Travel Through History with These Famous Travelogues

Someone pulling a travel book from a shelf.thebigland / Shutterstock

Of course, you can’t take a trip right now, but you can still see the world through the eyes of the travelers before you. Take one of these historic travelogues!

The relationship between history and travel is complicated. In the past, traveling rarely consisted of appreciating another place or another culture. Historical travelers often sought to steal, conquer, exploit or spoil the places they visited.

Yet there is much to learn from history travelers. Some have even challenged widespread societal problems. Here are some of the most fascinating travel stories that travelers from the past have left us.

A record of Buddhist kingdoms

The full title of this travelogue is actually a record of the Buddhist kingdoms, an account by the Chinese monk Fa-Xian of his trips to India and Ceylon in search of the Buddhist discipline books, which should already tell you a lot.

Faxian’s travelogue tells of his journey through Asia, including a journey from China to India that he made on foot, between 399 and 412. His goal was to find sacred Buddhist texts. However, the story he wrote of this quest ended up becoming his own fascinating record of Buddhism at the time.

The travels of Marco Polo

A painting representing the travels of Marco Polo.Public domain

In The Travels of Marco Polo, the Venetian merchant details his travels across Asia between 1271-1295.

Polo traveled with his uncle and father overland, which was difficult, but they encountered many new views along the way. They had to four years to reach China.

After returning to Europe many years later, Polo wrote down what he saw on the way. In fact, he wrote this book in prison– he was captured by rivals in Genoa and told his story to another prisoner.

For many people in Europe, the Polo story was the first to know about technologically advanced societies in Asia. Some of the things that European readers found incredible, like the robust Chinese postal system, were true. For this reason, although the book became very popular, many readers thought it was fiction.

Historians still debate true history, but many believe it is at least primarily factual

Photos of Italy

Travelogues were a common theme for some of the most famous novelists in history. This one from 1846 was Charles Dickens’ attempt to write voyages.

The photos of Italy speak of the year Dickens spent in this country. As usual, he not only wrote about her beauty, but also about poverty and the people he saw. This makes his travel story more of a social comment.

The Beagle’s journey

An engraving of the SS Beagle in the Strait of Magellan.Public domain

In 1839 Charles Darwin published his experiences aboard the HMS Beagle as a ship naturalist. The years-long expedition toured the globe and Darwin made fascinating observations of the natural world. His recording of the trip quickly became popular reading.

Darwin was only 22 when the ship left, and his voyages aboard the Beagle changed his life. This cemented his career as a naturalist and helped inspire his later revolutionary theories.

The book is still considered a must read for anyone who wants to understand how Darwin developed his theory of evolution.

Innocent people abroad

Mark Twain was famous for his wit and humor, but even fans of his classic books might not know that he also wrote a travelogue titled The Innocents Abroad. He was very popular in the Twain era, but has since been overshadowed by his novels.

In this document, Twain tells the story of his steamboat trip to parts of Europe, Africa and the Middle East. When it was first published in 1869, it became a best seller worldwide. He actually surpassed all of his other works during his lifetime.

Twain wrote weekly columns during his trip, which he then used as the basis for the book. Like much of his work, The Innocents Abroad was ahead of its time in some ways. He comments on the narrowness of his fellow travelers, while showing how travel can open people’s minds to new ideas.

If you want more Twain travel tales, you can also try Roughing it, his semi-autobiographical travel book which mixes truth and fiction, or Follow the equator, his travel story loaded with social commentary.

Travels with Charley: in search of America

We don’t always have to look far back in history to find historical travel stories. John Steinbeck’s 1962 book, Travels with Charley, also offers a fascinating window into the past.

Unlike the other travelers here, Steinbeck traveled with relative ease: the book talks about a road trip he did with Charley, his dog. It details a trip around the border of the American continent, which began and ended in New York.

Today, this travelogue is complicated by the fact that a large part seems to be a fiction, even if it was sold as non-fiction. However, because Steinbeck was such a great novelist, many people find it a good read, even if it is not entirely true.

Humans have been writing about travel for centuries. Whether it’s the 5th century or the 20th, there are many accounts of past travel that you can explore. You may not be able to jump on a plane, boat, or train at this time. However, you can pick up one of these books and be transported to another location and time.

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