If you’re reading this, you’re staring at a screen. Wouldn’t you rather be exploring a different part of the world than the internet? Get inspired by the best travel and adventure documentaries streaming on Netflix right now.
Sure, we’re asking you to stare at a different screen when you watch these movies and shows. But after you view stunning panoramic views of the United States’ National Parks, sizzling entrees from far-off countries, and chilling feats of human bravery, you won’t be able to help yourself — you’ll have to get off the couch and get outside or schedule that next trip.
While the late, great Anthon Bourdain’s original acclaimed series, No Reservations, focused on the culinary scene of each location, Parts Unknown is a more encompassing look at the cultures, people, and history that make up the lesser-known gems in our big, beautiful world. Bourdain’s famed background as a chef means the series has an edible slant, so foodies will enjoy Parts Unknown as much as adventure-hungry travelers. The 12th and final season of Parts Unknown debuted on CNN in fall 2018, so the 11th season came to Netflix in December 2019.
The year 2016 marked the 100th anniversary of the U.S. National Parks Service, a federal program that has saved such treasures as Yellowstone and Yosemite for public use. National Parks Adventure, an ambitious documentary from filmmaker Greg MacGillivray and narrated by the one-and-only Robert Redford, explores the history and modern landscape of America’s precious natural assets. Artist Rachel Pohl, mountaineer Conrad Anker, and photographer Max Lowe lead the journey on camera from glaciers in Montana to the spectacle of Utah’s natural arches. Warning: This film will trigger severe travel envy, which can only be treated by planning your own trip to a national park.
All of the most potent documentary films, in-depth magazine features, and stirring non-fiction works have someone to thank: the person behind the camera. Photographers are often left out of the spotlight because they’re too busy searching for the next perfect shot (and, you know, taking it). Tales By Light, which began as a short series from Canon and evolved into a partnership with National Geographic, introduces you to one amazing photographer in each episode and takes you along his or her next journey to capture elusive wildlife, unique communities, and heartfelt themes. The almost metaphysical look through the lens at another person looking through a lens encourages you to see the subject matter in a slightly different light (no pun on the show name intended). The third season arrived to Netflix in December 2018.
What happens when a group of rock climbers goes toe-to-toe with the National Park Service in Yosemite, one of the country’s most amazing landscapes? A few parties, a little bit of dumpster diving, a little more drama, and some of the most daring feats of climbing you’ve ever seen. Valley Uprising, narrated by Peter Sarsgaard, causes you to think about the importance of public lands, the power of counterculture, and the thrill of the climb.
El Capitan in Yosemite is one of the most famous climbing destinations and the Dawn Wall, so named because it is the first thing in the valley to be illuminated in the morning, had never been free-climbed (the act of using equipment only to protect from falls, not to assist in climbing) until Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgensen took it on. The documentary explains the years of training and each climber’s motivation for attempting the world-record climb.
Speaking of climbing — why do we even do this? Isn’t a bit odd that we consider scaling mountains a recreational activity? Humanity’s urge to explore the highest reaches of the Earth is discussed in the aptly named Mountain. Director Jennifer Peedam and photographer/mountaineer Renan Ozturk showcase the most astonishing peaks and valleys to the soundtrack that is Willem Dafoe reading from Mountains of the Mind by Robert Macfarlane. The documentary is more experiential than educational, but inspirational nonetheless.
What’s more intense than spending an entire year cycling across 22 different countries? Filming yourself while you’re doing it. Felix Starck’s self-produced documentary of his journey will have you itching to try something similar.
The flight between California and Australia is long and grueling — now imagine rowing the Pacific Ocean. A team of four women known as the Coxless Crew share the 8,446-mile, nine-month adventure and all the challenges, fun, and fulfillment they encounter. If that wasn’t exhilarating enough, the team also raised thousands of dollars for breast cancer research and awareness in the process.
How can we talk about worldly flicks without mentioning Werner Herzog? The German filmmaker blessed with a velvety smooth narrating voice teamed up with long-time collaborator and cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger for another captivating documentary. Destination? The South Pole. Rather than focus on the wildlife found in Antarctica — yeah, penguins are cute, we get it — Encounters at the End of the World is a deep dive into the human population that works and lives on Earth’s most relentless continent: the resilient men and women who research the biology and geography that make up the bottom part of our globe. Highlights include volcanoes, ice caves, icebergs, okay, yes, some “fluffy penguins,” and a chilly rooftop concert.
Surf’s up … in Iceland? Travel to the opposite pole with Under an Arctic Sky and watch as six fearless (and perhaps a little reckless, but definitely fun-loving) surfers shred the coast of Iceland. During a storm. The movie is a heartfelt look at a dangerous sport in one of the most unforgiving, yet gorgeous places on Earth.
Speaking of real-life travels through foreign countries, imagine if you were vacationing with your dad? Comedian Jake Whitehall drags his father, Michaels, around on unlikely adventures that force them both out of their comfort zones. Their difference in tastes causes some interesting (and often funny) disagreements. For example: One of them wants to stay in a hostel. The other wants to stay in a five-star hotel. Who do you think wins? The first season follows the hilarious duo through Southeast Asia.
In 2016, Karl Meltzer completed the Appalachian Trail — a stretch of over 2,000 miles of rugged American terrain between Maine and Georgia — in record time. The name of this documentary, which chronicles the ultrarunner’s awe-inspiring and successful trek, takes on two meanings. Just last year, Joe McConaughy beat Meltzer’s time by nearly a day. Regardless, Made to Broken is a fascinating look at what it takes to pull off something as intense as covering a huge portion of the United States in less than two months.
Craving something more culinary? Check out the best food documentaries and series streaming on Netflix right now. If you like all kinds of docs, we’ve got you covered (or maybe you’re just really into crime docs and action flicks). Our brother site, Digital Trends, also has an overall guide on the best movies and shows.