As I was reading through the many web articles listing the most inspiring travel books, I became more and more struck with the vast differences in each list and the sheer volume of books that exist about travel. Everyone has a story, and many of those stories are about travel; each traveler committed to self-discovery, enlightenment, and adventure. Maybe you may have heard of these books before (or seen the movies) so the synopses below are somewhat simplified. Check out the top 11 most popular books to inspire travel, wanderlust, and the search for happiness.
1. Eat, Pray, Love nonfiction by Elizabeth Gilbert (book and movie)
Published in 2006 by Penguin Books
The first of many most inspiring travel lists, Eat, Pray, Love was made into a popular movie and has even inspired people to follow Elizabeth’s footsteps in search of their own self-discovery in Eat, Pray, Love Made Me Do It: Life Journeys Inspired by the Bestselling Memoir.
Elizabeth Gilbert suffers a tragic divorce, making her question everything in her life. The story follows her unaccompanied journey through Italy (eat), India (pray) and Bali (love), in a quest for self-discovery, love, and happiness. The story is entertaining and uplifting, as well as well written. The vividly described destinations may instigate your voyage to either eat, pray or love.
2. Wild nonfiction by Cheryl Strayed (book and movie)
Published in 2012 by Alfred A. Knopf
Also easily making the most popular list, Cheryl Strayed has inspired many women to lace up their own hiking boots in her footsteps, hiking their own paths or the exact same path as Cheryl herself. A heartbreaking divorce and her mother’s death motivates Cheryl to abandon her unhappy life to solo hike 1100 miles, for 3 months, from the Mojave Desert to Washington state, on a real search through comfort zones, wildlife, hunger, and weather for self-discovery and self-healing.
3. The Alchemist fiction by Paulo Coelho
Published in 1988 by HarperCollins
If you’re looking for inspiration to go after your desires and maybe a little treasure, The Alchemist might be what you are looking for. Written by Brazilian author Paulo Coelho, the Alchemist follows a young Andalusian shepherd in search of treasure and his “Personal Legend” across the Sahara desert to the pyramids of Egypt. The boy’s “Personal Legend”, defined by the king of Salem as “what you have always wanted to accomplish,” is aided by the universe, as the book teaches that “when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you achieve it.” Because of his desire to fulfill his “Personal Legend,” he meets his true love, a wise alchemist and several other characters that lead him to discover that the treasure he sought was right under his nose the whole time, although by the end he was wiser for his journey.
4. The Beach fiction by Alex Garland (book and movie)
Published in 1957 by Heinemann
Filled with vivid scenery, and a sense of adventure, Garland captures Thailand in both the book and a slightly plot divergent movie, produced in 2000. In search of an untouched paradise removed from the tourists of Thailand, Richard, accompanied by a French couple, follows a hand-drawn map to a hidden beach. Finally arriving after having to bribe a pilot, swim from an adjacent island, avoid armed guards of a nearby cannabis farm, and jump over a waterfall, the come upon a secret community of 30 backpackers running a self-sustainable society. Mildly disappointed, Richard and the couple join the community and find their place in their laid-back, carefree commune. Here’s where things get just a little bit weird. I won’t spoil the book, but let’s just say it doesn’t have a pretty ending (think Lord of the Flies).
5. On the Road fiction based on his life by Jack Kerouac
Published in 1957 by Viking Press
Kerouac captures Americana in this 5 part novel published in 1957 that follows two main characters’ lives on their journeys around North America, from San Francisco to Denver, Virginia, New Orleans, New York, and Mexico City, largely hitchhiking and taking the bus. Always returning to family and San Francisco, they chase women, jazz, and parties around the continent as the two men follow their itch to travel.
6. Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel nonfiction by Rolf Potts
Published in 2002 by Ballantine Books
Previously discussed in 5 Recommended Books for Solo Travelers, Vagabonding still makes the most popular inspirational books list, as Potts truly inspires travel by demonstrating that long-term travel can be done by anyone. He discusses the logistics of long-term travel; how to choose accommodations and destinations and how to budget as well as tips and anecdotes from other extensive long-term travelers. Worth the effort to read both for inspiration and for practical knowledge for your next trip.
7. Travels with Charley: In Search of America nonfiction by John Steinbeck
Published in 1962 by Viking Press
After living in New York and traveling in Europe for 20 years, American author John Steinbeck feels he has lost touch with the American people he writes about and decides to rediscover the country on an epic 10,000-mile road trip with Charley, a French poodle. He travels through almost 40 states and uses Charley as a tool to explore his thoughts in writing (although we know he likely voiced these thoughts out loud to Charley in real life). As he travels the country, he explores and experiences first-hand racial hostility, the unexpected kindness of strangers, the resiliency of life, communist-fueled fear, the undoing of local roots for nomadic lifestyles and the comfort-driven laziness preventing the characteristic American risk-taking. Although Steinbeck’s journey was in 1962, many parallels can be made to life today.
8. Into the Wild nonfiction by Jon Krakauer (book and movie)
Published in 1995 by Villard
Leaving behind all belongings and donating his money to charity, Krakauer follows Christopher McCandless’ journal to discover his reckless route, starting in his college town of Atlanta. Longing for an authentic, raw experience of life, he abandons his car in Nevada, and hitchhikes to California. Over the next 2 years, he tramps through approximately 12 states and 3 countries before heading to Alaska, with a single postcard as his only communication to his family. In Alaska, he makes a bus his temporary shelter, and it’s there he perishes from assumed starvation. Perhaps McCandless’ approach is extreme, but his desire for unfiltered experiences, and to live off the land is certainly something to be envious of.
9. In a Sunburned Country nonfiction by Bill Bryson
Published in 2000 by Doubleday
Bill Bryson, the author of 21 books, is a highly regarded writer and honestly, nearly all 10 of his travel books could have found their way onto this list. However, I chose In a Sunburned Country for the destination: Australia. Bryson’s clear adoration for Australia shines through in this nonfiction tale about his sun-drenched excursion across the continent. He begins with a ride on the Indian Pacific Railway from Sydney to Perth, past the Blue Mountains and the White Cliffs. Interspersed in his own journey, he reflects on the early settlers to this area and their deprivations and challenges while crossing the large expanse. He next visits the “boomerang coast” between Brisbane and Adelaide, named for its resemblance to the ancient hunting tool. Visits to the largest living thing, the Great Barrier Reef, and the largest monolithic rock, Uluru, end the book and Bryson’s humorous yet compelling account of his travels in Australia.
10. The Great Railway Bazaar nonfiction by Paul Theroux
Published in 1975 by Houghton Mifflin
Considered a classic in the travel writing genre, Theroux chronicles his travels through Asia, largely by train, experiencing the Orient Express, the Khyber Pass Local, the Mandalay Express, and most grand of all, the Trans-Siberian Express. Roundtrip from London to Tokyo, he observes and comments on the other passengers and a view of Asia in 1973. Thirty-three years later in 2006, Theroux retraced his steps in Ghost Train to the Eastern Star and recounts the differences between the people and places.
11. The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World nonfiction by Eric Weiner
Published in 2008 by Hachette Book Group
Want to go where the happy people are? In Weiner’s journey, he travels around the world to both happy and not-so-happy countries, as qualified by the World Database of Happiness, primarily compiled with surveyed-ranked happiness tallied by the locals. The result? Weiner, in a somewhat satirical and “grumpy” way, shows the pursuit of happiness to be global, and many things are not as they seem.
No doubt there are thousands more stories, more destinations and more inspiring stories that exist. Make these books your jumping-off point, a place to start finding the beginning of your travel story.