10 Most Famous Travel Books in Literature

Traveling, that great passion. We can’t wait for the holidays to arrive so we can grab our suitcase and go to that dream place to escape and regain energy. But, although it may seem that travel is the heritage of our era of globalization, nothing could be further from the truth. We have traveled since human beings existed, and not always out of necessity or obligation, but also for the pure pleasure of discovering new worlds.

In this article we offer you 10 classic titles of travel literature that you cannot miss if you are lovers of the genre.

10 famous travel books

From Antiquity to the 19th century, through medieval travelers and the enlightened ones who toured Europe during the Grand Tour… There have been many men and women who have written down their experiences. Let’s see what are 10 of the most famous travel books in literature. 

1. Journey to the West in the Great Tang Dynasty, by Xuanzang

Often, our Westernizing vision of the world makes us believe that the desire to explore the unknown and, therefore, travel literature, is the exclusive heritage of European travelers. Nothing is further from reality. In fact, during the first centuries of the Middle Ages there were many eastern travelers who left a written memory of their adventures.

This is the case of Xuanzang (602-664), a Chinese Buddhist monk who made a pilgrimage through Asia and captured his experiences in his work Journey to the West in the Great Tang Dynasty, written around the year 646 at the express request of the emperor.

In it, Xuanzang recounts his journey through China, Central Asia and India; The document constitutes, therefore, an invaluable testimony of what the society of the different Asian peoples of the time was like. 

2. Itinerarium ad loca santa or The Itinerary of Egeria

And if the prejudice that “only” Westerners travel still persists, what can we say about the issue of female travelers. Most of them have been relegated to oblivion, although, fortunately, little by little their memory is being rescued.

This is the case of the nun Egeria, who lived during the 4th century, although the dates of her birth and death cannot be specified. It is known that she was originally from the province of Roman Gallaecia (present-day Galicia), and that she must have belonged to a wealthy Hispano-Roman family.

Around the year 381 he left his native Gallaecia for the Holy Land, on a very long three-year pilgrimage trip that would take him through Gaul, northern Italy, Constantinople, Jerusalem and Egypt, among others. The Itinerarium ad loca santa (literally, Itinerary to the holy places), also known as the Egeria Itinerary, is the written testimony he left of his journey; It is written in Vulgar Latin and in it Egeria scrupulously describes both the customs and people of the places he visits and his own impressions.

3. The Book of Wonders or Il Milione, by Marco Polo

If there is a traveler that comes to mind when we talk about travel literature, it is Marco Polo. Born into a rich family of Venetian merchants, at the age of fifteen he accompanied his father on a journey to the heart of Asia that would last no less than twenty-three years. During this long journey, Marco will work in the service of Kublai Khan, the emperor of the Mughals, and will travel as an ambassador to the exotic and mysterious lands of Mongolia, China and India.

When the traveler finally returned to his native Venice, he was captured by the Genoese and forced to remain confined for a year. At that time, and in collaboration with another prisoner, Rustichello of Pisa, a well-known writer of chivalric romances, Marco Polo composed the book that would catapult him to fame: The Book of Wonders, known by his contemporaries as Il Milione (The Million), probably in reference to the amount of fantasies it contains.

Marco Polo’s book of travels was a brilliant success at the time, and even today it is considered the greatest exponent of the medieval travel book written by a European.

4. Rihla. Through Islam, by Ibn Battuta

The Arabs of the Middle Ages were famous travelers. In fact, Muslims knew foreign lands much better than Europeans themselves, perhaps due to their own expansionist trajectory from the Arabian Peninsula. One of these great travelers was Ibn Battuta, considered the great travel chronicler of medieval Islam.

His impressive journey of more than two decades through the Muslim world, collected in his work Rihla (whose name refers to the travel genre of Arabic literature, and known in Europe as Through Islam), is one of the great epics. of the time.

Born in Tangier in 1304 into a wealthy family, at the age of twenty-two he decided to undertake the obligatory pilgrimage to Mecca; a pilgrimage that will link with an impressive journey through the territories conquered by Islam and beyond them: Mecca, the Holy Land, Persia, Central Asia, India, West Africa, China… It is estimated that Ibn Battuta’s journey covers no less than 120,000 km, many more than his (almost) contemporary Marco Polo traveled.

5. The antiquity of Rome, by Andrea Palladio

Palladio is a son of other times. In 1537, the year in which he accompanied his mentor on a trip through northern Italy, the echoes of medieval mirabilia were practically non-existent. It is the time of great discoveries and scientific advances; The public no longer wants stories with fantastical overtones, like that of Marco Polo, but rather exact descriptions of places.

In the mid-16th century, Andrea Palladio wrote some very interesting texts detailing the monuments of classical antiquity in Rome. One of these texts, Le antichità di Roma, was published in the city of the popes in 1554 and represents a scientific study of the characteristics of these monuments. We are now far from the medieval descriptions that, according to Palladio himself, were nothing more than “strange lies.” To compose his study, the humanist immersed himself in the work of classical writers such as Plutarch and Titus Livy. These testimonies of Palladio’s Roman travels are undoubtedly one of the most perfect examples of the sincere vocation of Renaissance intellectuals to unravel the truth of the past of the places they visit, far from legends, stories and fantasies.

6. Journey to Italy, by Goethe

It is without a doubt the most famous travel book when it comes to Italy. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) is one of the greatest exponents of German Romanticism, known mainly for his works Faust and Werther. The travel book we are discussing is part of the so-called Grand Tour, the obligatory trip through Italy that all well-born young people had to make during the 18th century.

Of course, Goethe is not going to be any less. For more than a year, from 1788 to 1789, the writer toured the entire Italian Peninsula, stopping several times in Rome. The fruit of this was Journey to Italy, published in 1816 and which is a compilation of the letters and diaries that Goethe wrote during his Italian journey.

7. Letters from the Turkish Embassy, ​​by Lady Mary Montagu

In the European 18th century, two passions coexisted: the first, towards an idealized Italy, the splendor of antiquity; The second is an indisputable attraction towards everything “exotic”. The Ottoman Empire, with its costumes, its palaces and its harems, aroused real fury among Europeans of the moment. And if there is a genre that constitutes the common denominator in all this, it is the epistolary genre, the pillar of eighteenth-century literature. 

Goethe used it in his Journey to Italy; Cadalso also used it in his Moroccan Letters, and it will be the genre chosen by Lady Mary Montagu, the intrepid English lady who, hand in hand with her husband, Lord Wortley Montagu, English ambassador, traveled to distant Constantinople. The letters that Mary wrote from the Turkish capital contain very interesting descriptions of the society and customs of the Ottoman Empire; in fact, Lady Mary was the first Western woman to be allowed access to the royal harem.

As additional (and extremely important) information, we will say that it was this woman who set the precedent for vaccination against smallpox: upon her return from Constantinople, she had her son inoculated, following a practice she had observed during her trip to Istanbul. This brought him strong criticism from English society, which did not view this practice borrowed from Muslims. However, history would prove him right. Years later, Edward Jenner, who perfected the system, successfully vaccinated a child and achieved immunization.

8. The Nile, by Gustave Flaubert

If the 18th century was the century of classical antiquity and the East, the 19th century experienced an unexpected passion for Ancient Egypt. The origin of this Egyptomania was Napoleon Bonaparte’s Egyptian campaign, during which, by the way, the Rosetta stone was found, which would be crucial to deciphering hieroglyphic writing.

In 1849, the French writer Gustave Flaubert began a tour of the Nile country with the photographer Maxime du Camp. The trip lasts nine months, during which the two friends are fascinated by the wonders of ancient Egypt. Du Camp took what would be the first photograph of the Sphinx of Giza, and Flaubert wrote down his impressions in an essential travel book for any lover of Egypt.

9. Travels through Morocco, Tripoli, Cyprus, Arabia, Syria and Turkey, by Ali Bey

His real name was Domingo Badía and he was born in Barcelona in 1767. In 1803, at the request of Manuel Godoy, prime minister of Charles IV, he made his first trip to Morocco, for which he changed his name to Alí Bey and posed as a nobleman of Abbasid descent. Under this new identity he toured Egypt, Syria, Turkey and Arabia, where he managed to enter Mecca, which made him the first non-Muslim Spaniard to enter the sanctuary (the first non-Muslim European had been the Italian Ludovico de Verthema in 1503).

His texts about his travels were published in 1814 under the title Voyages d’Ali Bey en Afrique et Asie (Travels of Ali Bey to Africa and Asia). In them, the traveler describes in detail the zoology, botany, geography, cities and society of Muslim countries, descriptions that fascinated the European public of the time, thirsty for information about those “mysterious” eastern lands. By the way, Ali Bey died in Damascus. His love for the Muslim East carried to the end.

10. “The days of Jinrikisha in Japan”, by Eliza Scidmore

Eliza Scidmore joins the long list of female reporters (and unknown ones) who left extraordinary contributions throughout the 19th century, the great century of journalism. In the case of Scidmore, she was one of the great travel chroniclers of the National Geographic Society.

Born in the United States in 1856, her brother’s privileged position made it easier for her to travel to different parts of the world, a fact that awakened her curiosity about unknown lands. His first travel book, published in 1885, revolved around his stay in Alaska, and was well received by the public.

Fascinated by the ancient Japanese culture, Eliza tried to introduce cherry tree planting in Washington, with virtually no success. His travels to the Japanese country gave rise to his book Jinrikisha’s Days in Japan, which was published in 1891, a year after he joined the National. For this society he wrote many articles in which he describes his adventures throughout the world: China, India and the island of Java, among many other places.

His love for Japan prompted him to write his only work of fiction, the novel As The Hague Orders, from 1907, inspired by the Russo-Japanese War. Eliza died in 1928 and is buried in the Yokohama Foreign Cemetery, Japan. It could not be otherwise.

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