The Travel Books Transporting Us From Home Right Now

Ready for an armchair adventure? We’ve pulled together some of our favourite travel books of all time – including fantastical fiction, personal memoirs and coming-of-age diaries.

This article first appears in Volume 27: Books.

factual guides to fantastical fiction, the genre of
travel literature is complex. Holy scriptures feature grand
journeys that cross space and time – think the Epic of Gilgamesh or
Muhammad’s pilgrimage to Mecca. Writings by Marco Polo breach the
real and imagined worlds, and in 1794 Xavier de Maistre wrote about
a voyage around his bedroom.

The birth of the travelogue – a fact-based, written account of a
journey – is commonly pinned to around 440 BC when Herodotus
chronicled his encounters in
and Anatolia in The Histories. Yet the roots of travel
stories run far deeper, drawing on prehistoric oral traditions.
When the Chinese Song dynasty recorded topographical and
geographical information in Youji Wenxue – meaning “travel record
literature” – or Pausanias described the Greek Empire in the second
century AD, they unknowingly mimicked the patterns of landmarks
chanted in song lines by indigenous Australians centuries

Gazing across history, the traveller’s account is a tale of
constant evolution, reflecting and projecting the shifting world in
which a journey is made. After the formation of classic imperial
states, factual accounts held strong appeal for rulers desiring
knowledge of their realms. In European literature from the 1700s,
the colonial preoccupation with “discovery” and “the other” is writ
large in works by Captain James Cook and Lord Byron. A century
later, as railroads and steamships shrank the world, the focus of
travel narratives turned inward and accounts by the likes of Mark
Twain and Isabella Bird overlapped reportage and memoir.

In our Google-mapped world, will the modern travel writer lose
their purpose? Far from it. While 24-hour feeds may fixate foreign
correspondents and social media moguls, travel writers have the
luxury to digress. Often the most wonderful thing about today’s
tomes are that they are about so much more than travel. They are
about geography and gastronomy, history and humour, embracing
divergent cultures and recognising our commonalities. Where
once-esteemed travel writers claimed iron-clad objectivity, in the
20th and 21st centuries the best accounts are those that embrace
the subjective, limited “I”, regaling us with the personal
alongside the palpable. These are some of the travel writers who do
exactly that.

The Motorcycle Diaries

by Che Guevara

At once political and personal, this coming-of-age diary
captures Che Guevara’s journey from poor Argentinian medical
student to one of Marxism’s most important revolutionary figures.
Witnessing social injustice awakens his passion to fight and die
for the poor, and fuels his dream of uniting Latin America, with a
good dose of booze-fuelled, lusty antics en route.

Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle

by Dervla Murphy

Ride with Dervla Murphy and her bicycle, Roz, across frozen
Europe, through Persia and Afghanistan, and over the Himalayas to
and India.
Witty yet erudite and dauntless – she uses a gun to frighten off
thieves and “unprintable tactics” to escape from an attempted rape
in a police station – Full Tilt is Murphy’s call to arms for
everyone to travel for travel’s sake.

In Patagonia

by Bruce Chatwin

Inspired by a relic of “brontosaurus”, Bruce Chatwin fulfils a
childhood dream on a six-month journey across Patagonia. Even 40
years after publication, the book remains a rare glimpse into South
America’s lesser-known territories and its people, while its
subversive structure – a reflection of nomadic life – has cast a
long literary shadow.

Into the Wild

by Jon Krakauer

In April 1992, having abandoned most of his possessions,
Christopher McCandless hitchhiked from Virginia to Alaska in search
of a new life. His decomposed body was found four months later by a
moose hunter. Much more than a retracing of steps, Jon Krakauer’s
narrative uncovers the harsh beauty of the wild and questions what
drives us to risk more than we can lose.

Blue Highways: A Journey into America

by William Least Heat-Moon

Armed with little more than the need to put home behind him,
William Least Heat-Moon and his van, Ghost Dancing, criss-cross the
forgotten roads and small towns of the USA on a three-month,
13,000- mile journey. Along the way eccentric encounters –
including those with an evangelist hitchhiker, a maple-syrup farmer
and a rural Nevada prostitute – paint a revelatory portrait of
modern America.

The Art of Travel

by Alain de Botton

We are overwhelmed with advice on where to travel. In this book
Alain de Botton asks why, in reality, journeys seldom match our
fantasies. Contemplating the contents of hotel minibars and our
lethargy at the sight of ancient ruins, this is a philosophical
exploration of the motivations, expectations and complications
behind our voyages around the world.

Istanbul: Memories and the City

by Orhan Pamuk

Written when Orhan Pamuk’s life was crumbling, this portrait of
the Byzantine city also serves as a self-portrait, refracted by the
memories and melancholy of living amid the ruins of the Ottoman
Empire. Moving from Pamuk’s childhood home to the Bosphorus via the
artists that shaped his perception of the city, the book is a
symphony of past and present, place and sensibility.

Searching for Zion: The Quest for Home in the African Diaspora

by Emily Raboteau

Ten years in the making, this is the story of one biracial
woman’s quest to find “home”. Part memoir, part cultural history,
Emily Raboteau’s struggle to reconcile her identity is at once
heartfelt and frustrating. Travelling from
across Africa to the American South, she overturns our
ideas of place and patriotism, displacement and citizenship, and
asks us and herself: “Where is the Promised Land?”


by Rebecca Solnit

Drawing on the works of Romantic poets, philosophers and
industrial-era revolutionaries, Rebecca Solnit’s volume provides a
history of walking as a cultural and political experience over 200
years. Examining pilgrimages and marches, walkathons and urban
strolls, she explores the subversive and metaphysical effects of
this simple act and demands its preservation in our busy and
accelerated world.

To the River

by Olivia Laing

The writer Virginia Woolf drowned in the Ouse in 1941. One
midsummer week more than 60 years later, Olivia Laing traces the
river from source to sea. Ebbing from nature writing to history,
flowing through memoir and biography, this thought- provoking book
explores the many ways that this stretch of water has permeated
human life.

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