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The best travel books of 2020 (so far)

Coronavirus may mean that we're grounded for the time being, but the good news? We've got more time to read our ever-growing pile of travel books. Here are 2020's best (so far)...

These are 2020's top travel books (Images c/o publishers)

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

Bloomsbury

In his latest book, wildlife expert – and the go-to person to ask anything and everything about ceteceans – 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

Bloomsbury

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

Artisan

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 

Granta 

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 Albania, Macedonia 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

Doubleday

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 

Writer 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

Saraband

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

As she dusts offs 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.

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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.

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