Free Travel Books

Enduring Travelogues in the Public Domain

Richard Burton in the guise of a wandering Darywash

Richard Burton in the guise of a wandering Darywash

The list of books below includes classics, like Mark Twain’s Following the Equator and Richard Burton’s Pilgrimage to El-Medinah and Meccah. Burton was a famed linguist and explorer, with good reason: to gain access to Islam’s holiest of holies, he had himself circumcised and travelled in disguise, passing himself off as “a wandering Dervish.” Other books are foundations of world literature, like Homer’s Odyssey, or undeservedly obscure, like Across Asia on a Bicycle and the journals of Henri Mouhot, kept by the French explorer until he died on the banks of a river in Laos.

It seems tacky to label classics and obscurities “free travel books” for the sake of Google and its users, but that is what they are. Their authors have died – less eventfully, in most cases, than Henri Mouhot – and the books have passed, with some difficulty, into the public domain. I doubt Mark Twain would have approved. He worried over his daughters’ inheritance, accused the US Congress of theft and described himself as “quite unable to guess why there should be a limit at all to the possession of the product of a man’s labour.” “There is no limit,” he said, “to real estate.”

Twain ridiculed placing any limit on the length of copyright. He didn’t expect the public to benefit from a book passing into their domain, because he thought publishers were unlikely to pass on the saving. The law, he said, “merely takes the author’s property and gives the publisher double profit.” Neither did Twain think the law particularly useful. In his opinion, only one book in a thousand would survive 42 years, and limiting the length of copyright was as useless as limiting a family to 22 children.

Of course, Twain didn’t anticipate the internet. As we move through the Old World, Claire and I read and are inspired by these travelogues from long ago. Most need to be excavated, because they describe a world buried by time. Soochow, for example, both was and wasn’t modern Suzhou, and readers sometimes need to fill in historical details that writers left out, because what was obvious to them is not always obvious to us. On the other hand, the best travel writers hover between worlds, translating their experiences for a readership at home but also, sometimes accidentally, translating the past.

The list, organised by date

The Odyssey
Homer, 8th century BCE
Translated from Ancient Greek by Samuel Butler in 1897

Excerpt, on the Lotus Eaters:

They started at once, and went about among the Lotus-Eaters, who did them no hurt, but gave them to eat of the lotus, which was so delicious that those who ate of it left off caring about home, and did not even want to go back and say what had happened to them, but were for staying and munching lotus with the Lotus-eaters without thinking further of their return.

Xenophon, 4th century BCE
Translated from Ancient Greek by H. G. Dakyns in 1897

Xenephon was an Athenian mercenary, historian and philosopher. Hired to fight in a Persian war of succession, he ended up fleeing the world’s largest empire with 10,000 fellow Greeks. Anabasis, described as “one of the great adventures in human history,” tells that story.

The BBC Radio 4 program In Our Time has an excellent introduction to the life and times of Xenopohon.

Great Tang Records on the Western Regions
Xuanzang, 646
There is no English translation of The Records in the public domain, but Open Library has a commentary by Thomas Watters, published in 1907.

Excerpt, on sadhus:

There are men who, far seen in antique lore and fond of the refinements of learning, are content in seclusion, leading lives of continence. These come and go (lit. sink and float) outside of the world, and promenade through life away from human affairs. Though they are not moved by honour or reproach, their fame is far spread. The rulers treating them with ceremony and respect cannot make them come to court. Now as the State holds men of learning and genius in esteem, and the people respect those who have high intelligence, the honours and praises of such men are conspicuously abundant, and the attentions private and official paid to them are very considerable. Hence men can force themselves to a thorough acquisition of knowledge. Forgetting fatigue they expatiate in the arts and sciences; seeking for wisdom while “relying on perfect virtue” they “count not 1000 li a long journey”. Though their family be in affluent circumstances, such men make up their minds to be like the vagrants, and get their food by begging as they go about. With them there is honour in knowing truth (in having wisdom), and there is no disgrace in being destitute. As to those who lead dissipated idle lives, luxurious in food and extravagant in dress, as such men have no moral excellences and are without accomplishments, shame and disgrace come on them and their ill repute is spread abroad.

The Travels of Marco Polo: Volume I & Volume II
Rustichello of Pisa, 1298
Translated by Henry Yule in 1871

National Geographic has a dated but still entertaining multimedia introduction to Polo’s journey.

Excerpt, on funeral processions in Hangzhou:

They burn the bodies of the dead. And when any one dies the friends and relations make a great mourning for the deceased, and clothe themselves in hempen garments, and follow the corpse playing on a variety of instruments and singing hymns to their idols. And when they come to the burning place, they take representations of things cut out of parchment, such as caparisoned horses, male and female slaves, camels, armour suits of cloth of gold (and money), in great quantities, and these things they put on the fire along with the corpse, so that they are all burnt with it. And they tell you that the dead man shall have all these slaves and animals of which the effigies are burnt, alive in flesh and blood, and the money in gold, at his disposal in the next world; and that the instruments which they have caused to be played at his funeral, and the idol hymns that have been chaunted, shall also be produced again to welcome him in the next world; and that the idols themselves will come to do him honour.

The Journey or A Gift to Those Who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Travelling
Ibn Battuta, 1325-1354
Translated from Medieval Arabic by Samuel Lee, 1829

Excerpt, on yogis:

I was once in the presence of the Emperor of Hindustan, when two of these Jogees, wrapt up in cloaks, with their heads covered (for they take out all their hairs, both of their heads and arm-pits, with powder), came in. The Emperor caressed them and said, pointing to me, This is a stranger, shew him what he has never yet seen. They said, we will. One of them then assumed the form of a cube and arose from the earth, and in this cubic shape he occupied a place in the air over our heads. I was so much astonished and terrified at this, that I fainted and fell to the earth. The Emperor then ordered me some medicine which he had with him, and upon taking this I recovered and sat up: this cubic figure still remaining in the air just as it had been. His companion then took a sandal belonging to one of those who had come out with him, and struck it upon the ground, as if he had been angry. The sandal then ascended, until it became opposite in situation with the cube. It then struck it upon the neck; and the cube descended gradually to the earth, and at last rested in the place which it had left. The Emperor then told me that the man who took the form of a cube was a disciple to the owner of the sandal and, continued he, had I not entertained fears for the safety of thy intellect, I should have ordered them to show thee greater things than these.

And another, on Delhi:

It is a most magnificent city, combining at once both beauty and strength. Its walls are such as to have no equal in the whole world. This is the greatest city of Hindustan; and indeed of all Islamism in the East. It now consists of four cities, which becoming contiguous have formed one. This city was conquered in the year of the Hejira 584 (A.D. 1188). The thickness of its walls is eleven cubits. They keep grain in this city for a very long time without its undergoing any change whatever. I myself saw rice brought out of the treasury, which was quite black, but, nevertheless, had lost none of the goodness of its taste. The same was the case with the kodru, which had been in the treasury for ninety years. Flowers, too, are in continual blossom in this place. Its mosque is very large; and, in the beauty and extent of its building, it has no equal.Before the taking of Dehli it had been a Hindoo temple, which the Hindoos call El Bur Khana (But Khana); but, after that event, it was used as a mosque. In its court-yard is a cell, to which there is no equal in the cities of the Mohammedans; its height is such, that men appear from the top of it like little children. In its court, too, there is an immense pillar, which they say, is composed of stones from seven different quarries. Its length is thirty cubits; its circumference eight: which is truly miraculous. Without the city is a reservoir for the rain-water; and out of this the inhabitants have their water for drinking. It is two miles in length, and one in width. About it are pleasure-gardens to which the people resort.

Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage
George Gordon Byron, 1811

Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage made Byron the world’s first celebrity, apparently overnight. The Guardian recently published an article on the relevance of the poem, 200 years after it was first published, and In Our Time discussed why Byron made his Grand Tour as well as why he wrote about it.

Excerpt, on Venice:

I loved her from my boyhood: she to me
Was as a fairy city of the heart,
Rising like water-columns from the sea,
Of joy the sojourn, and of wealth the mart
And Otway, Radcliffe, Schiller, Shakspeare’s art,
Had stamped her image in me, and e’en so,
Although I found her thus, we did not part,
Perchance e’en dearer in her day of woe,
Than when she was a boast, a marvel, and a show.

Pictures from Italy
Charles Dickens, 1846

Excerpt, on Florence:

But, how much beauty of another kind is here, when, on a fair clear morning, we look, from the summit of a hill, on Florence! See where it lies before us in a sun-lighted valley, bright with the winding Arno, and shut in by swelling hills; its domes, and towers, and palaces, rising from the rich country in a glittering heap, and shining in the sun like gold!

Magnificently stern and sombre are the streets of beautiful Florence; and the strong old piles of building make such heaps of shadow, on the ground and in the river, that there is another and a different city of rich forms and fancies, always lying at our feet. Prodigious palaces, constructed for defence, with small distrustful windows heavily barred, and walls of great thickness formed of huge masses of rough stone, frown, in their old sulky state, on every street. In the midst of the city – in the Piazza of the Grand Duke, adorned with beautiful statues and the Fountain of Neptune – rises the Palazzo Vecchio, with its enormous overhanging battlements, and the Great Tower that watches over the whole town. In its court-yard – worthy of the Castle of Otranto in its ponderous gloom – is a massive staircase that the heaviest waggon and the stoutest team of horses might be driven up. Within it, is a Great Saloon, faded and tarnished in its stately decorations, and mouldering by grains, but recording yet, in pictures on its walls, the triumphs of the Medici and the wars of the old Florentine people. The prison is hard by, in an adjacent court-yard of the building – a foul and dismal place, where some men are shut up close, in small cells like ovens; and where others look through bars and beg; where some are playing draughts, and some are talking to their friends, who smoke, the while, to purify the air; and some are buying wine and fruit of women-vendors; and all are squalid, dirty, and vile to look at. ‘They are merry enough, Signore,’ says the jailer. ‘They are all blood-stained here,’ he adds, indicating, with his hand, three-fourths of the whole building. Before the hour is out, an old man, eighty years of age, quarrelling over a bargain with a young girl of seventeen, stabs her dead, in the market-place full of bright flowers; and is brought in prisoner, to swell the number.

Travels in the central parts of Indo-China (Siam), Cambodia, and Laos: Volume I & Volume II
Henri Mouhot,1864

Henri Mouhot’s journals were published posthumously, after he died of malaria near Luang Prabang. They contained descriptions of the ruins at Angkor that captured the European imagination, and in time Mouhot was incorrectly credited as the first European traveller to reach Angkor.

Excerpt, on travelling by elephant:

In all this mountainous region elephants are the only means of transport. Every village possesses some, several as many as fifty or a hundred. Without this intelligent animal no communication would be possible during seven months of the year, while, with his assistance, there is scarcely a place to which you cannot penetrate.

The elephant ought to be seen on these roads, which I can only call devil’s pathways, and are nothing but ravines, ruts two or three feet deep, full of mud; sometimes sliding with his feet close together on the wet clay of the steep slopes, sometimes half buried in mire, an instant afterwards mounted on sharp rocks, where one would think a Blondin alone could stand; striding across enormous trunks of fallen trees, crushing down the smaller trees and bamboos which oppose his progress, or lying down flat on his stomach that the cornacs (drivers) may the easier place the saddle on his back; a hundred times a day making his way, without injuring them, between trees where there is barely room to pass; sounding with his trunk the depth of the water in the streams or marshes; constantly kneeling down and rising again, and never making a false step. It is necessary, I repeat, to see him at work like this in his own country, to form any idea of his intelligence, docility, and strength, or how all those wonderful joints of his are adapted to their work — fully to understand that this colossus is no rough specimen of nature’s handiwork, but a creature of especial amiability and sagacity, designed for the service of man.

We must not, however, exaggerate his merits. Probably the saddles used by the Laotians are capable of great improvement; but I must admit that the load of three small oxen, that is to say, about 250 or 300 pounds, is all that I ever saw the largest elephants carry easily, and 18 miles is the longest distance they can accomplish with an ordinary load. Ten or twelve miles are the usual day’s work. With four, five, or sometimes seven elephants, I travelled over all the mountain country from the borders of Laos to Louang-Prabang, a distance of nearly 500 miles.

A Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Medinah and Meccah
Sir Richard Francis Burton, 1879

“Burton lived a full life,” according to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, “which recalls the Elizabethan age of adventure.” It also recalls British understatement, because Burton was a “geographer, explorer, translator, writer, soldier, orientalist, cartographer, ethnologist, spy, linguist, poet, fencer and diplomat,” as well as one of the most extraordinary men of his generation. After his first encounter with Burton, Bram Stoker compared him to steel. “I never saw any one like him,” said Stoker. “He is steel! He would go through you like a sword!” Burton brought One Thousand and One Nights and The Kama Sutra to the West and travelled widely across Asia and Africa, leaving behind books that remain highly readable. For more on his life and links to the rest of Burton’s work, visit the excellent

Excerpt, on the disguise he adopted on his journey to Mecca:

No character in the Moslem world is so proper for disguise as that of the Dervish. It is assumed by all ranks, ages, and creeds; by the nobleman who has been disgraced at court, and by the peasant who is too idle to till the ground; by Dives, who is weary of life, and by Lazarus, who begs his bread from door to door. Further, the Dervish is allowed to ignore ceremony and politeness, as one who ceases to appear upon the stage of life ; he may pray or not, marry or remain single as he pleases, be respectable in cloth of frieze as in cloth of gold, and no one asks him — the chartered vagabond — Why he comes here? or Wherefore he goes there? He may wend his way on foot or alone, or ride his Arab mare followed by a dozen servants; he is equally feared without weapons as swaggering through the streets armed to the teeth. The more haughty and offensive he is to the people, the more they respect him; a decided advantage to the traveller of choleric temperament. In the hour of imminent danger, he has only to become a maniac, and he is safe; a madman in the East, like a notably eccentric character in the West, is allowed to say or do whatever the spirit directs. Add to this character a little knowledge of medicine, a “moderate skill in magic, and a reputation for caring for nothing but study and books,” together with capital sufficient to save you from the chance of starving, and you appear in the East to peculiar advantage. The only danger of the “Mystic Path” which leads or is supposed to lead to heaven is that the Dervishes ragged coat not unfrequently covers the cut-throat, and if seized in the society of such a “brother” you may reluctantly become his companion, under the stick or on the stake.

Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes
Robert Louis Stevenson, 1879

Excerpt, on travel:

For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move; to feel the needs and hitches of our life more nearly; to come down off this feather-bed of civilisation, and find the globe granite underfoot and strewn with cutting flints.

The Golden Chersonese and the way Thither
Isabella Lucy Bird, 1883

Excerpt, on travelling off the beaten track and the Southern Cross:

The mercury was 90 degrees in my little cabin or den, and it swarmed not only with mosquitoes, but with cockroaches, which, in the dim light, looked as large as mice. Of course, no one sleeps below in the tropics who can avoid it; so as the deck was thick with Chinamen, I had my mattress laid on a bench on the bridge, which was only occupied by two Malay look-out men. There is not very much comfort when one leaves the beaten tracks of travel, but any loss is far more than made up for by the intense enjoyment.

It was a delightful night. The moon was only a hemisphere, yet I think she gave more light than ours at the full. The night was so exquisite that I was content to rest without sleeping; the Babel noises of fowls and men had ceased, and there were only quiet sounds of rippling water, and the occasional cry of a sea-bird as we slipped through the waveless sea. When the moon set, the sky was wonderful with its tropic purple and its pavement and dust of stars. I have become quite fond of the Southern Cross, and don’t wonder that the early navigators prostrated themselves on deck when they first saw it. It is not an imposing constellation, but it is on a part of the sky which is not crowded with stars, and it always lies aslant and obvious. It has become to me as much a friend as is the Plough of the northern regions.

Across Asia on a bicycle: The journey of two American students from Constantinople to Peking
Allen & Sachtleben, 1894

Allen and Sachtleben left America straight after graduating from university, to ride around the world on ‘safety bicycles’. By the time they reached home, they had completed “the longest continuous land journey ever made around the world.” The pair inspired Frank Lenz, a solo-cyclist, to attempt his own circumnavigation. When Lenz disappeared in Turkey, in the confusion and ugliness of the Armenian Genocide, he was presumed dead. Sachtleben was sent out to try and find either him or his murderer. His story inspired author David Herlihy to write yet another travelogue, published last year, called The Lost Cyclist.

Excerpt, on arrival:

Our entry into Kirshehr was typical of our reception everywhere. When we were seen approaching, several horsemen came out to get a first look at our strange horses. They challenged us to a race, and set a spanking pace down into the streets of the tow. Before we reached the khan, or inn, we were obliged to dismount. “Bin! bin!” (“Ride! ride!”) went up in a shout. “Nimkin deyil” (“It is impossible”), we explained, in such a jam; and the crowd opened up three or four feet ahead of us. “Bin bocale” (“Ride, so that we can see”), they shouted again; and some of them rushed up to hold our steeds for us to mount. With the greatest difficulty we impressed upon our persistent assistants that they could not help us. By the time we reached the khan the crowd had become almost a mob, pushing and tumbling over one another, and yelling to every one in sight that “the devil’s carts have come.” The inn-keeper came out, and we had to assure him that the mob was actuated only by curiosity. As soon as the bicycles were over the threshold, the doors were bolted and braced. The crowds swarmed to the windows. While the khanji prepared coffee we sat down to watch the amusing by-play and repartee going on around us. Those who by virtue of their friendship with the khanji were admitted to the room with us began a tirade against the boyish curiosity of their less fortunate brethren on the outside. Their own curiosity assumed tangible shape. Our clothing, and even our hair and faces were critically examined. When we attempted to jot down the day’s events in our note-books they crowded closer than ever. Our fountain-pen was an additional puzzle to them. It was passed around, and explained and commented on at length.

Our camera was a ” mysterious ” black box. Some said it was a telescope, about which they had only a vague idea; others, that it was a box containing our money. But our map of Asiatic Turkey was to them the most curious thing of all. They spread it on the floor, and hovered over it, while we pointed to the towns and cities. How could we tell where the places were until we had been there? How did we even know their names! It was wonderful — wonderful! We traced for them our own journey, where we had been and where we were going, and then endeavoured to show them how, by starting from our homes and continuing always in an easterly direction, we could at last reach our starting-point from the west. The more intelligent of them grasped the idea. “Around the world,” they repeated again and again, with a mystified expression.

(Thank you to Anderson Muth for bringing this to my attention.)

Following the Equator
Mark Twain, 1897

Excerpt, on a Bombay train station:

Inside the great station, tides upon tides of rainbow-costumed natives swept along, this way and that, in massed and bewildering confusion, eager, anxious, belated, distressed; and washed up to the long trains and flowed into them with their packs and bundles, and disappeared, followed at once by the next wash, the next wave. And here and there, in the midst of this hurly-burly, and seemingly undisturbed by it, sat great groups of natives on the bare stone floor—young, slender brown women, old, gray wrinkled women, little soft brown babies, old men, young men, boys; all poor people, but all the females among them, both big and little, bejeweled with cheap and showy nose-rings, toe-rings, leglets, and armlets, these things constituting all their wealth, no doubt. These silent crowds sat there with their humble bundles and baskets and small household gear about them, and patiently waited—for what? A train that was to start at some time or other during the day or night! They hadn’t timed themselves well, but that was no matter—the thing had been so ordered from on high, therefore why worry? There was plenty of time, hours and hours of it, and the thing that was to happen would happen—there was no hurrying it.

From Sea to Sea: Letters of Travel
Rudyard Kipling, 1899

Excerpt, comparing Canton (Guangzhou) to Benares (Varanasi):

It was Benares, without any wide streets or chauks, and yet darker than Benares, in that the little skyline was entirely blocked by tier on tier of hanging signs,—red, gold, black, and white. The shops stood on granite plinths, pukka brick above, and tile-roofed. Their fronts were carved wood, gilt, and coloured savagely. John knows how to dress a shop, though he may sell nothing more lovely than smashed fowl and chitterlings. Every other shop was a restaurant, and the space between them crammed with humanity. Do you know those horrible sponges full of worms that grow in warm seas? You break off a piece of it and the worms break too. Canton was that sponge. “Hi, low yah. To hoh wang!” yelled the chair-bearers to the crowd, but I was afraid that if the poles chipped the corner of a house the very bricks would begin to bleed. Hong-Kong showed me how the Chinaman could work. Canton explained why he set no value on life. The article was cheaper than in India. I hated the Chinaman before; I hated him doubly as I choked for breath in his seething streets where nothing short of the pestilence could clear a way. There was of course no incivility from the people, but the mere mob was terrifying. There are three or four places in the world where it is best for an Englishman to agree with his adversary swiftly, whatever the latter’s nationality may be. Canton heads the list. Never argue with anybody in Canton. Let the guide do it for you. Then the stinks rose up and overwhelmed us. In this respect Canton was Benares twenty times magnified. The Hindu is a sanitating saint compared to the Chinaman. He is a rigid Malthusian in the same regard.

The Mirror of the Sea
Joseph Conrad, 1906

Excerpt, on anchors:

From first to last the seaman’s thoughts are very much concerned with his anchors. It is not so much that the anchor is a symbol of hope as that it is the heaviest object that he has to handle on board his ship at sea in the usual routine of his duties. The beginning and the end of every passage are marked distinctly by work about the ship’s anchors. A vessel in the Channel has her anchors always ready, her cables shackled on, and the land almost always in sight. The anchor and the land are indissolubly connected in a sailor’s thoughts. But directly she is clear of the narrow seas, heading out into the world with nothing solid to speak of between her and the South Pole, the anchors are got in and the cables disappear from the deck. But the anchors do not disappear. Technically speaking, they are “secured in-board”; and, on the forecastle head, lashed down to ring-bolts with ropes and chains, under the straining sheets of the head-sails, they look very idle and as if asleep. Thus bound, but carefully looked after, inert and powerful, those emblems of hope make company for the look-out man in the night watches; and so the days glide by, with a long rest for those characteristically shaped pieces of iron, reposing forward, visible from almost every part of the ship’s deck, waiting for their work on the other side of the world somewhere, while the ship carries them on with a great rush and splutter of foam underneath, and the sprays of the open sea rust their heavy limbs.

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8 Responses to “Free Travel Books”

  1. Gareth says:

    I just wanted to tell you both that I have fallen completely in love with your site. A great deal of thought clearly went in to producing this list of books, and the accompanying commentary. I will be reading it frequently.

  2. Gareth says:

    Excellent! It isn't public domain, but Peter Hopkirk's 'The Great Game' is apparently a good book about espionage on the Silk Road. Still haven't found the time to read it. Wikipedia mentions this one: 'Foreign Devils on the Silk Road: The Search for the Lost Cities and Treasures of Chinese Central Asia'. Sounds intriguing, but I've never seen it in the wild.

    I'm guessing you've already seen this:

    It's a handy checklist.

  3. Gareth says:

    The 'Foreign Devils' book is also by Hopkirk

  4. Gareth says:

    That does look useful.

    This isn't about books, but it might amuse (and help you find some illustrations or graphics for the post):

  5. mitch says:

    Thanks for the great list Iain! Here are some more of my favorite classic travelogues that are also in the public domain:
    1) Montaigne's travel journals from 16th century Europe:
    2) Basho's travel diary from 17th century Japan:
    3) Johnathan Ledyards 18th century travel memoirs (whole world!):
    4) Johnathan Gyles 17-18th century memoir of "adventures" in Native American captivity Maine/New Brunswick:
    5) Thoreau's 19th century "The Maine Woods" (amongst others):


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