20 travel memoirs written by inspiring and fearless women
If you walk into a bookstore these days, you’re sure to see a female travel memoir on one of its shelves. Female travel is not a new phenomenon – women have been adventuring solo since the 1800s. Yet, as more and more women share their stories through online blogs and travel memoirs of adventuring alone, moving overseas to surprising destinations and breaking down all kinds of social conventions, they inspire others to do the same. Thinking of doing the same yourself – or simply in the mood for a bit of armchair travel? Here are 20 female travel memoirs that are sure to inspire your inner adventurer.
The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone – Olivia Laing (2016)
Laing is a British author who moved to New York City for her American boyfriend, only to have the relationship disintegrate shortly after she arrives. She chooses to spend a year in the city, moving from sublet to sublet and falls victim to a crippling loneliness. As a distraction from this feeling, she immerses herself in the art of other lonely figures who once called New York home – Andy Warhol, David Wojnarowicz, Edward Hooper and Henry Darger.
Part memoir, part biography, this book manages to examine a city that is immortalised in art more times than anyone can count, from a new angle. Anyone who has moved to a big city.
How Not to Travel the World: Adventures of a Disaster-Prone Backpacker – Lauren Juliff (2016)
It might not seem like the smartest move for the anxiety-ridden and very sheltered Juliff to leave her home country of the UK and begin to navigate the world – solo. Naturally, she ends up in a series of negative scenarios, incorporating extremely bad luck and even, near-death scenarios. Yet, she perseveres, and you’ve got to take your hat off to her as she overcomes obstacle after obstacle.
Juliff has not only written this book but maintains a successful blog and is still on the road with her Kiwi boyfriend, navigating through her anxiety and running into occasional trouble, more than five years later.
Almost French – Sarah Turnbull (2004)
This book tells the story of Australian journalist Sarah Turnbull’s move to Paris, after meeting a Frenchman while travelling. Each chapter focuses on a specific challenge of her life in France, including her struggles with the language, making friends, knowing the right way to dress in the capital, and surviving French dinner parties.
Turnbull covers how hard it is to acclimatise to a new country, with all its cultural quirks and oddities, whilst dealing with homesickness. On a return visit to Australia, she’s struck by a thought that most expats find themselves thinking about – falling in love with both your country of origin and your new home. “It’s a curse to love two countries. A blessing and a curse.” Anyone who has ever moved overseas or felt alien whilst travelling in a new country will be able to relate to this book.
A Field Guide to Getting Lost – Rebecca Solnit (2005)
Solnit wears many hats; activist, historian, feminist, writer, philosopher but, at heart, she’s a wanderer. In this memoir, she muses upon the concept of “getting lost”, intertwining history with introspection.
This is not a beach read, her prose is thoughtful and requires all of one’s concentration. Yet, it is the perfect book to read after a journey, when reflecting on different travel adventures and what they have meant to you.
Schadenfreude, A Love Story: Me, the Germans, and 20 Years of Attempted Transformations, Unfortunate Miscommunications, and Humiliating Situations That Only They Have Words For – Rebecca Schuman (2017)
Whilst Schuman did spend time both after school and during University in Germany, this book is more about living life through another language, rather than the experience of residing in a foreign country. Schuman speaks of her love affair (and continual confusion) with the German language with a sarcastic wit, stacks of self-deprecation and a fresh perspective. This book will have you chuckling the whole way through.
All Over the Place – Geraldine DeRuiter (2017)
After getting laid off from her copywriting job, DeRuiter decided that she’d take the opportunity to follow the love of her life all around the world – and blog about it. The Everywhereist has won award after award, and eventually lead to the publishing of this book, regaling her stories of travelling just about everywhere, when she believes she’s much better suited to staying at home and eating snacks in her pyjamas.
DeRuiter writes not only about her travels, but also her relationships with her Russian father, Italian mother and American brother, her recovery from brain surgery and the highs and lows that one encounters even if they are lucky enough to find the love of their life. And that just is how life goes, isn’t it? As she points out in the close of the book: “Even if you don’t end up where you planned, you still might end up somewhere great.”
Wild – Cheryl Strayed (2012)
Twenty-two-year-old Strayed’s life has hit rock bottom. Her mother has died young from cancer, she herself has become addicted to heroin and she no longer wants to be married to the man she loves. Strayed impulsively decides to don a backpack and walk 1,100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail, despite a complete lack of hiking experience… by herself. Step by step, she heals.
What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding – Kristin Newman (2014)
Kristin Newman might just have the perfect job. As a sitcom writer, she works nine months of the year and has three months off to do as she pleases. As everyone around her starts shacking up and spawning, she travels all over the world, falling in love with both countries and their intriguingly sexy locals as she goes. Newman writes comedy, so expect to split your sides with laughter at several points during a reading of this book.
Neon Pilgrim – Lisa Dempster (2009)
Lisa Dempster had reached a crossroads of many sorts in her life. Overweight, depressed and lacking direction, she decides to travel to Japan to walk the Henro Michi trail; a 1200-kilometre Buddhist pilgrimage through the mountains of Shikoku, Japan… in the blistering summer heat. The book is written with humour and has a lot of heart. After reading this memoir, don’t be surprised if you find yourself considering walking the 1200km journey someday yourself.
The Good Girl’s Guide to Getting Lost – Rachel Friedman (2011)
A young Friedman does something completely uncharacteristic when she packs up and moves to Ireland for four months. Here, she meets travel-addict, Carly. The girls instantly bond and their friendship lead them to Carly’s native country of Australia for a money-saving stint, before they journey to South America to travel together for a year.
Unlike many books on this list, this memoir is less about personal relationships (although Friedman does meet future Kiwi hubby on her South American trip) and more about a rad friendship, as the two girls learn and grow together, whilst navigating what it means to be a twenty-something woman in the modern world.
Tracks: A Woman’s Solo Trek Across 1700 Miles of Australian Outback – Robyn Davidson (1995)
In the late 1970s, at a time when feminism was still in its formative years, a young Davidson procures some feral camels, domesticates and trains them and walks 1,700 miles across the Australian Outback, with mostly only them and her dog for company. She experiences a plethora of emotions along the way and countless obstacles. But – spoiler alert! – she finishes the track.
This is no easy feat. The Outback is massive and wild, with a range of predators from other feral camels and snakes, to the relentless Australian sun. This is a memoir with a difference, that’s for sure.
The Year of Living Danishly – Helen Russell (2015)
When Russell’s husband gets his dream job at Lego, the duo packs up their busy London lives and move to rural Jutland in Denmark – allegedly the happiest country in the world. A journalist by trade and nature, Russell decides to explore just why the Danish are reputedly so delighted with their lot, in a country that is dark and grey for an alarming portion of the year. She does this through interviews with Danes, undertaking research and musing on her own experiences. Russell’s reflections are delightfully humorous and don’t be surprised if upon finishing the book, you start to look at life a little more ‘Danishly’ yourself.
Holy Cow: An Indian Adventure – Sarah MacDonald (2004)
After backpacking through India in her twenties, Australian Sarah MacDonald was left with, let’s say, not the best memories of what she viewed as a polluted and poverty-ridden country. 11 years later, her boyfriend gets posted to New Delhi and she quits her dream job to follow him there. Here she documents what life in India is really like, from both sides of the coin. This is the book for you if you’ve ever made a return (or perhaps an extended) visit to a country that wasn’t quite your cup of tea the first time around. Yet, on the second visit, you start to see it in a different light and realise that every place has its good and bad points. After all, it’s what you make of your time there that has all the difference.
Wanderlust: A Love Affair with Five Continents – Elisabeth Eaves (2011)
Eaves memoir is not everyone’s cup of tea, as she tends to focus more on the people she meets and relationships she has during her time abroad than the adventures themselves. Her adventures include; trekking through the jungle in Papua New Guinea, navigating the chaos of Cairo and living in a boat shed on the Queensland coast with a group of surfer boys.
Regardless, Eaves writing is beautiful and melodic and is the perfect read for women wishing to rally against the gender lines that bind us and push out into the world for something a little bit better, a little more spectacular than the path laid down for us.
Bleaker House: Chasing My Novel to the End of the World – Nell Stevens (2017)
Stevens wants to write a novel. Stevens wants to be free of distractions whilst writing said novel. Upon winning an all-expenses-paid fellowship to write anywhere in the world, Stevens chooses the remotest part of the Falkland Islands. She will be the only guest in a house, with nothing to bother her as she writes every day.
In these three months, Stevens discovers that she can cut herself off from the people. She can cut herself off from the world. But in the end, it’s her own mind, which proves to be her worst enemy. She may not have written the book she intended to write, but this interesting memoir is what ended up being birthed out of the experience.
The Thing About Prague – Rachael Weiss (2014)
There are some places you may travel to or even live in where you try your best to make it work… but it’s almost like that place doesn’t want anything to do with you.
This was Weiss’ experience in Prague. She leaves a good job, her flat, and cat in her hometown of Sydney to travel to the Czech capital, intent on living out the rest of her life there. Despite her best efforts, she lasts just three years.
Although the book offers up a few insights about life in Prague (there’s an awful lot about dealing with bureaucracy!), it’s more about Weiss’ experience of coming to terms with not being exactly where you envisioned yourself by your 40s and being willing to uproot your comfy life to try and shake things up. To quote wordsmith JK Rowling here, “It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.”
A Year in Japan – Kate T. Williamson (2006)
Although Kate is an artist, in her memoir she uses words as well as images to sketch her life in Kyoto. Rather than a traditional memoir or travelogue, this reads more like a travel journal. It comprises a collection of watercolours with notes observing the idiosyncrasies of Japanese culture from an outsider’s perspective. If you love art or you’re after something a little bit different from the other travel memoirs on this list, then Williamson’s beautiful illustrations may appeal to you.
Without You, There is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite – Suki Kim (2014)
A wanderer at heart and American-Korean by nationality, Kim journeys to North Korea under the guise of working as a Christian missionary, to educate the sons of high-ranking officials in the country. Kim secretly takes extensive notes on what she hears, feels and experiences, despite being heavily monitored. This memoir is the result of her brave efforts.
Kim herself has been hurt by the separation of Korea, where members of her own family were kidnapped or disappeared into the night, never to be heard from again (presumably taken over the border into North Korea). She takes time to consider her own cultural understanding of the fractured Korea, particularly as someone who was born in South Korea but grew up American from her early teens onwards.
Part memoir, part investigative journalism, this is a fascinating look into how a dictatorship can isolate its subjects from the world, completely control their lives and warp their minds. This book offers unique glimpses into a country and culture that few know much about.
Wish You Were Here – Sheridan Jobbins (2017)
After a heart-wrenching breakup with her husband “Pig”, Jobbins decides rather than mooning around her flat in self-pity, to move to LA, purchase a flashy car and take a round trip around America. She may not have any money at her disposal to do so… but that’s what credit cards are for, right?
Although at the beginning of her journey Jobbins is determined to drive away from love, she ends up finding it instead – in the form of a dashing Englishman, half her age (that’s an exaggeration, but he is quite younger). Power to her!
This memoir won’t change your life in any way (or maybe you’ll find yourself booking a one-way trip to LA – who knows) but Jobbins’ various antics are highly amusing. There’s a lot of fun between these pages.
Mother Tongue – Christine Gilbert (2016)
This personal memoir follows Gilbert, her husband and their young son as they move from China to Lebanon and then onto Mexico. They spend six months in each country, attempting to achieve a level of fluency in Mandarin, Arabic and Spanish, respectively. Gilbert dictates the roadblocks that her family encounter along the way, such as surviving a Beijing winter and living in Beirut with impending unrest in the Middle East. In the memoir she explores the world of linguistics as it stands now, intertwining recent research with her own experience. She’s very honest about her failures, which anyone who has tried to learn a second language as an adult will be able to relate to. All in all, this book is an enthralling read and an excellent adventure.
will surely be able to relate. It is indeed a lonely endeavour and wholly baffling how one can feel so alone when surrounded by millions of people. Feeling inspired? Book your next adventure here
About The Author
LC Hunter is an ex-expat, who is currently exploring her home country of Australia. She has two ambitions in life – to travel plastic-free and to one day live on a farm in Tasmania with 11 dogs, a miniature pig and several pygmy goats. Follow her travels around Oz and attempts to embrace a greener lifestyle on her blog Birdgehls and on Facebook.