Travel movies provide inspiration for wanderlust, driving college students to backpack the world, young professionals to take career breaks, and American families to road trip across the country like Chevy Chase on his way to Wally World. The best travel movies provide viewers with an escape from reality while discovering the beauty of a destination, its people and the cultural differences that make this great world go round.
My list of the best travel movies isn’t the most complete. I don’t watch enough movies to ever consider myself even an amateur expert. But I’ve seen my share, often using movies as inspiration for future travels or as ways to romanticize previous experiences. And during Oscar season, it seems a good time to reflect on some of the best travel movies that have had an impact on my travels. If you are looking for a great list, this slideshow of 50 best travel movies from Conde Nast Traveler includes a lot of my favorites mentioned below, as well as some I felt they do a much better job describing than I ever would.
Before watching The Way, I didn’t know about the Camino de Santiago, an 800-kilometer journey across Spain. A pilgrimage for many, this story is a true inspiration that shows Martin Sheen take up the journey of his fictional son, played by real-life son Emilo Estevez. This is a journey I hope to make one day, especially after watching the movie. I think it would be a fun experience with my son, maybe the summer after he graduates from high school?
Midnight in Paris:
We watched this movie a few months before traveling to Paris. It was especially meaningful because several important scenes were filmed on the street in the Latin Quarter where our apartment was. I’m not sure this movie really helped plan the trip, per se, but it gave inspiration for a city that really needs none. And it also romanticizes everything that is Paris.
Under the Tuscan Sun:
We watched this movie before visiting Tuscany in 2005. As I type this some 10 years later, I don’t recall much about this movie. I know it stars Diane Lane who is looking for a fresh start with the renovation of a villa in Tuscany. The movie romanticizes much of what you imagine Tuscany is. And a visit to Tuscany, as in really getting out and experiencing the region, is a pretty freaking romantic spot that deserves to be romanticized in a movie in my book.
This movie is just pure fun. It’s set in the Santa Barbara wine region in California, and tells the story of two men visiting wine country at unique points in their lives. It is full of missteps, funny wine scenes and is a must for anyone planning to visit wineries in California, or anywhere for that matter. We watched this movie before visiting Sonoma and Napa, and while Santa Barbara is in a different part of the state, the movie really gets you in that Wine Country state of mind.
The Longest Day:
This true-life epic is based on the book by the same name written by Cornelius Ryan. It features an all-star cast telling the story of June 6, 1944, the day of the invasion of Normandy. I’ve loved this movie since the first time I saw it as probably a fifth or sixth grader. I’ve been a World War II historian of sorts since a young age, and I used this movie to plan our visit to the D-Day beaches of Normandy back in 2012. Well, I actually used the book but I watched the movie several times. It remains my favorite movie.
If only because Audrey Hepburn belongs on any list of best travel movies, we watched this movie to get a feel for Rome before visiting. I don’t recall anyone driving a motorcycle or scooter as being so kind as what Gregory Peck’s character is in this movie, though.
Up in the Air:
I read the book and found it mostly fascinating. I have always had a thought in the back of my mind that I’d like to travel more for work. But this book – and somewhat the movie – take that romanticized idea away. I enjoy pretty much anything with George Clooney in it, and this is no different.
Into the Wild:
Again, a story I read the book first. I was fascinated with the story of Christopher McCandless who ventured into the Alaskan wilderness alone. This is a true story, one that is controversial particularly in Alaska where what he did is considered outrageous and foolish. It is an interesting story of one man’s personal journey, and a lesson with tragic consequences.
National Lampoon’s Vacation:
A fantastic station wagon that wasn’t quite as fantastic as Clark envisions when he goes to pick it up is the home for this adventure from Chicago across the American Southwest to California and Wally World. If for some crazy reason you haven’t seen this Chevy Chase classic I won’t spoil the ending. But, as with any true great road trip, the story isn’t about the destination, it’s the journey. And this one is epic.
Who wouldn’t be inspired to travel to Europe after watching the Griswolds’ adventure? Well, actually, the way Clark W. Griswold travels Europe is unfortunately how so many Americans see the continent: in a big hurry, rushing through to only see the highlights. It never gets old hearing Clark say, “Look kids, Big Ben, Parliament,” as they go around the roundabout all day long.
Planes, Trains and Automobiles:
Poor Steve Martin who keeps finding himself forced into tight spaces with John Candy as they both try to find their way back home to Chicago at the holidays. This movie shows the frustration of work-related travel in a fun 1980s comedy kind of way.
Empire of the Sun:
It’s hard to call this movie a travel movie, but it’s set in Shanghai and shows the personal side of the British Empire in Asia during the outbreak of World War II. It features a young Christian Bale, and shows a whole different side to the World War II story that is so rarely told in movies.
This is not a travel movie in the least, but it does transport us to one of our favorite cities. We’ve been to London several times, and watching the stories of the many characters in their everyday lives is fun and heartwarming every time we watch it. In fact, this is our Christmas Eve tradition.
A Tom Cruise movie from the 1980s has no business being on a best travel movies list. Well, it belongs on my list in the romanticizing the past category. We spent our honeymoon in Jamaica and hiked Dunn’s River Falls, settings from the movie. We played a couple of songs from the movie soundtrack at our wedding reception, and the movie continues taking us back to that more innocent time in our lives.
Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight:
I’m ashamed to say I haven’t watched these movies. I’ll chalk it up to the realities of modern movie watching. If it’s not available on Netflix streaming, and I no longer have a neighborhood movie rental store, how am I supposed to find older movies like this without buying it? Well, actually it’s Apple iTunes and I plan to start this trio tonight. Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy meet by chance on a train and spend a night together in Vienna in Before Sunrise. In Before Sunset, they spend a whirlwind afternoon together in Paris nine years later. And 10 years after that the two return the magic in Greece in Before Midnight.
My list won’t have such travel classics as Easy Rider, Endless Summer, A Room With a View, The Last Emperor, Lord of the Rings trilogy, Eat Pray Love, The English Patient, Almost Famous, Catch Me if You Can, Lost in Translation, Amelie, The Trip, Up, A Map for Saturday, Secret Life of Walter Mitty or any of the Indiana Jones movies.
I’ve seen several of these, but others I have not. And of the ones I have seen, my memories just don’t make them stand out enough to include on the list. But they are on other lists and they at least deserve attention.