Whether you’re lying on a beach, whiling away a long bus journey or floating above the skies, here are the best books to read on the road. Travel inspiration, uncorked.
Shantaram – Gregory Roberts
Shantaram is a rollicking tale of ex-convict and prison escapee Gregory Roberts’ eight years in then Bombay. Gripping, fantastical and downright extraordinary, the book follows in Roberts’ footsteps as he sets up a free medical health clinic, joins the mafia, finds and loses loved ones and generally has a hair-raising time. It’s the one book that every traveller seems to have read and makes for some interesting, if heated, debates.
Are You Experienced? William Sutcliffe
Are You Experienced thrusts you into the life of a naive backpacker on his first trip to India. Laugh-out-loud funny and incredibly cringeworthy at times, it strikes a chord with every traveller who’s ever got it a little bit wrong, but still ended up having an amazing time anyway. I have such a soft spot for this book – I read it on my very first inter-railing trip and it had both me and my partner in crime rolling around in gales and tears of laughter.
White Mughals – William Dalrymple
Travel writer and historian William Dalrymple tells the story of one of the many men living in the British-ruled Raj who fell in love with Indian women, soaking up Indian culture and habits to become “white Mughals”. James Kirkpatrick, the white Mughal in question gives it all up and turns double agent on his employer the East India Company after falling love with and marrying a Mughal princess Khair un-Nissa. History comes alive as Dalrymple writes about this little-reported phenomenon and the sometimes tragic consequences.
The Beach – Alex Garland
The book that launched a thousand boats to Thailand’s islands, not to mention that film with Leonardo di Caprio. Richard is staying in a dump of a hostel in Bangkok when a suicidal Scotsman gives him a map to paradise. Richard sets off to find “the beach” – virtually unknown but for a select few and home to a close-knit community of travellers. But paradise always comes at a cost and the beach is no exception. A compelling tale of human nature and a dream falling to pieces.
Off to Thailand? Check out our series of Thailand travel guides.
The Quiet American – Graham Greene
Graham Greene worked abroad for a large section of his adult life and was a master of insight into the ravages of the conflicts that arise from the collision of two very different cultures. The Quiet American focuses on the optimistic American, Pyle, who can’t see the problems he brings to Vietnam against the backdrop the degeneration of the French and British colonial rule. Notable for it’s prediction of the Vietnam War, The Quiet American is a fascinating read.
A Passage to India – E.M Forster
A Passage to India explores the chasms between the British and Indian societies of the Raj in the 1920s. Racial tensions are rife, and come to a head after an ill-advised trip to the beautiful Malabar Caves.
The God of Small Things – Arundhati Roy
Arundhati Roy thrusts you into the world of twins, Rahel and Estha, growing up in Kerala among the seemingly endless world of their family’s pickle factory. Delve into Roy’s lush prose as she depicts the twins’ carefully-crafted world, ultimately to tear it all apart again.
Burmese Days – George Orwell
Though he’s probably best known for 1984 and Animal Farm, Orwell worked and lived in a number of countries, chronicled in autobiographical novels such as Down and Out in Paris and London, Homage to Catalonia and Burmese Days. Burmese Days is a damning insight into the waning days of British colonialism in Burma (now Myanmar) and the patronising, indifferent attitudes that were rife at the time.
Tintin in Tibet – Georges Remi Herge
Think Tintin is just for kids? We dare you to put Tintin in Tibet down for more than 10 minutes while you’re reading it. Challenge accepted? Tintin in Tibet is a story of friendship, faith and mystery as the ever-loved Belgian reporter hunts for his friend Chang Chong-Chen in the Himalayas.
Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie
“When you have city eyes you cannot see the invisible people, the men with elephantitis of the balls and the beggars in boxcars don’t impinge on you, and the concrete sections of future drainpipes don’t look like dormitories. My mother lost her city eyes and the newness of what she was seeing made her flush, newness like a hailstorm pricking her cheeks. Look, my God..”
Rushdie’s masterpiece of post-modern literature tells the story of the powerful children born on the hour of India’s independence. A story about childhood, India’s post-colonial aftermath and magical ability that will have you hooked.
Honey & Dust – Piers Moore Ede
Contemporary travel writer Piers Moore Ede’s journey around the world seeking out the best honey, while chronicling the different traditions of honey-farmers around the world is a fascinating tale of time and nature. A tale of passion and recuperation, Ede’s story will inspire you to dig a little deeper on your next journey.
UK & Europe
Fiesta:The Sun Also Rises – Ernest Hemingway
Widely recognised as Hemingway’s greatest novel, Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises is a love story set in the dramatic expat worlds of Paris and Spain in the 1920s. Hemingway’s literary prowess is shown off to great effect as he describes the love affairs, jealousies and emotions that bubble throughout the novel. The novel that brought the running of the bulls in Pamplona to the international consciousness, The Sun Also Rises expertly combines travel reportage with Hemingway’s typical powerful style for a memorable read.
Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh
“On a sheep cropped knoll under a clump of elms we ate the strawberries and drank the wine – as Sebastian promised, they were delicious together – and we lit fat, Turkish cigarettes and lay on our backs, Sebastian’s eyes on the leaves above him, mine on his profile, while the blue-grey smoke rose, untroubled by any wind, to the blue-green shadows of the foliage, and the sweet scent of the tobacco merged with the sweet summer scents around us and the fumes of the sweet golden wine seem to lift us a finger’s breath above the turf and held us suspended.”
The first section of Brideshead Revisited is a love letter to pre-world-war-II England. Charles Ryder goes up to Oxford, falls in love with the charming Sebastian Flyte and discovers the beauty of the city and country at the same time.
Read our Oxford travel guides for more travel inspiration.
Notes From a Small Island – Bill Bryson
Is Bill Bryson the most famous travel writer on the planet? Probably. Does he deserve it? Definitely. Notes from a Small Island chronicles Bryson’s quirky adventures as he travels around the UK in the mid-nineties.
Travelling to the UK? Read our recommendations and suggested itineraries in our UK travel guide.
Louis de Bernieres – Captain Corelli’s Mandolin
Forget the feeble film with Nicholas Cage and Penelope Cruz, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin is the book that propelled Louis de Bernieres to fame. A love story set on the Greek island of Cephalonia during World War II, Captain Corelli’s manages to write a novel that will immediately make you want to book your tickets to Greece, while ostensibly telling a tale of “what happens to the little people when the meglomaniacs get busy”.
A Room With a View – E.M Forster
OK so I kind of love E.M Forster, but this isn’t anything like A Passage to India, I promise. Forster turns his critical eye the upper echelons of British society venturing to Italy to see the sights and experience the “real culture” of the country. A thousand miles away from home, social constraints must be upheld, a process that ultimately exposes how ridiculous they all are.
Three Men in a Boat – Jerome K. Jerome
What better way to spend a summer vacation than rowing up to Oxford along the willow-framed River Thames? This comic novel follows three men in their small boat as they embark on adventures and misdemeanours on their well-meaning but ill-fated trip.
Christopher Isherwood – Goodbye to Berlin
Goodbye to Berlin is Isherwood’s semi-autobiographical account of his time in Weimar Germany before the rise of the Nazis. Set in the glorious hedonism of 1930s Berlin, Isherwood takes great pleasure in describing the quirks and curios of his life and the people he met in this connected series of six short stories.
The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini
Khaled Hosseini’s debut novel is still considered by many to be his most powerful. The Kite Runner tells the story of Amir, from the Afghan city Kabul and his half-brother Hassan. The dissolution of the Afghan monarchy, military rule and the rise of the Taliban are woven into Hosseni’s narrative of guilt and redemption.
In Patagonia – Bruce Chatwin
It was the 1970s when Bruce Chatwin ventured into the then-untamed wilds of Patagonia and used his experiences as the basis of this seminal piece of travel writing. Chatwin wanders through Argentina, writing about the quiet lives of the people he meets and the myths and fables surrounding the still-fresh heritage of the area’s most notorious residents, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
Go on your own Patagonian adventure with this hike through the Torres del Paine National Park.
Into the Wild – Jon Krakauer
Krakauer tells the doomed venture of loner, Christopher McCandless, as he gives away his worldly possessions and sets off into the Alaskan wild. Woefully under-prepared for the harsh demands of the Alaskan habitat, Krakauer’s story charts McCandless’s ultimately fatal venture into the unknown. It will also make you think twice the next time that you think about jacking it all in and getting away from it all in some abandoned habitat or another.
Two Serious Ladies – Jane Bowles
Two Serious Ladies tells the tale of two women, Christina Goering and Frieda Copperfield, who are near paralysed with the boredom and constrictive of high society in New York. Both escape their cloying surroundings, Copperfield with her husband to Panama where she gets sucked into a world of prostitutes and dive bars, Goering to an isolated island house. Both return, battle-scarred and with some not-so-pleasant memories, but ultimately with a new-found knowledge of themselves and their freedoms. Few novels capture the double-edged blade of the the travel experience as Two Serious Ladies. Highly recommended.
The War of Don Emanuel’s Nether Parts – Louis de Bernieres
Captain Corelli’s Mandolin might be de Bernieres’ most famous book, but I have a special place in my heart for his so-called Latin American Novels The War of Don Emanuel’s Nether Parts, Señor Vivo and the Coca Lords and The Troublesome Offspring of Cardinal Guzman. Heavily influenced by the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the novels draw on the histories of numerous South American countries. Don Emanuel, the first of the three creates a semi-grounded, semi-fantastical depiction of small town descending into lawless anarchy and its ultimate redemption.
South American adventures abound in these South America travel guides.
Walden – Henri David Thoreau
If we could have a penny every time that Walden is cited as the original book about living off-grid and away from the demands of society, we’d be richer than our wildest dreams. Forget about the fact that Thoreau was only living a short distance away from the nearest town and immerse yourself in the clear prose telling of the simple life and Thoreau’s spirtual quest.
Wild – Cheryl Strayed
If I’m completely honest, I didn’t love Wild (I’m sure Cheryl Strayed will be fine with that as she rolls around in her millions and doles out another kick-ass piece of advice on Dear Sugar). Though I don’t love the book, I can’t deny that I marvelled at Strayed’s strength and determination as she through-hiked the 2,000 mile Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). It even made me want to strap on a pack and follow in her footsteps, until I remembered that I’m terrified of bears.
Big Sur – Jack Kerouac
So everyone in the history of ever will tell you that you simply have to read Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. And, if you can ignore the fact that the main character in that book (Sal Paradise – in reality Kerouac himself) is an unlikeable selfish tosser who you’d think was a real bore if you met him in real life, then go ahead. Or you could just read Big Sur, where Kerouac will make you fall in love with the stretch of coast that forms part of the much-loved Highway 1 and is much less unpleasant overall.
The Rum Diary – Hunter S. Thompson
Pure carnage. That’s the answer, but what is the question? It’s what happens if you send a bunch of alcoholic journos (including a then 22 year old Hunter S. Thompson) to write for a paper in Puerto Rico. A knotty love story, kind of lovable characters trying to muddle their way through life, terrified of getting old and falling apart while living it up in Puerto Rico – standard gripping Hunter S.Thompson really.
The Motorcycle Diaries – Ernesto “Che” Guevara
Che Guevara’s tales from his pre-fame travels through South America on a motorcycle is at once a classic coming-of-age story and the creation of a foundation that would turn a 23-year-old Argentinean medical student into one of the most famous Marxist revolutionaries in the world. Che sets off to explore South America with his good friend Alberto Granado and witnesses social injustices during the course of his 5,000 mile-journey that irrevocably binds him to the socialist cause.
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Magic realism provides Marquez with the tools to tell the story of the seven generations of the fictional Buendía family, founders and leaders of the small town of Macondo. Ensconced in solitude, the town’s bizarre and unpredictable existence carries on largely undisturbed by the outside world until the railroad arrives, changing the fate of the Buendía family forever. Marquez’s sometimes enchanting, sometimes gruesome story a must-read for anyone searching for a seminal piece of Latin American fiction.
The Constant Gardener – John Le Carré
John le Carré might be best known for spy thrillers such as Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy and The Spy Who Came in From the Cold but his 2001 novel The Constant Gardener ranks among his best. Bribery, corruption and personal relationships are put front and centre in this novel about the murder of a female activist in Nigeria.
So, there we are, the 30 best travel books to inspire your travels. Any suggestions, we’d love to hear them! Want more? Check out The Broke Backpacker’s list of backpacking books.
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