Take me armchair traveling: your favorite works of travel writing?
December 28, 2014 9:44 AM   Subscribe

I won't be able to afford much travel in the next year or two. In the meantime, I'd love to be swept away with rich and vivid descriptions of faraway places. The more introspective, the better. Can be either non-fiction or fiction; essays/short stories or longer format writing; graphic novels are fine; am open to any locations. Bonus points if it also focuses on local food, and/or has an ethnographic approach, and/or is written from a woman's perspective.

Examples of travel-y writing I've read and enjoyed: books by Pico Iyer, Anthony Bourdain, Annie Dillard, Sarah Vowell; Guy Delisle's graphic novels; Craig Thompson's "Carnet de Voyage", Bruce Chatwin's "In Patagonia," Julio Cortazar's "Autonauts of the Cosmoroute", Damon Galgut's "In A Strange Room", Robert Olen Butler's "A Good Scent From A Strange Mountain," Spalding Gray's "Impossible Vacation," David Byrne's "Bicycle Diaries", Pablo Neruda's "Isla Negra," Hunter S. Thompson's "Rum Diaries", D.H. Lawrence's "Twilight In Italy", Cheryl Strayed's "Wild", etc

Again, definitely open to anything and everything in the travel vein, although I'd love to balance out the above list with more writing by women.
posted by nightrecordings to Travel & Transportation (35 answers total) 61 users marked this as a favorite
Have you read Laurie Goigh's books? I loved them both. Kiss the Sunset Pig and Kite Strings of the Southern Cross.
posted by semacd at 10:14 AM on December 28, 2014

Fuchsia Dunlop, specifically Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper .
posted by Fig at 10:29 AM on December 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

Jan Morris! Some of her earlier stuff was published under "James Morris," so the gender perspective may shift (I'm not sure when she publicly transitioned) depending on when the book was written. I have read Venice, The Venetian Empire, and Hong Kong and loved them all.

Not a female author, but Watermark is amazing.

It's not officially travel writing, but Joan Didion's Slouching Toward Bethlehem has amazing writing about California in the 60s, written in the place-evocative way that I associate with travel writing.
posted by jaguar at 10:33 AM on December 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

Dave Barry Does Japan and Holidays In Hell by P. J. O'Rourke are both really good and very funny - if somewhat dated - reads.
posted by doctor tough love at 10:36 AM on December 28, 2014

Bill Bryson: A Walk in the Woods, In A Sunburned Country, and probably Neither Here Nor There, Notes from a Small Island, The Lost Continent, I'm A Stranger Here Myself, and African Diary.

There are also Herodotus and Marco Polo, though I've only read the former.

Also: Ibn Battutah.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 10:53 AM on December 28, 2014 [4 favorites]

Bill Bryson has a few really enjoyable reads about domestic and places afar.
posted by Draccy at 10:55 AM on December 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

The Provence series by Peter Mayle.
posted by Bretley at 11:05 AM on December 28, 2014

Anna Tsing: In the Realm of the Diamond Queen: Marginality in an Out-of-the-Way Place.

Ethnography, drawing on experiences of and with some hill folk (a problematized notion) in rainforests in South Kalimantan (Borneo). Sophisticated anthropology, but also highly engaging for undergraduates in an introductory-level class. It's lyrical, and critical, and then even more interestingly lyrical. No 'food writing' per se, but some aesthetically vivid writing about food -- Tsing's especially interested in how local practices of tending and eating food sources blur distinctions between farming and hunter-gatherering. Many marginalized and outlandish territories explored and exploited via the agencies and narratives (in diverse genres) of various women, each both socioculturally situated and marvelously idiosyncratic, including Tsing.
posted by feral_goldfish at 11:12 AM on December 28, 2014

It's male rather than female, but I loved The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux

As it turns out, I love much of his other writing too - hurrah! I especially liked dark star safari.

My partner liked The man who cycled the world.

I found Red Dust very compelling - written by a man from china who travels around Tibet - a completely different perspective.
posted by kadia_a at 11:18 AM on December 28, 2014

Two local to the Northwest books which might meet your criteria:

Edith Iglauer - Fishing with John

M. Wylie Blanchet - The Curve of Time

A classic is Rebecca West, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.

You might also enjoy books by William Dalrymple . I'd also reccommend Derek Lundy's Godforsaken Sea as an immersive account of a strange environment (audio).
posted by Rumple at 11:20 AM on December 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Robyn Davidson's TRACKS is her account of crossing the Australian desert solo, by camel, in 1977. A highly abridged version was in NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC when I was a child, and I was enchanted by it - and even more so to discover the longer version as an adult.

Seconding HOLIDAYS IN HELL, and adding Tim Cahill's ROAD FEVER; it's his account of being half of the team that set a Guinness speed record for driving the PanAmerican highway. Parts are literally laugh-out-loud funny (there's a section where they both just completely lose it somewhere in Panama which gave me a two-minute giggle fit). In a similar vein is ROUND IRELAND WITH A FRIDGE by Tony Hawk, who once made a drunken bar bet about whether he could hitchhike the entire perimeter of Ireland while towing a mini fridge on a luggage cart. (Watch for the chapter in which he and a few folks figure out a way to take the fridge surfing.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:41 AM on December 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Waugh Abroad (collected travel writings.)
posted by michaelh at 11:44 AM on December 28, 2014

Jan Morris, Freya Stark, Dervla Murphy, William Dampyrle, Robert Bryon, Lady Hester Stanhope, Patrick Leigh Fermour. All real travellers and adventurers, not pointers-and-laughers.
posted by runincircles at 11:51 AM on December 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Susan Toth's books about England.
posted by brujita at 12:08 PM on December 28, 2014

I just finished and very much enjoyed Geoff Dyer's Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, a novel which is split between Venice and Varanasi (Benares), India. Dyer's Yoga for People Who Can't Be Bothered To Do It also has some wonderful travel pieces.
posted by Leontine at 12:19 PM on December 28, 2014

Mary Kingsley's Travels in West Africa (or her biography, A Voyager Out).
posted by mmiddle at 12:21 PM on December 28, 2014

Patrick Leigh Fermor
posted by Ideefixe at 12:38 PM on December 28, 2014 [3 favorites]

Sara Wheeler's Terra Incognita is the book that kicked off my Antarctica obsession when it came out, years ago; she was the first, or one of the first, people to live there under the auspices of the NSF's artists in residence programs. I also really liked her book about Chile, Travels in a Thin Country.
posted by rtha at 1:04 PM on December 28, 2014

Untangling My Chopsticks: A Culinary Sojourn in Kyoto, by Victoria Abbott Riccardi.
posted by wintersweet at 1:47 PM on December 28, 2014

The more introspective, the better.

You are looking for Peter Matthiessen's The Snow Leopard. Oh my God, it is lyrical and magnificent.
posted by LarryC at 2:05 PM on December 28, 2014 [3 favorites]

I also loved A Fortune Teller Told Me, by Tiziano Terzano.

posted by semacd at 3:59 PM on December 28, 2014

M.F.K. Fisher, The Gastronomical Me, and also everything else she ever wrote.
posted by Daily Alice at 5:05 PM on December 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Thirding Patrick Leigh Fermor.
I also like Kabloona and Land of the High Flags quite a bit. There is also Peter Fleming (especially News From Tartary) and his travelling companion on that trip Ella "Kini" Maillart.
posted by gudrun at 6:40 PM on December 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

J. Maarten Troost's The Sex Lives of Cannibals is utterly terrific.
posted by Dr. Wu at 7:54 PM on December 28, 2014

One of the early classics of travel writing is Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucuatan by John L Stephens (2 volumes, published around 1840). Not introspective, and has some of the baggage you'd expect from the 19th Century, but Stephens was pretty open-minded for his day and describes the local people he met with good humor and affection, for the most part. He writes a lot about their food and customs, mixed with amateur archeology/exploration, and some of his experiences are laugh-out-loud funny.

Third Class Ticket is about a group of poor rural Bengali villagers who are given money for a 3rd-class railway journey around India when a wealthy woman dies, as she wished to show her people the diversity and splendor of their own country. It's sort of a travelogue from their perspective.
posted by Quietgal at 8:06 PM on December 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

I don't know if it was particularly introspective, I read it some time ago... but I enjoyed the book Malaria Dreams and would recommend it.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 8:41 PM on December 28, 2014

Thirding Bill Bryson's books.

I have enjoyed reading and recommending Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook has Gone Before by Tony Horwitz. He traces the journeys of Captain Cook, and we learn about sailing in those days and what Cook found in terms of people and places. Horwitz also retraces those voyages, going to the places where Cook went to see what they're like today and how well remembered Cook is. Fascinating stuff, and entertainingly written.
posted by bryon at 10:40 PM on December 28, 2014

Have you read Beryl Markham's West with the Night?
posted by TWinbrook8 at 11:06 PM on December 28, 2014

Factory Girls by Leslie Chang (more like an ethnography than travel book though)

for some old school "travel writing" (but she was essentially Chinese so it's technically not travel; still interesting perspective) try some of Pearl Buck's non fiction works.

Sydney Rittenberg's The One Who Stay Behind is a fascinating account of an American who got involved in the Communist revolution in China, and was imprisoned twice. (a stretch to call the travel, too, though, but it is really interesting).
posted by bearette at 6:31 AM on December 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

Two great English travel writers not mentioned so far:

Eric Newby: "A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush"; "Love and War in the Appenines"; "The Last Grain Race".

Norman Lewis: "Naples '44"; "Jackdaw Cake"; "The Honoured Society".
posted by Tuco Benedicto Pacifico Juan Maria Ramirez at 12:16 PM on December 29, 2014

Colin Thubron is really wonderful; I'd especially recommend In Siberia, Shadow of the Silk Road, and The Lost Heart of Asia, but really I haven't read anything by him that wasn't excellent.
posted by Kat Allison at 1:52 PM on December 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

Andrea Camilleri's Inspector Montalbano's mystery novels bring Sicily and its culture to life in a very vivid way. The English translations, done by Stephen Sartarelli, are incredibly sensitive to the dialect and cadence of the language and the different characters. And the details about food, village life, landscape, architecture, and the culture in general make me feel as though I have been there, though it has only been through Camilleri's words.

I'm also currently reading a couple of novels by Jim Harrison that take place in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. I spent a lot of time near the Wisconsin-UP border as a kid, and I am amazed at how well Harrison describes even the tiniest details of the landscape, flora, and fauna, as well as the culture of the tough people who live there. It really creates a strong sense of place.
posted by amusebuche at 3:40 PM on December 29, 2014

Nthing Patrick Leigh Fermor!!
posted by moons in june at 6:04 PM on December 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

Coming back to add A Traveler on Horseback by Christina Dodwell, The Places In Between by Rory Stewart, and to say that some of the books by John McPhee and would fit your requirements.
posted by gudrun at 8:59 AM on December 31, 2014

I love Bill Bryson too (anything he's ever written), and pretty much all travel writing. Try the following:
Hitching Rides with Buddha Will Ferguson hitch hikes from one end of Japan to the other.
Danziger's Travels Nick Danziger travels the silk road in the 80's, and spends time in Afghanistan and Tibet before they were widely open to international travel.
Country Driving Peter Hessler drives along the Great Wall of China.
Travels in Siberia Ian Frazier travels across Siberia by rattletrap van.
posted by annie o at 6:32 PM on January 1, 2015

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