Nat Geo Staff Picks: Favorite Travel Books

Travel literature. What is it? Memoirs detailing a life-changing trip to the Amazon, fiction that makes its setting a major character, nonfiction that asks its readers to consider a familiar destination in a new light—all of these fall under the travel literature umbrella. And personal preferences are just as varied.

Here are a few favorites from Nat Geo Travel staffers:

What Am I Doing Here by Bruce Chatwin“One of the first travel books I read was What Am I Doing Here, by Bruce Chatwin. I was entranced by his explorations around the world and the people he met, from filmmaker Werner Herzog in Ghana to dress designer Madeleine Vionnet in France. I loved his writing style—unexpected and irreverent—and admired his intoxicating spirit and sense of freedom. In fact, it’s because of this book that I traveled to the village of Baisha in the shadow of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain in southwestern China and sought out local healer and herbalist Dr. Ho, whom Chatwin writes about (some say Ho gave Chatwin the poisonous fungi that killed him). In In Patagonia, a short-term holiday inspires a lifelong commitment to travel, with Chatwin wiring a telegram to resign from his job with the simple message “Have gone to Patagonia.” The Songlines, another fascinating Chatwin read, delves into the story of Aboriginal Australians. All absolute must-reads!” —Barbara A. Noe, senior editor, National Geographic Travel Books

Café Europa: Life After Communism“Buying a vacuum cleaner, going to the dentist, public toilets, and other seemingly mundane aspects of daily life become thoughtful observations on post-communist transition in the hands of Croatian author Slavenka Drakulić. When I moved to Serbia, reading Café Europa: Life After Communism helped me navigate and elucidate Central and Eastern Europe, giving shape and form to the distinctive countries that Western media had too often lumped together. With the common theme of collective identity on the road to democracy, Drakulić’s writings continue to fuel my long-term love affair with this overlooked and dimly understood part of Europe. That’s probably why I became a starstruck stutterer when I bumped into her at the Sarajevo Film Festival.” —Christine Blau (on Twitter @Chris_Blau and Instagram @christineblau), researcher, National Geographic Traveler

Undaunted Courage“Some travelers have an unending urge to seek out the faraway and exotic, but I’ve always been captivated by the epic story of America’s Wild West. I have yet to take the classic cross-country road trip, but have been gearing up for it since reading Stephen E. Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West and Robert D. Kaplan’s An Empire Wilderness, two nonfiction masterstrokes that delve into the evolution and fate of this largely untamed (and endlessly fascinating) part of the country I call home, and the hardscrabble people who live there.” —Leslie Trew Magraw (on Twitter @leslietrew), editor/producer, Intelligent Travel

Travels in England in 1782“My favorite travel book takes me to a familiar place, but in an unfamiliar time…18th-century England. German Karl Philipp Moritz, an author, itinerant preacher, and friend of Goethe’s, wrote Travels to England in 1782. Chock-full of insightful and telling descriptions of everyday life, Moritz paints a wonderfully vivid picture of England (and the English). To wit: ‘The slices of bread and butter, which they give you with your tea, are as thin as poppy leaves.’ And: ‘Last week I went twice to an English play-house…Often and often, whilst I sat there, did a rotten orange, or pieces of the peel of an orange, fly past me, or past some of my neighbours, and once one of them actually hit my hat, without my daring to look round, for fear another might then hit me on my face.’ I found this work entertaining and inspirational as I compiled my own book of snippets and facts about London life through the ages that I cowrote for National Geographic last year, London Book of Lists.” —Larry Porges, editor, National Geographic Travel Books

Don't Let's Go To The Dogs Tonight“I read Alexandra’s Fuller’s memoir, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood, for Traveler‘s in-house book club about a year ago and just devoured it—which is saying a lot when you have three attention-demanding little kids and usually only ten minutes of free time a day. Fuller recounts growing up in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in a family that seems perpetually on the verge of shattering. Her drama plays out in and is affected by a land convulsed by political and social change. This isn’t your typical travel book—it might actually scare some people away from visiting—but I love how the writing is so fresh and vivid, and the cultural insight rare and invaluable.” —Amy Alipio (on Twitter @amytravels and Instagram @amyalipio), features editor, National Geographic Traveler

Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness“Loving to travel and loving to read make it hard to choose just one volume that stands out. But Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness, by Edward Abbey, comes to mind as one of my evergreen favorites. I read the book after my first trip to Utah a number of years ago. Since then I have returned to Red Rock Country time and again, perhaps as often as I’ve returned to Abbey’s prose. His opening remarks sum up my vision of travel worldwide—don’t expect to see what someone tells you is there. ‘[Y]ou’ve got to get out of the goddamned contraption [car] and walk…to see the land around you. What you’ve read about is already gone or going under fast.’ Just plan to discover what’s there.” —Caroline Hickey, project manager, National Geographic Travel Books

In Ethiopia With A Mule“If you love travel adventures, check out Dervla Murphy’s In Ethiopia With a Mule, a lively account of her escapades walking 1,000 miles alone over the highlands and deserts of Ethiopia in 1966. With no corporate sponsors, no high-tech camping gear, certainly no cell phone, and just a 50-pound rucksack and a long-suffering mule she named Jock, Dervla scrambled over Ethiopia’s Siemen Mountains, got lost in a swamp, shared meals with bewildered highlanders, was set upon by bandits, and nearly lost Jock over a precipice. She’s a fearless traveler and keen observer, and her affection and respect for the people she encounters shines through her writing. ‘It is not only through their beauty that these highlands have enchanted me. I love them, too, for their challenging brutality, and had I seen the beauty without meeting the challenge I could not now feel so attached to Ethiopia. Its muscle-searing climbs and nerve-racking descents, its powdery dust and vicious thorns, its heat, cold, hunger and thirst, its savage precipices, treacherous paths and pathless forests—these, as much as its wide, proud, chaotic landscapes, are the characteristics that have forged the bond.’ For more entertaining and hair-raising adventures from Murphy, try her book Full Tilt: Ireland to India With a Bicycle.” —Marilyn Terrell (on Twitter @Marilyn_Res), chief researcher, National Geographic Traveler

Wild“It would be remiss to publish a list of the best travel books without Cheryl Strayed’s bestseller Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. While the memoir turned feature film is currently enjoying the spotlight thanks to Reese Witherspoon’s on-screen, Oscar-nominated portrayal of Strayed, audiences shouldn’t forgo the paperback version completely. Strayed’s written account of her 1,100-mile (1,800 km) hike to self-discovery will have you laughing, crying, and packing your bags for your own adventure long before the final page turn.” —Megan Heltzel (on Twitter and Instagram @meganheltzel), associate digital producer, Nat Geo Travel

“My favorite travel book is Gift From the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh. I love rereading it on my beach trips to Ocean City, Maryland. It’s a short book, only about 150 pages, but filled with wonderful observations about life in the context of Lindbergh’s time spent in solitude at the shore.” —Kathie Gartrell, National Geographic Traveler

a-wolverine-is-eating-my-leg“I’ve read A Wolverine Is Eating My Leg by Tim Cahill at least half a dozen times, and I always get something new from it. Cahill has a remarkable ability to take the reader on entertaining adventures while highlighting critical social and environmental issues. In this collection of essays, he explores Himalayan rapids, Dian Fossy’s research center in Rwanda, the scene of Jonestown, and more. It’s more than just great travel writing—his investigative reporting is sure to get you thinking.” —Erin Spencer (on Twitter @etspencer), digital production assistant, Nat Geo Travel

In A Sunburned Country“Nothing is as humbling as traveling in a foreign country, and no one captures this humorous (and self-deprecating) side of travel as well as Bill Bryson. I first read In a Sunburned Country before traveling to Australia, and have read (and reread) all of his travel memoirs since. As he says in his European memoir Neither Here Nor There, ‘I can’t think of anything that excites a greater sense of childlike wonder than to be in a country where you are ignorant of almost everything. Suddenly you are five years old again. You can’t read anything, you have only the most rudimentary sense of how things work, you can’t even reliably cross a street without endangering your life. Your whole existence becomes a series of interesting guesses.'” —Jeannette Kimmel (on Twitter @JeannetteKimmel), senior budget manager, National Geographic and National Geographic Traveler

the-sun-also-rises“To me, books are special because they can transport you anywhere. Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises takes you into this decadent world of complicated love and bullfighting, but that’s not why I would recommend it. There’s this one part when the main character, Jake, and his friend Bill go fishing in the Spanish countryside that is, to me, the very definition of vacation. The chapters don’t serve any real purpose. It doesn’t help progress the plot. The two characters are simply catching fish, drinking wine, and enjoying good company.” —Kevin Kunitake, editorial assistant, National Geographic Traveler

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  1. tom h
    United States
    February 28, 2015, 2:06 pm

    The wrong way home is great!

  2. TripFiction
    February 27, 2015, 12:52 pm

    A great reading list!!! Definitely espouse the notion that it is a wonderful way to learn about locale through “fiction that makes its setting a major character”.
    We have just read ‘The Abrupt Physics of Dying’, out shortly, for Yemen (I think most of will be armchair visitors for this destination!). Loved ‘Us’ by David Nicholls, a modern day Grand Tour of Europe; and how about Linda Fairstein’s ‘Terminal City’ that is a novel that really gets under the skin of Grand Central in NYC?

  3. Natalie Compton
    February 25, 2015, 5:08 am

    Would also add Travels with Charlie!

  4. Jill @mapqueen1
    Big Island, Hawaii
    February 21, 2015, 4:28 am

    Agreed. When I read Stephen Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage, all I wanted to do was re-trace their steps from east to west. Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises is great for those who are in love with Europe. I’m anxious to read Wild, as well as the Robert Kaplan book mentioned!

  5. droo
    February 20, 2015, 2:22 pm

    Every traveller should read _A short walk in the Hindu kush by Eric Newby hardcore silly and ece trick all at the same time

  6. Veronica Travelove
    February 20, 2015, 5:30 am

    The library on the featured photo is in Prague! :)

    Great reading list, btw…! Thanks for sharing.