Lights, camera, vacation! Film tourism

Story highlights

  • Get a feel for "Les Miserables" in Paris' oldest neighborhoods
  • Washington is a setting for parts of three films
  • Everyday Philadelphia sites stand out in "Silver Linings Playbook"
Many years ago, in the days when air travel was a jacket, tie and cloth-napkin affair, movie studios used to make short travelogues. These films would show off the world's great cities and most striking destinations in full big-screen glory, giving audiences a glimpse of life around the world.
Today, we have YouTube and the cell phone video.
But films can still take us away -- and this year's Academy Award nominees for best picture go to some far-flung places, whether Civil War-era Washington, the present-day Philadelphia suburbs or the out-of-time bayous of Louisiana.
So, if you're looking for some new scenery, you could do worse than take in a major motion picture. Here's what they have to show.
City of schemers
Whether it's Abraham Lincoln pulling every string to get Congress to approve the 13th Amendment or a collection of 20th-century officials hoping to pull the wool over the eyes of Iranian hostage-takers, Washington is represented in a number of Best Picture nominees as a place where everybody has a plan -- and a price.
"Lincoln" takes place in early 1865 in a Washington that was more country town than modern metropolis. (Many of the city's notable structures date from the early 20th century.) Nevertheless, parts of it would be recognizable to modern eyes and worth a visit today, including the U.S. Capitol (East Capitol Street NE and First Street NE), which offers regular tours, and Ford's Theater (516 10th St. NW). The latter's campus includes the Petersen House, where Lincoln died. Advance tickets are $2.50, though a limited number of free tickets are available for same-day tours.
Actually, instead of the U.S. Capitol, you may want to tour the Virginia Capitol in Richmond: It stood in for the national house in the film. Indeed, much of "Lincoln" was shot in and around the River City, and the commonwealth's tourist office has shrewdly seized upon interest by creating a "Lincoln"-oriented website.
In Richmond, travelers can visit Maymont, a 100-acre estate of gardens, wildlife exhibits and the 1893 Maymont Mansion (2201 Shields Lake Drive). There's a $5 suggested donation to tour the mansion or you can go whole hog with a horse-drawn Maymont Lincoln Ride for $50 (but mention the online offer and get a 25% discount). Other places, including Richmond's Valentine History Center (1015 E. Clay St.) and its Jefferson Hotel (101 W. Franklin St.), also have "Lincoln" discounts and packages. And when you're hungry, drop by the Dixie Restaurant (250 N Sycamore St., Petersburg) for a Spielberger.
"Argo" takes place more than a century after "Lincoln," but its operatives share personality quirks with their Civil War-era forebears (especially the "Lincoln" arm-twisters played by James Spader, John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson). In the film, a CIA consultant to the State Department (Ben Affleck) comes up with an idea to get a handful of hostages out of Iran by saying they're Canadian filmmakers.
"Argo's" settings include Washington, where visitors can take a tour of the State Department's Diplomatic Reception Rooms (provided they've made a request); McLean, Virginia, where you'll find the beautiful Great Falls National Park; and, of course, Hollywood. But the more adventurous might try the spot where Affleck's character meets a fellow CIA agent: Istanbul's spectacular Hagia Sophia, built in the sixth century under the Emperor Justinian.
(You can also go to Tehran, but be aware the State Department has posted a warning for American travelers. The city scenes in the film were shot in Istanbul.)
A third Best Picture nominee, "Zero Dark Thirty," also involves espionage, this time telling the story of the manhunt for Osama bin Laden. With much of the film set in Pakistan -- also under a State Department advisory -- it's probably easier to stay stateside and visit the International Spy Museum, a Washington venue devoted to the dark arts of intelligence gathering (800 F Street NW). The museum has interactive adventures and offers tours of Washington's spy sites.
The CIA has tours as well -- but they're all virtual, so partake at your leisure.
However, if you want to venture overseas, you can head to Chandigarh, India, which stood in for the Pakistan locations. The city of about a million people is located in north-central India, about 160 miles north of New Delhi. Its website trumpets the locale as "the best-planned city in India" and "the face of modern India"; it boasts a layout by the famed architect Le Corbusier and an institute dedicated to his legacy.
Paris and France, then and now
Like the classic Victor Hugo novel on which it's based, the musical "Les Miserables" is set during the early 19th century in post-Napoleonic Paris and several towns in northern France.
Most of that era's Paris is long gone -- lost to Baron Haussmann's later modernization of the French capital -- but elements can still be seen in the streets and architecture of the two islands in the Seine River, Ile de la Cite and Ile Saint-Louis, and the neighborhood to the north called the Marais.
The Ile de la Cite was the medieval center of Paris and includes such landmarks as Notre Dame cathedral, which dates to 1163; La Conciergerie, where the royal family was held during the French Revolution; and the residential Ancien Cloitre. The fashionable Marais is now known for its shopping and cafes; it includes the lovely Place des Vosges square, where you'll find la Maison de Victor Hugo -- yes, the author's residence. The latter is now a museum (6 Place de Vosges; admission is free).
At one point, "Les Miserables" protagonist Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) becomes mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer, a small town near the English Channel (pardon, Le Manche). Montreuil was a medieval trading post and still features a castle and several fortifications. Hugo's choice of Montreuil was no accident; he spent a day there in the late 1830s and fell in love with the place. The love has been returned: Every summer, the town puts on a version of "Les Miserables."
Another best picture nominee, "Amour," takes place in present-day Paris. "Amour," about an aging couple dealing with illness, is often grim and wrenching, but Paris, always a source of light, provides hints of their rich life, whether it's their well-appointed residence (the setting for most of the film) or places where the former music teachers hear performances. Rent an apartment of your own through sites such as or, and listen to music at such spots as Le Carmen (in Georges Bizet's old house, 35 rue Duperré), the classical music showcase Salle Gaveau (45 rue de la Boetie) and Autour de Midi, a jazz club near the Moulin Rouge in Montmartre (11 rue Lepic).
Around the South
The bayous of "Beasts of the Southern Wild" seem otherworldly. The young heroine, Hushpuppy (Best Actress nominee Quvenzhane Wallis), and her father, Wink (Dwight Henry), live in a fictional marshy area called the Bathtub, isolated from the outside except for occasional boat traffic. The film was shot around Montegut, Louisiana, about 70 miles southeast of New Orleans.
Despite the erosion of recent decades, the Louisiana wetlands still remain a rich home to many varieties of fish, birds and plant life. Several companies offer tours, including Zam's Bayou Swamp Tours (136 Kraemer Bayou Road, Thibodaux; 985-633-7881) and Bayou Black Airboat Swamp Tours (251 Marion Drive, Houma).
While you're in the area, drive west on Highway 90 toward New Iberia and then head south to Avery Island. That's the home of the McIlhenny Company, makers of Tabasco sauce. The company offers regular tours of its factory and the surrounding area.
In the other direction -- about 35 miles north of Thibodaux -- you'll find the town of Edgard, where much of Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained" was filmed. It's in this Mississippi River town, at Evergreen Plantation, that Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) has his plantation (though, in the movie, it's in Mississippi).
Evergreen Plantation remains a fully functional sugar cane plantation, according to its website, with 37 buildings on the National Register of Historic Places -- including 22 slave cabins. The site is privately owned and offers thrice-daily walking tours. The price is $20 per person, half-price for children under 12.
The world and Philadelphia
"Life of Pi" doesn't make it easy for the movie traveler. The film opens in Canada, where a writer is interviewing Pi Patel, a native of Pondicherry (now Puducherry), India. Patel's family runs a zoo, and early on, they decide to move to Canada and book passage on a ship. However, on the long trip across the Pacific, the ship sinks, and Patel is left to float in a lifeboat with a tiger.
The film was shot in a number of cities, but perhaps the most intriguing is Puducherry. The city, on India's southeast coast, is unique in that it was once colonized by the French and still has a notable French presence. Take a walk along the beach road, Goubert Avenue; drop by the Puducherry Museum, where you'll find ancient bronze and stone statues; and take a tour of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, one of the best-known in India. For more information on the city, go to the city's tourism website.
Or perhaps, on the whole, you'd rather be in Philadelphia, to paraphrase W.C. Fields. That's the locale of "Silver Linings Playbook," about two broken people finding their way to love through dancing.
The climax takes place at a dance competition at Ballroom at the Ben, in the former Benjamin Franklin Hotel (834 Chestnut St.). The hotel is now rental apartments, but there are several lodgings nearby, including the Loews Philadelphia (1200 Market St.) and the downtown Marriott (1201 Market St.). Want a gift for your sweetie? Sample the wares on Jewelers' Row (Sansom Street between Seventh and Eighth).
Though football season has ended -- and the film's beloved Eagles fell well short of the Super Bowl -- Lincoln Financial Field offers regular tours. VIP tours are $10 per adult.
And, when it's time to wind down, head out to Upper Darby, just a few miles west of the city line, where you'll find the Llanerch Diner (95 E. Township Line Road). This is where Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper) and Tiffany Maxwell (Jennifer Lawrence) meet for a late-night bowl of Raisin Bran. You can arrive anytime; the restaurant is open 24 hours a day.
Just tell 'em Hollywood sent you.