7 Great Travel Novels

7 Great Travel Novels

We all to love read books from the travel writing section of our local bookshops and libraries to inspire and feed our desire to travel. Real-life travelogues can educate, inform and amuse. But here’s the thing, so can novels that have travelling as their principal focus. Whilst they might be ‘not real’, by definition, the unique dialogue between novel reader and writer can certainly provoke thought and emotional responses to travel in a way no other medium of art can.

I sincerely hope that I am yet to discover the greatest travel novel out there. But with an English Literature degree to my name and my day job being a librarian, here are some great novels about travelling that I heartily recommend. Remember, this is just one guy’s opinion!


The Beach – Alex Garland    The-Beach-Alex-Garland

Forget the less-than-great Leonardo Dicaprio movie. Alex Garland’s debut novel – and still his finest work – explores the dichotomy between the romantic idyll of backpacking, and the darker corners that can be found in its less glamorous reality. As much a meditation on whether it is ever possible to escape civilisation’s corrupting grasp as it is a tale about the seedier side of the backpacker lifestyle, Garland’s mastery of pace and plot ensures this is truly unputdownable.


Travels With My Aunt – Graham Greene   Greene_Travels

From an author perhaps better known for edgy, cerebral thrillers set both at home and abroad, this lesser-known work is something of a hidden, humorous classic. The emotionally-repressed narrator, Henry, meets his long-forgotten Aunt at his mother’s funeral, and soon finds himself extricated from his comfortable-but-dull lifestyle and travelling the globe with his more carefree Aunt, learning plenty of life lessons and gaining emotional and psychological fulfilment along the way.


On The Road – Jack Kerouac   On the Road

Not just a seminal work in the field of travel literature but one of the most iconic novels of the 20th century, Kerouac’s classic is the definitive road trip tale. As part of the ‘Beat Generation’ movement railing against the dominant cultural values of the day, On the Road reads like a long, continuous cry for liberation and break from convention. At its heart is the relationship between narrator Sal and his friend Dean, the sometimes-troubled nature of which highlights the imperfections inherent in such bohemian ‘quests’ for spiritual fulfilment.


The Sheltering Sky – Paul Bowles     904647

Dark in tone – sometimes this can feel like a nightmare story to deter any who read it from ever considering travelling again – this novel is masterfully evocative, largely thanks to Bowles having lived most of his life in Morocco. Kit and Port are a couple attempting to repair their rocky marriage, but naïve and oblivious to the inherent dangers of the wilds of the desert, they put themselves in a truly desperate situation. Despite its cautionary tone, Bowles’ descriptions of the rural and urban landscapes of this magical country will make you want to travel there.


The Island – Sarah Singleton    000857885-hq-168-80

As a school librarian, it would be remiss of me to not include a YA travel novel on this list. The Island follows three gap-year students on a trip to India. What starts out as an experience-of-a-lifetime quickly sours when one of their number finds himself accused of murdering a girl he had met mere days before. Singleton expertly intersperses the present day narrative with flashbacks to how the three met back in their home country, resulting in a taut and well-written thriller, where the central characters’ motivations to travel underpin the action.


Hideous Kinky – Esther Freud   9780140174120

Another novel set in Morocco, but I make no apologies for this as in terms of tone and subject matter, this could not be any further away from Bowles’ novel. Drawing on her own childhood experiences, Freud spins a yarn about a mother and her two daughters upping sticks and relocating to Marrakech to start anew, and the rifts her new lifestyle choices cause within the trio. By turns funny and sad, it’s very hard not to be drawn in by this charming tale.


Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad    heart-darkness-joseph-conrad-paperback-cover-art_1254

Arguably one of the very earliest examples of travel literature, Conrad’s novella – the inspiration for Apocalypse Now – has deservedly earned its status among the classic literary canon. On the face of it a simple tale about a merchant captain seeking a missing ivory trader in the heart of central Africa, this is really a story about the ‘darkness’ that can be found among both the natives and the supposedly more civilised Westerners. The questions it poses about human nature are uncomfortable, and the lack of any clear answers even more unsettling.


What travel novels do you enjoy reading? Would love to hear some suggestions below, to put in my backpack for my next trip!


  • Amanda Williams

    February 19, 2016 at 9:51 am Reply

    Great post. I have never read The Sheltering Sky, so I will check it out. Thank you.

    • Joe

      February 19, 2016 at 11:22 am Reply

      Thanks Amanda. It’s quite possibly my favourite of the ones I’ve listed here, and probably in or near to my top 10 novels of all time.

  • Wanderlustingk

    February 20, 2016 at 11:00 am Reply

    I’ve read 2/7 of these. The beach sounds interesting.

    • Joe

      February 20, 2016 at 8:08 pm Reply

      Yep, it’s a lot more intelligent than the movie would have you believe. A thinking person’s thriller 🙂

  • Arzo Travels

    February 20, 2016 at 11:49 am Reply

    It is funny, I love reading and traveling but have never read a travel book – so none of those you mentioned. Maybe it is time to start reading some 🙂

    • Joe

      February 20, 2016 at 8:09 pm Reply

      Well, no time like the present 😉 Let me know what you think if you do decide to pick up one of these!

  • Derek Cullen

    February 22, 2016 at 3:38 am Reply

    They all sound very alluring, I read the Beach recently Joe and enjoyed it a lot…although I feel it hasn’t been done any favors by the amount of hype it receives on the backpacker trail!

    • Joe

      February 22, 2016 at 6:39 am Reply

      Yeah, which is ironic really, considering how one of its biggest targets are the overdone backpacker trails! Thanks for reading Derek 🙂

  • Stephanie - stephaniesmolders.com

    February 22, 2016 at 3:01 pm Reply

    I haven’t read any of these books. How is that possible. Thanks for sharing so I know where to look for next time I’m going to read a book!

    • Joe

      February 22, 2016 at 6:34 pm Reply

      You’re welcome, and to be fair, a lot of these books are quite obscure and ones I wouldn’t necessarily expect most people to have read 😉

  • Anthony Sowerby (thereadytraveller)

    September 18, 2017 at 2:44 am Reply

    Only stumbling across this post now Joe and what a great list. To my shame, I’ve only read one on your list, The Beach, which I agree is a great read with more depth than most people give it credit for. Interested in whether you’ve also read The Backpacker by John Harris, which is like The Beach on steroids (although not nearly as good)? And another one that seems to be a traveller favourite is Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts. I really enjoyed it, but this is one that also divides a lot of people!

    • Joe

      September 18, 2017 at 1:35 pm Reply

      Hi Anthony! Thanks for stopping by. I have read Shantaram, and really enjoyed it, but not the Backpacker, which does sound interesting and one I’ll have to check out. These are only 7 among many…I can see from your website that you will have no doubt read many more travel literarure/writing books than I 🙂

      • Anthony Sowerby (thereadytraveller)

        September 18, 2017 at 11:00 pm Reply

        It’s just great finding someone else who reads travel lit! I think you might read more fiction than I do as I tend to concentrate on travelogues/history/geopolitical/biography end of the spectrum. Enjoy!!

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