Every list of best travel writers of all time is going to be a little different, and it’s bound to offend diehard fans of excluded or improperly ranked authors. Let’s face it, there’s a lot of great travel writers out there, and their ranks have ballooned in recent years as international travel has become more accessible. Here, I did my best to take a balanced look at classic authors from the distant past, as well as those who emerged more recently and were able to see travel through the eyes of modern wanderers.
We’ll start backwards beginning at #5 and ending with our selection for #1.
5. Paul Theroux
The Peace Corps has helped shape a number of successful travel writers over the years, and Paul Theroux is most definitely one of the greatest and most prolific among them. When Theroux joined the Peace Corps to teach in Malawi in 1963, it was still a still a very new program. He’s written a number of fiction and non-fiction books about travel, but undoubtedly is most well-known for The Great Railway Bazaar. It recounts his own, real life four-month journey from London through Europe and finally ending in the Far East. Theroux’s gift isn’t in his ability to describe places and things so much as it is his ability to capture the people he encounters and their unique personalities as well as cultural tendencies.
4. Eric Newby
There’s plenty of Eric Newby books to choose from, although his best work probably came early on in the form of two legendary real life accounts of his travels in A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush and Love and War in the Apennines. Newby’s writing is aided in large part by some remarkable experiences he had in Afghanistan, as well as modern day Iran and Turkey. His impressive wit and ability to find the humor in even the most trying situations is what sets Newby apart from other travel writers.
3. Peter Hessler
It’s impossible to read Peter Hessler books without recognizing the obvious influence of one his greatest mentors, John McPhee. Also a former member of Peace Corps, Hessler’s most celebrated books are three autobiographical accounts of his time in China. His ability, like McPhee’s, to blend dry and complex history with everyday and often hilarious encounters on his travels makes his books some of the most readable and educational around. Good luck reading just a few pages of the impossible-to-put-down River Town, Oracle Bones, or Country Driving.
2. Mark Twain
Practically the inventor of the modern, brutally honest and unvarnished travelogue, Mark Twain isn’t always recognized for his abilities as a travel writer. However, The Innocents Abroad is one of the most fun laugh-out-loud hilarious real life travel accounts of all time. It chronicles a massive expedition Twain led with a group of American travelers aboard a former Civil War ship through Europe and into the Holy Land. Twain’s smart commentary on the inherent conflict between history and modern world on display seemingly everywhere he goes is classic Twain. The prequel to that book, Roughing It, details Twain’s adventures in the American West prior to his famous “Pleasure Cruise”.
1. Jack Kerouac
It’s practically impossible to keep Jack Kerouac off any list of great travel authors. When people think of travelogues or influential quotations about wanderlust, Kerouac is almost always the first name to come to mind. And deservingly so, his most influential work, On the Road is probably the most quoted travel book by modern day travel bloggers and expats. While other famous travel writers could rely in part on obscure and exotic destinations to keep the attention of readers, Kerouac’s On the Road thrives on his ability to distill the art and form of travel itself. Having died at age 47 from excessive drinking, it’s tempting to wonder what else he might’ve accomplished as a writer in the second half of his life.