19 Aug 8 extraordinary travel books to inspire your wanderlust
Looking for some inspiring travel reads? Here are eight of my absolute favourite page-turning travel books, that’ll have you dreaming of new destinations.
I am a voracious reader.
So it probably doesn’t surprise you that I’ve read my fair share of travel books over the years.
The good, the bad – and the outstanding.
Every once in a while I pick up a paperback that I can’t put down. One that takes me to another place, where the sun beats down on my back and the streets don’t smell the same. That’s when great travel writing hits you.
Exceptional writers make you feel like you’re on the road with them. Or bring back memories of a familiar place with such colour and clarity that you’re not in Kansas any more.
And whilst I reach for books in the travel aisle, sometimes they’re much more. Surprising literary works I wouldn’t otherwise have stumbled on. Hilarious jaunts and adventures that’ll have me laughing out loud. Inspiring tales that make me want to shake up my own life and dream a little bigger.
Whether you want some holiday reading to pack in your suitcase, or simply want to feel like you’ve escaped to somewhere unknown without leaving the sofa – here are my suggestions.
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A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson
Setting: The Appalachian Mountain trail, USA
A quick summary: Warm-hearted and humorous travel writer Bill Bryson decides to walk the Appalachian Mountain trail. With no previous experience of long-distance hiking, the book is an honest, charming and insightful story of his first-time adventures through a part of the US that doesn’t get as much recognition as it perhaps deserves.
Why you’ll love this book: I thought I’d ease you in gently with a well-known name in travel writing (don’t worry, there are more offbeat suggestions to come). Everyone loves Bill Bryson’s endearing accounts of exploring Europe and the UK as an American abroad, but A Walk in the Woods is a little different. It’s a tale of someone outside of their comfort zone, taking on a huge physical challenge and encountering a new side to a familiar country. There’s plenty of laughs along the way, but also keen observations about the diverse, beautiful and at times bewildering landscape of the eastern states.
Extra Virgin by Annie Hawes
Setting: Liguria, Italy
A quick summary: Annie and her sister set off to rural Liguria with the promise of a summer job they’ve blagged their way into. What starts out as a jaunt for a few months becomes a life-changing experience as they fall in love with the local community, and decide (much to the dismay of their newfound Italian friends and neighbours) to renovate and move into a derelict rural farmhouse.
Why you’ll love this book: Extra Virgin isn’t your usual A Year in Provence or Driving Over Lemons. Don’t get me wrong, I have a soft-spot for slightly-cliched tales of hapless Brits finding devastatingly affordable and delightfully romantic new lives abroad in rural Europe. But after a while, they all started to blur into one. Except for this particularly well-worn and dog-eared one.
Extra Virgin has got a little more sass than most – and got there before the crowds did. Annie Hawes’ accounts of her mishaps and the charmingly disdainful Italian community she finds herself a part of makes me chuckle out loud at times. Her vivid descriptions of this largely forgotten part of Italy, with its tumbledown medieval towns and rambling vineyards, is enough to make anyone want to make their bags immediately. It’s also a story of two young women tramping a path less trodden, which I like enormously.
Cloud Road: A Journey Through the Inca Heartland by John Harrison
Setting: The Inca Trail, Peru
A quick summary: Adventurous Brit John Harrison sets out to walk the Camino Real, or Inca Trail, through what was the Andean nation in South America. This is a vivid and enticing description of the places he travels through, as well as a history of the Andean people. There’s also a comedy donkey sidekick.
Why you’ll love this book: Aside from the donkey (who is as stubborn and hilarious as you might hope), there’s a lot to like about this book. There’s a real warmth to the way Harrison talks about the people he meets, places he visits and history he traces. It’s a fascinating way to discover more about this part of South America as well as being a humorous and heart-warming tale of someone tackling the road on foot and alone.
If you’ve never thought about travelling to this part of the world, you’ll find your curiosity piqued after just a few pages. The route tracks through parts of South America that aren’t well known in the Northern hemisphere, and it’s all the more interesting for it.
On the Road by Jack Kerouac
Setting: The USA during the 1950s
A quick summary: A literary classic in its own right, On The Road is a semi-autobiographical account of a young Kerouac in 1950’s America, trying to find his way in the world. It’s not strictly a travel book, but it’s an evocative and enthralling description of American cities and travel at this time. It’s the sort of book that makes you want to grab a suitcase, throw your cares to the wind and head out on the road.
Why you’ll love this book: I first read this book when I was 18 years old, and working shifts at an international airport. Funnily enough, it’s the closest I’ve ever been to a travel-related job. Every morning on my break I’d sit in the departure lounge with a sandwich, the occasional cup of coffee, and this book. I was watching the world depart on their travels, but I could escape on my own adventure through the pages of this book.
It’s a beautifully written tale. The places Kerouac stays and travels through come to life in such vivid technicolour through his sometimes trite language. It might not be everyone’s cup of tea but I loved it, and it made me sit up and want to find adventures of my own.
A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor
Setting: Across Europe, 1933-4
A quick summary: Leigh Fermor is a footloose student in London in 1933. Uncertain about what to do next with his life, he takes the somewhat ambitious decision to walk across Europe, from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul, with only a few pounds in his pocket. Beautifully told, this book is an account of the first part of his journey.
Why you’ll love this book: Whether you’re interested in travel or social history, this book is a gem that I can’t believe isn’t better known. Whilst Leigh Fermor’s long sentences and verbose vocabulary might make it seem a little heavy going, the pictures he paints with his words are breathtaking. It captures an incredibly exciting and swiftly changing period in European history with poignancy, as the author reflects on events that would happen in this region less than ten years later.
A Time of Gifts is an account of paths less trodden and of small town and villages, rather than big cities. It’s about mountains and unlikely friendships, places living in the past and visions of the future.
In the 21st century, it’s hard to imagine stepping out the door and attempting an adventure of this scale without any of the resources have so easily to hand. Part of the fascination is how this journey wouldn’t be the same in any way today, along with Leigh Fermor’s courage and endearing sense of wonderment.
The Year of Living Danishly: Uncovering the Secrets of the World’s Happiest Country by Helen Russell
Setting: Jutland, Denmark
A quick summary: British journalist Helen Russell unexpectedly moves to Denmark for a year when her partner lands a job working for Lego. They spend a year immersing themselves in Danish culture and commenting endearingly and insightfully on the differences between life in the UK and Denmark.
Why you’ll love this book: Before I visited Denmark, my only cultural reference points were The Killing (and a handful of other Scandi Noir dramas) and childhood mainstay, Lego. Unsurprisingly, there is so much more to this cheerful country. This book is a thoughtful, funny and heart-warming account of life in Denmark from the perspective of a Londoner who was quite happy with life in London.
Russell’s growing warmth towards the Danish people, culture and lifestyle makes this a real feel-good read, that’s also a considered questioning of how the way of life here is different. Curl up with a steaming cup of coffee and a cinnamon bun to enjoy this one.
The Cyclist Who Went Out in the Cold by Tim Moore
Setting: The Iron Curtain trail, Europe
A quick summary: A writer with more enthusiasm for watching cycling on television than doing any in real-life, embarks upon a cycle journey like no other. The Iron Curtain trail opened just a few years ago, stretches an impossible distance across Europe from the freezing north of Finland to the aching heat of Istanbul. Moore decides to put the route to the test – on a precarious Soviet Era bike.
Why you’ll love this book: Tim Moore is the sort of author I’d like to sit in a pub with and chat to for hours. Darkly funny, but also keenly observant and empathetic, he’s the sort of traveller and writer you can’t help but like.
Try The Cyclist Who Went Out In The Cold for a snapshot of lesser-known parts of Europe. But also read it for its insight into 20th century history and political struggle, the hilarious accounts of why it’s better to choose a contemporary bike for long distance expeditions, and for a reminder of the kindness of strangers – that Moore encounters at every step of his journey.
If you like this sort of thing, Moore has some previous form with this kind of adventure. He’s also walked the Camino de Santiago, cycled the route of the Tour de France and recreated the first ever Giro d’Italia (Italy’s answer to the Tour de France) on a vintage bicycle. They’re equally cracking reads, just a little more heavy on the cycling nerdiness.
The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
Setting: Barcelona, Spain, during the 1940’s
A quick summary: The son of an antiquarian bookseller gets embroiled in the mystery of a missing book and it’s author. Set in the narrow streets of the Gothic Quarter of Barcelona, this thriller is just as much a bibliophile’s delight as it is for lovers of travel and of the Catalan capital.
Why you’ll love this book: I wasn’t sure whether to include this as it’s a work of fiction – but as I’m making the rules, I’ve decided it can. It’s one of my all-time favourite reads.
The Shadow of the Wind is the sort of book you can’t put down, that you’ll race through in late nights and surreptitious coffee breaks in the office. It’s perfect for the sort of holiday where you can just sit and indulge for a day or two.
Ruiz Zafon is a master of storytelling, but also of evoking the beautiful city of Barcelona in just a few words. Read just a few pages and you’ll feel the heat of the Spanish sun on your back, smell coffee brewing and the faint aroma of tobacco and old books, and see the cool, dark passageways of the Barri Gotic unfold in front of you. It’s a magical book if you’ve not been to this city, and even more so if you have. And you won’t be able to help yourself if you find yourself in Barcelona once you’ve read this book. You’ll be looking for an unassuming little bookshop around every corner, and hoping to fall into the story.
So there’s my favourites travel books – but what about yours?
I’d love to hear from you. Pop your favourites in the comments below, you might inspire me!