The masterful telling of an iconic journey will take you places, spark your imagination, and inspire grandiose plans. Celebrating the essence of exploration is, in itself, a celebration of humankind and the world. Great travel stories prompt longing gazes at suitcases and plans for peregrination by whatever means possible; a train journey, an overland expedition, a short weekend jaunt, or a long-haul flight to the exotic. Setting aside differences in style and genre, these six gripping travel books incite an incredible sense of discovery through the wayfarer’s eyes.
6. On the Road, Jack Kerouac
Jack Kerouac’s best-selling and legendary novel On the Road is enough to tilt the scales in favor of a life exactly there: permanently on the road. Anyone with a healthy sense of wanderlust should read this iconic classic and follow Kerouac and the Beatniks on a series of road trips across the United States following WWII. Sal Paradise is the narrator of the book (Jack himself of course) who easily transports an imaginative reader from the streets of New York, into San Francisco, and onto Los Angeles with plenty of drugs, poetry, and jazz along the way. There’s an added momentum given to the book by Dean Moriarty, who has an insatiable zest for life. This hitch-hiking, high jinks extravaganza is a compelling part of travel literature and shouldn’t be missed for the richness of the characters and inspiration of the experiences they seek.
5. The Beach, Alex Garland
Your window to London and Thailand, the Beach is a cagey page-turner following an unconventional and undercover island-dwelling expat community taking up residence in Southeast Asia. The story unfolds as it maneuvers through a medium mimicking off-the-cuff culture of pseudo-enlightened backpackers fixated on sunbathing and reality-altering drugs but also honoring the true essence of exploration. The expats discover an ostensibly idyllic island paradise within a national park in Thailand where the protagonist quickly discovers self-discipline and utopia is easier to cultivate than it is to sustain when external restraints are absent. Not many writers so perfectly describe the enchanting beauty of a sunrise or adrenaline rush of diving from a cliff as Garland, who paints his prose expertly. The book is entirely seductive, with its portrayal of ideal travel cautiously balancing the innocent hypocrisies of the Western expatriate crowd delving into the East’s exotic backdrop.
4. Daughter of Fortune, Isabel Allende
Allende conceived an engaging and formidable character in Eliza, who navigates a perilous but spirited journey on a ship’s hold–chasing love–only to arrive in the turbulent streets of San Francisco, filled with an unpredictable crowd of rough men and keen prostitutes–her doctor friend Tao Chien is her savior, guiding her to a new life of independence and her eventual conquest of freedom. The two main and captivating characters, adopted Eliza Summers and her Chinese doctor, are drawn into a enigmatic Californian adventure in the middle of the Gold Rush of 1848. Astoundingly skillful at illustrating detailed scenes along the streets, her chronicle of boomtown San Francisco, with its deluge of crowds from around the globe feverishly dreaming of riches, is enough in itself to alight the imagination of any globetrotter who has wandered into a entirely foreign backdrop for the first time.
3. Travels with Charley: in Search of America, John Steinbeck
In the late summer of 1960, John Steinbeck set off on an American journey across the country: the excursion’s premise was to regain touch with the country, its voice, the scent of the trees and grass, its chroma and depth of light, the pulse of the American people. For the sake of reassurance, he embarked on a journey of the reclamation of American identity with his endearing and dignified pet poodle Charley. They departed on this exquisite rediscovery in Rocinante, his cherished pickup truck. Steinbeck traveled over 16,000 kilometers for a final American audit through more than 35 states, eventually ending in New York following a momentous circumstance of desegregation in New Orleans. This intimate self-portrayal of John Steinbeck, one of the most cherished writers in America, is a self-portrait of his later life–disappointingly, he never penned a definitive autobiography.
2. The Great Railway Bazaar, Paul Theroux
First published in 1975, Paul Theroux’s first novel is arguably his finest piece of work. The Great Railway Bazaar depicts a four month odyssey throughout Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. This is the perfect read for train enthusiasts: it captures the essence of riding the rails, citing journeys on several of the most famous lines including India’s Grand Trunk Express and the Trans-Siberian Railway, on which he returned from his adventures. The book is considered a classic travel writing masterpiece–the beginning follows the Hippie Trail (which sparked hitchhiking mania), an overland section of route going into India and Nepal in the 1960s to late 1970s. In a surprise move, the journey was retraced by Theroux in 2006–he recounted the trip in the book Ghost Train to the Eastern Star and wrote largely about the significant changes among people and places.
1. The Road to Oxiana, Robert Byron
This diary-style book by appealingly eccentric Robert Byron is another piece of literature thought to top the charts in the genre of modern travel writing. Byron journeyed overland across the Middle East in 1933 and 1934 to Oxiana, a region enclosing the river Amu Darya: it moves along the northern border of Afghanistan close to Russia where it marks the divide between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan before twisting northwest to the Aral Sea. This humorous and gripping take of Byron’s journey, which spanned ten months, sparked inspiration among some of the world’s most intrepid travelers to explore a region almost no Westerner had. Byron set off with his friend Christopher Sykes, an early politician with an imaginative and artistic disposition who was devoted to Persian studies. Byron’s writing recounted his discoveries, encounters, and recurrent misadventures in a completely captivating style.