How do you become a better creative writer? That was the question I was facing in my own life more than ten years ago. I wanted to be a writer, was even writing part-time for a local magazine, but I didn’t know how to make my dreams of becoming a professional writer happen. years later, I had finally made it, and now, five years after that, I’m earning over $100k from my writing.
How did I do it? It took so many things, but one of the first, and most important, was travel.
In fact, I believe every writer should travel. In this post, I’ll explain why. But I don’t want you to just take my word for it. No, I actually want to send you on a trip to Paris, one of my favorite writing destinations, on me.
How I Discovered Travel Would Help My Writing
I think the first time I considered traveling the world for a year was while reading the blog of someone who was in South Africa. She was volunteering at an orphanage for children who had been infected by HIV/AIDs. It was heartbreaking, and opened my eyes to a side of life and of the world that I rarely considered.
And for a writer, growing your worldview is essential.
Benjamin Franklin, my country’s literary founding father, said, “Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.”
As I began to think of my favorite writers, I realized that they often did both. Ernest Hemingway lived in Paris, East Africa, Spain, and Cuba. John Steinbeck traveled around Cape Horn as a young man, then worked as a migrant laborer in Baja Mexico. Oscar Wilde, a Brit, spent years traveling around France and then America (although Wilde’s travel was forced exile). Jack Kerouac hitchhiked across the U.S. And even Mark Twain sailed up and down the Mississippi on a steamship for several years.
I’ve travelled to over fifty cities, some of which were tremendously helpful for my writing. And others which… well, weren’t.
Below I’m going to share all ten of the best cities for writers (plus a brief account of all the cities I’ve been to as a writer), but here’s a quick sneak peak at my top five.
The 5 Best Cities to Travel for Writers
- Paris, France
- Los Angeles, United States
- Portland, United States
- Pula, Croatia
- Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Note: I’m only including cities I’ve actually been to. As I travel more (Japan 2020?), I’ll update this list.
A Brief Journal of the Places and Cities I’ve Traveled to as a Writer
I’ve been very lucky to be able to travel extensively. For me, this has been incredibly rewarding for my writing. Here is a too-brief list of the places I’ve gotten to travel to, with an occasional not about my experience while there:
- The U.K.: London (in college, was able to see thirty-two plays in thirty days), Stratford-Upon-Avon (Shakespeare’s birthplace), Canterbury
- India: Delhi
- Pakistan: Islamabad
- Ireland: Dublin, Wicklow Mountains (where Braveheart was filmed)
- Romania: Târgu Mureș in Transylvania (where Count Dracula’s castle is)
- Hungary: Budapest
- Croatia: Pula (one of the most amazing cities I’ve ever written in)
- Turkey: Istanbul (amazing rooftops overlooking the Bosphorus for writing), Diyarbakir (100 miles from the Syrian border, don’t ask), plus all the way across the Black Sea (crazy 2,000 mile road trip)
- Israel: Jerusalem (the shuk!), Tel Aviv, Arad (where I hiked eighteen miles into the Dead Sea Basin—amazing)
- Egypt: Cairo
- Kenya: Nairobi, Eldoret, Nakuru (tried to bike from Eldoret to Nakuru, failed and hitchhiked instead)
- Uganda: Kampala, Jinja (rafted the Nile and thought I was going to drown), Soroti
- Thailand: Bangkok, a small town in the jungle on the border of Myanmar (see my story in Crowdsourcing Paris of my terrible birthday there), Chanthaburi
- Vietnam: Ho Chi Minh City (one of the best/worst places I traveled to), Kon Tum (caught very bony fish in a man-made pond)
- Cambodia: Phnom Penh (my favorite city in SE Asia), Siem Reap
- Spain: Malaga, Mijas (a small town in the hills overlooking the Mediterranean where I was paid to travel to while cowriting a book), Rhonda (where Hemingway would watch the bullfights as an older man)
- Germany: Frankfurt
- France: Paris (where I lived the adventures that would become Crowdsourcing Paris), Bordeaux
- Italy: Rome, Florence
- The U.S.: New York (met Steven Pressfield at a writer’s workshop), Washington D.C., Santa Barbara (I’m from here, so it’s cheating, but still there are a lot of writers who live here), Los Angeles, San Diego (didn’t get much writing done), Portland (some of the best cafés in the U.S. to write in), Atlanta (the capital of the south, where I live now), Nashville, Austin, and more
Now that I’ve shared my history of whereas a writer I’ve traveled, what are the best places for a writer to travel to?
Note: Travel Doesn’t Have to Be Expensive for Writers
How can writers living on a budget still travel? Travel doesn’t have to be expensive if you follow a few rules.
I have taken my family of five to Europe and even lived there for two months without spending a fortune. When I was single and traveling the world for a year, I frequently took trips for just a few hundred dollars, ate for less than $5 a day, and had amazing experiences.
Here are some rules that I follow to travel cheaply.
- If possible, travel in the offseason. For example, a flight to Paris that can cost $1,500 in June is just $609 in May. See screenshots below. I use Kayak to find the best times to travel and search with flexible dates. Kayak’s calendar tool is especially helpful, since you can see in green the best days to fly. Then, I book the flights via the airline’s own website to get the best price (use incognito mode for best results).
YES, it is possible to fly to Paris for less than $1,000. See below. (Read on to enter to win a flight!)
- Stay in an Airbnb or rented apartment and cook most of your own meals. One of the major costs, especially in Europe, is the price of eating out. But you can save money and have an amazing, authentic experience by cooking your own meals when you stay at an Airbnb.
- Save miles. I’m not a points guru, but when my family and I went to Paris and Bordeaux last summer we paid for all of our flights with airline points that we mostly earned from our credit cards. It can make a too-expensive trip actually work out!
- Rent out your house/car. If you own a home or have a lease that allows it, you can rent out your house on Airbnb while you travel, dramatically lowering the cost of lodging. You can even rent out your car through Turo.
- Choose inexpensive destinations. Europe is almost always very expensive to travel to, but choosing less expensive cities like Bordeaux or Pula (rather than London and Paris) has helped save money. Even better, traveling to South East Asia or Africa, where the conversion rate benefits most westerners and the cost of living is relatively inexpensive, can help too.
These tips won’t make travel free, but they may make it possible with some careful planning.
Obviously, I say all of this from the perspective of a privileged man from the U.S., where a strong dollar and high earning potential make travel much more possible. Not everyone can travel internationally, and I get that I have had experiences few people in the world can have. I’m so grateful to have had them!
At the same time, I believe travel for anyone who wants to be a writer is important, whether you’re taking a train to a new city or flying to a new continent. Go on an adventure somewhere, even if it’s relatively close.
10 Best Cities For Writers to Travel To
The best places for writers to travel to combine history, culture, great food and drink, and are, hopefully, affordable. In my list below, I share my personal list of best cities to travel to.
Again, I’m only including cities I’ve actually been to. As I travel more (Japan 2020?), I’ll update this list.
1. Paris, France
Paris is number one on this list for one reason: 10,000 cafés. Paris has more cafés—and those amazing places to write—per resident than any other major city.
This has been the temporary home of many of the best writers of the 20th century, including Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Baldwin, and more.
While it’s fairly expensive, making it impractical for full-time living, it’s a perfect pilgrimage spot for writers.
If you want to get the most out of Paris as a writer, read my memoir Crowdsourcing Paris.
And if you want to win a flight to Paris, on me, read on for how to enter.
2. Los Angeles, California, United States
The capital of the global film industry, there are cafés in Silverlake and other central L.A. neighborhoods where you have the sense if you could just hang out there for long enough, you could talk your way into the movie business.
I grew up not far from L.A. and get bored by the tourist things (Star Walk, Hollywood sign, Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, etc.), but just hanging out in the coffee shops and bistros where producers are holding meetings and screenwriters are working on scripts is invigorating.
3. Portland, Oregon, United States
Portland has the best café culture of any U.S. city, in my opinion, and it’s hard to go to one without bumping into amazing writers.
Some of my favorite U.S. writers live in Portland, and if you’re looking for a city to write in and connect with other writers, you can’t go wrong here.
4. Pula, Croatia
I liken Pula (and, by association, other coastal Croatian cities like Split and Dubrovnik, although I’ve never been) to a cheaper version of Italy. You still have amazing streetside cafés overlooking wide plazas where you can sip bijela kava while looking at ancient Roman ruins. You just can do that for half the price and a quarter of the tourists.
5. Phnom Penh, Cambodia
What I love about Phnom Penh is that it’s the most quiet of the three Southeast Asian capital cities I went to. If you’re looking for something more kinetic or more developed, then Ho Chi Minh City or Bangkok respectively might be better.
Cambodia experienced a huge amount of trauma in the 1970s as Pol Pot committed genocide on nearly all of the educated members of his country. Forty years later, the culture is still rebuilding, but that gives it a youthful energy and enthusiasm that I found exciting to be around.
You can’t get much better food or much kinder people than in Cambodia, and the cost of living is so inexpensive for Westerners that it makes it perfect for long stays.
If I had no family or other responsibilities, I would move to Phnom Penh to write.
6. Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Like Cambodia, Ho Chi Minh City is filled with amazing food, has an inexpensive cost of living, and, with the French and American influences, has unique cultural experiences you can’t find anywhere else.
I accidentally stayed in a rough part of town when I lived here, so that colored my experience, but stumbling into a dance hall where the most amazing swing dancers were performing, eating the best pho, and driving all night into the mountains where I caught very bony fish in a man-made pond, all made for memorable things to write about.
7. Santa Barbara, California, United States
I grew up and went to college in Santa Barbara, so I’m biased, but even when visiting, I’ve always found this medium-sized, coastal city north of Los Angeles to be a creatively invigorating place. I’ve done some of my best writing here, sitting at cafés like the French Press and Lucky Llama, looking out at the foothills, the ocean close enough to walk to.
Some of the world’s best-known celebrities and writers have lived here, including Julia Child, Sue Grafton, Thomas Steinbeck (John Steinbeck’s son), and even Katy Perry.
8. Nashville, Tennessee, United States
Nashville is secretly one of the world’s hotspots for writers. While it’s best known as the home of the Country Music industry, I personally know dozens of well-known writers who live here, plus more that I don’t know.
With great, hipster coffee shops, lots of local events for writers, and a supportive artistic community, this would be a great place for any writer to visit.
9. Nairobi, Kenya
I actually did most of my best writing in Kenya in Eldoret, hopped up on Nicotine tea (seriously), but since I doubt you’ll ever go to Eldoret (or find my perfect writing spot), I’m putting Nairobi. Some of my best months traveling were spent in Kenya. The kindness of the people, the affordability, the beautiful scenery, and the rich, East African literary tradition all make for a perfect place to write. If you’re looking for a place to contradict your existing lens and expand your worldview, it doesn’t get much better than this.
Bonus: most Kenyans speak English. Also, if you’re white, as I am, it’s kind of strange and exciting (and sometimes awkward) be treated as a minor celebrity everywhere you go (mzungu, mzungu!).
10. New York City, New York, United States
You have to include New York, the capital of the world publishing industry, in any list of cities for writers to travel to.
But I included this last on the list because I honestly think New York is overrated as a travel destination for writers. It’s just too expensive! Even though there are hundreds of great writers who live or have lived there, most inevitably move outside of the city where rents and mortgages are cheaper. On top of that, it’s so crowded and frantic, it’s hard to get much writing done.
The last time I tried to write in New York, I was jammed at a community table between a web developer and a group of models loudly talking about their fashion week gigs. It was an interesting place to eavesdrop, but not a great place to write!
You should go, but honestly, if I could, I would have included a city in Spain on this list of best cities for writers instead!