This is a very eclectic list of books that do what I think travel books should, which is spark your curiosity, evoke feelings and awaken senses and make you want dig deeper. By travel books, I include history, fiction, memoir, reportage, about journeys and places.
How I chose my travel books list
I am more interested in travel books or related genres that are about non-Western countries and regions. That’s an imprecise classification, but there aren’t any better. I will lump parts of Eastern Europe, Central Asia and Russia with this. It doesn’t mean to say these parts of the world hold no attraction or interest, but passion is something different. Why the bias?
Well, for starters, I am a Westerner, Western-educated so, Western culture, history, and geography is all too familiar to me. I love Western literature and I read a lot of contemporary Western fiction. Plus, it comes from the heart, and my heart is in Africa first, but I am also drawn to non-Western countries in the Indian sub-continent, Asia and the east, South America islands of the global south. But my curiosity goes to what I don’t know, and since I want to know everything, it is books and travel that meet that desire.
I like cities too
The exception to my travel book bias are cities in which I have lived and which have all captivated me for very different reasons. Most of these cities are in the West – London, New York, Miami, Los Angeles, Cape Town, Harare, Johannesburg. When I arrived in the USA from London, I immediately devoured anything there was – fiction and non-fiction – about New York. Perhaps that’s another blog … great fiction and non-fiction writing on the world’s great cities.
travel books by continent
South and Central America, The Caribbean
ANTIGUA A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid
Not so much a travel book as an autobiographical critique of tourism, this short essay is nevertheless important because it challenges the traveler to consider his or her role and responsibility in some of the destinations s/he happens to be. It could be called an angry diatribe. Nevertheless, its a critique of tourism in 1988 in Antigua, the author’s birthplace. It places the tourist in the role of a colonizer who conveniently erases the reality of the diminished, lives of islanders for whom this small beautiful island is home.
COLOMBIA One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Travel books should make you want to go to a place, and by this measure, One Hundred Years of Solitude totally delivers. This extraordinary novel has become a landmark as the first of the ‘magical realism’ genre, and tells the story over many generations of the Buendía family. The family patriarch, José Arcadio Buendía, founds Macondo, a fictitious town in Colombia, where the novel is set, and the novel weaves a complex and multi-layered story that is profound, shocking and also very funny. A marvelous book.
GUATEMALA The President by Miguel Angel Asturias
Written in 1946, the book is about living under a totalitarian dictatorship in an unnamed Central American country (Guatemala). This fictional story depicts everyday Guatemalan life and how a dictator uses fear and violence to oppress the village people. Asturia creates unique characters and intriguing dream sequences.
Not much has changed for this and many countries in the region.
MEXICO Oaxaca Journal by Oliver Sacks
I love this lesser-known title written by the brilliant writer and neurologist. He had a hobby which he indulged in a trip to Oaxaca, Mexico – he was a fern-enthusiast. Part memoir, part travel book with a natural history bias, Oaxaca Journal is account of Sacks’ trip with other fern lovers to this area which boasts 690 species. To get an idea of how significant this is, there are 100 species of fern in the whole of North America. The book takes you further than ferns, as Oliver Sacks is a master observer curious about everything he witness. So you will learn a lot about that part of the world, about topics ranging from foods that originated here to the formalized use of hallucinogenics, how the ancients played basketball and how complex was the Mayan civilization.
NICARAGUA The Jaguar Smile: A Nicaraguan Journey by Salman Rushdie
The first book published by Salman Rushdie. He traveled to Nicaragua in 1986, when it was under the grip of Daniel Ortega’s Sandinista rule. I read this when, like Rushdie, I was beguiled by the the lofty goals of the Sandinista Revolution. I was impressed on hearing that this was a country where everyone claimed to be a poet. It was all irresistibly romantic. Rushdie writes as a supporter, willing the revolution to succeed. Although it didn’t, this is nevertheless a captivating portrait of Nicaragua.
PANAMA The Jolly Roger Social Club: A True Story Of A Killer In Paradise by Nick Foster
“Wild Bill” Holbert, a gringo expat committed a series of bold killings in Panama’s Bocas del Toro before his 2010 arrest. It’s worth a read, if only because it describes the less savory side of shadowy American expat life in Central America. This review offers a taster of the dark attraction this story holds: “The Jolly Roger Social Club is not just a book about what Holbert did and the complex financial and real estate motives behind the killings; it is about why Bocas del Toro turned out to be his perfect hunting ground, and why the community tolerated-even accepted-him for a time.”
PERU Trail of Feathers: In Search of the Birdmen of Peru by Tahir Shah
This incredible saga takes you on all sorts of trips, each one more extraordinary than the previous, as the author explores the legend that the ancients of Peru and the Amazon basin could actually fly. A great reading ride, and one that ends with a salutary warning about the destruction of the Amazon and the disappearance of indigenous knowledge.
PERU Turn Right at Machu Picchu by Mark Adams
Adams follows the journey of the Machu Picchu “discoverer”, Hiram Bingham III. This is a well-researched investigative piece that reveals the extent of the Inca civilization.
At the same time, it reads as a humorous caper: the author teams up with an eccentric local which makes for an eventful and entertaining expedition in itself. For those of you who want to understand the civilization that built Machu Picchu, this should be one of the travel books on your list.
SOUTH AMERICA Lost City Radio by Daniel Alarcon
Set in an unnamed South American country, the novel’s protagonist, a radio personality, offers hope to mountain-dwelling Indians and other dispossessed peoples, or whose loved ones have disappeared as a result of fractious wars. Follow the gripping story of Norma, the radio announcer as current events bring her past back to her in a dramatic and unexpected way. It’s part suspense and part what the best travel books offer – atmosphere, context and insights which inspire your wanderlust.
TRINIDAD A House For Mr Biswas by VS Naipaul
Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Naipaul wrote this early masterpiece when he was only 29. Heart-rending and darkly comic, it has been hailed as one of the twentieth century’s finest novels, a classic that evokes a man’s quest for autonomy against the backdrop of post-colonial Trinidad.
VS Naipaul is a master storyteller. I urge you to read all his books. Here is the one book he wrote about America:
USA A Turn In the South by VS Naipaul About the author’s travels in the southern states of the USA.
Asia and India
AFGHANISTAN A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush by Eric Newby
An exotic adventure into this spectacular mountain wilderness of Afghanistan.
This excerpt from a fine review by markhorrell.com will give you a taste of what has become something of a classic in the travel books genre:
“The comedy begins on the very first page in the fitting-room of a London fashion house. It’s not surprising that Newby wishes he were in Afghanistan. Newby’s companion, Carless is due to begin a new position in Tehran, so they don’t have long to get their trip organised and completed. They have about three days to learn how to rock climb … It’s not hard to see where this might lead.”
BORNEO INDIA AFGHANISTAN “Flashman” series by George MacDonald Fraser
There are eight books in this series of ribald novels mostly set in Asia – India, Afghanistan, Borneo, although, some of the stories have Flashman taking his swashbuckling self to the USA and Madagascar. The 1st-person narrator, Flashman himself, is off-the-dial politically incorrect, but the author is depicting his bigotry in such a way that you laugh at him.
In fact, you don’t stop laughing your way through these books. The reader will see that he’s a little more nuanced than a pure bigot would be, and therefore like-able. Wonderfully written and well-researched. While not strictly part of the travel books genre, Macdonald Fraser has written about places in time in the most entertaining way possible.
CHINA Three Sisters by Bi Feiyu
This exceptional novel is set in the years after Cultural Revolution, as three sisters struggle to cope with the downfall of their family status as their father loses his position in the Communist Party due to a scandal. Compounding this event is the fact that the girls must also negotiate their position in a rural traditional society in which girls are held in low esteem. The is essentially a story about the resilience of the human spirit as it follows the three girls as they attempt to rebuild their lives in a slowly emerging modern China.
CHINA River Town – Two Years on the Yangtze by Peter Hessler
Rivertown describes an American ESL teacher’s experience in the city of Fulin in Sichuan Province of China. My introduction to literature on modern China, I cannot recommend this book too highly for its sensitive and funny portrayal of the foreigner in a strange country, and his witnessing as China tentatively starts to open its doors to the outside world. Also by Hessler:
Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China’s Past and Present by Peter Hessler
Cattle bones and tortoise shells with carved characters making the surfaces have been excavated in China. They were used as oracles, but are also Chinese linguists in the search for origins of their language.
INDIA A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry
This is the author’s second and acclaimed novel. The realism and compelling narrative are compared to Charles Dickens. Set in 1975, and Indira Ghandi’s India, the place is an unnamed city by the sea.
The saga evokes the time, with all its corruption, its heroism, its turmoil and hardship as it follows four characters over a period of 15 years.
INDIA The Death of Vishnu by Manil Suri
Not widely known, I loved this debut novel by Indian-American writer Manil Suri. It tracks the spiritual journey of Vishnu, who is dying, and who lives on a landing of a Bombay apartment building, as well as the lives of the residents living in the building. depicts Bombay life condensed in one apartment with lots of detail about the everyday chores and business of living, and great characters.
INDIA A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth
Lata and her mother, Mrs. Rupa Mehra, are both trying to find a suitable boy for Lata to marry. A family saga and a love story, this magnificent novel is, at nearly 1500 pages and 591,552 words, one of the longest novels ever published in a single volume in the English language.
The other notable thing about this book is that it’s a fantastic, phenomenal story – UN-PUT-DOWN-ABLE!
INDIA Around India in 80 Trains by Monisha Rajesh
A really great travel story. The author traveled on one ticket 65,000 kilometres in 80 trains around India.
It took four months. Studying India’s famous rail network, Rajesh realized she could visit 80 cities in India by train. At a time when we choose to get to places quickly and efficiently, this is about the beauty of slow travel, experiencing scenery and the company of fellow travelers.
INDIA Butter Chicken in Ludhiana, The Romantics, From the Ruins of Empire by Pankaj Mishra
Pankaj Mishra is one of my favorite writers. Anything by him is worth reading. I loved The Romantica and his book about Buddha is the best writing on a religious figure I have ever read.
From novels to non-fiction, journalist pieces and essays, his eloquence and wide ranging knowledge make for absorbing reading.
CHINA The Age of Ambition by Evan Osnos
The beautifully written book is about present-day China, and in relating events as wide ranging as corruption scandals, factory life, censorship, and cultural symbols of resistance such as Ai Weiwei, it makes for page-turning reading.
Go beyond the headlines and discover what wakened the sleeping giant to become the global power that is China.
MALAYSIA The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng
Set in 1950’s Malaya, the story of an ink-and-wash painting by the ancient master Sesshu Toyo is the thread through a story of the struggle for control of what is now Peninsula Malaysia.
‘Evening mists’ refer to the misty highlands where the fighting between British colonialist and Chinese communists took place.
MYANMAR The Stone of Heaven: Unearthing the Secret History of Imperial Green Jade by Cathy Scott-Clark, Adrian Levy
Two reporters go into a remote part of Myanmar to uncover the story of Imperial Jade, considered the best jadeite and for 3000 years, coveted by Chinese royalty. Protected by the Burmese/Myanmar junta, the authors persuaded authorities to take them to this mine. The book is extremely well researched, and is part travelogue and part investigative journalism. The riveting final chapters uncover a secret more astonishing that the location of this ancient, still productive mine.
MYANMAR Finding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin
In this engaging memoir, Emma Larkin tells of the year she spent travelling through Burma using as a compass the life and work of George Orwell. We discover much about Burma – or Myanmar – today as well as about the sojourn to this country taken by George Orwell, whom many of Burma’s underground teahouse intellectuals call “the prophet”.
MYANMAR The Piano Tuner by Daniel Mason
In 1886, piano tuner Edgar Drake receives an unusual request to leave his quiet English life and travel to the jungles of Burma to repair a rare piano.
So begins an extraordinary journey overland to Burma accompanied by an enchanting yet elusive woman.
CAMEROON The Innocent Anthropologist: Notes from a Mud Hut by Nigel Barley
This is a well written chronicle about a fieldwork research in rural Cameroon by the author, an anthropologist. It is not your normal anthropologist’s recounting, however, and produces insightful and dispassionate reports on distant cultures. Barley instead details the many frustrations of ethnographic research when so much is open to mis-communication and mis-interpretation. Hilariously, he shows what really happens in the field – including the boredom, discomfort, awkward misunderstandings as his doubts grow as to purpose and usefulness of ethnographic studies.
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO Johnny Mad Dog (Johnny Chien Méchant) by Emmanuel Dongala
A coming-of-age tale about a sixteen year old member of a rebel faction in Republic of Congo. “In alternating chapters, Laokole and her brother Johnny Mad Dog maneuver through the unremitting destruction that is total chaos. By contrasting the lives of the two teenagers, the author paints a stunning picture of depravity versus courage. Laokole is the voice of humanity, while Johnny Mad Dog is corrupted by power …” curledup.com
D R CONGO A Bend In the River by VS Naipaul
This critically acclaimed book, shortlisted for the Booker Prize, also made the Guardian‘s list of the 100 greatest novels ever written. It is the story of Salim, a merchant in post-colonial mid-20th century Africa and a look at how a newly independent African nation rises, and then slides just as easily into despotism.
Also about Africa/DR Congo: A Congo Diary by VS Naipaul
D R CONGO King Leopold’s Ghost A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild
An extraordinary book. This popular history about the brutal reign of King Leopold II of Belgium over the Congo in the 1880’s inspired Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.” Leopold saw the Congo as his personal fiefdom as he enriched himself by plundering the region’s vast rubber resources, using forced labor and committing unspeakable atrocities on the population. European and American visitors who witnessed the brutal whippings, amputations, murders and rape of the Congolese people by Leopold’s administrators were able to to get the story out to Western journalists and the King was forced to relinquish the colony.
D R CONGO Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
Written in 1899, the famed novel tells of a naval captain, Marlow, employed by a Belgian company to captain a river steamer up the Congo River. His quest is to find another company employee, Mr Kurtz, rumored to be stationed hundreds of miles upriver in the interior of this huge country. His meeting with Kurtz and subsequent journey to bring the gravely sick man back is the story of Marlow’s glimpse into “the barren darkness of his heart” and his (Kurtz’) descent into madness.
D R CONGO In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz Living on the Brink of Disaster in Mobutu’s Congo by Michaela Wrong
A funny, tragic, engrossing account of the rise and fall of Mobutu Sese Seke’s corrupt and tyrannical rule as he looted the country then named Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo. “This is the most gripping and illuminating book about Africa I have read for years” – Anthony Sampson, The Spectator. Note: anything that journalist and writer Michaela Wrong produces is required reading for those interested in Africa!
D R CONGO The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
In this highly readable novel spanning 30 years, Reverend Nathan Price, his wife, Oreanna and four daughters move from the United States to the Belgian Congo. The year is 1959, just as the impetus to end colonial rule is spreading across Africa. Orleanna and her 4 daughters narrate as the story unfolds to reveal what happens to the family.
A terrific read.
ETHIOPIA Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese
The debut novel by Ethiopian-born Indian physician and writer is a saga about twin brothers born of an Indian nun and a British surgeon in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
Follow this engrossing character-driven story as it moves between Addis and New York, with vivid and sometimes disturbing descriptions of everyday life in Ethiopia during a time of revolution.
ETHIOPIA The Emperor: Downfall of an Autocrat by Ryszard Kapuściński
An analysis of the decline and fall of Haile Selassie’s regime in Ethiopia – an atmospheric recall of the slow unraveling of a feudal regime. With an expert eye for detail, the Polish journalist observes Haile Selassie as he spends hours listens to reports from spies. No-one was allowed to look him straight in the eye. He feeds his palace lions and panthers chunks of meat while his people starved. Once reports of mass starvation hit world headlines, his rule was doomed.
MALI The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu: And Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts by Joshua Hammer
All about the dash to save the tens of thousands of ancient manuscripts stored throughout the city when al Qaeda came to town. A cracker of a story and at the same time an extraordinary telling of the rich cultural history of that part of the world. It also sorts out all the different strains of Islamic fundamentalism, nationalist struggles, tribal rivalries and general ferment that have created such a confused picture of what has really been going on there these past decades.
MOROCCO The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles
The Sheltering Sky is an adventure story, a road trip, a drama that traverses the Sahara. An American couple living in Tangiers take a trip through North Africa, with the idea that it might save their broken marriage. They meet another American traveler who joins them. Enter more travelers and the most memorable characters you can imagine, and how they close in on the couples fraying relationship in disastrous ways. This is an ‘innocents abroad’ motif, as the travelers move farther and farther from what is familiar and certain in post-war Africa. A great read.
NIGERIA There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra by Chinua Achebe
Written by famous author of “Things Fall Apart” and other novels, this non-fiction memoir is about the Biafran War, or as it is also known, the Nigerian civil war.
The people of Biafra are Achebe’s people and the book is both a memoir and an excellent history of the region.
NORTH AND EAST AFRICA (+ CHINA + RUSSIA) Travels with a Tangerine: A Journey in the Footnotes of Ibn Battutah by Tim Mackintosh-Smith
The author traces the footsteps of the route of a famous 14th-century Arab traveler, Ibn Battutah, from his hometown, Tangier on the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca in 1325. After going east to reach China, journeying on to Russia and then, on his return journey, venturing as far south as Tanzania, he returned some 29 years and 75,000 miles later. It’s a great read, as the author uncovers what traces of Ibn Battutah’s spiritual and physical world survive.
WEST AFRICA EAST AFRICA Vagabond – Traveling Through Africa On Faith by Lerato Mogoatlhe
A young South African woman decides to take extended leave to see the Continent of her birth. Her journey covers 21 countries. A fresh, new perspective in African travel writing separates this book from others, as a 21st Century African millennial women experiences a continent much of which, unlike South Africa, is several generations removed from the shackles of colonialism and racism. She loves it, and her exuberance is contagious.
UGANDA SUDAN The Worst Date Ever or How it Took a Comedy Writer to Expose Africa’s Secret War by Jane Bussmann
A rolicking – but ultimately deeply serious -memoir that exposes the war crimes and corruption of the Lord’s Resistance Army and the Ugandan government army using black humor and gonzo journalism.
UGANDA The Last King of Scotland by Giles Foden
The novel has a young Scots doctor, Nick Garrigan, arrives in Uganda just in time to witness the start of Idi Amin’s reign of terror.
Before long, Nick is invited to become Amin’s personal physician. Told with wit derived from the absurdities of his master’s behavior and buffoonery, the writer also tackles the barbarities of Idi Amin’s reign, the tribal genocides, political infighting, intrigues and assassinations.
YEMEN The Woman Who Fell from the Sky: An American Woman’s Adventures in the Oldest City on Earth by Jennifer Steil
I can’t better this great review of Jennifer Steil’s memoir of Sanaa: “a memoir which reads like a novel. From the exquisite detail to the passionate, poignant, and often hilarious story of one powerful woman immersed in centuries of patriarchal tradition, Steil takes us on a journey that left me exhausted and exhilarated. Hugely entertaining and vitally important to our times, the book tucks us under a veil and allows us a unique glimpse into a culture as old as Noah.” Jennifer Jordan
YEMEN and EAST AFRICA The Zanzibar Chest: A Story of Life, Love, and Death in Foreign Lands by Aiden Hartley
A former war correspondent reporting from Africa, the book is his memoir covering the civil wars of the 1990s. With a mix of literary reportage, memoir, family history, and a quest to find an answer to a family mystery, The Zanzibar Chest is an examination of colonialism and its consequences. “an enthralling narrative of men and women meddling with, embracing, and ultimately being transformed by other cultures—one of the most important examinations of colonialism ever written.” – GroveAtlantic.com
ZIMBABWE The Last Resort by Douglas Rogers
What happens when a Zimbabwean-born, New York-based travel writer returns home to visit his parents in Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe’s travails following the disastrous and corrupt rule of Robert Mugabe, its astronomical inflation, the suffering of its people are the backdrop to this narrative. Up front and center is the hugely funny story of finding his family home, previously converted to a backpacker lodge to generate income for his aging parents, is now a brothel, a marijuana farm and a lure for any activity not on the up-and-up. This rousing and witty memoir should win over anyone with a taste for exotic can’t-go-home-again stories.
Short essays and travel anthologies
There are plenty of good travel anthologies that offer essays about travel. Short and long-form articles are easy, quick ways to get to know more about destinations.
GRANTA MAGAZINE – The Magazine of New Writing
Granta Magazine is a great source for travel pieces by the world’s greatest travel writers. Here are links to some of Granta’s dedicated travel issues:
There’s No Toilet Paper . . . on the Road Less Traveled: The Best of Travel Humor and Misadventure by Doug Lansky (Editor)
A collection of stories about what happens when travel plans go very wrong. Examples:
- Take a monkey to the movies in Cameroon with Nigel Barley
- Fry up some testicles in Peru for a no-good cheating boyfriend with Lara Naaman
- Stumble through a white-out with a bucket over your head in Antarctica with Mary Roach
- Pick the winning goat in a not-so-thoroughbred race in Provence with Peter Mayle
- Enjoy the deep depravity of a Caribbean cruise with David Foster Wallace
About those odes to great cities … I have read many. These two books were road-maps to discover New York City
Inside the Dream Palace: The Life and Times of New York’s Legendary Chelsea Hotel by Sherill Tippins
The life and riotous times of the Chelsea Hotel starts in 1884. The mid 1800’s New York City had seen a burgeoning middle class that needed affordable housing, and neighborhoods such as Chelsea met the demand. The Chelsea Hotel very quickly became the focal point for creatives of the day. Mark Twain, Allen Ginsberg , even several survivors of the Titanic even stayed at the hotel. Many actors, film directors, and musicians have all called it home. Madonna lived in the Chelsea Hotel in the early 1980s, as did Bette Midler, Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison. Leonard Cohen and Janis Joplin had an affair there in 1968. The hotel is also famous for how many people died there. Sid Vicious killed his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen at the Chelsea. Dylan Thomas drank himself to death while staying there.
New York Holiday by Eleanor Early
There’s a story as to how I acquired this book and then how it became my guide around my new city. A born and bred Manhattan-ite had been showing us the city and then offered to take us upstate for a day tour. On the way we stopped at a restaurant called Traveler Restaurant. The sign said ‘Food and Books’. For every meal purchased, you could choose a book to take home free. I spotted a slightly worn hardback with the title ‘New York Holiday’. By Eleanor Early. I read the preface. It was written in 1950, by Eleanor Early who was a New York Times columnist. She explained how a planned vacation in the Caribbean had fallen through, and, upon pondering an alternative, she came up with New York. So this is a travel book which comes up with the little known histories, less obvious places of interest and buried facts. I got to know a different New York from the very beginning of my residence there, thanks largely to this book!
I have read about 90% of these titles. Once I started thinking of favorite books, their titles and authors began pouring onto the page fast and furiously. When I remembered the writing but not a title I scoured the internet. In so doing, I came upon some great travel or book blogs with lists and lists of recommended titles under all sorts of categories. Fiction – contemporary and classics. Non-fiction – memoir, travel, histories, investigative, natural histories … so many books about places and peoples that I hadn’t read, hadn’t heard about. So many irresistible reviews that had me creating a longer list of travel books than I had planned. I hope you enjoy these reads.