The 8 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.

The Sheltering Sky, by Paul Bowles

(1949) 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.

The Beach, by Alex Garland

(1996) 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.

Daughter of Fortune, by Isabel Allende

(1999) 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."

White Teeth, by Zadie Smith

(2000) 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.

A Passage to India, by E. M. Forster

(1924) 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.

The Talented Mr. Ripley, by Patricia Highsmith

(1955) 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."

Open City, by Teju Cole

(2011) 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.

The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostova

(2005) 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." Source: Budget Travel

Comments (1)

  1. I found some of these books on allyoucanbooks.com so I think this will gonna be my next lecture list after I’ll finish the one I found last year….I’m sure I will learn many interesting things about some of the best travel destinations and who knows, maybe in the future I will live the live experience, not just the virtual one available on a book.

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