Why Setjetting is My Favourite Way to Travel

Cassam has visited a number of famous film locations including this one in Germany. Gorlitz is home to the real Grand Budapest Hotel.
Cassam has visited a number of famous film locations including this one in Germany. Gorlitz is home to the real Grand Budapest Hotel. | © Cassam Looch

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When I swapped film journalism for travel writing in 2016 I initially thought I was making a complete career change. Sitting in a dark room for several hours a week watching movies seems like the polar opposite of hopping on a plane and and visiting different places around the world. Surprisingly, however, I’ve somehow found a way to combine my two great passions, and I’m not alone. Here’s why setjetting is growing in popularity and how I’ve managed to visit some of the best screen locations in real life.

Be sure to check out our selection of Epic Trips, many of which include popular destinations you’ll recognise from the big screen.

During the global pandemic many seasoned travellers were forced to look at alternative means of getting that sense of wanderlust usually found in real-life travel. Films and TV shows were a good source of escapism, but for some us this was nothing new. My background as a film journalist had meant that I had researched and even visited a number of locations in pursuit of a good story. I’ve done on-set interviews, behind-the-scenes videos and even helped put together some of the sequences you’ve seen on the big screen, but visiting locations for the sheer thrill of it is the thing I enjoy the most.

Racing on the rooftop seen in The Italian Job is a career highlight for travel writer and setjetter Cassam Looch

What is setjetting?

Major cities like London, Paris and New York will always have their fair share of visitors inspired by something they’ve seen onscreen. It’s now easy to emulate your favourites scenes, whether it’s posing in front of the iconic door from Notting Hill (1999), following in the foot steps of Emily (in Paris), or looking over the Manhattan skyline like Logan Roy in Succession. These cities also have numerous tours where you can spend a day living the lifestyle of your favourite screen icons, and hundreds of individual locations to visit.

In its purest form, setjetting has arguably existed since the very first promotional video for a destination was launched. Those sun-soaked clips you might once have seen in the shop windows of travel agents on the high street were designed to get you out to the places you saw on screen.

Today, however, setjetting tends to come from less deliberate forms of media. We might never know the true intention behind a series like White Lotus – which in two seasons has shown us the glamourous workings of luxury retreats in Hawaii and Sicily – but the primary intentions of the award-winning show is to entertain. The desire of viewers to visit both locations used as the backdrop for the show, however, is what I would consider a true setjetting inspiration.

Malta’s Popeye Village started of as an abandoned eyesore but is now one of the islands top attractions

When I worked on Beyond Hollywood, an award-winning series that took a closer look at film industries around the world, I was able to examine the link between the stories we tell and the places we live in. Setjetting involves a different approach whereby you get to visit the location you’ve seen onscreen, which usually tells the story of somewhere entirely removed from the setting.

A good example of this is Popeye Village in Malta, a location I visited after seeing pictures of it when researching Beyond Hollywood. The village was built for the film Popeye (1980) and was abandoned soon after production wrapped on the Robin Williams musical. You can now visit the attraction, which is also a waterpark, and see many of the props from the movie. The location has very little to do with the local film industry or even Maltese culture in general, but is still a huge slice of film heritage that is well worth experiencing as a cinephile.

Why do some locations become ‘iconic’?

Recreating famous scenes with film stills started the social media frenzy around setjetting. Here we see a real street in Gorlitz and a picture of how it looked on film in Grand Budapest Hotel

Predicting which screen locations will become popular isn’t an exact science. In some cases you can’t visit the destinations for practical reasons such as the production being entirely shot in a studio warehouse or mocked up backlot rather than in the real place. Marvel’s Black Panther (2018) might be set in the fictional country of Wakanda, but you would still assume that is was shot somewhere in Africa, right? The film was actually shot in Georgia, popular with American producers due to generous tax breaks. None of that stopped people looking to book trips to the fictional country, as Google searches for ‘flights to Wakanda’ surged after the film was released.

With some films, however, you do get an inkling that tourist numbers will increase once people set eyes on the setting. Mamma Mia! (2008) and The Beach (2000) were both shot in places that inevitably showcased locations in a way that made you fall in love with them. The Greek islands became popular with a younger audience after the ABBA-inspired musical was released, and Leonardo DiCaprio was one of the original travel influencers when he was filmed at Maya Bay for his 2000 movie. The Beach is actually one of the productions that has been held responsible for a problem directly caused by setjetting – overtourism. The eponymous beach actually had to close to tourists in recent years, while places like Dubrovnik in Croatia have also tried to distance themselves from TV tourism in the wake of Game of Thrones, in the latter’s case.

The Icelandic wilderness has featured in numerous film and tv shows in recent years

I’ve visited another Game of Thrones location several times now and it has become one of my favourite places in the world. I was first drawn to Iceland after I found out that HBO’s incredible fantasy series was partly shot there. It looked remarkable on screen and, with some apprehension that it would not live up to the hype, I made one of my first ever setjetting trips to the Land of Fire and Ice. Several films and TV shows have subsequently used Iceland as a backdrop and the local tourism industry actively promotes this link. When done in a sustainable way, as all trips to the country seem to be, you really can see the benefits of this branch of modern tourism on domestic economies. Culture Trip’s own Icelandic Adventure let’s you see more of the country and even see some of the stars from Game of Thrones too…

Needless to say that after several subsequent visits to the country, Iceland is one of the places that really did live up to the hype I had built up in my mind.

Essential film and TV locations to visit

If you’re looking to start joining the setjetting trend there are a number of popular hotspots you’ll want to consider. I’ve picked out some of my favourites below, which includes one I’ve already been to as well as a few that are on my bucket list.

Sometimes you have to join the other tourists and take a photo that has been done a million times before

Its worth remembering though that each checklist of destinations is ultimately a personal choice. What inspires me might not be the same as what inspires you. I find the best way of planning these types of trips is to rewatch a film or TV show that has stuck with you for some reason, and usually from this viewing experience you’ll find somewhere that fills you with a desperate sense of wonderment.

My final selection below came about from just that way of thinking. In the process of writing the list I suddenly remembered the very first place I saw on screen that I wanted to visit.

Matera – Italy

The stone city of Matera became popular after the release of No Time to Die (2021)

Of all the recent movie locations that have stood out, none have had a bigger impact that Matera. A small city in the southern Italian region of Basilicata, Matera was once the poorest and most deprived part of the country. Filmmakers were initially attracted to it for the very reason that others ignored it. Very few modern buildings can be seen along the skyline, instead the ancient stone dwellings that still stand there have allowed Matera to stand in for numerous ancient cities. For the Bond film No Time to Die we got to see it play itself, and audiences have been desperate to visit ever since.

You can visit Matera as part of Culture Trip’s Seductive Southern Italy trip this year and see this magical stone city for yourself.

Skopelos – Greece

The Greek Islands have always been popular with older travellers, but a younger crowd found themselves busily searching for the exact location where Meryl Streep and crew sang their hearts out in surprise hit Mamma Mia!. Skopelos, one of the first ‘mainstream’ setjet destinations, is a dreamy holiday escape in the western Aegean Sea that’s now popular with amateur karaoke enthusiasts and fans of sparkling onesies. One to avoid if you’re not keen on ABBA though…

Sicily – Italy

The Godfather series has left a big mark on the island of Sicily. More than 50 years after the first film in the mob saga was released, you can still do themed tours and visit some of the locations seen in Francis Ford Coppola’s decade-spanning epic. More modern setjet locations can be found in Taormina, Palermo and Noto, which were seen in The White Lotus season two. Keep an eye out for the island in the fifth Indiana Jones film, which is released in 2023.

Explore the best of Spectacular Sicily with Culture Trip’s 10-day itinerary around the island.

Görlitz – Germany

This former shopping mall in Germany stood in for the Grand Budapest Hotel

It might surprise some people to discover that the titular property in Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) is neither a hotel nor is it situated in Hungary. When I went in search of the stunning location, I eventually made my way to a sleepy German town on the border with Poland. Görlitz is home to an old shopping mall that stood in for the hotel in the Oscar-winning film. With special permission you can gain access to the building, which is now used for photoshoots and other filming projects. Görlitz itself has been nicknames Görliwood as the streets and buildings in the town were some of the few in the region to avoid allied bombing towards the end of WWII. Producers continue to use it as a location for period films when looking for an authentic Central European pre-war setting.

Petra – Jordan

Every setjetter has one location they treat as the ultimate prize. I have been obsessed with Petra in Jordon ever since I caught a glimpse of it in the final act of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989). I thought it had to be fake location, how else could an intricate façade be carved into the side of a cliff in the middle of the desert? Well it’s very real and one place I want to visit more than any other. I’m hoping to add it to my collection of setjet locations in 2023 and Culture Trip’s Discover Jordan offering gets you to Petra through an exclusive entrance that means you can take in the experience before the daily crowds arrive. It’s the only way to see it and exactly how Spielberg framed it in the movie.

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