In an era where the world seems bigger than ever and yet affordable travel means the entire globe is within arm’s reach for some of us, the appetite for travel experiences has grown exponentially.
From the comfort of our living rooms, we can now embark on global adventures, traversing cultural landscapes through our TV sets and the plethora of thrilling reality TV travel shows that are out there.
As a fervent traveller myself, I’ve often found inspiration in the narratives of distant locales, their people, and their unique ways of life. That’s how I ended up watching blues musicians playing in the Sahara and picking tea in the mountains of Taiwan.
Whether you turn it into a reality or not, the growing allure of armchair travel has become an essential aspect of how I and many other people explore and understand the world.
There’s an indescribable joy in discovering the vibrant street markets of Marrakech, the tranquil temples of Kyoto, or the bustling bazaars of Istanbul—and doing it from my living room, while not as good as being there, is a close second.
You still go on an immersive journey, an odyssey through the eyes of others, offering insights into the intricacies of societies you might or might not have the chance to visit in person.
International reality TV can be a tonic for the travel enthusiast’s soul. It provides a passport to destinations untouched, unspoiled, and unseen, allowing us to experience the thrill of exploration without the inconvenience of logistical challenges, or, let’s face it, money.
But some programmes are much better than others and, as a big connoisseur, I have watched them all, so you don’t have to.
In this article, I’ll delve into my top picks of the best 10 international reality TV shows that will not only fuel your wanderlust but also redefine the way you perceive and appreciate the vast mosaic of global cultures.
So come and travel with me on a virtual journey where reality television transcends entertainment, becoming a portal to the unexplored and a celebration of the rich tapestry that is our shared human experience as I pick out my top 10.
Section 1: The Allure of Travel-Based Reality TV
1.1. Escapism and Adventure:
In my experience, the allure of international reality TV shows lies not just in their ability to showcase foreign places but in their transformative power as vehicles of escapism and adventure.
On a cold winter night, I like nothing more than exploring a tropical rainforest or the wonders of the Namib Desert.
After a mundane week when the monotony of a weekly routine threatens to overwhelm you, what can bring more pleasure than a thrilling voyage across the Atlantic or a trip on the Trans-Siberian Railway?
Such adventures nourish the soul, and where books used to take us on these journeys in our imagination, TV shows can now let us see these places for real. We can experience the same adrenaline rush and have the same adventures as the presenters.
Travel reality TV offers escapism in its purest form. And for me, it is an essential part of my weekly routine, a part that helps make the rest of it bearable.
1.2. Cultural Education:
But such shows offer more than simple escapism as well. I’ve discovered they can have a profound role as cultural educators, providing a rich tapestry of global traditions and ways of life and bringing them to life in a way that schoolbooks and travel guides simply can’t.
Shows like Race Across the World (BBC), a particular favourite of mine, are more than mere entertainment; they evolved into windows offering glimpses into the rich diversity that defines our world.
Each episode becomes a lesson in cultural understanding. Whether it’s unravelling the intricacies of a traditional Japanese tea ceremony or delving into the vibrant rituals of an Ethiopian marketplace, I’ve gained invaluable insights into the mosaic of human experiences.
For me, shows like this can dismantle stereotypes and foster a deep appreciation for the nuances that make each society unique.
In a world often plagued by misconceptions, the power of international reality TV lies in its ability to foster empathy and understanding, broadening our perspectives and cultivating a genuine respect for the richness of global heritage.
1.3. The Reality TV Appeal:
What is it about reality TV that elevates it above the more traditional travelogue format?
For me, the unique appeal of international reality TV lies in its unscripted, unpredictable nature.
I find in these shows a raw authenticity to the experiences and insights that we get that are both captivating and addictive.
The unpredictable twists and turns mirror the spontaneity of real-life travel experiences that I have had, and doubtless you have, too. Such shows shine a light on the unpredictability you encounter while exploring new cultures that are both refreshing and familiar.
You also get to engage with individuals to develop your own relationship with the participants, just like you do when you go backpacking and meet up with people you might never normally get to meet.
Such relationships mean that you feel what they are feeling, from the triumphs to the setbacks. This unpredictability transforms these shows from mere entertainment into immersive journeys that bring the travel and the culture to life in a way that more stilted traditional travelogue formats are unable to do.
Section 2: Top 10 International Reality Shows
Without further ado, here is my rundown of my Top 10 International Travel Reality Shows. This list is in no particular order, and each show has its own unique merits that make it stand apart from the pack and offer cultural insights you just won’t get anywhere else:
1. Michael Palin: Around the World in 80 Days (UK)
Comedy legend and British national treasure Michael Palin redefined travel TV with his Around the World in 80 Days series, where he embarks on the same journey from the Jules Verne book and attempts to circumnavigate the world in less than 80 days without using air travel.
What sets this apart from the rest is that Palin and his crew actually embarked on this adventure, so it was reality TV before it was popular.
Throw in Palin’s amiable demeanour and childlike curiosity, and you get a fascinating insight into both the countries he visits and the rigours of the journey he undertook.
The series delves into the heart of each destination, offering viewers a deep dive into local cultures, cuisines, and lifestyles. Palin’s interactions with locals and immersion in traditions provide a nuanced understanding of the rich tapestry of global societies.
They also have a historical significance too, and Palin himself has said, “going around the world in 80 days now would be a much less happy experience.”
As well as being one of my favourite shows of all time, this series was Internationally acclaimed. It resonated with audiences for its genuine portrayal of diverse cultures and places and was, at the same time, funny, heartwarming, and educational.
Where to Watch:
Michael Palin: Around the World in 80 Days is available on various streaming platforms. The BBC iPlayer is the best place to watch.
2. Jack Whitehall: Travels with My Father (UK)
Jack Whitehall: Travels with My Father follows this dynamic father-son duo as they explore diverse destinations. Whitehall is a typical worldly young man, while his father is a more traditional British gentleman, making their cultural experience humorous thanks to their different approaches to them.
What distinguishes Jack Whitehall: Travels with My Father is the comedic interplay between Jack and his father and the inter-generational perspectives they bring to the cultures and experiences they share.
The show combines travel, culture, and entertainment, offering a lighthearted and entertaining take on the exploration of different societies.
The series provides insights into various local cultures, from participating in traditional rituals to sampling local cuisine. Both Jack and his father bring a different perspective, allowing for both humour and different insights.
Despite being a very British show, Jack Whitehall: Travels with My Father has been a big international hit for Netflix and has been lauded for its blend of comedy and travel.
It appeals to audiences seeking both entertainment and cultural exploration, and its lighthearted approach makes for very easy and enjoyable viewing.
Where to Watch:
Jack Whitehall: Travels with My Father is available for streaming on Netflix, making it easily accessible to audiences worldwide.
3. Race Across the World (UK)
Race Across the World is a reality show that sees teams of couples compete against each other to travel from one destination to another across diverse landscapes with minimal funds and without using air travel.
They have to tackle local cultural challenges and build an understanding of their location in order to stand a chance of winning the race and the prize that comes with it.
What sets Race Across the World apart is its emphasis on budget travel, authentic experiences, and the absence of air travel.
This unique approach and the reality TV format creates an immersive narrative, showcasing the contestants’ resourcefulness and resilience in different cultural scenarios and the unpredictability of cross-continental journeys.
The series provides a deep dive into local cultures, cuisines, and lifestyles as contestants navigate through various countries on their journey.
Viewers witness the challenges and triumphs of cultural immersion, offering a nuanced understanding of the world beyond the typical tourist experience.
Race Across the World has resonated with audiences for its authentic portrayal of travel, cultural exploration, and the human stories that unfold during the race. It has been picked up for broadcast around the world and praised for its sensitive handling of cultural issues in the places it visits.
Where to Watch:
Race Across the World is available for streaming on the BBC iPlayer as well as on the Nine Network in Australia and Discovery+ in the USA. It has also been recreated in Denmark, Finland, and The Netherlands.
4. Dark Tourist (NZ)
Dark Tourist is a documentary series originating from New Zealand. The show explores unconventional and often macabre tourist destinations worldwide, challenging traditional notions of travel and cultural exploration in what one critic has described as “a Twisted Journey”.
Journalist David Farrier is your guide as he visits destinations associated with death, disaster, and the macabre, from war zones to nuclear disaster sites. Farrier immerses himself in unique and sometimes unsettling experiences, shedding light on the darker aspects of global tourism.
What sets Dark Tourist apart is its unorthodox approach to travel and culture. The series goes well beyond the typical tourist experience, delving into places with complex histories and controversial narratives to show the darker side of human nature.
The series focuses on local cultures and sites connected to dark or controversial events. By exploring places with a morbid historical context, Dark Tourist offers a unique lens through which viewers can understand the impact of tragedy and conflict on societies as well as gain insight into how communities cope with such events.
Dark Tourist garnered attention around the world for its unconventional approach to a travel series and its thought-provoking content. While some appreciate its bold exploration of unusual destinations, others find it controversial or tasteless.
For me, this made it one of the best travel series out there, and it sparked discussions about the ethics of tourism and the fascination with morbid attractions within my household.
Where to Watch:
Dark Tourist is available for streaming on Netflix.
5. Down to Earth with Zac Efron (US)
Down to Earth with Zac Efron follows actor Zac Efron and wellness expert Darin Olien as they embark on a global adventure, exploring sustainable living practices and immersing themselves in diverse cultures.
They visit Iceland, France, and Costa Rica, among many other places, to learn about sustainable practices, alternative lifestyles, and holistic well-being, engaging with local experts and communities to see how we can live more in harmony with the planet around us.
It is Down to Earth’s focus on sustainability and well-being that makes this a unique travel show. This angle means it goes well off the beaten track, and the genuine interest and curiosity of the hosts bring a real personal touch to the cultural experience and connections that they make.
I can’t say I was a fan of Zac Efron previously, but I found his on screen personality likeable and I was surprised this series had me hooked.
The series looks into the sustainable practices that can be found in local cultures, cuisines, and lifestyles to see what lessons can be taken back into a 21st-century Western society.
Viewers gain insights into the environmental efforts of each location, discovering how communities address issues like energy consumption, food production, and overall wellness.
Down to Earth with Zac Efron has attracted a global audience drawn both to the star himself and the issues he raises, which resonate among young people in a way many TV travel shows often fail to do. The show’s blend of travel, culture, and sustainability has garnered praise for its educational value too.
Where to Watch:
Down to Earth with Zac Efron is available for streaming on Netflix.
6. Ugly Delicious (US)
Ugly Delicious is a culinary travel series originating from the United States.
Created by chef and food writer David Chang, it explores the cultural and social aspects of food, transcending traditional culinary programs. Viewers are taken on a global culinary journey, blending elements of travel, culture, and gastronomy.
The host, David Chang, along with other chefs and food enthusiasts, explores diverse cuisines and challenges preconceived notions about what is considered ‘ugly’ or unconventional in the culinary world.
This show is far from the first culinary travel show, but it stands out for its unapologetic celebration of diverse, often unpretentious, and seemingly “ugly” foods.
It breaks down culinary barriers and allows the beauty in simple and authentic cooking from around the world to shine through.
As someone who has travelled extensively and enjoys trying local cuisine I enjoyed how Ugly Delicious explores the food aspect of travel.
The series takes a deep dive into local culinary cultures, showcasing how food is intertwined with identity, history, and societal norms. By examining the origins and evolution of dishes, Ugly Delicious offers viewers a profound understanding of the cultural significance behind various global cuisines.
Ugly Delicious has been praised for its approach to international cuisine and its ambition to embrace food types that are not always seen as attractive or interesting.
Where to Watch:
Ugly Delicious is available for streaming on Netflix.
7. Great Railway Journeys with Michael Portillo (UK)
Great Railway Journeys with Michael Portillo is a travel documentary series hosted by former British politician Michael Portillo.
Not an obvious choice for such a show, Portillo’s passion for railways is clear and shines almost as brightly as his multicoloured pastel suits and the well-thumbed copy of Bradshaw’s that accompanies him all over the UK and around the world.
Along the way, he delves into the local history, culture, and landscapes, offering viewers a unique perspective on each destination through the lens of rail travel, which has been rightly described by one critic as “potent stuff” and “a heady journey.”
The railway angle is what sets this show. As well as looking at the history of railways around the world, it explores railways as a means of cultural exploration.
Portillo’s charismatic and inquisitive approach adds a personal touch to the travel narrative too, making this show a delightful and informative viewing experience.
I thoroughly enjoy this series and Portillo makes it what it is. I must say though, his choice of colours for trousers and jackets brings a wry smile to my face each episode, only he could pull those off.
The series visits various countries and regions and examines the culture and history through the prism of the historical context of railway development.
Portillo engages with locals, visits iconic landmarks, and immerses himself in the cuisine and lifestyle of each destination, offering viewers a comprehensive understanding of the cultural tapestry.
Great Railway Journeys with Michael Portillo has garnered praise for its blend of travel, history, and cultural insights.
Portillo’s affable demeanour and the unique premise of exploring regions through railway networks have proved a big hit in the UK and also garnered a legion of dedicated fans around the world.
Where to Watch:
Great Railway Journeys with Michael Portillo is available on various streaming platforms, including BBC iPlayer.
8. Michael Palin: Pole to Pole (UK)
Michael Palin: Pole to Pole is the follow-up to his superb Around the World in 80 Days series and marked a new high point in his travel TV output.
In this series, Palin embarks on a journey from the North Pole to the South Pole, traversing the globe through an entirely different route and exploring diverse cultures as he goes.
What distinguishes this show is its epic scope, showcasing Palin’s witty and insightful commentary as he navigates a wide range of environments, this time taking in the frozen tundra of the Arctic and Antarctic.
Again, he approaches these cultural experiences with his usual good wit and good humour.
Looking back at this series it does make me a little sad as its unlikely we will ever see another travel show as epic as this and his Around the World in 80 Days series. Big budgets aren’t blown on travel shows anymore and more the shame for it.
The series offers a deep dive into various local cultures, emphasising the diversity of human experiences across continents during the 1980s when the world was divided and on Cold War footing.
Palin’s interactions with locals, exploration of traditions, and sampling of cuisines provide a rich understanding of the intricacies that shape the unique tapestry of each destination at that time.
Michael Palin: Pole to Pole was massively popular with viewers and critics alike and remains so today.
While it shows its age, this show offers a portal into the past and lets us learn about cultures, traditions, and challenges of an era very different to our own today.
Where to Watch:
Michael Palin: Pole to Pole can be watched today on the BBC iPlayer.
9. Long Way Round (UK)
Long Way Round follows actors Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman as they embark on an epic journey circumnavigating the globe on motorbikes.
Their trip covers over 20,000 miles across Europe, Asia, and North America. The show captures the challenges, camaraderie, and cultural encounters they experience on their way from London to New York, the long way round.
What sets this show apart is its focus on the journey itself and the people they meet as opposed to the destinations.
The series offers an intimate look at the trials and tribulations of long-distance motorcycle travel, emphasising the personal growth and cultural connections forged during the expedition.
While the focus of Long Way Round is the two hosts, it also explores the various cultures they visit along the way.
They frequently have to immerse themselves in local customs and cuisines, and this gives them a unique opportunity to explore cultures and communities that regular tourists wouldn’t reach.
While I don’t have a passion for motorcycles, it’s one of the most enjoyable aspects of this particular show. Flicking to armchair travel mode allows you to take on any travel type and enjoy it even if you wouldn’t particularly choose it as your mode of travel.
Long Way Round was praised for its authenticity, adventure, and the genuine friendship and camaraderie between McGregor and Boorman. It has inspired motorcycle enthusiasts and adventurers alike by shining a light on the merits of the journey as well as the destinations.
Where to Watch:
Long Way Round can be enjoyed right now on Amazon Prime Video.
10. An Idiot Abroad (UK)
An Idiot Abroad was created by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, the brains behind The Office. It sees their friend and erstwhile producer, Karl Pilkington, sent to random places around the world to give his uniquely insular point of view on the cultural differences he finds there. as the titular “idiot” sent on global adventures.
What sets this show apart is Karl Pilkington’s candid and unpretentious approach to travel. Unlike typical travel documentaries, An Idiot Abroad emphasises humour and contrasts Pilkington’s scepticism with the cultural richness of each location.
As the man himself says, “I always have a problem liking things that I’m told I should like.” Pilkington’s narrow-mindedness reminds us of the great many cultural pleasures there are out there.
I love the mix of both travel and comedy in this. Pilkington travels to some interesting destinations which I found kept me hooked and his comedic ability had be laughing out loud throughout most of the series.
While some would argue that An Idiot Abroad is a comedy show, first and foremost, I would disagree.
The series unintentionally provides cultural insights through Pilkington’s interactions and observations, and his unfiltered reactions and misadventures contribute to a genuine and sometimes unintentional exploration of local cultures, cuisine, and lifestyles.
An Idiot Abroad has been well-received for its unique blend of comedy and travel. Karl Pilkington’s deadpan humour and genuine reactions resonate with audiences, making it a totally unique show and attracting an audience that might not otherwise watch this sort of show.
Where to Watch:
An Idiot Abroad is available to stream now on Amazon Prime Video.
Section 3: The Impact of These Shows on Viewers
3.1. Inspiring Travel and Exploration
Travel documentary series, such as Around the World in 80 Days, Great Railway Journeys, and Long Way Round, are a constant source of inspiration for viewers to explore new places.
These shows paint vivid pictures of breathtaking landscapes, diverse cultures, and intriguing histories, awakening a sense of wanderlust in their audiences through various approaches, be that motorcycles, trains, or a straightforward adventure.
They paint an idealised view of travel as well as travelling and whet the appetite not just to visit new places but to spend time on planes, trains, and automobiles too.
Other shows like Race Across the World and An Idiot Abroad add a unique twist to the travel TV format, showcasing different forms of exploration and highlighting the importance of the people you travel with as well as the endeavour itself.
3.2. Broadening Horizons
Shows like these also serve to broaden viewers’ cultural understanding and tolerance. Ugly Delicious and Dark Tourist are two great examples of shows that take elements of travel that put some people off and make them exciting and fun.
In doing so, they challenge preconceived notions and foster a deeper appreciation for the complexities of cultures around the world. Ugly Delicious, for example, highlights the beauty in unconventional foods, fostering acceptance and curiosity for different culinary traditions.
Other good examples are shows like Down to Earth with Zac Efron and An Idiot Abroad. These showcase authentic interactions with locals, whether it’s through exploring sustainable living practices or navigating through the comedic scepticism of Karl Pilkington.
They allow viewers to empathise with and appreciate the uniqueness of various societies and, in doing so, promote cultural tolerance and encourage a more open-minded worldview, breaking down barriers and fostering a sense of global interconnectedness that can only result in all of us being more adventurous ourselves
Section 4: The Future of Travel-Based Reality TV
4.1. Emerging Trends
What does the future of travel-based reality TV hold?
We can safely predict that several trends are likely to emerge, driven by technological advancements and evolving viewer preferences.
AR and VR
Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) are likely to play a significant role, offering viewers immersive experiences that go beyond traditional screen-based viewing.
This could involve using VR headsets to explore destinations or employing AR to provide real-time information and interactive elements during the show.
Perhaps we will even watch shows like this while we are actually in the locations being covered. I’m not sure how much I would enjoy that idea, though.
Greater social media integration, live polls, and real-time audience engagement could shape the course of a TV journey, making the viewing experience more dynamic and responsive to audience input.
As Zac Efron has already touched on, sustainability and eco-conscious travel is already a massively growing area thanks to an increasing global awareness of environmental issues.
We can expect travel shows to focus more on destinations and practices that promote responsible tourism and highlight eco-friendly initiatives, sustainable accommodation, and cultural preservation efforts.
Another possibility is more personalised and specialist travel experiences being broadcast with Artificial Intelligence (AI) and other technologies helping to tailor content to individual preferences.
Many of the shows listed above have pushed back the barriers of the travel TV genre in their own way. And as a big fan myself, I can’t wait to see what the future holds for reality travel TV.
Travel-based reality TV has emerged as a powerful medium, transcending screens to inspire and educate audiences in equal measure.
Through immersive storytelling, cultural exploration, and the lens of real-world adventures, these shows genuinely help to shape viewers’ perceptions of the world.
They encourage audiences to embrace the transformative experiences from the comfort of their living rooms and all too often inspire a wanderlust that sends them out into the world to have their own adventures.
I have written this guide while sitting in a beachfront hotel in Southeast Asia. Without some of the shows in this list, I would still be sitting in my dingy South London flat.
Reality Travel TV has changed my life and my perception of the world. And I know I am not alone.
What is your favourite reality travel tv show? I would love to hear about it so please drop me a comment below.