Books for travel lovers and adventurers

Image: Penguin

Since Covid-19 brought the travel industry all but to its knees, the rest of the world has never felt further away. But while going on adventures isn't easy right now, at least we have books to bring them to us. Presenting some of the best travel writing in history to transport you to a land far, far away.

The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux (1975)

If there's one book that'll remind you why trains are the most life-affirmingly wonderful way to travel, it is Paul Theroux's classic of locomotive literature. The way he writes about his journey from London, across Europe and the Middle East to Asia is like a warm zephyr on the mind. "I sought trains and found passengers,” he writes, and they populate this extraordinary work like characters in a novel – a timely reminder that there are few sounds in life more exciting than a stationmaster's whistle.

Running the World by Nick Butter (12 Nov)

While much of mankind seems hellbent on ruining the planet, Nick Butter decided to run it. So, in 2018, he ran from Canada to Greece via the world's other 194 countries, becoming the first person to run a marathon in every nation on Earth. During the epic feat of endurance, he got through 10 passports, took 455 flights, ran through 15 war zones and was mugged twice. This remarkable book is his account of that record-breaking journey, and of the extraordinary people who joined him along the way.

Afropean by Johny Pitts (2020)

Born in Sheffield to a white mother and African American father, Johny Pitts says he always felt caught between two identities: “a proud, working-class Sheffield identity, or a kind of ghettoised black identity … I couldn’t be both.” So, fuelled by growing racial tensions in the build up to Brexit, he headed for the continent to explore “black Europe from the street up”. The result is a tender, funny and sometimes heartbreaking portrait of non-white European culture so often overlooked by the mainstream media, in one of the most eye-opening travel books of 2020.

Mud and Stars by Sara Wheeler (2020)

The award-winning travel writer Sara Wheeler has had a life-long obsession Russian literature, from Tolstoy to Dostoevsky, Pushkin to Chekov. It gave her an idea: to explore Russia in the footsteps of those literary golden agers, and seek connections between them and modern Russia. So off she set to chase their ghosts, through vast forests, across the Black Sea, and over Arctic tundras to the backwaters of Russia where, even now, 40% of houses outside cities have no electricity. The result is a heartfelt and exuberant portrait of a Russia we never see on TV – one of warmth and honesty, humanity and hardship, that never forgot the writers who put it on the map.

East of Croydon by Sue Perkins (2019)

To India now, and a wonderfully comic travelogue from one of TV's funniest hosts, inspired by her hit BBC documentary The Ganges with Sue Perkins. Perkins is as delightful in print as on the small screen. And here she tells a story of India that goes far beyond spices, colours and cows. It's part memoir, and part travelogue – exploring not only India's endless wonders, but the deeply personal reasons that drew her there. It's very funny, as you'd expect, but also deeply moving, and at times quiveringly angry at the suffering she encounters. All in, she makes a fabulous travel companion, who's not afraid for you to see her cry.

The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton (2002)

The beauty of travel, according to Britain's high priest of digestible philosophy, Alain de Botton, lies not in ticking boxes, but in the joy of feeling small in a big world. To truly enjoy the planet's infinite wonder, we must first free ourselves of the tyranny of guidebooks and pressure to see big sights. Curiosity is all we need. So, with the help of a selection of writers, artists and thinkers – from Flaubert to Edward Hopper, Wordsworth and Van Gogh – De Botton explains why we should really want to travel, and how we can be happier when we do.

Flâneuse by Lauren Elkin (2017)

Think of history's great flâneurs – someone who idles about a city observing people and society – and you'll likely think mostly of men. But Lauren Elkin wants you to know that, actually, women have always been just as capable of urban exploring as any beard-stroker. In this, subversive, erudite and downright joyous celebration of history's most defiant female city-walkers, Elkin idles from New York City to Paris, via Venice, Tokyo and London in the footsteps of women who wandered aimlessly, from Virginia Woolf to Jean Rhys, Djuna Barnes to George Sands.

The Travels by Marco Polo (c. 1300)

Marco Polo: merchant, memoirist, political svengali, kick-ass traveller who saw more of the world seven hundred years ago than a BBC Wildlife documentary. Between 1271 and 1295, he journeyed through along the Silk Road trading route from Europe, via the Middle East, to China. His experiences read at times like a fantasy thriller, providing a window into vanished worlds that bristle with sex, violence, murderous tyrants, back-stabbing advisors, wolf-eating eagles, suspense, exotic lands, strange people and bizarre customs that must be read to be believed. 

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