Team Wanderlust | 09 December 2020
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...
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...
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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