Doing some pre-trip reading is one of the easiest ways to get more out of your travels.
Editor’s note: This has been a fun project and I’m working down the list of these travel books to read myself, reading as fast as I can and discovering new books as I go. I would love to add to this list. So if you have any book suggestions, I’d love, LOVE to hear it in the comments section.
Books have inspired many – if not all – of my travels (my upcoming Turkmenistan trip is inspired by an entry in Atlas Obscura on Darvaza gas crater). They’ve also given them a deeper meaning. I get so much, so much, more out of my travels seeing these stories and characters I’ve read about come to life “on site” so to speak.
Before I go on a trip, I always do as much reading as I can about the destination I’m visiting. Just to psych myself up even more, you know? Fiction or non-fiction, it doesn’t matter I read them all (although to be honest, my favorite books are not going to win any literary awards anytime soon). I love irreverent travelogues as well as cozy mystery series (you’ll see a few of them here). The latter are often written by authors who live in the area and weave real-life characters, locations, and events into the stories. Despite being fictional, they still manage to bring a place to life.
Every now and then I come across books based on real-events that read like a thriller novel. This is my favorite kind of book (you’ll also see a few of them here, see Monster of Florence or The Lost City of the Monkey God).
You’ll also see a few food-related books here. I believe that you can learn a lot about a culture through its food. When I was going to Tokyo, I read nothing else but books on Japanese street food. I can’t say Japan is a country that draws me again and again like it does some people, but I sure love its food!
Where ever you’re going next, I might have a book get you in the right mood!
👍 : Personal favorite
In A Sunburned Country 👍
A laugh out-loud romp through the only country that doubles as a continent, Bill Bryson describes Australia as only he can. This is a collection of hilarious stories from a country so large that a prime minister can go missing with barely a blip in the news. A country filled with more venomous creatures and ridiculously named places (Tittybong, really?) than anywhere else. I highly recommend picking up this book before your trip Down Under or if you’re looking for a good laugh. One of my all time favorites!
Heta Belarus, Dzietka!
Heta Belarus, Dzietka! (This is Belarus, Babe!) is an illustrated book about the peculiarities of Belarusian people. The book is quite short, so it doesn’t delve very deep into the culture of Belarus. Instead, it offers anecdotes about everyday situations such as shopping and eating.
While the book doesn’t offer any mind-blowing revelations, I found the tiny glimpses into the daily lives of people in Belarus very interesting.
Whatever You Do, Don’t Run: True Tales Of A Botswana Safari Guide 👍
This is a collection of stories from the time the author worked as a safari guide in Botswana. Filled with humor, animal antiques, and ridiculous tourist stories. I particularly enjoyed learning about how animals communicate “dangers” to each other in the wild – definitely handy if I’m ever lost in an African wilderness. If this book doesn’t make you want to jump into a plane to go on an African safari, I don’t know what will.
Black Lamb and Grey Falcon
I highly, highly recommend this book for those traveling to ex-Yugoslavia countries (Serbia, Croatia, Kosovo, etc). Especially those who are interested to learn more about the region’s very interesting, albeit confusing, history. These are very young countries and there are still many people who live there who experienced firsthand the turmoil and uncertainties of the breakup of Yugoslavia.
Rebecca chronicles her travels through the region in 1930 and writes about the xenophobia and blind nationalism – issues that are still very much relevant today – that helped set the stage for the formation and the break up of Yugoslavia. Though a pretty long book, you don’t need to be Pol Sci major to enjoy it.
Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China
Before I went to China I had no real idea about its past, and how that shaped the country it is today. This is until I read Wild Swans: a heartbreaking account of China over the last century, told through three generations of women.
The real-life account covers the shocking Cultural Revolution which took the lives of many innocent citizens and it explains why there is still so much propaganda within the country and why Westerners are an object of fascination. Reading Wild Swans definitely enabled me to see the country with fresh eyes and travel China with respect.
Recommended by Claire Martin (Website)
Patagonian Road: A Year Alone Through Latin America
Patagonian Road by Kate McCahill is a memoir about a young woman’s year-long solo journey through Central and South America. In the book, the author recounts her experiences with language barriers, making friends, and the challenges of living life on the road. As I read her vivid accounts of being in several foreign yet hospitable regions of Latin America, it brought me back to my days of riding chicken buses through Guatemala or camping in Torres del Paine National Park.
After reading Patagonian Road, I have started thinking about what my next journey to Latin America will be like, and how I can be even more intentional about connecting with the people and cultures around me.
Islands in the Stream
What a surreal experience it was to read Hemingway’s ‘Islands in the stream’ while visiting Cayo Guillermo on the northern coast of Cuba. Thomas Hudson is a complicated character and the action set in such a remote part of the world makes the novel even more enigmatic.
It’s inevitable for books to trigger our imagination but this time I had the setting right in front of my eyes – the palm fringed coastline and the powder blue waters of the Atlantic. When we took a boat trip to Jardines del Rei, I knew this book will always stay special in my heart.
The Year of Living Danishly: Uncovering the Secrets of the World’s Happiest Country 👍
Because of her husband’s job, Russel moved to Denmark from the UK and hilarity ensued. I can totally relate. I’ve personally moved to 3 different countries so far, so I always enjoy memoirs like this. Moving to a new country is often filled with awkward moments, cringe-worthy misunderstandings, all while trying to adjust to a new place and custom. Russel takes all of these in strides with a big sense of humor.
This book made me want to move to Denmark until I read about their long and dark winter that is.
When I read The Alchemist I knew I had to visit Egypt. In the story, a young boy travels from Spain to Egypt in search of treasure and fate. It’s a wonderful tale of adventure, fortune, and leaving a little bit of yourself behind to rediscover yourself in a new world – in this case, Egypt.
The book paints a beautiful picture of desert sand dunes, ruins, mysticism, pyramids, and long lost treasure – spurring my travel to Egypt. It has all the exciting elements of a good adventure movie and reminded me of the my favorite archaeology movies from my youth.
Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Capetown
In Dark Star Safari, Theroux writes about his first-hand account of Africa specifically travelling from Cairo to Cape Town via any mode of transport available. This journey takes readers the length of Africa by rattletrap bus, dugout canoe, cattle truck, armed convoy, ferry, and train.
I first tried to read this book in 2010 when I was looking for travel related material but found it difficult to connect or understand. The book inspired me though to look at longer overland trips and that this way of travel was possible. I then booked a trip in 2015 to overland from Cairo to Cape Town and I devoured the book.
The book was written in 2002 with his trip taking places a couple of years before that so some of the information is out of date or things have moved on with one of the biggest differences being that the Chinese have started to invest in Africa and they are building better roads.
However in saying that I experienced travelling in armed convoy in Egypt, via ferry to Sudan, dugout canoe in Ethiopia and trains in South Africa.
Recommended by Travelgal Nicole (Website)
Pretty Good Number One: An American Family Eats Tokyo 👍
This book will get you in the mood to go to Tokyo and eat everything! (And you should)
Not One Shrine: Two Food Writers Devour Tokyo
Another funny food-centric travelogue by the same author as Pretty Good Number One. There are so many books on Japan but the title of this speaks to me the most. No shrines. Just food.
Hitching Rides with Buddha
by Will Ferguson (Get it here from Amazon)
I have discovered Hitching Rides with Buddha by chance, during an afternoon looking around my neighbourhood book store. As soon as I have started reading it I have immediately fallen in love, but you know how these things work: the very best love relationships always happen by chance.
After five days reading it, I have booked my tickets to Japan. The thing that I have liked the most about Will Ferguson’s adventure is its hilarious and funny way to share his experience.
Get ready to travel across one of the most fascinating countries through the experience of a very peculiar, solo traveler: after spending some time teaching English in Japan, Will decides to hitchhiking throughout Japan, turning his adventure into one of the funniest travel books ever.
Through his words Will gives you the chance to experience thousand different nuances that characterise the Japanese culture and believe me, all you’ll want to do is jumping on the next plane and see it with your own eyes.
Hitching Rides with Buddha is a great travel book if you are curious about the Japanese culture, if you are planning your first trip to Japan or just if you feel like learning more about this country and entertain yourself with funny stories and historical facts.
Recommended by Cristina Buonerba (Website)
Never Fall Down
by Patricia McCormick (Get it here from Amazon)
The book is based on a true story of Arn Chorn-Pond who was just a boy when Khmer Rouge “liberated” his home town and sent its whole population to labor camp. Despite the odds, he survived. The book doesn’t hold back in its details of what transpired in these camps, so this was not an easy one to finish and yet at the same time I couldn’t put it down. An essential read for those coming to Cambodia or those who want to learn more about this dark chapter in world’s history.
Death in Brittany: A Mystery (Brittany Mystery Series)
Inspired by Bannalec, our road trip through Brittany lead us not only to Pont-Aven but to a number of villages and sites described in his books. We stopped by Douarnenez, Morbihan and Guérande and along with it at restaurants and sights, tried local specialties and got to know typical Breton originalities. I am sure I would have never tried Kouign-Aman in Douarnenez, a typical Breton pastry, without knowing that this pastry was invented there.
Jean-Luc Bannalec reveals local insights wrapped up in suspenseful crime stories – a really must read for everyone who plans to visit Brittany in France!
Why We Took the Car
Germany is often associated with beer, pretzels and castles but modern-day Germany is so much more. It’s actually incredibly diverse, from artsy and philosophical, stylish and funky, to multicultural and colourful.
And it’s cool, seriously cool. And one of the books that epitomises this cool, care-free 21st-century Germany is Wolfgang Herrndorf’s Why We Took the Car.
A book about two rather ordinary teenage boys who set off on a crazy, impromptu roadtrip across Germany, I found it to be the perfect companion for our own travels around one of my favourite countries. As Mike and Tschick head off on their roadtrip without a plan, map or destination in mind, they learn to let go of what they can’t control (peer pressure and friends, family tragedies, or just life as a teenager), delve head first into adventures, and embrace life as it comes.
Whilst you won’t get a ton of insight into Germany’s rich history, “Why we took the car” shows you the Germany that I identify with. They meet strangers who smile at them, people who are downright crazy, and some who just make you laugh. It’s lighthearted and sad, funny and serious, and that’s exactly how I experience Germany. It’s a country with so many layers, politically, historically, culturally, and “Why we took the car” shows you how ordinary and how extraordinary growing up in Germany can be.
It’s a bittersweet tale about two outsiders: Sometimes down to earth, sometimes philosophical but refreshing all around. “Why we took the car” is the perfect companion for a lazy summer day in Germany, preferably on a roadtrip.
The Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story 👍
This is an incredible book based on a real-life National Geographic expedition to find a long lost civilization in a remote jungle in Honduras. The expedition team had to wield this highly advanced, yet classified technology to find the buried city, all while battling jaguars, giant snakes, and a mysterious flesh-eating disease. This is the real-life adventure stuff Indiana Jones is based on. I devoured the book in one night and I had to keep reminding myself that I was reading a non-fiction.
The Saffron Trail*
We love Morocco and travel there often, but before reading ‘The Saffron Trail’ I had no idea that saffron farming was a big ‘thing’ in the country. The book is a great light-hearted tale that transports the reader from the bustling souks of Marrakech to remote saffron farms in the shadows of the Atlas Mountains.
I wanted to discover more so on our latest trip we headed to the Ourika Valley and spent a day at an organic saffron farm to learn about the harvest and taste several strange and wonderful saffron products. A fabulous day out and it really brought the story locations alive!
Finding George Orwell in Burma
In the fall of 2009, a college assignment for a Dystopian Literature class led me to the pages of “Finding George Orwell in Burma,” where an exploration of Orwellian themes such as social injustice and authoritarian governments is done within the context of Myanmar. An American journalist who goes by the pseudonym “Emma Larkin” retraces author George Orwell’s time in Burma—now Myanmar—where he spent time in his youth as a soldier working for the British Empire.
What she uncovers is “that of a real-life Nineteen Eighty-Four where Orwell’s nightmare visions are being played out with a gruelling certainty.” But for every eerie comparison she makes between Orwell’s fictional world to that of Myanmar’s current political landscape, she also paints a fascinating portrait of the everyday life of the Burmese and traditions that for years before its borders were opened to tourists, were completely unknown to the Western world.
I remember being so enamored by her descriptions of swapping stories with her sources in teahouses and riding colonial-era trains that rambled over rickety train track that I vowed one day, I would see the country for myself.
What I discovered during my visit to Myanmar in February of 2017 echoed truth to each and every one of Larkin’s words. Part literary analysis, part travelogue, this is not only a journey into a country long barred from outsiders, but also into the untold past of one of the most influential writers of the 20th century.
Recommended by Izzy Pulido (Website, @thenextsomewhere)
Why the Dutch are Different: A Journey into the Hidden Heart of the Netherlands
Yeah, it’s pretty funny and most of it accurate. Now open wide…
Recommended by my dentist (who’s Dutch)
The Country Under My Skin
This is still the most impactful book I’ve read in my adult life, and my time in Nicaragua would not have been the same without it.
Gioconda Belli writes a memoir about her time fighting for equality and justice as a Sandinista during the Nicaraguan Revolution. She talks about everything from motherhood to sexism to being exhiled to Costa Rica to meeting Fidel Castro to losing friends and family to a dictator, but what really influenced my trip to Nicaragua was the window she gave me into the importance of this literally revolutionary movement on Nicaraguan history and culture (their current president is a former Sandinista – she talks about him in her book).
The context this book gave me for my trip was incredible: I stayed on a coffee farm in the same area where she writes about sending Nicaraguan youths from the capital to stay and work for the summer so they understand fully how the least privileged of their people live. I went on a horseback tour in northern Nicaragua and my guide explained what it was like to live there, the heart of the revolution that Belli describes, in the 80s and how he fled to the United States on foot.
Everywhere I went, I saw symbols of the Sandinistas, from red and black flags waving over the beach in San Juan del Sur to the letters “FSLN” spray painted on every other building in Leon, and every time, I understood what they truly meant thanks to this book.
The Monster of Florence 👍
Douglas Preston is one of my fave thriller authors, and this book is written in his usual, suspenseful style. The difference? It’s based on real crimes, committed by still-unidentified serial killer known only as the Monster of Florence.
It provides an amazing insight to Italy’s peculiar criminal justice system as well as the twist and turns that a crime investigation often involves. After reading this book, I doubt I’ll be able to look at Florence countryside the same way again.
The City of Falling Angels
by John Berendt (Get it here from Amazon)
I always thought it was interesting that Berendt chose Venice and Savannah for his books because as a traveler the cities had quite a bit in common for me. They are both known to charm visitors with their unique architecture and overall beauty. They both have neat little corners to discover — if you can get passed the tourist – thronged main attractions. And while you leave each city having loved your time there, you feel like you haven’t gotten to know it very well.
Each city has an inaccessibility to it — as though the really interesting stuff is all going on among locals, behind closed doors, just beyond the reach of us pesky, nosy tourists. And the locals want it that way.
City of Falling Angels (like Midnight in the Garden) takes you behind those closed doors and lets you know what your missing, sketching the city well from the points of view of all those aloof locals. For me it brought the city to life in way that walking around by itself wouldn’t have, no matter how enjoyable walking around was.
Recommended by Eileen Gunn (Website)
Turn Right at Machu Picchu: Rediscovering the Lost City One Step at a Time 👍
The author, Mark Adams is a rather unadventurous, adventure travel editor, who reckons he holds the World’s Record for most trips to Peru without ever visiting Machu Picchu. He sets off in the footsteps of Hiram Bingham, the Yale Professor, who “discovers” Machu Picchu in 1911. Jon, his seasoned Australian guide, with strong opinions about Peru and Machu Picchu, is another main character.
Adams’ engaging and humorous story offers perspective on the history of Machu Picchu, what’s happened since its discovery, and the impact to both tourism and Peru, which enriches the experience of visiting in person.
The Alps: A Human History from Hannibal to Heidi and Beyond
by Stephen O’Shea (Get it here from Amazon)
For everyone who’s gazed at those peaks with both dread and longing.
Recommended by Brandon
I have a major crush on the Southwest deserts and ever since my visit to Mesa Verde National Park I’ve always been intrigued about the pre-Colombian cultures that existed here in the United States. I have very patchy knowledge of the interplay and timelines of the various tribes who called this place home, but whenever I read about them, I’m enthralled by their ingenuity of living off the seemingly inhospitable landscape, their complex road systems, and society structures. There’s still so much we don’t know about them.
The Lost World of the Old Ones: Discoveries in the Ancient Southwest
by David Roberts (Get it here from Amazon)
Florida Authentica: Your field guide to the unique, eccentric, and natural marvels of the real Sunshine State 👍
This is slightly different than the rest because it’s actually a guidebook. But it’s a fun one, I promise! I bought this before my roadtrip to the Sunshine State and I enjoyed reading it so much I read the whole thing from end to end. I don’t think I would’ve enjoyed my visit to Florida as much as I did without this book. I definitely wouldn’t have found my way to see the mermaids of Weeki Wachee if I hadn’t read about it here.
Nine Lives: Death and Life in New Orleans
New Orleans is a city that is all about its culture, its soul, its music, and its people–and that’s exactly what I was excited to experience there after reading Nine Lives by Dan Baum.
The true stories cover nine characters from all walks of life and traces their lives from the 1960’s to this decade. I was captured immediately, not only by the characters, but by the city: big and loud and beautiful and broken that it was.
I finished this book even more excited to visit New Orleans than when I started, and I thought of the characters many times while walking the streets shown in their stories.”
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil 👍
The first thing on my Savannah itinerary was Mercer House. The famous Mercer House where Jim Williams committed murder that shook the city of Savannah and was tried four times. I learned this story from John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.
Although the book is based on a true story and is considered non-fiction, it reads like a novel and gives a wonderful insight into the life of people of Savannah. From a man who’s walking an invisible dog to a drag queen who’s causing a scene at the debutante ball to a voodoo priestess doing magic in the middle of the night – the characters of the book show the eccentric side of Savannah.
Interestingly enough, on a tour of Mercer House, the guide never once mentioned the murder, although he did talk about the book and the movie based on Berendt’s novel. Even so, reading this New York Times bestseller helps understand the city and its people much better.
Back Roads of the Cape
I really enjoyed this non-conventional travel guide entitled “Back Roads of the Cape”. The book is set in South Africa and takes you on engrossing journeys exploring routes from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth including well known highways such as the Garden Route and lesser known byways such as the amazing mountain passes over the Langeberg, Outeniqua and the Swartberg.
It’s a book for people who like road trips and we do! This book inspired us to head off through lonely tracts of unspoilt land to explore mountain passes with great views. It’s a practical travel guide which also offers historical tidbits, personal recollections, environmental debates, social observation and maps but it’s the story of each region which is fascinating.
Definitely a book to inspire a South African road trip.
The Birth of Korean Cool: How One Nation Is Conquering the World Through Pop Culture
When I decided to move to South Korea back in 2013, I had virtually no idea why or how it became such a popular destination for ESL teachers. Given that the nation offers the most substantial package in the realm of teaching English abroad, I wanted to learn a bit more about its economy and modern history. Not only does this book present the socio-economic history of South Korea in a witty and personal way. The memoir-style novel is a fascinating look into how Korea rose from a third world nation to where it is today. Until reading this, I had absolutely zero clue that South Korea’s ‘hallyu’ – or wave of popularity – had been on the rise since the 1990s.
Not only does K-pop have its own department in South Korea’s government, but I had no idea just how much the pop culture phenomenon truly has shaped the recent history, present and future of the nation. While I do wish it was a bit more detailed, I really think this is a great book for anyone curious about learning a bit about South Korean culture, history and itching for a good laugh.
United Arab Emirates
All Strangers Are Kin: Adventures in Arabic and the Arab World
Zora’s journey to master Arabic actually took her all over the Arab speaking world: from Cairo, Beirut, the Gulf, to Morocco. I decided to put this book under UAE because I know so little about this country I thought it was the most interesting chapter in the book.
The book can get a bit technical, but I learned so much about the subtleties of Arabic language. You don’t need to be a student of Arabic language to appreciate what the language (and its dialects) can tell you about the history and culture of the people who speak it.
I find her description of the places and the people she met while learning this very complex language moving and vivid – I really hope I get to visit the region sometime soon.
Image Coming Soon
Eating Viet Nam: Dispatches from a Blue Plastic Table 👍
From the very first chapter where the author describes eating a pig’s uterus (after cajoling one of his students to take him to his favorite eatery), I was hooked.
Image Coming Soon
Before he became famous for Jurassic Park and Andromeda Strain, Crichton wrote “Travels” – a biography of some sort chronicling his travels from Mayan Ruins to the world of mystic and spoon benders. I first read this book when I was… 14? And it has stayed with me ever since. What I love most about this book is Crichton’s intense curiosity of the world around and his willingness to scratch the surface, to go deeper than most travelers would. It was written in almost a self-deprecating style. I love authors who don’t take himself seriously (*cough* Theroux *cough*).
What would you add to the list?