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.
Window to: Valparaíso, Chile and San Francisco, California.
This riotous and deeply felt novel opens with the inscription "What is past is prologue." Yet for Smith's characters, who make up several families across three generations in London, that past is always present, in the form of skin color, religion, and improvised traditions that connect to far-off places like Jamaica and Bangladesh. Smith writes: "Because this is the other thing about immigrants...they cannot escape their history any more than you yourself can lose your shadow." The confluence of cultures in modern England is explored in dozens of subplots, including uproar over a nondenominational school festival that manages to offend members of every faith—Christian, Muslim, and Jewish—that are represented in the novel.
Window to: London, Turkey, Bangladesh, and Jamaica.
This is the seminal clash-of-cultures novel in English, a reminder that the most essential experiences of travel are not the sights, sounds, or smells that one encounters in a new place—all of which Forster observes with a keen eye—but the possibilities and limitations of human connection, explored here in the fragile friendship between the visiting Englishman Cyril Fielding and Dr. Aziz, an Indian Muslim accused of assaulting a British woman. This deeply moral book is a searing critique of colonialism—a story that reveals the startling similarities between love and hate.
Window to: India and Britain.
Americans have always seen Europe as an aspirational place. For Tom Ripley, though, a free trip to Italy provides the perfect chance to better himself—by killing the object of his obsession, the shipbuilding heir Dickie Greenleaf, and taking on his enviable identity. Ripley haunts the streets of Rome and Venice, and Highsmith conjures a vision of the sun-bleached southern Italian shore that fills the dreams of pasty citizens of the world's cold-weather towns: "Now and then he caught glimpses of little villages down at the water's edge, houses like white crumbs of bread, specks that were the heads of people swimming near the shore."
Window to: Italy.
We learn the most about a city by walking its streets, studying not its monuments and notable attractions, but the habits of its residents and the particulars of their neighborhoods. Julius, a young psychiatry resident from Nigeria, begins touring New York City on foot, for reasons he never quite explains. (He also makes a short trip to Belgium, where he similarly wanders.) What he sees and shares are startlingly original descriptions of contemporary New York; in Cole's debut novel—released in February 2011—familiar locations, such as the Hudson River, Wall Street, and Ground Zero, are made new again.
Window to: Manhattan, the U.S., and Belgium.
Kostova's wildly successful debut novel manages to fuse a vampire-thriller narrative with meditations on the darker parts of European history. It follows several generations of scholars on a search for Dracula that spans the Continent, from Amsterdam to Istanbul, with stops in Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and France. (The action even extends to the U.S., with a chilling final scene in Philadelphia.) All the city-hopping is intriguing, but the most exciting voyages are the Poe-like trips into foreboding and musty monasteries, libraries, and crypts, one of which causes a character to confess: "...I could see only the shadow into which we would have to descend, and my heart shrank inside me."
Window to: The Netherlands, France, Hungary, Romania, Turkey, Bulgaria, and the U.S.