Get inspired to pack your bags and hit the road with our round-up of the best travel documentaries – all available to watch online right now!
When the infinite Instagram scrolling just won’t fix your wanderlust itch, travel documentaries can step in. Whether it’s natural discoveries, history exposés, foodie tours or road trip recounts, we are living in a golden age of travel-related documentaries, both on the big and small screens. It’s not quite as good as the real deal of travelling, but will certainly keep you curious to get out and explore.
Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011)
The titular Jiro has worked in a sushi bar since he was nine years old. Some eighty years later, he still works in a sushi bar. This one is tucked underneath a Tokyo office building, next to a car park, and features a modest decor and just 10 bar stools. Oh, it’s also a Michelin 3-star restaurant, and regarded as one the finest sushi dining experiences in the world.
As loveably grouchy as a grandad – and just as modest – the fame hasn’t gone to this now 91-year-old’s head. The documentary presents how Jiro tries to perfect the art of sushi, with every single serving he makes. It will leave you salivating, desperate to book a flight to Tokyo, and eager to dine at the Sukiyabashi Jiro sushi bar itself – just be sure to book at least a month ahead.
Encounters at the End of the World (2007)
It’s hard to shake your first Werner Herzog documentary experience. With a droll, dry-witted narration, series of confrontational interviews and an unflinching look at the battle between human-kind and Mother Earth, the mythical German filmmaker’s work asks you to look deep into the abyss, until it looks back.
In Encounters at the End of World, the gonzo documentarian travels to Antartica to study the tough climate, native wildlife, and people that go against all odds to call this land of ice home. It’s fun, but bone-chilling stuff; wonderful light entertainment for the casual traveler, and a manifesto for the intrepid world explorers-in-waiting.
Happy People: A Year in the Taiga (2010)
After visiting the end of the world with Herzog, follow him along the Yenisei River to the hidden depths of Siberia in Happy People: A Year in The Taiga. Herzog co-produced this documentary film (originally a Russian TV series, which follows the lives of fur trappers living in the village of Bakhtia – one of the most remote settlements on earth.
The hardy subjects of the documentary would make fearless world adventurer Bear Grylls weep. They hunt, fish and grow crops throughout the summer, all in preparation for the turn of total survival mode in the winter. And yet, despite their old-world ways, the film illustrates how gratified these Siberian natives are with their modest lives, far away from all the technological developments and “post-truths” of modern times. Empathic, life-affirming, and you won’t find a selfie stick in sight!
Samsara (2011) / Baraka (1992)
Director Ron Fricke’s wordless documentary wouldn’t look out of place in a Natural History or Anthropology Institute. Filmed over five years – on five different continents – this ambitious essay film explores human compassion and connection. It will strike a nerve for anyone who has ever traveled across the world and been surprised to find locals with whom they have so much in common; a deep rooted humanity, love and curiosity that spans across cultures and languages.
If this artful look down the rabbit hole into global humankind is your thing, then be sure to check out his equally brilliant 1992 effort Baraka. And, make sure you see them both on the biggest screens possible – this is what IMAX was made for!
Life in a Day (2011)
Life In A Day might sound ordinary, but this YouTube funded community project is nothing less than exceptional. Compiling 80,000 video entries from 192 countries, the film showcases fragments of lives lived world over, all shot on one single day – 24 July, 2010.
The clips range from the banal (cooking up breakfast, tooth brushing), to the beautiful (a Korean man cycling around the world to encourage the re-unification of his country, or a teary-eyed Aussie declaring his new love for life after undergoing major heart surgery). Each of these moments compiled together demonstrate the interconnectedness of our world, transporting you to hundreds of different communities within 95 minutes.
180° South (2010)
One for the adventure travelers, this is the story of a nomadic Californian following in the rocky footsteps of his fearless heroes, Doug Tompkins and Yvon Chouinard – respective founders of The North Face and Patagonia outdoor wear brands – with an epic and dangerous journey to Patagonia.
With long campfire chats and surf sessions, the whole thing is filmed like a breezy and informal travellogue. This only highlight’s 180 Degrees South’s success: its ability to present what to most would be a death defying conquest an accessible and relatable excursion. The fact that it is also a trip of a lifetime makes the movie all the more essential for travelers interested in South America.
Touching the Void (2003)
Not unlike 180° South, Touching the Void presents people who bring a sheer amount of perseverance and determination to their chosen travel experience. What sets the latter apart is the nail biting intensity of the trip when, in 1985, mountaineers Joe Simpson and Simon Yates climbed the Siula Grande in the Huayhuash mountain range amidst disaster and near-fatal conditions.
Told through a mixture of confessional talking heads interviews and “wish you weren’t here” reenactments, Touching the Void keeps you glued to the screen, your seat, and as close to the death-cheating climb as you’ll ever need. If you see the documentary, and still dare climb this fretful range of the Peruvian Andes, at least you’ll now know how best to survive it.