Armchair Adventure: Top Ten Favorite Travel Books

Here is a staff pick: we chose ten personal travel accounts for you to enjoy. Not a single one would serve as a guidebook, but each one inspires the imagination with its tales of adventure.

Road to Oxiana, by Robert Byron

Cousin of poet Lord Byron, Robert Byron recorded his several months of travel through Oxiana, Persia, and Afghanistan in the years 1933-1934.  Sprinkled liberally with wit and humor, Byron describes the ancient monuments and ruins of this area with a passionate appreciation.

Italy in Mind, by Alice Leccese Powers

This wonderful collection includes excerpts from travel journals, essays, poetry, short stories, and novels, with brief biographies preceding each author’s chapter. Well-known authors include  Elizabeth Browning, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, D.H. Lawrence,  Mark Twain, Gore Vidal, and Edith Wharton.  Easy to read a few chapters at a time, but also hard to put down.

Their Heads Are Green and Their Hands Are Blue, by Paul Bowles

In this incredible collection of eight travel essays, subtitled Scenes from the Non-Christian World, author Paul Bowles captures scenes, moments, personalities, and conversations in countries such as Ceylon (modern-day Sri Lanka), Turkey, and the Sahara.  Written in the 1950s, when traveling to these destinations was unusual, the foreword reads “Each time I go to a place I have not seen before, I hope it will be as different as possible from the places I already know.”

When the Going Was Good, by Evelyn Waugh

This book has five sections, written between 1929 and 1935, with destinations in Africa and Brazil.  Waugh is much more the adventurer than one might guess and although he outfitted himself with trunks full of supplies, he did face many trials of travel. For anyone who appreciates Waugh’s humor, satirical wit, knack for detail, and exquisite use of the English language: do not miss his travel tales.

Women of the Four Winds, by Elizabeth Fagg Olds

Subtitled The Adventures of Four of America’s First Women Explorers, this can be considered four small books rolled into one.  Each of these adventurous, independent, and determined women deserves recognition and I thank the author for making their stories available.  My favorite is mountain climber Annie Smith Peck who tackled some of the world’s highest peaks in the late 1800s and early 1900s, long before the days of high-tech outdoor gear.

Travels with a Donkey, by Robert Louis Stevenson

This is Stevenson’s beautifully written account of a 12-day journey on foot through the Cevennes, a mountain range in south-central France in 1878.  Although often described as a solo trek, much of the charm and delight of this narrative is due to the author’s companion, a stereotypically stubborn donkey named Modestine.

Appalachian Trail Reader, edited by David Emblidge

In addition to presenting interesting and valuable information on the history and development of the Appalachian trail, the many voices collected in this anthology convey an inspiring love for nature.  It is highly recommended for anyone who lives near any part of the Appalachian trail, for hikers elsewhere, and for all nature lovers. These selections reach back to early protectors of the Appalachian wilderness and stretch into modern times.

Down and Out in Paris and London, by George Orwell

Published in 1933, this is a bit of a wild card for a travel list. The second part, set in London and its environs, is more accurately a journey into homelessness. George Orwell, famous for Animal Farm and 1984, explored the depths of poverty during one phase of his short life. He joined tramps as they wandered and shared details of that lifestyle, in what was a journey of choice for him.

Getting to Know the General, by Graham Greene

As with several other authors in my favorite travel book list, Graham Greene is better known for his novels. Subtitled The Story of an Involvement, this is an account of five trips Greene took to Panama at the invitation of General Omar Torrijos from 1976 to 1981. Greene traveled widely but always to spots of political tensions and troubles.  Any Graham Greene devotee or anyone interested in the politics of Central America will find this a rewarding read.

Come, Tell Me How You Live, by Agatha Christie Mallowan

Yes, this is Agatha Christie of murder mystery fame. For several years she accompanied her husband to Syria and Iraq on his summer-time archeological expeditions. With a writing style as giddy as a schoolgirl, she captures scenes from other lands in the 1930s with good humor and exuberance.


  • The armchair adventure of favorite travel books by cbakkum made me want to read some of those books. I like the variety of the books chosen, both in terms of authors, time periods, and areas of the world. I would add my favorite travel book to the list: Alex Munthe’s “The Story of San Michele.” Munthe tells the story of the house he build on the Isle of Capri off the coast of Italy, entertwined with much on Italian history and culture and also his life as a physician in Paris. Written in 1929, “The Story of San Michele” is out of print, but most likely available as a used book. In its day it was quite popular and translated into many languages.

  • Try “People of the Reeds.” Sadly, a lost world. Saddam Hussein drained the water that the reeds thrived in. Attempts at restoration but will the people come back. I doubt it.

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