What is the Best World Atlas?

I’ve always been a huge fan of geography and maps. When I was in middle school I won my school’s geography bee twice in a row. I was even able to compete at the State geography level.

Maps have gone digital in the last few decades, and I have spent countless hours looking at the world through Google maps. It’s an amazing exploration tool. However, I still treasure my print atlases. In my mind, a well-printed atlas (like the ones I mention below) is superior to digital maps, like Google Maps. 

I read Maphead by Ken Jennings (the all-time Jeopardy winner), and he says that he loved to look at maps when he was a child. He was obsessed with them and found comfort in exploring the world through maps. Before reading his book, I had no idea there was a huge group of people who thought like me and saw the world through maps.

Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks
  • Jennings, Ken (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 304 Pages - 04/17/2012 (Publication Date) - Scribner (Publisher)

I want to talk about what is the best world atlas out there. Surprisingly, there aren’t that many options of good world atlases anymore. I won’t be focusing on antique atlases but rather will be exploring contemporary atlases. 

The Main Three

When it comes to full-reference world atlases there are three main choices:

  • Oxford Atlas of the World (My Personal Favorite)
  • National Geographic Atlas of the World
  • Times Comprehensive Atlas of the World

Oxford Atlas of the World

The Oxford Atlas of the World is my personal favorite. It is published by the Oxford University Press. This atlas is the only major atlas to be updated annually. Countries and boundaries change every year. So every year in the fall (usually October) Oxford will publish a new edition of the Oxford Atlas of the World.

The Oxford Atlas of the World has dozens of full-page satellite images. I have the 26th edition, which contains imagery of:

  • Oslo, Norway
  • Marseilles, France
  • Vienna, Austria
  • Gibraltar, U.K
  • Naypyidaw, Myanmar
  • Tunis, Tunisia
  • Timbuktu, Mali
  • Niagara Falls, USA,
  • And many more!
An example of the satellite imagery in the atlas

It also has a full gazetteer of nations, which gives timely information about every country in the world.

Atlas of the World: Twenty-Eighth Edition
  • Hardcover Book
  • George Philip & Son (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 448 Pages - 10/01/2021 (Publication Date) - Oxford University Press (Publisher)

This is a large full-size atlas. The last few editions have been measuring as 14.7 inches by 11.5 inches.

National Geographic Atlas of the World

The National Geographic Atlas of the World is one of the most popular atlases on the market. The latest edition is the 11th edition, which came out in 2019. As far as can tell there is no information for when the “12th National Geo Atlas of the World” will be released. I do know, that there were 2 years between the 10th and 11th editions.

There has been a general trend in the last few editions to simplify the maps and discussion. The maps have lost a lot of detail. They used to very clearly mimic the look of the land, but that has been reduced to elevation lines and place names Also, there seems to be more opinion and political pieces in the introduction of the atlas.

I hope Nat Geo works on more detailed maps in the 12th edition. I still think it’s a beautiful book, but if you are looking for more detailed maps and a better presentation it might be worth trying to get your hands on an older edition.

National Geographic Atlas of the World, 11th Edition
  • National Geographic Atlas of the World Eleventh Edition
  • Hardcover Book
  • National Geographic (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 448 Pages - 10/01/2019 (Publication Date) - National Geographic (Publisher)

This atlas measures 12.75 x 18.88 inches.

Times Comprehensive Atlas of the World

Like the National GeographicAtlas of the World, this atlas isn’t updated every year. The latest edition (the 15th edition) was released in 2018. I believe this is the largest world atlas you can purchase. It measures 18.5 inches by 12.7 inches! What a beast! Because of this, I think it is marketed to libraries and colleges more than an individual customer.

Personally, I think it’s a little too big for me, but it’s still a great option!

The Times Comprehensive Atlas of the World
  • Hardcover Book
  • Times Atlases (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 528 Pages - 11/15/2018 (Publication Date) - Times Books UK (Publisher)

Leave a Comment