We keep a running list of the books that inspire travel for ourselves. Hopefully, you’ll see some old favorites and some new books to try!
What do you do to inspire travel for yourself? Much of the time, our travel inspiration comes in the pages of a book. We eagerly await new titles from our favorite authors, and we’re always on the lookout for books set in places or periods in history that we’re curious about. Many times we’ve been so energized by what we’ve read that we’ve made actual travel plans based on a book we’ve enjoyed. Do you keep an eye out for books that will influence your bucket list, too?
Because we’re bookworms, we’re interested in books that have influenced others. We devour book lists of all kinds, but inspirational travel books will always cause us to pause and take notes. We keep a running list of the books that inspire travel for ourselves and decided it was about time we shared it with you! Hopefully, you’ll see some old favorites and some new books to inspire travel for you in the future!
“Vagabonding is about not merely reallotting a portion of your life for travel but rediscovering the entire concept of time.” Practical information on planning, financing and adjusting to full-time travel with an emphasis on creative discovery and spiritual growth.
This book was so influential as we began to discuss our decision to travel full time. While we had been technically location independent for several years, we’d kept the safety net of a home base. Rolf Potts is convincing when he explains the creative and spiritual benefits of taking the long-term travel path.
Empty Roads & Broken Bottles: In search for The Great Perhaps by Charlotte Eriksson.
Lauded by positive reviews as an emotional experience, simple yet profound, this book is the journey of an unconventional, artistic thinker, who wandered homeless for a year with a guitar and wanted to live her art.
More than anything, this is a book about personal courage wrapped up in the physicality of travel. While many young people do choose to take a gap year or sabbatical of some other sort before they settle in to complete their education or embark on a traditional career, it takes bravery to declare, “All I wanted was my art and the chance to be the creator of my own world, my own reality.”
Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand: A Novel by Helen Simonson.
An outstanding debut novel that delivers an atmospheric slice of English village life, while confronting the tensions of the past social construct and the new multiculturalist landscape. All this within a charming and humorous romance between two very different, complex characters. This book will make you want to look for an escape vacation rental in a country hamlet.
I read this just before we took a house sit in a small English village where the basic necessities of life – the pub and the grocer – were within walking distance. Slowing down to appreciate the ambience of West Sussex village life was a gift.
The Palace of Illusions: A Novel by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni.
Divakaruni retells the Mahabharata epic (one of the two oldest legends of India). Elements of adventure, romance, politics, magic and fate from the feminine perspective of one character, who is rendered in a very relatable way through her feelings and relationships.
India remains an enigma to us, although we’ve been exposed to her by virtue of her descendants in many parts of the world (see: Indian Home Cooking with Love and Light where our friend taught Pete how to cook several dishes). It seems to us that you come to know a country well by her legends; this take acknowledges a new perspective on traditional story by using the feminine voice.
A Long Way Home: A Memoirby Saroo Brierly.
The true story of how an Indian-Australian adoptee used Google Earth to find the town in which his birth mother waited 25 years for his return. Simply written, straightforwardly told. The ultimate journey home from heartbreak to joy has aspects of the miraculous and a stunning ending which evokes futility, hopelessness, gratitude and acceptance.
While India has yet to conquer us, we anticipate the sheer overwhelm of the needle in the haystack aspects of this story. The complex emotions and selflessness of both Saroo’s birth and adoptive mothers provide a poignant subtext to his journey to fill the empty space held by his past.
A morality tale of what becomes a journey within, which includes supernatural dreams and omens. Sometimes derided by critics who dismiss the self-help aspects of “risking it all to follow your dream” as inspirational placebo, this book nonetheless enjoys passionate acclaim as universal parable. Travel, as an instrument of personal transformation, is metaphorical alchemy.
The spiritual message here – that happiness is found within ourselves – is tempered with an entertaining story and an attitude of joyfulness. Many readers have said this book has inspired the personal courage to define and achieve their best.
Without Reservations: The Travels of an Independent Womanby Alice Steinbach.
A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist achieves a self-rediscovery quest in a highly satisfying account of her sabbatical in England, France, and Italy. From the small reflective moments come the bigger realizations. Reading this book was self-revelatory and validating; who are we when we choose not to define ourselves in the terms of others.
Steinbach’s goal was emotional connection with each of her chosen destinations, but the meat of the story is the candor with which she describes the circumstances leading up to her sabbatical and how they founded her reinvention. This is the coming of age story only a woman in mid-life can tell, having left the giddy self-absorption of youth behind and traded it for mature introspection.
A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle.
The first of its genre from back in the day when buying a farmhouse in France was something one actually might afford, this book nonetheless champions the slower pace that eludes the typical two-weeks’ vacation traveler with a wryly entertaining and candid tone. Related: A Good Year (movie with Russell Crowe).
One of the first authors to kindle the idea that this was a more unconventional path to take in life, Mayle sets an idyllic scene which is dashed to reality when the French farmhouse he purchases succumbs to ravages of weather and old age. Filled with the type of ironic self-deprecation and understatement as only the British can manage.
Building on the allegory of learning the French bocce-like game of pétanque, Shore, a technology veteran assigned to a village pens a memoir that reveals a more modern take on Peter Mayle’s theme. Personal connections grow in this immersion story where culture is absorbed slowly, and community is experienced on the sport court or with a glass of pastis.
Immersing oneself like this is similar to what we’ve experienced on long-term house sits, where the sense of belonging begins to flower. Shore, too soon it would seem, was called back to his home country of Canada. We’d like to see how he treats reverse culture shock.
Travels with Charley in Search of America by John Steinbeck.
From one of America’s most beloved writers, the chronicle of a several months-long journey, though taken in 1960, rings true today. Steinbeck wanted to reconnect with his country and chose to do so in a pickup camper with his dog. Weaving memoir, philosophy and travelogue with a poignancy that reveals the man as he chronicles everyman in America.
Steinbeck inspired the “no regrets” form of wanderlust in us by referring to his own mortality. We found ourselves tracing his route along U.S. 10 in Minnesota, North Dakota and Montana, and then again along Route 66 through Arizona. Nowadays, we feel like the eleven weeks Steinbeck took is much too fast. Maybe eleven months if we were to do the whole thing?
The Mouse That Roared (The Grand Fenwick Series) (Volume 1)by Leonard Wibberly.
An infinitesimal nation, just 3 miles wide and 5 miles long, commits to a grand scheme designed to elicit oodles of foreign aid from a mighty world power by declaring war, and then deliberately losing. What could possibly go wrong in this hilarious cold war comedy/satire?
We visited Liechtenstein – thought by many to be the model for the Grand Duchy in the story – to find a perverse twist: the trust its inhabitants had (fueled in part by the enormity of successful post-war financial investments) in their government was reminiscent of something we’ve lost in our own as Americans. Classically portrayed by Peter Sellers and cast in the movie of the same name.
The Tomb in Seville by Norman Lewis.
In the 1930s as the onset of civil war in Spain threatened, the man who would become one of England’s finest travel writers and his brother-in-law traveled on foot, slept in caves, and avoided snipers on their way to a family tomb. From arriving in a village where a witch had recently been burned at the stake to investigating faith-healers and upper-class society mavens who drank animal blood, the book he wrote 70 years later glorifies the mysticism, beauty and humanity of the Spain that “attracts and holds you” in an era all but forgotten.
We want to spend more time in Spain, and the route between Madrid and Seville beckons. With current events in Catalunya forming the backdrop to our modern impressions, the timeless quality of this story gathers more emphasis.
The Distant Land of My Father by Bo Caldwell.
The exoticism of pre-war Shanghai and war-time Pasadena is the backdrop to a family story of interrupted privilege. This debut novel reads like a memoir of an enigmatic parent’s influence, but the romance is with Shanghai. Today, visitors can still glimpse this world on the side streets and in the residential alleys which are steeped in timelessness, yet only a few steps from the skyscrapers and high end shopping blocks.
I was stunned to realize this book isn’t a true memoir, but a work of fiction; the author’s voice is beautifully authentic and the descriptions are photographic. As a first effort, this book is a tour de force with real staying power. I found myself thinking of this story when we walked the riverbanks of Shanghai’s Bund and vintage shophouse districts.
It might seem odd to include something with the subtitle “Adventures in Going Nowhere” in a post intended to inspire travel, but this is little book is overflowing with wisdom. Beloved travel essayist and novelist, Iyer ‘s parents are an Oxford philosopher and a religious scholar. This pedigree, along with a distinguished body of work, discerns him as a spiritual teacher.
In this tiny tome, Iyer differentiates the concept of physically moving from place to place by referring to it as “horizontal” travel; implicit is the notion that vertical travel is the variety of attainments in the mind. Even if you’re packing light, you owe it to yourself to give this book space.
A Paris Apartment: A Novel by Michelle Gable.
A Sotheby’s auctioneer is brought to a Parisian apartment filled with antiques and art which has lain untouched for seven decades. In its treasures lie the story of a courtesan during the Belle Epoch told through journal entries and a dual timeline. Basing it upon a true story, the author deftly weaves a mystery from the past into a current crisis of spirit as the protagonist navigates rocky professional territory.
If you’ve ever wandered the streets of Paris at dusk just as the lights go on, the sense of voyeurism this book evokes will resonate. It’s hard to imagine that an apartment would be untouched for seventy years as a living time capsule, but the romantic and intriguing nature of the discoveries therein makes a compelling story.
Mission to Paris: A Novel by Alan Furst.
A journey to what the New York Times called “the dark moral atmosphere of Europe in the 1930s” is juxtaposed with the romantic Parisian imagery that has drawn the traveler to the City of Light for centuries. Not content with just atmosphere, the story-telling is fast-paced and perfectly flavored with detail and character, recreating the world as it was during the years leading up to and including WWII.
History is ever-present in Paris, but this era is of particular interest to us. During our visits it was easy to take a step back in time: our favorite hotel is steps from the Gestapo’s headquarters building in the Trocadero, and the commemorative plaques throughout the city are hard to miss.
The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón.
In the furtive atmosphere of 1945’s Barcelona, a boy’s widowed father introduces him to a secretive world by which the reader is helplessly captivated. The prose is astonishingly beautiful, the characters poetically rendered, and the story is extraordinarily suspenseful. This is film noir on the page, dark and mysterious. The characters are inscrutable; you feel like you should be glancing back to see if someone is following you in real life as you read.
If you’ve visited Barcelona recently, or plan to, the parallels between current events and the political conditions which are the backdrop to this story will apply a layer of familiarity to your experience.
At Home in the World: Reflections on Belonging While Wandering the Globe by Tsh Oxenreider.
A travel memoir from a blogger (The Art of Simple) and podcaster (The Simple Show) covers her nine months of family travel, while examining the meaning of “home” and the Catch-22 many travelers have in longing for it. As former expats, the pull of travel was intense for the author and her husband after several years back in the United States. Taking advantage of their children’s pre-school age, their journey leads them through Australia, Asia, Africa and Europe.
This book resonated with us as minimalists, but even more so for the fact that our concept of “home” has been considerably altered since we left the U.S. mainland five years ago, subsequently returned, and left again.
A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit.
File this title under “Exploration: General.” Solnit tints her words on transformation with metaphorical compassion in a collection of essays designed to inspire us to “leave the door open for the unknown.”
We found this book validating in terms of what fuels our own travel addiction. It is steeped in the inner journey away from terror at the loss of control. The book identifies the vivid state of exhilaration travelers – out of their element, completely engaged with their senses – describe as being fully present in the moment, vulnerable, disoriented, yet firing on all cylinders in a form of hyper-observance.
It’s rare that an author reading aloud from his work will move you to tears, but Don does. This anthology includes some of his best from a 40-year career as travel writer and editor for Lonely Planet and the San Francisco Chronicle. Don writes with sensitivity and connection. His descriptions are plain-spoken and detailed, placing you squarely in the middle of stories which are sometimes predictable, but more often not.
Having taken a class with Don, I can assure you that if you’re a writer, he makes you want to be a better one. If you’re a reader, he takes you everywhere he’s been and teaches you everything he’s learned.
A return to a journey taken in 1973 thirty years later takes the author from Eastern Europe into the Caucasus, central Asia, India, southeast Asia, China and Japan. All along, the changes inspire reflective, sometimes harsh assessments of the places, people, and the author himself.
Because we so love train travel, this book was pivotal in our decision to travel by train in Thailand (Train from Bangkok to Hua Hin), Vietnam (Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City by Train and Reunification Express), and throughout Europe (Night Train from Budapest to Bucharest).
Hold the Enlightenment by Tim Cahill.
Written in what one review called a “good mix of snark, humor, danger, and description,” this collection covers volcano trekking, salt mines, gorillas and shark cage adventures by one of the founders of Outside magazine. For armchair adventurers and bona fide thrill seekers alike.
Cahill’s kind of physically demanding trekking isn’t for us, but thanks to him, encounters with Rwandan gorillas are still firmly on our “want to experience” list. And we’re grateful for adventurers of his caliber, because they do inspire travel in others younger and more intrepid than we are.
A fresh take on the road trip from an award-winning journalist turned tourist in locations as disparate as Iraq and Romania, to the front lines of the Caucasus during a Russian invasion to post-Soviet Ukraine.
While some of the locations are more mainstream now than when this book was written, the balance of history with the present is compelling. Along with the writings of Patrick Leigh Fermor, Totten’s accounts made Central Europe, the Balkans and Russia an imperative for us.
Travels in Siberia by Ian Frazier.
A unique account of personal experience melded with Siberian history encompassing science and economics from an author who describes Russia as “the greatest horrible country in the world.” The culmination of five trips to Siberia, this book opens a window into the immense beauty and strength of the region and its inhabitants.
This is the book that cemented our desire to travel the Trans-Siberian Railway. As well, it was the preamble to our own visit to Russia, even though we were a continent away in Sochi.
“The notion that I had walked twelve hundred miles since Rotterdam filled me with a legitimate feeling of something achieved. But why should the thought that nobody knew where I was, as though I were in flight from bloodhounds or from worshipping corybants bent on dismemberment, generate such a feeling of triumph? It always did.” – Patrick Leigh Fermor
In 1933, an 18-year-old decides to walk across Europe from Amsterdam to Constantinople. Having been expelled from school, this privileged young Englishman notices everything, as one does at the slow pace. The miracle is that he remembers it all in sufficient detail more than 40 years later: the nature, the characters he encounters, the architecture.
This is a world in which people wrote ahead to alert their friends he was coming; he is a vagabond, but he sleeps in everything from haystacks to manor houses, stays with gypsies and nobility. The narrative is bittersweet, anticipating the horrific events to come.
This second volume, in what was to be a trilogy, awakened our curiosity about central Europe and the Balkans. Fermor walked across the entire continent of Europe from Amsterdam to Constantinople (Istanbul) in 1933, and in the process, encountered a world of class and privilege which WWII would soon render extinct.
Along the way, in Prague, Budapest, the Hungarian Plain and the Transylvanian mountains with gypsies, bears and Hapsburg/Magyar nobility, Leigh Fermor lost his diary. Decades later, it was found in a Romanian castle and returned to him.
Interesting fact: With what one reviewer calls a “rapport with the displaced,” Fermor went on to heroic actions during the war, at one point parachuting into Nazi-held territory disguised as a shepherd, organizing resistance, and ambushing Crete’s German commander, delivering him to the British in Egypt almost like a gift. This part of his life was immortalized in the diary of W. Stanley Moss (who served with Leigh Fermor), which was held for publication due to the classified nature of its contents. Published in 1950 as Ill Met By Moonlight and then released as the British film Night Ambush (aka Ill Met By Moonlight, 1957) starring Dirk Bogarde.
The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914 by David McCullough.
When the United States ceded the Panama Canal to Panama in 1999, many Americans were shocked and dismayed. After all, we had historically committed imperialism in the guise of fomenting a revolution, invested an immense financial liability into an engineering feat which had bankrupted its predecessors, and built a great thing on the backs of ordinary citizens.
This book melds politics, geography, finance, medical discovery, and engineering into an adventure saga which demonstrates that for which so many were willing to give their all.
Peter read this book about five years ago and has wanted to visit the canal ever since. When housesitting opportunities came up in Panama, we jumped at the chance to fulfill this travel dream. While we are here in Panama, we will visit the Canal and marvel.
The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge by David McCullough.
Another triumph of engineering and American pride, this is more a story of father and son with shared vision and dedication to construct an emblematic project. Building the Brooklyn Bridge was a post-Civil War spectacle, with the intrigue of political corruption and the idealism of those who believed in the benefit of public works.
While New York City has many icons, there is none that portrays an era more than the Brooklyn Bridge. We’ve walked the bridge, looked at it from various vantages, and eaten in its shadow. No trip to New York is complete without it playing a part to the point that it is a personality in its own right.
The Johnstown Flood by David McCullough.
Pete took me aback when he expressed a desire to go to Johnstown, Pennsylvania after reading this book. It almost seemed ghoulish to want to see the place where such a horrifying disaster occurred. But, we used this idea as a springboard to a very satisfactory road trip throughout Pennsylvania, and ultimately came to Johnstown at its conclusion.
In Johnstown we saw, from the vintage funicular, the funnel-like geography that abetted the failure of an old earthen dam into a tragic and scandalous event. In the Johnstown museum, an electronic diorama details the drama with shocking precision and audio accompaniment. This book chronicles a captivating morality tale that has sociological parallels today.
Although this is a biography of Theodore Roosevelt from childhood prior to the time he became a public figure, the most compelling section is the time he spends in the frontier Badlands in Dakota Territory. In what seems a highly incongruous setting for a grieving, sickly asthmatic, the physical rigors and emotional spareness of cowboy-ing in an unforgiving setting contribute to the character who became an icon. Wonderful descriptions of the family Grand Tour of Europe after the Civil War, which impressed the young “Teedie” are here as well.
Although one reviewer describes this as a “journey through parenthood and dreams,” there is a greater sense that adventure was inculcated as a value in Roosevelt’s family background. We visited Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota to see the mesmerizing country in which he was physically and psychologically transformed.
Alaska: A Novel by James Michener.
In true Michener fashion, this book’s timeline spans about 30,000 years. Talk about context! The book’s emphasis is on how unforgiving the natural conditions in Alaska can be while weaving historical fiction in and around multiple generations of indigenous tribes, gold rush seekers, frontier settlers, and the more modern pioneers. Their resilient human experience is an enviable state of being.
We visited Alaska in 2008, which was when this blog began. The scope of our experience ranged from Fairbanks down to Seward as we traveled the Glenn, Seward, Palmer, and Denali Park highways. The grandeur is indescribable and we were glad to have this background.
Hawaii by James Michener
Another epic and sweeping history ranging from the geological formation of the islands through the Polynesian, Missionary, Chinese, and Japanese eras of immigration. This, like many of Michener’s books, is a daunting task, but if you persevere, you’ll be rewarded.
Worthy of note: the treatment of Hawaii’s brand of sociology, which is arrived at by commingling diverse cultures and politics. If you’ve vacationed in Hawaii, you get a glimpse of something you might perceive as exoticism, but it’s really a meld of cultural thinking. If you are fortunate to live or have lived in Hawaii, you’ll know exactly what we mean.
Tears of the Moon by Di Morrissey.
Recommended by an Australian we house sat for in Toowoomba (near Brisbane), this story is a depiction of the frontier town of Broome, in northwestern Australia. This, according to one reviewer, is typical Australian historical fiction, where you’re “somewhere and attempting to appreciate its remote, savage beauty while you struggle not to die.”
Famous for its 19th and early 20th century pearl industry, Broome was bombed by the Japanese in WWII, as was Darwin, where we embarked on another house sit. It’s one of our regrets that we haven’t yet visited Broome, but if we make it back to Australia, this will be the destination.
Under the Tuscan Sun: At Home in Italy by Frances Mayes.
Having met Frances Mayes in person, we can attest she is nothing like Diane Lane, so even if you’ve seen the movie Under the Tuscan Sun, reading this book is infinitely better. Yes, she fled the aftereffects of a failed marriage and impulsively purchased a ruined villa in a sort of precursor to Eat, Pray, Love. The differences between the two literary efforts are real intellectual depth (as opposed to what passes for it in pop culture), the lack of a book deal financing the effort, and the commitment to place.
Mayes is a rare writer who can express her innermost thoughts in a way that, while conversational, makes you realize you are fortunate to glimpse them. Even though now it’s virtually impossible to afford any kind of real estate in Tuscany, this book will make you want to look for renewal in the type of project she undertook. Maybe try Croatia?
We hope you’ve found a few potential reads in our recommendations for books (and a few movies thrown in!) to inspire travel. If you’ve enjoyed any of these yourself, feel free to share in the comments!