Best Travel Memoirs – My List of Top Selling Travel Books

In this article, we will explore some of the best travel memoirs out there, all of which I have read.

I have included a diverse selection of travel literature books written from a variety of different perspectives. This list of travel writers includes some of the big hitters like Paul Theroux, Dervla Murphy and Bill Bryson, to lesser-known writers about more specific adventures.

From adventure travel books to books about a journey, these memoirs include sad stories, adventure, war, death, life, survival, incredible landscapes and more.

From London to Lodz, from the Amazon to Antarctica and from 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!

If you are looking for books about a journey, you have come to the right place!

So, let’s dive right in and find out some of the best travel memoirs ever written! I have listed these in the order that they were published for want of any better methodology.

What is a Travel Memoir?

According to Writers Digest “A travel memoir is a travel writing genre all its own. It is not a guidebook, trip diary or marketing piece for the Sunday paper. Rather, it is a delicate mixture of recollection and reflection that reveals how a journey, or a series of journeys, transformed the writer.”

What Makes a Good Travel Memoir?

As mentioned above, the best travel memoirs take us on a transformative journey along with the writer. The small stories of everyday life, the first smell or taste of a new dish, the feelings each new experience invokes and the ability to take the reader right there all help to achieve a great read.

Who is the Best Travel Writer?

Well, this is a rather subjective question and depends on your personal tastes. If I had to pick one it would probably be Bill Bryson thanks to his attention to detail, keen interest in everything around him, and hilarious anecdotes.

*Disclaimer: This article contains affiliate links, which means should you click and purchase, I will receive a small commission at no extra cost to you.

My 19 Best Travel Memoirs

  1. Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell (1933)
  2. As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning by Laurie Lee (1969)
  3. Lost in the Jungle by Yossi Ghinsberg (1985)
  4. Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer (1996)
  5. The Gypsy in Me by Ted Simon (1997)
  6. A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson (1998)
  7. Strange Places, Questionable People by John Simpson (1998)
  8. In Siberia by Colin Thubron (1999)
  9. The Backpacker by John Harris (2001)
  10. Lost in Mongolia by Colin Angus (2003)
  11. Long Way Round by Charley Boorman and Ewan McGregor (2004)
  12. Big Dead Place by Nicholas Johnson (2005)
  13. Silverland by Dervla Murphy (2006)
  14. Blood and Sand by Frank Gardner (2006)
  15. In Search of Kazakhstan by Christopher Robbins (2007)
  16. Ghost Train to the Eastern Star by Paul Theroux (2008)
  17. Cycling Home from Siberia by Rob Lilwall (2011)
  18. Siberian Odyssey by Stephen A. Rohan (2012)
  19. Bonus: The Odyssey by Homer (c800BC)

The Best Travel Memoirs – A brief description

Down and Out in Paris and London – George Orwell

“If you set yourself to it, you can live the same life, rich or poor. You can keep on with your books and your ideas. You just got to say to yourself, “I’m a free man in here” – he tapped his forehead – “and you’re all right.”

George Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London

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 around 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.

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As I walked out one Midsummer Morning – Laurie Lee

“I felt once again the unease of arriving at night in an unknown city–that faint sour panic which seems to cling to a place until one has found oneself a bed.”

Laurie Lee, As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning

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 laboring 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…

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Lost in the Jungle – Yossi Ghinsberg

“I realise just by looking up to the sky that I am part of something infinite, and I feel infinitely grateful for life.”

Yossi Ghinsberg, Lost in the Jungle

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 starring Daniel Radcliffe as Ghinsberg.

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Into the Wild – Jon Krakauer

“The trip was to be an odyssey in the fullest sense of the word, an epic journey that would change everything.”

Jon Krakauer, Into the Wild

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!

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The Gypsy in Me – Ted Simon

“To be worth making at all, a journey has to be made in the mind as much as in the world of objects and dimensions.”

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.

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A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail – Bill Bryson

“I wanted a little of that swagger that comes with being able to gaze at a far horizon through eyes of chipped granite and say with a slow, manly sniff, “Yeah, I’ve shit in the woods.”

Bill Bryson, A Walk in the Woods

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! The book is listed as one of Goodreads best travel memoirs and one of the top 50 travel books of all time!

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Strange Places, Questionable People – John Simpson

“There’s nowhere I wouldn’t go. That’s the job!”

John Simpson on going to Chechnya

If I was to nominate the 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 adventure travel books written by Simpson recounting the people he met around the world. From prime ministers and presidents to bloodthirsty dictators and angry secret policemen, 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!

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In Siberia – Colin Thubron

“Siberia: it fills one twelfth of the land-mass of the whole Earth, yet this is all it leaves for certain in the mind. A bleak beauty, and an indelible fear.”

Colin Thubron, In Siberia

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. 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!

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The Backpacker – John Harris

“So, in what we considered the true spirit of freedom and the timeless nature of our travel plans, a few months after the sacrifice of Dave’s airline ticket, the three of us ceremoniously burnt our watches, too.”

John Harris, The Backpacker

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.

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Lost in Mongolia: Rafting the World’s Last Unchallenged River by Colin Angus

“I pull my kayak onto the muddy riverbank, spark up a small fire from dry brush and begin my nightly ritual of foraging for food.”

Colin Angus, Lost in Mongolia

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.

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Long Way Round – Charley Boorman and Ewan McGregor

“What have we let ourselves in for? I mean this is, really is the back and beyond of absolutely nowhere. I mean It’s just extraordinary.”

Charley Boorman, Long Way Round

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 Russia, 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.

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Big Dead Place – Nicholas Johnson

“Mostly, though, I was free of assumptions about the frozen realm of mystery. I knew only that in Antarctica, things would be different, and I was ready to do whatever it too to adjust to the rugged frontier.”

Nicholas Johnson, Big Dead Place

“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!

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Silverland – Dervla Murphy

“On my tenth birthday a bicycle and an atlas coincided as gifts, and a few days later I decided to cycle to India…However, I was a cunning child so I kept my ambition to myself, thus avoiding the tolerant amusement it would have provoked among my elders.”

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’s tour de force 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.

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Blood and Sand by Frank Gardner

“Even during the dark days of the Gulf War in 1991 there had never been anything like this atmosphere of brooding tension.”

Frank Gardner, Blood and Sand

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 paralyzed 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.

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In Search of Kazakhstan: the Land that Disappeared – Christopher Robbins

“It was dawn as we approached Almaty, the old capital of the country, pushed up against the mighty Tien Shan mountains that rise in the south like a steep, black wall.”

Christopher Robbins, In Search of Kazakhstan: the Land that Disappeared

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!

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Ghost Train to the Eastern Star – Paul Theroux

“Most travel, and certainly the rewarding kind, involves depending on the kindness of strangers, putting yourself into the hands of people you don’t know and trusting them with your life.”

Paul Theroux, Ghost Train to the Eastern Star

Paul Theroux, the father of documentary filmmaker Louis Theroux, is another travel writing heavyweight. This sometimes 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.

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Cycling Home from Siberia by Rob Lilwall

“Turned out that the ‘bad people’ in cold, wintry Siberia were amazing, hospitable folks who looked after us so well. And the bears? They were in hibernation!”

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.

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Siberian Odyssey: Travels Through Europe and Asia – Stephen A. Rohan

“Bored by the banality of life in contemporary Britain, I had been thinking for some time about planning an adventure.”

Steve Rohan, Siberian Odyssey: Travels Through Europe and Asia

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! 😉

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Bonus (not really a travel memoir)

The Odyssey – Homer

“Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns, driven time and again off course, once he had plundered the hallowed heights of Troy.”

Homer, the Odyssey

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.

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Have you read any of these memoirs about traveling? Do you agree that they are the best travel memoirs? Have I missed something? Leave a comment!

Dunhuang, Gobi Desert, China

About the author:

Steve Rohan is a writer from Essex, England. He has traveled to over 60 countries, lived in Armenia, China and Hong Kong, and is now living the digital nomad life on the road.

Steve prefers “slow travel” and has covered much of the world by train, bus and boat. He has been interviewed multiple times by the BBC and recently featured in the documentary Scariest Places in the World. See the About page for more info.

Where I am now: Yerevan, Armenia 🇦🇲

2 thoughts on “Best Travel Memoirs – My List of Top Selling Travel Books

  1. Randall says:

    Good list, Steve, but you left off some seriously wonderful travel memoirs, such as Steinbeck’s TRAVELS WITH CHARLEY, Peter Matthiessen’s THE SNOW LEOPARD, Hemingway’s GREEN HILLS OF AFRICA, Cheryl Strayed’s WILD, Anthony Bourdain’s KITCHEN CONFIDENTAL, Paul Theroux’s THE OLD PATAGONIAN EXPRESS, Martha Gellhorn’s TRAVELS WITH MYSELF AND ANOTHER, Frances Mayes’ UNDER A TUSCAN SUN, and Hemingway’s A MOVEABLE FEAST, just to name a few.

    • steve says:

      Hi Randall, thanks for your comment. Some good ones there. I feel Wild tops every list ever so purposfully eft that one out to be a little different. Paul Theroux is already represented, but definitely should have included Hemmingway as he’s one of my favourite authors, and Bourdain too (RIP). Under a Tuscan Sun also deserves a mention. Perhaps I’ll update the list as I wrote this a few years ago. Cheeers, Steve

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