Updated: Mar 26
By Chelsea La Near
The best cinema transports us to new places where we can vicariously take part in the characters’ experiences. Movies about travel, where the characters are themselves transported to new places, can give us a double dose of escapism.
Travel, with its sense of excitement and mystery, is an inherently romantic endeavor that translates well to the silver screen. Combine it with romantic love, with its own sense of excitement and mystery, and you get a truly transportive film experience.
The best cinema also often inspires us to seek those new places and experiences for ourselves. At Parlay Vacay, we’ve compiled a list of our favorite romantic travel movies to fuel your wanderlust and inspire your next adventure.
1. Before Sunrise (1995)
This is the first and best film in a trilogy of pretty great romantic travel movies. Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke give compelling performances as Céline, a French student on her way back to Paris, and Jesse, a traveling American, who meet on a train coming from Budapest. Jesse convinces Céline to hop off of the train in Vienna to spend the next 14 hours with him before he has to fly back the the US in the morning. Whimsical romance ensues as the characters get to know each other wandering through the inarguably romantic streets of the Austrian capital. The minimalist plot relies entirely on the chemistry between the two characters and the magic of their new surroundings. At the end of the film, Céline and Jesse decide not to exchange contact information, but to meet at this exact same place at the same time in 6 months.
This last scene is why the film resonates with me so much as a traveler, and why I consider it among the greatest of all travel movies. It perfectly captures the transience and uncertainty of the meaningful relationships we build along our journeys. We may never see this person again, so best revel in our limited time together. Though the characters do agree to meet again, there's no guarantee that they actually will. In fact, it seems downright improbable, and the viewer gets to decide what their future holds. Of course, sequels proved that Céline and Jesse did reunite. But truthfully, I prefer the ending where they don't.
2. Y Tu Mamá También (2001)
This coming-of-age road movie from award-winning director Alfonso Cuarón was before its time and has thus aged flawlessly. Julio (Gael García Bernal) and Tenoch (Diego Luna) are two teenage best friends in Mexico City who end up on a road trip with the beautiful 28-year old Louisa, who has recently received some devastating news. An erotic love triangle develops between Louisa and both men, and both men and each other, as they traverse rural Mexico en route to nowhere. Actually, they're trying to find a fabled beach called "Boca de Cielo" (Heaven's Mouth) which the men invented to get Louisa to travel with them. A year after their road trip ended, Julio and Tenoch run into each other in Mexico City and have coffee during which we learn that the two former friends have fallen out of touch. Tenoch relays news about Louisa that gives a new perspective to their adventures together. There will be tears for another travel film about the importance of cherishing our connections and experiences along the way, set against the vibrant and beautiful backdrop of rural Mexico.
3. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)
A quintessential travel film with breathtaking scenes from Greenland, Iceland, and the Himalayas that will give you a serious case of wanderlust. Walter Mitty, played by Ben Stiller, is a Life magazine employee who has led an admittedly unremarkable life. His job is to manage the photo negatives taken by his adventurous coworker, the celebrated photojournalist Sean O'Connell (Sean Penn). When the negative that is supposed to be used in the final print edition of Life magazine turns up missing, Walter embarks on the journey of a lifetime to track it down.
The romance between Cheryl (Kristen Wiig), who also works at Life magazine, and Walter is definitely a subplot, but assists in driving Walter's decisions to take chances. She tells him that "life is about courage and going into the unknown." He later imagines her singing "Space Oddity" and sees her face in a murmur of birds during crucial moments of the film. The poignant and positive ending reminds us to appreciate the people around us and all of the things they do to make life happen.
4. Romancing the Stone (1984)
I honestly still don't know how this gem of a romantic comedy adventure works so well, but it does. Joan Wilder (Kathleen Turner) lives a comfortable and at times lonely life as an adventure romance novelist in New York City. After a series of tongue-in-cheek events, she finds herself in Colombia to rescue her kidnapped sister. Suddenly, Joan is caught up in a real-life adventure of her own where she meets the swashbuckling and suave American mercenary, Jack T. Colton (Michael Douglas). En route to accomplishing their respective goals, they wind up on a treasure hunt through the jungle in search of a green diamond.
The exhilarating and unexpected action never lets up as this cinematic thrill takes you through sweeping scenes of the Colombian jungle and drops yous off among the historic stone walls of Cartagena. Kathleen Turner is compelling as a fish-out-of-water city girl turned impressive heroine, and her chemistry with Michael Douglas sparkles with sincere romance. Danny DeVito delights in his element as comedic crook while Manuel Ojeda is genuinely intimidating as the corrupt villain Zolo. This time-capsule worthy travel movie has something for everyone, and is just so fun! Check out the trailer, in which Danny DeVito will tell you exactly nothing about the film.
5. Roman Holiday (1953)
No list of travel movies would be complete without Roman Holiday, a classic romantic comedy with a plot that could only come out of the 1950's. Ann (Audrey Hepburn) a crown princess from an unidentified country, is on a state visit to Rome where she struggles with the strict structure and fanfare of her royal life. She decides to escape her country's embassy to explore the city as a regular civilian where she encounters Joe (Gregory Peck), a reporter with intentions of selling an exclusive story about the princess. The two spend a charming day exploring iconic sites in an iconic city, and in the process, create some very iconic moments. Though Joe initially had ulterior motives for spending time with the princess, love gets in the way, and the film comes to a tender and bittersweet end.
This is Audrey Hepburn in one of her most inimitable Audrey Hepburn roles where she toes the line between endearing and annoying - a balancing act that somehow only enhances her charm. Gregory Peck adds his own magnetism and swoon-worthy one-eyebrow raises to a remarkable performance by the city of Rome itself. Pure romantic movie magic.
6. An American in Paris (1951)
"Paris is like love, or art, or faith. It can't be explained only felt," Jerry Mulligan (Gene Kelly) proclaims. It's hard to disagree with him after viewing this musical comedy film set in the city of lights. There are plenty of subplots to keep us interested involving three artist friends searching for work, but finding love instead. The central story, however, revolves around the romance between Jerry, a WWII veteran who moved to Paris to be a painter, and Lise (Leslie Caron), a dancer in a relationship with a French singer. The plot is not so much what matters in this film as much as the perfect production numbers from the golden age of Hollywood musicals, with music inspired by vintage George Gershwin compositions. The film culminates in a performance that tops them all - an awe-inspiring 18-minute number set to Gershwin's 1928 song, "An American in Paris" where Jerry and Lise dance before impressive backgrounds of famed French painters. Gene Kelly, George Gershwin, Paris - there's really nothing not to like here. C'est Magnifique!
7. Le Chocolat (2000)
The title itself may be enticing, but the real draw for this romantic movie is the scenery from Flivigny-sur-Ozerain, a medieval river village in Burgundy, France. Vianne (Juliette Binoche) is a vagabond chocolatier who rides the north wind across Europe with her 6-year old daughter until they land in a tranquil French village with a history of strict Catholic traditions. She decides to open shop there at the start of Lent, a timing seen as irreverent by the townspeople and their mayor who already mistrust the single mother's free spirit and unconventional past. In spite of these obstacles, Vianne's culinary craftsmanship and friendly magnetism start to win people over. When a troupe of Roma gypsies arrives and are shunned by most of the village, Vianne reaches out to them and develops a connection with Roux, played by Johnny Depp in his prime hotness as essentially a pre-Pirates of the Caribbean Jack Sparrow. A conservative townsman set's fire to Roux's boat to end a party Vianne threw for one of the villager's, and the town is shaken that one of their own resorted to such violence. Realizing the potential negative consequences of their extreme conservatism, the villagers, including the mayor, decide to loosen up and embrace change. Everyone eats chocolate. Le Fin.
There's more than a few valuable lessons about travel packed into this saccharine production, one of which is that travel tends to make people more open-minded, as characterized by the protagonist. But my favorite lesson, also learned through the protagonist, is that there is a time when it's best to stop wandering and set roots.
8. Call Me by Your Name (2017)
Northern Italy provides a stunning backdrop for two men to explore their relationship in this coming-of-age romance movie. Elio, a 17-year old American, lives in Italy with his parents as his father is a professor of Greco-Roman culture. The family agrees to host a 24-year old American scholar named Oliver as a summer intern. Elio is initially annoyed that he has to give up his bedroom in their villa for the new guest, but as the summer progresses, the two spend more and more time together. The young men start to develop a deep friendship that unexpectedly blossoms into a heady and sensual romance.
From the sun-drenched dirt paths and cobblestone streets where the characters bike to the rustic rivers and stone pools where they swim, the film looks like something from a daydream. The setting may stir your heart, while the longing and uncertainty of young love may break it.
9. To Catch a Thief (1955)
This Alfred Hitchcock romantic thriller, which is full of surprises and gorgeous French Riviera scenery, is as fun to watch now as I'm sure it was in 1955. John "The Cat" Robie (Cary Grant) is a retired jewelry thief who has settled into a quiet life, but is believed to be at large when a new string of robberies occurs. To prove his innocence, Robie sets out catch the real criminal. First, he must get to know the wealthy tourists in the area, including the bedazzled American widow, Jessie Stevens (Jessie Royce Landis), and her daughter Frances (Grace Kelly). Frances becomes attracted to Robie partly because she finds the prospect that he may actually be the thief thrilling, and Robie happily returns her advances: steamy fireworks scene alert. Robie's attempts to trap the real robber keep getting thwarted until a surprise twist finally solves the mystery. Have I mentioned that this is all happening over the crystal waters of the Côte d'Azur? And that Grace Kelly is zooming around Monaco in a powder blue Sunbeam Alpine? And that there a lots of sparkly things? Go watch the movie, get wanderlust, and then head straight to the South of France.
10. Crazy Rich Asians (2018)
Not my favorite Rom-com, but Crazy Rich Asians did make me want to hop on a plane headed straight to Singapore where I could snag a rich Henry Golding lookalike. We would fall in love and enjoy Singapore slings from one of the many skyscraper rooftops. I would make dumplings with his family in their giant house and attend lavish parties in pretty dresses, but only after winning over his protective mother's heart. After all, it worked for Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), a professor in New York who travels to Singapore with her boyfriend for a wedding, only to discover that he is actually an extremely wealthy quasi-celebrity.
There's so much eye candy going on in this romantic comedy with the characters, the extravagance, and the Singapore skylines. It's nearly impossible not to feel wanderlust for the Asian economic powerhouse, where wealth does thrive, though you admittedly won't encounter it nearly as much as this film would make you believe.
BONUS: Planet Earth
Most romantic scene: the Buller's Albatross waits in the same spot for days until their life-partner returns from a year at sea. Wait, is that just the opening scene from Before Sunset?
Chelsea La Near is a freelance writer and education professional from Missouri. After spending a decade abroad, she made her way to Seattle where there notably aren't any Cracker Barrels.
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