Think of all the travel books that you have read: how many of them are written by men? Almost all? And yet women have been travelling and writing about it for as long as men. As a reviewer for the website, Women on the Road, I have spent the last few years reading these books. And it has been a delight to discover their rich variety. Some women take off on solo adventures, while others travel with friends or partners; some explore far-flung places and others focus on where they live.
I would like introduce you to some of my favourites. They cover the five continents and are in a variety of styles. What the books have in common is that they go off the beaten track and try to capture the soul of a place.
Almost all the links lead to my reviews on Women on the Road. It’s been hard to pick just a few (I whittled them down to just over a baker’s dozen) but I hope this list will tempt you to not only read the ones I have recommended but to actively look for travel books by women.
A Short Ride through the Jungle: The Ho Chi Minh Trail by Motorcycle by Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent
This is one of my favourite kinds of books (you will find a few more like this on this list): an intrepid woman travelling on her own. In this case, Antonia Bolingbroke bikes the Ho Chi Minh trail, combining her experiences with its history. She follows the trail through Viet Nam, Cambodia and Laos, navigating through jungles and unexploded bombs.
Read the Talking About Books interview with Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent.
Indonesia etc.: Exploring the Improbable Nation by Elizabeth Pisani
Pisani crosses the breadth of this country of 13,466 islands. She speaks the language and is therefore able to communicate with the people, even in remote areas.
Four Corners: A Journey into the Heart of Papua New Guinea by Kira Salak
This book is an attempt to understand Papua New Guinea, a country that is not a typical travel destination. Salak visits its interior, walking through almost impenetrable jungles and not letting trivial things like fever get in the way.
A Revolutionary Ride: On the Road in Search of the Real Iran by Lois Pryce
Pryce rides her motorcycle from Iran’s border with Turkey to Shiraz during a time of tense relations between the UK and Iran. As a woman travelling alone in Iran, she worries about her reception but finds the people welcoming and supportive (except for the Revolutionary Guard, who are less impressed with her feat).
Around India in 80 Trains: Monisha Rajesh
Monisha Rajesh travels around India in 80 trains, in a nod to Jules Verne. She brings it all alive—not just what she sees, but the people she meets, who, contrary to the horror stories you hear about travelling in the country, are often kind.
Read the Talking About Books interview with Monisha Rajesh.
Looking for Transwonderland: Travels in Nigeria by Noo Saro-Wiwa
Noo Saro-Wiwa is Ken Saro-Wiwa’s daughter. After her father’s assassination, Saro-Wiwa swears that she will never go back to Nigeria, a promise she keeps for several years. Then she decides to give the country another chance and spends five months there, taking in the ancient Nok sculptures (1000 BC–500 AD), meeting Nollywood directors and talking to ordinary Nigerians. A portrait of a country from someone who is an insider and an outsider at the same time (something many expats will identify with).
Read the Talking About Books interview with Noo Saro-Wiwa.
All Strangers are Kin: Adventures in Arabic and the Arab World by Zora O’Neill
O’Neill journeys to Egypt, the Gulf states, Lebanon and Morocco to practice her Arabic and understand their culture and customs. This is not just a travelogue but a linguistic journey and a glimpse into an ancient region that is now in flux.
The Politics of Washing: Real Life in Venice by Polly Coles
Coles moves to Venice with her husband and three children and writes about what it means to live in a major tourist destination. How do Venetians cope with the vast numbers of people trooping through their city? Funny and insightful.
Forward: Letters Written on a Trip around the World by Lina Boegli
Published in 1905, this is a collection of letters written by a Swiss woman, Lina Boegli, to her friend during her 10-year sojourn through Australia, New Zealand, Samoa, Hawaii (an independent country at the time) and the United States. To support herself, Boegli works as she travels. It is inspiring to know that women had been doing this over a century ago.
Tracks by Robyn Davidson
Davidson—yet another intrepid woman—crosses Australia with her dog and three camels (actually four camels: one of them is pregnant). Everything you want to know about camels but were afraid to ask. I love her descriptions of the desert and her encounters with the Aborigines.
Terra Incognita: Travels in Antarctica by Sara Wheeler
Wheeler goes to Antarctica partly out of curiosity and partly to explore a “landscape of the mind”: a place that is desolate that you are forced to face yourself. Fascinating portrait of a region with no native people and scarcely any wildlife.
Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed
Strayed loses her mother and as a way of coping with her grief and facing down her demons, she decides to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, albeit with more determination than experience. She loses toenails and a hiking boot but makes it through—both physically and emotionally—with her trusty rucksack, Monster.
Sliced Iguana: Travels in Mexico by Isabella Tree
In this book, Tree brings together the country’s past and present, looking for the “hidden Mexico”. She visits floating gardens in Mexico City, participates in a peyote ceremony in Chiapas and finds a feisty matriarchal society in Juchitan.
Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas by Rebecca Solnit and Rebecca Snedeker
And now for something completely different: this is not a travelogue in the strict sense, but a new way of looking at a city. Each chapter focuses on a different aspect of New Orleans, ranging from carnival routes to where slave pens used to be, and the best places to eat oysters. Each chapter is accompanied by an attractive map. Beautifully produced, this book builds a multifaceted picture of the city.