Some would argue that the best travel books tell not only stories about a place, but combine it with some sort of internal destination to be reached.
Classic travel books are not just descriptions: they present a transformative experience through which the narrator leaves home (their comfort zone), encounters both marvels and horrors and, most positively, also finds him or herself.
Journeys have always been a part of self-discovery and healing. As Joseph Campbell explains in his book ‘The Hero with a Thousand Faces’, myths about heroes across space and time have always had in common the same structure:
A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man
It’s embedded on the human psique, our archetypes, mythologies and rituals across the globe: traveling transforms us, makes us know ourselves and the world and, thus, makes us grow.
That’s why, of all the travel narratives, this list presents the best travel books where readers are taken on a journey inside the mind of the author: trips taken to break away from something or start a healing process.
The best travel books about ‘life-changing’ trips
1.‘The Snow Leopard’ by Peter Matthiessen
‘The Snow Leopard’ must be one of the best classic travel books about transformative journeys. In theory, it is an account of a two-month search of the elusive snow leopard in the Tibetan Plateau.
However, what starts as a trip to study local fauna by Matthiessen and naturalist George Schaller, turns into a real spiritual exploration.
Matthiessen’s wife had passed away only months before the trip, so the experience inevitably becomes a healing journey for Matthiessen, and his travel writing, interlaced with meditations on death and loss.
As the expedition advances through menaces and unexpected delays, going through what at the time were the most remote places in the world, Peter Matthiesen manages to weave a fabric made of travel notes and personal experiences: his marriages, his drug experimentation, his difficulty in adjusting to life away from these expeditions…
Finding the snow leopard becomes a metaphor for his search of enlightenment, as the author realises he is not yet ready to see the creature.
All of this is enhanced by a thorough “beginners guide” to the Himalayas history, their people and the spirituality embedded in these mythical mountains, making ‘The Snow Leopard’ one of the best classic travel books.
2. ‘Blue Highways’ by William Least Heat-Moon
William Least Heat-Moon explains on the first pages his motive for taking to the road: he has been fired from his job as a teacher and has separated from his wife.
In a move that would make him write one of the most profound and best travel books, he names his van ‘Ghost Dancing’ and starts driving along what he names America’s blue highways (America’s secondary roads).
On his journey, he meets strangers at dinners, at their homes, at Trappist monasteries, on gas stations…; he spends lonely, cold nights sleeping in his van; he drives until the road engulfs him.
As he also did later on in his epic book ‘PrairyErth: A Deep Map’ , through this travel book he researches and assembles a map of American micro-history. And the journey changes him.
3. ‘A Field Guide to Getting Lost’ by Rebecca Solnit
In one of the most fundamental travel books and essays about wayfarers, Rebecca Solnit opens up a place for imagining a different type of journey: one that rejoices on being lost and in the unknown and that, in the process, heals.
Solnit leaves trails of thoughts for the readers to follow, where autobiographical notes mix with cultural and historical references.
Thus, her book takes traveling as an excuse for learning to accept change and the unexpected and definitely makes her writing one of the best travel books to be read.
4. ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’ by Matsuo Bashö
A mixture of prose and haiku written in late 17th century Japan, it narrates the epic journey taken on foot by the author and his reflection on the places he sees and how they make him feel.
Its first words are seminal and make it one of the most profound, best travel books ever written:
“The months and days are the travellers of eternity. The years that come and go are also voyagers.
Those who float away their lives on ships or who grow old leading horses are forever journeying, and their homes are wherever their travels take them.
Many of the men of old died on the road, and I too for years past have been stirred by the sight of a solitary cloud drifting with the wind to ceaseless thoughts of roaming.”
In 1689, Bashö started his trip to see the places that ancient Japanese poets had written about, in order to feel inspired for his own poetry. A student of Zen philosophy, he abandoned his earthly posessions before the trip and used the journey as meditative practice and a search for enlightenment.
His haiku poems serve as short impressions on both what he sees and what he feels, while his travel prose provide readers with privileged knowledge about 17th century Japan, its traditions, landscape and society.
5. ‘Desert Solitaire’ by Edward Abbey
An autobiographical book originally published in 1968, it should be one of the bedside travel books for every wayfarer inflicted with wanderlust.
Working as a seasonal ranger in the USA’s Arches National Monument, Abbey made notes and collected impressions on this remote landscape and the humans inhabiting it.
Drawing inspiration from Thoreau and other naturalists, ‘Desert Solitaire’ became at the time one of the founding texts of environmentalism and land activism, as well as one of the best travel books.
6. ‘Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a bycicle’ by Dervla Murphy
Dervla Murphy is the queen of hazardous journeys and epic travel books. Having penned 26 travel and memoir books, her writing career started in 1963 when, during the winter and at the age of 31, she set off from Ireland to cycle across the world.
What she found opened a new way of seeing: she almost froze and starved to death, but the hospitality of people and her grit to continue the journey makes this one of the best travel books and the most inspiring.
Her narrative in ‘Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle’ provides readers with a true transformative journey: in this trip, Dervla herself was fulfilling a lifelong dream that would change her life forever and make her one of the most compelling travel writers in the world.
7 & 8. ‘All the Roads are Open’ by Annemarie Schwarzenbach and ‘The Cruel Way’ by Ella Maillart
‘All the Roads are Open’ and ‘The Cruel Way’ are the two sides to the same coin: a description from two exceptional women travel writers of their trip from Geneva to Afghanistan on a Ford Car.
The combination of both books adds up to the best classic travel books about road tripping and life-changing experiences.
Both women set off on a deliberate trip to escape from Europe’s Second World War and, almost more importantly, find themselves.
On her book, Maillart quotes Schwarzenbach saying:
“I am thirty. It is the last chance to mend my ways, to take myself in hand. This journey is not going to be a sky -larking escapade as if we were twenty (…).
This journey must be a means towards our end. We can help each other to become conscious, responsible persons. My blind way of life has grown unbearable. What is the reason, the meaning of the chaos that undermines people and nations?”
Schwarzenbach had just gotten off rehab for her morphine and alcohol addictions before the trip, so this is one of these travel books that reads both as a real journey and as a internal destination to be reached. To her, traveling was living and living, traveling.
The difficult relationship with her ultra-conservative family (Schwarzenbach was a known anti-fascist and a Nazi opponent) always complicated her feelings and she was under psychiatric treatment on and off during the last years of her life.
She nonetheless managed to write hundreds of features and a number of the best travel books out there (for instance, ‘Death in Persia’) in a potential bid to know herself.
(An excerpt from Ella Maillart’s films on this journey. Her approach to the trip was ethnographic, as she wished to witness and record the ways of life of tribes in remote areas of Afghanistan. Photographs and films helped her with the task)
On the other hand, Ella Maillart was by all lights much more well-adjusted to society that, apart from being an accomplished journalist, had participated on the 1924 Olympics.
Her struggle to help Schwarzenbach through her morphine addiction is reflected on ‘The Cruel Way’.
Maillart wrote this travel book five years after Schwarzenbach’s death (that happened during a cycling accident) and used the book as a sort of reconstruction and a celebration of the freedom through which the two women decided to travel and live.
[Find out about more travel books in the post ’15 Women travel writers you should be reading‘]
9. ‘The Savage Detectives’ by Roberto Bolaño
‘The savage detectives’ is a mind-blowing novel by Roberto Bolaño, first published in 1998 that takes us on a trip to Mexico throughout the 20th century.
The main characters are a group of poets who revolt against literary conventions and set off on a quest to find Cesárea Tinajero, an old lady now living in the Sonora desert who started Visceral Realism, the literary movement they all belong to.
Although a work of fiction, ‘The Savage Detectives’ is part of this list of the best travel books as it takes us to a nebulous and hazy Mexico through the eyes of young writers and their search for the visceral truth.
10. ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’ by Hunter S. Thompson
“We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold”.
This is the famous first line that kick-starts Hunter S. Thompson’s ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of America’. The rest is a trip in every sense of the word.
Hunter S Thompson invented gonzo journalism, where the journalist is not objective, but at the heart of the story. His opinions and feelings towards the subject he is reporting are what matters. And Thompson’s opinions are insightful, meaningful and overflowing with drug-fueled paranoia, making it one of the most demented and unstable travel books around.
In the book, Hunter S. Thompson and his lawyer set off to Las Vegas, where Thompson is supposed to cover a story. Then crazy things happen, told by a poetic, violent and lunatic Thompson.
‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’ makes it to this list of the best travel books as he goes through a transformation, mimicking the one happening in society: he rejects the sixties search for enlightenment and settles for a lost utopia where violence and commercial selling out have taken over.
11. ‘Discovering Beautiful: On the Road to Somewhere’ by Rory Miller
From zero to 10 in this list of life-changing travel books, ‘Discovering Beautiful’ is a 12.
It’s got all the ingredients: a young man in search of himself, a one-month holiday that turns into a 4 year nomadic experience, train hopping and hitch-hiking and a shaman on the Mexican desert that awakens the protagonist’s sense of purpose.
Like many others in this list of the best travel books about life-changing journeys, Rory finds joy in letting chance encounters and serendipity guide his footsteps.
12. ‘The Kindness of Strangers’ by Kate Adie
The last on this list of the best travel books about transformative journeys is war-reporter Kate Adie’s autobiography, published in 2002. The chief news correspondent for BBC News during the 1990s, she made travel and conflict her lifestyle.
Among her most popular reports are her dispatches from Iran, Tripoli or the Tiananmen Square protests.
However, her book ‘The Kindness of Strangers’ only laterally mentions her own internal struggles: although she mentions being adopted as a child, her own family life is deliberately obscured in her memoirs.
This gives a more in-depth perspective on her internal motives to travel and the war-torn places she visited.