded how villagers struggled to hang on to a way of life unchanged for centuries, encroached on every side by the tide of package tourism.

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A Time of Gifts

Patrick Leigh Fermor

At age 18, Fermor set off from London to walk to Constantinople. A Time of Gifts is part one of the tale, and recounts his adventures as far as Hungary. The book explores a remarkable moment just before the Second World War as he travels through a Europe soon to be transformed.

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The Great Railway Bazaar

Paul Theroux

This is Theroux’s first and arguably his best book. It recounts a four-month journey through Asia and Europe. An essential for any enthusiast of rail travel, it features some of the world’s great trains, including the Trans-Siberian and India’s Grand Trunk Express.

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Jan Morris

Morris describes Venice as ‘a cheek-by-jowl, back-of-the-hand, under-the-counter, higgledypiggledy, anecdotal city … rich in piquant wrinkled things, like an assortment of bric-a-brac in the house of a wayward connoisseur, or parasites on an oyster shell’. Her book perfectly captures this beguiling city.

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The Songlines

Bruce Chatwin

Chatwin ventures into the desolate realm of Outback Australia to learn the meaning of the Aboriginals’ ancient ‘dreaming tracks’, paths that are transmitted down the ages in song. This novel-cum-travelogue is a poetic meditation that offers an uplifting vision of man’s place in the world.

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