In addition to checking out travel bloggers, it’s worthwhile to read some of the award-winning travel diaries that have made their way into the literary canon.
Here. you’ll find the ten best inspirational travel diaries to read before, during or after you travel. Perfect to transport you somewhere completely different and most likely to places you’ve never been before, they’ll uplift, shock and get your heart racing.
Go ahead. Pick one and delve into the best first hand accounts of exploring the globe you’ll ever find.
‘Neither Here, Nor There’, Bill Bryson
Before picking up this book it’s important to know that Bill Bryson is hilarious. He’s written a number of highly successful travel diaries, his first being ‘Lost Continent’ focusing on his journey across America. In ‘Neither here, Nor there’, the writer backpacks from the most northernly part of Europe down to the most southernly point nearing Asia. Poignantly, he’s actually retracing his trip as a twenty-something nomad.
As he hits all the major cities like Paris and Florence, the unique experiences build up and you get a comical view of Europe as a whole. You can only wish that your own adventures were full of such random and surprising events, at the same time as being grateful they’ve gone so smoothly.
Best bit: Bryson’s way of assessing each location. It’s a new way of looking at different cultures that’ll make you smile and smirk in equal measure.
See also: Bill Bryson’s ‘A Walk in the Woods’, ‘Lost Continent’ and ‘Down Under’.
‘Lonesome Traveler’, Jack Kerouac
A collection of eight intimate ‘on the road’ essays from Jack Kerouac, you journey with him to L.A, Mexico, New York, Paris and London. Reflective and poetic, the essays show a long term traveller making sense of the world around him and trying to find himself in a range of diverse cultures. Famously part of the beat scene, he visits nightlife and writes about taking opium. On the opposite scale to this frantic time, he also details his meditation experiences in Tangiers.
Best bit: Jack Kerouac was young when he left home; he was just 18. These essays are a great selection of his work and in a few hundred pages you gain his take on the world and enjoy a little of his intense, wandering spirit. Great for solo travellers.
See also: Jack Kerouac’s ‘On the Road’.
‘Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot’, Mark Vanhoenacker
Ever wondered about who was flying you to your next destination? Mark Vanhoenacker, a pilot, gives his own personal account of air travel and taking to the skies. In a reflective, poetic manner, he forces you to regain that sense of wonder at being able to safely travel thousands of feet about Earth and landing somewhere new.
A Sunday Times Bestseller, Skyfaring has left it’s mark on the travel genre and is essentially a new perspective on something we’re on the cusp of taking for granted. From making clouds interesting, to talking about mapmaking, there’s definitely something to learn from this book.
Best bit: It’s ability to make the familiar strange again.
‘One Man and His Bike’, Mike Carter
In 2011 Mike spent 5 months cycling solo round the coast of Britain and in ‘One Man and His Bike’, he lets us in on his challenging and rewarding journey. Told with great personality, it’s all about the people Mike meets along the way and it’s very encouraging if you want to see more of the UK yourself.
Going in with a positive attitude after quitting his job in London, it’s a bit of a tale about connections you can make if only you’re open to them. Not exotic, not dreamy, it’s a really clear and honest account of saying no to the humdrum of the everyday and going out on your own.
Best bit: Mike’s descriptions of the different and sometimes unheard of places he finds himself in. He manages to paint strong and gripping images.
‘A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush’, Eric Newby
Perhaps unique in the world of travelogues – are there any others based in the Hindu Kush? – this epic journey is full of highs and lows. The book details Eric Newby’s journey as he ditches his life in Mayfair with his friend Hugh, all the way to Afghanistan. In 1956. Often described as a classic, it now stands as an insightful look at how people travelled 6o years ago before you could research everything on Google.
The Nuristan Mountains where the two men end up are described beautifully and based in Northeast Afghanistan, they’re still remote today. A book to wake up the explorer in all of us and a refreshing account of leaving the rat race.
Best bit: Eric Newby left for this month long trip completely unprepared and the effect on the narrative is charming.
‘Eat, Pray, Love’, Elizabeth Gilbert
Who could leave this out of a most inspirational travel diaries list? I almost did for the fact I didn’t realise before I looked into it that this is a real account, and not a fictional novel turned into a hugely popular Hollywood film. The book that started it all follows Elizabeth Gilbert as she goes out into the world with a new sense of freedom after getting divorced. In the years since it’s publication, it’s become a self-help mantra and it’s familiarity may in fact put travellers off picking it up.
However, the original account is very moving. Across Italy, Indonesia and the island of Bali, the author grows as a person and works from the inside out to build herself up. All of the ‘ticked boxes’ of modern life she achieved at home meant very little in the end; they were a cause of panic and not right for a calm mind. We can all relate to her experiences and the idea that less is more.
Best bit: Over ten years old, this book isn’t leaving the conversation of travel, so see if there’s something in the pages you haven’t been told about by friends. Something just for you.
‘The Great Railway Bazaar’, Paul Theroux
First published in 1975, ‘The Great Railway Bazaar’ is Paul Theroux’s wry account of travelling the world via train; perfect if you’re interested in interrail. Starting at London Victoria, he makes his way to Tokyo and back home again on the Trans-Siberia. An international bestseller, it reflects the fact that sometimes it’s the journey and not the destination that counts.
William Golding (Author, ‘Lord of the Flies’) once said of Paul Theroux that he’d “done our travelling for us”, which speaks fondly of this engaging, personality filled account. The book can be thought of as a series of anecdotes and contains, as you would expect, a lot of information on trains. The world famous Orient Express also features, in a more dilapidated state than you would expect if you booked a journey today.
Best bit: The entertaining and realistic accounts of managing journeys on night trains across different continents.
‘Full Circle’, Michael Palin
In one year Michael Palin visited 18 countries, roughly in the route of a circle around the world’s largest ocean – the Pacific Ocean. Visiting Icebergs in Chile, Mountains in China and navigating along the Amazon river, each destination is dramatic and full of wanderlust. Apart from perhaps a brief interlude where he is eating maggots in Mexico.
His accounts take us to places that are naturally stunning but also politically uneasy and may not be on all of our travel hit-lists as a result. Through Michael’s writings, we can travel with him and explore some really quite remote areas of the world. An experienced writer and of course a Monty Python comedian, his travel experiences over the 11,000 miles of the Pacific Rim are both vividly described and worthy of quite a few laughs.
Best bit: The epic scale of what he achieves in just one year and the differences that become apparent in the countries he visits. It’s a close-up and at times overwhelming account.
See also: Michael Palin’s ‘Around the World in Eighty Days’, ‘Sahara’, ‘Pole to Pole’ and ‘New Europe’.
‘Walking the Himalayas’, Levison Wood
British ex-paratrooper Levison Wood treks 1,700 miles through the Himalayas and definitely takes the path less travelled. He details a classic journey of discovery as he goes from the ancient trade route of the ‘Silk Road’ to Bhutan, and genuinely to far-off places where you don’t expect anyone to go.
An inspiring adventure, you can’t help but take onboard his explorer’s attitude. In his account he discusses how it feels to run into everything from extremists to natural disasters when you don’t have a lot of cards to play or tools to hand. At one stage he breaks his arm in a car crash, which is a compelling and difficult passage to read. The storytelling approach is easy to engage with and if you’re fascinated by his tales, there’s an accompanying BBC television series.
Best bit: Learning about the author’s reasons for this perilous journey early on in his accounts, providing context for what ensues.
‘Travels with Charley’, John Steinbeck
Already a famous American writer, as he was coming up to sixty years old John Steinbeck didn’t want to stay at home and lose touch with the world, so he travelled from Maine to California with his French Poodle, Charley. Witnessing the diversity of America’s landscapes, John Steinbeck’s beautiful prose describes woodland, desserts and huge cities. At each location he seems separate in the way he steps back and observes everything with brute honesty. In particular, he writes about loneliness and how the world is constantly changing around us.
As an older man when he set-off on this journey, his account is tinged with sympathy for what he sees and has a maturity and skepticism that’s unique. His dog also becomes a beloved character and is never far from his side.
Best bit: The feeling it demands of you and the hyper-awareness that we should never stop exploring and questioning the world.
Additional travel diaries: Into the Wild, In Patagonia, Venice, Bella Tuscany, Wild Coast, An Idiot Abroad: The Travel Diaries of Karl Pilkington.
This list is by no means exhaustive but it’s my own selection based on research and speaking to those who love travel. Have you read any of these and agree, or do you have any you’d love to add? I’m working my way through the greats of travel literature, so let me know with a comment below and I’ll check out your suggestions. Particularly interested to hear of more female travel diaries as I could only find one to include in this list.