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27 Books about Travel in a Historical Context to Inspire Your Next Trip

Discover the best books to read that will inspire travel in a historical context. Explore the history of the many places you've traveled or would like to travel. Learn about history-focused travel books to read at home for the armchair traveler.
What are the best books to read if you love to travel and want to inspire your next trip? Travel-focused books can take many forms. They can be modern travelogues or travel history books that can transport you back in time through tales of adventure.

There is some history that we must read to make sure the memories live on and we aren't destined to repeat past mistakes. Books about history can be difficult and often emotional to read but we owe it to ourselves to do so.

This list covers history in many forms including scientific achievement plus inspiring and incredible stories of life under unimaginable circumstances. 

Books that Inspire Travel History: Map and Compass

I have compiled a list of my favorite travel books with a history theme. I've personally read all the books on this list and recommend each one for armchair travelers

Each book inspires travel or invokes a strong sense of place that you can revisit and see for yourself on a future trip.

You can click on the image of each book cover to buy a copy for yourself.

Historic Travel Books

The books in this section is set in an iconic place and is grounded in historical context that is sometimes challenging and sometimes upliftingly triumphant.  

1. Sun Dancing: A Vision of Medieval Ireland by Geoffrey Moorhouse

Part historical fiction, part history lesson, Sun Dancing imagines the story of the monks who made a home on Skellig Michael, a windswept island off the coast of the Ring of Kerry in Ireland for hundreds of years. How did they get there? How did they live? Why did they leave? Skellig Michael has become famous of late as a Star Wars set, but what better way to experience these islands that have captured the public's imagination than by taking a trip back in time to this Medieval monastic outpost.

2. TransAtlantic by Colum McCann

Transatlantic weaves a tale of historical fiction spanning two centuries. The story begins with the daring non-stop transatlantic flight in the early 20th century in an open-air cockpit leaving from Canada and arriving in Connemara, Ireland. This story is interlaced with Frederick Douglas and the abolitionist's tour of Dublin and Cork to speak and fund-raise for the anti-slavery cause in the mid-18th century. If that weren't enough, McCann brings in a third story: George Mitchell's negotiation of the peace process in Northern Ireland. This is an epic historical novel rich in Irish history.

3. The Lost Executioner: The Story of Comrade Duch and the Khmer Rouge by Nic Dunlop

The Cambodian genocide executed by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge is one of the most heartbreaking stories I have encountered in my travels. Up to 2 million people died and at least 20,000 of those were at the hand of Comrade Duch. Somehow, Comrade Duch managed to slip away and escape persecution until an Irish journalist went on a mission and found him. The Lost Executioner is an impressive piece of journalism albeit heartbreaking to read.

4. First They Killed My Father by Loung Ung

I practically cried from start to finish when reading First They Killed My Father. While The Lost Executioner focused on bringing a high ranking member of the Khmer Rouge to justice, this story is one of family uprooted, disrupted, and forever changed by the Cambodian Genocide. Written by survivor Loung Ung, this is a story that is difficult to read but must be read.

5. King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild

King Leopold of Belgium wreaked terror on the Congo in Sub-Saharan Africa in the late 19th and early 20th century. This work of historical non-fiction uncovers the darkest side of colonialism as King Leopold exploited the vast ivory and rubber resources of the Congo for the gain of himself and his empire.

6. A Thread Across the Ocean: The Heroic Story of the Transatlantic Cable by John Steele Gordon

Moving on to a more uplifting story, A Thread Across the Ocean covers the scientific innovation and sheer will required to lay the world's first transatlantic cable and connect Europe and North America. Today, our phone lines and internet work like magic, but without these physical cables much of what we take for granted would be an impossibility. While this is a work of historical non-fiction, it reads like a novel. By the end, you'll be cheering for the heroes at sea who made this giant leap forward in the speed of communication possible in the mid-19th century.

7. A Passage to India by E.M. Forster

 A Passage to India is considered to be one of the greatest books of all time. This novel takes places in the 1920s and sets a series of well-drawn characters against the backdrop of the British Colonial empire, racial tensions, and the India independence movement. Not only is this a great story but a great history lesson.

8. Breaking the Tongue: A Novel by Vyvyane Loh

I still remember the sheer melancholy of reading Breaking the Tongue. Set in Singapore during World War II, we find Claude Lim, a youth of Chinese heritage being tortured by the Japanese. Experience Southeast Asia and the upheaval wrought by its role as a wartime battleground.

9. Bound Feet and Western Dress by Pang-Mei Chang

Written in the voices of two generations, tradition and modernity collide against a backdrop of Chinese culture in the 20th century. What fascinated me the most were the descriptions and pictures of traditional foot binding practices that put women through unbelievable torture to achieve a delicate and tiny ideal.

10. Batavia's Graveyard by Mike Dash

I picked up Batavia's Graveyard at the Western Australia Maritime Museum near Perth. Mike Dash weaves a story that reads like a fictional thriller but is actually historical non-fiction. Batavia's Graveyard recounts the voyage, shipwreck, and marooning of the crew on a small island off the coast of Australia. If that fortune weren't grave enough, add a murderous captain into the mix and you've got a story that you won't be able to put down. 

11. Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea by Gary Kinder

Transport yourself to Gold Rush era California and imagine the SS Central America loaded with riches and passengers returning home after striking it rich in the 19th century. Imagine when disaster struck and the ship sank to the bottom of the ocean. Fast forward to the late 20th century when a dive team set out determined to set up an operation to find and recover the sunken treasure. This is a fascinating work of non-fiction that captures the imagination with a mix of history and scientific ingenuity. 

12. Evolution's Captain: NF abt Capt. FitzRoy and Chas Darwin by Peter Nichols

I absolutely loved Evolution's Captain. The world knows Charles Darwin, but Captain Fitzroy of the HMS Beagle is less well-known. This is his story. Explore new worlds and meet native populations along the Strait of Magellan in South America. Read about Captain Fitzroy's descent into madness as the journey progressed. While Darwin is not the central character, you'll see the evidence that he used to propose and support his theory of evolution.  

Historic Adventurers Who Inspire Travel

There are lots of books written about intrepid travelers and adventurers throughout history. Biographies and tales of adventure that are non-fiction but read like a novel are some of my absolute favorites. What are the best books about historic adventurers that have inspired travel for me?

Books that inspire travel: Ledyard: In Search of the First American Explorer by Bill Gifford
13. Ledyard: In Search of the First American Explorer by Bill Gifford

Transport yourself back to the 18th century in a time before the American Revolutionary War. John Ledyard, native of Connecticut and black sheep of the family left his home by sailing down the river in a homemade hollowed out canoe. What follows is an adventure that will simply blow your mind. From coast to coast in the nascent United States, across Europe, Siberia, and all the way to the Pacific Ocean and beyond, this is truly a story for an armchair traveler. No Guts No Glory!

Books that inspire travel: The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon by David Grann
14. The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon by David Grann

Fast forward to the early 20th century when British national Percy Fawcett embarked on a journey to the Amazon. Unbearable hardships ensued but Percy's obsession carried on after he believes he catches a glimpse of an ancient civilization and culture in a ruined city dating back millennia. Again and again he returns to the jungle, his lone goal to discover the lost city of Z. Everything else is secondary, even his own family.

15. Into Africa: The Epic Adventures of Stanley and Livingstone by Martin Dugard

"Dr Livingstone, I presume?" Those words are famous throughout history. Into Africa covers the epic voyage of Henry Stanley across the wilds of undiscovered Africa in search of famous explorer Dr David Livingstone.  Stanley was a Welsh reporter after the story of a lifetime and was willing to go to any lengths to get it including risking his life on a journey that on the surface appeared out of his league.

Books that inspire travel: A Sense of the World: How a Blind Man Became History's Greatest Traveler by Jason Roberts
16. A Sense of the World: How a Blind Man Became History's Greatest Traveler by Jason Roberts

Imagine embarking on some of the riskiest and most dangerous adventures in the world like those described in the previous entries on this list. Now imagine doing that while blindA Sense of the World describes the journeys of James Holman. He lived in the late 18th and early 19th centuries and despite being completely blind, he experienced some of the most remarkable adventures I've ever read. What makes the story even more remarkable is that it's entirely true. This one is biographical and a really inspiring read about following your dream against all odds.

17. The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey by Candice Millard

River of Doubt has many similar characteristics to the books already covered on this list with one big exception. The hero of this story is former president of the United States Teddy Roosevelt. Roosevelt and his son embark on a journey of discovery in the heart of South America encountering danger at every turn including disease, hostile aboriginal people, and more.

Books that inspire travel: Over the Edge of the World: Magellan's Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe by Laurence Bergreen
18. Over the Edge of the World: Magellan's Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe by Laurence Bergreen

 I have always been fascinated by the Age of Exploration and no explorer captured my imagination more then Magellan Read about what it was like to circumnavigate the globe at a time when you sailed west and didn't know if you fall off the edge of the Earth. Over the Edge of the World describes the bravery and hardship of a voyage to prove that the world was round without sugar-coating the harsh and ruthless personality required to achieve this goal.

Books that inspire travel: I Should be Extremely Happy in Your Company: A Novel of Lewis and Clark by Brian Hall
19. I Should be Extremely Happy in Your Company: A Novel of Lewis and Clark by Brian Hall

Lewis and Clark are two American explorers that also capture the imagination. What's special about this book is that the true story of Lewis and Clark and their journey across the United States from East to West is fictionalized and told as a novel. Embark on an adventure with the household names who helped chart the American West.

Books that inspire travel: The Lost Cyclist: The Untold Story of Frank Lenz's Ill-fated Around-the-world Journey by David V. Herlihy
20. The Lost Cyclist: The Untold Story of Frank Lenz's Ill-fated Around-the-world Journey by David V. Herlihy

 Imagine setting out to ride a bicycle around the world. Now imagine setting out to circumnavigate the globe on a bicycle just after pneumatic (air-filled tires) were invented. Throughout this book, I could imagine the bone rattling ride combined with the uncertainty and adventure you encountered on the way. This is the story of Frank Lenz. Not all stories have a happy ending but this adventure is still a captivating read about a determined man who attempted to do what no man has done before.

21. Between Man and Beast: An Unlikely Explorer and the African Adventure the Victorian World by Storm by Monte Reel

Between Man and Beast is the story of a Victorian-era explorer who ventured into the heart of Africa and took the world by storm when he brought back 20 preserved African gorilla skins. All this takes place against the backdrop of Darwinism and the rise of the theory of evolution. Could this be the missing link?
Books that inspire travel: The Mapmaker's Wife: A True Tale of Love, Murder, and Survival in the Amazon by Robert Whitaker
22. The Mapmaker's Wife: A True Tale of Love, Murder, and Survival in the Amazon by Robert Whitaker

The Mapmaker's Wife combines science and a love story in the 18th century. Scientists in a race to measure the circumference of the earth had to travel to the most remote corners of South America to take precise measurements. What impressed me most about this story was how slowly people and information moved compared to today. Imagine being separated from the one you love for months if not years and not knowing whether they were dead or alive.

Historical Fiction to Inspire Travel Adventures

I love reading true stories about real world explorers throughout history and their legendary journeys. But there is also a place on my reading list for fiction. 

There's nothing better than a story of adventure originating in the author's imagination. What follows are four examples of fiction books that I've read that inspire travel and adventure.

Books that inspire travel:  Under a Pole Star by Stef Penney
23. Under a Pole Star by Stef Penney

Under a Pole Star tells the story of Flora Mackie, daughter of a whaler, who spent most of her young life in the company sailors and the Inuit people. Part adventure, part love story, and all ice cold, Under a Pole Star is a fine page-turner that will inspire you to travel to Greenland. Make sure you have a blanket nearby. This book will give you the chills.

Books that inspire travel:  The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert
24. The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

This is a tale of Alma Whittaker, a 19th century botanist. Alma grew up in the shadow of her father who went from being a penniless hooligan in England to a botanist with one of the foremost and extensive collections in Philadelphia. In fact, one of the most fascinating parts of this book is the tale of her father's ingenuity in the face of adversity. Simultaneously extremely well educated and extremely sheltered, Alma is at the center of this endearing and sometimes heartbreaking story. The Signature of All Things is a deep character story that turns into an epic travel adventures over a period of decades. I couldn’t put this book down!
Books that inspire travel: Washington Black by Esi Edugyan
25. Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

Another page-turner, Washington Black is the story of a slave born in Barbados who ultimately comes to the attention of his master's brother and they develop an unlikely friendship that leads them north to freedom...so far North, in fact, that you can just feel the chill. This novel invokes real human emotion and a strong sense of adventure and place with a backdrop of a very dark period of history. 
Books that inspire travel: Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne
26. Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne

Around the World in Eighty Days is a true classic and the story holds up well even today. Embark on an adventure with Jules Verne in a hot air balloon in a grand tour around the world. As an added bonus, Around the World in 80 Days is out of copyright so you can get an electronic copy for free. This is Jules Verne’s finest work. I also tried to read 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (expecting great things) but that one was truly disappointing - too many random lists of sea creatures and a more limited plot to fill the pages. When it comes to Jules Verne, stick to the skies!

Travel History in the Making

There are other books that aren’t fiction and aren’t biographies but are very much fascinating to people who love to travel. The last selection on my list of books about travel covers a company of our times that changed the face of travel in Europe forever.

Books that inspire travel: Ryanair: How a Small Irish Airline Conquered Europe by Siobhan Creaton
27. Ryanair: How a Small Irish Airline Conquered Europe by Siobhan Creaton

We love to travel and fly (under normal circumstances) a lot. Many people malign Ryanair for their strict rules, processes, and frequent gotchas for the uninitiated. This book is a fascinating read about the company that democratized travel in Europe and paved the way for millions to take city breaks around Europe. In fact, Ryanair city breaks are now a way of life for those living in Europe. We’ve taken many a trip to Ryanair destinations over the last ten years. Meet Michael O'Leary, the man behind Ryanair, and get a glimpse both inside his mind and inside the company.

There you have it; my personal recommendation of 27 books grounded in a historical context that will inspire travel adventures while you are safe at home. Did you enjoy this post? Sharing is caring...

27 Books about Travel in a Historical Context to Inspire Your Next Trip27 Books about Travel in a Historical Context to Inspire Your Next Trip

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Sidewalk Safari | Part-time Travel Blog: 27 Books about Travel in a Historical Context to Inspire Your Next Trip
27 Books about Travel in a Historical Context to Inspire Your Next Trip
Discover the best books to read that will inspire travel in a historical context. Explore the history of the many places you've traveled or would like to travel. Learn about history-focused travel books to read at home for the armchair traveler.
Sidewalk Safari | Part-time Travel Blog