Top 10 travel movies to watch during coronavirus self-isolation


With COVID-19 restrictions firmly in place and self-isolation a new reality, many of you may be looking for ways to fill the hours at home – especially as the novelty starts to wear thin. While travel is both ill-advised and mostly impossible, there is nothing to stop you engaging in a bit of armchair travelling while we wait out the worst of it. If you are a travel-lover, I encourage you to use this time to plan your next trip. Curl up with some tea and popcorn and let your imagination set the limit on where you could go and what you could do on your next great adventure.

If you are looking for inspiration, one of the best places to start is in film. Great movies make us a silent observer in the world’s most famous cities, remote places, and incredible sights. They are one of the easiest ways to escape – and we could all use a little escapism at times like these. It is a visual portal to all kinds of adventures. Travel movies also have the power to make us fall for places as we would people, embedding images on our minds and giving us a visual reference for our dreams.

Since the golden age of film-making, movies have granted us all access to the world – even when we don’t take a step beyond our home towns. Got the sniffles? Bed and a movie. End of a long day? Supper and a flick. Film has been a universal method of comfort for decades, unlocking the door to unknown, sometimes dangerous, and beautiful places.

From the rolling painted hills in old westerns to the 2D illusion of the Eiffel Tower in black and white, Hollywood and world cinema have been taking us travelling for some time. These days, film can capture staggering detail and this has made location a feature of the film as important as celebrities and great graphics. My selection of travel movies features some of my more recent favourites, covering destinations around the world.

These stories are varied. As with great travel narratives, the protagonists are not left unchanged by their journeys. True stories mingle with the fantastic. East, west, wild. There’s love, there’s resilience, there’s humour, there’s sadness, there’s pure human grit – but each film conveys a sense of place that will have you rushing to the internet for more information.

It is my hope that these titles will move you, inspire you, entertain you. For those who need it, I hope they act as a bit of a reprieve in a collectively difficult time. I hope they remind you of the extraordinary beauty of the world. I hope they inspire some great travels, give you a few laughs, a few moments moved to tears. If not, I hope these stories are a worthy distraction and give you a few precious hours of forgetting – because there is immense value in that too. More than anything, I hope they are entertaining and that you add at least a few of them to your collection of favourites.

Midnight in Paris

If you love Paris – and stories of the Salon and writers in Paris in the 1920s – you will love this film. Gil (Owen Wilson) and his ill-matched fiancé, Inez, travel to Paris with her parents. A screenwriter and romantic, Gil is taken with the city, but less so with Inez’s friend they happen upon in the hotel.

Sightseeing by day, Gil takes a walk through Paris at midnight and discovers the true magic of the city as he gets into an old car and goes back in time to the 1920s. Gil proceeds to rub shoulders with some of history’s (and the arts’) heavyweights: Cole Porter, Ernest Hemingway, the Fitzgeralds, Gertrude Stein, Picasso, Salvador Dali.

Telling Inez he is inspired to write, he goes back every night, living a life of two ages in Paris. Through Gertrude Stein, played by Kathy Bates, he meets Adriana (Marion Cotillard) and finds himself attracted to this ghost from the past.

Written by Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris is a quirky, witty tribute to the cultural immensity of Paris. Taking us through the magical sights of modern-day Paris and giving us a glimpse into Paris of the past, it gives us an insatiable taste for one of the city’s most interesting periods. If you’ve never visited the City of Lights and even if you are a long-standing lover of the city, Midnight in Paris is a great way to explore from wherever you are.

Catch Me if You Can

In this 2002 Spielberg feature, Leonardo Di Caprio plays Frank, a teenage fraudster who successfully pulled off cons amounting to millions of dollars – when he should have been in high school. Based on a true story, Frank Abagnale led the world to believe he was a Pan Am pilot, a doctor, and a lawyer – creating perfect forgeries of cheques along the way.

Of course, this does not escape the attention of the FBI and agent Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks) is hot on his heels – and perhaps a little in awe of his subject. As time goes on, the two develop what can be described as a closeness. As the chase intensifies, Frank escapes to Europe – more particularly, small town France. What happens in the end? You won’t find any spoilers here.

What makes this a great travel film? It was filmed in 147 locations around the United States and beyond. With that kind of diversity and Frank’s almost (if you will forgive the term) contagious chutzpah, one can’t help but be inspired in wanderlust – no matter your reason for travel!

Catch Me if You Can is enormously entertaining and a window of much-needed comedy if circumstances are getting you down. There’s a great cast and an almost unbelievable true story to get lost in for a couple of hours. It is equal parts comedy and suspense, with a healthy dose of ‘feel-good’ feeling at the end.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

I can’t say for definite, but it is my hope that, once the fog lifts a little and we feel safe again, this time in isolation is going to give everyone a new lease on travel. I hope it inspires people who haven’t really left their comfort zones to go somewhere truly exotic. I hope people push the boundaries of what they thought they would do and where they would go during the courses of their lives.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel represents this idea perfectly. A group of British pensioners break with convention, taking the decision to move to a retirement hotel in India. Among the group of retirees is Judy Dench, Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy, Celia Imrey, Ronald Pickup, Tom Wilkinson, and Penelope Wilton, all of whom have different reasons for leaving Britain and different hopes for their time in India. One could expect nothing short of excellence from this all-star cast – and they really do deliver.

On arrival at the hotel after a not uneventful trip, the hotel does not quite live up to the expectations posited in the adverts. What follows is India through the eyes of some very different characters and a story that unfolds in an amusing and very often touching way. Running parallel (and sometimes coinciding with) the group’s experiences of India, we also follow the story of the likeable hotel manager, Sonny, as he tries to navigate his own personal realities.

For those who can’t get enough, there is also a sequel – The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel – so you can carry on the adventure a little longer.

Wild

Reese Witherspoon is adding incredible depth to the works of many female storytellers within the world of cinema at the moment. Based on Cheryl Strayed’s autobiographical account of walking the Pacific Crest Trail in America, Wild has developed an almost cult following.

The first thing to note about Wild is that Cheryl Strayed is an unlikely hero. She is a drug addict and adulterer as a result of unprocessed grief over the loss of her mother and a childhood in a household beset with domestic abuse. She takes the decision to walk the Pacific Crest Trail at a watershed moment in her life, with very little money in her pocket. She also had little to no hiking and trail experience. Why? Because sometimes the only thing that will heal us is accomplishing something great, overcoming a challenge, being alone in nature.

Initially, her pack is too heavy, bruising her badly, and she loses toenails along the way – but a walk of this kind is all about growth and that’s exactly what happens as she leaves more of the trail behind her. A kind of ease develops. As she walks, she has all kinds of interesting encounters – with people along the trail and ghosts of her past – losing boots and suffering for being unprepared. It all comes together into a great story and an inspirational one.

If you have been dabbling with the idea of taking on a trail, pushing the limits of what you can achieve in the outdoors, Wild just might be the story you need to convince you.

Motorcyle Diaries

It bears repeating that travel leaves us changed and, in short, this is what defined the history of Ernesto Che Guevara. In 1952, the medical student embarked on a trip with his friend, Alberto. The two set off on a motorcycle from their hometown in search of freedom and new experiences – inspired by youthful enthusiasm and joie de vivre. Their aim is to cross the continent of South America to resume work in a Peruvian leper colony. Their route is ambitious, covering a staggering distance of 14000m kilometres.

As the journey continues, they encounter poverty, illness, and hardship they could never have imagined in their insulated middle-class lives. It is a harsh wake up call to the realities of class divisions, persecution, and political silencing. Guevara goes on to work with lepers but, through the experience, a revolutionary was born.

This film is an epic in terms of character development and exposes the story behind one of the world’s most recognisable revolutionaries. It is also a tribute to the fortitude of South America. I dare you not to fall in love with the landscapes you will see in this film as Guevara covers the miles of the continent he loved with such fervour. Often harsh, sometimes challenging – with the colour and history of diverse local people – it is always beautiful. If it’s not already, this film has the potential to put South America firmly on the bucket list of many.

Sideways

A little jaunt around the Californian winelands and food scene sounds pretty good no matter the circumstances. Sometimes travel can give us real insight into the things we didn’t know we needed. In Sideways, Miles and Jack head out on a week-long road trip to Santa Barbara to celebrate Jack’s impending wedding. This is the perfect escape for Miles, a wine enthusiast and struggling writer, and the two men look forward to wine, food, and golf to fill the days before the wedding.

The men meet up with Maya and Stephanie and, with a little deception from Jack, Jack and Stephanie begin an affair (what happens in Cali stays in Cali). Miles and Maya, on the other hand, connect over a common love of wine – a connection that reveals many different areas of commonality. What happens next? You will have to watch the film to find out, but it is a film filled with incredible locations and a very human story of how precarious a connection can be.

The road trip in the film takes us through the sprawling Santa Ynez Valley wine farms. If you have even a fleeting interest in wine, this film has done its part to help put Californian wines on the map for an international market. As a destination, what’s not to love? The sun beating off the leaves, high-end cuisine, great wine, warm people, and good times await on the West Coast.

Up in the Air

Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) is works in termination services for human resources. He is the man hired to fire people so their bosses don’t have to. This means he spends most of his time flying around the country with what most would consider a rather unpleasant task at the end of the flight. He is a minimalist – both in terms of what he owns, but also in terms of the clutter of relationships. His busy flight schedule also means he has made it a personal goal to get 10 million frequent flyer miles from American Airways.

On his travels, Ryan meets Alex and they begin a casual affair, meeting up whenever their travel plans intersect – but Ryan’s lifestyle is suddenly threatened when video conferencing is suggested as an alternative to the high cost of travel within his company.

This suggestion comes from Natalie, an ambitious, highly-educated young woman and is met with Ryan’s obvious displeasure as he insists that the in-person, one-on-one interaction is absolutely necessary in the process. Natalie is enlisted to tag along on his next assignments to assess this for herself. The travel master gets a lesson in the ways of the world as the two spend time together and you will love the combination of George Clooney’s charm and Anna Kendrick’s wit.

As anyone who spends a lot of time on the road will know (for business and for pleasure), travel is about more than the places you see. It is about how you share it. This film will get an especially hard chuckle from frequent flyers.

Out of Africa

Ask anyone about a film that makes them think about Africa and it is probably this one. If you have watched it before, use your time in isolation to watch it again. If you haven’t watched it, now is the perfect chance. Out of Africa is a well-loved classic and one people have no doubt had in mind as they have planned safaris and African travels in recent decades.

Based on true events and the book by the same name, Out of Africa is Karen Blixen’s story of her time in colonial Kenya. Green and determined, she met her husband and moved out onto the farm at the foot of the Ngong Hills to grow coffee. It doesn’t take long for the marriage to deteriorate and Karen begins an affair with the fiercely independent Denys Finch-Hatton. Karen lives out daily hardships, forging strong bonds with the people who work for her and the land that soon becomes her home.

Out of Africa is about pioneer life in Africa, but it is also about safari and the incredible power of Africa to find its way into our blood and never let us go. Out of Africa is a love story, but it is a love of a man and a woman who both have ineradicable roots in Africa. It is about the love of Africa. It is about the incredible freedom one can feel in a small plane or in remote places scattered with majestic wildlife. It is also a story of loss so, be warned, there won’t be a dry eye in the house at the end of this one.

Everest

The natural wonders of the world will always keep us travelling – and Everest is right at the top of these for many. Serious climbers are a deeply passionate bunch, ticking off the world’s highest and most difficult peaks and training for the next challenge. The highest mountain in the world, Everest is the pinnacle achievement for many climbers, with groups descending (or is it ascending?) on the Himalayan mountain to add this feat of humankind to their list of experiences.

Everest is about one such trip. No matter its popularity as a destination, no matter the number of people who have climbed the mountain, Everest poses very real dangers to even very experienced mountaineers. Given the threats, many a common man would ask why anyone would travel the distance to put your life at risk.

The Everest movie proves that everyone has their reasons for climbing. It is based on a true story from a 1996 Everest climbing expedition. It is full of enough suspense to dissuade you from climbing or set your penchant for extreme sports ablaze. It is a story of survival.

Focussing on two expedition groups, commercial expeditions embark from a very busy base camp. Faced with a number of challenges, the ascent of both parties is one of strategy. This is a story of suspense, with events that could wreck personal dreams of planting flags at the summit and the safety and lives of the climbers. Not an avid climber? This one could make you happy to be at home on the safety of your sofa.

Lost in Translation

Busy cities can be the loneliest places – especially when that city is far from home. Starring Bill Murray and Scarlett Johannson, Lost in Translation is an award-winning film written and directed in the unique and unforgettable style of Sofia Coppola.

Bob, played by Bill Murray, is an American actor suffering from a midlife crisis. In Tokyo to film an advert, he meets Charlotte (Scarlett Johannson) who has tagged along with her husband who is in the city for work. A celebrity photographer, Charlotte does not feel a comfortable fit with his life and in the marriage.

The two happen to meet during a sleepless night in their shared hotel and they get talking. An unlikely friendship develops as the two start to spend time together to fill time in the city – and as they start talking while suffering insomnia at night. Bill starts to unpick his midlife crisis and the difficulties in his marriage and Charlotte starts to examine the feeling of being lost in the world.
Lost in Translation is at once a fantastic story of friendship and a wonderful window into the magic of Tokyo. This bustling, busy, and modern city is celebrated for all of its quirks – and all of its culture and history too. The film also pays homage to the meaningful encounters we stand to have as we travel – and how this has an impact on our outlooks forever. Maybe travel really is the answer to everything.

Have you seen any of these movies already? Or are you inspired to watch any of them? What do you think of our selection? Are there any you would like to see included or excluded? Please tell us in the comments! We would love to hear your feedback and recommendations.


Comments (9)

  1. Beth says:

    On Wild I’d totally recommend reading the book before watching the movie. Cheryl Strayed is utterly inspirational. Her trek to a new life really is amazing. After finishing the book I went and did some research, I thought that “Wild” was going to be just one of an amazing string of books. To be honest I was a little disappointed that a women of that determination and strength hadn’t achieved more after that trek.

    • Jaime says:

      I agree with reading the book before watching the movie. However, I still thought the movie was really great! Definitely not easy to watch at some parts, but it’s a great story nonetheless.

  2. Ed says:

    I’ve seen “Lost in translation” and struggled. It just seemed like random wandering around to me. Also so much it was shot in lowlight that I didn’t have a clue what it was about. Sometimes you think that maybe you’ve missed the point and that you should give a film a second chance but I found this one so difficult that I’ve never bothered.

    • Jason says:

      I’ve often felt this way about Lost in Translation, too. It’s a moody film. I think if you’re at a low point in your life or you’re sort of confused about how to move forward, feeling stuck, this movie might hit you right. Other times, I’ve tried watching it and it fell flat for me too.

  3. Lorraine Berry says:

    Before I saw Out of Africa it was a continent that really wasn’t on my radar. We were a generation that grew up holidaying in Scarborough and Blackpool. Safaris were for other people.

    Out of Africa was a game-changer. It showed us the world and made us want to go and visit it. Now I’m a veteran of 3 safaris.

  4. Alex T says:

    Some cracking choices. I really enjoyed Catch Me If You Can, and it was long enough ago that I can’t remember much of it so I could definitely go for a repeat watch. Definitely in need of some kind of distraction at the moment. I’d recommend The Motorcycle Diaries too but I’d suggest the book first if you’re a fan of reading. I often find that though, the book first is a better way to build up your own sense of the character and atmosphere before you get given someone else’s impression of it, but at least the film here does a decent job of it so they’re both worth checking out. Sideways, haven’t come across that so I’ll see if I can find it. Cheers!

  5. Andrew says:

    I had been wanting to see that Owen Wilson film for such a long time, Midnight in Paris. No matter what the movie is about, I think Paris is the best setting for any story although I’m not sure why. I guess I always romanticized the place as somewhat of a writer myself. Big fan of Catch Me If You Can, good holiday flick. I’ll have to check out Sideways — I can remember that having a buzz many moons ago.

  6. Carrie Lopez says:

    My personal favorite in this list is “Catch Me If You Can”. I think Frank – the character of Leonardo DiCaprio – was able to travel to many cities in a very unusual and risky way. However, his character also reveals the strength and weakness of money. It can be a powerful thing because it is an instrument that allows the capitalist system to thrive but then again, it is just a piece of paper that can be made by any human being. The Best Exotic Marigold is also amazing. I didn’t think I would like it at first, but the story is very well told and very well portrayed. It makes me want to watch it again. This is a very good list. It features a lot of places in different parts of the world and plots that are unique in their own ways. I would also recommend watching travel documentaries because it provides authentic experiences that many tourists can relate with.

  7. The Sheltering Sky with Debra Winger and John Malkovich. Absolutely one of my all time favorites and so few have seen it. Most movies mentioned above pale in comparison. Firstly, if you’re a film buff, it’s directed by Bernardo Bertolucci. Secondly, it’s based on a novel by the 1949 book by the same name, by Paul Bowles, and thirdly, if you’re a sophisticated traveler, these are some truly out of the way places! It’s about a couple who journey to northern Africa in the hopes of rekindling their marriage but soon fall prey to the dangers that surround them. I love to travel but the places they explore in this film I enjoy more virtually and would never go to. Suffice it to say that it is spellbinding and brilliant! Besides the fact that most places are now so modernized that you won’t find them anywhere, so enjoy going back in time. It is truly a masterwork of photography as well.

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