The Best Travel TV Shows
This is an update to a post I published a couple of years ago. I’ve seen a lot more travel TV shows since then so this is a far more comprehensive guide. Enjoy!
An Idiot Abroad
There’s nothing funnier, in terms of travel TV shows anyway, than a man travelling the world who would rather be sat at home watching insects and eating Monster Munch. The ultimate reluctant traveller, Karl Pilkington has a unique view of the world and its inhabitants. He’s shipped off to see the seven wonders and then to tick off some typical “bucket list” activities (there is also a shorter 3rd series where Karl travels through Europe, China and India with a midget/dwarf). We see Karl on awful long distance bus rides in India, storming out of a hotel room with an “ensuite shed” and generally being unimpressed with everything he sees.
Long Way Round and Long Way Down
A-list actor Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman, McGregor’s D-list actor friend, take to the roads on motorbikes on two huge journeys. Long way round takes them from London to New York, via Europe, Mongolia and a big slice of Russia, and on Long way down they ride from Scotland to South Africa. They travel through places that people never really go to and this gives the viewer a good look at the countries away from the main tourist sites. The two best friends have good chemistry and they really get into the highs and lows that such extreme journeys offer up. Ewan McGregor comes across as very down-to-earth for a famous actor and is also pretty funny. Long Way Down features the awkward moment when McGregor’s wife tags along, completely ruining the boys trip dynamic that worked so well.
Departures is a beautifully shot travel show hosted by two friends from Canada. The cinematography and chemistry of the hosts elevates this above any other straight forward travel show I’ve seen. They go to some interesting places and always feature a good mix of tourist sites and local flavor. They often travel with locals who give them, and us, a good understanding of everyday life in such out of the way places as Ethiopia, Libya, Madagascar and Mongolia. Over the top hosts always annoy me on these kinds of shows, so luckily Justin and Scott from Departures have a really laid back presence which only adds to the great filming. They also throw themselves into some out-there situations, like bull racing, wild hyena feeding and climbing a volcano in Papua New Guinea that the locals wouldn’t go near.
Gordon’s Great Escape
One of the best things about travelling in Asia is the food, and this show puts celebrity chef Gordon Ramsey right into the kitchens of both renowned chefs and street food cooks. He’s out of his comfort zone, just like most first time travellers to Asia, and it’s good to see the usually smug and arrogant celebrity chef taken down a few notches. He handles himself pretty well and I definitely respect him a bit more after seeing this show. He gets to some pretty out of the way locations and really delves into the traditions that infuse Southeast Asian and Indian cooking.
Anthony Bourdain (A Cook’s Tour, No Reservations, The Layover, Parts Unknown)
This chef / writer has a very different style to most travel TV show presenters. His shows are often dark, funny and surreal. He also visits some pretty off-beat places and definitely doesn’t join the tourist trail. Bourdain’s whole “be a traveller not a tourist” thing is a bit smug but I can forgive him for that. I prefer No Reservations to his current show, Parts Unknown, as it seems to take itself a bit less seriously.
Travel Man features another travel TV host, Richard Ayoade, who it seems would rather not be travelling. He teams up with a different celebrity each week and together they spend 48 hours in cities across Europe (with a couple of further flung destinations thrown in too). It’s generally really funny, but the level depends greatly on the “other celebrity” (often comedians who are really only famous in the UK). Ayoade himself has a style all of his own and is pretty funny.
Hamish and Andy’s Gap Year
Australian comedy due Hamish and Andy do crazy things in exotic locations in this series of gap year adventures. My favourite would have to be Gap Year South America (which somehow includes Mexico). They cook a lasagne in an active volcano in Guatemala, go to a “long shoe dance” in Mexico and eat some horrible things in the “Cultural Eating” segment. It’s an entertaining and often hilarious show — I hope they do more episodes in the future!
Michael Palin (Various shows including Around the World in 80 Days, Pole to Pole, The Himalayas)
Michael Palin, a quick witted British man, undertakes several long journeys to all parts of the world . He doesn’t delve too deeply into the issues of the countries he passes through but he does meet plenty of interesting people. He talks to anyone, from fellow travellers to local aristocrats, and is equally at home on the roof of a rickety local train as he is on an upmarket cruise ship. Palin rose to fame as a member of Monty Python (which I never got into) — he’s one of the most naturally funny travel TV host out there and is still going strong in his 70s.
Simon Reeve (Various Shows including The Tropic of Capricorn, The Indian Ocean and the Caribbean)
Simon Reeve is kind of like a modern day Michael Palin only not as funny and a bit more socially conscious. He makes a point to delve into serious issues facing the countries he visits but also shows the lighter side. His shows generally cover an area (The Caribbean is one of my favourites) and he does a great job of giving an in depth look into life there.
Globe Trekker (AKA Lonely Planet and Pilot Guides)
Out of all the travel shows on this list, Pilot Guides is the best at showing a typical backpacker experience. The hosts are a bit hit and miss, but they do travel like regular people (without a massive film crew — it looks pretty low budget), talk to lots of locals, stay in cheap guesthouses and go to tourist sites. This show has been going for 17 seasons now and has an episode on pretty much any region of the world you’d want to visit.
The Amazing Race
Take 22 attention seekers, starve them of sleep, rest and regular food and watch them struggle to complete challenges around the world. It shouldn’t work, and it often doesn’t, but it is sometimes entertaining. I despise reality TV shows but this one is OK — I find it works as a show to kind of have on in the background while you’re doing other things.
Walking the Himalayas / Nile / Americas
Former British Army officer (and probable Forest Gump fan) Levison Wood walks incredible distances in this series of travel TV shows. He first tackles the Nile (with tragic consequences) then treks the length of the Himalayas before walking from Mexico to Colombia. Wood is a great host and forms close bonds with those he walks with. There’s always an element of danger in his voyages which makes for an exciting watch.
50 Ways to Kill Your Mammy
This show proves, in an extreme way, that you’re never too old to try new things. Irishman Baz Ashmawy takes his mammy (that’s their word for mum) to all sorts of exotic locations to try various extreme activities. In the second season he travels with a small group of mammies, with often amusing results.
You probably think there is nothing particularly travel related about three middle aged men talking about cars while trying to be mildly controversial. There isn’t, but every now and again Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May go on adventures in places like the Arctic Circle, Bolivia, Vietnam and Patagonia (or they used to, until Clarkson got fired for punching an Irishman). They now do basically the same thing (with a bigger budget) on the Grand Tour.
Gap Year is a new British sitcom which follows a group of young people (and one not so young person) on a trip around Asia. It’s great to see a scripted show like this that centres around travel, and it was clearly written by people with backpacking experience. Gap Year shows you what’s like (in a slightly exaggerated way) to embark on a big trip while you’re young, with all the sex, drugs and alcohol which generally ensues. Hopefully there will be another season next year.
What is your favourite TV show about travel? Let me know in the comments below!
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