There’s nothing like a great novel to spark your wanderlust.
I don’t contend that these are the most iconic books from certain countries, nor that they’re the best. On the contrary, they were chosen for this list because they seem to me to spark a desire to visit a certain location, whether by their strong sensory descriptions of the place or their plot’s intricate connection to its location.
Some of them evoke a sense of a place you’d want to be, while others share a harrowing tale. But all of them, I think you’ll find, are excellent reads that can deepen your understanding of a country or culture or draw you into appreciating it in a new way.
It is, for the most part, devoid of “travel novels” like the notorious “Eat, Pray, Love”, although Bill Bryson does make an appearance. While travelogues can be fun to read, they are not often what you’d consider among the best novels you’d ever read – more of a guilty-pleasure Twinkie than a perfect creme brulee (with exceptions, to be sure).
I know there are some writers conspicuously absent from the list, from Gabriel Garcia Marquez to Amy Tan. No list of twenty-five novels could encompass every novel that could motivate you to want to stand in a place, to smell and taste it for yourself, to wander into its history and see it with your own eyes.
It’s also true that there are books on the list written from an outsider’s perspective instead of by local writers within the culture. While I love to read books by authors from a country while visiting for the first time, some of the best books to inspire wanderlust are by other outsiders exploring a culture like you are. The list isn’t perfect or complete, but maybe it will spark you to pick up something new and listen to a new voice.
And with that, here are twenty-five of the best novels to spark your wanderlust.
If Peter Mayle doesn’t have you wanting to sell all your possessions and move to the countryside of France, nothing will.
A delicate journal of the daily minutiae of living in a new land, complete with plenty of transporting descriptions of food, gardens, and French culture, this book (like all of Peter Mayle’s books) is a treat in every way.
Kurt Vonnegut’s “Galapagos” is far from a travelogue, and yet, somehow, it is more about the Galapagos than any other book.
Vonnegut’s genius, always, is in making you think along the periphery, understanding while not quite grasping the whole picture. If you are a Vonnegut fan who has missed this gem, read it, and it may make you yearn to visit the Galapagos in a way no glossy photo spread ever could.
I first read this book in Cambodia, and it changed my entire understanding and perception of the place.
It is heartbreaking, deep, and awful, but if you are someone who wants to understand a place more deeply and feel history through the eyes of those who lived in, this book may just make you want to explore Cambodia.
President Barack Obama described this book as, “a masterpiece that has inspired generations of writings in Nigeria, across Africa, and around the world.” The use of strong imagery throughout the book makes you want to stand in the same land and see with the same light.
There are other books about Cape Cod living, but none has ever been so impeccably accurate as this one, perfectly summing up the Cape Cod living ethos on page after page.
It is nostalgic without being blind to reality, and it is bittersweet, lovely, and absolutely the perfect book to make you want to spend the summer in a Cape house and watch the days fade toward fall.
A childhood classic, this is the book that made every girl want to visit Prince Edward Island and wander into Violet Vale herself.
Through Anne’s eyes, the descriptions of the island’s light and flowers and magical changing seasons is, somehow, not cliche. Read it again as an adult and you’ll want to explore the coast of Canada or just, wherever you are, go outside.
There are many reasons to visit South Africa, but reading Nelson Mandela’s autobiography will only give you many more. It is heart-wrenching, inspiring, exhaultant, and necessary.
Yes, it won the Pulitzer Prize. Yes, it’s beautifully written. But if you haven’t read it yet, you should pick it up not just to be moved by the stories, but to be transported to India.
In addition to everything else that it is, this short story collection is a book of tastes, sights, smells and sounds that will have you wanting to book a ticket.
Perhaps the funniest book that’s ever been written, this Bill Bryson classic catalogs his attempt to hike the Appalachian Trail. It is a must-read not just for would-be trail hikers, but for anyone who has attempted (or wants to attempt) a journey far outside their comfort zone.
Yes, the movie is wonderful, but the book is a gem in its own right. If you have spent time in the American South, you’ll be immediately transported back by the culinary descriptions, the lilting but witty speech, and the descriptions of family life.
If you haven’t, you’ll want to go, if only for the “creamed corn, fried green tomatoes, fried okra, collard or turnip greens, candied yams, butter beans or lima beans. And pie for dessert.”
If a book can make you want to see Kabul, it’s this book. Through a child’s eyes, the reader has the opportunity to get immersed in imagery in a way that adults do not.
The smells of fried pakora, the taste of pomegranates and sour cherry marmalade, the sparkling sun on the city buildings… though like many great novels, there are brutally sad moments, Kabul is as much a character in the book as anyone, and “The Kite Runner” makes Afghanistan come alive.
It’s Hemmingway living through Paris cafe culture in the 1920s… need I say more?
Its descriptions of family life, city streets, and daily living in 1950s Peru help this novel to draw you in.
A beautifully written work, “Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter” transports you to its location and may certainly motivate you to travel to South America.
The story of a young boy in Cuba through the revolution in the 1960s, this book is a must-read for anyone who wants to visit Cuba.
It will help you to understand the political history of the country from a personal perspective, and share the sensory imagery that only a child can perceive.
It is my opinion that almost any Barbara Kingsolver novel could be added seamlessly to this list, for her sense of place as an author is almost unmatched.
But “The Lacuna” is a uniquely wonderful book that may make the reader unable to resist the urge to explore Mexico. Weaving together historical characters, the mostly-epistolary novel is a true work of art.
Despite the name, this Arthur Phillips’ novel is actually about Budapest and follows a group of expatriates living there in the 1990s.
It gives you a feeling of the excitement, ennui, wonder, and difficulty of living the expat life, and drops you right into Budapest, sitting alongside the Danube, drinking a coffee and wondering about the train to Prague.
If you haven’t yet read any of Isabel Allende’s books, this one is just as good a place to start as any. The short stories by the Chilean author take place in an unnamed South American country, and they are beautiful, lyrical, and enthralling.
From descriptions of clothing and city markets to the detailed interactions within the family and small-town dynamics, the tales in this book will make you dream of the following road after road through the continent of South America.
There is very little for inspiring travel like a fish-out-of-water tale of an expatriate slowly, even begrudgingly, finding happiness in a new land. This story of an Indian hotel that becomes the home for a group of elderly English strangers is just that, and it’s a quick, charming read.
Banana Yoshimoto’s book about family, cooking, and food in contemporary Japan is the perfect inspiration for wanderlust.
It is descriptive, fun, and personal while sharing a view of Japanese culture from the lens of a Japanese writer. Like many of the best books, it is both simple and profound.
Okay, so a lot of these books are about food – but I can’t be the only person whose wanderlust is at least half-motivated by all the things there are in the world to eat.
Mexican novelist, Laura Esquivel’s most famous novel is set in Mexico and is exemplary of Latin America’s magical realism, which has its own way of holding the reader close.
This one is not, as a novel, on par with some of the Nobel-Prize-winning works on this list.
But as a story, as a motivator, as a book to make you laugh and book yourself a ticket to somewhere you weren’t before brave enough to go by yourself, this tale of two friends driving their motorcycles around the world is just the thing.
This may be the most famous “travel book” on this list. A personal travel account of Chatwin’s trip to Patagonia in the 1970s, it will surely make you want to travel somewhere that you know nothing about and discover it, on your feet and without a phone.
This is one of those books of which you find a battered paperback copy in every hostel around the world. But so are “The Alchemist,” “The Beach,” and many other travel classics… so why is this not-really-about-travel book on the list?
It’s just this special find-your-own-way, fall-in-love, save-the-world, break-the-law, blow-up-a-pyramid kind of book that makes you want an adventure.
I know, I know… “More food?” you ask? Yes, more food.
Could there be any job better than that of a food writer eating her way through China? The book is relatable, fun, and makes a tasting tour of China seem like an excellent idea.
There are excellent travel books about Australia, including more than a couple by Bill Bryson. But “Cloudstreet”, following the intertwined lives of two poor families in Perth in the mid-twentieth century, is funny, beautifully written, and undoubtedly Australian.
While folding historical events into the backdrop of daily life, it shows not only history but also the landscapes, the day-to-day being-in-a-place of life in Perth, and it’s not to be missed.