9 Classic Travel Books to Inspire Your Next Epic Trip

These underrated narratives—by intrepid travelers who explored the world on horseback, foot, and bicycle—should snag a spot on your reading list.

Rows of vintage leather-bound books, with a small globe sitting on one stack of books

Contemporary readers may have overlooked these travelogues about journeys that took place as far back as the 1930s and as recently as 2008.

Photo by Triff/Shutterstock

The next time you bemoan the miseries of flying today, consider the challenges that earlier travelers faced, exploring the world without such conveniences as iPhones, ride-sharing apps, and air-conditioning. In the following nine accounts, notable traveler-writers provide compelling insight into other times and places. If you’ve missed reading these classic travel books, you can make up for it now.

A Time of Gifts: On Foot to Constantinople by Patrick Leigh Fermor (1977)

This is the first of a trilogy about the author’s journey across Europe. He set off from London at 18 years old during the winter of 1933. A Time of Gifts details his trip from the Netherlands to the Danube River on a budget of one British pound a day, but rich in curiosity.

He sets off impulsively—who starts an epic trek across Europe in mid-December?—and in this book gets as far as Hungary. (Part Two of the subtitle is From the Hook of Holland to the Middle Danube.) The bulk of his time is spent crossing Germany, and he could hardly have planned a more interesting time to be there, with Hitler newly in power. Passing through villages and cities, he sleeps wherever he lands at night, anything from a barn to a hostel to the occasional grand house (courtesy of friends of friends).

The journey continues in Between the Woods and the Water (1986) and ends with The Broken Road (published posthumously in 2013). Although he kept a detailed diary of his journey, Leigh Fermor did not publish Gifts until decades later, and he died before completing the third volume, which ends with him returning from Constantinople and in Greece in February 1935. You will be grateful for the gift of his company in a now-vanished Europe.

Covers of four travel books on a background of maps

Background photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash; book covers courtesy of publishers

The Cruelest Journey by Kira Salak (2004)

Not the most inviting title, but the subtitle helps clarify the what and where: 600 Miles to Timbuktu. The how is a surprise: via solo kayak on the Niger River. Salak has written about her adventures before in such remote locales as Papua New Guinea and Madagascar. This time, she takes her inspiration from the late-18th-century explorations of Mungo Park in Mali. One of the most interesting aspects of her story is how little things have changed since Park first traveled the river.

Although she is sponsored by the National Geographic Society, she is alone in a world where being a white woman is a such a novelty that whole villages turn out to see her. Surprisingly for a Nat Geo book, there is only one modest map and no photographs. But Salak’s vivid writing supplies an engaging narrative with details about tribal allegiances and practices, poverty, modern-day slavery—and the rewards of wanderlust even under very challenging circumstances.

The White Darkness by David Grann (2018)

All too often, nonfiction books are padded-out magazine articles. This slim book is the result of a long article published originally in The New Yorker, with some extra photos. You’ll wish it were longer, so you could spend more time in the splendid company of David Grann and his subject, British explorer Henry Worsley.

Worsley was a British army officer with a longtime obsession with Ernest Shackleton’s adventures in Antarctica. Shackleton’s name is forever linked with Endurance, his ship crushed by ice on a 1916 trip; through heroic efforts, Shackleton rescued all of his crew. Inspired by that famous story, Worsley journeys to Antarctica in 2008 with two other Englishmen. Their goal: to retrace Shackleton’s 1908–1909 attempt to reach the South Pole, a 100th anniversary commemoration. All three are descendants of participants in the original journey. They set off on a nine-week trek, each hauling a sled carrying hundreds of pounds of gear and food.

How did that grueling journey turn out? I’ll say only that it inspired other trips by Worsley to the white continent.

River: One Man’s Journey Down the Colorado, Source to Sea by Colin Fletcher (1997)

In 1963, at age 41, Colin Fletcher became the first person to walk the length of the Grand Canyon contained in the national park. He undertook this two-month hike sans Fitbit and GPS, long before people dressed in active wear to walk from their home to their car. His subsequent book about his journey, The Man Who Walked Through Time (1968), and the publication of the first of several editions of his The Complete Walker (also 1968) made his name. (Fletcher has been dubbed “the father of modern backpacking” for his lengthy, pioneering wilderness treks.)

River presents his journey along the Colorado River by raft and foot in 1989, from Wyoming to Baja California, a solo, six-month trip covering 1,700 miles. The book’s black-and-white photos and maps are no match for his vivid writing. Why this strenuous trip after a lifetime of adventures? Fletcher explains in his opening pages: “I’d grown soft. . . . I needed something to pare the fat off my soul, to scare the shit out of me, to make me grateful, again, for being alive.” Along the way, he encounters more wildlife than people; his descriptions of animals, birds, and insects are especially engaging.

Full Tilt: Ireland to India With a Bicycle by Dervla Murphy (1965)

The first of many travel books by this Irish writer recounts her solo bicycle journey across Europe and Asia to India.

Birthday gifts of an atlas and bike at age 10 fire Murphy’s imagination. Two decades later, she set off from Dunkirk to Delhi: “The preparations had been simple; one of the advantages of cycling is that it automatically prevents a journey from becoming an Expedition.” She is undeterred by record cold in Europe, which is glossed over in a few pages. The book focuses on her time in Asia. This is budget travel; she spent 75 pounds for a trip of 3,000 miles and six months (less than $2,000 in today’s terms).

Roads so rough she has to walk her bike, people aghast that she is traveling alone (she refuses a Jeep ride from an American engineer, who declares her “a goddamn nut-case”), a cracked rib: such obstacles don’t discourage her. They are offset by locals who welcome her. Especially interesting are her comments on Russian and American efforts she encounters to “modernize” Afghanistan.

Five book covers on a background image of vintage books open to text

Renowned authors like George Orwell and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry didn’t write only fiction—their travel writing is also worth a read.

Background photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash; book covers courtesy of the publishers

Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (1939)

Although the author is best known for The Little Prince, he also wrote several travel books. This one focuses on his experience as a pilot, conveying mail, not passengers, between France and Africa in the 1920s, a pioneering time of international aviation.

He also recounts flying through a cyclone in the southern Andes, nights alone in the Sahara because of weather or mechanical problems, and in his longest chapter, a disastrous flight from Paris to Saigon in 1935. In preparing for that trip, he packs maps and a bag containing a razor and a spare shirt, noting, “He who would travel happily must travel light.”

This philosopher/poet/romantic offers lyrical descriptions of flying at night and understanding the desert: “One of the miracles of the airplane is that it plunges a man directly into the heart of mystery.” His adventures as a pilot are vivid reminders of a time when flying was novel and dangerous.

The Valleys of the Assassins and Other Persian Travels by Freya Stark (1934)

Chapter one opens: “In the wastes of civilization, Luristan is still an enchanted name.” Luristan? Welcome to Stark’s world. A childhood reading of The Arabian Nights launched an interest that led her in the early 1930s to remote western Iran, where no known Englishwoman had visited before. She ventures into a land where an eclipse of the moon upsets locals and her flashlight impresses tent dwellers.

Journeying by horseback with frequently inept guides, she brings letters of introduction, canned sheep’s tongue and sardines, a Burberry—and curiosity. Besides being intrepid, she’s observant: a young tribesman “rode his wild little pony like a centaur”; a stream is “bright as a bird’s eye.”

Although she hunts for treasure in graves and maps unexplored territory, Stark declared that she had no sense of responsibility or purpose: “I traveled single-mindedly for fun.” She also despairs of the “disease to be doing something always, as if one could never sit quietly and let the puppet show unroll itself before one.” Stark is as interesting as her journeys; try the biography of her, Passionate Nomad, by Jane Fletcher Geniesse.

The Long Walk by Slavomir Rawicz (1956)

The title is an epic understatement, but its subtitle notes a key point: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom. For Rawicz, “Freedom is like oxygen” to be treasured. In this account of his escape from a Soviet labor camp in 1941, he walks under dire conditions to India.

This young Polish cavalry officer, accused of espionage, is sentenced to 25 years of hard labor. After weeks of marching in winter to a Siberian prison camp a few hundred miles south of the Arctic Circle, he is eager to escape. By spring, he and five other prisoners get out and head south, traveling at night initially. No maps, little food, and sore feet are constant issues. By June, they have reached Mongolia, an oasis of friendly locals, before striking across the Gobi Desert. Later, they journey across Tibet. Not all reach safety in British-occupied India.

After his ordeal, Rawicz settled in England and in the early 1950s dictated his story to British journalist Ronald Downing. Some critics have claimed his journey—4,000 miles in hostile territory over a year—is too fantastic to be true.

Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell (1933)

Published when the 1984 author was 30, this book is urban travel, a gritty tale of adventure among the poor, from tramps to cocaine smugglers. It is a blend of memoir and highly autobiographical fiction.

Orwell is living very modestly in Paris when a robbery reduces him to poverty, of which he writes: “You thought it would be simple; it is extraordinarily complicated. You thought it would be terrible; it is merely squalid and boring.”

After reading his behind-the scenes descriptions of his life as a plongeur, a sort of dishwasher/kitchen slave, at an expensive Paris hotel, you may hesitate to dine out again. Orwell has only disdain for his employer and the guests, mostly American: “One customer, from Pittsburgh, dined every night in his room on grape-nuts, scrambled eggs and cocoa. Perhaps it hardly matters whether such people are swindled or not.”

When he returns to London, to find a promised job will not start for another month, he is reduced to a vagabond existence. “Colorful” is one word for the people he encounters. He also includes a section on London slang and swearing. The future master of the essay and coiner of such terms as “Big Brother,” “newspeak,” and “crimethink” is evident in this, his first book.

This article was originally published in 2019; it was updated with new information on June 13, 2024.

Pat Tompkins has written for Afar about movies, books, art, UNESCO World Heritage sites, and other topics.
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