A curated list of the best travel books to inspire your travels and spark unique travel gifts
Updated December 2018
by Kara Walsh and Jennifer Mitchell
While travel review sites and basic travel guides play an important role in travel planning, sometimes you want a destination-focused guide with a particular lens that speaks to your interests and sensibilities. Or you want to give a thoughtful gift to your favorite world traveler. If you’re a first-time tourist and are looking for a more comprehensive, practical guide to a destination, hop over to our collection of the best travel guides for a first-time visitor. However, if you’re looking for original books that are cleverly designed to inspire how and where you travel, deepen your personal experience at a destination, or provide an opportunity for reflection after your trip, we have found some fantastic books for you.
These critically acclaimed books are frequently passed around in travel circles and have inspired our own travels. All have rave reviews from their (sometimes narrowly) targeted readers—which we’ve combed through to curate this list—so you can find the perfect books for yourself or a friend who’s caught the travel bug.
Pre-trip: the best travel guides to inspire where to go and what to do
While guides like Lonely Planet, Frommer’s and Fodor’s are classic go-to guides for the first-time traveler, the guides below are more unique and may take you off-the-beaten path. Great for a repeat visit to a destination, these guides will inspire your planning and may even drive your choice in destination.
New York Times 36 Hours: If you’re spending just a few days in a destination, The New York Times column “36 Hours” is an essential resource; here at No Small Plan, it’s our go-to. The beautifully designed 36 Hours books are drawn from the articles and provide an excellent starting point for deciding what to do in a place. These hefty books are artfully bound and have high-quality visuals, making it the perfect coffee table book and curated travel guide.
New York Times Explorer: If you’re interested in certain topographies or vacation styles, the New York Times Explorers offer a roundup of destinations that fit within a specific category (i.e.- Cities and Towns, Beaches, Island and Coasts, or Mountains, Deserts and Plains). These guides offer rich photos as well as practical tips for your travels.
Where to Go When: If your New Year’s resolution is to travel more, pick up a copy of this nifty planner that doubles as travel inspiration. The pages are filled with breathtaking photos, historical information, inspirational quotes and international holidays.
Portable travel guides with a unique perspective to pack in your carry-on
These distinctive guides are perfect for on-the-ground exploring and will inspire you to view the destination through a new lens. Grab one or a few that feel like you (or gift one to a travel-loving friend), hop on a plane and start exploring.
Precincts: A Curated Guide to the City's Best Shops, Bars, Eateries and Other Hangouts: This guide answers the question: "Which neighborhood should I hang out in?" If you’re looking for recommendations from in-the-know locals, this book has you covered.
Bonjour City Map-Guides: These guides are a hybrid of practical maps and watercolor illustrations featuring "rare and soulful places that exude an enviable je ne sais quoi.”
Wildsam Field Guides: Afar magazine called these books "city guides with a Wes Anderson aesthetic." Images are replaced with illustrations and fact-based trivia is replaced with prose, personalities and historical anecdotes.
Monocle Travel Guides: These guides are written by local bureaus for a globally minded audience. Similar to Monocle magazine, the travel guides offer a fresh take on cities that appeal to the intellectually curious.
A Geek in...: Rather than listing typical travel tips for a destination, this book offers context about a destination’s culture, history, politics, economy and much more.
Herb Lester's Guides to the Usual and Unusual: This is not a guide book per se, but rather a simple, charming folded guide with a basic map, tips and city highlights. It’s also printed on 100% recycled paper. Many reviewers of these guides on Amazon seem confused about what they were buying, but having seen these cuties in real life, we can tell you they are a lot of fun in a small package, and at around $7 each, they are essentially a stocking stuffer gift for the frequent traveler.
Love Travel Guides: These beautiful guides to cities in India are printed on handmade pages bound in hand-woven covers. They curate tips from locals that are then tested by the author, a self-proclaimed "luxury vagabond."
Best travel books for design-centric city explorers
If one of your primary reasons for traveling is to indulge your passion for design, art or architecture, these travel books will add a fun flare to your travel experience.
CitiX60: This guide is intended for creative travelers and highlights spots chosen by 60 local artists, designers and trendsetters.
City Style Guides: Eat*Sleep*Shop: Though they do offer some practical tips, these guides are known for offering advice on turning your trip into design heaven. Expect to see tips on where to eat, sleep and shop in the destination’s most stylish neighborhoods.
Wallpaper City Guides: With Pantone-colored covers and design-oriented insider tips, these collectible short guides will act as your "passport to global style." Critics may deem it too cool for school, but if cool is what you're looking for, this will be spot on.
Cereal City Guides: For a distinctive, finely curated collection of destinations within a city, dive into Cereal City Guides. The gorgeous photographs and austere minimalist format will make the sophisticated design-oriented traveler almost weep with joy. However, many of the past guides have sold out and are difficult to find, so you may need to pre-order forthcoming books and make do with their gorgeous online guides while you wait patiently.
AIA Guides: These are the definitive, highly detailed guides to architecture in select American cities. Flag your must-see structures and plan your day around them, or carry one along to dive deep into the architectural history of a picturesque block that you've stumbled upon.
NEW - Louis Vuitton Fashion Eye and City Guide Series: These gems are absolutely the most chic books to help you explore and appreciate a city aesthetically. With their elegant, colorful covers, they are stunning as a collection.
After a design-inspired trip, consider picking up one of these photo-filled, design-centric coffee table books for yourself or as a gift for your travel companions, so they’ll always remember your awe-inspiring trip:
|The Signs of Paris||The Signs of Barcelona||The Signs of Italy|
|London: Portrait of a City||Paris: Portrait of a City||Berlin: Portrait of a City|
|NEW - National Geographic Journeys of a Lifetime||The Grand Tour: Traveling the World with an Architect's Eye||The Grand Tour: The Golden Age of Travel XXL|
Best travel guides for foodies
These guides are great for people who have their priorities straight—i.e. the foodies. If the search for the perfect meal or beverage drives your travels, flip through these guides to explore all things food and drink.
Lonely Planet's Global Coffee Tour: If your morning cup of Joe tends to turn into an all-day caffeine buzz, you’ll appreciate this guide to the world’s best coffee.
Lonely Planet's Global Beer Tour: If your buzz comes from a couple of brewskis, flip through this guide to the best destinations for beer.
Road Food: Driving across the U.S.? Start with this guide intended for foodie road trippers. From lobster shacks in Maine to oysters in the Pacific Northwest and all of the best diners and hot dog stands in between, you'll be well served with this guide on your car seat.
Michelin Red Guide: If your road trip is on the other side of the pond, consider the classic Michelin Red Guide and set a star-driven foodie travel goal.
All-You-Can-Eat Press maps: Primarily available for New York, these guides offer a map to the city’s best X, whether that’s doughnuts, pizza-by-the-slice or oysters.
Best books for map enthusiasts
Some people think best visually or with data; then there are those who think most clearly when they are viewing a map. Here are a few selections to get their pulse racing with excitement.
NEW - Theater of the World: The Maps that Made History: A fascinating history of mapmaking, from the mysterious symbols of the Stone Age to Google Earth. This insightful book explores how the ability to envision what the world looked like developed hand in hand with worldwide exploration.
NEW - History of the World Map by Map: An excellent choice for somebody who is both captivated by maps and is a history buff. You can dive into any notable period or theme from a map-centric perspective.
City Mazes: This book of mazes uses real city maps as the framework for each maze. Covering 30 of the world's greatest cities, it's ideal for people who love both puzzles and travel.
Beyond the Map: For curious travelers who prefer undiscovered destinations, explore the “under-construction” islands, fantastic utopian experiments and once-secret fantasy gardens of Beyond the Map.
Quirky travel books for niche interests
As big proponents of travel quests, we understand that for some, travel is driven by a larger inspiration or interest. Here are some choices that are ideal for the intellectually curious and those obsessed with unusual details.
Atlas Obscura: If the eccentric and bizarre appeals to you, snag a copy of Atlas Obscura, which celebrates more than 700 of the strangest and most curious places in the world.
Pop City New York: This guide features spots made famous in films, TV, music and art and is perfect for pop culture buffs.
Tiny NY: the smallest things in the big city: If you’re interested in seeing a baby dinosaur or a dinky basketball court that has produced some of sport’s biggest legends, check out this guide to New York’s smallest things.
Paris Versus New York: a tally of two cities: Based on the very popular blog by the same name, this book is filled with side by side images with witty commentary comparing the two cities.
Paris in Stride: Filled with charming watercolor illustrations and walking guides from a local, this is the perfect gift for someone who daydreams about strolling through Paris.
Autobiographical travel journeys and inspirational self-help travel books
Sometimes, reading about the travels of others can be the inspiration we need to book trips of our own or to approach travel differently. These autobiographies and self-help books are focused on an individual’s travel experiences.
NEW - Rediscovering Travel: A Guide for the Globally Curious: From the former New York Times' Frugal Traveler, Seth Kugel, this book encourages us to push the re-set button on our travels, finding a satisfying balance of spontaneity and planning without being overwhelmed by the abundance of travel technology and online opinions.
The Art of Travel: While you may be inspired by where Alain De Botton has traveled, this book is all about the how and the why. We recommend you highlight the passages that resonate with you the most and give them a quick glance before every major trip. It’s that good.
Wander Love: Lessons, Tips & Inspiration from a Solo Traveller: This book is the guide on how to smartly travel in style. With a plethora of photos and tips, including how to be stylish while traveling and how to upgrade your travel photography skills, this book is a must-have for any solo female traveler.
The Happiness of Pursuit: If you’re new to the concept of a travel quest and you long for more meaningful pastimes, this book may give you the boost you need. Read about Chris Guillebeau’s quest to visit every country on earth and the joy that comes from achieving an ambitious goal over time.
The Geography of Bliss: This bestseller follows Eric Weiner, a self-described grump, as he traverses the globe trying to find the happiest place on earth. If you’re looking to travel to a metaphorically sunnier destination, start with this witty book.
Bicycle Diaries: In his memoir, musician and co-founder of Talking Heads David Byrne—known for getting around NYC via bike since the 80s—shares stories about his adventures pedaling through some of the world's major cities.
Enthralling travel novels and essays
Many aspiring travelers have developed a case of wanderlust reading the easily digested Eat, Pray, Love or Bill Bryson’s travel essays. However there's a whole wonderful, wacky world of novels and essays that revolve around travel. We've included a few particularly entertaining ones here.
NEW - Less: Winner of the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, but more importantly, it will crack you up. A struggling novelist with a knack for personal disasters sets out to travel the world to avoid an awkward wedding and his impending fiftieth birthday. Hijinks ensue.
A Theory of Love: This novel tells the tale of Helen Gibbs, a British journalist who falls in love with a half-French, half-American lawyer and travels the world - both with him and alone - as she grapples with whether she should reside in the familiar comforts of solitude or dare to open her heart and risk having it broken.
A Year in the Merde: Based on Stephen Clarke's own experiences as an ex-pat in France, this novel is entertaining for both Francophiles and Francophobes alike. If it leaves you wanting more, there are two more installments, In the Merde for Love and Merde Happens.
The Not-Quite States of America: Doug Mack explores the little known, often forgotten U.S. territories and their people, hoping to bring some insights to Americans.
Best travel books for kids
It’s never too early to inspire young ones to travel—and we've previously covered reasons to start your family travels early. To get your kids excited about an upcoming trip and to keep them engaged throughout, here are a few books for your little travelers.
This is How We Do It: One Day in the Lives of Seven Kids Around the World: In this book, kids will learn how children in other parts of the world play, dress and live.
Go! My Adventure Journal: This fun activity book and travel journal is a great way for young explorers of all ages to track their journeys and engage with their surroundings.
The Travel Book: Mind-Blowing Stuff on Every Country in the World: Not only will kids be excited to explore new places with this book, but they’ll learn fun facts about every country in the world.
And while technically categorized as a children’s book, we think adults and kids alike will benefit from reading the Dr. Seuss classic, Oh, the Places You'll Go before setting out to explore.
Did we miss any of your favorite travel books? Be sure to check out our rundown of travel guides for a first time visitor as well. If a particular book or guide has inspired your travels, please share it with us and your fellow travelers by adding it to the comments below. We plan to continually update our list, so we would love to hear from you. And along the way, be sure to create your customized travel map with No Small Plan.
Kara Walsh is the Founder of No Small Plan. Jennifer Mitchell is a blogger, comedian, freelance copywriter and travel enthusiast.
** Please know that while the travel books featured are selected based entirely on editorial opinion, we do participate in Amazon's affiliate program which may result in revenue from products purchased through our links. **