Your Travel Reading List 2020 – Best Books About Travel or to Read While Traveling

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Travel reading: are the best travel books on your reading list? Ask one hundred people for the best books about travel or to read while traveling. Chances are that you’ll get many different answers. Here’s our travel reading list. 

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Best Travel Reading 

There are so many great books about travel that it’s hard to narrow this list down to a few. Sure, there are guidebooks — we use the best guidebooks we can find. But then there are the travel memoirs, the biographies, and the novels set Italy, Indonesia, and other exotic places you want to visit. There are supernatural tales set in Japan and pulp mysteries set in Mexico. Then there are the love stories and cookbooks, the instruction manuals and hilarious tales of disaster on the road. The best travel books don’t fit into a single category. They are mysteries, tall tales, and ponderous philosophical prose. Travelogues can be insightful, funny, or deeply personal — sometimes, they are all three.

There’s something about reading on the road that makes travel stories stick in the memory or take on newfound meaning. Books always make great gifts, but travel guides and travel-related novels make some of the best travel gifts for men, women, and children who plan to step out into the world in one way or another.

Books to Read While Traveling

The best travel books will somehow inform you about the place you’re visiting…or about the inner journey we take when we travel. Sure, good guidebooks can help you determine the where, what and how, but the books on travel itself can also help you understand the why. Likewise, novels set in your destination give you another fascinating window into the place you’re exploring.

Each travel book and travel novel serves its own purpose, and it differs per reader. In other words, what may be the best book for me might not be the best travel book for you. By the same token, what I read today may not be an ideal book for travel next year. For example, the best book to read while traveling in Barcelona with my family may be vastly different than the best book I read while traveling in Taiwan by myself. The greatest books for travel must be determined by each person and their needs, their goals, their tastes, and their destinations. With this in mind, I created the travel reading lists below.

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Table of Contents

Your Travel Reading List: Best Books About Travel by Category

Below is a travel book reading list that includes some of the best travel guides, travel memoirs, and destination-specific novels of all time. It’s a completely subjective list, of course. Some are my personal favorites. Other selections on this reading list are a mix of critical favorites, best-sellers, and travel books that friends and fellow travelers have recommended to me.

I’ve done my best to split up this travel reading list into a variety of easy-to-follow categories. That said, it’s completely possible that certain travel books can fit into various travel reading lists. For example, Kerouac’s On the Road is listed here as one of the best road trip books, but it’s easily one of the best travel books of all time as well. By the same token, I consider Rolf Pott’s Vagabonding one of the best books on travel — on the act of travel itself — but here it’s in the best travel books of all time category.

Best Travel Writers: Read More Than One!

Okay, one more thing before we get into my travel reading list. A few of the authors and travel writers you see here are listed twice, but in truth, most of these authors have at least two good books to their name. In fact, some of them have written many fantastic books, but I decided to put only one or two on my travel reading list in order to make room for others.

For example, Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises is one of the best novels set in France and Spain. Yet he also wrote A Moveable Feast and many other classics. Similarly, Tim Cahill’s book Road Fever made the list because it’s one of my favorites and fits the Road Trip book category nicely, but his collections of short pieces and Outside Magazine features are just as much fun, if not more so. So in the spirit of fairness, I’ve listed up some travel writer/author pages for you to explore. Surely all of the best authors and best travel writers in this post are worth looking into, but these are the ones that I would likely direct you to first.

Reading List: Some of My Favorite Authors/Travel Writers

Best Travel Guide Books

Before we get to the best novels, travelogues and journeyman instructionals, let’s talk about travel guide books. First off, YES, I still think that most travelers will benefit from taking a guide book with them — I mean an actual physical guide book, but it’s also nice to have the eBook version as well. Despite occasional scandals, decreasing sales, and the meteoric rise of Trip Advisor, Instagram and travel blogs, I still truly believe that travel guidebooks are a valuable resource for many people. Sure, you’ll inevitably run into some outdated/inaccurate information about this hotel or that restaurant, but the core of information contained in guide books is a great place for travelers to get to know the place they’re visiting. Put them on your travel reading list. 

The best guide books fill you in on the history, culture, customs, and context of a place — things that are often missing or incorrect in blog posts and Trip Advisor reviews. Definitely do your own research online for food and lodging, but don’t discount the maps, tips, and lessons that a great travel guide books provide. Which is the best travel guide for you? Well, that depends on your tastes, your budget, and your travel style. Here are my (completely subjective) views on some of the best travel guide books on the market today. 

Lonely Planet & Rough Guide

These two are still at the top backpacker guide books for a reason. Over the past 20+ years, I’ve used these guide books more than any other. Lonely Planet has been skewing a little higher-end in recent years: unless you’re specifically buying “Shoestring”-themed guides, expect less cheapo hostels and dive bars for pricier locations. However, the meat-and-potatoes of the guides are still solid. I’ve only used them for countries and/or regions (ie. Spain, Southeast Asia, Bali & Lombok, etc) and not their city guides, so I cannot speak to them.

Rough Guides also do a great job of painting a historical and cultural picture for the typical backpacker. They remain more a student’s guide I think. I other words, if you’re looking for more budget accommodation and off-the-radar activities, then put these in your travel reading. They also have some amazing books and CDs on the art and music of various regions of the world.

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Fodor’s & Frommer’s Guide Books

I find these two guide book series ideal for many honeymooners, culinary travelers and anyone else with larger budgets and more refined tastes. Both are great for laying out the info on big-ticket attractions in every city/country they cover. Not so much for lesser-known places of interest nearby. To me, Fodor’s & Frommer’s guide books are perfect for people taking a grand, multi-stop tour in Europe, Asia or the Americas and plan to hit the top sites in each place before moving on. With a few exquisite meals along the way. If that’s your style of travel, then these are the best guide books for you. 

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Rick Steves Travel Guides

I’ll be honest with you: I wasn’t a Rick Steves fan when I first came into contact with him. Then the more I learned about him and read his writings on a number of subjects, I grew to respect the guy. A lot. He’s not the guidebook I turn to because he’s speaking mostly to Americans who haven’t travel overseas before. I’m not his audience. But if you’re heading to Europe on your first of second-ever trip out the US of A, then Rick Steves might be the guy to turn to. He’s knowledgeable, earnest and cares about his audience and the places they visit. 

rick steves - Your Travel Reading List - Best travel guide books

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Wallpaper City Guides

If you’ve never heard of Wallpaper, it’s a London-based magazine focused mostly on architecture and design. Their city guides are small, informative and great for showing you the coolest bars, cafes, and boutiques. Wallpaper Travel Guides aren’t comprehensive: they should never be a primary guide. Some may be outdated (hip places come and go) and they’re light on directions. But I enjoy these as a great addendum to my normal travel reading and research. You will too if you love hunting for cool spots in a city. I bought their Valencia guide before we moved there and love discovering little arty gems and cool interior design elements I probably wouldn’t have found otherwise. 

wallpaper - Your Travel Reading List - Best travel guide books

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Bradt & Blue Guides

I should admit that I haven’t used these travel guides before, but they both come recommended by people I trust and I see them in the hands of travelers here and there. Both seem to emphasize the cultural aspects of their destinations more than the other travel guides mentioned here. For example,  more backup information, historical context, literary references, etc. 

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Best Travel Books of All Time

Yes I know, I know: “The best travel books of ALL TIME? Really?!” Out of all these travel reading lists, this is surely one of the most subjective. Nevertheless, when I thought about important books on travel for me, these were the first to come to mind.

Vagabonding by Rolf Potts

Vagabonding - Best travel books of all time

Hands down, the best “how-to” book about long-term travel. Read through this and you’ll have ideas about where you want to go, what you’ll pack, and how you’ll finance it. But it’s more than that. Vagabonding puts into words what many of us travel junkies find hard to articulate. He opens a window into the mindset and attitudes of a passionate traveler. I only wished that I had found this amazing book earlier. Essential travel reading.

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The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

the Alchemist - Best travel books of all time

A shepherd boy from southern Spain longs to see the world. He gets his wish…and more. He seeks riches but finds something more valuable. This work of philosophical fiction is always on top-ten travel reading lists. You’ll see it rank for everything from best travel book to best self-help book to best book of all time. It didn’t affect me as profoundly as it did many other people, but it is still considered one of the best books to read while traveling.

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The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin

the Songlines - Best travel books of all time

Chatwin made his name with his novel In Patagonia (also listed here), but The Songlines had a profound impact on me. While not necessarily a book strictly about travel, it justified my wanderlust and inspired me to stay on the road longer than perhaps any other travel-related book I’ve read. A mix of travelogue, autobiography, and anthropology, The Songlines is about Chatwin’s time in Australia trying to uncover truths about songs the aboriginal people use to map their way across the continent. It fascinated me when I first read it. If you think you might have been born with “the travel gene,” this book will leave you convinced.

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The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

the Hobbit - Best travel books of all time

One of the greatest journeys ever put to paper. And one of the most fascinating worlds ever created by one human being…a world all in his head. Complete with songs, languages, and vivid descriptions of flora, fauna, and species beyond anything that came before it. I would also consider this to be one of the best travel books for kids, as well. In fact, the Audible version is supposed to be one of the best audiobooks for travel.

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Best Road Trip Travel Reading

The best road trip books go beyond the destinations and delve into the psyche of the author and the places themselves. This genre can be the best travel reading while moving overland: by car, motorcycle, or train. So if you’re driving cross-country, then perhaps a road trip story works best.

On the Road by Jack Kerouac

On the Road - Roadtrip Books - Best Books on Travel

What can I say about this that hasn’t been said already? One of the best road trip books ever, as well as one of the best books to read while traveling across the USA. The influence of Kerouac and the Beats are taken for granted nowadays, but they helped inspire much of the best travel literature that followed them.

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Road Fever by Tim Cahill

Road Fever - Road Trip Books - Best Books on Travel

One of the most impressive road trips in history. In the early ’90s, the author and friend drove from the southernmost point of South America to the northernmost point in North America. In less than 24 days. Read that again. They drove 15,000 miles, across deserts, through jungles, and over mountains, in less than a month. The first half of the book depicts the planning phase and convincing others to fund it, which is interesting in its own right. The second half takes off and doesn’t let up. I love all the Tim Cahill books I’ve read, but for some reason, this one remains in my memory the most.

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Long Way Round: Chasing Shadows Across the World by Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman

Long Way Round - Road Trip Books - Best Books on Travel

One day Ewan McGregor — yes, that Ewan McGregor — decided to circumnavigate the world by motorcycle. Then he and his friend Charley Boorman went out and did it. Aside from a boat ride across the Bering Strait, the duo rode over 20,000 miles over four months. This was also a TV series, but the book goes into much more depth and can be appreciated with or without the video accompaniment.

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Best Books About Travel Itself

Rather than a specific destination, these are some of the best books about the act of travel — what it means to travel, or what travel has become. Essentially, the act of traveling means leaving behind the known and then exploring the unknown. Now that’s deep. It can be, anyway. The best travel reading often delves into philosophical ideas. At other times, it may dredge the gutter for cheap laughs. Both can be rewarding. To my mind, the best book about traveling was already listed above: Rolf Potts’ Vagabonding. But here are a few more worthy contenders.

The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton

The Art of Travel - Best books about travel - Best Travel Reading

Confession: I have mixed feelings about Mr. de Botton. I find some of his video segments on the BBC to be annoyingly pretentious, but his books and TED talks are another story. In The Art of Travel, he dissects many of the typical feelings and emotions involved in travel: from pre-planning to return. Heady travel reading to be sure, but rewarding just the same. 

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A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit

Field Guide to Getting Lost - Best books about travel - Best Travel Reading

A strong series of semi-autobiographical essays dealing with the human capacity to move, love, and adapt. Rather than merely an inconvenience, Solnit looks at being lost as an opportunity. Or rather a series of opportunities. The writing can border on precious and overly-ponderous but offers many rewards to the right reader.

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Smile When You’re Lying: Confessions of a Rogue Travel Writer by Chuck Thompson

Smile When You're Lying - Best books about travel - Best Travel Reading

Have you ever read a travel guide, then visited the same town, hotel or restaurant the guide spoke nicely about and thought “What was that writer thinking?!” If you’ve ever wondered how a dive bar or a crappy hotel received undeserved high praise, then Chuck Thompson may have some insight for you. It’s hard to tell when, where, or if embellishment appears, but his stories of the travel industry’s underbelly are sharp and frequently hilarious.

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Best Travel Books About Peril, Love, and Friendship

This is a general category of best books to read while traveling. They could be for men or women, teens or adults. For a woman’s perspective, I looked to female friends and/or guests on the Epic Education Podcast.

Into the Wild by John Krakauer

Into the Wild - Best Travel books for men

I throw this best-seller into my list of best travel books with some hesitation. After all, our real-life protagonist, Christopher Johnson McCandless, ends up dead after four months. No, that isn’t a spoiler. This gripping true story stares unflinchingly at both the nobility and folly of living off the grid. Yet Krakauer blends autobiographical vignettes with detective-novel elements for a book that’s impossible to put down. Smart, brave and idealistic, McCandless gave away all his possessions to live in the forest. He didn’t make it, but his story says a lot about those of us who romanticize those who dive head-first into the bush.

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Tales of a Female Nomad by Rita Golden Gelman

Takes of a Female Nomad - Best Travel books for Women

Divorced and approaching fifty, Rita Golden Gelman sold her stuff and headed out into the world. That was 1986. This book is her story. She has lived in Mexico, Israel, Indonesia (specifically on Bali), and many more places, with stories and insight all the way.

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Do Travel Writers Go to Hell? by Thomas Kohnstamm

Do Travel Writers go to Hell? - Best Travel books for Men

The author gives up a lucrative career to update Lonely Planet’s Brazil guidebook. It doesn’t go well…or perhaps it does, depending on your perspective. More than just another scandalous tale of the travel industry, Kohnstamm has plenty of humor and insight between each shocking episode.

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Love with a Chance of Drowning by Torre DeRoche

Love with a chance of drowning - Best Travel books for Women

Girl meets boy and they fall in love. Boy invites girl to sail around the world. Girl is terrified of deep water but says yes anyway. This unconventional travel story of love on the seven seas is one of the best books for traveling couples who want to see where love can take them.

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Holidays in Hell by P. J. O’Rourke

Holidays in Hell - Best Travel books for Men

Back in the ’80s, satirist P.J. O’Rourke took off to visit crisis zones and see if he could find something funny in them. He found plenty. It’s a little shocking how this book both has and hasn’t aged. Many of the themes are still relevant today. Too relevant. 

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The Lost Girls by Jennifer Baggett, Holly C. Corbett, Amanda Pressner

The Lost Girls - Best Travel books for Women

Three friends decide to leave life in Manhattan to travel for a year. They visit counties like Kenya, Vietnam, India, and Peru. Often cited as one of the best books on travel for women. That said, it may be considered travel reading for young women, as that’s who have told me about it and the authors took this trip in their early 20’s.

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Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas - Best Travel books for Men

It’s been decades since I first read this, but the book’s influence is still being felt. Not for the faint of heart. This is a road trip book of a sordid sort of travel reading. Easily Thompson’s most famous work, Fear & Loathing is now part of the culture and still sets the bar for which all gonzo journalism must reach. 

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The Good Girl’s Guide to Getting Lost by Rachel Friedman

The Good Girl's Guide to Getting Lost - Best Travel books for Women

This coming-of-age travel story describes a driven young woman who unexpectedly decides to eschew the normal career path and explore the world first. Rather than dive into a new job and new life decisions, she takes off for Ireland, where her life begins a series of profound changes.

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Best Travel Books for Kids

As with adults, recommending the best travel reading for kids is tricky. There are various interests and ages levels to consider. For example, the best travel books for teens will be very different than what I’d recommend for a 7-year-old. Nevertheless, it’s my duty to point out at least a few page-turners for kids of all ages. Here are my picks for the best travel books for kids.

A Day at an Airport (Time Goes By) by Sarah Harrison

A Day at an Airport - best travel books for kids

This illustrated picture book depicts your typical airport across 24 hours: from before dawn until late at night. Each double-page spread uses a cutaway style. For example, you see both the runway and the inside of the plane simultaneously. Rock stars and politicians come and go. So do storms and flight delays. Illustrations address all of these and more of what happens at the airport, which offers good conversation opportunities with little ones.

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National Geographic Kids Beginner’s World Atlas

National Geographic Kids Beginner's World Atlas - Kids world travel guide

Just the kind of high-quality travel book that you’d expect from National Geographic. Luscious images and fun, informative text where kids can learn about different countries and cultures. Also a great section on maps: what they are, how to read them, what all the symbols mean, etc.

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A Day at the Airport by Richard Scarry

a day at the airport - Travel books for kids

I loved Richard Scarry books as a kid. In fact, my mom held onto mine and gave them to my kids — weird to see my 7-year-old handwriting in them. Scarry’s labeled illustration books have covered everything from jobs to zoo animals. What would be more appropriate for little travelers than a book about the airport? Here you’ll find illustrations of all the things you find at the typical airport (hangar, control tower, etc) with its name in an easy-to-read font. This could make for a fun game to find these items once at the airport yourself. A great book about air travel for kids.

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The “Mission” Series of Scavenger Hunt Books by Catherine Aragon

The Mission - Travel books for tweens & kids

Your child’s mission — if he/she chooses to accept it — is to find “secret” writing on monuments, “hidden” figures in famous paintings and other items to crack the code and save the day. Aragon’s Mission series is an excellent example of making education fun. Each book is laid out like a spy’s dossier. Kids are then given tasks in or near a city’s most famous museums and landmarks, where parents may plan to visit. Amazing and fun travel reading for kids.

There are versions for six cities: Paris, Rome, Barcelona, London, New York, and Washington DC. We have only used the DC book, but it changed our visit to the capital. In fact, it kept our kids engaged and roaming through the various Smithsonian Museums for hours longer than they might have otherwise. My only regret is not using more of them before my kids aged out of them. I’d say that they’re best for tweens and under, but some teens may enjoy them, as well.

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The 39 Clues Series by Multiple Authors (including Rick Riordan)

The 39 Clues - Travel books for tweens & kids

This is one of the best book series for kids who love action and espionage. It follows brother and sister duo Amy and Dan Cahill and their battles again sinister forces trying to take over the world. These are great travel books for kids for a number of reasons. First of all, the story arc goes through dozens of locations around the globe. A lot of the action happens in the US and Europe (France, Italy, Austria, etc). But the Cahills fight evil all over the planet, including in countries like Japan, Egypt, Morrocco, Guatemala, Cambodia, and many more. I remember my son getting even more excited when the heroes arrived in a place that he knew or had been himself.

Another reason that we think these are great travel books for kids is that there are so many of them! At last count, there were at least 25 books if you count all of the series together. Plenty of travel reading. Finally, we liked them because they were written in a language kids understand. The characters sound like the youth of today, and I think that draws the kids in faster. If you’ve read any of Rick Riordan‘s books (Percy Jackson, et al.), then you know what I mean. In fact, Riordan is one of the many authors of this collaborative YA project.

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The Atlas Obscura Explorer’s Guide for the World’s Most Adventurous Kid

The Atlas Obscura Explorer’s Guide for the World’s Most Adventurous Kid - Kids world travel guide

I love the Atlas Obscura website, which is dedicated to the weird and wonderful places in the world. Their kids’ travel book is a fantastic junior version of the Atlas Obscura ethos. Beautifully illustrated, it takes kids to some of the most jaw-dropping locations in the world. There are creepy entries, like the mummified monks of Japan. But there is the magical as well, such as the crystal caves of Mexico and the underwater museum in Lanzarote, which are part of Spain’s Canary Islands.

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Best Travel Books for Foodies

Any hungry travelers out there? One of the most important aspects of travel for us is food, and we’re not alone. Like any category of this travel reading list, I could expand this section into an entire post all its own. For the time being, however, here are three of the best books about food and travel.

A Cook’s Tour: In Search of the Perfect Meal by Anthony Bourdain

A Cook’s Tour: In Search of the Perfect Meal by Anthony Bourdain - Best Travel Books for Foodies

I would be remiss if I didn’t include at least one Anthony Bourdain book in my list of travel reading. Many people had a love/hate relationship with Bourdain, but I was a fan. A fan of his shows and his travel writing. For many, A Cook’s Tour is some of his finest work. Reading it now, you can see the larger-than-life media personality that he would become. He is missed, but this book may be an ideal way to remember him.

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Moveable Feasts by Sarah Murray

Moveable Feasts by Sarah Murray - best travel books for foodies

In today’s world, our food often travels more than we do. Our fish is from Chile, the pistachios from Iran, and today’s tomatoes arrived from Mexico this morning. Tonight’s dinner is a culinary form of the United Nations. In Moveable Feasts, the Financial Times writer Sarah Murray traces the origins of our food and how it arrives on our plate. From transporting olive oil in ancient Greece to today’s salad-in-a-bag, Murray shows how the modernization of food production and transportation always mirrors (or accelerates) progress in society.

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Food Traveler’s Handbook by Jodi Ettenberg

Food Traveler’s Handbook by Jodi Ettenberg - best travel books for foodies

One of the best travel books for the hungry, curious and selective. Much of The Food Traveler’s Handbook is dedicated to the connections between culture and cuisine. Yet many chapters have a more practical aspect. It will help you find safe food in developing countries as well as teach you how to plan your travels around regional dishes. This is also one of the best travel guides for people with food restrictions. A must-have travel book for anyone with celiac disease or severe food allergies.

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Best Travel Books for Europe

Whether you’re going to Sweden or Spain, to Ireland or Italy, here are a few of the best books to read while traveling in Europe. What’s missing from this list?

Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes

Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes - Best Travel Books for Italy

A fascinating (and mouth-watering) memoir about buying and renovating a run-down villa in Tuscany. Relish her description of village life, of cooking and of the task of breathing life into an old, abandoned building. Under the Tuscan Sun was made into a very successful movie, but read the book first. One of the best books to read while traveling in Italy.

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The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway - Best Travel Books for Spain

Hemingway’s most famous and lauded work is one of the best novels set in Spain and one of the best books to read while traveling in France and Spain. Descriptions of Paris cafes and Pamplona’s running of the bulls will live in infamy. Hemingway’s spare and efficient writing style may be best exemplified here, leaving the reader to paint in the canvas for themselves. One of the best books to read while traveling in Spain.

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Neither Here nor There: Travels in Europe by Bill Bryson

Neither Here nor There: Travels in Europe by Bill Bryson - Best Travel Books for Europe

This is an exceptional book to read while backpacking or otherwise wandering around Europe. When he was young, Bryson (author of A Walk in the Woods, In a Sunburned Country and many more) backpacked through Europe with a friend. Twenty years later, he returns to many of the same places, mixing past and present with hilarious results.

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Best Travel Books for Asia

My life of travel began in Asia. I left the USA for Taiwan in 1997 and didn’t move out of the East until 2015 and then returned in 2019. It’s my favorite part of the world, and there are countless great books to read while traveling in Asia. Here are only a few.

Burmese Days by George Orwell

Burmese Days by George Orwell - best travel reading for Asia

This is Orwell’s first novel. Tense at times, darkly funny at others, Orwell depicts life in British-ruled Burma during the 1930s. It’s full of interesting characters and fascinating details of Southeast Asia under British rule. Essential travel reading to see the folly and horror of colonialism.

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The Beach by Alex Garland

The Beach by Alex Garland - best travel reading for Thailand

First off, put the movie version of this novel out of your head as much as you can. Never seen the movie? Good. Don’t. Or at least wait until you’ve read the book, as they are vastly different (and the movie sucks). With places like Bangkok and the islands of southern Thailand as the backdrop, this novel could almost be called Backpacker Magic Realism…or something darker. This was the first of Garland’s three novels before he went on as a screenwriter for movies like 2002’s 28 Days Later, 2015’s Ex Machina and 2018’s Annihilation. Some of the references are showing age (this is pre-internet/Instagrammers, after all), but it remains some great travel reading to understand the dark side of today’s backpacker scene. 

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Crazy Rich Asians Trilogy by Kevin Kwan

Crazy Rich Asians Trilogy by Kevin Kwan - best travel reading for Asia

Okay okay, so for many this is less great travel novels than pulpy romance, but I think it could be great travel reading while exploring Southeast Asia. That goes double if you’re visiting Malaysia or Singapore. Simply walk around Penang, downtown Kuala Lumpur or the Marina Bay Sands area of Singapore and you may see someone who inspired one of Kwan’s colorful characters.

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Best Travel Reading for Japan

I’m well into my second decade living in Japan, and it’s like a second home for me. So many books and articles about Japan are so far from what the place is really like. Yet much of what typical Westerners are fascinated by has some kernel of truth. Choosing the best books to read while traveling in Japan was more difficult than I thought, or rather more difficult to limit, I guess. I may have to write an entire post on the best books about Japan later on. Until then, here are a few.

Lost Japan by Alex Kerr

Lost Japan by Alex Kerr - Best Travel Reading for Japan

You could describe this book as a love letter to “old” Japan, or perhaps as an eloquent screed on how far Japanese culture has fallen. In many ways, it’s both. Kerr began life in Japan shortly after the war, and his descriptions of traditional crafts and life there are second to none. Kerr saw sides to Japan that few outsiders did at that time, and his stories are personal and heartfelt. That said, he would have you believe that “real” Japanese culture is dead, forever paved over and festooned with arcades and neon pachinko parlors. There is truth in what he says, but where he sees death I see an evolution. I read this book years before moving to Japan, and I’m certain it colored my views of the country upon arrival. Yet despite his likely intentions, Lost Japan made me love the place even more. Essential travel reading about Japan.

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The Wind-up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

The Wind-up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami - Best Travel Reading for Japan

To be honest, there are half a dozen Murakami books I could add to this list (for example, I just finished 1Q84 and loved it too). All could be great Japan travel reading. That said, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is my favorite novel set in Japan. When I try to explain the storyline — man searches for cat, man finds more than cat — I realize it’s hard to describe. This was the first Murakami book I read, and to be honest, I didn’t like it at first. Why? Because I read it like a detective novel, where everything is clarified at the end. Instead, it’s more like a David Lynch movie where most is left unexplained. Upon second reading, I was hooked.

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Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden - Best Travel Reading for Japan

It’s rural Japan in the 1920s, and a girl with striking gray eyes is sold to a geisha house in Gion. Memoirs of a Geisha follows young Sayuri’s life through the war and beyond. Golden’s debut novel was a best-seller for a reason. The characters were fascinating, exotic and yet relatable. The prose was easy to read yet remarkably ornate. Sure, the book stirred controversies. For example, the woman it’s based on was far from pleased with the end result, and the movie was scorned for its lack of Japanese actors. That said, I’m a slow reader, and I tore through this book (enjoyed the movie later as well, but save it for after the last page). It may not be accurate to the letter, but overall an intimate depiction of life in pre- and post-WWII Japan.

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Number9Dream by David Mitchell

Number9Dream by David Mitchell - Best Travel Reading for Japan

Many know David Mitchell from his book The Cloud Atlas, but in Number9Dream Mitchell stays in Japan, delving into both the Tokyo underworld and the surreal realm of collective dreaming. One of the best novels to read while in Tokyo.

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A Personal Matter by Kenzaburo Oe

A Personal Matter by Kenzaburo Oe - Best Travel Reading for Japan

This is a book about life, regret, and responsibility, but it’s so much more than that. The protagonist is Bird, a man who hates himself and his marriage. Then his wife gives birth to a son with serious birth defects, and he wants out. He drinks, fools around, and fantasizes about escaping to Africa, but finally comes to larger truths. It’s a heavy read, and dense with literary references (Kafka, Hemingway, etc) but a beautiful book.

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Best Travel Books for Latin America

Our family is just beginning our exploration of Latin America, and I’m thrilled with what we’ve seen so far. After two years exploring Mexico, we’ve barely scratched the surface, and trips to Costa Rica, Colombia and Peru have only made us want more.  Where will you go? If you’re looking for the best books to read while traveling in Latin America, I have a few to share.

Turn Right at Machu Picchu by Mark Adams

Turn Right at Machu Picchu by Mark Adams - Best Travel Reading for Peru

Despite working for Outside Magazine, author Mark Adams had never been hiking or slept in a tent. That didn’t stop him from heading to Peru and hiring a seasoned guide to help him retrace the journeys of Hiram Bingham III, the man who “discovered” Machu Picchu in the early 1900s. Switching between his triumphs and failures and those of Bingham nearly 100 years before him, Adams tells both amazing tales while providing an amazing background on the Incan empire. I read this just before visiting Peru and was so glad that I did.

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In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin

In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin - Best Travel Reading for Latin America

While The Songlines (mentioned above) is my favorite Bruce Chatwin book, it was his debut novel In Patagonia where he made his name. It is also considered one of the best travel books of all time by many critics. Here is where Chatwin learns to evoke emotion and conjure our imagination through prose. Always on top travel book lists.

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The Secret Book of Frida Kahlo by F.G. Haghenbeck

The Secret Book of Frida Kahlo by F.G. Haghenbeck - best novels set in Mexico

No to be confused with factual biographies, The Secret Book of Frida Kahlo is a novel inspired by the crates of notebooks recently found in Kahlo’s home. Using true events and real people, Haghebbeck weaves a tale of what Kahlo’s life might have been like. One of the best books to read while traveling in Mexico.

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Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel

Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel - best novels set in Mexico

A wonderful novel of food and romance, it centers on Tita, who was (quite literally) born into food. Wielding culinary skills like magic, her cooking has emotional and psychological effects.

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One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez - best novels set in Colombia

One of the titans of magical realism, One Hundred Years of Solitude is a masterful meditation on love, loyalty, and isolation. There are a lot of characters to follow in the family at the center, but it’s a truly epic achievement. One of the best books to read while traveling in Colombia, where the book takes place.

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The General in His Labyrinth by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

The General in His Labyrinth by Gabriel Garcia Marquez - Best Travel Reading for Latin America

I read this epic tale of historical fiction just before a visit to Colombia. It’s the partially fictionalized story of General Simon Bolivar, the infamous general who played a crucial role in liberating much of South America from the Spanish. This story takes place after his conquests are over and his fame and reputation are tarnished from years of war, love, and betrayals. I loved seeing the names of places turn up in the story and placing them on the map near where we were. 

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What’s Missing? Tell Me Your Favorite Books About Travel

This travel reading list is just the beginning. What’s missing? What are your top travel novels? What do you think are the best books to read while traveling in Mexico, Japan, Spain and elsewhere? There are so many great travel guides, travel memoirs and travel-related novels to add. Tell me yours! Write your favorite travel books in the comments and I might add them to the post next time I update it! Thank you!

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