There’s still time to travel this summer. If you’re like me, you’ve got dozens of places in mind, including choices influenced by pop culture. Some travelers even plans their trips around movie landmarks and immortalize their stops on Instagram. But it’s not all superficial. Movies can actually give you a sense of a country’s past and culture.
Taking time to appreciate how a location sees itself or to examine a country’s past can enrich a vacation. Finding the right movie can even transform your trip from an excursion for staging the perfect selfie into something much more significant and memorable.
Below are a list of vacation destinations — and movies that help them come to life before you’ve even boarded a plane.
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Must-see movie: Midnight in Paris
Why you need to see it: This Woody Allen film isn’t to be missed if you’re headed to the City of Lights. Midnight in Paris follows the structure of Ernest Hemingway’s memoir of his time in Paris and centers on writer Gil Pender (Owen Wilson). Gil is vacationing in Paris with his fiancee (Rachel McAdams) when he’s mysteriously transported back to the city in the 1920s. Through most of the film, Pender follows a young Hemingway (Corey Stoll) around the nooks and crannies of Paris meeting iconic figures like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Cole Porter, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dalí.
More films to watch: Amélie, Paris, Je T’Aime (Paris, I love You), An American in Paris, Funny Face and French Kiss.
Must-see movie: The King’s Speech
Why you need to see it: An impeccably acted examination of Queen Elizabeth’s past, The King’s Speech focuses on the current monarch’s father, the late George VI (Colin Firth). After the king’s brother abdicates the throne to marry, George VI, the next in line, must overcome his stammer with the help of language therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffery Rush) to make his first wartime radio broadcast when Britain declares war on Germany in 1939. If you’re still not sold on this film by this stellar cast, Queen Elizabeth gave the movie her seal of approval after a private viewing.
More films to watch: Atonement, The Imitation Game, The Queen, Shaun of the Dead and The Young Victoria.
Must-see movie: Hecho En México
Why you need to see it: There’s more to Mexico than what’s found in shoot-em-up films. To get a better picture of Mexican culture, you can watch Hecho En México, a documentary that focuses on artists and performers.
The documentary shows that Mexican music goes beyond Mariachi bands and offers a glimpse of breathtaking locations, vibrant festival music and the rhythm of everyday life around the clock.
These are the sights, sounds, colors, dance and spirituality that produced such talents as Diego Luna (Cassian Andor in Star Wars Rogue One), singer-songwriter Julieta Venegas, superstar Salma Hayek and more.
More films to watch: Roma, Book of Life, Under the Same Moon (La Misma Luna) and Frida.
Must-see movie: Australia
Why you need to see it: Besides this sweeping romance’s amazing cast (Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman) and director (Baz Luhrmann), Australia encapsulates an important time in the country’s history.
Set just before World War II, the 2008 film touches on Australia’s Aboriginal peoples with the character Nullah. Some critics say the film doesn’t go deep enough into the casual racism and policies of displacement. But a Herald Sun critic called the film a “love letter to the Australian landscape and [its] history.”
More films to watch: Tracks, The Dressmaker and Walkabout.
Must-see movies: Slumdog Millionaire and Lion
Why you need to see it: If you’re headed to India, watch both of these two cinematic gems. Slumdog Millionaire and Lion are based on true stories that showcase the endurance of the human spirit. They both star Academy Award nominee Dev Patel.
Lion is the story of Saroo, who at 5 years old gets lost on a train and must survive on his own in Kolkata. He’s eventually adopted by an Australian family and, years later, sets out to find his mother with only a few memories and modern-day technology.
In Slumdog Millionaire, brothers Jamal and Salim Malik, who live in poverty, must fend for themselves after their mother dies As they grow up, Jamal falls in love with childhood friend Latika and tries to keep them away from the life of crime that Salim chooses. When Jamal lands on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, the hosts believe he’s cheating as he recounts his life and gets questions right.
More films to watch: Life of Pi, Trishna, The Darjeeling Limited and Monsoon Wedding.
Must-see movie: Bread and Tulips (Pane e tulipani)
Why you need to see it: If you’re going to Italy, don’t you want something authentically Italian? In Bread and Tulips, Rosalba (Licia Maglietta), a dissatisfied housewife, is left behind at a cafe during a bus trip. Her family doesn’t notice her absence, so Rosalba decides to reinvent herself in Venice. She begins an adventure in the beautiful city, making new friends and possibly falling in love.
More films to watch: Call Me by Your Name, Only You, Roman Holiday and Letters to Juliet.
Must-see movie: The Impossible
Why you need to see it: The Impossible will whisk you away to the lush greenery, crystal blue waters and pristine beaches of Thailand. The film also pays homage to the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami that claimed more than 200,000 lives in 2004, to the kindness of strangers and to the resiliency of humans. The Impossible is based on the true story of the Belon family. While on vacation, the Belons are separated when the massive wave hits their resort. The injured family members must find their way back to each other in the raging waters. It’s a movie that’ll leave you with chills. Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts give unforgettable performances. And don’t forget to look out for a tiny Tom Holland (Spiderman: Far From Home).
More films to watch: Railway Man, The Beach, The King and Cemetery of Splendor.
Must-see movie: Anne Frank: The Whole Story (two-part miniseries)
Why you need to see it: If you’re headed to Amsterdam, odds are you’re also visiting the Anne Frank House, where young Anne wrote her famous diary while hiding with her family from Nazi deportation. There’s no shortage of films to watch about the incredible young woman whose life was so tragically cut short. This film stars Hannah Taylor-Gordon as Anne and Ben Kingsley as her father, Otto Frank. It’s not easy to watch at times, but it’s a significant part of history.
More films to watch: The Diary of Anne Frank, The Book Thief, Monuments Men and Inglorious Basterds.
Must-see movie: Memoirs of a Geisha
Why you need to see it: While Memoirs of a Geisha is classified as historical fiction, the film was adapted from a book by Arthur Golden. Golden’s book reportedly used the life of Mineko Iwasaki, a real geisha, as a source. Iwasaki has disputed some of Golden’s telling and released her own memoir, Geisha of Gion. By itself, Memoirs of a Geisha is a stunning film set in the 1920s about a girl named Chiyo, who at 9 years old, is forced into servitude. Eventually, Chiyo begins training to become one of the most beautiful and influential geishas in Japan as WWII looms.
More films to watch: The Wind Rises, Spirited Away, 13 Assassins and Letters from Iwo Jima.
Must-see movie: Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom ($137 at Amazon)
Why you need to see it: Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom follows Nelson Mandela’s life as he protests tyrannical apartheid in the 1940s and is then arrested and sentenced to life in prison. While in prison, his wife, Winnie, and their children keep the freedom movement going. Mandela went on to become the first democratically elected president of South Africa and an inspiration to the world.
Must-see movie: Disney Nature: African Cats
Why you need to see it: If you’re more excited about the sight-seeing in Africa (or your kids aren’t exactly fascinated by the other film), you might like Disney Nature: African Cats. The documentary was filmed in the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya and follows two cat families. Sita is a mother cheetah with five adorable cubs, and Mara is the cub of Layla and Fang, the rulers of their pride. It’s a story about family and survival set against a breathtaking African landscape. But if you’re like me and tiny, baby animals trigger the waterworks for you, just have a box of tissues nearby.
More films to watch: Cairo Time (Cairo), The Last Storytellers: Tales from the Heart of Morocco, and The Sheltering Sky (Algeria and Niger).
Must-see movie: Moana
Why you need to see it: I’m not even ashamed to say as a grown woman that Moana is one of my favorite movies. Moana Waialiki is the daughter of an island chief, and she desperately wants to explore the oceans. When her island can no longer catch fish or keep crops alive, she learns that the demigod Maui is to blame because he stole the heart of the goddess Te Fiti. Moana sets sail on a journey of self discovery with Maui to save her island.
More films to watch: Kon Tiki, South Pacific, The Land Has Eyes (Routma) and Heartbeats of Fiji.
Must-see movie: Endless Poetry (Poesía Sin Fin)
Why you need to see it: See Chile from a true Chilean’s point of view. Filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky’s vibrant autobiographical movie, Endless Poetry, gives you a glimpse of Santiago in the 1940s. Jodorowsky leaves his strict family behind, dives into a bohemian lifestyle alongside what will become some of the best-known talents in Hispanic literature. There, Jodorowsky sets out to become a poet.
More films to watch: Behind the Sun, The House of Sand and Kiss of the Spider Woman.
Must-see movie: Pan’s Labyrinth
Why you need to see it: This is one of the strangest films you might watch. Pan’s Labyrinth is set in 1944 Spain, just after the Spanish Civil War. Ofelia lives with her stepfather and sickly pregnant mother. Reality blurs with the abandoned labyrinth Ofelia finds and the magical creatures that inhabit it. Guillermo Del Toro’s films are never lacking in deeper meanings and beautiful cinematography, too.
More films to watch: Ocho Apellidos Vascos (Spanish Affair), The Queen of Spain and En La Ciudad (In the City).
Must-see movie: Made in Jamaica
Why you need to see it: When I think of Jamaica, perfect beaches, swaying palm trees, vibrant colors and reggae music come to mind. The music is an integral part of the country’s culture. Made in Jamaica is a musical documentary that looks at how reggae has influenced popular culture. The film celebrates a musical movement’s influences on R&B, rap and more.
More films to watch: Chrissy, Elza (Le bonheur d’elza) and Home Again.
Must-see movie: Mao’s Last Dancer
Why you need to see it: Mao’s Last Dancer is the true story of Li Cunxin, who grew up in Maoist China. Li is taken from his family and undergoes rigorous training to become a dancer. He’s accepted to Madame Mao’s Dance Academy, though he shows little interest in performance at first.
Eventually, Li is spotted by an American ballet director and joins the Houston Ballet in America. His three-month stay in America and relationship with an American dancer leave him questioning his life back Communist China. Li is caught between his passion for dance, America and his home in China where his parents still live in poverty.
More films to watch: The Last Emperor, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Seven Years in Tibet and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
Must-see movie: Mamma Mia
Why you need to see it: Mamma Mia is a campy rom-com set to the music of Abba, but the sweeping camera work will transport you to the sun-drenched Greek islands. The story is about a young woman about to get married who wants her father to walk her down the aisle. The trouble is, there are three possibilities about who that is. Her equally free-spirited mother is shocked when all three men show up on their island to see if they are the father.
More films to watch: Antigone, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin and My Life in Ruins.