Travel-themed coffee table books are a dime a dozen. I’ve spent a ton of hours researching 18 of the most recommended coffee table books. Of those books I found five that were outstanding. They are listed below along with my notes and criteria. If you’re interested in the books that didn’t make this list, I’ve provided additional commentary towards the bottom of the article.
One important thing to note—I’ve intentionally omitted travel books with specific destinations in mind—Paris, Italy or New York. I may put together a destination-focused guide at some other point, but to be considered for this the book cannot be about one city or location.
UpdatesUpdated August 25, 2017: Added The World Atlas of Coffee to the other books considered category. It's a very detailed book, but I wouldn't necessarily consider it a book travel-related.
Updated July 18, 2017: Replaced my recommendation of The National Parks: An American Legacy with Treasured Lands by Q.T. Luong. The National Parks is a very good book, but the quality of Treasured Lands is spectacular—especially for those interested in national park photography.
Updated July 10, 2017: Updates to details of some of my recommendations.
What makes a great coffee table book?Coffee table books are designed to inspire conversation. If you have people over and someone doesn't ask about the book, then it isn't doing it's job. These large books with beautiful covers and interesting topics are meant to be discussed!
I’ve evaluated each book based on the following criteria. A coffee table book should be beautiful, intriguing and inspire conversation.
A good coffee table book should be beautiful.
I would bet that 99 percent of the time the coffee table books you own sit on a table or shelf not being read or discussed. If that’s the case, the book should look beautiful. In the case of a travel—themed book it should show guests that you like to travel. Pictures and stories of far-away places are often the ticket.
A good coffee table book should be intriguing.
Does the theme of the book draw someone in? Will guests feel the need to pick it up and see what’s inside? While you could debate that intrigue goes hand-in-hand with beauty, that’s not how I will be evaluating it. The theme and title of the book will play a much larger role than aesthetics.
A good coffee table book should be conversational.
Once somebody picks up the book will they ask a question? Will it start a conversation? Does it make you want to visit one of those far-away places? If the book contains quality content, then it absolutely should.
Recommendations: The Best Travel-Themed Coffee Table Books
Yes, this is another arial photography book, but there’s good reason that Gray Malin’s Beaches is both a New York Times and Amazon best seller. Arial views of beach towels, Umbrellas and beach goers provide an interesting perspective. These lines of colorful towels and umbrellas create incredible patterns when viewed from above.
The book showcases Malin’s work from twenty cities on six continents. This includes the shores of the Amalfi Coast, Sydney, Miami, Rio de Janerio and a many others. Unfortunately, the only city from Asia featured is Dubai. I would love to see shots from Vietnam and Thailand.
In 2011 Malin was spending time with friends in Las Vegas. He decided to take a photo from his hotel room, which overlooked the pool. That photo—with all it’s colors, patterns and shapes gave him the idea to book a helicopter ride in Miami. Since that moment he has spent countless hours hanging outside of helicopters squaring up fascinating shots of beaches.
Malin has been featured in publications such as the New York Times and partnered with brands like Sperry. At the time I’m writing this he has north of 250,000 Instagram followers. Considering many of his prints start around $200, this coffee table book is an exceptional value.
Vibrant colors, interesting perspectives and the beach theme make this a perfect coffee table book for anybody who loves the beach.
What is a guide about coffee table books and travel without photography of America’s national parks? As a matter of fact the modern coffee table book began with the Sierra Club and Ansel Adams’ spectacular photography of Yosemite National Park.
Of the coffee table books I considered, Treasured Lands is the only one that included Photography from all 59 national parks. The book is composed of more than 500 photographs taken over more than 20 years. With more than 130,000 words accompanying them this book is truly a masterpiece.
What makes this books stand out from the others is Luong’s notes about each park. Each section contains personal stories about his photography in the park. While many coffee table books simply have short captions about the photo, this book has a wealth of information. Furthermore, many photographers do not want to give away locations of their shots. Perhaps, it is for fear that someone will copy them? That is not the case with Luong. Not only does this book give details on how to reach the destination, but it also talks about the season, time of day and which direction to point your camera.
Because of the above this should rightly be the Bible of National Park photographers. This is an exceptional book for those who love national parks and anyone planning to visit one in the near future.
The book itself is organized into seven sections—Pacific Coast and Mountains, Colorado Plateau, Deserts, Rockies and Prairie, Eastern Hardwoods, Alaska and Tropics. Within each of these sections are 10 to 15 individual parks.
Treasured Lands is an Amazon Best Seller and has won several awards including the Independent Publisher Award for Best Coffee Table book of 2016.
Grant started an Instagram project called Daily Overview in December of 2013. Each day he would add high-resolution satellite images from places all over the globe. In all he curated about 200 images. These images with their stunning patterns became the foundation for this coffee table book.
Benjamin Grant’s Overview is a bit of a puzzle. It becomes this game where you’re looking at shapes and colors and trying to figure out what the image could be. This game, the interesting photography and the world locations make Overview among our top choices for best travel-themed coffee table books.
Perhaps, the best thing about Overview is that everybody will walk away with favorite photographs—for me it was the mining operations and airports. For others it may be the tulip fields or coast lines.
In 2013 the state of image licensing was awfully confusing. There were various versions of Creative Commons that either restricted use, dictated specific attribution or both.
About that time Mikael Cho was working on a startup called Ooomf (Now called Crew) and had a radical idea. What if we just gave away our photography? Completely free, no attribution required for personal or commercial use. It seems like an obvious idea now, but at the time nobody was doing it.
Cho and his team bought a $19 theme and started a Tumblr blog called Unsplash. At the top of the blog they placed a camera icon and the tagline: 10 free, do-whatever-you-want photos every 10 days. Several years later, that blog would evolve into a huge community of photography enthusiasts.
It may not be entirely accurate to classify this as a travel-themed coffee table book. Many of the other books here have specific photography themes or destinations. This book celebrates the community’s early contributors. The cover adorn’s everyone featured in the book. A percentage of every copy sold goes back to the contributors that made it possible.
The book itself is beautiful. Simple page layouts and incredible double-page spreads make it a delight to flip through. I love the cover. It is made of a canvas material and is strikingly simple.
Beyond the incredible photography featured, the story alone makes this among my favorite coffee table books.
Atlas Obscura is a blog that surfaces amazing, exotic oddities from all over the world. They’ve written about miniature cities, beer bottle temples, weird yard art, underground tunnels in Los Angeles, giant tunnels of flowers—you get the idea.
The Atlas Obscura book is the culmination of these things distilled into a single book. Do not be mistaken, while this is certainly a book about travel, it is not a book about photography. I would say that it is more of a reference. There are photos, but the vast majority of the book is made up of summaries, graphics and captions. Quite frankly I think it is the graphics and short summaries that draw the reader into the book. It’s easy to get sucked in flipping through bite-sized summaries about obscurities of the world.
So, who’s this book for? I’d say it’s perfect for the adventurer. Someone about to go on an overseas trip. Someone who is more interested in the content and ideas about travel than photography itself.
Other books consideredParis in Color by Nichole Robertson is an Amazon Best Seller and among the most commonly recommended travel coffee table books. The photography in this book is excellent. The signature theme are photos are grouped together by color—in a kind of collage. The various shades of blue and red and yellow are fantastic in context of the other photos. Paris in Color is a fantastic coffee table book for anyone who loves Paris. Like many books, the primary reason, it did not make the recommendation list, is because it covers only one city.
The Times Comprehensive Atlas of the World, 14th Edition: As someone who loves maps, I wanted to research at least one atlas for this guide. The two that consistently came up were the Oxford Atlas of the World and this Times Atlas of the World. People seem to have minor disagreements about the accuracy of each book—a new town outside of Tokyo was left off. I am not a cartographer and won’t hold minor omissions against either.
If you love maps and are in the market for an Atlas, I think this is the one. The book is 13-by-18-inches and weighs 13 pounds—it is large, heavy and imposing. It would be difficult not to notice this book on your coffee table. Plus, I love the cover of this book.
The New York Times: 36 Hours 125 Weekends in Europe: Part travel guide, part coffee table book. It’s a fantastic gift for someone considering a big trip to Europe. I wanted to put this highly-rated travel book on the list, but 2nd edition of this book was released at the end of 2016 and has few reviews so far. The 1st edition edition is still available, however.
Lonely Planet’s Ultimate Travel: Like my recommendation Atlas Obscura, this was a highly-cited travel reference. For me, I like the content around regional and cultural oddities that Atlas Obscura contains. If that’s not your thing, Lonely Planet’s Ultimate travel has more than 80% 5-star reviews.
One Hundred & One Beautiful Small Towns in Italy: This book was highly rated but, at 8-by-8-inches it is a bit small for a photography book. I don’t find the cover terribly appealing and many reviews cited beautiful pictures with poor print quality. Perhaps something to consider if you’re taking a trip to the Italian countryside, but it doesn’t cut it for a coffee table book.
Both Paris and New York by Serge Ramelli came up in my research for photography-heavy books. They did not make the recommended list, because the photographs covered only one location. There were few reviews and the ones that did exist seemed short and lacking-substance.
59 Illustrated National Parks: I first saw this book in 2016 while at the Logan Pass Visitor Center in Glacier National Park. As a designer, mid-century enthusiast and lover of our national parks, I wanted to purchase this book. Unfortunately, there was little room in my pack and I didn’t want to ruin the book smashing it in my bag before a hike.
These posters are recreations by the Anderson Design Group. They have new parks and perspective, but retain much of the same aesthetic. If you know someone that loves national parks, graphic design and mid-century things, I cannot think of a more fitting gift.
Humans of New York: New York is an incredibly diverse city—it’s made up of people of all walks of life. This book contains portraits of the many characters that make up the city. I’ve seen it recommended as a travel-themed book. While an excellent book, it only covers New York and I don’t think it fits this category.
Shop Cats of New York: Shop Cats of New York is among the most highly rated coffee table books. The book has tons of reviews and only a handful of them are anything less than five stars. Think Humans of New York, but you know—with cats. If you’re a cat person, by all means this is probably your book. I don’t think it belongs in this travel book guide, however.
Ansel Adams in the National Parks: We might not have the modern coffee table book without Ansel Adams or the Sierra Club. It was the famous black and white photography of Yosemite and other national parks that started the trend. It’s a great book, but if you’re going to pick one book about national parks, I would recommend Treasured Lands by Q.T. Luong.
The National Parks: An American Legacy: I did want one book about national parks considered for this list. The National Parks: An American Legacy was my previous choice until I found Treasured Lands. In my opinion Treasured Lands contains more locations and has much more detail. As I mentioned in my recommendation above. Luong is incredibly specific about where, when and under what conditions his photos were taken.
The World Atlas of Coffee: From Beans to Brewing: This is a fantastic purchase for coffee-lovers. The cover is beautiful. It is printed on a cloth-like material, which reminds me of the burlap sacks you see coffee beans in. The book covers everything about the coffee making process—including bean types and locations. This is a great book for your favorite coffee snob, but felt like it didn’t fit the travel-theme for this guide.
- Jordan G. Teicher, Arial Photos of Beaches, Slate, May 16, 2016
- Sam Solomon, Mikael Cho: Founder of Ooomf, Signal Tower, October 29, 2013