Hollywood is the stuff of dreams, and where fantasies become a reality. We all grow up with the movies, dreaming of the Wild West, fantastical adventures, or being swept off our feet just like in the pictures. Parallel universes, dystopian worlds, or a thrilling chase after the bad guy. The only limit is our imagination.
The movies offer us an opportunity to become someone or go somewhere entirely different for a brief moment, offering reprieve and escape from the mundanities of life. We connect with characters and places that are beyond our daily routines and responsibilities, outside our normal constraints. It’s no wonder the idea of visiting the set location is so exciting.
There is something magical about a film set as if the way the movie made us feel is somehow made tangible through the location itself, and the energy of the actors and actresses who we so admire resonates through the props which they handled. Here is a list of movie sets that still exist today and are open to the public, allowing us all to experience a little bit of that cinematic enchantment.
Set Piece: Eastern State Penitentiary
Where It’s Located: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA
Production Budget: $29 million*
The legendary Al Capone was once held in this prison, which was later shut down and eventually fell to decay. Which of course made it the perfect set for this Brad Pitt and Bruce Willis science fiction flick.
The science fiction apocalyptic film grossed $168.8 million and was received well by critics. Today the set is open for tourists, popular amongst movie enthusiasts as well as gangster fans, the tour is even narrated by the one and only Nucky Thomson (Steve Buscemi).
Set Piece: Signs
Where It’s Located: Malibu Creek State Park, California, USA
Production Budget: $3 million*
M*A*S*H is a 1970 film based on Richard Hooker’s novel, as well as a hit television series with a star-studded cast. It was one of the most popular films in the ’70s and grossed $81.6 million. It went on to win an Academy Award along with several other accolades.
The filming was along the picturesque hiking trails of Malibu, and while the beauty of the trails is enough to entice any visitor, the excitement of coming across pieces of the set still brings tourists to the trails in the hopes of catching a glimpse of one of the military vehicles or pieces of remaining signs.
The film was such a hit for Fox that it inspired the hit TV show that ran for more than 10 years. Robert Altman, who directed the film, was not a fan of the TV show despite having created the movie. He was quoted saying he hadn’t watched an entire episode through.
Set Piece: Port Royale
Where It’s Located: Wallilabou Anchorage, St. Vincent
Production Budget: $378.5 million*
Pirates of the Caribbean officially has the title of most expensive film ever made with a whopping $378.5 million budget. The film ultimately grossed a colossal $1.046 billion dollars, paying Johnny Depp $55.5 million for the role.
The cast and crew were lucky enough to be able to take home souvenirs from the set, it is said that not a single of the cursed counts was left behind. It’s hard not to imagine Captain Jack Sparrow making a run for it with all the coins, like a lizard running on water as described by Depp himself.
Remains of the 2003 set of The Curse of the Black Pearl still exist in St Vincent where you can find props and buildings alike. The dock however didn’t survive and has fallen into disrepair, but much of the original set still stands.
Set Piece: Gas Haven Gas Station
Where It’s Located: Ouarzazate, Morocco, USA
Production Budget: $15 million*
This Alexandre Aja film is quite possibly the most terrifying film on earth. If there was ever a question about what the horror genre is, this would be a prime example. A family traveling in the US is captured by psychotic cannibals and well, you can guess where that story goes.
According to Wes Craven, the film was inspired by the story of Sawney Bean, the leader of a Scottish clan who killed and devoured people in the Middle Ages. According to the story, they lived near what was believed to be a haunted road because travelers kept disappearing.
This film takes us back to the large film set in Morocco where The Mummy was filmed. Today you can find a very creepy gas station where the family is told about a shortcut to their destination which will eventually lead to their doom… or will it? (Cue horror music)
Set Piece: The Bates Motel
Where It’s Located: Aldergrove, British Columbia, Canada
Production Budget: Unknown
Bates Motel is a television series based on the classic Hitchcock thriller, Psycho. Originally met with mixed reviews, the film did exceptionally well at the box office grossing $50 million, which was a lot for the time, forcing people to reevaluate their first impressions.
The film went on to become a cult classic and was nominated for four Academy Awards. Following its cult status, television creators decided to capitalize on the legend of Norman Bates, this time exploring young Norman’s life and his relationship with his mother before the events of the film.
Produced by Universal the TV series enjoyed a fair amount of success, continuing on for five seasons. A replica of the original Bates Motel set from the film Psycho was built in Aldergrove, British Columbia, where portions of the series were filmed.
Set Piece: Various Set Locations
Where It’s Located: Kauai, Hawaii, USA
Production Budget: $63 million*
Jurassic Park was the highest-grossing film of its time, with a whopping $912 million, it was the record holder for four years from 1993 until the release of Titanic in 1997. Filming took place in California and Hawaii, with outdoor scenes in Hawaii shot in just three weeks after two years of pre-production.
The film featured computer-generated visual effects that were cutting edge at the time and were credited for heralding a revolution in movie making. Today, while many of the places the film was produced are open for visitors, it is unlikely you will find many set remains as many of the dinosaur scenes were shot in a studio.
Available for streaming on Netflix, the rights of the film were purchased in 1990 before the book was even published after the writer, Michael Crichton, told Steven Spielberg about his latest book project. As we can see today, Spielberg’s instinct was spot on with this one.
Set Piece: Hobbit Holes
Where It’s Located: Mamata, New Zealand
Production Budget: $281 million*
Peter Jackson took on the epic fantasy novel written by J.R.R. Tolkien. The films did exceptionally well with a return of $887 million at the box office. The films are an average of four hours each and are as epic as the novels.
While Tolkien was famously inspired by the South African countryside for many of his intricate sceneries, the film was shot in New Zealand and the sets of the Hobbit Holes, which is where it all begins for young Frodo, are well preserved and open for visitors and LOTR fans across the globe.
While the Hobbit Holes are perhaps the most popular of the locations, the filming took place in over 150 places in both the North and South Islands of NZ. Mount Doom scenes were filmed at Mount Ngauruhoe, which is in Tongariro National Park and can be viewed after a full day hike, reputed as the most beautiful day walk in the whole country.
Set Piece: Tatooine
Where It’s Located: Tozeur, Tunisia
Production Budget: $115 million*
Starring Natalie Portman, Kiera Knightley, Ewan McGregor, and Liam Nelson, this installment of the epic fantasy series, Star Wars, the Trade Federation cuts off all routes to planet Naboo and the Jedi’s are sent to resolve the issue.
The set that remains is in North Africa, near Nefta, and is the well-maintained structure where Luke’s home is still standing amongst other buildings. Fans of the series can enjoy the closest thing to being on another planet by being on the set of the planet Tatooine.
Star Wars costume design has never disappointed, through the years inspiring and cutting edge. The wardrobe colors for the Phantom Menace were carefully designed to match the environments from which the characters come. The palette for Coruscant was gray, brown, and black, Naboo was green and gold, and of course sandy colors for Tattooine.
Set Piece: Hawthorne Plaza Mall
Where It’s Located: Hawthorne, California, USA
Production Budget: $61 million*
The American psychological thriller directed by David Fincher follows the disappearance of Nick Dunne’s (Ben Affleck) wife Amy (Rosamund Pike). The film was Fincher’s most successful film to date and grossed a whopping $369 million.
The scene where the police found that Amy was trying to purchase a firearm is shot in this creepy abandoned mall in Hawthorne, California and it also happens to be the location of the cold storage facility in HBO’s Westworld as well as scenes from Minority Report and Rush Hour.
In the film, there is a scene with a phone number to call if there is any information on missing Amy, which if you call the number in real life plays an audio recording of the beginning of the book, Gone Girl written by Gillian Flynn, the inspiration for the movie.
Set Piece: The Alamo
Where It’s Located: North of Brackettville, Texas, USA
Production Budget: $12 million*
Set in 1836, this classic American Western starring John Wayne was filmed in 1960 in Texas and has since been used in over 100 films of the same genre, as well as commercials and music videos.
During filming in Brackettville, Texas, there were many problems with production. It is believed that Richard Widmark and John Wayne didn’t get along at all. It is also said that John Wayne, who financed part of the filming himself, was so stressed out he chain-smoked cigarettes during each of his breaks on set.
Today Alamo Village is a popular tourist destination for all fans of the Wild, Wild West, making fans feel like a part of Hollywood history. People can come and enjoy the set that big stars such as Dean Martin, Raquel Welch, and Willie Nelson have worked on, perhaps even enjoy a pint in the tavern.
Set Piece: Waverly Hills Sanatorium
Where It’s Located: Louisville, Kentucky, USA
Production Budget: $1.5 million*
With a name like Death Tunnel, it doesn’t exactly conjure images of a fun, relaxing day out, unless you are a horror fan of course. The plot is fairly stereotypical, with a group of college freshmen hazing in an abandoned sanitarium. Of course, followed by the unexplained paranormal activity and you have yourself a typical, low-budget horror film of the early 2000s.
The set location is said to be one of the most haunted hospitals in the US, not sure exactly how that was measured but if you are a believer in the ghostly kind then perhaps you will prefer to avoid the abandoned location of this film.
The Waverly Hills Sanatorium is an attraction for all horror fans, offering overnight paranormal investigation events and Halloween guided tours. They also offer historical tours with the option for a group visit as well as a private tour through the “Most Haunted Place in America”.
Set Piece: Witch Hunters Village
Where It’s Located: Augsburg, Germany
Production Budget: $50 million*
Take a children’s fairy tale, which with objectivity is rather terrifying, and turn it into an action-adventure film and voila, this is what you get. Not surprisingly though, it wasn’t’ received well with critics saying the script was weak and the violence too gratuitous.
Now available for streaming on Netflix there is currently talk of a sequel, which is said to have a 2021 release date despite the generally terrible reviews. Starring Famke Janssen of X-Men fame, one would hope the next installment would be better than the first if it is ever created at all.
Set Piece: Resting Place of the Holy Grail
Where It’s Located: Petra, Jordan
Production Budget: $48 million*
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade grossed hundreds of millions at the box office, so it’s no surprise that anything associated with the movie is a huge attraction. In the movie, Indiana Jones, an explorer and college professor, is after the Holy Grail, which is housed at a place known as “The Treasury.”
Set Piece: The Escape
Where It’s Located: Alcatraz Island, San Francisco
Production Budget: $8 million*
Escape from Alcatraz was a nail-biting thriller starring Clint Eastwood. The 1979 film featured Eastwood’s character attempting a daring escape from the famous California prison. Alcatraz is no longer a prison—it was shut down as a state pen in 1936, mainly because of cost reasons.
Escape from Alcatraz was filmed at the now-abandoned prison, and it cost millions to get the facility running to a point where filming could take place. When Alcatraz was in its heyday, it was mainly a prison for the worst of the worst, including notorious gangsters from headlines, like Al Capone, Doc Barker, and George “Machine-Gun” Kelly.
Set Piece: Platform 3 and 3/4
Where It’s Located: King’s Cross Station, UK
Production Budget: $125 million*
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was a fantasy movie based on the billion-dollar franchise by J.K. Rowling. The first of the series, The Sorcerer’s Stone had a $125 million budget. A major part of the movie was Platform 9 and ¾, which was the mysterious wizarding train station that acted as a portal to get them on the train to Hogwarts.
You had to run directly into what looked like a concrete barrier to get on. Though Platform 9 and ¾ sadly does not exist, the scenes were filmed at a real train station: London’s Kings Cross, which was first opened to the public in 1852 and still runs passenger trains to and from London.
Set Piece: The “Rocky Steps”
Where It’s Located: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Production Budget: $1.1 million*
Pretty much every single visitor to Philadelphia, PA has to take a picture on “The Rocky Steps,” which were the steps that Rocky climbed during his famous training montage. The movie Rocky has made these steps, located at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, famous. There was even a bronze Rocky Balboa statue at the top for a while (though it has now been moved to the bottom).
Rocky creator Sly Stallone said that the film, which was shot on a very tight budget, was identified as a cheap set location. Originally, Rocky was supposed to run up the steps carrying his dog, but the bull mastiff was way too heavy, so he went alone.
Set Piece: The Bates Motel
Where It’s Located: Universal City, California
Production Budget: $806,947*
There is no actual Bates Motel, nor does the original set from Psycho still exist. However, at Universal City in California, a reconstructed version of the famous motel is located on the backlot. The Bates Motel has been part of the Universal City studio tour for years and years. You can even go inside the house, which, as one reviewer said, “looks scary.”
Released in 1960, Psycho was arguably Alfred Hitchcock’s most famous movie, as well as one of the scariest movies of the twentieth century. The psychological horror thriller starred Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates, a motel owner with some serious mommy issues.
Set Piece: The Bookshop
Where It’s Located: London, England
Production Budget: $42 million*
The fictional bookshop in Notting Hill was based on a real bookshop, called Travel Book Co, located at 13 Blenheim Crescent. Notting Hill starred Hugh Grant as a bookshop owner whose life is thrown into disarray when a famous actress (played by Julia Roberts) comes into his shop. The press catches a picture of them together, and Grant is thrown into a full-blown media storm.
Set Piece: Pike Place Market
Where It’s Located: Seattle, Washington
Production Budget: $21 million*
Sleepless in Seattle was directed by Nora Ephron. The romantic comedy starred Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan as a couple that defies the odds to get together. Other than the Empire State Building scene, Sleepless’ most well-known shots were filmed at Pike Place Market, in Seattle, Washington.
This public market opened in 1907, and it is one of the United States’ oldest, continuously-operated farmers markets. Pike Place definitely provided good filming material, as it overlooks the Elliot Bay. In Sleepless, Tom Hanks and co-star Rob Reiner sat in the northwest corner of The Athenian Inn, which is located inside PPM.
Set Piece: Road Trip
Where It’s Located: Cabazon, California
Production Budget: $6 million*
Shot in 1985, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure was a comedy film that starred Paul Reubens as Pee Wee Herman, a child-like man who loves his bike and refuses to sell it to his neighbor. When his bike gets stole, Herman sets off on a road trip. He find out that his bike is being used on a movie set, and he has to try to save it.
Directed, surprisingly, by Tim Burton, the film is family-friendly. Pee Wee’s road trip was filmed in Cabazon, California. One of the site’s locations he stops at is Cabazon Dinosaurs, a roadside attraction featuring a couple of enormous, steel/concrete dinosaurs named Mr. Rex and Dinny.