The 2000s Teen Rom-Coms That Introduced a Generation to International Travel

In other words, 'The Lizzie McGuire Movie' is the Roman Empire for girls.

scrapbook photos of stills from teen travel movies
Design by Maitane Romagosa for Thrillist
Design by Maitane Romagosa for Thrillist

Ask any woman who acquired her first bra in the early 2000s, and she’ll agree: The Lizzie McGuire Movie is a perfect film. The G-rated, delightfully campy masterpiece gave birth to scenes that have stuck with preteen viewers well into their 20s: a brunette Hillary Duff smugly uttering “Sing to me, Paolo”; the igloo dress; that Italian extra who screamed like her rent was due. But perhaps most resonant was the image it painted of Rome—because The Lizzie McGuire Movie was, for many Gen Z kids, the first time they ever saw the Trevi Fountain.

The film, which recently celebrated its 20th anniversary, follows the titular character as she embarks on a middle school graduation trip to Italy. Once there, McGuire has a meet-cute with Italian pop sensation, Paolo Valisari. Valisari is shocked to discover that McGuire’s basically a blonde doppelganger of his ex-music partner, Isabella, and the two gear up for an unforgettable performance at an international awards show.

Since its 2003 premiere, the movie has graced the internet time and time again, from recreations of the “What Dreams Are Made Of” performance (Duff recently danced along to the song at the SAG-AFTRA strike) to Cardi B saying she channels the movie at Fashion Week events. But the latest TikTok trend involves travelers embracing their inner child by visiting the film’s famous shooting locations in Rome, from the Spanish Steps to the Colosseum.

“So many fans have made trips specifically to trace the locations, and it couldn't be better, because our movie is basically a travelogue—we went to every popular spot,” says director Jim Fall, acknowledging that their target audience wasn’t exactly classical architecture connoisseurs. “At the time, I was a little concerned that we were being cliche, but six-year-olds haven't seen Roman Holiday, so what I thought might have been cliche was new to a whole generation.”

The Lizzie McGuire Movie isn’t the only coming-of-age hit that shaped Gen Z’s collective concept of travel. Prior to the Disney blockbuster, there was, of course, the holy trinity of Mary Kate and Ashley movies set in glitzy European cities: Passport to Paris (1999), Winning London (2001), and When In Rome (2002). Amanda Bynes had tweens wishing they were secretly born into British high society in What a Girl Wants (2003), while The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (2005) no doubt inspired—and perhaps still inspires—countless girls’ trips to Santorini. And who could forget when The Cheetah Girls 2 (2006), released just a few years after Lizzie Mcguire, inextricably linked the streets of Barcelona to the iconic pop bop “Strut.”

One part location, one part movie magic

When Fall first signed on to direct Lizzie McGuire, the location was already written in the script. Why the screenwriters chose the Italian capital, he doesn’t quite remember, but ultimately, it didn’t matter—it was the perfect fit. “It felt like we were all a bunch of kids on a trip to Rome making a movie about kids on a trip to Rome,” he recalls fondly. The director had a month before filming to scout locations, research which paid off in the form of the famous “Volare” scene, where McGuire rides on the back of Valisari’s vespa, winding through narrow streets and past popular landmarks like the Piazza del Popolo and the Pantheon.

Fall made sure to sprinkle in a few homages to old movies, so that the inevitable adults in the audience could also get in on the magic. Take the Trevi Fountain scene, for instance. “It starts with three kids throwing three coins in a fountain,” Fall says. “There was a movie about Rome called Three Coins in the Fountain, as well as a song [of the same name] from the ’50s.”

And when it came time to shoot the finale—a.k.a. famously klutzy McGuire’s pop star-meets-gladiator moment—Fall had us all fooled. “I think one of the funniest things is kids thought you could actually have a concert inside the Colosseum,” he laughs. “We did it through visual effects—this amazing company called Rainmaker created the inside of the Colosseum, plus we built sets in Vancouver. All the interior, the stage, and a lot of the stuff you see when they’re backstage was shot on sets.”

And that glamorous hotel where McGuire and co-star David “Gordo” Gordon share a romantic rooftop kiss? Also a set. “I had an amazing production designer who designed a functioning elevator,” Fall says. “In a way, it’s almost too much—how could they have afforded to stay in this five-star hotel? But when he showed me the designs, I was like, ‘You know what? This movie has a bit of magic in it, let’s go with the pretty one. I don’t want to film a movie where they stay at a crappy youth hostel.’” (The exterior of the hotel, however, can be found on the corner of Vicolo de’ Cinque and Via del Moro in Rome.)

the cast of the cheetah girls posing at park guell in barcelona
'The Cheetah Girls' inspired many visits to Barcelona's Park Guell. | Photo courtesy of Disney Channel

Songs to inspire a new generation of travelers

The lasting power of these early aughts films can in part be attributed to their powerful soundtracks, which infuse teen pop ballads with local touches, like Spanish guitars or classic Italian melodies. “For The Cheetah Girls 2, we wanted to make sure that the music reflected the incredible setting,” says Steven Vincent, senior vice president of music and soundtracks at Disney Branded Television. “With 'Strut,' it was really important for us to not only make a great song that showcased the energy of Barcelona, but also to inspire young viewers to follow their dreams and explore the world.”

To help him select tracks that embodied la dolce vita, Lizzie McGuire’s Fall worked with music supervisor Elliot Lurie, the voice behind ’70s chart-topper “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl).” The director asked Lurie to send him a list of quintessential songs about Rome, and Dean Martin’s “On An Evening In Roma,” which plays as McGuire and her classmates first catch sight of the city from a bus window, was number one on the list.

But the 1958 song “Volare,” re-recorded by Vitamin C, was the dark horse. “‘Volare’ was something I asked [Lurie] to look up, and he was like, ‘Who knows ‘Volare?’’ says Fall. “I thought, Well, that's an Italian word that means ‘to fly,’ and if we rerecord it, it’s the perfect song for that [scene].” Older viewers might not have recognized the original song, but it was given new life by a generation of teens who spent the next few years singing it in their bedrooms, hair brushes in hand.

The future of the teen travel rom-com

While many Disney Channel TV shows have been transformed into feature-length films over the years (The Even Stevens Movie, Wizards of Waverly Place: The Movie, etc.), The Lizzie McGuire Movie was the first to premiere in theaters. “I think that movie came along at a sweet spot when the studio was willing to take a bit of a risk,” Fall says. And that risk paid off by way of a box office hit, with the project grossing more than $17 million its opening weekend alone.

These days, Disney Channel Original Movies (or DCOMs, as they're known in internet parlance) aren’t likely to be filmed on-location overseas. That luxury has pretty much been off the table since 2008’s disappointingly low-rated The Cheetah Girls 3: One World, which blew its $25 million budget on an elaborate—and ultimately uninspiring—Indian backdrop. Within the larger sphere of teen rom-coms, it seems as though plots featuring foreign escapades happen less and less, though Netflix gets props for keeping the party going with their recent love-to-hate-it series, Emily in Paris.

“It makes me sad these kinds of movies don't get made anymore. One of the reasons I shot wide-screen, had an orchestral score, and songs by Dean Martin, is because I wanted the movie to be as classic and timeless as it could be,” Fall says. “Of course, it's dated in its own way—the music, the fashion—but that's the charm. There's a reason The Lizzie McGuire Movie has stayed so popular, if not become more popular now than it ever was.”

Amidst online murmurings of a Lizzie McGuire reboot, Fall has considered the possibility of a sequel. “I've always wanted to see Lizzie and Paolo meet again, where Paolo has now become a much more grounded, real person, and they actually fall in love, either back in Rome or in New York,” he muses. “Because in this movie, they're teenagers—it's not really falling in love, it's infatuation.”

Though as for whether or not today’s teen audience could ever get their own version of The Lizzie McGuire Movie in all its silly, study abroad-style glory, Fall remains skeptical: “I don't think a movie where a 15-year-old girl gets on the back of a stranger's Vespa in Rome could even be made today.”

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Jessica Sulima is a staff writer on the Travel team at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram