Like many travelers, I’ve always loved reading books and watching movies that take place in other cultures around the world — but 2020 took my obsession to my new heights.
Trapped at home with nowhere to go and nothing to do but chill, I devoured books and movies with strong senses of place. They became my salve, my saving grace, my one-way ticket to the outside world when the outside world was unreachable. I even wrote my own “armchair escapism” book, Destination Wellness, about well-being philosophies around the world (out April 6, 2021).
Since we’re still stuck at home for the foreseeable future, I thought I’d share my top escapist picks with you as we begin 2021. After all, while we may not be able to travel for a little while longer, we can certainly wander the world in our minds — and as 2020 reminded me over and over again, mental vacations can be pretty sweet, too.
If you want to go to Italy
Read: The Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante (2012—2015)
I have never been to Naples, but after reading this set of four books, I feel like I have. The series chronicles the lives of two best friends, Elena and Lila, who grow up in a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of Naples in the 1950s. Each book documents one phase of their lives: childhood (My Brilliant Friend), their early marriage years (The Story of a New Name), their child-rearing years (Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay), and middle age (The Story of the Lost Child). But one of the biggest recurring themes throughout all of them is the divisive nature of Naples itself. I particularly enjoyed book number two, when teenage Lila and Elena take a summer trip to the Italian island of Ischia, a popular escape from nearby Naples. Ferrante’s descriptions of the sea air and the beach-town vibe had me looking for Airbnbs in Ischia the whole time. (The quartet has also been made into a series on HBO, but I have not watched it yet, because I am nervous about spoiling what is, in my mind, an absolutely perfect set of books!)
Read: Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter (2013)
Set partly in current-day Hollywood and partly in a fictional town on the Italian coastline in the 1960s, Beautiful Ruins sweeps you away with both its plotline and its nostalgic imagery. While I loved the tale itself, about a fateful love-at-first-sight meeting in Italy that continues in Hollywood 50 years later, I was mostly in it for the dreamy descriptions of the fictional town that sounded an awfully lot like Positano. Prepare to be enraptured by the Adequate View Hotel, perched on a rocky cliff above the glimmering Ligurian Sea; Alvis, the elusive American novelist who comes to stay there; and Dee Moray, the beautiful, ethereal, goddess-like actress at the center of it all. But mostly, prepare to be enraptured by 1960s coastal Italy in all of its old-school, golden-days-of-travel glamour.
Watch: Call Me By Your Name (2017)
I must confess: I have not read the book that this movie is based on (published in 2007 by André Aciman). But I have watched the movie multiple times, and it has completely transported me to the Italian countryside on each and every viewing. Set in rural northern Italy in the early 1980s, the movie documents the relationship between a 17-year-old, Elio, and his father’s graduate school assistant, Oliver. Come for the illuminating coming-of-age plotline, but stay for the leisurely countryside lunches at the family villa and the romantic bike rides through the rolling Italian hills.
If you want to go to India
Read: Where The Peacocks Sing by Alison Singh Gee (2014)
My husband Rahul grew up in New Delhi, so I am particularly drawn to books and movies that are set in India — and Where the Peacocks Sing is my #1 favorite of all of the books that I’ve read. The memoir begins in bustling Hong Kong, where the author, Alison Singh Gee, is working as a journalist at a popular magazine. She develops a crush on Ajay, the Indian correspondent for the same magazine, and soon enough she travels to India to be with him. Little does she know... he is an actual prince! But this is not an old-school fairy tale: Alison soon learns that Ajay’s rural family palace is falling apart, and there are all sorts of complicated dynamics within its walls. Pick up this beautiful, honest memoir for a transportive peek into small village life in India, where tradition still prevails, and see how modern-day woman Alison struggles to find her place.
Read: The Windfall by Diksha Basu (2017)
As one of India’s most celebrated contemporary authors, Diksha Basu paints a hilarious — and hilariously real — portrait of a New Delhi family that suddenly gets rich from a business deal, and can finally afford to move from their housing complex in East Delhi to the wealthier side of town, Gurgaon. I loved following the Jha family’s journey from their housing complex to the richer neighborhood, where they quickly develop an entirely new set of struggles born of their desire to keep up with their new neighbors. As a born-and-raised Delhi kid himself, my husband Rahul confirmed that he knows many Delhi families who have dreamed of making a similar move, which of course gave the book even more meaning for me. I was also fascinated by all of the flashy, symbolic markers of wealth in Gurgaon, from fancy cars to shoe-polishing machines to security guards who watch over your property every night.
Watch: Little Things (2016—present)
Set in modern-day Mumbai, this incredibly sweet Netflix series follows a millennial couple in their 20s, Kavya and Dhruv, as they navigate the ups and downs of their relationship and their lives together. I loved watching them bop around Mumbai, going from their office jobs to their favorite restaurants to their shared apartment together. And I especially loved the scenes where they visit their parents in their hometowns and we get to see them interact with even more parts of India (Kavya is from a small town, while Dhruv grew up in Delhi). As an American, I feel about Little Things the way I’m sure many outside of the US feel about Friends: while I know that this is a TV show, it still feels like a genuine window into millennial life in Mumbai. And I didn’t even have to fly halfway across the world to get a taste for it myself.
If you want to go to the Europe of your romance dreams
Watch: The “Before” Trilogy (1995, 2004, 2013)
Is this even a transportive travel roundup if The “Before” Trilogy is not on the list? This classic, universally-adored series of three movies — Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight — chronicles the lives of fated couple Jesse and Céline, as they wander around Europe at various points in their lives. Each film takes place over the course of what feels like an entire lifetime, but is in actuality only a couple hours. Before Sunrise is set in Vienna, Before Sunset takes us to Paris, and Before Midnight brings us to a village in Greece — but all of them transport us to a dreamy place where time stands still and the magic of travel reigns supreme.
If you want to go to Ireland
Read and watch: Normal People by Sally Rooney (book 2018; show 2020)
Whenever books are made into movies, I tend to like one version better than the other — but I can honestly tell you that I am equally obsessed with Normal People in both book and TV show form. Contemporary Irish millennial author Sally Rooney takes us to Sligo, Ireland, a coastal seaport town in the northwest, where we meet Connell and Marianne, two local souls ultimately destined for each other. After dating on and off through high school, Connell and Marianne eventually end up at Trinity College in Dublin together, after which the story weaves back and forth between Dublin and Sligo. The series did an especially epic job transporting me to the bleary, salty, windswept coastline of Ireland. All I wanted to do was hang out at a dark, cozy Irish pub with Connell and Marianne and talk about life and love (and, yes, swoon over Connell’s silver chain).
If you want to go to Hawaii
Watch: The Descendants (2011)
Yes, there are all sorts of classic rom-coms that take place in Hawaii, like 50 First Dates and Forgetting Sarah Marshall. But then there is The Descendants, which offers a more genuine snapshot of real local life in the aloha state. The film follows Matt, a Hawaiian attorney in Honolulu played by George Clooney, who is the sole trustee of 25,000 acres of family land in Kauai. When his cousins decide they want to sell the land for millions of dollars, Matt embarks on a battle to preserve his family history — even if the rest of his family is not on board with this plan. To me, this movie has it all: family drama, a depiction of real cultural issues in Hawaii, and beautiful, sweeping, breathtaking shots of Hawaiian land in all of its tropical, magical glory.
If you want to go to Jamaica
Read: Here Comes the Sun by Nicole Dennis-Benn (2017)
This is the Jamaican novel that needed to be written. While many movies set in Jamaica tend to take place in five-star resorts, Here Comes the Sun tells the story of what’s really happening within those hotel walls. In the book, Jamaican author Nicole Dennis-Benn introduces us to 30-year-old Margot, a local Jamaican woman who works at a resort in Montego Bay and is harboring a secret love for another woman, and her 15-year-old sister Thandi, whom she is trying to protect from a hard life like hers. We soon learn that a new hotel for tourists is threatening the survival of the small village where they live with their mother, and we follow Margot, Thandi and their mother on a journey to save the village — and thus save themselves. As someone who has traveled to Jamaica many, many times, I loved how this book took me to the real side of the country that most tourists don’t see — and illuminated just how much is at stake when tourism and local life co-exist.
If you want to go to Spain
Watch: Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (2011)
If you don’t know Hindi, you’ll have to watch this Bollywood movie with subtitles, but it’s so worth it for the old-school romance of a classic European road trip. The saga follows three childhood friends from India, Arjun, Kabir, and Imraan, who meet up in Spain for a road trip to reignite their friendship. Throughout their journey, they travel to Barcelona, Seville, Costa Brava, and more, all the while letting the magic of travel help them work out various issues in their lives. My favorite scene is when they travel to Pamplona to compete in the scary-yet-thrilling running of the bulls competition, in which participants choose to run through the narrow streets of Pamplona in the hopes of beating the bulls chasing them from behind. While this classic Bollywood gem is filled with life lessons, I love watching it for the Spanish scenery, which really made me crave some tapas!
If you want to go to Argentina
Read: What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding by Kristin Newman (2014)
Kristin Newman is one of my all-time favorite funny writers. In her memoir, with its hilarious title, she chronicles her life through her 20s and 30s as she travels around the world solo and single for months at a time in between gigs as a sitcom writer in Hollywood. While she hits multiple countries through the years, she keeps feeling the pull to go back to Argentina, mostly because it’s her spirit home but also because she has an on-again-off-again lover who teaches her Spanish while they’re lounging around in bed. I loved traveling vicariously around Argentina with Kristin, especially when she was invited to fabulous house parties in Bueno Aires, but I also loved hearing about her obsession with Argentina overall. As travelers, we all have that one particular happy place, the place that lights our souls on fire, and it was reaffirming to watch someone give so much value to hers. While Kristin didn’t always have a concrete reason to return to Argentina, she felt that its cosmic pull was reason enough, and I applaud her for highlighting the role happy places play in our lives. They are a real phenomenon, and they deserve to be recognized!
If you want to go around the world
Watch: A Map for Saturday (2007)
Filmed and produced by filmmaker Brook Silva-Braga, this travel documentary chronicles Brook’s yearlong around-the-world journey in 2005, when he was 25 years old. This is one of the few travel movies that isn’t as much about the destinations he visits, but about the journey itself. It captures the freewheeling, always-moving, incredibly-enticing spirit of long-term travel where, as Brook says, every day feels like Saturday. I loved witnessing Brook’s various short-term romances and fleeting friendships and hostel gatherings, but mostly, I was there for his travel-inspired epiphanies, the ones where he realized that he may be alone on the road, but he is rarely lonely — for the world opens up when you greet it with open arms. Bonus: it’s extra fun to watch the documentary today because it captures travel at a time before the rise of social media, when people still took photos with actual cameras and didn’t share the journey with their community as it was happening. Imagine that!
Watch: Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown (2013—2018)
It seems fitting to end this transportive roundup with a nod to the late, great Anthony Bourdain. While the chef, travel journalist, and generally awesome travel human wrote many books and hosted numerous shows throughout his life, my favorite is definitely Parts Unknown, where, for 12 epic seasons and 104 episodes, we were lucky enough to travel the globe with him as he approached culture through the lens of food. More often than not, each episode is less about the dishes themselves than the people and the stories behind them — and isn’t that what travel is all about?
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