May 16, 2022

Church Street Espresso

Experienced In Leisure

The world’s best travel TV shows to watch while Australia’s borders are closed

10 min read

For border-blocked Australians right now, one of the only ways to embark on a grand overseas adventure is via the vicarious pleasure of watching someone else on one.

We refer to the magic of the travel documentary series where we’re whisked away by charismatic presenters who vividly document their journeys and provide incisive, sometimes hilarious, insights into exotic and not so exotic places.

There’s a rich history of high-quality travelogues on the small screen and big, from Sir Michael Palin’s early adventures to brilliant shows made by the likes of the late Anthony Bourdain. And, of course, being travel tragics from way back, we adored these shows long before the pandemic.

Fortunately, in this connected age there are so many of these shows available to inspire the armchair-bound to shape future travel plans (c’mon Australia, you’ve yet to spawn a hit international travel show that truly captures the zeitgeist).

We’ll eventually make it back to all of the places featured in Traveller’s selection of these shows some day. Until then, sit back, relax, grab the remote or your favourite device, and enjoy. You deserve to dream.

PARTS UNKNOWN

Sep 25, 2016 - Anthony Bourdain and President Obama sat down for a meal in Hanoi

Anthony Bourdain and Barack Obama sit down for a meal in Hanoi.

Produced in the US by CNN; 104 episodes beginning from 2013; stream on SBS On Demand or Prime.

THE PRESENTER

Anthony Bourdain, the former New York chef turned author turned travelogue legend, who took his own life in 2018.

THE LOWDOWN

This was Bourdain’s fourth travel series and his first for CNN, a show that, while still food-focused, allowed the host to further explore politics and the human side of travel.

WHY WE LOVE IT

Bourdain was an incredible host, charming, insightful and bold, someone who so perfectly captured the world’s quirks and foibles while also being unafraid to reveal his own. And he always knew how to find a good meal.

BEST MOMENTS

Season eight’s trip to Hanoi, in which Bourdain famously dines with Barack Obama, is brilliant. Season four’s journey through Iran is also magical.

MAKE IT HAPPEN (EVENTUALLY)

The Hanoi restaurant Bourdain visited with Obama, Bun Cha Huong Lien, is still open, and it’s great. See vietnam.travel

TRAVELLER’S RATING

Five out of five

JOANNA LUMLEY’S ADVENTURES

jul31cover - Picture shows_Joanna Lumley at Tower Bridge, London
Joanna Lumley’s Britain (aka Home Sweet Home)Starts on ABC - Sunday 8 August 2021 at 7.40pm and runs for 3 weeksFraser.Mary@abc.net.au

Joanna Lumley Photo: Burning Bright Productions

Produced in the UK; 10 series from 2010; stream on Apple TV. The latest series, Joanna Lumley’s Britain, begins screening on ABC on August 8.

THE HOST

Former Absolutely Fabulous star Lumley, who has become a travelogue fixture.

THE LOWDOWN

Over the past 10 years or so Lumley has shot a whole series of travel adventures, from the Nile to the Trans-Siberian, Japan to the Caribbean.

WHY WE LOVE IT

If you’ve seen Ab Fab then you know the wit and charm of Lumley, who is unafraid to throw herself into some bizarre situations – standing stark naked over a hole filled with burning wood during her Nile adventures, for example – all the while maintaining her appealing Britishness.

BEST MOMENTS

The hole with the burning wood, obviously; though a visit to a Chairman Mao-themed restaurant on the Trans-Siberian adventure is also a highlight.

MAKE IT HAPPEN (EVENTUALLY)

The Nile won’t disappear, and cruises upon it will once again be available to us. See intrepidtravel.com for inspiration.

TRAVELLER’S RATING

Four out of five

THE TRIP

Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon in A Trip To Spain

Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon in A Trip To Spain.

Produced in the UK by the BBC; six-part TV series and four films from 2010; stream now on Stan.

THE PRESENTERS

British comic actors Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, who play exaggerated versions of themselves – or at least that’s what they would have us believe.

THE LOWDOWN

Friends and fellow foodies Coogan and Brydon tour North England, Italy, Spain and Greece, visiting restaurants and attempting to outdo each other with their claims to fame.

WHY WE LOVE IT

To enjoy this series you have to enjoy the banter of Coogan and Brydon, who spend as much time sniping at each other and trying out their celebrity impressions as they do eating good food. If you do like that, it’s a pleasure.

BEST MOMENTS

In terms of impressions, the Michael Caine showdown in the first film is chef’s-kiss good; for food, the scene at Etxebarri in Spain is a stand-out.

MAKE IT HAPPEN (EVENTUALLY)

Asador Etxebarri is in the north of Spain, between Bilbao and San Sebastian. See asadoretxebarri.com

TRAVELLER’S RATING

4.5 out of five

STREET FOOD

Street Food Asia Vietnam
Street Food series Netflix HANDOUT https://media.netflix.com/en/credit: Ehrin Macksey / Netflix
jul31cover

Street Food in Vietnam. Photo: Ehrin Macksey/Netflix

Produced in the US by Netflix; 15 episodes from 2019; stream now on Netflix.

THE PRESENTER

None. Each episode profiles a different city through the lives of its street-food purveyors.

THE LOWDOWN

This isn’t really a travel show – it’s a series of mini-documentaries about street food around the world. However, if you love to eat on your travels you will be hooked.

WHY WE LOVE IT

These are the personal, inspirational and often heart-breaking stories of the people – overwhelmingly women – who make the street food we love around the world. They’re tales of courage and betrayal, of tragedy and triumph, and they lend a whole new understanding to both food and the places you’ll find it.

BEST MOMENTS

The Ho Chi Minh City episode in season one tells some hugely inspirational stories, while the rock-star introduction to Buenos Aires is also amazing.

MAKE IT HAPPEN (EVENTUALLY)

We all hope to one day visit Las Chicas de la Tres in Buenos Aires. See argentina.travel

TRAVELLER’S RATING

Four out of five

LONG WAY ROUND

Charley Boorman, left, and Ewan McGregor rode BMWs on their motorcycle roadtrip in The Long Way Round.

Produced in the UK by BBC; seven-part series released in 2004; stream on Apple TV.

THE PRESENTERS

Scottish actor Ewan McGregor is joined by fellow motorbike enthusiast Charley Boorman.

THE LOWDOWN

McGregor and Boorman set out on a true adventure, riding their motorbikes from London to New York, via Europe and Asia. This series spawned the equally enjoyable Long Way Down, and the less successful Long Way Up.

WHY WE LOVE IT

Both McGregor and Boorman are charming, fearless hosts who embark on a serious adventure and capture all of the highs and lows, the dangers and triumphs of this style of travel.

BEST MOMENTS

Mongolia and Russia provide the series’ highlights, including McGregor and Boorman being hosted by a gun-toting, guitar-playing Russian mafioso, and the pair having to tackle the notorious “Road of Bones” in Siberia.

MAKE IT HAPPEN (EVENTUALLY)

Russia is an incredible destination, even if you’re not traversing it on a motorbike. See intrepidtravel.com

TRAVELLER’S RATING

4.5 out of five

SEARCHING FOR ITALY

Stanley Tucci, Searching for Italyjul31cover

Stanley Tucci in Searching for Italy.

Produced in the US by CNN; six episodes released in 2021; stream with CNN subscription.

THE PRESENTER

The popular and respected Hollywood actor Stanley Tucci, chasing his Italian heritage.

THE LOWDOWN

CNN is still searching for a tough-ask Bourdain replacement, and though Tucci isn’t like-for-like, he brings natural charm and inquisitiveness – and a love of good food – to this travelogue that focuses on six Italian regions.

WHY WE LOVE IT

This is very easy, enjoyable viewing – like televisual tiramisu. Put aside the terrible name and you have a heartfelt tribute to a country Tucci clearly loves, complete with plenty of lingering shots of the world’s most delicious food.

BEST MOMENTS

Watch Tucci charming the elderly creator of Naples’ best pizza fritte in episode one. His episode-three journeys around Emilia-Romagna are also drool-inducing.

MAKE IT HAPPEN (EVENTUALLY)

Book a trip to Italy when you can – eat all of the things in Rome, Naples, Bologna, Florence and Milan and Palermo. See visitaly.com.au

TRAVELLER’S RATING

Four out of five

PLANET EARTH

Chinstrap penguins and their chicks cover the slope of Zavodovski Island, an active volcano in the Southern Ocean. The island hosts the largest penguin colony on earth - some 1.5 million penguins breed there in the Antarctic summer.

Chinstrap penguins and their chicks cover the slope of Zavodovski Island, an active volcano in the Southern Ocean on Planet Earth. Photo: Elizabeth White

Produced in the UK by the BBC; 11 episodes beginning from 2006; stream on Stan.

THE PRESENTER

None other than Sir David Attenborough, surely the most famous voice and name in nature documentary history.

THE LOWDOWN

At the time this nature documentary was commissioned it was the most expensive ever produced, and its incredible footage of the world inspired so many to go out and see it for themselves.

WHY WE LOVE IT

From the soothing dulcet tones of Attenborough’s commentary, to the stunning shots of mountains, deserts, forests, caves and tundras, this series is a feast for the travel-hungry senses.

BEST MOMENTS

The first episode, From Pole to Pole, encapsulates everything that’s great about the world, and this series.

MAKE IT HAPPEN (EVENTUALLY)

A cruise to Antarctica is the perfect way to appreciate the beauty of planet Earth. See scenic.com.au

TRAVELLER’S RATING

Five out of five

DEPARTURES

Produced in Canada; 42 episodes over three seasons from 2008; stream on Amazon Prime.

THE PRESENTER

Canadian friends and TV rookies Scott Wilson and Justin Lukach.

THE LOWDOWN

Two mates do what so many young people do: they ditch their jobs and go out to see the world. Only difference is they take a cameraman and make a documentary.

WHY WE LOVE IT

Departures did what, bizarrely, no other travel series had done well before, and that was to capture the experience of low-budget, adventure travel featuring people who weren’t famous. Even now it’s a pleasure to see the world through the hosts’ wide eyes.

BEST MOMENTS

Episode four of series one, “India: Quest for Himalayas” has everything that made Departures great: a real adventure in beautiful surrounds.

MAKE IT HAPPEN (EVENTUALLY)

India’s remote, devoutly Buddhist state of Ladakh, set in the lofty foothills of the Himalayas, is one of the most extraordinary destinations of a truly extraordinary country. See incredibleindia.org

TRAVELLER’S RATING

Four out of five

GREAT BRITISH RAILWAY JOURNEYS

Great British Railway Journeys. 
M Mag TV previews for January 29th, by Bridget McManus. Image supplied.

Michael Portillo hosts Great British Railway Journeys.

Produced in the UK by BBC; 245 episodes over 13 seasons, from 2010; stream on SBS on Demand.

THE PRESENTER

Former Conservative MP and long-time train nerd Michael Portillo.

THE LOWDOWN

The name says it all: Portillo travels the railway networks of Great Britain, Ireland and the Isle of Man, often referring to Bradshaw’s Guides from various bygone eras (this series has since spun off into several international editions including Great Australian Railway Journeys).

WHY WE LOVE IT

Much like train travel itself, there’s something incredibly soothing about the gentle pace of this series, as Portillo clacks along the rail lines of his homeland, quoting from his old guidebooks and observing life, tracking history and documenting culture in carriage and out.

BEST MOMENTS

It’s a swoon-worthy moment for train connoisseurs when Portillo opens season eight with a ride aboard the Flying Scotsman, a steam train that is among the world’s most famous.

MAKE IT HAPPEN (EVENTUALLY)

The Flying Scotsman is still conducting journeys in the UK. See railwaymuseum.org.uk

TRAVELLER’S RATING

4.5 out of five

AN IDIOT ABROAD

Produced in the UK by Sky One; 19 episodes from 2010; available on Amazon & iTunes

THE PRESENTER

Karl Pilkington, friend of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, and the series’ titular idiot.

THE LOWDOWN

Consider this an anti-travel series, in which Gervais and Merchant send their closed-minded and not-at-all-well-travelled friend Pilkington on a series of adventures that are part education and part practical joke.

WHY WE LOVE IT

Unlike pretty much every travel show ever made, An Idiot Abroad is funny. Very, very funny. You may not learn a huge amount about the world, and you may also suspect Pilkington is just playing it up for laughs, but still, this is very enjoyable.

BEST MOMENTS

“I’m not going on a camel again,” Pilkington repeats during episode three of season one, as his Jordanian guides try to transport him across the desert to Petra.

MAKE IT HAPPEN (EVENTUALLY)

Trips to Petra will happen again, though who can say when. In the meantime. See visitjordan.com

TRAVELLER’S RATING

Four out of five

Your favourite travel doco series not one of Traveller’s choices? Tell us why you love it and we’ll publish the best responses in our Rants & raves section. Email us a [email protected]

OLDIES BUT GOODIES: FIVE MORE FAVOURITE JOURNEY MEN AND WOMEN

AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS WITH MICHAEL PALIN

What do you do when the world’s most famous comedy troupe disbands? You go on holiday, of course, though in Sir Michael Palin’s case you also take a film crew. From 1989’s Around the World in 80 Days Palin owned the travel genre there for a while, with hit after hit featuring his traverses of the globe. See bbc.co.uk

PASSPORT TO EUROPE

For a while there, Samantha Brown was pretty much the sole female presence on a major travel TV show. And you have to respect that. Though Brown’s style can feel a little too saccharine sometimes, she was still a pioneer with a fantastic catalogue of adventures. See amazon.com

RICK STEVES’ EUROPE

One of the true legends of the travel world has produced his fair share of TV shows – along with books, radio shows and pretty much everything else. There have been 11 series of Rick Steves’ Europe, which makes it one of the world’s longest-running. See ricksteves.com

GETAWAY

Do you know how long Getaway has been running? An amazing three decades with the indefatigable Catriona Rowntree a fixture since 1992. And though this magazine-style show is now past its primetime glory, that’s a phenomenal record for a home-grown series. See 9now.com.au/getaway

GLOBE TREKKER

When Globe Trekker arrived in 1994 it was a breath of fresh air: a stripped-back docu-series about budget travel, featuring non-star hosts who sought to go beyond the classic tourist destinations. It lasted an impressive 17 seasons. See tv.lonelyplanet.com

Sites to view the programs were applicable at the time of writing. https://tv.lonelyplanet.com/

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