Summer Travel: 20 of my favorite travel books

You guys, where has the year gone? The first official day of summer has arrived, and pretty soon Target will be putting out holiday decorations. Be that as it may, I didn't feel like I could let another summer go by without sharing an exhaustive summer reading list, bringing you some of my favorite travel books of all time.

First things first, this isn’t gospel. That'll likely be apparent when skimming the list and realizing that not all of these are travel books by nature. But I think in general, most books are intangibly travel books, because they transport us to a place and take us on a journey. That’s what a lot of these “travel” books represent for me.

Secondly, this isn’t a list of the “best travel books of all time.” Actually, I don’t know if there’s such a thing. But if this was a post about the top travel books, then it would probably include books like Eat, Pray, Love (although maybe not according to some people), Arabian Sands, The Great Railway Bazaar, Under the Tuscan Sun, The Motorcycle Dairies, The Beach, and the list goes on. But not all of those I’ve read, and not all of them that I have read are among my favorites.

Yet I think this is a pretty damn good list, running the gamut. Some of these travel books are historical, while others are fiction, and some are practical while others are more entertaining. But enough rambling, let’s get to the list of 20 of my favorite travel books.

20 Travel Books for this summer

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

Let’s just start at the top with one of my favorite books of all time, The Alchemist. Written by famous Brazilian author, Paulo Coelho, the book follows the journey of a young Andalusian shepherd named Santiago. The young boy sets off from home in search of a treasure from a dream he believes to be prophetic, meeting a host of characters along the way. Simple at its core, I consider the book a beautiful metaphor of life and travel, and one of only a handful of books I could read over and over.


Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed

I read Wild a few years ago when first getting settled on the West Coast and getting more into outdoor pursuits, like hiking. Yet what really struck me is how much I related to Cheryl’s story, having experienced some of the traumatic events that led to her 1,100-mile journey of the Pacific Crest Trail, namely divorce and the loss of my parents. As such, I found myself brought into her memoir in ways that I haven’t felt from other memoirs. While the book has since been turned into a movie, with Reese Witherspoon, it stands as one of my favorite outdoor books.


You Shall Know Our Velocity by Dave Eggers

You Shall Know Our Velocity is one of the most fascinating books I’ve ever read. Yet I’m so drawn to the principle question of the novel: What would you do if you were given a large sum of money? In this case, that large sum of money is $80,000, and the novel's central character, Will, decided to embark on a one-week round-the-world trip with his best friend to give the money away. Their travels are often fast-paced and chaotic, which is why I’m drawn more to a travel book like this than your traditional travelogue.

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Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell

Books like Sarah Vowell’s Unfamiliar Fishes have become among my favorite types of books. They are what I’d call non-traditional accounts of the history of a place. I know, historical non-fiction isn’t all that gripping. But Vowell has this snarky, informative way about telling the history of Hawaii that is far more entertaining than most historical non-fiction. Plus, it’s Hawaii, which is one of the most fascinating parts of the world to me, and has undergone a history that many don’t know about (and should know about). I highly recommend it before your next (or first) trip to Hawaii.

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Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel by Rolf Potts

I recommend Vagabonding for a very specific type of traveler, and that’s the traveler who’s interested in or planning a long-term trip. No, not like a 10-day trip, but like several weeks or months. I read Vagabonding just prior to taking my first long-term trip, nine months around North America, and the trip ended up being the most important decision of my life. I found Rolf Potts' book to have some really practical travel advice, like financing your travels and determining destinations, which I hadn’t really considered at the time. I consider it a must-read for the long-term traveler, or even expat. 


Turn Right at Machu Picchu: Rediscovering the Lost City One Step at a Time by Mark Adams

Anyone who knows me knows that Peru’s Inca Trail is near the top of my travel wish list. And of all of the accounts of hiking it I’ve read, this one by Mark Adams, Turn Right at Machu Picchu, is my favorite. Part of it is because Adams isn’t exactly an outdoor adventurer (and that maybe putting it lightly), and his way of writing about his adventures (and misadventures) are so entertaining. Plus, it’s incredibly informative, shedding a different light on the story of Machu Picchu than most people know.

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On Trails: An Exploration by Robert Moor

On Trails may be the outdoor book that I’ve talked about and recommended the most in the last couple years since reading it. On the surface, the book sounds boring as hell, since as the title suggests, it’s an exploration of the history of hiking trails. Yet I don’t know if there’s a book that I’ve read that I learned so much. By the end of it, I had a whole different understanding and love for trails, as I discovered some of the science and history of how different cultures, people, and animals have built and used trails over the centuries.

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The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

I’m going to go ahead and say that The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is the most charming, lovable book on this list. Harold Fry is an older, retired man living in a small English village with his wife when he receives a letter from a dying friend, Queenie, who he hasn’t heard from in a couple decades. He pens a reply back to her, but when he gets to the mailbox to drop it in, he decides to keep walking to deliver it in person, which is actually hundreds of miles away. Unlikely as the story may be, I loved the charm of Harold, and the way this physical journey becomes so much of an inward journey for him and everyone around him. Those are some of the best travel books to me.

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And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails by Wayne Curtis

Because rum. I know, a book about rum doesn’t sound that interesting. But stay with me here. Wayne Curtis, one of my favorite drink writers, does a masterful job of highlighting one rum cocktail in each chapter, but doing so by sharing an entertaining, informative story that weaves that cocktail's history into it. Curtis shares stories about some extraordinary characters, from Paul Revere to Ernest Hemingway to the Captain Morgan. And a Bottle of Rum is a mash-up of some of my favorite things, cocktails, travel, and history, all in one book.

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Honeymoon with my Brother by Franz Wisner

I hope to goodness that no one can relate too much to Franz Wisner’s story in Honeymoon with My Brother. That’s because Wisner was literally left at the altar by the fiancé of his dreams. So what else is there to do than to still use your honeymoon flights and accommodations with your brother? And that’s exactly what Wisner does. Except him and his brother go on an extended honeymoon, deciding to quit their jobs, sell their possessions, and travel the world, visiting a total of 53 countries. The journey, like many of the travelogues listed here, become far more about the inward journey, and Wisner’s reconnection with the world, himself, and love. 

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In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson

If you’ve never read a Bill Bryson book, then I recommend you stop everything you’re doing, and go buy one of his books immediately. He’s a national, if not international treasure, with so many great books, including A Walk in the Woods, Notes From a Small Island, The Lost Continent, I'm a Stranger Here Myself, and my favorite, In a Sunburned Country. In a Sunburned Country is something of a travelogue guide of Australia through the eyes of one of the funniest travel authors. In my opinion, Bill Bryson is required travel reading, and this is especially so for the first-time traveler to Australia.

“They spend half of any conversation insisting that the country's dangers are vastly overrated and that there's nothing to worry about, and the other half telling you how six months ago their Uncle Bob was driving to Mudgee when a tiger snake slid out from under the dashboard and bit him on the groin, but that it's okay now because he's off the life support machine and they've discovered he can communicate with eye blinks.”
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Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster by Jon Krakauer

Into Thin Air has a little bit of a personal connection, since I remember it being on my father’s bookshelf as a teen, and remember him talking so passionately about it. While it took me a couple decades later to read it, I found myself gripped just like my father was. Into Thin Air tells the story of the 1996 Mount Everest disaster, which was the worst single-day loss of life on the mountain. The book’s author, Jon Krakauer, was actually on assignment for Outside Magazine during the disaster. If you saw the movie Everest, then you may remember his character played by Michael Kelly. Of all the books I discuss here, I don’t think there’s a book that’s as gripping and moving. Also, hell no I will never step foot on Mt. Everest. 

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In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin

From Mt. Everest to Patagonia, which felt like my own Mt. Everest when first visiting last fall. Patagonia, and more specifically Torres del Paine, has been at the tip-top of my bucket list for as long as I can remember. Prior to the trip, it only seemed fitting to read Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia, which is considered the foremost travelogue about Patagonia. But while most people think about the jagged peaks, snowy summits, and dramatic landscapes of Patagonia, Chatwin’s travelogue (published in 1977) tells the story of its people, including Welsh immigrants, Butch Cassidy, and others. As far as I’m concerned, it’s mandatory reading for any traveler interested in traveling to Chile or Argentina.

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The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World by Eric Weiner

Of all of the books on this list, I may have had the most fun reading Eric Weiner’s The Geography of Bliss. The tagline, “One grump’s search for the happiest places in the world,” says it all. Each chapter focuses on a different country from his travels around the world in his pursuit to find where happiness is, rather than what it is. I found it an utterly fascinating case study of the world.

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Travels with Charley in Search of America by John Steinbeck

Those who know me know that I love John Steinbeck. In fact I have a tattoo on my left forearm from one of his most famous novels, East of Eden. However, I’m probably most ethralled by Travels with Charley, which is a travelogue of his journey across America in 1960 with his dog, Charley. While Steinbeck (and Charley) travel to nearly 40 states, what I’m most fascinated by is this glimpse of Steinbeck later in his life, and his commentary on America at that time. According to Steinbeck’s son, Thom, John knew he was dying, so he wanted one last farewell tour of America. That’s one hell of a road trip to go out on. 

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Travels by Michael Crichton

Exactly, I had no idea that Michael Crichton wrote a travelogue either. However, it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise considering the settings of some of his books, like Congo and Jurassic Park. While Travels jumps all over the place, from Crichton’s early years in medical school to gorilla trekking in Africa to hippie desert retreats in California, it provides a window into the soul of one of the best writers of the last century. I may even be a little more likely to take a hippie desert retreat after reading it.

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Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson

If you want feel good stories, then Erik Larson is not the author for you. However, if you want fantastic non-fiction writing about lesser-known historical events that read like novels, then this is a good start. Erik Larson is one of my favorite modern-day writers, putting a microscope on small moments in history that pack one helluva story. And I believe Dead Wake is the best introduction to his books. Dead Wake tells the story of the Lusitania, a luxury ship from the early 1900s, and its last sailing across the Atlantic. Some historians may argue that it was this crossing of the Lusitania that really instigated the First World War, or at least greatly influenced America’s involvement in it. While it’s not a travel book per se, it’s a great exploration of a historical (and travel) event that most people don’t know about.   

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On the Road by Jack Kerouac

Well naturally I had to include at least one Jack Kerouac book. And there doesn’t seem to be a more fitting book than On the Road, which some may hail as one of the best novels, and certainly one of Kerouac’s best pieces of work. Many refer to it as the “Beat Bible,” capturing the spirit of the beat and counterculture generations. Inspired by Kerouac's own adventures, it tells the stories of two friends, Sal and Dean, and their cross-country road trip experiences. It’s for younger generations what Travels with Charley may be to older generations.

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The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey by Candice Millard

Spoiler alert, Teddy Roosevelt is one of my favorite presidents of all time. Yes, much of my interest in Teddy is because of his conservation initiatives, creation of national parks, and establishment of the United States Forest Service. And Teddy’s sense of adventure and love for the outdoors carries into this book, The River of Doubt, which tells the story of his journey deep into the Amazon. After his election defeat in 1912, Roosevelt set out on the dangerous journey with his son and a famous Brazilian explorer, Cândido Mariano da Silva Rondon. And a dangerous journey it was. The book is riveting, reading much like a novel, but telling the story of true events from the life of what some may call one of America’s greatest presidents.

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The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia by Michael Booth

This is my most recent read, since I just returned from my first trip to Scandinavia, to Norway. And it’s been a treat. I’ve often wondered why most of the Scandinavian countries have been ranked as some of the happiest countries in the world for what now feels like forever. Especially since it’s so damn cold there, and it seems like if you took a power nap during winter that you’d sleep through daylight. And it’s these very questions that the author, Michael Booth, seeks to answer in The Almost Nearly Perfect People. It feels a bit like a mash-up of Eric Weiner’s The Geography of Bliss and every single Bill Bryson book. Sign me up!

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What are your favorite travel books?