The best travel books for 2019
Review Words : Tom Hawker | 16 August 2019

32 of the best travel books to read in 2019 (so far)

Whether you're reading on the bus, train or plane, these books make the perfect travel companion, offering top travel tips, moving memoirs, philosophy and destination inspiration...

1. Alone Time, by Stephanie Rosenbloom 

Bantam

People have been travelling solo for millennia, although the concept pops up ‘anew’ in the media every few years, rebranded in the light of whatever trend has just swept through town.

But while there’s a dash of ‘mindfulness’ about Alone Time, Stephanie Rosenbloom’s thoughtful treatise on going it on your own will not only give you a fresh appreciation for the four cities at the heart of her book – Paris, Florence, Istanbul and New York, all rendered in impressively atmospheric detail – but also for the notion of being by oneself.

Alone time is an invitation, a chance to do the things that you’ve longed to do

— Stephanie Rosenbloom

Each experience undertaken in these breaks becomes the framework on which to hang an idea. The legendary cuisine and sensual streets of Paris makes the ideal spot to philosophise about the sheer joy of savouring what’s in front of you; a Turkish hammam is the condensation-streaked jumping-off point for trying something new; and while the artworks of Florence offer a chance to disconnect, the streets of New York afford just the opposite.

That the latter city is Rosenbloom’s adopted hometown makes clear that a lot of the thinking here can – and should – be applied to your walk to work as much as it should be to parading the Seine. Hers is an invitation to find sensation and beauty and life in the world around you.

Long-term soloists may feel they’re being taught to suck eggs, but it’s never a bad time to get a refresher. Well worth setting aside some alone time for.

2. Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know, by Sir Ranulph Fiennes

Hodder & Stoughton

It’s a fitting title. Sir Ranulph Fiennes is a man given to Byronic fits of adventure, and this update of his autobiography (timed to coincide with his 75th birthday) proves ‘Ran’ has lost none of his nerve in the decade since it last hit shelves.

As well as detailing his youthful hitchhiking and loss of several fingers to frostbite, recent feats include his ascent of Mount Everest at the third time of asking. Absorbing and utterly exhausting – in a good way.

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3. The Gentle Art of Tramping, by Stephen Graham 

Bloomsbury

Good advice travels through the generations. The ‘tramping’ being philosophised in this 90-year-old reprint is very much of the trekking variety, with Graham’s happy, poetic ode to a life well walked being as full of genuinely sensible wander-tips – ‘one of the quickest ways in which to learn the life of a people is by tramping among them’ – as it is anachronistic charm. Old school inspiration for every new adventure.

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4. Underground, by Will Hunt

Spiegel & Grau

Subtitled ‘A Human History of the Worlds Beneath our Feet’, Will Hunt’s journey isn’t always as it seems.

Sometimes it’s a physical descent, like traversing Paris’ underground with urban explorers or rattling around Turkey’s cave cities; at other times it’s the depths of the soul he plumbs, recalling those who set aside the world to burrow beneath it.

Lit up by tales of hermits, cults and ‘intraterrestrials’ (who wanted to travel to the Earth’s centre), it’s a book with genuine depth.

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5. Inspired Traveller’s Guide: Literary Places, by Sarah Baxter

White Lion Publishing 

If you’ve ever wanted to wander the  alleys and bars of James Joyce’s Dublin or explore the backstreets of Elena Ferrante’s Naples, this is the book for you.

A flick through its literary atlas offers inspiration aplenty, whether taking to the Mississippi à la Huck Finn or stalking the wild and windy moors of Charlotte Brontë’s Yorkshire.

It’s more a CliffsNotes than a strict guide, but serves up literary tasters and routes to whet the mind.

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6. Slow Trains to Venice, by Tom Chesshyre

Summersdale

As the frustrating Escher staircase of the Brexit process continues to unfold, its impact on travel is yet to be known. But it has already inspired many journeys.

Tom Chesshyre’s latest rail odyssey sees him amble Europe by train, winding on a shaggy clockwise loop from London to Venice via the Ukraine, ticking off a flurry of countries along the way. As ever, Chesshyre’s journalistic knack for detail and making conversation are an insightful combination.

Beyond the stations – in Bonn, Budapest, Belgrade – he hangs out with the locals to find a continent at a crossroads as it processes the shocks of the last 20 years: the Yugoslavian Civil War, the Russian threat and the Syrian exodus – and of course the ‘B’ word.

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7. Low Country, by Tom Bolton

Penned in the Margins

Engaging the locals of Essex proves slightly more difficult for Tom Bolton, as he traces the coastline of the Brexit stronghold and encounters an arms-folded suspicion of authority that runs deeper than the mud.

Beyond the neons of Southend and Clacton lies a wild, murky and – occasionally literally – forbidding land riven with marshes, islets, mythology and dark history, much beloved by writers and rebels, and entirely ignored by guidebook authors.

By the end, you gain a better understanding of both points of view.

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8. My 1001 Nights: Tales and Adventures from Morocco, by Alice Morrison

Simon & Schuster

You might remember Alice from her Morocco to Timbuktu TV series a few years ago. If not, this picks up where that left o­ff, with the same curious mind and game enthusiasm when it comes to a challenge: whether hiking the Atlas Mountains or walking the Sahara.

But it’s in the cultural aspects where she shines, and what follows is a heartfelt attempt to see, feel and experience local life, albeit through the eyes of a solo female traveller – always starting on the outside and working her way in.

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Read our full interview with Alice here

9. Our Planet, by Alastair Fothergill & Keith Scholey

Bantam Press

Our Planet may look a treat on your co­ffee table, but it’s also a fine companion to any binge watch of its accompanying Netflix series. Like the show, it’s in essence a plea: a visually led narrative on mankind’s impact on, well, ‘our planet’, condensing well-trod debate into time-saving images of the world’s most precious species and why they badly need our protection.

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Read our full interview with Alastair Fothergill here

10. Beyond the Footpath, by Clare Gogerty

Piatkus

Subtitled ‘Mindful Adventures for Modern Pilgrims’, this book taps into a very on-trend word: pilgrimages.

But while the amount of people to have walked the Camino now seems to outnumber those who haven’t, this book widens its gaze, serving up a rare secular view on France’s Lourdes or Mount Kailash in Nepal, as well as challenges that tug at the soul, such as tracking a river to its headwaters or even exploring a city at lunch.

Wherever your heart calls is a pilgrimage, its author seems to say, and we heartily concur.

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11. Epic Continent, by Nicholas Jubber

John Murray Press

For those who barely survived the histories of Homer or recall migraines from the annotations in Beowulf, this may not be for you.

Yet in tracing the lineage of epic poetry on modern-day Europe, the author finds travel gold: a new dimension to some familiar places.

As he unearths the poetic bones of Spain, the UK, Iceland and others, he even draws in modern tragedies, such as the refugees in Greece. A genuine epic. 

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12. Rediscovering Travel: A Guide for the Globally Curious, by Seth Kugel

Liveright

What does it really mean to have an ‘authentic’ travel experience in 2019? In an age of smartphones and even smarter tour operators, the quest to package our every whim into an anxiety-free Instagrammable adventure is neverending. So what is real?

Using a mix of charm, debate and anecdote, travel journalist Seth Kugel kicks around the concept of journeying in a world that’s been ‘documented within an inch of its life’. In return, he proffers a few practical guidelines to wander by.

It’s a refreshingly uncomfortable treatise about iffyy ethics, the dangers of preconceived ideas and context-free risk assessments, and how technology – your iPhone, peer-review websites – is a bit of a joy-suck.

But this isn’t a rant about the modern travel industry; rather it’s a passionate plea for spontaneity and making ‘organic’ travel choices, putting the case for them being better experiences – and better for you – in the long run.

A tiny push towards less-planned travel experiences can improve just about any trip

— Seth Kugel 

Drawing on his six years as The New York Times’ Frugal Traveller, it’s full of tales of his attempts to put this philosophy into action – hopping off a train in a random Hungarian town, enjoying Turkish hospitality in Gaziantep and becoming a tourist attraction in China.

Whether you come away agreeing or spitting Kugel’s name, you’re sure to be re-engaged with why you travel, and making that next experience richer and, yes, maybe a bit more authentic, too. 

13. The Odysseum, by David Bramwell & Jo Tinsley

Chambers

Some journeys are not meant to be repeated. From the man who tried to mail himself overseas, to the obsessed film director dragging a 320- tonne boat through the Peruvian jungle – these are the planet’s worst journeys, captured in this curious ode of follies, rulebreakers and outsiders.

The eccentrics chronicled within will find a far happier, safer home by your toilet shelf.

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14. Holiday SOS, by Ben Macfarlane

Thistle Publishing

Have you ever wondered what happens when the medical section on your travel insurance forms suddenly becomes urgently relevant?

Well, Dr Ben’s (re-released) memoir explains how the often sticky business of having to be repatriated – from the Maldives, Ibiza, Morocco – in the event of a medical emergency actually works.

It’s an enlightening peek at a little acknowledged cranny of the industry.

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15. Wild Women and Their Amazing Adventures Over Land, Sea & Air, by Mariella Frostrup

Anima

This fine anthology brings a female voice to a subject too long dominated by men: adventure.

Through the writings of a host of travel’s big hitters (Dervla Murphy, Jan Morris, etc), and others that deserve to be better known, it curates some incredible tales, including that of a 16-year-old African American girl who took off on a self-funded global tour in the 1900s, and two women who raced around the world in 1888.

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16. The Monocle Travel Guide Series, by various authors

Monocle

We’ve loved Monocle’s city guides for a while. Sure, they’re pitched at the hip set, forever searching for their next liquid nitrogen cocktail or artisanal spoon.

But they also rub up against local culture in a way no other guide does through their fine essays, unpicking everything from K-pop to love motels in its recent 2018 Seoul guide.

They’re a great way to peer under the skin of modern life in some of the world’s big cities.

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17. Horizon, by Barry Lopez

Bodley Head

It’s taken Barry Lopez over 20 years to release a full-blooded follow-up to his award-winning works on natural history, such as the eco-classic Arctic Dreams. But as a quick glance at Horizon’s bookshelf-creaking size reveals, he’s clearly not Just been ruminating on his fundament.

Part-autobiography, part-expansive meditation on the planet, its people, its past and its future, Horizon collects together a lifetime of thought and travel. But while the destinations Lopez visits would hit all the right spots on any bucket-list book – Nunavut, Australia, The Galápagos, Antarctic – Lopez is more preoccupied with humanity’s own movement and explorations than he is with the minutiae of local life and scenery.

The reality of quite how badly Homo sapiens have failed in their stewardship of the planet runs throughout the book

— Barry Lopez

The pioneering and often-troubling journeys of Captain Cook and Charles Darwin are pondered over, while the origin of our own species is mulled on during his time in Africa’s ‘cradle of humankind’.

Indeed, the stomach-thudding reality of quite how badly Homo sapiens have failed in their stewardship of the planet and its occupants runs throughout the whole book; a doomy stream just below the surface of the thoughtful prose and diversions that made Lopez a favourite of the likes of Robert Macfarlane.

It’s a big book full of bigger ideas, and it’s well worth taking your time over – see you in another 20 years.

18. The Unlikeliest Backpacker, by Kathryn Barnes

Hornet Books

Fired up on Wild and a post-30s malaise, Kathryn Barnes and her husband decide to leave London behind to tackle the blisters and mozzies of the Pacific Crest Trail.

But this is not a Cheryl Strayed-esque therapeutic rollercoaster; instead she delivers a cheerfully straight-forward account of the trials and triumphs of their journey north.

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19. Cicerone: Celebrating Fifty Years of Adventure, edited by Kev Reynolds

Cicerone

Having clocked up a half-century of sending walkers on wild adventures across the planet, you can forgive the guidebook publishers a bit of back-slapping.

This foregoes the forensic detail of spectacular trails that have made Cicerone so successful – and often essential – and instead collects together 50 amusing, inspiring and surprising tales from their trek-hardened writers.

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20. The Call of the Mountains, by Max Landerberg AND Overlander, by Alan Brown 

Luath Press and Saraband

Scotland is a land of epics – if Homer hadn’t been Greek, he’d be Scottish.

So, we’ve bundled Max Landerberg’s account of climbing Scotland’s 282 Munros and Alan Brown’s coast-to-coast cycle over the Highlands together.

Both see something deeper in the lonely views and even lonelier back roads; they find purpose in the simple goals of one more ridge or one more mile – a shared sense of the power of landscape to change us all.

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21. Cityscopes Series, by various authors

Reaktion Books

Context is everything when it comes to understanding a new destination, and the Cityscopes guides have been putting travellers under a city’s skin for a couple of years now, with Prague: Crossroads of Europe by Derek Sayer being their latest.

Typical of the series, it’s very strong on the city’s art scene, architecture and long, bloody history – the authors are often academics – though it is less practical when you’re on the ground.

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22. Underland: A Deep Time Journey, by Robert Macfarlane

Hamish Hamilton

It seems a virtual in-joke that the latest title from Robert Macfarlane is quite literally his deepest book yet, as his lyrical, poetic, thoughtful explorations of wild landscapes – at once earthy and ethereal – have inspired enough imitators to fill Pseuds Corner. This time, he heads beneath the surface, to feel his way through the total darkness and discovers roots of all sorts there – sometimes flora, more often human.

Macfarlane finds himself in the catacombs of Paris, the Metro rattling above him; in Finland, where nuclear waste lies entombed for 100,000 years (and carries a modern-day ‘Mummy’s Curse’); and in Epping Forest, where the trees seemingly talk to each other, working together as part of an epic fungal network. On he delves, uncovering Bronze Age burial spaces under Somerset and gazing at 2,500-year-old cave paintings in Norway’s Lofoten Islands; and through it all he tugs at one common human thread.

In the underland I have seen things I hope I will never forget – and things I wish I had never witnessed

— Robert Macfarlane

No matter where they’re from, Macfarlane finds, societies are drawn to the shadow world; to the death, mystery and rebirth this represents. And as ever, he enriches his travels with a library’s worth of illuminating literature and quotations that you find yourself hoping will somehow scorch onto your memory.

These places not only chart our past but that of the planet, a ‘deep time’ of geology that dwarfs our history. They also look to the future, he seems to say, by questioning what fables the Anthropocene era will leave behind for our antecedents to find, buried deep in the darkness.

23. Elsewhere, by Rosita Boland

Doubleday

In German, fernweh translates as an ache for distant places. It’s something the author Rosita Boland conveys with every pen stroke as she recounts nine journeys across 30 years of travel, taking us from the Antarctic wilds to the Amazonian jungle within a heartbeat.

All travellers are collectors, but the things that stick with her are the people she meets along the way – her recollections are warm, honest and frank – in a book that ultimately celebrates the hunger for different cultures awakened by travel.

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24. Wayfaring Stranger, by Emma John 

Weidenfeld & Nicholson 

Bluegrass music is one of those things that just takes you. That was certainly the case for Emma John, whose beat is more typically the Observer’s cricket columns than the roadkill and hoedowns of the American South. She’s also a classical violinist, and it’s her journey to foot-stomping fiddler that forms the heart of this travelogue, in which she roams the Appalachians to unravel a wild region as little understood as the sudden yearning she finds in herself for its rhythms.

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25. Blue Guides, by various authors

Blue Guides Ltd

If all you cared about on your travels was finding hip bars, chances are that you wouldn’t be reading Wanderlust. You definitely wouldn’t be carrying a Blue Guide, for whom such things are anathema.

History and culture are the currency of these guides, first published back in 1918, and their latest Budapest and Travels in Transylvania books are typical of the series: filled with the kind of detail that puts others to shame.

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26. The Great Alone: Walking the Pacific Crest Trail, by Tim Voors

Gestalten

Why walk the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) in six months? It’s a question the adventurer Tim Voors asks himself often on the 4,264km route from Mexico to Canada.

From getting caught in a storm in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains, to gasping for water in the Mojave desert, his answer lies more in the spiritual than the physical changes he undergoes as he traverses the soaring highs of the American West on a very modern pilgrimage.

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27. Mud and Stars, by Sara Wheeler

Jonathan Cape

Is all publicity good publicity? Russian president Vladimir Putin seems to think so, and with a big uptick in travellers to Russia lately, he may be right – but as his countrymen might add with an ironic note, he always is.

Among recent visitors is Sara Wheeler, who finds herself crossing most of its 11 time zones.

Mud and Stars sees Wheeler hit the local homestays in search of the writers of Russia’s ‘Golden Age’ – Tolstoy, Pushkin, Dostoyevsky – seeking out the towns and estates in which these works were conceived, and meeting those who live there now.

But while each chapter is focused on one author – and you’ll yearn to reconnect with each – her pursuit keeps one foot in the now.

She traces a line from Tsarist tyranny through Soviet-era brutality to today’s bare-chested corruption, revealing how a cynical-yet-defiant people were left in its wake and why locals are happy to confound ‘Western expectations’. 

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28. Behind Putin's Curtain, by Stephan Orth

Greystone Books

The German travel writer Stephan Orth reaches much the same conclusion as Sara's Mud and Stars - in Behind Putin’s Curtain, his follow-up to Couchsurfing in Iran.

The cheerful Orth again uses his sofa stays as a hook, wandering into the lives of those who dwell in the ‘post-fact’ era of Putin to find a warm, open and varied people, who somehow simultaneously reject and absorb the propaganda around them.

Both are clear-eyed about the situation while being wide-eyed about the country.

Neither book will see you cancel Russia trips, but through their perceptive gaze, you may just see more than most.

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29. A Savage Dreamland, by David Eimer

Bloomsbury

What happened during the 50 years Myanmar (Burma) was in isolation and locked into a military dictatorship?

David Eimer sets out to find the answer, as well as what came next, in his latest book.

Veering north from Yangon to the Burmese Himalaya and down to the jungles of the south, he sees Myanmar flicker to life through the voices of royalty, monks and refugees, to sketch a portrait of a country trapped in the delicate twilight between reality and dreams.

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30. My Midsummer Morning, by Alastair Humphreys

William Collins

Some adventures are so inspiring that we can’t help but repeat them.

In his latest, Alastair Humphreys does that, as he takes to busking on Spanish roads in search of the rich and tangled lives that his idol Laurie Lee painted so vividly 50 years ago in As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning.

In doing this, his journey takes on a personal edge, as he wrestles with what he really wants from the world – a settled life or one of adventure?

Honest, revealing and funny, it’s a beautiful love letter to a much-loved classic.

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31. Just Another Mountain, by Sarah Jane Douglas

William Collins

After losing her mother at the age of 24, Sarah battled drift by focusing on one thing: Munros (Scottish mountains over 3,000 feet/914m).

She duly conquered them all, chronicling the achievement in a successful blog, with the peaks becoming a constant presence in her life – much like a parent.

Her journey takes her from Ben Nevis to Nepal in the kind of prose where you hear the gravel crunch underfoot, in an often raw recollection of a life lived on two feet.

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32. Time Out City Guides, by various authors

Crimson Publishing

They’re back. And it’s business as usual for Time Out Guides.

After four decades of hip, street-wise advice, Time Out seemingly shut its doors for good in 2016, after becoming one of the most high profile victims of the move to digital.

Thankfully, another publisher has picked up the baton. Style-wise, there’s still the same lust for the latest trends, cool hotels and arty scenes, albeit with a Euro-centric focus.

Available for London and other cities; New York comes out in November 2019.

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