Movies and TV play a powerful role in shaping and enhancing our European travels. A Harry Potter franchise can dramatically boost tourism to the UK. Game of Thrones helped put entire chunks of Europe (Dubrovnik, Northern Ireland) on the “must-see” map. A random little church in Scotland became flooded with tourists after appearing in a Tom Hanks blockbuster, And a recent surge in visitors to Norway is largely credited to a massively successful film — Frozen — that is not even explicitly set in Norway. Movies and TV show us the world…and inspire us to go experience it.
In a previous life, I had a two-year stint writing movie reviews for my hometown Gazette (which locals affectionately called the “Guess-At”). While my love of movies never went away, it was soon eclipsed by my love of travel. And to this day, before I go on any trip, I load up my iPad with movies and TV shows that are related to the places I’m visiting.
So, combining my two loves, here’s a list of the 10 movies and TV shows that most effectively stoke my wanderlust for Europe. A few caveats: This is a highly idiosyncratic list, weighted heavily toward Eastern Europe and 20th-century history (two of my travel passions). I’ve intentionally limited esoteric, foreign-language, art house films; instead, I’ve focused on mainstream entertainment that’s easy to find and easy to digest. And I also want to stress that these are, by no means, the 10 best movies about Europe. Rather, these are the movies that best capture the spirit of Europe, most successfully convey a sense of place…and get me excited for my next trip.
No Man’s Land (2001), Bosnia-Herzegovina
I’ve spent much of my career grappling with the breakup of Yugoslavia in the mid-1990s. And this egregiously underwatched film (which won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film) is the best I’ve seen when it comes to providing real insight into the conflict. No Man’s Land doesn’t attempt to explain the geopolitical or historical reasons for ethnic cleansing. Rather, it captures the experience of normal, everyday people on the front lines — swirling inside a whirlpool of agendas bigger than them. It’s about people who never really cared that much about sectarian strife until someone put a gun in their hands and dropped them into a trench. Surprisingly funny, it’s also darkly comic in showing the callous self-interest of international participants with no personal stake in the outcome. According to many of my friends in the former Yugoslavia, this film’s absurdist tone rings painfully true.
Before Sunset (2004), Paris
A pair of star-crossed lovers (played by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy) reunite in the City of Light nine years after spending a night wandering around Vienna together nine years earlier. We catch up on what they’ve been doing since Before Sunrise and watch them fall in love all over again, in real time. While Paris is only a backdrop, the film captures a real sense of place: bohemian cafés, cobbled back lanes, sun-dappled parks, and the sumptuous Seine riverbank. It’s well worth watching Before Sunrise first — just to get to know the younger versions of Jesse and Céline — but this middle chapter of Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy is, for me, the most compelling.
Saving Private Ryan (1998), Normandy
As a World War II buff and a proud American, I’ve never traveled anyplace that filled me with more humbled appreciation for my forebears than the D-Day beaches of Normandy. The only thing that can make a visit to the rusted tank barriers, evocative cemeteries, and abandoned gun emplacements on France’s sandy northern coastline more poignant? Heading back to your hotel and watching Saving Private Ryan, which captures both the epic scale of Operation Overlord and its human cost. (If you’re left wanting more, the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers — produced around the same time, by many of the same filmmakers — offers a deeper dive into the Allied invasion of Europe.)
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013), Iceland
I feel conflicted about this one. While I admire its gee-whiz optimism, and I’m charmed by the lead performances by Ben Stiller (who also directed) and Kristen Wiig, ultimately it doesn’t quite stick the landing. Even so, when I’m planning a trip to Iceland, I find myself getting an itch to rewatch it, if only for the marvelous use it makes of Icelandic filming locations. In one scene, the title character — epically, if nonsensically — skateboards his way down a long, curving mountain road to a fjordside village, before escaping from an erupting volcano. Iceland also stands in for Greenland and for the cut-glass peaks of the Himalayas. And, to its credit, Walter Mitty captures the pure joy of venturing out, for the first time, into a big, exciting, fascinating world.
Schindler’s List (1993) and The Pianist (2002), the Holocaust in Poland
This one-two cinematic gut punch brings to excruciating life the reality of the Holocaust in Poland. Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece (and Best Picture Oscar winner), Schindler’s List, tells the story of the Jewish people who lived in the Kraków neighborhood of Kazimierz. (It was also filmed there, which revitalized interest in a rich Jewish heritage that had been largely swept under the rug during communism.) And The Pianist features Adrian Brody (in a role that won him the Best Actor Oscar) as Władysław Szpilman, the acclaimed Warsaw concert pianist who became a refugee hiding out in his own city. While both films do a remarkable job of dramatizing a dark chapter in Polish history, the scenes in The Pianist that show a broken Szpilman stumbling through the rubble of Warsaw are particularly poignant in conveying the full impact of war and genocide.
Outlander Season 1 (2014), Scottish Highlands
A love letter to the Scottish Highlands, Outlander paints a vivid portrait of rural Scotland at its zenith in the mid-18th century, immediately before the Battle of Culloden sparked the decline of the clan system. Unapologetically racy (in a Fifty Shades of Plaid kind of way), it’s also a compelling love story — thanks to a magnetic lead performance by Catriona Balfe as a WWII-era English nurse magically transported back two centuries. While working on our Rick Steves Scotland guidebook, I found Outlander the perfect way to wind down at the end of each day of driving along moody lochs, bonny glens, and stony villages. (And my Scottish friends gave it high marks for historical accuracy — particularly compared to the many liberties taken by Braveheart.) Later seasons spend more time away from Scotland — leaving much of that Highlands magic behind — but Season 1 is a Scottish treat.
Good Bye Lenin! (2003), Cold War East Berlin
This funny, touching, surprisingly lighthearted movie offers glimpses into what it was like to live behind the Iron Curtain — before, during, and after the transition from communism to capitalism. Daniel Brühl plays a young man who looks after his fragile mother, an ardent communist who goes into a coma just before the Berlin Wall falls. When she awakens several months later, Brühl and his sister are determined to hide the potentially devastating truth from her. If you’re headed to Berlin and want a taste of “Ost-algie” (nostalgia for Cold War East Germany), Good Bye Lenin! is a must. (This narrowly beat out 2006’s The Lives of Others — a much darker, but equally insightful, take on life in communist East Germany.)
The Crown (2016-Present), Britain’s Tumultuous 20th Century
It’s staggering to think of all the history that Queen Elizabeth II has witnessed during her nearly seven decades on the throne of the United Kingdom. Peter Morgan’s series The Crown, grand in both its narrative ambition and its geographical scope, captures that history powerfully — from world-changing events to intimate family relationships. During the first two seasons, Claire Foy and Matt Smith created the definitive screen versions of the Queen and Prince Phillip (not to mention John Lithgow in a career-capping role as Winston Churchill). Then season three kicked off with a time jump and an entirely new cast, with Olivia Coleman and Tobias Menzies taking over the lead roles. Since seeing The Crown, there’s no other TV show or movie that comes to mind more often as I travel around Britain.
The Death of Yugoslavia (1995)
Documentaries could be an entire “top 10” list of their own, but I’ve included just this one, because it’s a marvel: a five-part BBC series (hosted by Christiane Amanpour) that traces the descent of Yugoslavia into war in the 1990s. It’s expertly illustrated by copious news footage and actual interviews with every single one of the major players, from Slobodan Milošević to Bill Clinton. Best of all, you can watch it in its entirety on YouTube (start here, with episode one). It’s an astonishing achievement in capturing the “history as it happens” aspect of the most recent war to take place on European soil, and required viewing for anyone going to Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, or any other former-Yugoslav lands.
Rick Steves Europe (2000-Present)
While this may seem like blatant product placement, the fact is that when I’m heading to Europe, there’s no better way to get ready than by watching Rick’s travelogues. They help me visualize what I’m traveling so far to see, make informed decisions about how to prioritize my time, and gain historical context for my sightseeing. Yes, I’m completely biased. But after more than 120 episodes, there’s still nobody who teaches travel on TV better than Rick Steves.
This was a tough list to narrow down! Here are some more favorites that didn’t quite make the cut.
The Third Man (1949), Post-WWII Vienna: Starring Orson Welles, this classic film captures a unique moment in time, when Vienna was in rubble — and, thanks to its position straddling East and West, was a den of spies.
Sherlock (2010-Present), London: Aside from being a rollicking, riveting update of a classic of English literature, the BBC/PBS Sherlock series (starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman) captures the spirit of contemporary London: grand landmarks, dreary Tube stations, sweeping Thames panoramas, thumbing out text messages in the back of a black cab, and so on.
Inglourious Basterds (2009), WWII Europe: Quentin Tarantino’s films are, understandably, not everyone’s cup of tea. But I’m a fan, and this is my favorite. Not only does it present — spoiler warning! — an intensely satisfying, over-the-top-gruesome death scene for Hitler and the entire Nazi leadership. But the film’s most pivotal, most riveting scene hangs on the subtle cultural difference that Brits (like Americans) count with their index finger as “one,” while Germans (like other Continental Europeans) use their thumb.
Master of None Season 2 (2017), Tuscany: The first two episodes of this Aziz Ansari Netflix series’ second season were filmed in Tuscany. The first — a takeoff of Bicycle Thieves — captures the joy of being an American in a small Italian town. The second episode basks in the sumptuous scenery of my all-time favorite corner of Italy, the Val d’Orcia, near Pienza. In one memorable scene, a little car gets stuck in a narrow lane…a hilarious nightmare-come-true for any American driver who’s tried to navigate Old World villages.
Bridge of Spies (2015), Cold War Berlin: Along with a vintage Tom Hanks performance and Steven Spielberg’s reliably engaging direction, this film offers a glimpse of Berlin just as the Cold War was heating up. In one captivating scene, a masterful continuous shot twists in and out of the Berlin Wall at the very moment that it’s being built.
Notting Hill (1999), London: Both for its intimate portrait of a colorful, gritty, trendy London neighborhood (which, thanks partly to this movie, has become touristy and quite posh), and for its sharp British wit, this one’s a sentimental favorite.
Chernobyl (2019): HBO’s acclaimed miniseries is painstakingly researched, grippingly dramatized, and required viewing if you’re planning to visit the site of the world’s worst nuclear accident. Don’t miss the official companion podcast with the show’s creator, Craig Mazin, which greatly enhances the experience of watching the show.
James Bond Movies: Some of the most beautiful European scenery ever filmed has been set dressing for big 007 set pieces. Recent favorites include the motorcycle chase through Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar (in 2012’s Skyfall), the shootout in a sinking Venetian palazzo (in 2006’s Casino Royale), a footrace across the terra cotta rooftops of Siena during the Palio horse race (in 2008’s Quantum of Solace), and the Bond family estate in a moody Scottish Highlands glen (also in Skyfall) — and that’s just the Dennis Craig Bond.
Jason Bourne Movies: The European scenery in Bond films feels just like that: scenery. The Bourne movies, on the other hand, don’t serve up Europe on a prettified platter — they live in its grittiest corners. I love the way they’re largely set in real public spaces of unromantic cities like Berlin, Zürich, and Moscow — hulking train stations, rush hour-clogged boulevards, grubby concrete squares — rather than prettied-up piazzas or alpine vistas. When I travel, I spend a lot of time in gloomy train stations…and I’ve never seen those captured so true-to-life as in the Borne movies.
Pretty Much Every Movie, Budapest: I am a Budapest aficionado (heck, I literally wrote the book on the place). And I love spotting my favorite city standing in for other European locales in a long string of Hollywood hits. The city’s patina of faded European elegance is enticing to filmmakers: Steven Spielberg’s Munich (2005), in which Budapest stood in for everywhere from Paris to Rome; Evita (1996), in which Budapest became Buenos Aires; I Spy (2002), an atrocious Eddie Murphy/Owen Wilson action comedy that made glorious use of its Budapest location; and the opening scenes of Mission Impossible — Ghost Protocol (2011). I even saw a movie being filmed once in Budapest: Riding on a bus in the streets near the parliament, I glanced out the window to see what looked like a shootout raging on a random side-street. About a year later, I recognized the scene in Melissa McCarthy’s Spy (2015).
This is just scratching the surface. Everyone has their sentimental favorite Europe movies. What are some of yours, and why?
If you like these ideas, there are many more things to watch (and read). Here’s a country-by-country rundown of our favorite books and movies for every place in Europe.