The Roundup

Vacations for Your Ears: 8 Podcasts for the Curious Traveler

by James Ramsay

Free your mind! Podcasts make great road trip companions. Photo by Averie Woodard / Unsplash.

Touch that dial! From the halls of our favorite radio station, WNYC, digital producer and podcast expert James Ramsay tunes us into eight excellent travel-inspired shows.

One of the great joys of leaving town is getting in a rental car and scanning for radio stations, which is how I recently wound up in Wilmington, North Carolina, glued to 93.7 The Dude ("the local's choice for country"), listening to a wide variety of songs about fishing. It's an aural experience you can't get replicate without the travel, or the midsize sedan. But in the Internet Age, there are myriad ways to turn your daily commute into a 45-minute vacation, simply by downloading a quality podcast. Here's an eight-pack of shows that bring various exotic locales right to your earbuds. And if your next journey is six hours and 45 minutes long (i.e., the drive from New York to Cleveland), you'll have time to listen to this entire playlist.


Episode: "The New Old Country Store"
The Southern Foodways Alliance has a James Beard Award-winning podcast called Gravy, which does a great job reporting on Southern food and culture without leaning on cheap nostalgia. In this episode, an Australian food writer tells the story of how she married a guy from Georgia and became deeply acquainted with America's largest user of directional roadside advertising: Cracker Barrel.


Episode: "Mack Robinson Comes Out of His Brother's Shadow"
You can now take a subway from downtown Los Angeles to Santa Monica, which is something the city had been talking about forever. And a lot of the credit for finally making it happen belongs to former mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who — along with Jackie Robinson's often overlooked brother Mack — gets a nice shout out in this episode of Off-Ramp, a weekly show from Southern California Public Radio that covers all the interesting things about L.A. that don't make it into Vanderpump Rules.


Episode: "Saga Land"
The Australian Broadcasting Company's Earshot podcast produced a four-part audio documentary about an Icelandic-born writer who travels back to his homeland to figure out if he's related to one of the most prominent Norse saga writers of the 13th century. The story's pretty charming; it also makes Iceland sound incredible.

Studio 360

Episode: "American Icons: The Disney Parks"
This is a 52-minute must-listen for anyone who's ever been, or thought about going, to a Disney theme park. Both Disneyland and Disney World are endlessly complex and goofy and unsettling, and former Spy Magazine editor Kurt Andersen is the perfect tour guide.

Inside Appalachia

Episode: "What Happens When Strangers With Cameras Travel Inside Appalachia?"
West Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee are absolutely beautiful states that anyone who enjoys hiking or caves or drinking whiskey while floating down a stream in an inner tube ought to visit. Appalachia's also an economically depressed region with a history of locals who've stood up — sometimes violently — to outsiders who fetishize or exploit it. This episode of Inside Appalachia, about the history of that conflict, made me a smarter, more considerate traveler. The host, Jessica Lilly, also has one of the most pleasant voices in podcasting.

The Food Chain

Episode: "Chinatown"
Say you've have had crispy duck in London, or General Tso's chicken in New York. But have you have you had dumplings in Johannesburg's Chinatown? Or have you eaten in Havana's Chinatown, where the specialty is Italian food? The BBC's Food Chain podcast pulled in reports from around the world for this episode about some of the surprising but no less appetizing variants of "Chinese" food served, from Shanghai to Nairobi.

Israel Story

Episode: "The Most Israeli Address: Herzel 48"
One creative way to get to know a country is to visit every location you can find that has the same address and compile those experiences into one diverse portrait of a place. The producers of Israel Story, which is like This American Life but for Israeli life, went to every Herzel 48 (48 Herzel St.) in the country, and reported on what they found.

Note to Self

Episode: "Space Tourism Gets Sweetly Personal for These Two Strong Lady Travelers"
Outer Space: it's like Appalachia, but more expensive to get to and there are no Cracker Barrels. In this episode of Note to Self, Anousheh Ansari, an Iranian-American engineer who was the first woman to go to space on a commercial shuttle, tells an aspiring space traveller what it's like up there, from the logistical ("how do you go to the bathroom?") to the majestic ("how'd it feel to see Earth?"). If space travel is on your bucket list, this one's a must-listen.

Every week, I spend hours listening to a diverse range of podcasts about everything from community policing to expensive booze, and the result is a podcast recommendation newsletter that I hope is surprising and edifying and sometimes weird. I’ll include outstanding episodes of the shows we all love, like Death, Sex & Money and This American Life, but I also look for great stories and conversations from shows you might never otherwise know about.


Subscribe to WNYC's weekly podcast newsletter for Ramsay's seriously clever internet finds and indelible writing charms.


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