TikTok Is Changing the Way We Dream About Travel

Goodbye, Instagram aesthetic. Hello reality.

Design by Grace Han for Thrillist
Design by Grace Han for Thrillist

The endless scroll of color-enhanced coastlines and professionally staged resort breakfasts is coming to a close. Online travel inspo is evolving. Photoshopped hot air balloons, death-defying poses, and eerily uninhabited infinity pools could soon be a thing of the past. In their place, something drastically different is on the rise: reality. 

As the unnaturally vibrant sun sets on the “Instagram aesthetic,” people are opening their eyes to a world of candid, imperfect windows into everyday life around the world: TikTok. And in the age of COVID, it’s shattering everything we thought we wanted out of travel influence.

Not long ago, TikTok was an app rejected by anyone over the age of 24 due to its initial association with cringey, Gen Z dance numbers. But with the help of quarantine boredom and an extremely refined algorithm, older audiences caught on, too. Its all-encompassing nature allows you to navigate from general entertainment (cute animal videos, coffee-making demonstrations) to the highly niche. There’s a TikTok community for just about anything: Draco Malfoy, sink reviews, cottagecore, and even politically motivated K-pop fans.

If the algorithm leads you to travel TikTok, you’ll still see remnants of the traditional ways—like an anticipatory opening of a window that reveals a picture-perfect landscape while “La Vie En Rose” plays in the background. But younger audiences are also gravitating toward an alternative style: fast-paced montages that are more about vibes than anything else. 

In direct contrast to Instagram’s intricate plotting, TikTok moves rapidly: any video longer than 30 seconds has to be incredibly stimulating to sustain user attention. And it relies heavily on music. Once a snippet of a song makes an impression, the sound can be appropriated and re-used a thousand times over. The most successful TikToks, then, combine the catchiest music and artsiest imagery to convey an entire narrative, as well as a sense of place, in a flash.

The travel TikToks abiding by these criteria carry the aesthetics of an A24 film. Skater boys and fashion girls waltz around their cities, showcasing a highlight reel of images they encounter along the way—murals, public transport, storefronts, club scenes, street style—all set to indie music. You’ll see the stained-glass windows of the Saint-Chapelle in Paris, followed by a girl sticking her head out of a car window; black-clad clubgoers in Berlin having an outdoor dinner party; a couple strumming a guitar on a beach in Big Sur. These TikToks are seemingly effortless, a little bit grunge-y, and everything a conventional postcard is not. In this way, travel inspiration is becoming less aspirational, and more grounded in reality.

One famous example is Leon Verdinsky’s Saint Petersburg TikTok, which has been viewed 7.4 million times since it was first posted. You’ll see comments like “Man this is the best advertisement to go to Russia I’ve ever seen.” And the song attached to the video, Molchat Doma’s “Sudno,” has become a TikTok anthem, re-used by teens who yearn for “Soviet vibes.” 

Verdinsky’s approach is a manifestation of the playfully narcissistic “main character” mindset, a trend on TikTok that’s all about feeling like the protagonist of your own story and romanticizing every aspect of it. The irony is, while this trend attempts to move toward a more authentic style, it’s probably as much of a performance as an ultra-manicured Instagram. 

But the beauty is in the effort to capture the mundane, the often-forgettable images that evoke nostalgia, or provide a taste of what life is like in other places—from overarching sights, like the brutalist apartment blocks of Moldova, to tiny details, like turkeys crossing the road in Cape Cod. 

This true-to-life eye candy satisfies a major appetite of the COVID era, bringing us both the foreign and the familiar. It’s one thing to come across a photo of the Eiffel Tower and be reminded that one day we’ll be able to travel again, but an entirely different experience to feel as if you are living vicariously through someone else, with so much as a simple glimpse at what they’re eating for breakfast. 

The platform serves as a portal around the world. In a way, these TikToks feel like trailers for unmade travel documentaries. And in an era where all travel is currently forward-looking, they allow us to put ourselves in the shoes of some faraway adventurer experiencing something extremely attainable. That’s a fantasy far more enticing than a color-corrected glamor shot of somebody’s feet dangling over a cliff in some distant land only the privileged will experience. 

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Jessica Sulima is an editorial assistant at Thrillist who's trying her best to adopt the main character mindset.