In this article we will explore some the best travel memoirs ever written. I have read all of these travel books, many of them more than once, and share them with you to enjoy as I have.
I have included a diverse selection of travel memoirs written from a variety of different perspectives. From Orwell’s time living on the streets of London and Paris, Lee’s involvement in the Spanish Civil War to the more light-hearted adventures of Bill Bryson, Ewan McGregor and Charley Borman.
These memoirs include sad stories, adventure, war, death, life, survival, incredible landscapes and more. From London to Lodz, from the Amazon to Antarctica and Seville to Siberia, this list covers pretty much the entire world. Every book on this list is a gripping read that will have you coming back for more!
I have resisted the urge to include more than one entry for each author (John Simpson, Bill Bryson and Dervla Murphy I’m looking at you), however for those that get stuck in to any of the authors on this list, you are free to explore their bibliography.
So, let’s dive right in and find out some of the best travel memoirs! I have listed these in the order that they were published for want of any better methodology.
My 19 Best Travel Memoirs
- Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell (1933)
- As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning by Laurie Lee (1969)
- Lost in the Jungle by Yossi Ghinsberg (1985)
- Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer (1996)
- The Gypsy in Me by Ted Simon (1997)
- A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson (1998)
- Strange Places, Questionable People by John Simpson (1998)
- In Siberia by Colin Thubron (1999)
- The Backpacker by John Harris (2001)
- Lost in Mongolia by Colin Angus (2003)
- Long Way Round by Charley Boorman and Ewan McGregor (2004)
- Big Dead Place by Nicholas Johnson (2005)
- Silverland by Dervla Murphy (2006)
- Blood and Sand by Frank Gardner (2006)
- In Search of Kazakhstan by Christopher Robbins (2007)
- Ghost Train to the Eastern Star by Paul Theroux (2008)
- Cycling Home from Siberia by Rob Lilwall (2011)
- Siberian Odyssey by Stephen A. Rohan (2012)
- Bonus: The Odyssey by Homer (c800BC)
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The Best Travel Memoirs – A brief description
Down and Out in Paris and London – George Orwell
George Orwell should need no introduction as the author of such seminal works as 1984 and Animal Farm. But before he was a novelist, Orwell wrote autobiographically about his life from his beginnings in Burma to his time in England.
Down and Out… recounts Orwell’s time working in the cafes of backstreet Paris and tramping the lanes of England between shelters after making himself intentionally homeless. You can almost taste the author’s descriptions of poverty; however, the writing is not morose and his journeys through the underbelly of French and British society are both interesting and moving.
This book had sat for many years on my bookshelf in England and my grandfather had urged me to read it many times. It wasn’t until years later that a friend in China also gifted me a copy that I finally got round to reading it. I think my initial hesitation stemmed from the subject matter, but after reading the first few pages had realized my mistake and devoured the book in a matter of days.
As I walked out one Midsummer Morning – Laurie Lee
Another gift from my grandfather, As I Walked Out… tells the story of a young Laurie Lee jumping over his picket fence in the quaint Cotswold village of Slad in Gloucestershire and walking all the way to Spain, arriving at the outset of the Spanish Civil War
Lee first walks to London and survives by busking with his violin and labouring on building sites. There he decides to carry on to Spain and continues his itinerant existence of busking to strangers outside cafes and sleeping under the stars.
The book finishes with the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, but this is just the start of Lee’s adventures…
Lost in the Jungle – Yossi Ghinsberg
This tale of adventure, deceit and survival takes place in the remote Amazon Rainforest in Brazil. Ghinsberg, a young Israeli backpacking across South America, joins up with a group of other travellers in search of a semi-mythical “lost tribe” in the jungle.
The four travellers set out together and it isn’t long before things start to fall apart. One of the group is seemingly not cut out for such adventure and begins to slow down the others. The team’s erstwhile leader, a shady Austrian full of menacing bravado, doesn’t help matters. It isn’t long before the team is split up and Ghinsberg finds himself alone in the vast Amazon Jungle after their raft gets overturned in rapids.
The author now finds himself in dire straights as his predicament dawns on him. With no map, food or survival gear the chances of him making out of the jungle alive are slim. This is one of the best adventure travel memoirs and the book has recently been made into a film called Jungle starting Daniel Radcliffe as Ghinsberg.
Into the Wild – Jon Krakauer
Not strictly a travel memoir as the author is recounting the story of someone else (Christopher McCandless), the book does contain autobiographical accounts of Krakauer’s own adventures alongside those of McCandless’.
The story of McCandless, a young ideologue who left the trappings of his well-to-do upbringing to tramp across the US to Alaska and live out his fantasy in the wild, was made famous by the hit movie of the same name directed by Sean Penn.
The film is probably my favourite movie of all time; however, the book is a gripping read with a lot more insight into McCandless’ life including interviews with those he met on the road, his family and more. A must-read!
The Gypsy in Me – Ted Simon
Ted Simon is most famous for his debut travel memoir Jupiter’s Travels which recounts his journey around the world on his trusted Triumph Tiger motorcycle in 1973. I haven’t yet read this memoir, so instead I’ll review the one I have read, The Gypsy in Me.
The book charts Simon’s journey from Germany to Romania as he tries to follow his family heritage. As Simon navigates the countries that were once behind the iron curtain, he encounters many interesting people with stories of their own. From drunken factory workers to former soldiers, this journey across a forgotten and oft neglected part of Europe offers a fascinating insight into its people and culture.
A Walk in the Woods – Bill Bryson
It’s almost impossible for me to choose a favourite of Bryson’s travel memoirs. I first read “Notes from a Small Island” when I was 18 years old and have devoured all his travelogues since, most of them two, three, four times (I’m currently re-reading Down Under).
A Walk in the Woods recounts Bryson’s epic hike across the Appalachian Trail in America with his erstwhile friend Steven Katz (who readers may remember from Neither Here Nor There).
The Appalachian Trail is the longest hiking trail in the USA stretching from Georgia in the south to Maine in the north. The trail crosses a vast and sometimes inhospitable landscape of dense forest and mountains. This moving and hilarious account of the duo’s misadventures is a must for any travel literature fan.
The book was made into a terrible film with Robert Redford and it failed miserably at trying to match Bryson’s wit and dry humour. Get the book, skip the film!
Strange Places, Questionable People – John Simpson
If I was to nominate a best travel memoir, it would most likely have to come from John Simpson, the former BBC World Affairs editor. Simpson had a strange knack for being at almost every major political event throughout the latter half of the twentieth century just before something huge took place. From Tiananmen Square and the Fall of the Berlin Wall to the release of Nelson Mandela and the liberation of Kabul, Simpson was in the thick of it before anyone else.
Strange Places… is one of almost half a dozen travel memoirs written by Simpson recounting the people he met around the world. From prime ministers and presidents, to bloodthirsty dictators and angry secret policeman, Simpson has sat down to tea with them all. In this book we see the author narrowly escape death too many times to count, from narrowly avoiding execution to falling bombs, this memoir will keep you on the edge of your seat!
In Siberia – Colin Thubron
You’ll find a few books about Siberia on this list (including my own modest effort) due in large part preparation for time working on a volunteer project at Lake Baikal.
In Siberia recounts a journey not just through this vast and sparsely populated region of Russia, but also a journey to the heart of its people, their customs, cultures, joys and sadness’s. Thubron is one of the big-hitters when it comes to travel literature and he approaches his subjects with the gravity and dignity they deserve.
Thubron’s adventures take him to places few will ever visit; the depressing mining town of Norilsk where crime and alcoholism reign, to some of the most beautiful parts of our planet within the vast Russian taiga. One of the top travel memoirs about Russia for sure!
The Backpacker – John Harris
The Backpacker is a light-hearted adventure travel memoir along the lines of Alex Garland’s famous book; The Beach. This book sees our protagonist leave his girlfriend after a chance meeting in India and go on a whirlwind trip across South East Asia to Australia where he gets into one scrape after another.
Some have called into question the authenticity of the book and it does read more like a high-octane thriller at times and some events do come across as a little far-fetched. However, I’ll give the author the benefit of the doubt, as it is a great read and fits well on a list of best travel memoirs.
Lost in Mongolia by Colin Angus
One of my favourite travel memoirs is Colin Angus’ Lost in Mongolia. This book sees Angus attempt to row the length of the Yenisey River, the fifth longest in the world.
The title comes from an accident in the lower reaches of the Yenisey in Mongolia where Angus gets separated from his travelling companions and is forced to trek through this wild and untamed land looking for help. At first, he lives off eggs and berries, but is then shown unparalleled kindness by ordinary Mongolian people (and some friendly soldiers too).
The book continues on through Mongolia and into Siberia where the adventure continues.
Long Way Round – Charley Boorman and Ewan McGregor
Long Way Round was a British television documentary charting the 31,000km motorcycle journey around the world “the long way round” undertaken by actors Charley Boorman and Ewan McGregor. The book, which is written as a diary with entries from both parties, is a fascinating accompaniment to the series, as well as a great stand-alone read.
The two actors’ adventure takes them across Europe and into Ukraine where they meet some very interesting people (mafia) before going onwards through Russian, Kazakhstan, Mongolia and back into Russia to navigate the infamous “Road of Bones”. This section of the journey is through one of the most remote places on earth and the road was constructed by gulag prisoners, many of whom were buried within the construction.
After completing the Road of Bones the duo fly with their machines to Alaska for the final leg of the journey across Canada the USA to New York and the finish line.
Big Dead Place – Nicholas Johnson
“When Johnson went to work for the US Antarctic Program he figured he’d find adventure, beauty, penguins, and lofty-minded scientists. Instead he found boredom, alcohol, and bureaucracy.”
Not strictly a travel memoir, however this book will certainly appeal to fans of the genre. Big Dead Place is the autobiographical memoir of Nicholas Johnson who worked on the McMurdo Research base in Antarctica on and off for ten years.
Big Dead Place started out life as a satirical newsletter left anonymously around McMurdo which poked fun at the petty bureaucracy that residents faced on a daily basis, and jokingly referred to as the “wikileaks of Antarctica” by a former colleague of Johnson’s.
Johnson’s acerbic observations are both shocking and amusing leaving the reader yearning for more!
Silverland – Dervla Murphy
Dervla Murphy is an Irish octogenarian grandmother with a penchant for cycling around the world, well into her seventies. This incredible woman’s stories take her to such places as Afghanistan, Ethiopia, India, Iran and more. Murphy has been cycling and writing for over 45 years and is best known for her debut travel memoir; Full Tilt; Ireland to India with a Bicycle.
Silverland is Murphy’ travel memoir about her time exploring far eastern Russia. Many are surprised to meet this Irish babushka travelling the hard way around one of the world’s rarely explored regions.
Blood and Sand by Frank Gardner
Many will know Frank Gardner as the BBC’s security correspondent. Blood and Sand recounts his time spent in the middle east from his early days living in Egypt, to the terrible events that led to him being paralysed after being shot by Islamic militants, and his long road to recovery learning how to adapt to being wheelchair-bound.
Gardner is an excellent writer and conveys his stories with a natural warmth and charisma. The journey he takes us on, which examines the world pre and post 9/11, is both shocking and moving.
For those less interested in geopolitics, Gardner’s memoir Far Horizons is a collection of stories about his adventure travels as a young man that see him climbing a volcano in Sumatra, travelling through Africa, Japan and Europe.
In Search of Kazakhstan – Christopher Robbins
When I picked this book up over ten years ago I had absolutely no clue about Kazakhstan other than it was a former soviet republic. Little did I realise that I would go on to visit the country over ten times and fall in love with this wild and unexplored land.
In Search of Kazakhstan takes us on a journey that starts on a flight to Almaty; the land of apples and takes us through this vast and unchartered land from the shrinking Aral Sea to the Altai Mountains and everywhere in between.
Be careful when picking up this book, as it may well inspire you to visit and you too will fall for Kazakhstan!
Ghost Train to the Eastern Star – Paul Theroux
Paul Theroux, father of documentary film maker Louis Theroux, is another travel writing heavyweight. This sometime controversial writer’s acerbic style often comes across as comedically curmudgeonly as he grumbles his way across country after country.
Ghost Train… recounts his second journey across Europe and Asia 30 years after his first memoir The Great Railway Bazaar (1975). Theroux explores eastern Europe, the Caucasus, Russia, China and Japan with a human touch that is often lost by many writers.
Cycling Home from Siberia by Rob Lilwall
Cycling Home from Siberia recounts the epic journey of Rob Lilwall as he peddles around the world on his trusty bicycle. This compelling memoir sees the author find love, tragedy and god as he travels through Asia, Australia and Europe.
Lilwall’s three-year journey sees him cover over 30,000 miles and is a gripping story of personal accomplishment in the face of adversity, strange and sometimes dangerous lands and the kindness of strangers.
Siberian Odyssey – Stephen A. Rohan
Siberian Odyssey is my memoir of travelling across Europe and Asia to Lake Baikal in Siberia where I worked on a conservation project back in 2009. Definitely one of the best travel memoirs that should be on everyone’s bookshelf! 😉
Bonus (not really a travel memoir)
The Odyssey – Homer
Although not a travel memoir, Odysseus’ journey home after the first Trojan War is an epic tale of adventure that belongs on every traveller’s bookshelf.
From Greek gods to Gorgons, and siren to cyclops’, the Odyssey is one of the oldest stories ever handed down.
Have you read any of these? Do you agree that they are the best travel memoirs? Have I missed something? Leave a comment!
About the author: Steve Rohan, originally from England, has lived in China for over six years. He has lived in the frozen city of Harbin, the ancient capital of Luoyang and now resides in the tropical paradise of Sanya on Hainan Island.
He has travelled extensively across Europe and Asia, mostly by train, and has written about his travels for this blog as well as self-publishing his first book, Siberian Odyssey.
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