18 Must Read Books About Travel and Self-Discovery

Lately I've been devouring more and more books about travel and self-discovery. Now I'm sure there are a few classics that spring to mind (Eat, Pray, Love, anyone?), but I wanted to share my personal favourites in the hope that you might find a lesser known gem and enjoy them too. Some of these books are outright travel diaries packed full of adventures around the world, while some are more about a country's history and valuable lessons we should learn from the writer's experience there. Others are just interesting novels that may give you an insight into a destination's culture. Some are massive tear jerkers, but one thing's for sure, all of them are page turners.

The Penguin Lessons, Wild and Adventure Stories, books on wooden surface in front of a grey pot with green, leafy plant and guitar in background

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1. The Puma Years by Laura Coleman - Laura documents her time volunteering at a Bolivian animal shelter in the Amazon jungle, where she befriends big cats and monkeys rescued from the illegal pet trade, eventually changing the course of her life. This book gives you a deep insight into the very real effects of deforestation and climate change too. I actually felt guilty that I'd read it on a Kindle Unlimited Free Trial so, if you can afford to, please do consider splashing out on this one.

Read this if you're travelling to: Bolivia or the Amazon.

Buy The Puma Years.

2. Lion by Saroo Brierley - This book is an account of Saroo's real life experience of being lost in India at 5 years old. Separated from his family, he ends up being adopted by an Australian couple. After being brought up Down Under, he eventually determines to retrace his steps and find his biological family. From experience, do not read this on a plane, unless you have a tonne of tissues at the ready!

Read this if you're travelling to: India

Buy Lion: A Long Way Home.

3. Wild by Cheryl Strayed - Hiking 1100km of the Pacific Crest Trail, from the Mojave desert in California to the Bridge of the Gods into Washington, Cheryl Strayed uses her time alone to come to terms with the death of her mother and the tumultuous events that followed, including the break down of her marriage. A true story of self-discovery in the wilderness. I wasn't particularly enamoured with the film adaptation but can promise you the book is much better, and well worth your time.

Read this if you're travelling to: The Pacific Crest Trail, North America

Buy Wild: A Journey From Lost to Found.

4. The Penguin Lessons by Tom Michell - A heart-warming true story of the most unlikely friendship. You'll fall in love with a penguin named Juan Salvador, who's rescued from an oil slick in Uruguay, and smuggled into Argentina, where he ends up living at a boarding school.

Read this if you're travelling to: Argentina

Buy The Penguin Lessons.

The Puma Years - Kindle screen with jungle themed book cover open, against a sheepskin throw on grey fabric sofa

5. Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer - A journalist's personal memoir of the 1996 Mount Everest disaster, that resulted in the deaths of 8 people from 3 different expeditions. Krakauer is as honest to his own experience as can be, includes the varying memories of other people there that day, and anguishes over the differing accounts. This book was used as inspiration for the movie Everest about the same events. Whether you're an aspiring mountain climber or not, I highly recommend this book for an insight into the danger of the Himalayas. 

John's book Into The Wild, about the death of Chris McCandless, who wandered into the wilds of Alaska seeking to find peace and connection with nature, is also worth reading.

Read this if you're travelling to: Everest or Nepal

Buy Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Everest Disaster.

6. First They Killed My Father by Loung Ung - Cambodia suffered greatly under Pol Pot's brutal communist Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970's, when it's estimated up to two million people died, often buried in mass graves known as "the killing fields". This is the heart-breaking true story of one family, told from the perspective of Loung Ung who was just a child at the time. A difficult, but important read.

A film adaptation directed by Angelina Jolie is available on Netflix.

Read this if you're travelling to: Cambodia

Buy First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers.

7. Hola Amigo by Jason Smart - Simple travel journals from his whistle stop tours around the world, Smart's books give you just a snapshot of a country. Hola Amigo sees him explore central America from Costa Rica to Guatemala, zipping off to the islands of Jamaica and the Dominican Republic, before ending the adventure in Mexico. Entertaining, quick and easy to read. You'll often find his books free with Kindle Unlimited. 

Read this if you're travelling to: Central America

Buy Hola Amigo: Around Central America and Beyond.

8. Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts - A lengthy novel, inspired by the author's real life, set in the Bombay underworld of the 1980s. Shantaram follows the story of escaped Australian convict Lin as he navigates a new life of freedom in India. Here he finds himself running a makeshift hospital clinic in the city's slums, among other darker exploits with the colourful characters he befriends along the way. Parts seem farfetched, and the constant soul searching can get a bit tedious, but this book made me both laugh and cry. Vivid descriptions of the chaotic sights and sounds of India will fuel your wanderlust.

Read this if you're travelling to: India

Buy Shantaram.

9. How Not to Travel the World by Lauren Juliff - A collection of tales from Lauren's anxiety ridden adventures backpacking around the globe. Whether it's bad luck or just plain naivety, Lauren's disastrous escapades are constantly pushing her out of her comfort zone. Read her blog Never Ending Footsteps for a better idea of what to expect from the book.

Read this if you're travelling to: Anywhere with a backpack

Buy How Not to Travel the World: Adventures of a Disaster Prone Backpacker.

Hand holding sunlit "How Not to Travel the World" book next to large bird of paradise plant, with grey carpeted background

10. Homes by Abu Bakr al Rabeeah and Winnie Yeung - The eye-opening story of an Iraqi boy's life so far. Fleeing one war to another, from Iraq to Syria, his family eventually find safety in Canada where he is now a student. It's incredibly humbling and will make you realise how fortunate you are to have been born and brought up in a safe home, free of the fear of guns and bombs. Stories like this are essential to help us better understand the plight of refugees across the globe.

Read this if you're travelling to: Syria

Buy Homes: A Refugee Story.

11. Things I Learned From Falling by Claire Nelson - In a quest to escape the stresses of daily life in London, Claire gets more than she bargains for when she travels to America, and winds up having a serious accident while hiking alone, in a remote part of California's Joshua Tree Park. An incredible, gripping story of survival in the desert, and a life-affirming experience for the author.

Read this if you're travelling to: California

Buy Things I Learned from Falling.

12. Born a Crime by Trevor Noah - Not a travel book per se, Trevor Noah's memoir shares tales of his childhood in South Africa, as the son of a white Swiss man and black Xhosa woman, at a time when interracial coupling was illegal. A humorous yet compelling must read that will give you a real insight into life under apartheid.

Read this if you're travelling to: South Africa

Buy Born A Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood.

13. Bedtime Adventure Stories for Grown Ups by Anna McNuff - A collection of short stories from Anna's adventures. Includes small weekend camping trips in the UK, roller-blading around Amsterdam and the Dutch countryside, and running, cycling or road tripping across entire countries. Great for a quick, inspiring escape to a different land before you drift off.

Read this if you're travelling to: Various destinations, including the Netherlands and New Zealand

Buy Bedtime Adventure Stories for Grown Ups.

14. Travels With Rachel by George Mahood - A British couple's action packed honeymoon in South America is the inspiration behind this light-hearted novel. Mahood's books are funny as well as informative, and will make you feel like you're right there in amongst the chaos with him. I also recommend "Not Tonight, Josephine", about his time road tripping in an old banger through small town America. Both are Kindle Unlimited regulars.

Read this if you're travelling to: Peru, Bolivia or Ecuador.

Buy Travels with Rachel: In Search of South America.

The Little Coffee Shop of Kabul book held against a blue sky, with palm trees and Spanish villas in background

15. The Little Coffee Shop of Kabul by Deborah Rodriguez - Written by an American expat who lived in Afghanistan, this novel centres around the intertwined lives of 5 very different women in the country's capital. Descriptions of the colourful local markets, villages and people weaved into the story will give you a peek into Afghan culture.

Read this if you're travelling to: Afghanistan

Buy The Little Coffee Shop of Kabul

16. Don't Go There by Adam Fletcher - Humorous tales from escapades in some of the more unique destinations of the world, that may end up putting the author's relationship on the line. Entertaining and educational. The follow up "Don't Come Back" is also worth reading.

Read this if you're travelling to: Chernobyl, North Korea or other less desirable locations

Buy Don't Go There

17. The Hungry Cyclist by Tom Kevill-Davies - One for the foodies. Tom Kevill-Davies documents his solo tour, cycling over 100,000 miles, from New York all the way to Rio de Janeiro. Among the amusing anecdotes you'll find recipes for some of the more unique dishes he samples along the way. I don't think I'll be cooking guinea pig any time soon though.

Read this if you're travelling to: USA, Central or South America

Buy The Hungry Cyclist

18. Pilgrim by Carolyn Gillespie - Hiking 900km of the historic Camino de Santiago in Spain, accompanied by various friends, family and strangers, Kari shares a journey that turns out to be both physically demanding and spiritually awakening. Four weeks of walking through incredible landscapes with nothing but the rucksack on your back gives plenty opportunities to reflect on life I suppose. My favourite book of the year so far - it's inspired me to look into some long distance routes myself.

Read this if you're travelling to: Spain

Buy Pilgrim: Finding a new way on the Camino de Santiago

Into the Wild by Jon Krakaeur book, resting on legs wearing jungle print shorts with a cup of green tea in hand

Each of these travel and self-discovery books has their own vibe and unique narrative, but I feel they all share the overall theme of seeking human connection, peace and understanding of the world. I hope you'll find a story to get stuck into from these suggestions. What are you waiting for? Grab a blanket, make yourself a cuppa and get reading. Don't forget to share your thoughts and suggestions in the comments below!


18 Must Read Books About Travel and Self-Discovery


  1. I'm always on the hunt for a good book to read while I'm travelling. Some of these sound right up my street so I'll have to check them out.

  2. These are some great picks! Definitely looking forward to checking out The Puma Years (will try to actually buy that one <3 ), The Penguin Lessons, and The Hungry Cyclist! I remember learning about the killing fields in one of my college courses and it was so heartbreaking. :[ Will add that as well to my to-read list.

    Wild was a great book! I still haven't had a chance to watch the movie yet but plan to hopefully soon!