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Not to take anything away from the script, the actors, or the director, but a sense of place is often one of the most viscerally exciting elements of cinema. Of course, the best location-specific movies do more than toss the actors into a setting. The best of them understand the power of the locale and display it with nuance and focus that’ll inspire viewers to go visit the very same places they’ve seen. Out of Africa, often and aptly dubbed the “best travel movie” in years past, inspired legions to go on safari. Eat, Pray, Love triggered a flood of travelers to find their own path in those exotic lands. And the travel industry has seen a cottage industry growing around tours of locales featured in film series like Harry Potter and Star Wars. Even the backdrop for Game of Thrones has seen travelers anxious to fend off winter and explore the same medieval film locations. So, with respect to all cinema—especially those listed above—we’ve rounded out our pick for the best travel movies.
Our Top Picks
Best Classic: Roman Holiday
Nominated for ten Academy Awards in 1953, including best director and best cinematographer, Roman Holiday follows a modern-day princess portrayed by Audrey Hepburn (who won an Oscar herself for the role) as she rebels against her royal obligations by exploring Rome. She meets up with a reporter, played by Gregory Peck, and playful antics ensue throughout the city. Since its release, the film has inspired countless travelers to toss it all and head into the beautiful chaos of Rome and trace the characters’ steps through such tourist attractions as the Colosseum, Trevi Fountain, Castel Sant’Angelo, and an array of sun-dappled piazzas. Other films like Chocolat, A Good Year, Casablanca, and Under the Tuscan Sun — to name a few — tap into a similar vein by letting one location become the central character in their story. But none does it better than this classic.
Best for Ageless Nostalgia: Midnight in Paris
Woody Allen’s cinematic DNA is firmly rooted in New York City, but in Midnight in Paris, he manages to effortlessly capture the undeniable allure of Paris by both showing it in the present day, and by tapping into arguably the city’s most exciting, artistically-rich time period. The playful time travel to the days of the Lost Generation — dominated by personalities like Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dos Passos, and Gertrude Stein — illustrates a hotbed of creative energy, madness, and more than a few drinks, all of it unfolding on the dimly lit side streets of France’s capital. Other films — notably Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise, the playful whimsy of Amelie, and the anthology film Paris Je T’Aime — also portray Paris at its bohemian best, and should not be missed. But given how much the Paris of the 1920s is tied to most travelers' image of Paris today, Midnight in Paris is the perfect way to fuel your wanderlust for one of the world’s best cities.
Best Exotic: The Darjeeling Limited
Director Wes Anderson’s quirky style has almost reached the point of self-parody, but a dose of playful sincerity always manages to save his films from becoming hip just for hip’s sake. While his earlier films took a narrow focus, geographically speaking, The Darjeeling Limited widely expanded his universe, tapping into the vivid colors, sights, sounds, and scents of India — arguably one of the world’s most visually striking locales. The film follows three brothers — portrayed by Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, and Jason Schwartzman — as they travel through rural India by train to find their reclusive mother. Train journeys, another endearing trend in modern-day travel, makes for the ideal window to witness the vibrant explosion of striking landscapes, colorful saris, dense textile patterns, and religious rituals that the characters encounter, while the soundtrack — culled from Satyajit Ray’s films along with vintage rock — evoke a sense of place that feels firmly rooted in a country that practically begs for slow exploration.
Best For Extremes: Meru
No, you’re probably never going to aspire to climb the Shark’s Fin on Mount Meru in northern India, but this documentary makes you feel like you have. It's more than a dose of extreme, vicarious tourism, though. Husband-and-wife directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi definitely deliver on the awe-inspiring images of that climb, which Chin did along with top mountaineers Conrad Anker and Renan Ozturk. You get all the high-alpine vistas you’d expect, along with nights on the portaged high anchored on the cliff face where you can practically feel the cold, the struggle, and the enduring misery of each day. But the filmmakers offer context outside of “because it’s there” philosophizing by exploring the years-long struggle these athletes faced in order to attempt the peak. We won’t give anything away, but by the end, you not only appreciate the stunning panoramas that lie high above the riverbeds of the Ganges. You also get insight into why people push themselves to such extremes, and how they’re able to do so in the face of seemingly insurmountable mental and physical roadblocks. Other films like the mountaineering doc Touching the Void as well as fictionalized accounts of the books Into the Wild and Wild tap into the same theme — albeit with varying degrees of “extreme.” But seldom has such outdoor adventuring felt so visceral, deeply philosophical, and vital.
Best Surreal Urban Experience: Enter the Void
More movie-goers probably saw Lost in Translation than Enter the Void. And while Sofia Coppola’s film does a stellar job of capturing the quirky world of Tokyo and the dull anonymity we all feel while staying at a nice hotel, Enter the Void uses that same city to double down on all the surreal madness that exists in Japan’s capital, which — in many ways and especially in this film — is the prototypical extreme of all the world’s urban environments. The movie follows the exploits of a brother and sister (the former a drug deal, the latter a stripper) as they struggle through the hellish nightscape of Tokyo. Expect shocking violence, surreal and transcendent moments, seas of bright neon, and a singular viewing experience. Make no mistake: it’s disturbing, disorienting, and decidedly difficult. But it’s also quite dazzling.
Best for Warm-Weather Bliss: Endless Summer
Filmed in 1964, Endless Summer follows a handful of surfers as they traverse the globe in search of never-ending waves, making what quickly became the quintessential surfing documentary. In the pursuit of the perfect ride, the athletes visit Hawaii, California, Africa, New Zealand, and Tahiti. The vintage surf vibe is undeniable, reinforced by the surfers’ ‘60s attire and surfboards, but the places they visit are just as striking today as they were when first filmed. And, lest you think the pursuit of an endless summer is somehow antiquated, director Bruce Brown released a sequel in 1994. Aptly named Endless Summer II, the film re-traces the original steps, tapping into how the surfing scene has evolved by visiting a number of new locations, including France, Costa Rica, Australia, Bali, Java, and Alaska. Want more? Check out 2003’s Step into Liquid, made by Brown’s son, a film that documents the gamut of surfing, with everything from plying the cold waters of the Great Lakes to tow-in surfing.
Best Off-the-Beaten-Track Travel: In Bruges
Unless you had the good fortune to know about the Belgian city of Bruges before this film was released in 2008, chances are In Bruges made you want to visit — and fast. The unpredictably fun, topsy-turvy action/drama chronicles the story of two British hit men who are hiding out in the city, awaiting further orders. Chaos ensues, naturally. But the city itself keeps stealing the show with its ancient cobblestone streets, canals, and medieval and gothic cathedrals. The pivotal scene unfolds at the top of 272-foot-tall tower in a 13th-century belfry with a 47-bell carillon. Shot at night, you don’t get to appreciate the panoramic views of West Flanders in the film itself, but visitors can take advantage of daylight and see what the characters didn’t.
Best for Globe-Hopping: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
Your response to The Secret Life of Walter Mitty will probably depend on how much you like over-sentimental movies, but there’s no denying that film — written and directed by Ben Stiller, based on the James Thurber book — gets around. As in, all over the world, with stunning scenes that include long-boarding in Iceland, high-alpine hiking in the Himalayas, raucous sea escapades off Greenland, and more from such stunning locales as Yemen and Afghanistan. Similar to other globe-hopping movies like Big Year and The Bucket List, the plot pretty much plays second fiddle to the destinations. Watch this one on a plane, and you’ll be tempted to never come home.
Best On (and Off) Road Adventures: Motorcycle Diaries
The great American road trip has long been a hallmark of modern cinema — everything from National Lampoon’s Vacation and Cannonball Run to On the Road, Due Date, Thelma and Louise, and…well…Road Trip. But Motorcycle Diaries widens the scope of what’s possible by peering into the remote beauty of South America. This biopic is based on Che Guevera’s eight-month journey in 1952, which covered more than 8,000 miles, traversing from Argentina through Chile, Peru, and Columbia before reaching Venezuela. Now a bona fide tour-operated trip, the route (and the film) hits all the must-see locations: Buenos Aires, San Martin de los Andes, Patagonia, Chile’s Atacama Desert, Machu Picchu, the Amazon River, and Caracas — just to name a few. It also offers an all-too-rare glimpse into the past lives of South Americans, which only amplifies the beauty that unfolds during Che’s journey.
Our writers spent 4 hours researching the most popular travel movies on the market. Before making their final recommendations, they considered 20 different movies overall, read over 50 user reviews (both positive and negative), and watched 9 of the movies themselves. All of this research adds up to recommendations you can trust.