Cinematic fantasies are built on expansive landscapes, created worlds and imagined technology. Movie classics were not all made in studios, however, and some very real places on earth have doubled for alien planets. Sci-fi fans who want an experiential vacation can create a checklist of their beloved movies or televisions series and go to the place where their favorite stories came to life.
Science fiction and fantasy fans are diverse. Some are fanatical about cinematic detail while others have only a passing interest in where their favorite actors may once have stood and said those famous lines. For the casual fan, there’s the tourist spot with the potential side visit to an old movie set. For the true geek, there are guided tours in celebration of beloved characters and franchises.
So whether you want to stick close to home or visit a far away location, consider this a mere starting list of some places to go. The sci-fi connection is usually only one factor that makes these places attractive travel destinations. So if you’re paired up with a travel companion who doesn’t go to Comic Con or who prefers a romantic comedy to a space action flick, there are plenty of activities to go around.
Remember some locations are remote and may not be worth the trip unless you’re a seasoned and cautious traveler. Take the plunge at your own risk. Pay attention to your government’s travel advisories and if you must wear a Planet of the Apes mask en route, be sure to remove it before going through airport security.
10. Cardiff, Wales
Cardiff is the capital of Wales, with a distinct culture. If you take ground transport in from England, you’ll have no doubt when you have crossed the border. Road signs are suddenly bilingual, in English and Welsh. Once you arrive in town, you can immerse yourself in Celtic culture. There’s even an ancient castle you can peruse.
Cardiff is also the home of Doctor Who, the classic sci-fi series in both its original and rebooted forms. Fans of the Doctor can take a walking tour of filming locations or see props and artifacts from the show in the Doctor Who Experience. “Whovians” will be in good company with other fans, who won’t mind the occasional TARDIS reference.
9. Arecibo, Puerto Rico
Arecibo is a sizable municipality in Puerto Rico, one of the territory’s oldest colonial towns. It is also where Jodie Foster received a message from aliens in Contact. In the film, she works on a project called SETI, or the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. In real life, the SETI Institute explores the prevalence of life in the universe.
The Arecibo Observatory houses the world’s largest radio telescope. Scientists sent out the Arecibo Message, designed to say “hello” to alien cultures, in 1974. Although visitors are welcome to tour the facility, it’s unlikely they’ll be witness to any alien “answers” to earth’s communications. The Arecibo Message won’t be received for another 25,000 years, followed by another 25,000 years of waiting before earth gets a reply.
8. Tozeur, Tunisia
Tozeur is far from a tourist hotpot. The Tourism Tunisia website says the city is most easily accessed via overnight train from Tunis. Once there, visitors can have a unique experience. You can explore the Sahara Desert on camel back, eat the local cuisine of lamb kebabs and cous cous and fill up your smartphone with endless pictures of the desert landscape.
Sci-fi fans can follow in the footsteps of Harrison Ford, as Tozeur boasts the land where the classic Raiders of the Lost Ark was filmed. Apparently a George Lucas favorite, the famed filmmaker also used the location for the planet of Tatooine in Star Trek IV: A New Hope, the first of the Star Wars films to be released.
7. Matamata, New Zealand
Peter Jackson is a proud New Zealander, so it’s no surprise he used his homeland as the setting for the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies. Fans of the fantasy classics can visit many of the locations, including Hobbiton in the tiny town of Matamata, a two-hour drive from Auckland.
If going out to Matamata proves too much of a challenge, there’s the option of visiting Mount Victoria which stood in for the forests of Hobbiton. It is within walking distance of the city of Wellington. There’s also Mount Sunday, within driving distance from Christchurch, that was the backdrop of Edoras, the city of the Rohan.
6. London, England
The eight films of the Harry Potter series were produced over a full decade. For many, Harry Potter was a big part of childhood, whether in book form or on the big screen. Those fans can access a treasure trove of artifacts from those films, which became accessible as part of a permanent exhibition shortly after the last film wrapped.
The Warner Bros. Studio Tour just outside of central London features the original sets, costumes and props, which you can experience with the aid of an audio guide. You can even get a taste of butterbeer, which will cost you about as much as a pint of real brew. Of course, you can empty your piggy bank in the gift shop before heading back to the city.
5. Vancouver, Canada
In the 1990s the television industry in Vancouver was booming, with such popular series as The X-Files calling the dreary Canadian town its home. Before moving to California in its sixth season, The X-Files made regular use of the city’s local film studios and lush forests. Those forests are mere minutes away from the downtown core for fans wanting to visit.
The X-Files reboot, set for 2016 release, also has Vancouver as its backdrop. Showrunner Chris Carter says the irony of shooting the reboot during the summer is the amount of sunshine the show is bound to have. He preferred more “moody” shots in the old series, which were easy to create when filming took place during Vancouver’s rainy winters.
4. Death Valley, USA
Star Wars loves desert landscapes, and Death Valley provided a stand-in for Luke Skywalker’s home planet of Tatooine in episodes IV-VI. Some serious fans have already scoured the geography of Death Valley to provide a tour itinerary for those who want to visit some prominent filming locations, scene by scene. They include the Artists Palette, Golden Canyon and the Mesquite Sand Dunes.
If you’re travelling with non-Star Wars fans, or people who just aren’t into a hike to see where R2-D2 bumped along in the film, Death Valley provides many alternative activities. The largest national park outside of Alaska, hiking and camping opportunities or even a driving tour come equipped with spectacular views. Remember to heed any weather alerts and bring along water for your trip.
3. Sydney, Australia
The Matrix was filmed entirely in Sydney, Australia, although the film’s plot took place in the U.S. Most of the scenes took place inside Fox Studios but there are some real-life landmarks that appear in the film. There’s the fountain at Martin Place and the nearby Colonial Building.
Sydney is a world-class city, the country’s capital. Once you get your Matrix fix and have finished picturing Keanu Reeves doing stunts, you can take advantage of Sydney’s rich opportunities for tourism. You can visit the local museums, enjoy a bite at any of the local eateries, lounge on the beaches, and of course, take in a performance at the famed Opera House performing arts center.
2. Ennis House, Los Angeles, USA
Ennis House, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, is a distinctive home built in the 1920s in the style of Mayan Revivial architecture. Ennis House has been a set location for many film productions, including Blade Runner and Twin Peaks. It was also the vampire hangout in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where Buffy kills Angel at the end of season 2.
The expansive home covers 6,200 square feet and is comprised of 27,000 handmade concrete blocks, many adorned with a distinctive Greek key symbol. Now under private ownership, Ennis House is open a few days of the year for tours run by the Los Angeles Chapter of the American Institute of Architects.
1. O’ahu, Hawaii, USA
The cast of Lost spent many years on the island state, filming one of television’s most addictive series — with a notoriously confusing ending. Lost used many locations around O’ahu to stand in for Australia, Nigeria and Iraq. Not to mention it is The Island where the survivors hung out.
Papa’iloa Beach, on O’ahu’s North Shore, was a primary filming location. Still a bit out of the way for many tourists, the beach offers white sand and gorgeous views. You can go there to relax, swim or surf. If you’re due to get hitched, you can take advantage of the picturesque locale for memorable wedding photographs.