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Some of Our Favorite Travel Movies—and How to Watch Them at Home | Frommer's r.classen / Shutterstock

Some of Our Favorite Travel Movies—and How to Watch Them at Home

Travel the world without getting off your couch with these films that showcase their locations especially well. 

Film can transport viewers to other places with an immediacy no other art form can match. That’s why, when you’re stuck at home, movies with actual sights and sounds from actual destinations provide the closest approximation to travel you’re likely to find without getting off your couch.

Frommer’s editors delved into their viewing histories to come up with this list of films that showcase locations especially well—the kinds of cinematic experiences that supply vicarious voyages as well as inspiration for future adventures IRL. We’ll also tell you how to stream or rent each pick from home.

Venice: Summertime (1955)

Arthur Laurents’s play The Time of the Cuckoo has been retold in several formats (including the disappointing 1965 Richard Rodgers/Stephen Sondheim musical Do I Hear a Waltz?), but none came close to the visual dazzle of this film, shot on location in Venice. The story takes an old trope—falling for an exotic stranger while on vacation—and gives it grown-up heft by asking whether the lonely main character (Katharine Hepburn) will have the emotional courage to turn a serendipitous love affair with Rossano Brazzi into a lasting relationship. Director David Lean uses rich, idealized Technicolor shots of Venice as romantic counterpoint to Hepburn's tortured introversion; the city stands for all things beautiful and possible. Lean called Summertime the favorite of his pictures—and he made Lawrence of Arabia. —Jason Cochran 

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Streaming on: Kanopy, Criterion Channel

Rent on: Amazon Prime, YouTube, Google Play

South America: The Motorcycle Diaries (2004)

This biopic about the life-changing journey across South America taken by a pre-revolutionary 23-year-old Ernesto “Che” Guevara (Gael García Bernal) and his friend Alberto Granado (Rodrigo de la Serna) is a visual love letter to the continent’s beauty and grit. Under the direction of Walter Salles, the film’s sweep encompasses the stately boulevards of Buenos Aires, the arid hills of the Atacama Desert, the muddy waters of the Amazon, mist-draped forests, small towns, a leper colony, and Machu Picchu. Along the way, Che meets with indigenous peoples, workers, doctors, and patients, coming to an understanding of the commonalities that knit South America together. “Wandering around our America has changed me,” he says at the end of the film. “I’m not me anymore. At least I’m not the same me I was.” It’s hard to think of a better statement about the transformative power of travel. —Pauline Frommer

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Rent on: Amazon Prime, YouTube, Google Play, iTunes

The American West: Pee-wee's Big Adventure (1985)

One man-child (Paul Reubens) journeys across the United States in search of his missing bicycle, and what he finds instead is a weird, sometimes hallucinogenic landscape populated with ghostly truckers, gigantic dinosaurs made out of concrete (in Cabazon, California), and biker bars where the only way to get out alive is by performing a rousing dance number to the Champs’ “Tequila.” Okay, well, Pee-wee also finds his bicycle—though not, to his utter humiliation, in the basement of the Alamo. Tim Burton’s comedy makes a fine introduction to traveling the USA. Unlike all the movies that focus on the country’s bustling cities or much-ballyhooed small-town goodness, this one captures America’s unsung penchant for oddball roadside kitsch. —Zac Thompson 

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Rent on: Amazon Prime, YouTube, Google Play, iTunes

The American Midwest: The Straight Story (1999)

Speaking of odd, movies don’t get much stranger than the ones made by David Lynch, the director behind such compelling head-scratchers as Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive. But he played against type with The Straight Story, a simple tale, based on actual events, about septuagenarian Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth), who drives a John Deere lawnmower 240 miles, from rural Iowa to rural Wisconsin, to visit his ailing, estranged brother (Harry Dean Stanton). Using spare dialogue, painterly shots of the wide-open American heartland, and well-timed, well-acted encounters with farmers, cyclists, harried motorists, a runaway, a priest, and others, Lynch manages, despite his humble subject matter, to evoke the kind of travel that becomes a spiritual journey as much as a physical one. —ZT

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Rent on: Amazon Prime, YouTube, Google Play, iTunes

Istanbul: Topkapi (1964)

Sumptuous Istanbul hasn't been used as a location nearly as often as it deserves, maybe because there’s no easy way to top Topkapi. This lighthearted frolic concerns a dashing team of cat burglars trying to steal a jeweled dagger from the titular Ottoman palace. One of the best scenes comes when Maximilian Schell, Gilles Ségal, and Peter Ustinov (who won an Oscar for his performance) tiptoe across the roof of the historic complex. As the terrified characters inch along, the Bosporus churns below and whistles scream from the Orient Express trains coming from Sirkeci railway station. Bonus points to director Jules Dassin for setting a pivotal scene with Greek icon Melina Mercouri at a shirtless oil-wrestling match: Not only is that Turkey's national sport, but it also allows for some lingering shots of greased-up men under the guise of cultural exchange, transfixing Mercouri with platter-eyed delight. The moment was a landmark in both homoerotic man-grappling and international relations.—JC

Rent on: YouTube, Google Play

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Salzburg: The Sound of Music (1965)

From the moment the majestic, helicopter-enabled opening shots swoop down on Julie Andrews singing in an Alpine meadow, this beloved movie musical brings prewar Austria to thrilling life. Other exquisite Salzburg landmarks used by director Robert Wise—including Nonnberg Abbey, the Mirabell Gardens, and the Mozart Bridge—manage to deepen the work of Rodgers and Hammerstein, transforming what had been onstage a meet-cute between a nun and a military man into a vision of a world destroyed by dark political forces. The ending, with the von Trapps barely escaping the Nazis by crossing the Alps to the strains of “Climb Ev'ry Mountain,” is one of the most moving refugee scenes ever captured on film, even if it has no basis in reality (the actual family left Austria by train, with no Germans in hot pursuit). —PF

Streaming on: Disney+

Australian Outback: The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994)

This tart-tongued, warmhearted comedy’s idea of a bucket-list vacation is, as one character puts it, “to travel to the center of Australia, climb Kings Canyon—as a queen—in a full-length Gaultier sequin [gown], heels, and a tiara.” The Priscilla of the title is a lavender bus used to schlep two drag queens (Hugo Weaving and Guy Pearce) and a trans woman (Terence Stamp) from Sydney across the Australian Outback to a cabaret gig in remote Alice Springs. Aside from the highly quotable dialogue, much of the humor depends on our heroines sticking out like sore, albeit well-manicured thumbs in a rustic setting. But as the trio encounters homophobia along with unexpected kindness, the movie makes a touching case for the sustaining comforts of community, self-acceptance, and Abba sing-alongs. —ZT 

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Streaming on: Amazon Prime

New York City: Six Degrees of Separation (1993)

Onstage, the characters in John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation stay in one room. But the film adaptation finds brilliant ways to open up the multilayered story by setting scenes in prime New York City locations. Maybe because it was directed by an out-of-towner, Australian Fred Schepisi, the movie is infatuated with Manhattan institutions. Scenes are set everywhere from the Strand Book Store to the Mets (opera and museum) to the Balto sled-dog statue in Central Park. In this vision of New York, it feels easy to lose yourself—which, it turns out, is a major theme of the film. Stockard Channing earns her Oscar nomination for Best Actress with a knockout final speech at a Park Avenue dinner party attended by Kitty Carlisle Hart, doyenne of the society pages at the time. —JC 

Streaming on: Hoopla

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Rent on: Amazon Prime, iTunes

Tokyo: Lost in Translation (2003)

Director Sofia Coppola doesn’t shy away from the downsides of travel—mind-bending jet lag, loneliness, and the language barrier among them. Still, her breakthrough film’s awkward-but-meaningful interactions between stars Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson (in her breakthrough film as well) have a grace and mystery that illuminate an aspect of travel that’s rarely explored: the wonderfully undefined relationships people often fall into on the road. Just as compelling are the film’s glimpses of Tokyo and its pulsing walls of neon, swarms of commuters, serene temples, and geometric gardens. Though seen from an outsider’s perspective, the city functions as a quirky, charismatic, and life-affirming costar. —PF 

Rent on: Amazon Prime, YouTube, Google Play, iTunes

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Mexico: Y Tu Mamá También (2001)

Travel as a catalyst for coming of age is one of the major themes of this unforgettable road movie directed by Alfonso Cuarón (who would again demonstrate his strong sense of place, in another key, in 2018’s Roma). The film follows two 17-year-olds (Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna) from Mexico City as they set off with a 28-year-old Spanish woman (Maribel Verdú) on a cross-country summer trip to a faraway beach town, played in the film by Huatulco on the Pacific coast of Oaxaca. By turns joyous, melancholy, raunchy, and tender, the movie continually surprises with insights on class, masculinity, sex, and friendship. It works equally well as a travelogue on Mexico and on adolescence. —ZT

Streaming on: Netflix

London: Sliding Doors (1998)

There's no shortage of movies saturated with shots of LondonNotting Hill, Love Actually, A Fish Called Wanda, Frenzy, the Paddingtons, James Bonds, and Harry Potters all fit that bill. So let's go instead with an easy-to-watch rom-com you might have missed. Its London bona fides are signaled right from the title—the sliding doors belong to an Underground train at Embankment station. That's where Gwyneth Paltrow (in late-‘90s overexposed mode) misses a Tube train but also catches it, leading us on two butterfly-effect narratives of how her life might have unfolded after one seemingly insignificant moment. At the time, the BBC called Paltrow's British accent "disturbingly accurate," and the same can be said of the geography and fabric of her character's life, er, lives. The everyday pubs, restaurants, flats, and offices here actually look like places that young people could afford. It’s a London fantasy that feels just like London in reality. —JC

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Streaming on: Hoopla, Vudu, Tubi

Rent on: Amazon Prime, YouTube, Google Play, iTunes

New Delhi: Monsoon Wedding (2001)

The screen is stuffed to bursting in this India-set family dramedy. Brilliant saris, trash-strewn alleyways, torrential rainstorms, and chaotic traffic jams all jostle for space within the frame. The plot has to do with a multigenerational family all brought together for an arranged marriage. This setup provides a fascinating look at everyday Delhi life against a backdrop of marigold-draped shrines and the bustling Chandni Chowk market next to the Red Fort in Old Delhi. We see overwhelming crowds and crumbling buildings, but the film is buoyed by scenes of large families singing and dancing together—or piling five deep onto the same motorcycle. Director Mira Nair navigates the visual and narrative hubbub with a sure sense of command, foregrounding the characters’ deep familial love for one another and revealing, to our surprise, how romantic an arranged match can be. —PF

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Rent on: YouTube, Google Play, iTunes

Singapore: Crazy Rich Asians (2018)

Another film that uses a big, splashy wedding as a lens for viewing a culture, this blockbuster follows the whirlwind romance of American Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) and the impossibly perfect Nick Young (Henry Golding), who turns out to be the scion of an uber-wealthy Singapore family. When the couple travels to the posh city-state for a wedding, Rachel tangles with Nick’s mother (Michelle Yeoh), and hilarity and heartbreak ensue. So do a lot of eye-popping scenes—there’s an evening of gorging at one of the city’s famed food markets, an over-the-top wedding ceremony at a converted convent, a reception amid the gigantic vertical gardens of Supertree Grove at Gardens by the Bay, and a final party on the roof of the conjoined towers known as Marina Bay Sands. Like the escapist fare that satirized the ultrarich during the Great Depression, much of this is pure fantasy—but it’s travel-centric fantasy and a whole lot of fun. —PF

Streaming on: Max Go, HBO Now

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Northern Italy: Call Me by Your Name (2017)

Italy's unparalleled capacity to induce rapture suffuses Luca Guadagnino’s romance, based on André Aciman’s 2007 novel, about the love affair between 17-year-old Elio (twink icon Timothée Chalamet) and grad student Oliver (platonic ideal of handsomeness Armie Hammer). While the book was set in the seaside region of Liguria, Guadagnino moved things inland to the pastureland, rivers, and cobblestone villages of Lombardy. The 17th-century Villa Albergoni, in particular, becomes an intensely sensual setting overflowing with books, Bach, apricots, and peaches (neither of those fruits is native to Lombardy, but never mind). The atmosphere of the film complements the story so well it’s impossible to imagine Elio and Oliver falling for each other anywhere else—or to imagine not sympathizing with Elio’s father (Michael Stuhlbarg) when he confesses, “I envy you.” —ZT

Rent on: Amazon Prime

France and Monaco: Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo (1977)

The impish Volkswagen Beetle with a mind of its own got its passport stamped—literally, in the opening sequence—for the third installment in Disney’s automotive-hijinks series. Instead of shooting the entire thing on cheap-looking California sets (as in many of the studio’s live-action efforts of the ‘70s), only about half of the movie was done that way. For the best moments, Disney sprang for an unusual number of location shoots. Somehow, French authorities were persuaded to close cobblestone streets and iconic boulevards for all manner of vehicular slapstick: Herbie bathing in French fountains! Herbie racing down the Champs-Élysées in Paris at 80 miles an hour! Herbie negotiating the vertiginous hairpin turns of Monaco's cliffside streets! Big set pieces like those lend just enough atmosphere to hook kids on the idea of a European vacation, and the silly stolen-diamond-in-the-gas-tank subplot will keep them glued to the couch. —JC

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Streaming on: Disney+

For more travel movie recommendations: Listeners of Frommer's weekly radio call-in show weighed in on this topic during our episode of March 21, 2020. Click the embedded player below—or subscribe to our podcast—to hear about more great travel-related movie picks to add to your list. 

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