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A Documentary Lover’s Guide to Traveling

(Guillaume Inconito/Flickr Creative Commons)
Written by Chloe Nevitt

This blog post was updated on April 30, 2020.

Documentaries are great because you can enjoy the world without having to leave the comfort of your home. The twists and turns of life’s greatest mysteries can just unfold without you ever having to leave your couch. The whole experience is quite wonderful. For those of us who can’t ever decide on a vacation spot but have the travel bug, here’s a list of the most travel-inspiring documentaries that will get you packing your bags and booking your flight in a hurry.

If you like Searching for Sugar Man you should visit South Africa

Searching for Sugar Man follows the story of two South Africans who try to find out whether their favorite musician, an unknown American by the name of Sixto Rodriguez, is dead or alive. Rodriguez failed to find fame in the US but was more popular than the Beatles in South Africa. Finding him wasn’t easy, and this story unfolds on both sides of the Pacific. With wonderful scanning shots of the sprawling green and blues of Capetown and quick returns to the dusty streets of Detroit, the entire documentary creates a surreal experience that makes you wonder, “Am I famous in another country?”

If you liked Blindsight you should hike The Himalayas

Home to the world’s highest peaks, including Mt. Everest, The Himalayas are every mountaineer’s dream. But the trepidation and fear of such demanding hikes can stop even the bravest outdoorsman. This documentary, which follows the path taken by six Tibetan teenagers to climb the Lhakpa Ri mountain will surely motivate you. Why? The teenagers are blind. Against impossible odds, terrifying weather, and seemingly endless darkness, these young adults try to achieve the unachievable. With stark close-ups and unreal angles, this movie gets the blood pumping and will make you want to put on your hiking boots and make that climb you never thought you could accomplish.

If you enjoyed Planet Earth II then the whole world is your oyster

Hans Zimmer and David Attenborough are at it again. Following the success of Planet Earth (2006) it’s no surprise that the BBC decided to gift the world the best present of all: A soothing British gentleman voicing over elegant scenes of the natural world. From forests to oceans, Planet Earth II captures the wonderfully fleeting and charming moments that the creatures we share this planet with do to survive. It’s majestic and inspiring and will surely make you want to put on some snorkeling gear, strap on a parachute, or take a safari.

Nature always seems so far away, but Planet Earth II brings it home again.

If you loved Amanda Knox then take a trip to Italy

The Amanda Knox documentary, about the American woman wrongfully convicted for murder in Italy, is equal parts terrifying and frustrating. While it’s hard to definitively say one side is wrong or right, the rendition by the directors lets each character make their case and you’re left with your own opinion about the whole situation. The most prominent character of them all ends up being Perugia, Italy, the place where the murder takes place. The city is quaint and charming, it’s Gothic and Medieval architecture softened by fairy lights and small trattorias and cafes. While the movie might make you hesitant to leave the confines of your safe home, for fear of being wrongly framed in a foreign country, the romance and initial wonder Knox felt in visiting Italy is palpable. And after all, life isn’t just about wine, chocolates, and espressos!

If Gardeners of Eden made your jaw drop then head to Kenya

For many, the slow, steady pace of elephants is therapeutic. For such large animals, they seem to carry themselves with ease, each step deliberate and profound. Intelligent and proud, a lot of an elephant’s action mirrors that of a person’s. So the heartbreak is even more severe when the systematic slaughter by poachers is presented. Gardeners of Eden draws you into the life and passion of David Sheldrick, and the whole time, you’re rooting for him to win. The sprawling Kenyan wilderness unfolds as the story progresses and the richness and purity of these animals’ natural world is unparalleled. The whole experience in the bush with the elephants definitely trumpets like a wake-up call to go somewhere and try to do something good.

If Jiro Dreams of Sushi made your mouth water go eat in Japan

While some foodies get made fun of for their overzealous attention to cilantro and cooking temperatures, Jiro Dreams of Sushi is sure to win over any gastronomic skeptic. Rooted in tradition and family values, the film highlights Japanese culture surrounding family and quality. Visiting the super market with Jiro is much more than just a trip. It shows the complex and layered process by which a man seeks the highest quality product for a craft appreciated by many but experienced by few. His three-Michelin star restaurant, Sukiyabashi Jiro, seats only 10 people and is rumored to only serve to the ethnically Japanese.

Though you might have a very slim shot at a seat in Sukiyabashi JiroJiro Dreams of Sushi encourages you to see beyond just eating at that restaurant.

Though the story is framed around one man, it shows you the wonderful depths of Japanese culture and invites you to come and experience it.

If you were wowed by Flight of the Butterflies then road-trip through The Americas

Released at the beginning of the IMAX experience, both in form and story, Flight of the Butterflies transcended anything else when it first aired. But that lovely initial feeling, even after five years, remains. By following the story of Dr. Fred Urquhart, the filmmakers perfectly weave together the familiar story of a man and his love for nature. By using a 70 ft crane, the crew was able to capture shots throughout Canada, the Southern US, and Mexico to give viewers a new perspective on what may have seemed like a path well-traveled. If you thought your backyard was too dull to merit a second glance, Flight of the Butterflies will motivate you to look at familiar visits with fresh eyes. A quick drive to a nearby park isn’t so daunting, and if you look closely you might find some butterflies.

If Exit Through The Gift Shop blew your mind then spend some time in Los Angeles

Surrounded by a cloud of rumors, secrecy, and controversy, Banksy has become a person of extreme cult interest. But Exit Through The Gift Shop goes beyond just painting an ephemeral picture of a hard to come by guy. It gives the audience the ability to look closely at a town that’s too often eclipsed by glitz and glamor. The city of Los Angeles is known for Hollywood Boulevard and the Walk of Fame, but in Exit Through The Gift Shop, Banksy, Thierry Guetta, and Shepard Fairey become mediums to show a different side of LA.

With grungy scenes featuring powerful political street drawings, the scrappy beginnings of today’s most famous street artists, and levels of social commentary, Exit Through The Gift Shop makes you question any of the presumptions you may have had about LA.

There might be more than meets the eye, it’s just up to you to find it.

Do you have a favorite travel documentary? Did we forget to list it here? Let us know what your favorite documentary is in the comments below!

About the author

Chloe Nevitt

Lover of cheese. Trash panda enthusiast. Avid nap-taker and fridge-hunter. Occasionally writes and sometimes travels. Responds to "Chloe" and "Generous Overlord."

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