13 Travel Books That Will Give You Serious Wanderlust

By Nomadic Matt | Published December 19th, 2013

The end of the year is just that time for favorites lists. Last week, I wrote about my favorite blogs of 2013 and this week, I want to talk travel books. Part of the tool belt of any traveler is a good book. Long bus, train, or plane rides can get pretty boring and can give you a lot of “dead” time if you haven’t mastered the art of the 10-hour blank stare.

I read a lot, and one of the things I enjoy most is to kick back on a long train ride with a good book.

When I started this blog, I put up a blog post on my favorite books and since I’m a voracious reader, my list has greatly expanded since then. If you’re looking for some great reads, here are my current book suggestions to inspire you to travel far off lands:

The Alchemist – A story about following your dreams, this is one of the most-read books in recent history. The story follows a young shepherd boy from Spain to Egypt as he follows his heart, goes with the flow, learns to love, and learns the meaning of life. The book is filled with wonderful and inspirational quotes, like my favorite, “If you can concentrate always on the present, you’ll be a happy man… Life will be a party for you, a grand festival, because life is the moment we’re living right now.” I’ve read this book multiple times. A book about following your dreams is a great book for dreamer…and we travelers certainly are dreamers.

Love With a Chance of Drowning – This book is written by travel blogger Torre DeRoche and, while I normally don’t like “chick travel love” stories, I couldn’t put this down. It’s a beautifully written book about overcoming her fear of the ocean to sail across the Pacific with her boyfriend. The way she describes the scenery, the people, and her experience makes me want to follow in her footsteps. It’s the best travel book I’ve read all year. Here is my interview with her from earlier in the year.

The Turk Who Loved Apples – Written by my friend Matt Gross, this book by the NYT’s former Frugal Traveler is about his misadventures and lessons from decades of travel. A lot of what he’s written resonates with me, especially his thoughts working in travel, being a solo traveler, and living in Southeast Asia. It’s a great book and very well written. I did a video interview with him earlier this year too and we joke about our very different feelings on Vietnam.

On the Road – Written in 1957, Jack Kerouac’s Beat Generation classic is a timeless travel novel. The story follows his character, Sal, as he leaves New York City and heads west riding the rails, making friends, and partying the night away. The main character’s frustration, desire to see the world, and adventures are themes that can resonate with many of us. What I especially love about this story is that through all his travels, he becomes a better, stronger, and more confident person. I can personally relate to that.

Unlikely Destinations – Written by the founders of Lonely Planet, this tome chronicles the start and rise of the company whose guidebook is probably in your backpack or on your bookshelf right now. The story follows them from when they set out from England in the 1970s to the beginning of the 21st century. In between, you hear all their travel tales and learn about their early business struggles. While the book drags in some parts, it is ultimately a fascinating read about the company that helped start the travel guidebook industry and forever changed how we travel.

The Island at the Center of the World – Nothing beats New York City, and this book by Russell Shorto explores the city’s early founding. You can’t understand a place if you don’t understand its history, and this book discusses the Dutch founding of New York and how they lost it to the British. It’s a fascinating read and now when I walk around New York City, I have a different perspective on it thanks to this book. He just published a new book on Amsterdam that I bought but haven’t read yet.

The Beach – Behind The Alchemist, this is probably my favorite travel book. (I like the movie too, but the book is way better). What I love about Alex Garland’s tale about backpackers and their search for paradise is that you can identify with Richard and his quest to “do something different and get off the beaten path” but, in the end, see that as an illusion. It’s also a good tale about how backpackers’ search for the ideal can end up ruining that ideal. I love this book a lot. I’ve read it twice. Now that I am writing about it again, I think I might re-read it soon.

Vagabonding – Written by the godfather of vagabonding, Rolf Potts, this book is a must-read for those new to long-term travel. Rolf spent 10 years on the road (he even walked across Israel) and his book contains valuable insights, quotes, and a lot of practical information. From saving to planning to life on the road, this is a must for newbies. It’s an inspirational book and one that really affected me when I was planning my trip. His book was re-released last month and I interviewed him about his book.

In A Sunburned Country – It’s hard to pick just one book by Bill Bryson that’s good, because they all are. He’s one of the most prolific and recognized names in travel writing. This book chronicles a journey through Australia and takes you from east to west, through tiny little mining towns, forgotten coastal cities, and off-the-beaten-path forests. Bryson includes lots of trivia information in his tale as he travels around in awe – and sometimes in fear (thanks to box jellyfish, riptides, crocs, spiders, and snakes) – of this enormous country. This is the book that inspired me to go to Australia.

The Geography of Bliss – Writer and NPR correspondent Eric Weiner set out on a yearlong journey to find the world’s happiest places. He heads to places like Iceland, Qatar, Denmark, India, and Moldova (the world’s most unhappy place) on his quest, and while he never finds the secret to happiness, his journey makes for an amazing and lighthearted read. In trying to answer the question “what makes a society happy?”, Weiner has some interesting interactions with locals and the cultural experiences.

The Seven Ages of Paris – OK, maybe Paris beats New York. This book skips around a lot but it highlights the main influential periods of Parisian history, taking you from the early middle-ages to the 20th century. It’s very dense and I found myself re-reading a few parts. While I like more linear history books, this is a good overview of Parisian history.

Cruising Altitude – This book by Heather Poole is about life as a flight attendant. I, ironically, picked it up at an airport and read it on a plane. It’s a quick, light read about what it’s like to work at 35,000 feet. It had some funny stories and gave me a new appreciation for just how hard those flight attendants work and how much crap they have to put up with! I was lucky enough to talk to Heather last year about her book.

Paris Was Ours – Another book on Paris because I love the city so much. This book showcases thirty-two writers from around the world who moved to Paris  and talk about their time there. They share personal stories of how they learned to cook, study, and integrate into Parisian life. This book dives into the good, the bad, and the ugly but shows just how much of a lasting effect Paris can have on people.

That’s my current top list. I have some more books at the bottom of my resources section and currently have queued up over 20 other travel books on my Amazon wish list (including some recommendations from readers).

And I’m always open to more recommendations so leave your favorite books!

comments 64 Comments

If you like books about Paris, I recommend The Paris Wife by Paula McLain. It’s less about Paris and more about the whirlwind romance of Hadley Richardson and Earnest Hemmingway, which largely took place in Paris in the 20s.

I love it for the characters’ interactions with the “Lost Generation” – Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitgerald, etc.

It is historical fiction, but it’s easy to imagine everything happing just as McLain writes about it. It’s especially poignant because we know that, in the end, Hemingway wrote that he would rather have died than fallen in love with anyone but Hadley.

Kjersti

I would like to recommend “One for the Road”. It’s a travel book about Antarctica, Southern Africa and the Trans-Siberian Railway. It tells you about the positive and negative sides of travelling to those destinations, and about travelling alone in general. It’s really entertaining and funny too :)

The author has made the whole book available for free as a PDF. It can be downloaded here: http://bjornfree.com/

On The Road is great. Just wish traveling could still be like that!

Adrienne Morton

SOOO with you man. At the top of my faves. Especially the “love dance”. He says so much with so little. No one can compare.

A few suggestions:

Badlands – Similar to Unlikely Destinations, this book is written by one of the founders of Lonely Planet and speaks about his travels into places that are thought of as being to dangerous for travelers (Iraq, North Korea, Afghanistan, Libya, etc)… Very interesting tales and provides great perspective

Around the World in 80 Days – Okay, it’s cliche, but still a classic and definitely invokes that travel spirit and wanderlust.

The Heart of Darkness – This classic by Joseph Conrad gives you a different way of looking at the African continent, and the way that it was during colonial times.

NomadicMatt

I’ve read the other two but I’ll check out Badlands!

Adrienne Morton

Matt,
One of your BEST posts ever. GREAT succinct reviews that only wet my book palate more. (CANT WAIT TO READ THE ALCHEMIST, but SORRY, still reading your book!!) May I urge you further to read 100 Years of Solitude…….you won’t possibly ever, ever regret it. I gave it as a present to my then lover and he actually beat me- read it in a day! Its that meaningful, that sexy, that life-changing, and journey-filled. I found myself ignoring literally everything sophomore year of college, literally locking my door, and not coming out even for classes as I read it TWICE in a row.That is love. I would love to talk to you about it in Thailand, too. If not, just let me know and I will bring it as a gift.
Adrienne

You will love The Alchemist, Adrienne!! It inspired me so much. It is a rather short book. 100 Years of Solitude is one of my favorites. In fact, I would have to say…it was probably THE book that inspired my wanderlust the most. I read it before I spent two months abroad in Latin American and Spain. Funny it was a gift to your then lover; it was actually a former lover who had turned me on to Gabriel Garcia Marquez! Anyway, that relationship didn’t last (actually ended years ago but very painfully)…but a love for travel—and travel to explore the soul—was born. Ahh, namaste to life’s teachers and gifts…in all their forms.

Adrienne Morton

Melissa,
I dearly hope you get this msg. It meant *so* much to me read your comment this sleep-deprived morning. You have already made my day with what you wrote me about 100 Years of Solitude. You clearly understand what I couldn’t quite put into words- that the journeys in this book are so mind-bendingly moving through time and space because they are journeys of the soul. Journeys that somehow are written so erotically that they lie forever like paintings in the mind…naked urgencies, emergencies of love.
*thank you*
I will read The Alchemist immediately- as soon as I’m done with Matt’s book. I would love to meet you!!! Are you by any chance going to Thailand with us in Feb?
Adrienne

Hi Adrienne, So wonderful to see your note! And I was so moved by your description and experience…”paintings in the mind…naked urgencies, emergencies of love.” Your experience of 100 Years of Solitude is beautiful. I would love to meet you, too! What a joy it is to connect with other seekers who relish the adventure of both the inner and outer journey. Thank you for your note.

I hadn’t planned on going to Thailand in Feb…and I have prior plans during that time….but I do hope our paths cross at some point! Here or abroad. :) Please keep in touch, Adrienne!
Best,
Melissa

What a great selection of books to transport the reader to location. This year we have loved The Forgiven by Lawrence Osborne which took us to Morocco, right down to the last fossil! Have a great festive season.

Kate L.

Thanks for this list! I’ll be checking out several of these titles – anyone who loves Paris that much clearly has excellent taste ;)

In return, let me recommend Travels with a Tangerine by Tim Mackintosh-Smith. He’s a Brit who lives in Yemen (of course …), and sets off to follow the path taken by an historic Arab traveler on his way to Mecca. The trip started in Tangiers (hence the title), and the journey involved far more than just the intended destination. The author mixes in plenty of history with his travel, comparing his own journey and sights with the previous one. I found it a good way to get a taste of travel in the Arab world (which is a region I’m highly wary about visiting), and it’s written in a very engaging, conversational style.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll go see what other travel books need to be added to my list …

NomadicMatt

Thanks! Paris is great isn’t it? I’ll add this to my list too!

Great list but i prefer ebooks and tablet or kindle. It is smaller then books :)

NomadicMatt

All these books come in Kindle format!

Great list! After reading The Alchemist a few years ago I bought a ticket to SE Asia and spent a few months in the region. The Beach is now on my reading list for next month!

I just finished reading Vagabonding for the second time. Still a great read even for an old book. While most travel books date quickly this one is still very relevant.

great collection of travel books, thank to you for providing me list of great travel books.

I love your selection and enjoy your blog. If you are interested I would be happy to email you a copy of my book which is based on Roatan. http://www.amazon.com/Hold-The-Sun-Chas-Watkins/dp/1489507647
Just drop me a line and keep travelling.
:)

Paul S

I really enjoyed In Search Of King Solomon’s Mines by Tahir Shah. One of those truth is stranger than fiction books.

Geography of Bliss is one of my all-time favorite travel books (love the section on Iceland especially– it gave me some great conversation starters with locals when I visited). I also second one of your other recommendation, Troost’s Sex Lives of Cannibals (along with all of his follow up books)– they are all laugh out loud funny (very rare!)

I always scour the travel essay section and have many great books to add, just a few here:

The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton– I’m not sure how de Botton manages to take every thought/fear/emotion you’ve ever had about travel and articulate in such a readable and witty manner, but this book is a must read. You will find yourself agreeing over and over again (see also his brilliant How Proust can Change your Life (a hilarious self-help book disguised as a philosophy) and Kiss and Tell (the anatomy of a relationship). Love his pithy twitter feed insights too.

The Lost City of Z (David Grann– retracing Fawcett’s Amazon journey)

Mukiwa, A White Boy in Africa (Peter Godwin about his childhood in then Rhodesia– utterly gripping).

Watching the English– Kate Fox (a fun look at English behavior and the class system)

Tales from Fast Trains– Europe at 186 mph (Tom Chesshyre)– I am jealous of Londoners who can hop on a train and see a different country every weekend–Times writer Chesshyre does just that.

Postcards from Europe– Rick Steves. Yes, Rick Steves– it’s unfortunate his followers who live by his every word have given him a bad rap– he actually has a great non-pc perspective (some of his observations in this book are actually pretty shocking).

The Lunatic Express– Carl Hoffman. Because this book combines my two favorite genres– “stunt” non-fiction and travel essay– and lets me live vicariously through his journeys that I would never take on my own.

NomadicMatt

Thanks for the list! I’ll add these all to my book list!

what a great list! thanks for that! I just downloaded The Alchemist – starting reading it!
I love a good travel book that makes you think about life

The interesting part about this blog post is the highlights about each book and how each book may be relevant. Great post. Have to get the book, “Beach”.

Dan

I have officially seen “The Alchemist” pop up on too many book lists. I think it’s time to read it!

NomadicMatt

YES! YES!

Adrienne Morton

ME TOO!

Adrienne Morton

There is one other book missing from this fabulous list which was the first book ever read to me as a three year-old. That is TREASURE ISLAND! Read to me in the slums of (wonderful) Boston, in our awful apartment in Dorchester when I used to hear gunshots outside and wasn’t allowed in the front “yard”. My dad read it to me aloud, night after night, and it truly was the beginning for me as a traveller. I escaped. I went everywhere. My imagination bloomed. I went to sea, I struck gold. I can still hear my dad’s voice describing the exotic and wrecked places that formed the seeds of curiosity in my mind. If somehow this masterpiece has slipped through your fingers, grasp it! You will never be sorry. It’s magic.
Adrienne

Thanks for the list! I love the Alchemist and I recently read Love With A Chance Of Drowning. Before deciding to start our slow travel nomadic life by land my boyfriend and I were planning to buy a sailboat and sail slowly around the world. It’s still something we want to do but for several reasons we decided that we weren’t quite at that place and time….hopefully in a few years though!

Matt, Thanks for the great list. Vagabonding was one of the books that helped me leave on our first sabbatical in 2008. I also loved the Four Hour Work Week.

I am always looking for books on travel for my kindle so thanks for having so many great new ones to explore!
Lisa
We Said Go Travel

Wow! Candy to my eyes! My eyes just can’t wait to read these books! Thank You for sharing.

At LAST! I can’t tell you how long I have been searching for a travel inspired book that isn’t ‘Eat, prey, love’ which I refuse to read. I will definitely be downloading ‘The Alchemist’ which seems to be mentioned often and ‘Vagabonding’ which will hopefully help me plan my upcoming trip! Thanks a ton.

Paul Theroux’s Tao of Travel is a eclectic compendium of literary stories, tips, best of lists, quotes, insights … lots of useful perspectives about what makes for great travel (at least in Theroux’s ‘some suffering is good for what ails one’ style) and especially what makes for engaging travel writing http://www.amazon.com/The-Tao-Travel-Enlightenments-Lives/dp/0547737378 (Amazon).

Matt, I would add, Honeymoon with my Brother by Franz Wisner. One of the most entertaining travelogues I have read. Also, would add in the works of Paul Theroux including Ghost Train to the Eastern Star and Dark Star Safari.

Thanks for the suggestions. For some strange reason, old travel / exploration books inspire me to travel more . Charles Mann’s 1491(Revelations of the Americas before Colombus) was definitely a push to explore the world more. it shows that even centuries ago men inherently have that need to discover (although it was more “conquest” long ago). Lucky for us now, the reasons to travel are more to fulfill personal dreams.
As for modern travel literature, The Beach is a classic almost cliche one that still gives me that wanderlust feeling.

Rose D

Jean/Holy Smithereens

You would love a book called Fourth Part of the World by Toby Lester. It’s the story of the Waldseemuller map of 1507 which was the first to use the name America. The only surviving copy of the map was found in a German castle in 1901 and bought by the library of congress in 2003 for $10 million. It’s a wonderful story of the history of map making and the race to map the world. I’ve read it twice and will read it again soon. Such an amazing story and so many interesting and surprising facts about that era. If I ever travel to America I will be seeing that map!

Just want to say that your new book about traveling the world on $50 a day would be on my recommended travel book list. Just read it …..got it at our local library!

For pure Pacific island book dreams I would like to add ” An Island to Oneself” by Tom Neale…..written by a guy who lived 17 years total on atoll island in the Cook Islands. It is a classic. I love Troosts books too about living on different Pacifi Islands…..very true but funny. Have to get around to reading his latest one about following in the footsteps of RLS in the Pacific….. aloha

NomadicMatt

Thanks for the suggestion! (And glad you enjoyed the book!)

Great to see tips on travel books, Matt. I’m always on the lookout for new suggestions and like the look of The Geography of Bliss. I’ve started reading from my Kindle while out on the road, so I can carry multiple books without the weight of the paper. That said there’s nothing quite as satisfying as sitting at a cafe holding back the pages and scribbling notes in a margin.

Vagabonding is on my to read list, as soon as possible. Heard only amazing things about it. Looking forward!!

Best timing in the world. :) I’m leaving tomorrow just in time to get some ebooks of these ones on my kindle.

Thank you very much, good sir.

How can you not have Shantaram on this list! :)

Awesome list man, I will definitely be picking some of these up real soon!

– Nathan

Mitchell

I love Tony Perrottet’s On the Trail of Ancient Roman Tourists.

Thanks to this post I downloaded and read the alchemist in a day. Such an incredible book, very life affirming and positive.
It made me think of when I had my palm read by a medium 12 years ago who said I would travel and work for myself. I laughed at him but now it looks like it may be happening. Maybe Paulo was onto something.

Laura

You Shall Know Our Velocity by Dave Eggers is about a one week RTW trip and is a fun read :)

thanks for this post it very interesting travel blog very helpful.

LR Barker

Just realized that Heather Poole’s book is “Cruising Attitude [not Altitude]”. I enjoyed your interview and plan to read the book. As one who works in the airline industry (and enjoys non-rev travel) I’m looking forward to a fun read.

The Alchemist is one of my favorite books of all time. I’d have to add Elizabeth Gilbert’s book “Eat, Pray, Love” to this list – she journeys to Italy, India and Indonesia (Bali) and has great insights about travel+life. (p.s. if you saw the movie, don’t judge the book! The movie was abyssal!)

NomadicMatt

I dislike the book too. It was a pre-planned adventure. It was a pre-planned book proposal. Ruins the sense of adventure the book tries to portray.

Recently, In my Nepal trip, I purchased On the Road book from a books store in Pokhara. That was really a great book. Seems like it’s time to check the others in your list.

Hi Matt! Just read On the Road & really want to read your Paris picks next. I went to Paris for the first time in Oct and totally fell in love. Always wanted to go there since I saw Gene Kelly tap dancing around the city in An American in Paris when I was a kid. Going back in May for a quick visit but would love to drop everything and do the whole expat writer thing there someday. Anyway, great list & Happy New Year!

Matt, have you read much of Ernie Pyle’s work? Not about WWII, but before the war – and through the Great Depression – he traveled around the U.S. in a car for years, writing articles about the average person. Beautiful work, just beautiful. Try “Home Country”

NomadicMatt

I added it to my Amazon wishlist.

I recently read “Turn Right at Machu Picchu” and it was a fun and informative read about the author’s journey in following Hiram Bingham tracks when he “discovered” Machu Picchu. It’s inspired me to climb more mountains.

Scott Kim

You left out my favorite, the book that started it all for me. Richard Halliburton’s Complete Book of Marvels. As a child, that book was a magic carpet that took me all over the world and started my wanderlust. Back in the days before airport shuttles, handicapped walkways and ATMs.

Michael W

Another great, great book is “The wind is my mother” Molly Larkin and Bear Heart.

A Native American is telling about traditional tribal wisdom can help us maintain our spiritual and physical health on an everyday basis.

It may sound dull and too much of a cliche, but ain’t. Have read 4 times, (once a year for 4 years aprox.). But is full of brilliant wisdom frases which make sense right away. Hope you will enjoy it.

I also loved ‘the year of the hare’ gave me a wonderful sense of wanting to aimlessly wander the world.

Sarah

I am an avid reader and love an excellent travel memoir! To add some of my favorites to the great list and fantastic additions in the comments, here are a few books I feel are worth the time:

*Excellent book full of travel life experiences — One Year Off: Leaving It All Behind for a Round-the-World Journey with Our Children [Kindle Edition] David Elliot Cohen

*Great to see what travel teaches us all about ourselves — The Wander Year: One Couple’s Journey Around the World [Kindle Edition] Mike McIntyre

*Fun read of their funny experiences dealing with living instead of just visiting — Happier Than A Billionaire: Quitting My Job, Moving to Costa Rica, and Living the Zero Hour Work Week [Kindle Edition] Nadine Hays Pisani

*If you liked or mocked Eat, Pray, Love then this is a funny MOCK memoir — Drink, Play, F@#k: One Man’s Search for Anything Across Ireland, Las Vegas, and Thailand [Kindle Edition] Andrew Gottlieb

*Story of a creative life solution to the expected path — Walden on Wheels: On the Open Road from Debt to Freedom [Kindle Edition] Ken Ilgunas

*If you thought RVing would be a breeze, laugh with or at —How NOT to RV; The Rvers Guide to RVing in the Absurd (The How NOT To Guides) [Kindle Edition]
Jennifer Flower

*Neat concept being dependent on others — The Kindness of Strangers: Penniless Across America [Kindle Edition] Mike McIntyre

I was thrilled Vagabonding came out on kindle and bought it as soon as I read my appreciated email from Matt!

Hope this adds to your reading enjoyment! Thanks for adding to my wishlist too.

NomadicMatt

Thanks for all the tips! I’ll check these out.

For an epic travel book, you can’t really beat “Journey to the West” aka “Monkey”, the 16th century Chinese novel.

I read how you enjoy reading Paris stories and I just wrote my first blog post on a little story in Paris, hope you can check it out, love the book suggestions thank you!

I already have serious wanderlust… reading these would simply tip me over the edge!

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