The best virtual tours to explore the world from home

Ceiling of Sistine Chapel, Vatican City. Check permissions for this image
The Sistine Chapel is just one wonder offering a virtual museum tour ©Rajesh Gathwala/500px

We live in an age of unprecedented access to digital technology – and with it, brand new ways of exploring the world around us.

While it's not quite the same as seeing, say, the Mona Lisa or Christ the Redeemer in person, some of the world’s most popular and remote destinations have created libraries of online images and video, as well as 360 degree virtual tours that let you virtually explore museums, galleries, world wonders and even national parks.

Here a just a few of the best digital tours that let you wander the world from wherever you may be social distancing.

A woma nin a pink technical fabric top and matching pants and a black cap with a brim walks past the orange buildings and clay roofs of the Choijin Lama Museum in Ulan Bator with a green camera sphere from Google Street View strapped to her back
Google has used its Street View technology not just to map roads, but also destinations like the Choijin Lama Museum in Ulan Bator, Mongolia ©
BYAMBASUREN BYAMBA-OCHIR / Getty Images

See the seven wonders of the world

If there’s anything capable of whetting your appetite for world travel, it is the new seven wonders of the world: the Great Wall of China, the ancient city of Petra, the Taj Mahal, the Colosseum, Machu Picchu, Christ the Redeemer, and Chichen Itza. Thankfully there are impressive virtual tours of each from The New York Times, AirPano, Google, and Panoramas.

With modern technology, you can even see the last standing wonder of the ancient world—The Pyramids of Giza. There are a few other wonders that might not make it into to the top seven but are still worth a digital peek, like the Alhambra, Seville's La Giralda, and even Easter Island.

The Egyptian Antiquities room in the Lovure Museum is empty except for several statues of various sizes from Tanis, Karnak, and Thebes
Imagine having the Louvre all to yourself - almost an impossibility unless you go on a virtual museum tour © DEA / G. DAGLI ORTI / Contributor / Getty Images

Best virtual museum tours

In recent years, Google has partnered with over 2,5000 art museums to upload high-resolution versions of millions of pieces of art. Highlights include New York’s MoMA, DC’s National Gallery of Art, Chicago’s Art Institute, the Casa Battló, and Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum to name a few.

In addition, The Louvre offers a virtual tour, as do The Vatican Museums, many of the Smithsonian Museums, the Russian Museum, the top-rated British Museum, the Minneapolis Museum of Russian Art, and the Palace Museum in Beijing.

You may not be able to kiss the Blarney Stone right now, but you can tour the Blarney Castle from afar. You can also visit the Museum of Flight, the Museum of Science, the Museum of Natural History, the National Women's History Museum and Boston's History of Science Museum.

While museums are often an inherently visual experience, there's a lot to be learned from archives of past lectures and tours like the ones preserved online by Nashville's Frist Museum, the Hunter Museum of American Art in Chattanooga, Tennessee, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Frick, and others.

Turquoise Pool in Yellowstone National Park surrounded by a contrasting blanket of fresh white snow
One of the advantages to virtual tours of national parks is not needing to worry about the weather © Meghan O'Dea / Lonely Planet

Explore national parks

While travel to National Parks is best avoided for the time being, you don't need to miss out on the scenery. Virtual Yosemite is absolutely stunning and one of the best, replete with audio. Both Yellowstone National Park and Mount Rushmore offer virtual tours as well. 

Google has similar 360 degree audio-visual tours of five select national parks, including Kenai Fjords, Hawai'i Volcanos, Carlsbad Caverns, Bryce Canyon, and Dry Tortugas, as well as 31 more on Google Earth. You can also get an up-close look at almost 4,000 pieces of artwork, artifacts, and other treasures related to the history and culture of the national parks, and view online exhibits.

A penguin looks at the viewer through the glass walls of a habitat at the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga, Tennessee
Kids especially will love the chance to view wildlife up close via virtual experiences like the penguin web cam at the Tennessee Aquarium © Meghan O'Dea / Lonely Planet

Digital safaris

Wildlife is a big draw for travelers, whether it's sighting some of the Big Five in Africa, glimpsing whales in North America, or introducing your children to new animals in person on a family safari. But if you're forays into the bush are grounded for now, many zoos and aquariums have created digital access to their habitats.

You can easily watch several live webcams of some of the nation’s greatest zoos and aquariums, including the San Diego Zoo, Houston Zoo, Zoo Atlanta, the Tennessee Aquarium, and the Georgia Aquarium. Additionally you can see Canadian farm animals doing their thing, or you could watch Stella the Dog jump endlessly into huge piles of Maine leaves.

A view overlooking the Wotans Throne feature at the Grand Canyon
The Grand Canyon is just a few keystrokes away, no matter where you live © SumikoPhoto/Getty Images

Virtual hiking

Thanks to panoramic video, you can get a really good idea of what a hike looks like well before you arrive at the trailhead. For example, you can experience all of the following top-rated hikes right now from your computer or tablet: Bryce Canyon, Grand Canyon, GR20, Inca Trail, and the death-defying Angel's Landing. For even more great hikes, simply YouTube one of Lonely Planet’s top 10 treks or any other hike that suits your fancy. Bonus points if you follow along during a workout to enhance the realism.

Famous landmarks

You can visit many wonders of nature, including the Amazon Rainforest, Iguazu Falls, the Komodo Islands, or Table Mountain, using virtual tours. Or you can explore the Statue of Liberty, the Sahara Desert, Niagara Falls, or even a guided tour of the Eiffel Tower. For even more virtual tours, search your bucket list of adventures with AirPano, Google Earth, or YouTube.

Astronatur Edwin E. Aldrin Jr. looks at the Lunar Module Pilot during the 1969 moon landing
Not everyone can be an astronaut, but you can follow along the original moonlanding online © NASA / Handout / Getty Images

Travel to outer space

The moon hasn't made it to Lonely Planet's Best In Travel list (yet!), and even without self-isolation and shelter-in-place measures for COVID-19, many of us may never travel to space. But thanks to technology, now is as good of a time as any to do so virtually. Before blasting off, considering touring some of NASA’s offices first. Then relive the last lunar missions and moon walks in stunning HD. Or take a virtual tour of Mars with the help of Google. 

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This article was originally published March 2020 and was last updated October 2020.

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