The best travel books for the savvy traveler

Best travel guides and unique travel gifts

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.

Best travel guide unique travel gift NY Times 36 HoursNew 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.

NY Times ExplorerNew 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.

Best travel guide unique travel gift Where to Go When plannerBest travel guide unique travel gift Where to Go WhenWhere 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.

Best travel guide unique travel gift PrecinctsPrecincts: 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.

Best travel guide unique travel gift Bonjour City Map-GuidesBest travel guide unique travel gift Bonjour City Map-GuidesBonjour 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.”

Best travel guide unique travel gift Wildsam Field GuideWildsam 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.

Best travel guide unique travel gift MonocleMonocle 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.

Best travel guide unique travel gift A Geek InA 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 Copenhagen: The Good Life: A Guide to the Usual and UnusualHerb 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 Best travel guide unique travel gift Love Delhi Indiaprinted 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.

Best travel guide unique travel gift Citix60CitiX60: This guide is intended for creative travelers and highlights spots chosen by 60 local artists, designers and trendsetters.

Best travel guide unique travel gift City Style GuideCity 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. 

Best travel guide unique travel gift Wallpaper City GuideWallpaper 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.

Best travel guide unique travel gift Cereal City GuidesCereal 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.

Best travel guide unique travel gift AIA Guide architectural travel guidebookAIA 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.

Best travel books - Louis Vuitton Fashion Eye BaliNEW - 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
Best travel book unique travel gift Portrait of a City London Best travel book unique travel gift Portrait of a City Paris Best travel book unique travel gift Portrait of a City Berlin
London: Portrait of a City Paris: Portrait of a City Berlin: Portrait of a City
Best travel book unique travel gift The Grand Tour - Travelling the World with an Architect's Eye Best travel book unique travel gift The Grand Tour - The Golden Age of Travel
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.

Best travel guide unique travel gift Lonely Planet Global Coffee TourLonely 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.

Best travel guide unique travel gift Lonely Planet Global Beer TourLonely Planet's Global Beer Tour: If your buzz comes from a couple of brewskis, flip through this guide to the best destinations for beer.

Best travel guide unique travel gift Road FoodRoad 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. 

Best travel guide unique travel gift Michelin Red GuideMichelin 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.

Best travel guide unique travel gift New York Doughnut Map insideBest travel guide unique travel gift New York Doughnut MapAll-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.

Best travel books - Theater of the World: The Maps that Made HistoryNEW - 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.

Best travel books - History of the World Map by MapNEW - 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. 

Best travel guide unique travel gift City MazesCity 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. 

Best travel book unique travel gift Beyond the MapBeyond 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.

Best travel guide unique travel gift Atlas ObscuraAtlas 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.

Best travel guide unique travel gift Pop City Guide New YorkPop City New York: This guide features spots made famous in films, TV, music and art and is perfect for pop culture buffs.

Best travel guide unique travel gift Tiny NYTiny 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.

Best travel guide unique travel gift Paris vs New YorkParis 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.

Best travel guide unique travel gift Paris in StrideParis 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.


Best travel books: Rediscover Travel: A Guide for the Globally CuriousNEW - 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. 

Best inspirational travel book unique travel gift The Art of TravelThe 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.

Best inspirational travel guide unique travel gift WanderloveWander 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.

Best inspirational travel guide unique travel gift The Happiness of PursuitThe 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.

Best inspirational travel book unique travel gift The Geography of BlissThe 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.

Best inspirational travel book unique travel gift Bicycle Diaries David ByrneBicycle 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.

Best travel books - Less by Andrew Sean Greer, Pulitzer Prize for fictionNEW - 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. 

Best travel book unique travel gift A Theory of LoveA 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.

Best travel book unique travel gift A Year in the MerdeA 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.

Best travel book unique travel gift The Not Quite United States of AmericaThe 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.

Best kid's travel book unique travel gift This Is How We Do ItThis 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.

Best travel book unique travel gift Go My Adventure JournalGo! 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.

Best kids' travel book unique travel gift The Travel Book: Mind-Blowing Stuff on Every Country in the WorldThe 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.

Best travel book unique travel gift Oh the Places You'll GoAnd 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. ** 

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