The Best Travel Writers of All Time

Martha Gellhorn (1908–98)

Described by The New Yorker as "one of the most eloquent witnesses of the 20th century," the American writer Gellhorn was a hard-as-nails yet deeply compassionate war reporter who covered conflicts all over the world—most notably the Second World War, where she was one of the first journalists to report from a liberated Dachau. During the D-Day landings of June 1944 she scooped her then-husband Ernest Hemingway, to whom she was married for five turbulent years. Later, she covered the war in Vietnam, the Six-Day War in the Middle East, and civil wars in Central America.

Freya Stark (1893–1993)

A fearless English traveler, Stark launched her writing career in the 1930s with a series of extraordinary expeditions to the remotest corners of Arabia and the Middle East, then still largely unseen by Western eyes. As a multilingual female traveler in one of the most conservative and patriarchal regions of the world, her pioneering achievements still strike the modern reader as fiercely triumphant, with every moment recorded and relished in exceptional prose. The writer Lawrence Durrell rightly hailed her as a "poet of travel."

Norman Lewis (1908–2003)

Unassuming in person, Lewis was unforgettable in print, a writer's writer revered by fellow Englishman Graham Greene as "one of our best writers, not of any particular decade but of our century." The Lewis classics include Naples '44, in which he recreated the Dantean hell of a shattered wartime city; The Honoured Society, a simultaneously chilling and darkly humorous study of the mafia; and Golden Earth, a portrait of Burma, a country where "the condition of the soul replaces that of the stock market as a topic for polite conversation." Reading Lewis is a joyful journey that drifts easily from limpid prose bordering on magical realism to hard-hitting campaigning journalism.

Dervla Murphy (1931– )

The Irishwoman's first book, published in 1965, was entitled Full Tilt, the pithiest description of how Murphy has always lived her life. Over the years, and in the course of 24 books, she has thrown herself at challenges that would leave lesser men and women—and that is almost all of us—quivering in her wake. Many of these journeys were made by bicycle, Murphy's favorite mode of travel; others by train, boat, pony, or mule to far-flung corners of the globe from Congo to Siberia. Her writings reflect her style of travel: courageous, uncompromising, and completely original, brimming with raw energy and righteous anger.

Ryszard Kapuscinski (1932–2007)

Doyen of foreign correspondents, the Polish writer Kapuscinski kept the best material from his reporter's notebooks for the works of literature that many ardent fans hoped would win him the Nobel Prize. His insatiable thirst for travel, for meeting fellow men and women in exceptional circumstances around the world—including at least 27 African wars, revolutions, and coups over four decades—was prompted by an inspired gift from his editor: a copy of Herodotus' The Histories. Kapuscinski's Emperor told the mesmerizing story of Haile Selassie's downfall in Ethiopia; Shah of Shahs, the last days of the Persian monarch. Both exemplified his flair for what he called "literary reportage."

Jan Morris (1926–)

While many authors in this list have been stirred by the irresistible call of the wild and remote, the Welsh writer Jan Morris has devoted her literary career to a celebration of civilization's greatest achievement: the city. Among her many books, the portraits of Venice, Oxford, Hong Kong, Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, and Manhattan '45 stand out as timeless hymns to these great urban centers. She has enjoyed a six-decade love affair with the ultimate city, New York, which dates back to her heady first glimpse of it in the 1950s, a passion undimmed by the narcissism and neuroses of that roaring megalopolis.

V. S. Naipaul (1932–)

Winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize for Literature, together with numerous other literary awards, Trinidadian-British Naipaul has been called the greatest living writer of English prose. Celebrated as a novelist who explores the haunting legacy of British colonialism, he is also admired as a consummate travel writer, author of the controversial 1981 classic Among the Believers, an early study of Islam in Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Naipaul's travel books reflect his interests as a novelist, roving across the vestiges of empire in the Caribbean, India, and Africa, bristling with pugnacious opinion and coruscating observation leavened by humane doses of empathy.

Patrick Leigh Fermor (1915–)

What life has been lived with more élan? At the age of 18, Leigh Fermor walked from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople—never "Istanbul" to this irrepressible philhellene—a serendipitous, marathon journey immortalized half a century later in the refulgent prose of A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water. He has secluded himself silently with Trappist monks, fallen in love and run away with a princess, fought for his country, kidnapped a German general, joined a Greek cavalry charge, and swum the Hellespont. The Financial Times considered Mani, his celebrated travelogue on the southern Peloponnese, and Roumeli, its counterpart on northern Greece, "two of the best travel books of the century."

Tim Mackintosh-Smith (1961–)

Perhaps only a Brit possessed of greater-than-average eccentricity would take it upon himself to spend a decade traveling in the footsteps—or footnotes, as Mackintosh-Smith would prefer—of a 14th-century Arab traveler. On the road, he and his literary hero, Ibn Battutah, make the perfect duo. Mackintosh-Smith, a bookworm and Arabist who has lived in Yemen for almost 30 years, is a consistently entertaining guide on his travels, and those of "IB," across North Africa, the Middle East, India, Africa, and Europe. Irreverent, erudite, occasionally bawdy, he is entertaining proof that there is plenty of life left in the travel-writing genre.

Cees Nooteboom (1933–)

Better known as a novelist than a travel writer in his native Holland, Nooteboom is the ultimate stylist of the genre. Highly introspective and self-conscious, witty and whimsical, he observes people and places, and his reactions to them, with an originality that is totally arresting—and all without sounding remotely precious. For those yet to discover the glories of Nooteboom in translation, the best introduction is Nomad's Hotel, a collection of travel writings from Venice, Munich, Mali, Ireland, and beyond. On a boat trip up the Gambia, he encounters a young Peace Corps idealist who "resembles the beginning of a novel which is destined to have an unhappy ending." Sparkling sentences abound in his works.

Colin Thubron (1939–)

One of Britain's most civilized and civilizing writers, Thubron is the elder statesman of British travel literature—an unofficial status given more formal footing with his presidency of the Royal Society of Literature. He shrugs off any attempt at geographical classification, having written beautifully about the Middle East, the former Soviet Union, Europe, and China, in addition to his half-dozen novels. His most recent book, To a Mountain in Tibet, published earlier this year, shows Thubron still at his poetic best, enduring a lung-shredding trek to holy Mount Kailas. Perhaps the only writer alive who can write page after page about rock formations without writing a single sentence that is less than brilliant.

Paul Theroux (1941–)

America's most successful literary travel writer of recent times, Theroux surfed the travel-genre renaissance wave from the mid-'70s, delighting readers with his bestselling debut The Great Railway Bazaar, an eclectic mix of exotic tales from a four-month journey by train across Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. Trains and railways have long fascinated him. The Old Patagonian Express tells the alternately hilarious and horrifying story of his travels from Boston to Patagonia. The trademark Theroux style is richly descriptive prose suffused with sharp irony, exemplified in Dark Star Safari, the account of his overland journey from Cairo to Cape Town.

Marozzi is a travel writer and historian. His most recent book is The Way of Herodotus: Travels With the Man Who Invented History.

The Best Travel Writers of All Time | Culture