The best books for thoughtful travel

The Books I Picked & Why

Coming Into the Country

By John McPhee

Coming Into the Country

Why this book?

John McPhee’s book about Alaska is a classic example of the finest travel writing. He plunges the reader into all of Alaska from the landscape of wilderness to the far-flung cities and villages, writing with a reporter’s precision and a novelist’s soul. This is the antithesis of a travel guide; there are no hotel or restaurant reservations, no recommendations for the best ocean kayaking. Instead, it is a masterpiece as revelatory about Alaska today as it was when written 45 years ago.


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Unfamiliar Fishes

By Sarah Vowell

Unfamiliar Fishes

Why this book?

Unfamiliar Fishes, is one of my favorite contemporary examples of travel writing because it is funny. Vowell turns her travelogue about Hawaii into a full history told with a quirky sense of humor. Nothing escapes her wit – from the greed of the early Americans who took over the island to the tourists like her trying to discover it under the layers of manufactured culture. She ends up loving the place, of course, like all the best travel writers.


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Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey Through Yugoslavia

By Rebecca West

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey Through Yugoslavia

Why this book?

This is the second masterpiece on my list. Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is a timeless depiction of the Balkans that does not require an update even though it was originally published in 1941. West said her intention was “to show the past side by side with the present it created,” which she does by crafting vignettes like women gossiping while selling their vegetables at market that weave into a historical sweep – travel writing of the highest order. She captured the rich but clashing cultures of the Balkans so well that when war broke out in 1993 hers was the one book journalists read to understand the depth of the conflict.


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In Patagonia

By Bruce Chatwin

In Patagonia

Why this book?

In Patagonia is a full-on adventure tale about the southernmost tip of Argentina. Chatwin’s singular writing talents transform this travelogue into a literary masterpiece. He treks through former hide-outs of famous bandits, including Butch Cassidy, retrieves forgotten legends, and mixes in stories of Welsh immigrants. Published in 1977, In Patagonia is beloved by writers as well as travelers.


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Down Under: Travels in a Sunburned Country

By Bill Bryson

Down Under: Travels in a Sunburned Country

Why this book?

Bill Bryson is one of today’s best travel writers with the sharpest sense of humor. He applies that wit and his curiosity to Australia in Down Under: Travels in a Sunburned Country, helping us understand that continent-sized country, its wildlife, history, and desolate landscape without boring us one minute. Published eleven years ago, Bryson cast a naturalist eye at Australia’s dry outback, with a clear-eyed description of the dry, almost alien country that seems prescient in the age of the Climate Crisis.


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