25 Greatest Travel Books of All Time
From the bustling streets of Brooklyn to the empty expanse of the Sahara, our guide to the best travel reads of all time will inspire you to add a few new places to your to-go list. Your first stop? The local library.
Mitchell stretches travel to its most imaginative bounds. Few novels cover this much ground, either in time or space—from places such as the South Pacific Ocean in the mid-1800s to a composer's study in 1931 Belgium to modern-day Britain to a futuristic, apocalyptic Hawaii. And few novels are so intricately structured, with stories nested within one another sharing hidden details. Yet for all its postmodern pyrotechnics, the book is constantly gripping, leading the reader on an unforgettable voyage. As one of Mitchell's characters says, in one of the various dialects that fills these pages, "... there ain't no journey what don't change you some."
Window to: California, Belgium, Hawaii, Polynesia, England, and Korea.
This strange and unsettling novel is as much about Lawrence's late-career preoccupations as it is about Mexico—but we sometimes benefit when a tour is as much about the guide as it is about the place. During the Mexican Revolution, an Irish widow, Kate Leslie, leaves her friends at a bullfight in Mexico City and gets caught up with a pair of charismatic rebels, who soon ensnare her in a pagan cult, dedicated to the god Quetzalcoatl, which devolves into a frightening mix of violence and sexual obsession. Despite her fear of the country around her, she nonetheless feels the pull of the place: "...there was still a strange beam of wonder and mystery, almost like hope. A strange darkly-iridescent beam of wonder, of magic."
Window to: Mexico and New Mexico.
Emigration is often told as a one-way journey; the brilliance of this novel about Eilis Lacey—a young woman whose family encourages her to leave Ireland in the 1950s for New York City—is that it dramatizes the competing allure of old and new places. Mid-century Brooklyn is a world of vibrant, changing neighborhoods, boardinghouses, and weekend dances—all of which Lacey describes in varnished letters home. Yet it is also a place of exile. When events pull her back to Ireland, Lacey must choose whether to stay or to return and honor her new obligations in America. Late in the novel, she tells her mother, "I'd rather say goodbye now and only once." Such clean breaks are rarely possible.
Window to: Brooklyn, the U.S., and Ireland.
"I mistrust all frank and simple people, especially when their stories hold together," says Hemingway's narrator Jake Barnes, yet this remarkable novel about Americans abroad following World War I manages to be frank without ever being simple, and its stories are expertly held together. These scenes of Europe are among Hemingway's most indelible: drinking Pernod in Paris cafes, fishing in a mountain stream in the Pyrenees—a bottle of white wine tucked in a nearby spring to chill—and finally on to Pamplona, where Barnes momentarily escapes his grief while marveling at the exploits of a bullfighter: "Romero's bull-fighting gave real emotion, because he kept the absolute purity of line in his movements and always quietly and calmly let the horns pass him close each time."
Window to: France and Spain.
"I was standing there with a map of Australia, surveying the emptiness and trying to conceive the ungraspable fact that if I walked north from here I wouldn't come to a paved surface for eleven hundred miles," Bryson writes. This funny and insightful book eloquently captures a country often obscured by the stereotypes fueled by all those Foster's beer ads. Along with the curious geography and terrifying fauna—snakes, sharks, and crocs—Bryson captures the spirit of a uniquely sporting people, who excel at games ranging from cricket to Australian Rules football: "It is a wonder in such a vigorous and active society that there is anyone left to form an audience."