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.
Just what is travel writing? Sometimes it tells the story of a journey—the initial excitement of a ship leaving port or the joy of watching the sun rise in a brand-new place. Often it celebrates the act of exploration itself—poking around, asking questions, getting lost and into scrapes, making all the mistakes of the newcomer. But most essentially, it should prompt us to look longingly at our suitcases, start thinking about that next week off, and begin planning adventures of our own. This is the spirit that animates the books on our list—Budget Travel's first ever roundup of the greatest travel literature. Despite their differences in genre and style, these books all give an unforgettable sense of place—whether that place is a small patch of ground, an entire continent, or just the wrinkles of the writer's mind.
Did we highlight your favorites? Forget any notable titles? We'd love to hear your thoughts, in the comments section below.
Kerouac didn't invent America's obsession with the open road, but he did capture the complexities of our collective drive West in a uniquely deep and enduring way. The travels of Dean Moriarty and Sal Paradise are a celebration of two of the country's greatest inventions: jazz and the roaring, big-engined automobile. Yet Kerouac persists at revealing the dark, forgotten places like skid-row San Francisco and a migrant farmworkers' camp in southern California. What draws new generations of restless young readers to the book, though, is Kerouac's exuberant prose: "...The car was swaying as Dean and I both swayed to the rhythm and the IT of our final excited joy in talking and living to the blank tranced end of all innumerable riotous angelic particulars that had been lurking in our souls all our lives."
Window to: The U.S., from New York City to California, and Mexico.
Bowles was a composer, translator, and the author of many books, including the travel narrative Their Heads Are Green and Their Hands Are Blue, a collection of beautiful and highly personal essays on the places he traveled, from Ceylon to Morocco. But this is his finest achievement, in which an American couple and their male friend explore the kasbahs of North Africa before embarking on an ill-considered trip to the Sahara. Bowles captures the stark, alien nature of the landscape: "Here in the desert, even more than at sea, she had the impression that she was on the top of a great table, that the horizon was the brink of space." Yet for all its beautiful prose, this book is as much a warning as it is a beckoning to explore; it uncovers the dark side of travel—how a series of minor mistakes, caused by willfulness and ignorance, can have deadly consequences.
Window to: North Africa and the Sahara.
Garland's sly page-turner about an unorthodox, supersecret community of expat island-dwellers in Southeast Asia navigates a remarkable middle ground, at once celebrating the spirit of exploration that inspires the backpacker set and satirizing the ad-hoc culture based on drugs, tans, and pseudo-enlightenment that these young people seek. Despite Garland's suspicion of the Goa and Phuket faithful, few writers have described so well the thrill of a cliff dive, the joys of Tetris on a Game Boy, or the beguiling beauty of a tropical sunset—and inspired armchair travelers to embark on the real thing in the process: "If I'd learned one thing from traveling, it was that the way to get things done was to go ahead and do them. Don't talk about going to Borneo. Book a ticket, get a visa, pack a bag, and it just happens."
Window to: Thailand and London.
This exhaustively researched novel follows two fascinating characters, Eliza Sommers, an orphan adopted by an English brother and sister, and Tao Chi'en, her Chinese physician, as they are drawn into a mysterious adventure in California during the 1848 Gold Rush. Allende is a master of the street scene; her description of boomtown San Francisco, with its surging crowds of fortune-hunters from around the world, would spark the imagination of any traveler who has ventured into an unknown city for the first time: "The heterogeneous throng pulsed with frenzied activity, pushing, bumping into building materials, barrels, boxes, burros, and carts."