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Best travel book 2023: See the sights from home

Take in the best destinations without leaving the comfort of your armchair with our selection of the best travel books

Where do you want to go today? Whether it’s Provence or North Korea, a bike tour of the British Isles, or a round-the-world journey on rails, the best travel books can take you there – often for not much more than a tenner.

With Covid restrictions easing, real-world travel is slowly becoming easier; even so, there are still only so many places you can visit in a lifetime. Fortunately, a travel book means you needn’t be so selective. The number of trips you can take in one year is limited only by your reading speed. Plus, with no chance of lost baggage, no need for jabs or visas, and no risk of an upset tummy, it really is the cheapest, safest and most convenient way to see the world.

So, hop aboard, as we explore the best books for armchair travellers in 2023.

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Best travel books: At a glance

The best travel books to buy in 2023

1. The Tent, the Bucket and Me: Best travel book for 40-somethings

Price: £10.95 | Buy now from Amazon | Also available on: Kindle (£7.99)Kobo (£7.99)Audible (£23.99)

Travel books are snapshots of people, places and politics, as they were at a moment in time. For anyone who grew up in the 1970s, that decade will be brought back vividly to life by The Tent, the Bucket and Me, in which actor and writer Emma Kennedy relates her family’s disasters under canvas.

Laugh-out-loud may well be a cliché, but on this occasion it’s justified – particularly if you buy the audiobook. The narration, by the author herself, is deliciously deadpan, making the misadventures of herself, her parents and their bucket (you can guess what that’s for) all the more hilarious. A particular highlight is a pitch-black mishap in a French squat toilet.

This is one book we were genuinely sorry to finish. So much so that we’ve read it twice.

2. Around the World in 80 Trains: Best travel book for rail fans

Price: £5 | Buy now from Amazon | Also available on: Kindle (£4.74); Kobo (£7); Audible (£20)

There’s a reason that trains are beloved of so many long-distance travellers: they give a journey context. As Monisha Rajesh notes, close to the end of a 45,000-mile rail-ramble around much of the northern hemisphere, they give you insight into the hinge between one country and the next, where cultures and currencies co-exist. You don’t get that when you step off a plane in the suburbs.

Her journey starts at St Pancras, and passes through Western Europe to Russia, China and North America. Doubling-back, she loops through North Korea, Mongolia and Kazakhstan, visiting more countries in seven months than most of us would manage in a lifetime.

Europe is dealt with fairly swiftly, but that’s no bad thing – for British readers, at least, since armchair travel is always best when it takes you to places you’re less likely to visit in person. It leaves more time for immersing yourself in unfamiliar cultures, observing unusual customs and eating just enough unrecognisable food to not be left feeling hungry. The fact that so much of this book takes place in Asia, Canada and the US is what makes it such a treat.

3. See You Again in Pyongyang: Best travel book for exploring the unknown

Price: £14 | Buy now from Amazon | Also available on: Kindle (£3.99); Audible (£27)

It’s easy to find stories of life in North Korea, either written or dictated by those who have fled to China, South Korea or the West. In-depth travelogues from non-natives are more rare, however. Permission to travel both to and within the country can be difficult to obtain and, when it’s given, visitors are usually kept under close watch and their movements regulated by official guides.

But Travis Jeppesen found another way. He enrolled as one of the first three western students on a Korean language course at the capital’s Kim Hyong Jik University. In doing so, he gained a unique and extended view of what’s often called the “Hermit Kingdom”. He still had guides (their identities are obscured for their own protection, and some characters within the book are composites of several people he met on his trip), but he was able to travel more widely and visit locations that aren’t part of the regular tourist trail.

Having been to the country five times, he had a good understanding of its history before he arrived and, as an American, is even-handed in its retelling. He neither glosses over America and the West’s mishandling of their relations with the country, nor parrots the North Korean line if he has cause to doubt it. It’s a refreshing approach.

Accompanying him on his extended stay, even if only in text form, makes for a satisfying read that also leaves you feeling better informed. And you may even end up questioning what you hear on the news the next time North Korea features.

4. Red Sauce Brown Sauce – A British Breakfast Odyssey: Best travel book for foodies

Price: £10 | Buy now from Amazon | Also available on: Kindle (£2.99); Kobo (£2.99); Audible (£14.49)

Guardian food columnist Felicity Cloake’s last travelogue, 2019’s One More Croissant for the Road, saw her cycling 3,500km around France in pursuit of the perfect croissant. Her 2022 followup, Red Sauce Brown Sauce, transplants the format to British roads, as she sets out with two wheels and a tent to explore regional variations on the most important meal of the day. (And, as the title suggests, to discover whether brown or tomato sauce is the nation’s preferred accompaniment.)

Part travelogue, part cookbook and part social commentary, this chronicle of an ambitious journey undertaken at the tail end of Covid is peppered with enough historical curios (nobody talked of the “Full English” until the early 1930s) to have you quoting it over the marmalade.

Cloake’s passion for all things food shines through, even if some of her attempts to visit the factories behind the most famous brands on our breakfast table fall through due to post-pandemic restrictions. And it’s an infectious passion, too, which sees her delving into the history of kippers, Little Scarlet strawberries (grown commercially in Essex, but nowhere else in the world) and the Arnold Bennett, a haddock omelette developed at the Savoy on the instructions of the customer after which it was named.

5. A Year in Provence: Best classic travel book

Price: £7.69 | Buy now from Amazon | Also available on: Kindle (£4.99)Kobo (£4.99)

It’s more than 30 years since advertising executive Peter Mayle swapped London for the Luberon, but A Year in Provence – the tale of his and wife Jennie’s first year in France – still holds its own. In many ways, Mayle reinvented travel writing with this book, and its influence is still felt today. Indeed, although he died at Aix-en-Provence in 2018, you can still take a Peter Mayle-inspired tour from the city to the villages that feature so prominently in his travelogue.

In many ways, it’s a book about the mundanities of life: of long lunches, of propping up the bar, of waiting in for the builders to arrive. These are the things we all do daily; but here they’re interspersed with truffle hunts, trips to the farm (rather than the supermarket) to buy olive oil at source, and village goat races at which, it seems, the secret to picking a winner is to bet on the one that does the most droppings immediately before the off.

But Mayle doesn’t see everything through rose-tinted sunglasses. Province isn’t all sunshine, and there are, Mayle warns his readers, “snowdrifts and sub-zero nights and bitter winds… Provence has been accurately described as a cold country with a high rate of sunshine.” However, that doesn’t make the idea of following his lead – of throwing everything up in the air and heading off to the south of France – any less alluring, for this reader at least.

It’s a book to hang on to and revisit, and its episodic nature, in which each chapter is a single month, makes it easy to dip in to whenever you fancy, to reacquaint yourself with the characters, sights and sounds of the region, and sit once again at the stone table that became such a focus of the year.

A Year in Provence should be required reading for any wannabe travel writer. For the rest of us, it’s perfect escapism.

6. Agatha Christie: The Grand Tour: Best travel book for touring the past

Price: £11.95 | Buy now from Amazon | Also available on: Kindle (£6.99); Kobo (£6.99); Audible (£9.99)

Agatha Christie travelled the world in 1922, and although she didn’t record her experiences in a book, she did report back through a series of surprisingly gossipy letters sent almost daily to her mother. They detail a world quite unknown to the modern traveller, when correspondence could take weeks to reach its recipient, and where calling her two-year-old daughter, Rosalind, simply wasn’t an option.

The letters, many of which seem likely to have reached her mother after Christie herself had arrived home, remained unpublished for 90 years, but were first collected in a single volume on the 90th anniversary of their writing. In 2022, they were finally available as an audiobook, narrated in endearing conspiratorial fashion by Fenella Woolgar. The introduction, written by Christie’s grandson, Mathew Pritchard (he called her Nima), is voiced by Pritchard himself.

A hugely ambitious route sees the author, who was still a long way from the peak of her fame, having yet to write her fifth Poirot, sail for Madeira, before heading to South Africa where she learned to surf. From there, she travelled to Australia by boat, on a course that took her south to approach from the Antarctic. The point of the 10-month trip, which also took her to Canada and Hawaii (more surfing, terrible sunburn), was to drum up support for the forthcoming British Empire Exhibition. As such, Christie and her husband Archie, from whom she was divorced four years later, were given more or less free passage from the point of casting off to arriving back home. That’s not to say money worries weren’t a problem and, by the time they reached North America, bankruptcy was looking like a distinct possibility.

It’s easy to forget that this isn’t a work of fiction, and it’s an added bonus to read Christie writing as Christie, rather than putting words into the mouth of one of her characters. This isn’t just a geographical travel book, but a time travel book, too.

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