Let’s get out of town, forget who we are, meet new people, and breathe fresh air. The transformative power of travel is real, and whether you have the freedom to jump on a flight today, tomorrow, or six months from now, these travel books can simulate the sensations of sailing, sightseeing, and setting out to explore this big, wide world.
The 21 best travel books to add to your shelf are:
The Rum Diary by Hunter S. Thompson
Before Hunter S. Thompson was the Gonzo Fear and Loathing legend we know today, he was a green 22-year-old freelance journalist with a hunger for travel. In Thompson’s semi-autobiographical early novel, The Rum Diary, journalist Paul Kemp moves from New York to work at a newspaper in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Kemp is swallowed into the exotic Caribbean environment — its booze, women, and wiles. The writing is exciting and makes you want to book a last-minute solo trip to Puerto Rico and drink in the moonlight (even if it means treachery, violence, and lust).
The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
It’s no secret that American writer Ernest Hemingway had an obsession with Europe. This locational love affair is expressed in its purest form in The Sun Also Rises, where American and British ex-pats travel to Spain for the running of the bulls. Legend has it, Hemingway wrote the book in only two months, and this urgency to translate place and feeling is absolutely engaging. You can practically hear the hooves stomping and see the colors and frenzy of the Pamplona festival. Try not booking a flight to Spain mid-read, I dare you.
The Martian by Andy Weir
The debut novel by Andy Weir, originally self-published, will take you on a long, long flight from home. The Martian has been described as “a perfect novel in almost every way” and tells the story of a NASA mission to Mars that shipwrecks the crew on the dangerous planet. American astronaut Mark Watney is forced to survive and the story that ensues is adventurous, page-turning, and emotional. You may never get the chance to hop on a galactic space flight, but you can travel through the universe in these pages.
The Night of the Iguana by Tennessee Williams
Technically, this book is a play, but Tennessee Williams’ The Night of the Iguana is a bizarre and wanderlust-fulfilling character study about ex-minister Shannon who is working as a mentally-unstable tour guide accompanying a group of American girls through Mexico. Set in a cheap motel off the coast, the play structure of the story puts you in the shoes of each character, toes in the sand, beer on your tongue, watching an iguana slither under the deck. Read for a quick hit of south-of-the-border travel.
The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley
Marion Zimmer Bradley’s fantasy novel retelling the legends of King Arthur through female characters is comparable to riding horseback through ancient Celtic lands. A vivid setting and attention to detail project the pages in your mind like a lush overgrown outlook. Some travel is a quick weekend jaunt while others are great, epic voyages to other cultures; this book is definitely the latter. The Mists of Avalon is perfect for the guy who likes exploring the history of each destination he travels and secretly wants to take a train to Middle-Earth.
Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
Craving a seafaring trip? You could hop a frantic Carnival cruise or go to the public library and rent Herman Melville’s classic, Moby-Dick. Odds are, if you want a vacation on open water, you’re probably looking for an escape to solitude and self-reflection. (Pick the book, not the cruise.) Ishmael tells the story of Captain Ahab’s quest to find the white whale, Moby-Dick in, a story that pits man against the natural world — a theme inseparable from the act of travel itself.
The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe
Travel can open your mind and often feel like you’re looking through a kaleidoscope. Travelers seeking mind-altering excursions need to trip out on Tom Wolfe’s non-fiction epic, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Jump on this psychedelic American road trip with novelist Ken Kesey. You’ll be sharing a bus with LSD-loving hippies and travel through Americana and back in time to ’60s counter-culture. Pack an extra pair of Wet Wipes because there are no showers aboard this rowdy buggy.
The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
Adventure in France with Alexandre Duma’s classic novel, which might inspire a boy’s weekend with your Three Musketeers to the beaches of Normandy. Just don’t get thrown into a dank prison like protagonist Edmond Dantès, who learns of a massive treasure off the Isle of Monte Cristo. Take this treasure-hunting mindset and run wild up the coast of France, stopping in any village, shop, or cove you feel might hold some trove of experiential wealth.
The Lost City of Z by David Grann
David Grann’s non-fiction hit The Lost City of Z details “a tale of deadly obsession in the Amazon,” recounting a 1925 trip by British explorer Percy Fawcett and his son who went looking for an ancient city in the rainforest. Consider this a hybrid between true crime and travel diary, since Fawcett and his son went missing and their true fate has been shrouded in mystery. Grann is able to create a truly visceral experience of stepping through the overgrowth, using his personal travel in the Amazon as a backing. Reading this exotic exploration is like being dropped into the lush, dangerous, and intoxicating forest, sans mud and mosquitos.
The Motorcycle Diaries by Che Guevara
Marxist icon Che Guevara opens up on his deepest thoughts, feelings, and travels as a young 23-year-old medical student. If you’re a young man who is questioning who he is — whether he will do great things and find a truly all-encompassing passion — read this book so you’ll book a damn trip and be confident in the man you’ll eventually become. This coming-of-age travel diary across Latin American is a New York Times bestseller for a reason.
Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey
Screw flights. Drive into the middle of the desert and experience the full breadth of land. That’s what Edward Abbey did when he wrote the poetic and raw Desert Solitaire. Working as a park ranger at Arches in Moab, Utah, Abbey is hit with ruminations on the future of our wildernesses, the uncompromising beauty of the American West, and his own mortality. If your travel doesn’t produce similar thoughts, you’re doing it wrong.
Make more room for travel by learning how to work only four hours a week (in essence). This self-help book by Timothy Ferriss became a wicked success among people who want to live in the world instead of behind a desk.
Bonus: Books by Destination
- Italy: The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown
- Tibet: Seven Years in Tibet by Heinrich Harrer
- Africa: Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
- South America: Fierce Invalids Home From Hot Climates by Tom Robbins
- Los Angeles: Ask the Dust by John Fante
- Mexico: Born to Run by Christopher McDougall (part running book, part travel adventure, all mega interesting.)
- Nicaragua: The Jaguar Smile by Salman Rushdie
- The Midwest: Killing Yourself to Live by Chuck Klosterman
- Desert island: Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
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