I love to watch travel TV shows — sometimes to research future trips, but often just to travel vicariously on a rainy Sunday afternoon. The following ones are my top 5 favorites.
I had never heard of this show until a Canadian traveller introduced it to me. I now love Departures.
It’s hands-down the best at portraying backpacker-style adventure travel. It’s just two guys (and a friend as cameraman) going around the world with only their backpacks.
One of the presenters is more intellectual and likes to experience the local cultures. The other is usually more focused on having drinks and playing games with the locals, which creates an odd but fun dynamic.
Departures doesn’t just show the highlights of travel. It also shows the process of getting there, and the serendipitous events that can lead to unexpected adventures. The show feels unscripted and improvised, and it might well inspire you with its fun sense of camaraderie.
How to watch: available on Netflix internationally. Airs on channels like Nat Geo or Travel Channel.
2. Parts Unknown
Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown is in many ways the opposite of Departures: it’s glossy, beautifully filmed, and extremely well-researched.
It’s obviously made by a team that’s being doing this forever and who are at the top of their game.
Part food show and part travel show, former chef Anthony Bourdain draws portraits of countries around the world while talking to locals over dinner. The show will make you want to travel more and be more adventurous with trying different cuisines.
The show often casts a light on destinations that most people might not necessarily go to for tourism, like Libya (shot just following the Arab Spring) or the Democratic Republic of Congo (whihc is known as one of the least safe countries in the world). Other times the show goes to well-known tourist destination, but looks at them from a different perspective.
How to watch: airs Sundays on CNN. Available digitally from Amazon (incl. new episodes). Older seasons on Hulu and Netflix (in some countries).
3. Long Way Round
Actors Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boorman decide on a lark to ride their motorbikes from London eastward all the way around the world (through Europe, Russia, Mongolia, crossing the Bering strait and through Canada and the US).
Better yet, they hire a crew to follow them, resulting in arguably one of the best travelogues put on film.
The pair end up in some crazy situations, including being hosted by a mafia boss in Ukraine, who plays a song on his guitar before showing off his AK-47.
I’ve met many bikers on my journeys who were inspired by this show. A later follow-up is called the Long Way Down, in which the two ride mostly through Africa and have even more crazy adventures.
4. Michael Palin’s Travels
Michael Palin of Monty Python fame produced a whole slew of travel TV series for the BBC back in the day.
While his earlier work is now heavily dated in parts, it’s hard to think of shows that have portrayed the romance of travel quite so well.
It has a wide-eyed wonder and humorous sense of curiosity that any traveller would find inspirational.
In some cases the show can be fun historical background research for a trip; watch for instance how Palin experiences Eastern European countries shortly after the fall of wall and compare this to the situation today. But he’s also done more recent work, such as his series Brazil and 80 Days Revisited (in which he retraces his first trip in the late 80ies).
How to watch: widely available on DVD, often aired
5. A Map For Saturday
Okay, this is not a TV show but a documentary film.
Rather than serving as inspiration for visiting specific destinations, A Map For Saturday is more about the experience of travel in general. It chronicles a man’s round-the-world trip in 2005 and features interviews with other travellers he conducted along the way.
The film expertly tracks the emotional arc of long-term travellers, casting light on both the highs and lows of backpacking. Topics include the instant friends and difficult goodbyes, the setbacks and the rewards of travelling independently, and even the (perhaps inevitable) process of burning out.
A Map For Saturday doesn’t deal much with the cultural or experiential aspects of travelling, though focuses very closely on the interpersonal connections travellers might make along the way.
If you ever wanted to know what long-term travel is like, this movie explains it all.
How to watch: DVD can be ordered from their website.