From American classics that I watched before I understood the meaning to foreign documentaries in my college film classes, I’ve always been captivated by the visual illustration of stories. Movies have a transformative power, the ability to lift you from the right now to a whole new realm. It’s one thing to watch a movie about a place you’ve seen before, a life you’ve lived, and entirely another to watch a movie about a place you’ve never been to before. Some movies about journeys – films about road trips and expeditions and places unlike I’ve seen before – have been a major source of inspiration for many a trip.
Here are a few of the best journey and road trip movies that explore the theme of life on the road; films that are about a journey or self-discovery against a backdrop of remarkable locations. We’re not only giving you a plot summary, but we’ve set out to explain the way destinations are portrayed in these films and how you can personally visit these spots to make your own cinematic memories. You ready?
Y Tu Mama Tambien | Mexico
The Movie: This film was the start of so many successful careers, particularly Alfonso Cuaron. It is both a coming of age and journey film that tells the story of two friends who, when their girlfriends leave town, try to live their old bachelor lives for a bit. They meet a woman at a wedding and invite her to a made-up beach. The basic plot serves as a simple backdrop for some key road movie themes – a politically changing country, the corruption of youth, and the search for a location with the expectation of fulfillment. We should mention all of this takes place across a beautifully shot Mexican landscape.
The Trip: There are plenty of locations in the movie, but the most sought after is the beach. The beach that was used for filming was in the Oaxaca region near the southern tip of Mexico. For a country so large, the south of Mexico is never really showcased in film, but Cuaron brings it to life brilliantly.
The Darjeeling Limited | India
The Movie: Three brothers travel across India by train to meet their mother after not having seen each other since their father’s funeral one year ago. This movie about the journey, in a very Wes Anderson way, portrays an accurate yet sarcastic view of being a foreigner in India, and the odd cultural nuances that exist within that. While Owen Wilson and Adrien Brody provide their different outsider perceptions of India, it is a scene with Jason Schwartzman after an accident on the river that gives real-life meaning to the film.
The Trip: While the real Darjeeling train is little more than a toy train, travelling India by train is one of life’s greatest adventures. Real train travel it won’t have quite the wit and glamor of the film, it will definitely come with plenty of picturesque landscapes and opportunity for culture shock.
Read More: A Step-by-Step Guide to Train Travel in India
Into the Wild | Alaska, USA
The Movie: This film tells the true story of Christopher McCandless’ journey through Denali National Park in Alaska. Through flashbacks, the audience also gets to see the stunning landscapes of Arizona, Northern California, and the Mid-West. It is now an iconic story about leaving behind all that you have to travel, and the perils that come with it. Emilio Estevez captures the essence of what it means to be alone in the wild, and how the human mind copes with that.
The Film: Go see the now freshly renamed Mt. Denali and Denali National Park in Alaska. However, park officials would strongly recommend proper camping equipment and resources. Also, maybe bring a friend or two. If you want to make it a true road trip, take the US 101 to see California and the Pacific Northwest. From there cut inland to I-5 through Canada and onto Alaska.
The Way | France and Spain
The Movie: While Into the Wild is a story of hiding to soul search, The Way is a film about throwing yourself out there to soul search. Thomas Avery, played by Martin Sheen, takes up the Camino de Santiago after his estranged son dies in a storm doing the exact same walk. It is a story about finding new people in your life, and how a trail that has been walked by so many can still mean something different to everyone.
The Trip: The Camino de Santiago is originally a Christian pilgrimage route that culminates at La Catedral de Santiago de Compostela. While there are many routes, the French Route is historically the most traveled. As you can start just about anywhere in Europe, the amount of time the walk takes is up to you, but there are several planned routes that take you on a similar journey as The Way.
Easy Rider | USA
The Movie: Easy Rider is a road trip movie of it’s generation. It’s a movie that truly embodies the summer of love and the counter cultural movements of that time. It is also the classic style of road movie. Two characters, with no apparent past, trying to reach a destination. As the audience, you don’t know why they have embarked on this journey, but it feels right anyway. Peter Fond and Dennis Hopper wrote the film and starred in it together, with the former producing it and the latter directing. It tells the story of two bikers that sold a large quantity of drugs and are now trying to make it to New Orleans in time for Mardi Grais. The film is truly about the journey, though – even when they reach New Orleans, the film ends after they depart and are on the road again.
The Trip: While we don’t condone how the two characters funded their journey, if you can find other means to travel the same routes we highly recommend it. Most of the road scenes were shot along Route 66, a still iconic route that runs across the American Southwest.
Read More: How to Plan a Southwestern Road Trip
The Motorcycle Diaries | Latin America
The Movie: While much newer than Easy Rider, the Motorcycle Diaries is the quintessential road trip movie of more recent times. It is the story of a young “Che” Guevara and his friend Alberto Granado. They want to see as much of Latin America as they can before they begin their careers. It is mainly about Guevara, played by Gael Garcia Bernal, transforming from a young medical student into a revolutionary who wants to fix all Latin America’s ills. That being said, it is really the secondary character, played by Rodrigo de la Serna, that you relate to. He just wants to see something new before he decides on a path for his life, and that is the part that makes this film great for me.
The Trip: A journey that travels almost 9000 miles is hard to pinpoint one location. While the film highlights some of the major monuments of South America like Machu Picchu, it is the sweeping countrysides that truly make you want to leave the film and buy a one-way ticket. If we had to go with one country on this extensive journey, it is Chile – particularly when they cross Nahuel Huapi Lake. Also maybe crossing the Salar de Atacama in Chile like the poster. Or Machu Picchu. Really, we recommend it all.
Read More: Everything South America
Sin Nombre | Central America
The Movie: Sin Nombre is a hard film to watch but it is incredible to have seen. From a road movie standpoint. it is not exactly a trip that we could possibly take, but it is a story that needs to be told. It is Cary Joji Fukunaga’s feature directorial debut (you may have heard of him directing the first season of True Detective) and he brilliantly tells the story of what many Central American migrants go through on a short section of their journey North. It also mixes in gang violence, and high-intensity scenes on the roof of trains to make it an altogether thrilling film.
The Trip: It’s hard to do direct train travel through much of Central America, but check out Rome2Rio for some great connecting routes to get you through any section of Central America you want to check out.
Thelma & Louise | Southwest, USA
The Movie: Thelma & Louise, much like Easy Rider, helped define the concept of a road trip movie. It also was one of the first times Hollywood made way for two women own and star in a whole movie. Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon do a great job of taking what starts a conventional acting role and changing them into complex characters traveling across the vast Southwest. With Brad Pitt, a Ford Thunderbird, and some pretty spectacular footage of the American Southwest, we’re sure this movie about a journey is worth your time.
The Trip: There are a lot of landscapes to cover if you’re looking to recreate Thelma & Louise. Moab, Utah is definitely one of the top locations, and although a critical scene takes place in the Grand Canyon, it was actually filmed at Dead Horse Point State Park. Since the Grand Canyon already gets more than enough love, maybe go check out Utah.
Read More: How to Plan a Utah Road Trip
Monsters | Central America
The Movie: This is my personal favorite on the list. Is it sci-fi? Yes. But at the root of the film is a true road film. It is about a man who is tasked with bringing his boss’ daughter through Central America back to The States after an alien outbreak occurs in Northern Mexico. 90 percent of the film does not include said “monsters” and just focuses on Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able crossing through Mexican jungle and the open road. It has a very eerie feel, and will make you want to go trekking. You know, sans the threat of monsters.
The Trip: The movie was filmed throughout five countries. It’s hard to pin down one single location since the ground covered was so expansive, and moves so quickly. The advice I can give is go to Belize, Guatemala, and Costa Rica. What exactly you visit is all up to you, but you will be presented with the endless opportunity for natural beauty.
Tracks | Australia
The Movie: Tracks tells the true story of Robyn Davidson, played by Mia Wasikowska, who trekked across close to 2,000 miles across the Australian desert with four camels and a dog. Adam Driver plays a National Geographic photographer that documents her journey. It is a film that is best watched in the cold, because just looking at the landscape and her journey will make you want a giant glass of water and a nap. The film, while being about the struggles of daily life, is mainly to showcase the unexplored and unseen parts of Australia.
The Trip: 2,000 miles of desert isn’t exactly anyone’s dream vacation but the vast desert is still remarkably gorgeous. Some of the highlights of the film are the iconic Ayer’s Rock, when she reaches the Indian Ocean on the far west of Australia.
In This World | Pakistan, Iran, and Europe
The Movie: This film, maybe even more so than Sin Nombre, is gut-wrenching to watch. It is a semi-realistic telling of what refugees go through on a journey to safety in Europe. It begins in a refugee camp in Pakistan where two Afghan refugees set off for England. The journey spans through Iran, Turkey, Italy, and France, with much of the film shot on location, so it has a very location-focused and gritty feel to it. In fact, the actors are not even professional actors, and the main character was an Afghan refugee himself. Michael Winterbottom reaches to touch on a very sensitive subject and does a compelling job of making it very humanistic.
The Trip: There are few trips that could cover the magnitude of travel that occurs throughout In This World, but there are several expansive overland trips that can help you experience how far some people go to reach their goals. For a similar trip, look into the Silk Road.
Before Sunrise | Europe
The Movie: Young, single, and traveling through Europe by train. This is what you imagine your adventure through Europe to be, and this film does an excellent job of recreating that. While Richard Linklater would go on to make Before Sunset and Before Midnight as sequels to this film, this original film captures the feelings not knowing what to expect on your first trip. Ethan Hawke’s character is traveling on a Eurail pass. With the two character’s first encounter on the train, Before Sunrise is the perfect film to convince you to take the long way through Europe. The film does not have quite as much train travel as you’d expect, but Vienna, the featured city, makes for an awe-striking set for the film.
The Trip: You too can get a Eurail pass! While we cannot guarantee you will meet a beautiful Parisian, we can guarantee you will have better odds. And, hell, you’ll be in Europe either way.
Read More: Explore Europe
The Trip | England
The Movie: If you have a taste for British comedy and ardently prepared cuisine, there’s no better film to take you around England than The Trip. Steve Coogan is put on assignment by The Observer to explore the country’s finest restaurants. When his girlfriend backs out, he reluctantly takes along his best friend. Besides all the spectacular shots throughout the English countryside, the film is full of absurd culinary tradition and impeccable impressions.
The Trip: If you’ve got the budget for it, dine in some of England’s acclaimed restaurants to recreate The Trip. Explore the hilly Cumbria county for a peek at what “countryside” really should be. Then sit for a meal at Michelin ranked L’Enclume or Holbeck Ghyll; we promise there’s more to English cuisine than baked beans and black pudding.
Around the World in 80 Days | Everywhere
The Movie: Well, this is kind of the classic of all classics in terms of journey films. I mean, what other films can claim to have circumnavigated the world in 75 days during production? It’s not exactly the most politically correct film these days, but it sure is entertaining. It tells the story of a British gentleman who makes a wager that he can go around the world. Unlike many Hollywood films at the time, the crew actually shot at all the featured locations. You’ll see glimpses of Japan, Thailand, India, Spain, France, The United States, and England.
Given that it was shot in 1955, that is quite the feat. If you have only seen the modern remake of it, do your self a favor and watch this one. You will laugh and develop an irrational desire to travel around the world by hot air balloon. It’s also the only film on the list that has won Best Picture, so that’s got to count for something.
The Trip: Go ahead, see if you can get around the world in 80 days. Unless you have a bet on I would personally take longer than 80 days, but that’s just me.
Wild Strawberries | Sweden
The Movie: While a search for “road trip movies” elicits a lot of American road trip films, it is actually Wild Strawberries that laid the groundwork for future journey films. It tells the story of an old professor, and a daughter-in-law who doesn’t like him. The two drive from Stockholm to Lund (Sweden) so that he can collect an award for his previous achievements. Along the way, he visits many places from past that convince him to re-evaluate his life. It is one of Ingmar Bergman’s first films that received international attention, and a must-see for any film buff.
The Trip: There is no one better to showcase Sweden than Ingmar Bergman.
ErinSeptember 21, 2015 at 1:28 am
Hi Taylor & Daniel,
I have nominated you for the Liebster Award! It is a way to promote other bloggers.
Let me know if you accept, as I would love to see your answers!
P.S. This list is fantastic – I need to check out a few of these! 🙂
Taylor RecordSeptember 25, 2015 at 6:23 am
Hi Erin, glad you liked the list and thanks so much for the nomination! We’re blushing 🙂 We’ll take a look at our content calendar and see if we can’t write our answers in the next few weeks!