Some of the most evocative travel books aren’t travel books at all. A strong sense of place can transport you, no matter which section of the book store the volume is shelved in.
I starting thinking about the books that stoke my own wanderlust when I was working on this armchair travel episode of my podcast, which focused on how books can make us feel like we’ve traveled without leaving home. When I do my own research into a place (or recommend books about my part of the world — like this list of books about North Dakota and Minnesota) they’re generally a mix of fiction and non-fiction.
I started a list of books that spoke to me. Then I asked other Midwestern writers, photographers and business owners to recommend titles that really made a place come alive for them. They responded with a fantastic selection of fiction, memoirs, history books, young adult novels, fantasy and historical fiction titles that will take you from Paris to Bali, Nebraska to Alaska. Here are a few of our favorites.
West With the Night by Beryl Markham
As Beryl Markham tells the story of her fascinating life in her memoir, gorgeous descriptions of her home country of Kenya are woven throughout the story. Born in Britain in 1902, Beryl was brought to Kenya by her father and raised there. She goes on to become Africa’s first female horse trainer, a pilot, and one of the first persons to cross the Atlantic from Europe to America. It’s a fascinating story of a remarkable, imperfect woman and her love affair with Africa.
– Kristie Probst of World is Wide
(In addition to West With The Night, Kristie also recommends these books about Africa.)
Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
Where the Crawdads Sing isn’t a travel book, but it’ll transport you to the southern U.S. regardless. The story is an ode to the marshland ecosystem which is beautifully brought to life throughout the book. With veins of love and mystery, I loved every page of this coming-of-age story.
– Danielle Mondus of Rambling Companion
Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
Since I’m a big foodie, sometimes my travels revolve around food and I love reading books that take me to a different country or culture and center on food, too. Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert is one I loved that took you along to Italy where you could almost taste the cuisine as you read along.
– Carrie Clark Steinweg of Chicago Foodie Sisters
A Year in the World by Frances Mayes
Frances Mayes is best known for Under the Tuscan Sun, but personally, I prefer A Year in the World. It describes the way the author immerses herself in the rhythms and rituals of everyday life in Turkey, North Africa, Greece, Spain, Portugal, France, Italy and the British Isles. Mayes’ writing is rich and super sensory, weaving together vivid images of local cuisine, language, art and architecture. Her descriptions of the ingredients she purchases at the markets are reason enough to buy this book.
– Alicia Underlee Nelson (If you’re new to this blog, that’s me!)
The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah
This book not only has engaging characters and a moving story, but the descriptions of Alaska make me feel like I’ve been there. It’s now high on my list of states to visit!
– Chelsea Simdorn Do You Even Paleo
A Darker Shade of Magic (and Shades of Magic series) by VE Schwab
The series is one of my favorites because it had everything from magic to pirates to grand adventures across four parallel Londons. Some were flourishing and filled with magic, others desolate and magic-less. The main character, Lilah, was always up for an adventure and never said no to anything that was thrown her way.
– Niki Gordon of Chasing Departures
Paris on Air by Oliver Gee
If I want to be transported to my favorite city, Paris without leaving home, I will usually pick up a memoir by someone who lives in Paris. Oliver Gee, the host of the wildly popular podcast about Paris, The Earful Tower, has just released a memoir about his move to the city and the launch of his podcast. My favorite thing about Paris On Air is Oliver is always the optimist and even though the the process of moving to Paris is complicated, he finds the upside to everything. His love of Paris shines through as he reveals stories about learning French, ducking in private courtyards and seeing France with his bride on a little red scooter. If you have a love of Paris, take a little armchair journey with Oliver Gee.
– Lori Kattre Helke of Lori Loves Paris
The Persian Pickle Club by Sandra Dallas
The Persian Pickle Club by Sandra Dallas is set in Depression-Era Wabaunsee County, KS, and brings rural Kansas culture of another era to life. Reading The Persian Pickle Club in many ways gives a window into what it feels like to live in rural Kansas today.
– Mary Ellen Coumerilh of Prairie Confections, which sells artisan sunflower brittle made with local seeds.
Love & Gelato by Jenna Evans Welch
I am a huge fan of the best selling author, Richard Paul Evans, so when his daughter wrote her first book I had to check it out. Love & Gelato is a Young Adult novel and while her writing style differs greatly from her father’s I absolutely adored this book. I love all things Italy and Love & Gelato took me right to the heart of Florence. This coming of age novel explores complicated relationships and changing expectations amid the beautiful backdrop of Florence. And of course, there’s gelato!
– Tanya Shelburne of Traveling Tanya
Conquistadora by Esmerelda Santiago
Conquistadora made me understand both Puerto Rico and the gut level reality of slavery in a visceral way. It’s centered around the brilliant, driven, and complicated Ana Larragoity Cubillas, who is drawn to a Puerto Rican sugar plantation to make her name and her fortune. But the power, resilience and dignity of the hacienda’s slaves give this lush and lyrical novel its soul. It was these characters I carried with me when I went to Puerto Rico myself. They stick with me to this day.
– Alicia Underlee Nelson
Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World by Matthew Goodman
This book tells the true story of two female journalists’ race to travel around the world in 80 days a la Jules Verne’s popular book. Considering this race took place in the late 1800’s, this quest was no small undertaking! This is a fascinating story about their journeys. But more so, it’s a fascinating glimpse at life for professional women in the 1800s and the challenges of travel back then. I found this book absolutely gripping from start to finish.
– Kristie Probst of World is Wide.)
Voyager by Diana Gabaldon
Every one of the books in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander Series displays an outstanding sense of place, but Fergus and Marsali’s wedding in Voyager stands out. In the middle of the night, the couple stands on a Jamaican beach in front of a half-drunk priest. During the hilarious proceedings, I can see the couple standing under a bright canopy of stars, surrounded by flaming torches with the waves whispering congratulations.
– Roxie Yonkey of Roxie on the Road
Where the Wild Winds Are by Nick Hunt
This is one of the most delightfully strange travel book premises I’ve ever seen, so of course I couldn’t resist snapping it up. Where the Wild Winds Are follows one man’s quest to experience four of Europe’s most legendary winds in person. The book takes him up into the Swiss alps, retracing pilgrims’ steps in the south of France and to wind shaped landscapes and stoic villages in Slovenia, Croatia and Great Britain. This sounds esoteric, I know, but it’s fascinating. Anyone interested in weather, travel, hiking or the outdoors will enjoy it.
– Alicia Underlee Nelson
My Life in France by Julia Child and Alex Prud’homme
Another favorite is My Life in France by Julia Child and her great nephew, that invites you along to Julia’s early time in a new country as she developed a love for the food and passion for cooking.
– Carrie Clark Steinweg of Chicago Foodie Sisters
A Garden in Paris and a Hilltop in Tuscany by Stephanie Grace Whitson
Two of my favorite books start with my home state of Nebraska. A Garden in Paris and a Hilltop in Tuscany are contemporary fiction books about an Omaha family that learns that starting over is possible through God’s grace and forgiveness. Author Stephanie Grace Whitson is a Nebraska author, and many of her primarily historical fiction books are set in Nebraska.
– Gretchen Michels Garrison (You can read more about these titles on Gretchen’s website, Odyssey Through Nebraska.
Tea in the Heather (or anything else) by Kate Roberts
Her fiction is wonderful, very homespun, gives good insight into life in Wales.
– Karen R. Sanderson
Note from Alicia: Tea in the Heather appears to be the most readily available Kate Roberts book
What about you?
What are you reading these days?
Do you read travel books? Why or why not?
Which of these titles would you add to your reading list?
What’s your favorite genre?
Which books make you feel like you’re traveling without leaving home?
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