Travel shows are no substitute for actually hitting the road and seeing the sights. But whether you watch them for inspirational or aspirational applications there are some fun and informative offerings on cable and network TV.
Herewith are five of my favorite ways to see the world from the comfort of my couch. You have to lead with Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown. Then channel surf to these travel shows: Conan Without Borders, The Amazing Race, Ugly Delicious and Instant Hotel.
Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown
Until his tragic suicide in 2018, Anthony Bourdain was the rock star of travel show hosts. He was, at first, a celebrity chef who came to despise the idea of celebrity chefs. He took to the road to find exotic cuisine, but revealed so much more about people and places around the world.
He started on TV with A Cook’s Tour (2002-2003) on Food Network. Then it was No Reservations (2005-2012) and The Layover (2011-2013) on the Travel Channel. He landed on CNN with Parts Unknown in 2013.
There was no pretense from the host on Parts Unknown. Bourdain ate and drank and got the unvarnished skinny from locals whether he was in Israel or West Virginia. Recall that in 2016, Bourdain and President Barack Obama chatted over beers in a Vietnamese restaurant.
It’s a little difficult to watch reruns knowing Bourdain took his life. You wonder what he was thinking while he was traveling the globe—for what would appear to be one of the best jobs in the world. Still, Parts Unknown is the gold standard of travel shows.
Episodes of Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown can be purchased on Amazon Prime.
Conan Without Borders
The senior funnyman of late-night talk shows also shines as a travel host. Without Borders is a chance for Conan O’Brien to get international laughs—but there’s a poignancy to most of the episodes.
Conan loves to play the clown. But his travel shows to several locations have played off news headlines. Especially news headlines spawned by the current U.S. President.
When U.S.-Mexico relations were dampened by Trump, Conan went south of the border. When the Orange One disparaged Haiti, Conan planned a trip to the island to do damage control.
Earlier this year, the Dealmaker-in-Chief opined that buying Greenland might be a good idea. And so off to the continent went Conan—with the premise of talking Greenlanders into becoming U.S. citizens. Conan dined with locals on dried fish and seal blubber, but hysterically failed to convert them.
The Amazing Race
Contestants in The Amazing Race travel in a worldwide scavenger hunt to win a one-million-dollar prize. Since 2001, 31 episodes have aired and the show has netted 13 Emmy Awards.
Yes, it’s a reality show. There’s some made-for-TV drama. However, New Zealand-born host Phil Keoghan is no-nonsense and anything but schlocky.
Contestants travel from country to country and compete in challenges. They hail taxis. And they travel by planes, trains, automobiles, helicopters and hot air balloons. Eleven teams of two members start each season and are progressively eliminated.
The Amazing Race does a commendable of honoring native customs and landmarks. Challenges have included: Tea Tasting in India; Sand castling in French Polynesia; and cheese wheel racing in Switzerland.
The Amazing Race airs on CBS.
You can love a show even if you think the host is kind of a prick. Ugly Delicious is a great concept. It involves traveling the world for an hour-long show about how one food dish is prepared in different countries.
Successful chef David Chang (founder of the Momofuku chain) knows food and cares about culinary history. That doesn’t make his abrasive personality palatable. But Chang aside, it’s a beautifully filmed, thoughtful production. And yes, he kind of grows on you.
Of Korean descent, Chang isn’t shy about professing his admiration for the way food is prepared in his parents’ native country. Sure, he makes the case for BBQ. But he bends over backwards praising Asian preparations of dumplings, fried rice and even pizza.
Chang takes celebs like Aziz Ansari, Steven Yeun and Ali Wong on his travel trips. Those personalities help temper the mood when the inevitable Chang rant flares up.
Ugly Delicious airs on Netflix.
This Australian competition TV series follows homeowners who have transformed their homes into instant hotels (akin to Airbnbs). It’s cheeky—but it’s reality TV with Australian accents.
Touring Australia through the eyes of natives who are sometimes seeing Bondi Beach, Port Douglas or the Barossa Valley for the first time, is captivating. And wait until you see the subterranean house in desolate, fly-infested Coober Pedy.
There have been two seasons—and thankfully the rules for winning were changed from one year to the next. The first season allowed the competing homeowners to rank each other. Unfair numerical grades were meted out. A new scoring system takes some of the impartiality out of the mix.
Interior designer Juliet Ashworth helps judge the hospitality aspect of the instant hotels. Host Luke Jacobz (who entered in Season 2) offers insight and acts as a comedic foil.
Instant Hotel airs on Netflix. J&J