The best travel books of 2020

Coronavirus may mean that we've been grounded, but the good news? We've got more time to read our ever-growing pile of travel books. Here were 2020's best...

6 mins

1. The Journey Matters: Twentieth-Century Travel in True Style, by Jonathan Glancey 

Atlantic Books

What is it about the golden age of travel that continues to fascinate us? The elegant glamour of a more civilised era? The romance of adventure in a world that still contained come cartographic unknowns?

It certainly sounds more fun that having your knees jammed into your chest in economy class in 2020. Glancey creates 15 little novellas with a fictionalised narrator as the lead character embarking on the classic experiences (as well as five real accounts of his own journeys).

As he crosses the Atlantic on the SS Normandie, flies with Imperial Airways from Southampton to Singapore and dines aboard the Graf Zeppelin, Glancey combines his passion for the era with an insight into the social and political clouds brewing over the heads of the passengers; it’s easy to forget that the renewed interest in travel was one of the few shiny aspects of the era.

Sometimes these can feel exposition-heavy – and with a whiff of wish-fulfilment – but the joy really is in the minute detail: he captures everything from the itineraries to the gearboxes to the menus. For anyone with an obsession with the Golden Age of Travel, this will be the first class ticket.

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2. Handbook of Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises, by Mark Carwardine


In his latest book, Wanderlust contributing editor, wildlife expert – and the go-to person to ask anything and everything about cetaceans – Mark Carwardine has teamed up with top biologists to present an in-depth (and soon to become indispensable) guide to these creatures of the deep, shedding light on their differences with a set of handy illustrations, migration maps and quick-yet-comprehensive ID guides.

An illuminating, informative read from the most authoritative voice in the business, and an essential read for anyone dreaming of adding a whale-watching stop off on a forthcoming adventure.

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3.Stories of the Sahara, by Sanmao


Sometimes, all travellers want to find is a sense of belonging in a world that doesn’t make sense.

Free-spirited explorer and novelist Sanmao picks up on this theme in Stories of the Sahara, casting off societal conventions to go on a ground-breaking adventure across the world’s largest hot desert.

Coloured by her own memories, this travelogue takes us from eye-opening experiences in desert bathhouses to divine rainstorms, while reminding us that adventures into the unknown are key.

How else are we to discover sides of ourselves we never knew existed?

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4. 1,000 Places to See Before You Die: The World as You’ve Never Seen It Before, by Patricia Schultz


When Schultz’s original coffee-table travel book was first published in 2003, it took us on a visual journey of the world continent by continent. The latest re-imagined edition does the same job, but this time it comes in even prettier packaging.

With 1,100 all new photographs and 544 pages of lively text highlighting the globe’s must-visit destinations, this version is even more inspiring.

From the misty landscape of the Huangshan mountains in China to the Byzantine wonderland of Cappadocia in Turkey and bright-eyed cheetahs on the lookout in Kenya, this handy guide on where and when to go in the world is filled with useful travel tips and will have you booking your next trip in no time.

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5. To the Lake, by Kapka Kassabova 


Kapka Kassabova’s follow up to her plaudit-laden Border, To The Lake is another study of people living on complicated boundaries.

She follows her family history back to lakes Ohrid and Prespa, sitting on the crossroads of North Macedonia, Albania and Greece, where the people are still counting the cost of the centuries of war.

With the benefit of being blood – “Whose are you?” she’s often asked – Kassabova is able to turn generations of vast political and social upheaval into an intimate portrait of loss.

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6. Three Tigers, One Mountain, by Michael Booth

Jonathan Cape  

History and politics are at the heart of Three Tigers, One Mountain, with Michael Booth cannily navigating the endless enmity between China, Korea and Japan – with a side trip to Taiwan.

As he pieces together an investigation of national grievance, he’s baffled by the reserves of resentment he encounters, a self-defeating spoke in the wheels of progress.

What this book shares with Kassabova’s is an understanding of not just the complex history – and there’s a lot of history here – of these grudges, but also how they’ve gone on to become part of the national character, with neighbours defining themselves by who they are not.

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7. Hidden Places, by Sarah Baxter

White Lion Publishing 

What is a hidden place? It’s a question we ask ourselves a lot, but it seems as though travel journalist and longtime regular Wanderlust contributor Sarah Baxter has the answer.

Taking us on a wild – and charmingly illustrated – sojourn through 25 obscure locations, Sarah exposes the places we never knew we needed to be.

Flip through the artful pages to find secret citadels only reached by foot, the jungle-covered belly of the Mayan underworld, underwater ruins in the Pacific and phantoms in Germany’s Black Forest.

It’s a book to help you plan your next adventure – just don’t spread the word.

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8. Gibbous Moon over Lagos, by Pamela Watson

Hardie Grant

Out of the villages and into the city is the order of the day for author Pamela Watson, who returns to Africa in a follow-up to her memoir of cycling down the continent’s rural backroads.

Following her dream to set up a social enterprise in Nigeria’s largest city, she finds challenges at every corner, but adventure, too – sunny getaways to the Badagry Creek beach havens, thrilling rescues from the floodplains of the Niger River and tense paper chases with the Nigerian police.

But despite being tried and tested, her hope for the future still waxes strong in this tribute to booming Lagos.

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9. The Frozen River: Seeking Silence in the Himalaya, by James Crowden

Harper Collins

It’s not often that you get the chance to remove yourself from the rest of the world and live alongside a remote Himalayan mountain community.

But in 1976, army officer James Crowden left the military behind in order to do just this, travelling to the wilderness of the northern Himalaya to immerse himself in the life of the Zangskari people.

Butter traders travelling down the frozen river Leh, villagers in Padum and chanting Buddhist monks bring this epic memoir to life, as James takes us back to a time before mass-tourism existed.

What he finds is more than a land of snow and ice, but a place where time stands still, made all the more magical by its solitude. An inspiring look into a world remarkably unaffected by modern life.

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10. The Lost Pianos of Siberia, by Sophy Roberts


What is it about Siberia that continues to draw our attention?

Is it the vast emptiness facing us on a map, as we contemplate a land that covers most of the ten time zones on the Trans-Siberian railway, stretching from Russia’s Ural Mountains to the steely Arctic waters of Okhotsk?

Perhaps it’s the dark fact that trips there – made by convicts, rebels and doomed royals – often proved fatal. 

While the fates of the exiled may be less than pretty, their stories endure in this compelling debut from travel writer Sophy Roberts who guides us through Russia and its outer peripheries.

Setting out through the wilderness to find one of The Lost Pianos of Siberia for a Mongolian pianist, Sophy traces the movements and history of these grand European instruments, dating from the time of cultural catalyst Catherine the Great to the chaotic journeys forced by revolution.

The former exile post of Irkutsk – also known as the gateway to Lake Baikal – and the golden domes of wartime safehouse Novosibirsk provide backdrops to this quest, but it’s the people she meets who stand out.

Bell-ringing veterans and piano-tuning families show us the importance of music to Siberia, offering a solace similar to the trembling chords of great composers that comforted the tortured souls who trudged over the Urals to face punishment.

But shining throughout all of this is that landscape. Etymologically, Siberia is ‘a land of slumber’; historically, it’s where nightmares were realised. As Sophy finds, it’s also a destination of courage and dreams.

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11. Under the Stars, by Matt Gaw 

Elliott & Thompson 

Matt Gaw is not afraid of the dark. Instead, he willingly wanders into it, glimpsing a world increasingly affected by light pollution.

Under the light of the moon and stars, he details the changing rhythms of life after dusk.


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12. Greenery, by Tim Dee

Jonathan Cape 

Forget winter’s bleached whites – author Tim Dee follows the wake-up call of the wild, treading the path of migrating swallows from South African shores to Scandinavia.

A colourful account of spring’s awakening with tales from Sámi reindeer herders also in the mix.

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13. The Accidental Countryside, by Stephen Moss 

Stephen Moss 

One of the UK's top nature writers, Stephen Moss’s bible of hidden places to spy wildlife is a welcome addition to our shelves.

From London’s city jungle to UK rail corridors, he shows us that rare finds can just be a happy accident in our own back garden.

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14. A time of birds, by Helen Moat


Wanderlust regular Helen Moat shows a different side to a conflicted continent, having pedalled through Europe’s forests and fields.

As she dusts off her spin shoes, she confronts her past, finding a sense of belonging in unexpected places.

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15. The only Gaijin in the village, by Iain Maloney

Scottish writer Iain Maloney is far from home in this funny and uplifting read.

Having decided to settle in a rural Japanese village, Iain and his wife imagine a world of pastoral delights – they meet bird-sized bees and hawk-eyed neighbours, instead.

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16. The Hound from Hanoi, by Moire O'Sullivan

Sandstone Press

In this tribute to her late husband Pete, adventurer Moire O’Sullivan reveals why a chance choice to rescue a Vietnamese street dog from his fate (becoming food) helped unite them.

A wild canine caper from Hanoi to the Himalayas.

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17. Wanderland, by Jini Reddy

Bloomsbury Wildlife

A reminder that there’s magic imbuing Britain’s landscapes, and the pursuit of that in these pages may enhance your experience of the world beyond your front door – once you get to open it. Jini Reddy’s book doesn’t just open your eyes to the Isles’ mystical history, but also your mind to the possibilities of what spirits may be lurking there. Recommended.

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18. On the Trail of Wolves, by Philippa Forrester

Bloomsbury Wildlife

TV presenter Philippa Forrester sets out to track Wyoming’s wild wolves in this grizzly account of her family’s adjustment to life in the USA’s ‘Wild West’. From their howls to the whisper of their paws running alongside the evocatively named Snake River, the wolves steal the show as Philippa traverses the wilds of Wyoming.

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19. Scotland Beyond the Bagpipes, by Helen Ochyra

The Book Guild

It’s easy to see why visitors fall in love with Caledonia, but Helen Ochrya successfully explains its ongoing attraction to those south of Hadrian’s Wall. After a sudden loss, the travel writer spent three months on a healing journey across the country to better understand its geography, history and people. You'll find yourself wanting to follow in her foot/tyre-steps.

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20. The Cubans: Ordinary Lives in Extraordinary Times, by Anthony DePalma

Penguin Random House

With Cuba on the cusp of quietly ground-shaking change, Anthony wanders off the usual tourist itineraries to find out how whether the revolutionary spirit of the local people – to live better lives – has been crushed after a half-century of totalitarian rule.

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21. Subterranea: Discovering the Earth’s Extraordinary Hidden Depths, by Chris Fitch

Wildfire Press

The world beneath our feet contains illuminating insights into our past – from the Yucatan cenotes to Slovenia’s Postojna Caves – and also into our future, with places such as Helsinki’s Underground City. Chris visits 40 of these remarkable places, with glorious illustrations helping him shine a light for us.

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22. Owls of the Eastern Ice: The Quest to Find and Save the World’s Largest Owl,
by Jonathan C. Slaght

Allen Lane

The Blakiston’s fish owl is going extinct out in Primorye, a remote forested region near to where Russia slaps up against China and North Korea. Jonathan spends months in this little-visited area this little-visited area on the continent’s edge to try and secure its survival.

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23. The Gran Tour: Travels with my Elders, by Ben Aitken

Icon Books

Following a case of ‘Millennial Miserables’, Ben shakes off the blues by leaping the (big) generation gap to join (and learn from) a more venerable age group on a series of coach trips, taking him from Scarborough to Lake Como.

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24. Tough Women Adventure Stories: Stories of Grit, Courage and Determination,
edited by Jenny Tough


The weaker sex? Bollocks to that. An inspirational anthology that celebrates just how strong, resilient, groundbreaking and fearless female travellers are, following heroines such as Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent on adventures from expeditions in the Arctic to horse trekking across Australia.

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25. The Land Beyond, by Leon McCarron

Tauris Parke

Who says exploration is dead? Now out in paperback, McCarron makes an engaging companion in his account of a 1,500km trek through the often strife-strewn Middle East – taking in The West Bank, Wadi Rum and Sinai.

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26. Driving Over Lemons: An Optimist in Andalucia, by Chris Stewart

Sort of Books

Celebrating a quarter-century of his warm, best-selling adventures of setting up a farm amid the citrus of Las Alpujarras, the former Wanderlust columnist has added a few bonus chapters to bring us up to date. The perfect sunny escape for curling up on the sofa with in these strange times.

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27. Wild Abandon: A journey to the deserted places of the Dodecanese by Jennifer Barclay

Bradt Travel Guides

“How do I dodge the crowds on the Greek islands?” Long-term resident Jennifer Barclay (and her dog) has the answer, with this well-researched and enjoyable meander around the outskirts of the Dodecanese, discovering the real people and history that linger.

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28. Wild Horses of Cumberland Island by Anouk Masson Krantz

Images Publishing Group; 2nd Ed

It’s said that the herd of around 150 wild horses have been trotting around Cumberland Island, USA, since the 16th century conquistadores. Photographer Masson Krantz visits the island, just off the Georgia coast, to capture the horses and their island’s raw beauty.

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29. The Story of China: A portrait of a civilisation and its people by Michael Wood

Simon & Schuster

If you’re going to clearly and engagingly dissect 4,000 years of dense, sprawling saga, you need someone up to the job. Thankfully, acclaimed historian and TV documentarian Wood is able to wrangle China’s uniquely epic story into on readable, relevant volume. It calls out to be made into a TV series. 

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30. Remembering Cheetahs Edited by Margot Raggett

Remembering Wildlife

The latest in the 'Remembering' series of awareness- and fundraising photobooks featuring endangered species more than lives up to its predecessors. With just over 7,000 cheetahs left in the wild, some of the world's top wildlife photographers have contributed their work, and the results being wonderful, soulful and joyful. Add it to your Christmas list now!

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31. Encounters: A photographic journey by Levison Wood

 Ilex Press

The adventurer and author adds another string to his bow. This collection of his photography documents the communities that Wood has met on his journeys, as they deal with the impact of war and ecological disaster, revealing a humanity that shines in  the face of an absurd adversity.

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32. Signs of Life: To the ends of the Earth with a doctor by Stephen Fabes 


Junior doctor Fabes put the hospital on hold for six years as he cycled 85,000km by bicycle through 75 countries in this enjoyable travelogue. However, as he pedals the planet’s fringes he finds himself being drawn back to medicine, stopping by TB clinics and refugee camps, and giving a vivid snapshot of the people he meets along the way.

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33. Mystical Places by Sarah Baxter

White Lion Publishing


The Wanderlust regular continues on her series of ‘Inspired Traveller’s Guides’, again beautifully illustrated by Amy Grimes. Here Baxter explores spots that are shrouded in myth, mystery and legend, from Cadair Idris in Wales to Australia’s Pinnacles.

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34. Unofficial Britain: Journeys through unexpected places by Gareth E. Rees

Elliott & Thompson

Those looking for a fresh perspective on travelling close to home should stop by here. Rees eschews the regular guidebook spots and instead recasts modern Britain as a place of beauty, myth and power.

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35. Without Ever Reaching the Summit by Paolo Cognetti

Random House

How did you celebrate your 40th birthday? Well, armed with a well-thumbed copy of The Snow Leopard, Paolo Cognetti decided to spend his by heading to the Himalayan border between Tibet and Nepal. The result is this impressive account – and appreciation – of travelling in the most epic mountain range on Earth.

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36. Climate Emergency Atlas

Dorling Kindersley


If the recent Attenborough shows haven’t slapped you back to attention about climate change, then this impressively designed ‘atlas’ should do the job, using clever graphics to highlight the dangers facing the planet as well as the potential solutions. And while this is aimed squarely at ’tweens, truth be told, it’s an eye-opener for the grown ups in their life too.

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37. From a Wonky Path to an Open Road by Janey de Nordwall

On The Road Publishing

Scotland’s wild west coast and islands are the ideal place to lose – and maybe also find – yourself, which is why Janey de Nordwall decamps there in her VW Campervan for six weeks. Part-travelogue, part-autobiography, this is a moving, inspirational story for those looking for a life change.

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38. A Life on Our Planet:
My Witness Statement and a Vision for the Future by David Attenborough

Ebury Press

The 94-year-old natural history legend draws on a lifetime of travel to calmly and clearly set out the extent of the climate emergency facing the planet and all its inhabitants, and the ways we can try and respond to it. This tie-in to his recent documentary is both terrifying and essential in equal measure.

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39. Unforgettable Journeys

Dorling Kindersley

Our big adventures might be on hold for the time being, but that certainly hasn’t stopped us dreaming about them – quite the opposite in fact. This coffee table title from DK will certainly feed your imagination, with 200 entries ranging from the obvious bucket list tickers to more off-the-beaten track ideas. It would look nice under a Christmas tree, maybe?

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40. NYT Explorer: 100 Trips Around the World Ed Barbara Ireland 


Matching the New York Times travel writing team with high-end book publisher TASCHEN’s design is a fairly safe win. With fresh takes on classic breaks – Paris, Venice – mixed in with some more left-field choices – Idaho’s Sawtooth Valley – it reads as well as it looks.

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41. Mini Escapades Around the British Isles By Zoe Cano 

Road Dog Publications 

With our attention focussed on more local pleasures, it’s good to remember just how exciting these islands can be. Anyone looking for some ideas – scooting in Wales  – or just some enthusiasm can start here.

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42. The Gardens of Mars: Madagascar, an Island Story by John Gimlette

Head of Zeus

John Gimlette’s latest thoughtful study sees him explore the relatively recent human history of the world’s fourth-largest island. He travels across Madagascar to discover that the people who live there are every bit as extraordinary as its unique flora and fauna.

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43. Red Sands by Caroline Eden

Quadrille Publishing

Using food as her window into the lives and culture of the people of Central Asia, Caroline Eden once again successfully mixes travel writing with recipes, providing a tasty insight into this wild sweep of land.

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44. How to Shit Around the World by Dr Jane Wilson-Howarth

Travelers’ Tales

Wanderlust’s regular medical expert has updated her guide to staying clean and avoiding illness while on the road. Often just as funny as it is plain speaking and practical, it’s much more than just a bathroom read.

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45. Pilgrim Pathways by Andy Bull


You don’t have to head to Spain, Italy or the Holy Lands to enjoy a spiritually minded wander. These detailed guides to 20 one- or two-day walks from across Britain provide some great getaway ideas to let you become a weekend pilgrim.

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46. Lion: Pride Before The Fall by George Logan 

Born Free 

A beautifully crafted coffee-table book celebrating the endangered King of the Plains from top photographer Logan. All proceeds go to Born Free’s Last Lions of Meru conservation programme in Kenya.

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