Traveling by Ear: 13 Podcasts for Wandering Souls

Spread the love

For most travelers nowadays, home is the only destination. Yet thanks to some imaginative podcasts, you can still explore the world. The following were selected because rather than focus on such things as miles and points, they’re transportive — rife with the sounds of cities and wilderness, conversations with creative thinkers, and ways to change your life through adventure and language learning. So don some noise-cancelling headphones and pick your favorite audio platform (Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts). Soon you’ll be hearing birdsong in Tuscany, rain falling in the English countryside, and wind rustling trees in Paris as you ride a scooter along the Champs-Élysées.

The National Park Service oversees some of the most breathtaking places in America — and has several podcasts aimed at taking you along, amid redwoods and supervolcanoes, beneath constellations in dark desert skies. Different podcasts — some old, but nonetheless engaging — explore the varied histories, landscapes and wildlife of some of the most visited parks: the geyser basins of Yellowstone, the trails of the Grand Canyon, the Going-to-the-Sun road across the Continental Divide in Glacier National Park. There are also themed podcasts that examine subjects like Native American tribes, archaeology, volcanoes, plants and animals, from banana slugs to grizzly bears. To find the various podcasts, your best bet is to go on Apple Podcasts and search for “National Park Service.”

Stroll New York sidewalks, past and present, with this podcast that explores the city’s beloved neighborhoods (Greenwich Village, Harlem and the Lower East Side, among others), buildings and historical figures, be it Harry Houdini or Edgar Allan Poe. Even lifelong New Yorkers hunkering down at home are likely to discover things they never knew about their city, with episodes about bagels, taxis, Fifth Avenue Mansions, Coney Island and one of Manhattan’s newest areas, Hudson Yards.

For those who have long wanted to learn a language but never had the time, the present moment may be just right. If so, the Coffee Break podcasts from Radio Lingua Network — for languages such as Spanish, French, Italian, German, Swedish and Chinese — offer free lessons that increase in difficulty. The offerings vary from language to language. Take German, for instance. There are two “seasons” (beginners and intermediate) and a “magazine” podcast meant to build upon the intermediate German lessons. Chinese and Swedish currently have one season each (for beginners).

Before there were digital-nomad and vanlife hashtags, people like Rolf Potts, the author of “Vagabonding,” were traveling the world, rarely staying put for long. Conversations on his podcast include talks with fellow travel writers musing about their craft and life on the road, like Pico Iyer discussing the beauty of impermanence and other lessons from Japan, and Paul Theroux talking about Mexico, magical realism and what makes good travel writing. (If this sounds appealing, you may also want to check out another podcast, The Big Travel, where guests have included the designer India Hicks, the actress and writer Carol Drinkwater, and the astronaut John Herrington.)

Scenes of piazzas, arcaded streets and markets float through this podcast with Kathy McCabe, the host of the PBS “Dream of Italy” series. There are just a handful of episodes, though they evoke a sense of place, particularly those with Frances Mayes, the author of the novel “Under the Tuscan Sun,” who talks about the slow life in the Italian countryside.

Millions of people use the popular Duolingo app to learn foreign languages for free with quick and simple lessons and quizzes. Those learning to speak French and Spanish can supplement their lessons with these podcasts, which offer short, true stories, mostly in the language you’re striving to master. (Students may find it helpful to look at the transcripts at https://podcast.duolingo.com/.)

“Wherever you are in the world, forget about that now, close your eyes … and imagine that you are being transported into the eighth arrondissement of Paris,” says Oliver Gee, the Australian expat host of this podcast about life in the City of Light. It’s not hard to imagine being transported to Paris while listening to such an episode (season 7, episode 8), where you hear Mr. Gee driving his scooter along the Champs-Élysées, stopping to visit the Petit Palais, walking past the Hôtel Plaza Athénée, having lunch at Oursin in the Galeries Lafayette Champs-Élysées amid the background chatter of fellow diners, before arriving at Ladurée and receiving a macaroon recommendation (vanilla) from a bartender there. Expect tours of the artistic and culinary pleasures of the city, and interviews with its inhabitants: the French model Caroline de Maigret, the chef David Lebovitz, cafe owners, even a bouquiniste selling books beside the Seine.

It was 1957 when Arthur Frommer first published his guide “Europe on 5 Dollars a Day,” and in the years since, the Frommer name has become synonymous with travel. With charisma and candor, he and his daughter, Pauline Frommer, co-president of FrommerMedia and editorial director of Frommer’s Guidebooks, discuss the charms and ongoing transformations of places near and far, whether on the islands of Hawaii, or on safari in Tanzania.

Ride a bus through Liverpool to visit the childhood homes of the Beatles. Wander through the Dorset countryside to the cottage where T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) took refuge. Escape to the house and gardens in Devon where Agatha Christie went for holidays and found inspiration for some of her best-known detective stories. These dreamy places are part of the National Trust, the conservation charity founded in 1895 that looks after hundreds of historic properties, gardens, coastlines and nature reserves across Britain. While you may not be able to visit in person, you can trail podcast hosts as they walk toward the front doors of great old houses, listening to the sound of the ground crunching underfoot and the occasional countryside downpour soaking the earth.

While many travelers first got to know Rick Steves as an affable guide on public television, this podcast highlights his gift for conjuring, with just a few poetic words, the romance of places as varied as Dracula’s Romania, Monet’s gardens in Giverny, and Jack Kerouac’s fire lookout in the Cascades mountain range.

If you’d rather be in the Magic Kingdom, you’re not alone. There are a number of podcasts dedicated to Disney parks, cruises and lore. The WDW Radio Show includes history, trivia, reviews and interviews. Disney die-hards may also want to try Unlocking the Magic (mostly about the goings-on in the Orlando parks); The Disney Story Origins podcast (stories and fairy tales behind favorite Disney characters and films); and Miles to Go (the emphasis is on travel news and tips, but there are several Disney episodes because the host, Edward Pizzarello, is a true-blue fan).

If you’ve ever had a passing thought about doing something different with your days, or ticking an item off your bucket list, this podcast offers plenty of inspiration. Episodes feature people who chose roads less traveled, pursued dreams and overcame obstacles, including the professional rock climber Alex Honnold, known for his free-solo ascents; Cheryl Strayed, the author of “Wild”; the chef Samin Nosrat of Netflix’s “Salt Fat Acid Heat”; and the first person to swim from Cuba to Florida without a shark cage, Diana Nyad, who pulled it off at age 64. Those in search of ideas may also want to try the JUMP with Traveling Jackie podcast, where Jackie Nourse, founder of the Budget-Minded Traveler blog, talks with fellow travelers about taking the plunge, whether to learn French in a small town in France, or walk the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage routes solo in Japan.

For those who want to travel beyond Earth, Neil deGrasse Tyson, an astrophysicist and the director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York, navigates this journey into outer space with episodes that talk about black holes, the North Star’s role in navigation and what lies beyond the edge of the universe. He’s also often joined by widely known guests (Al Gore, Salman Rushdie, Jane Goodall) and shares morsels with cosmos wonks, including a saying that’s not uncommon among astronomers (and optimists): “Keep looking up.”


Follow New York Times Travel on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. And sign up for our weekly Travel Dispatch newsletter to receive expert tips on traveling smarter and inspiration for your next vacation.