Virtually Traveling the World During Lockdown
Enjoy the Best Free Online Virtual Tours
Like many travelers, I had my 2020 trips all planned. A visit to the Pacific Northwest sat on my docket followed by a potential flight to Tokyo to take in the Summer Olympic Games. But at the beginning of March, reports about COVID-19, the novel coronavirus that had ravaged China and Italy, impacting my area started to surface, and my itinerary fell apart. Shelter-in-place orders started coming down, reservations ended up being canceled and infection numbers started to mount. I found myself suddenly fearful and disappointed.
I was not alone. Countless communities have found themselves under a more-or-less mandatory lockdown, their carefully laid plans dashed. What’s a frustrated traveler to do? Much to my surprise, I found the answer was, “Lots!” A host of vacation hot spots, curators of cultural sites, professional producers, royal families and intrepid YouTubers have created virtual tours of some of the world’s best places. Read on to learn about some of the best free online virtual tours.
Virtual Tours of Various Locales and Regions
When most people think about virtual tours, they imagine experiences not unlike the classic 1993 video game Myst. Viewers peer at static images on their computer screens and proceed through predetermined paths to see the sights. Today, such “on rail” tours have gotten a bit of a boost thanks to VR headsets and controls, but the basic experience remains the same. Though you will see in this article’s final section that this is far from the only type of virtual tour, you will also find that a wide variety of these “traditional” sorts of virtual tours ferry sightseers to multiple locales and regions all over the world.
Indeed, YouVisit is one of the more frequently referenced companies providing virtual tours and its wide-ranging tour of Vatican City regularly pops up on lists of top virtual tours. With a tiny map in one corner of your screen and an unobtrusive guide in the other, you can peer at sights such as St. Peter’s Square, Cortile della Pigna and the Sistine Chapel. Asian travel agency, The China Guide, uses similar tech to dramatic effect with the Great Wall of China, giving viewers dramatic, hilly views of the famous structure across multiple stretches and seasons.
Fancy seeing more natural wonders? Then Google Earth has you covered. The famous global modeling tool has captured virtual tours of scores of U.S. national parks. Dry Tortugas National Park (Florida), Badlands National Park (South Dakota), Grand Teton National Park (Wyoming), Olympic National Park (Washington). You can tour all of them and more, beholding on-the-ground vistas accompanied by dramatic site-to-site transitions.
National Geographic has done something similar with its series of 360-degree videos, which will take you from the rivers of Canada to the coral reefs of Indonesia, from boating by a very much occupied elephant watering hole to crouching next to lion cubs. Though these tours proceed along a predetermined path, you can still control which way the camera peers. Ditto for the aurora borealis tours offered by Lights Over Lapland.
Virtual Tours of Specific Sights
Speaking of Google, the tech company has done more than merely catalog great swathes of the globe. It has also encapsulated specific places and culturally noteworthy sites, such as museums.
The Collections section of Google Arts & Culture has page after page after page of them, including The Museum of Modern Art (New York), The National Gallery of Art (Washington, D.C.), Van Gogh Museum (Amsterdam), The National Gallery (London), The Tate (London), The Olympic Museum (Lausanne), and Musée de l’Orangerie (Paris). Not all of these tours feature fish-eye views of the museums or in-depth descriptions of famous artists, but you can count on lots of high-quality images.
Google Arts & Culture does not stop with museums, though. It also includes specific culturally significant locations in its Street View section. Here you can stroll around the Taj Mahal, the Palace of Versailles, or Kyoto’s Kiyomizu-dera Temple. Less regal sites also get space. Explore Anne Frank’s home, count the stars on Hollywood Boulevard, peek at the spray-paint street art of Banksy, examine Stonehenge and imprison yourself in Nelson Mandela’s cell.
Though the famous search engine boasts extensive archives, it does not have a monopoly on virtual tours to specific sites. Some maintain their own online jaunts. Tour Buckingham Palace, Taiwan’s National Palace Museum, The Louvre, the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History and Seattle’s Museum of Flight.
Virtual Walking and Parade Tours
One of the great advantages of the internet is the way in which it allows independent creators to put their own spin on professional content. One of the most interesting iterations is YouTube walking tours, which work in a deceptively simple way; creatives don a high-quality, wearable camera and then stroll for an hour or two, taking in the sights. They’re often intended to serve as a workout supplement with exercisers following along on a treadmill, but they work just as well for self-isolating travelers.
Most of the following walking-tour videos have proved so popular that they have accumulated millions of views. Make your way through Tokyo’s Shibuya ward at night, marveling at its many commercial options. Enjoy the turquoise waters, quaint bistros and gorgeous architecture of Amalfi, Italy. Spy out the bistros and bars of downtown Paris. Enjoy Christmas at any time with a December stroll in London, making your way from Tottenham Court Road to Oxford Circus. Take an in-depth, 90-minute tour of Royal Caribbean’s Symphony of the Seas, one of the world’s largest cruise ships, and then examine the undersea wonders of Poland’s Oceanarium Afrykarium. The Middle East beckons with a tour of Khan el-Khalili, a storied bazaar smack in the middle of Cairo. You can even get an amazing view of the latest Disney parade!
While these may be some of the best free online virtual tours, they are far from the only ones. You know what’s as fun as seeing the virtual sights? Making your own internet itinerary!