Whether it’s to research future trips or simply to travel vicariously on a rainy Sunday afternoon, I just love to watch travel TV shows.
With the pandemic having forced many of us into quarantines or simply limiting our travel options, travel shows offer another way to channel our wanderlust, at least vicariously.
Since there are so many shows to choose from, I’ve listed here several travel shows that I think are especially worthwhile.
1. Parts Unknown
Parts Unknown is easily my favorite travel show.
At first blush, it may seem to be a show about food, given that its host is a former chef. But for Bourdain, food is a conduit through which he connects with different cultures around the world.
It’s beautifully shot and produced, showing Anthony Bourdain and his crew at the top of their game. Bourdain created 12 seasons of the show before he tragically passed away in 2018.
I love the show’s scope and its willingness to change the format between episodes. Some take place in the relative familiarity of the USA or Western Europe, while others go to such wild places as Libya or the Congo. Some episodes are shot in a conventional style, while others emulate films or art styles relating to the destination.
If you’re looking for something truly great to binge, start here.
I had never heard of this show until a Canadian traveler introduced it to me while backpacking in Nicaragua. I now love Departures.
It’s in many ways the opposite of the slickly-produced Parts Unknown. It feels more like a vlogging series, as it’s just two guys (and a friend as cameraman) going around the world with their backpacks. At every turn, it shows you just how much fun adventurous and low-budget travel can be.
The show has a fun dynamic, as one host is more intellectual and into the culture, while the other is a little more foolish and prefers to have drinks and play games. This helps keep things both interesting and light.
Something I like a lot is that Departures doesn’t just show the highlights of traveling. It also shows the process of getting there, and the serendipitous events that can lead to unexpected adventures. It feels totally unscripted and improvised, like a raw cut of what you might experience yourself if you set out to travel the world.
3. Long Way Round
This one is many years old now, but it’s a timeless classic.
In Long Way Round, Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boorman decide on a lark to ride their motorbikes from London all the way around the world through Europe, Russia, Mongolia, crossing the Bering strait and through Canada and the US.
The best part: 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 around the world 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.
In 2019, the duo made a third journey, driving on electric motorbikes from Patagonia in Argentina to California in the United States. Titled The Long Way Up, it was released on Apple TV+. I liked the third season a lot, though the first and second can be a little more fun, as the duo is still younger and less experienced.
4. Joanna Lumley’s travel shows
The British actor Joanna Lumley, known for starring in numerous films as well as the show Absolutely Fabulous, also happens to be a very prolific presenter of travel shows.
I didn’t know about her work until I finally saw Joanna Lumley’s Silk Road Adventure from 2018, which introduced me to her witty presenting style and the wonderful curiosity with which she approaches each travel destination.
Having grown up in India and having traveled often throughout her acting career, she brings a very interesting perspective. Her shows take the form of limited series documentaries focusing on a single destination or trip. Among them are titles such as Joanna Lumley’s Trans-Siberian Adventure, Joanna Lumley’s India, and Joanna Lumley’s Hidden Caribbean: Havana to Haiti. At a fine age of 75, she is still producing more series to come!
How to watch: on iTV in the UK, some series internationally on Netflix.
5. The Kindness Diaries
In the Kindness Diaries, former broker Leon Logothetis travels around the world on a vintage motorcycle. That may offer plenty of challenge in itself, but there’s another twist: for the entirety of the trip he must rely solely on the kindness of strangers for food, shelter, and fuel.
Cynics might cast him as some kind of freeloader, but the show is very much in good faith. Its premise forces Leon to barter and genuinely connect with everyone he meets. Along the way, he shows there is so much goodness and kindness in the world.
How to watch: available worldwide on Netflix
6. Bourdain’s other shows
I already mentioned Parts Unknown, which I think is Bourdain’s best work. But he also produced many other shows before it. If you’re up for a big binge, his earlier shows No Reservations, The Layover, and A Cook’s Tour are a great rabbit hole to go down.
They’re more focused on food and drink than Parts Unknown. Also, Bourdain’s personality during this time can be a bit more macho and abrasive (see: his lame rants against vegetarianism). Nevertheless, these shows will transport to places all around the world in a way only few shows can match. I like Bourdain’s unpretentiousness, eating street food in Asia one moment before white-cloth dining in France the next.
If you liked his newer work, think of No Reservations the less-refined prequel series that’s equally worth watching.
How to watch: No Reservations is on Amazon Prime
7. Ugly Delicious
In Ugly Delicious, chef David Chang trots the globe in search of the purest as well as most mutated forms of typical cuisines. While the show is about food in the superficial sense, it’s really also about the entire culture around food.
I mean, yes… the dude talks a lot about how tasty things are, but food is very much the lens through which he explores the world and its different people. This style and approach of Ugly Delicious is quite reminiscent of Anthony Bourdain’s shows. (I know, I keep banging on about Bourdain, but the man’s a legend.)
The show takes you to places all over the world. Along the way, it will give you a greater appreciation for how cultures mash together and how different (culinary) influences can intermingle. A brand new second season was just released in March 2020.
How to watch: available worldwide on Netflix
8. Simon Reeves’ BBC Shows
Adventurer Simon Reeves has produced a long list of documentaries for the BBC, usually released in the form of a miniseries covering a specific destination.
While Reeves is more of a gentle personality than you find in most travel TV shows, I often enjoy his low-key travelogues. Most recently, they have taken him to Russia, Burma, the Mediterranean, and in The Americas with Simon Reeve on a journey from Alaska to Costa Rica.
How to watch: ‘The Americas with Simon Reeve’ is on BBC iPlayer if you’re in the UK
P.S. This post proclaims these to be the ‘best’ travel TV shows (as this is just what people search for), but it’s of course quite subjective. Is there another travel show you’ve enjoyed? Then share your tip in the comments! And if these TV shows aren’t enough already, be sure to check out these best travel movies that will let you travel vicariously and inspire your wanderlust.
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