The Top Ten Most Influential Travel Books

Even before there were armchairs, voracious bookworms traveled the world just by reading

Travel books
Over the course of more than 2,000 years, countless travel books have transformed little known places into popular destinations. © Owen Franken / CORBIS

William H.H. Murray's guidebook to the Adirondacks “kindled a thousand camp fires and taught a thousand pens how to write of nature,” inspiring droves of American city-dwellers to venture into the wild and starting a back-to-nature movement that endures to this day. Of course, Murray's slender volume was part of a great literary tradition. For more than two millennia, travel books have had enormous influence on the way we have approached the world, transforming once-obscure areas into wildly popular destinations.

A detailed selection would fill a library. So what follows is a brazenly opinionated short-list of travel classics—some notorious, some barely remembered—that have inspired armchair travelers to venture out of their comfort zone and hit the road. 

1. Herodotus, Histories (c.440 BC)

Homer's Odyssey is often referred to as the first travel narrative, creating the archetypal story of a lone wanderer, Odysseus, on a voyage filled with mythic perils, from terrifying monsters like the Cyclops to seductive nymphs and ravishing sorceresses. As may be.  But the first real “travel writer,” as we would understand the term today, was the ancient Greek author Herodotus, who journeyed all over the eastern Mediterranean to research his monumental Histories. His vivid account of ancient Egypt, in particular, created an enduring image of that exotic land, as he “does the sights” from the pyramids to Luxor, even dealing with such classic travel tribulations as pushy guides and greedy souvenir vendors. His work inspired legions of other ancient travelers to explore this magical, haunted land, creating a fascination that reemerged during the Victorian age and remains with us today. In fact, Herodotus qualifies not just as the Father of History, but the Father of Cultural Travel itself, revealing to the ancient Greeks—who rarely deemed a foreign society worthy of interest—the rewards of exploring a distant, alien world.

 2. Marco Polo, The Travels of Marco Polo (c.1300)

When the 13th-century Venetian merchant Marco Polo returned home after two decades wandering China, Persia and Indonesia, the stories he and his two brothers told were dismissed as outright fiction—until (legend goes) the trio sliced open the hems of their garments, and hundreds of gems poured to the ground in a glittering cascade. Still, Polo's adventure might have remained all but unknown to posterity if an accident had not allowed him to overcome his writer's block: Imprisoned by the Genoans in 1298 after a naval battle, he used his enforced leisure time to dictate his memoirs to his cellmate, the romance writer Rustichello da Pisa. The resulting volume, filled with marvelous observations about Chinese cities and customs and encounters with the potentate Kublai Khan (and including, admittedly, some outrageous exaggerations), has been a bestseller ever since, and indelibly defined the Western view of the Orient. There is evidence that Polo intended his book to be a practical guide for future merchants to follow his path. The vision of fabulous Chinese wealth certainly inspired one eager and adventurous reader, fellow Italian Christopher Columbus, to seek a new ocean route to the Orient. (Of course, Islamic scholars will point out that the 14th-century explorer Ibn Battuta traveled three times as far as Polo around Africa, Asia and China, but his monumental work Rihla, “The Journey,” remained little known in the West until the mid-19th century).

3. Laurence Sterne, A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy (1768)

When the author of Tristram Shandy penned this extraordinary autobiographical novel, the Grand Tour of Europe as a rite of passage was in full swing. Wealthy young British aristocrats (almost invariably male), took educational expeditions to the great cultural sites of Paris, Venice, Rome and Naples, seeking out the classical sites and Renaissance artworks in the company of an erudite “bear leader,” or tour guide. Sterne's rollicking book suddenly turned the sober Grand Tour principle on its head. The narrator deliberately avoids all the great monuments and cathedrals, and instead embarks on a personal voyage, to meet unusual people, seeking out new and spontaneous experiences: (“'tis a quiet journey of the heart in pursuit of NATURE, and those affections which arise out of her, which make us love each other—and the world, better than we do.”) His meandering journey across France and Italy is filled with amusing encounters, often of an amorous nature (involving assorted chamber maids and having to share rooms in inns with member of the opposite sex), which prefigures the Romantic era's vision of travel as a journey of self-discovery. Even today, most “true travelers” pride themselves on finding vivid and unique experiences, rather than generic tourist snapshots or lazy escapes.

4. Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad (1869)

Writers of the Gilded Age (a term Mark Twain incidentally coined) produced thousands of earnest and tedious travel books, a tendency that Twain deftly deflated with Innocents Abroad. Sent as a journalist on a group cruise tour to see the great sights of Europe and the Holy Land, Twain filed a series of hilarious columns to the Alta California newspaper that he later reworked into this classic work. With its timely, self-deprecating humor, it touched a deep chord, lampooning the naïveté of his fellow Americans (“The gentle reader will never, never know what a consummate ass he can become until he goes abroad”) and the modest indignities of exploring the sophisticated Old World (“In Paris they just simply opened their eyes and stared when we spoke to them in French! We never did succeed in making those idiots understand their own language.”) The result was to embolden many more of his fellow countrymen to fearlessly cross the pond and immerse themselves in Europe, and, hardly less importantly, to begin a new style of comic travel writing that echoes today through hugely popular modern authors such as Bill Bryson. Today, Innocents Abroad is one of the few 19th-century travel books that is still read eagerly for pleasure. (Its perfect companion is, of course, Roughing It, Twain's account of his misspent youth as a miner in the wild American West).

5. Norman Douglas, Siren Land (1911)

The Italian island of Capri began its proud reputation for licentiousness in ancient Roman times, and by the mid-19 century was luring free-living artists, writers and bon vivants from chilly northern climes. (It was even said that Europe had two art capitals, Paris and Capri). But its modern reputation was sealed by the libertine writer Norman Douglas, whose volume Siren Land offered an account of the carefree southern Italian life “where paganism and nudity and laughter flourished,” an image confirmed by his 1917 novel South Wind, where the island is called Nepenthe, after the ancient Greek elixir of forgetfulness. (Siren Land gets its title from Homer’s Odyssey; Capri was the home of the Sirens, ravishing women who lured sailors to their deaths by shipwreck with their magical voices). Millions of sun-starved British readers were captivated by the vision of Mediterranean sensuality and Douglas' playful humor. (“It is rather puzzling when one comes to think of it,” he writes, “to conceive how the old Sirens passed their time on days of wintry storm. Modern ones would call for cigarettes, Grand Marnier, and a pack of cards, and bid the gale howl itself out.”) Douglas himself was flamboyantly gay, and liked to scamper drunkenly around Capri’s gardens with vine leaves in his hair. Thanks largely to his writings, the island in the 1920s entered a new golden age, luring exiles disillusioned by post-war Europe. The visitors included many great British authors who also penned travel writing classics, such as D.H. Lawrence (whose marvelous Etruscan Places covers his travels in Italy; Lawrence also showed drafts of the torrid Lady Chatterly’s Lover to friends while on holiday in Capri in 1926), E.M Forster, Christopher Isherwood, Aldous Huxley, Graham Greene and W.H. Auden. (The renowned poet wrote a travel volume on Iceland, of all places). The collective vision of Mediterranean freedom has inspired generations of travelers to those warm shores ever since.

6. Freya Stark, The Valley of the Assassins (1934)

The Victorian age produced a surprising number of adventurous women travel writers—Isabella Bird, for instance, wrote about exploring Hawaii, the Rocky Mountains and China—but the authors were regarded as rare and eccentric exceptions rather than role models by female readers. In the more liberated era of the 1930s, Freya Stark's tome revealed just how far women could travel alone and live to write about it. Her breakthrough book, The Valley of the Assassins, was a thrilling account of her journey through the Middle East. Its highlight was her visit to the ruined stronghold of the Seven Lords of Alamut, a medieval cult of hashish-eating political killers in the Elburz Mountains of Iran whose exploits had been legendary in the West since the Crusades. (The singular escapade made her one of the first women ever inducted into the Royal Geographical Society.) The bestseller was followed by some two dozen works whose freshness and candor inspired women to venture, if not by donkey into war zones, at least into exotic climes. “To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the pleasantest sensations in the world,” she enthused in Baghdad Sketches. “You have no idea of what is in store for you, but you will, if you are wise and know the art of travel, let yourself go on the stream of the unknown and accept whatever comes in the spirit in which the gods may offer it.”

7. Jack Kerouac, On the Road (1957)

This thinly veiled autobiographical novel, about a group of young friends hitch-hiking and bumming their way across the United States, has inspired generations of restless readers to take a leap into the unknown. Although the publisher made Kerouac change the actual names (Kerouac became Sal Paradise, the wild driver Neal Cassady became Dean Moriarty and poet Allen Ginsberg became Carlo Marx), its episodes were almost entirely drawn from life, qualifying it as a classic of travel writing. It was also a cultural phenomenon: Kerouac legendarily hammered out the whole lyrical work on a giant scroll of paper (possibly on one speed-induced binge), and carried it about in his rucksack for years before it was published, becoming an instant icon of the rebellious “beat” era, thumbing its nose at the leaden conformity of the cold war era. Today, it is still a dangerous book to read at an impressionable age (at least for younger males; women tend to be left out of the boyish pursuits, except as sex objects). The delirious sense of freedom as Kerouac rides across the wheat fields of Nebraska in the back of a farm truck or speeds across the Wyoming Rockies toward Denver is infectious.

8. Tony and Maureen Wheeler, Across Asia on the Cheap (1973)

It was one of history's great self-publishing success stories. When two young travelers roughed it in a minivan from London to Sydney, they decided to write a practical guide about their experiences. Working on a kitchen table, they typed out a list of their favorite budget hotels and cheap restaurants from Tehran to Djakarta, stapled the copied pages together into a 90-page booklet and sold it for $1.80 a pop. Their instincts were correct: There was a huge hunger for information on how to travel on a budget in the Third World, and the modest booklet sold 1,500 copies in a week. The hit became the basis for Lonely Planet, a vast guidebook empire with books on almost every country on earth. The young and financially challenged felt welcomed into the exotic corners of Nepal, Morocco and Thailand, far from the realm of five-star hotels and tour groups, often for a few dollars a day. The guidebooks' power quickly became such that in many countries, a recommendation is still enough to make a hotelier's fortune. (Having sold 100 million copies of their guidebooks, the Wheelers finally sold Lonely Planet for £130 million in 2010 to the BBC. (The BBC recently confirmed plans to sell the franchise to NC2 Media at a loss for just £51.5 million. Nobody ever claimed Across Asia was high literature, but the Wheelers now help fund a literary institution, The Wheeler Center, in their home city of Melbourne, Australia, to promote serious fiction and non-fiction). 

9. Bruce Chatwin, In Patagonia (1977)

Along with Paul Theroux's wildly entertaining Great Railway Bazaar, Chatwin's slim, enigmatic volume became widely credited with the modern rebirth of travel writing. A former Sotheby's art auctioneer, the erudite Chatwin famously quit the London Sunday Times Magazine via telegram to his editor (“Have gone to Patagonia”) and disappeared into the then little-known and remote tip of South America. In a stylistic first for the genre, In Patagonia weaves a personal quest (for a piece of prehistoric skin of the mylodon, which the author had seen as a child) with the region's most surreal historical episodes, related in a poetic, crisp and laconic style. Focusing on god-forsaken outposts rather than popular attractions, Chatwin evokes the haunting ambiance with deftly drawn vignettes from Patagonia's storybook past, such as how Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid lived in a cabin in southern Argentina, or how a Welsh nationalist colony was begun in the windswept town of Trelew. And thus the quirky travel pilgrimage was born.

 10. Peter Mayle, A Year in Provence (1989)

Mayle's breezy account of his mid-life decision to escape dark and sodden England to renovate a farmhouse in Ménerbes, a village in the south of France, created an entire sub-genre of do-it-yourself travel memoirs filled with charmingly quirky locals. It also inspired thousands to physically emulate his life-changing project, flooding Provence and other sunny idylls with expats in search of a rustic fixer-upper and supplies of cheap wine. Aided by the relaxed residency laws of the European Union, discount airlines and France's super-fast TGV trains, the once-impoverished southern France quickly became gentrified by retirees from Manchester, Hamburg and Stockholm, until it is now, in the words of one critic, a “bourgeois theme park for foreigners.” (Tuscany became equally popular, thanks to Frances Mayes' beguiling books, with the shores of Spain and Portugal following suit). Things got so crowded that Mayle himself moved out – although he has since returned to a different tiny village, Lourmarin, a stone's throw from his original haunt. In recent years, Elizabeth Gilbert's wildly successful Eat Pray Love (2007) offered a similar spirit of personal reinvention, inspiring a new wave of travelers to follow her  path to the town of Ubud in Bali in search of spiritual (and romantic) fulfillment


A Smithsonian Magazine Contributing Writer, Tony Perrottet is the author of five travel and history books, including Pagan Holiday: On the Trail of Ancient Roman Tourists and The Sinner's Grand Tour: A Journey Through the Historical Underbelly of Europe;

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