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The 5 Best Travel Books of 2020

By Richard West

In this Age of Vanished Normalcy, when travel is restricted and ill-advised, travel books become vital for ramblers of the globe. Here are my top five of 2020:

The Lost Pianos of Siberia, by Sophy Roberts. An irresistible title, prodigious research, hard travel, Siberian slang (switchbacks are “mother-in-law tongues’)…the end result: a brilliant debut by Roberts.


Venice: The Lion, the City, and the Water, by Cees Nooteboom. Holland’s great travel writer, for 40 years a visitor to the world’s most authored city relates why by wandering its narrow ways and affirms, despite the city’s problems, it’s still the aesthetic capital of the world. Also the year’s most beautiful book thanks to photos by his wife, Simon Sassen, a professional photographer.


Island Dreams: Mapping an Obsession, by Gavin Francis. The year’s most luminous prose by Scotland’s great travel writer (‘True North’), a medical doctor who’s worked on many of the world’s islands he visits in the book. That is additionally beautified by full-page old maps.

The Museum of Whales You Will Never See: And Other Excursions to Iceland’s Most Unusual Museums, by Kendra Greene. The year’s most personable read, droll & witty, a pleasure to travel with her in search of this individualistic country’s oddness.


The What Tha? Award: From Russia With Lunch: A Lithuanian Odyssey, by David Smiedt. In my decades of reading-collecting travel writing never one found covering Lithuania. Until now. An odd place: A Stalin Theme Park even though he sent 150,000 Lithuanians to the Gulag. A Museum for the Blind, a bust of Frank Zappa (why?), an alphabet of 32 letters for a language not in use until the 16th century. No wonder premium vodka’s cheap as bottled water.


Richard West spent nine years as a writer and senior editor at Texas Monthly before moving to New York to write for New York and Newsweek. Since then, he’s had a distinguished career as a freelance writer. West was awarded the National Magazine Award for Reporting in 1980 and is a member of Texas Arts & Letters. He lives in Amsterdam.

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