10 of the best virtual tours so you can still explore the world
Recently, I sat and thought about some of the reasons why I travel (and these days I have more time to sit, and think, than to travel). I realized a few interesting things. Why do I travel? Well, clearly to escape and explore. But, also to embrace and understand other cultures, to free my mind, and to learn. There are other reasons, of course, I could go on and on. What I did realize though, is that many of these wonderful byproducts of travel can be achieved (at least partially) through the screens we stare at every day.
The world is getting smaller, due, in part, to the achievements of many museums, zoos, galleries, and countless educational websites that are allowing us to peek into other corners of the world from home. We can explore aerially, looking down into the atolls of French Polynesia, or peer into animal cams tracking tiger behavior in India. We can walk the Great Wall of China, or climb into canyons that we might not have been able to afford to get to, or are physically unable to achieve. We can transport ourselves onto a street view of just about any street in the known world. Amazing stuff.
Does any of this take the place of actual travel? No, it doesn’t. But, it is, quite possibly, the next best thing. That is, until time travel is a reliable alternative.
Machu Picchu has become one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations, and for good reason. However, with over 1.4 million visitors annually, you would be hard pressed to climb it without several hundred others tourists at any given time.
Considered one of the most famous sites of the Incan civilization, Machu Picchu is a 15th century citadel located in southern Peru, about 50 miles from Cusco. It proudly sits at about 8,000 feet, on a glorious mountain ridge in the Andes, above the Sacred Valley. In 1983, Machu Picchu was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and later found its place in the ‘New Seven Wonders of the World’. High accolades, indeed!
Machu Picchu is believed to have been built as the home and estate of the Incan emperor, Pachacuti. Surrounded by the Urubambu River, and at 32,592 hectares, it is one of the largest archaeological sites in the world.
The virtual tour of Machu Picchu is quite well done, being both graphically exciting and easy-to-navigate. Full-screen graphics greet you upon arrival to the site, and a menu bar pops up as needed from the left of the screen in order to facilitate the virtual trip. Hop around the ruins if you’d like, or ascend it as if you were really there. Whichever you choose, concisely narrated stories and facts about the site help guide you. 360 degree panoramas allow you to see Machu Picchu in all of its glory. Bright blue skies are a permanent backdrop to the ancient moss-covered stone walls. Every day is a beautiful day in Peru on your virtual tour.
Tourists are scattered throughout, so you do have some company on your ascent. But not so many that you feel overwhelmed. Videos are dotted about the site, compliments of YouTube, should you want to see more in-depth footage of this piece of Incan history.The clarity of the panoramas, and the vivid photography, bring this virtual tour up a notch from the norm. You can almost get lost in the wide open spaces and views from above the valleys. You can admire the ruins, royal residences, and burial grounds. I couldn’t help but notice how well-kept the grounds were. Thank you UNESCO.
The three main structures of Machu Picchu are: Intihuatana, a ritual stone thought to be an ancient clock or calendar, Temple of the Sun, and the Room of Three Windows. But, there is far more to explore on the virtual journey as you roam up towards the clouds of this historic and magical place.
It is interesting to note, that only the first 400 visitors in line each day at the ‘real’ Machu Picchu are allowed to reach the summit, Huyana Picchu. Luckily, you can get there anytime your adventurous heart desires!
Powered by Google, this wonderful, quirky, site could steal hours from your life, if you allowed it. Quite simply, click a button, and it randomly places you on just about any street, road, or highway in the known world. Seen through the ‘street-view’ vantage point, you can stand idle, take in a 360 degree panorama, or saunter down the street at your leisure, while following carefully placed arrows.
Maybe this doesn’t sound very interesting to you? Try it. I dare anyone to stop at one click. Using the NEXT button, the sheer randomness of the site is the delight! Click. Rural life alongside a Hungarian farm. Click,. Lavender fields adorn the French countryside. Click. A banal, endless road lined with metal fencing. Click. A serpentine route along the vast and burnt-orange Chilean desert.
Some of the clicks present you with what could be framed works of landscape art, while others are soulless, desolate, and gray. Like pulling the arm on a slot machine in Vegas, you just don’t know what will come up next. That is the inherent draw of Random Street View. I enjoyed being thrown in front of a mega-mart in Taipei, as much as I enjoyed seeing the unique architecture of a traditional Bhutanese home.
A 2D square graphic in the top left corner of the screen pinpoints exactly where in the world you have landed. The NEXT button propels your journey. Suddenly inspired by a location and want to tell your friends? Save the view, and share it immediately via Twitter and Facebook.
Be prepared to fall down the proverbial rabbit hole, from Rio de Janeiro, to the Rio Grande, the backroads of Bogota, to the water’s edge in Auckland. The ability to see flora, fauna, architecture styles, and unique terrain around the world is fascinating. Say you were interested in learning more about the landscape in Estonia, for example, you could be more specific and narrow your search to country of your choice.
Interactive panoramas were launched by Google in 2007, and have changed the way we view streets around the world. They use stitched image photography that is captured in a variety of ways. You may have seen Google cars with cameras cruising around your neighborhood from time to time. Interestingly, Google has also used boats, snowmobiles, and even photographers on tricycles to capture images. In 2018, Google Japan offered street views from a dog’s perspective. What’s next, Google?
With over 2 million visitors a year, its oversized windows, and 20,000 square feet of decks that overlook the scenic Monterey Bay, the Monterey Bay Aquarium is said to ‘blur the line between museum and natural habitat’. When it opened in 1984, the aquarium, known for its focus on hyper-local marine environments of Monterey Bay, was the first to exhibit a living kelp forest. Now you can see the forest, along with a plentitude of other live cams and exhibits, from just about anywhere.
It is hard to decide which of the ten live cams are the most interesting. Perhaps, the beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder. The jelly cam is especially mesmerizing, with colorful, translucent creatures drifting across the screen, peacefully. The sea nettles, at first glance, seem to be an artfully designed screensaver, and indeed, you can download screen savers of many of the habitats. The moon jelly cam is equally dreamy, the bulbous clear jellies pulsating around the screen at random. It is an almost meditative experience with the calming background sounds.
Other live cams that the aquarium offers range from the famous kelp forest, with its lulling kelp fields swishing to and fro among the fish; the shark cam, including Leopard Shark, Spiny Dogfish, and the Pacific Angel Shark. The sea otter cam was especially entertaining. Watching the otters, without a care in the world, on their backs, floating happily, or cozying up in a rock pool, is enough to make anyone’s day.
Each live cam has other visual materials to accompany them, should you want to dive deeper, so to speak. Pre-taped videos of related species, for instance, and daily live narrated feedings could keep you peering into your computer screen for hours enjoying the wonders of life under the sea.
With 4117 panoramas, 141 panoramic videos, and a whopping 360 famous places on Earth, AirPano’s journeys supply enough virtual inspiration for even the most intrepid traveler! Started in 2006 by a team of Russian photographers, AirPano’s high-quality photography has been used by Google, LG, Microsoft, and even Starbucks, to name a few. AirPano reveals places that many of us will never have the chance to explore in person, let alone from the unique vantage points they capture so beautifully.
Once on the home page, there are a few ways to explore, 360 degree photography, 360 degree videos or a traditional photo gallery, each with different levels of interactivity. The viewer has the opportunity to visit dramatic places around the world. For instance, travel instantaneously to Deitan Falls on the Vietnam/China border. The gushing waterfalls pool together as one alongside the green rice fields and sharp, peaked mountains. Take a moment and scroll up, down, left, and right to get a sense of the entire landscape. It feels larger than life, even on a computer screen.
Next, you may choose to head to the Sahara Desert in Algeria, and take in the never-ending dunes and vast open sky. Click on the hiker icon to zoom into the tourist camp, or click on the helicopter icon to soar high above the sand, viewing the sunrise near Tin Merzouga dune. The journeys one can take are endless.
Enter the Kingdom of Bhutan, said to be one of the happiest countries on Earth, or marvel at the intricate design of the salt patterns of Israel’s Dead Sea. The interface is simple to use, so you can easily zoom in, out, and around the globe, from a volcano eruption one minute, then paragliding in Russia, the next. A remarkable experience in every way. Turn out the lights and catapult yourself to the far reaches of the Earth.
If computing terms like automata theory, array data structure, and user interface design, get you excited, then the UK’s National Museum of Computing is the virtual place for you. The real museum, located in Milton Keynes, England, houses the biggest collection of historic computers on the planet. The museum traces the early pioneering efforts of computing back to the 1940s, including the Colossus, the world’s first electronic computer. It is a place of conservation and preservation, and runs educational programs for schools and universities, as well.
The virtual tour is straightforward and comprehensive, a literal view of the museum. After the initial dollhouse graphics and floor plan of the museum pop up, you can walk around the rooms of the museum. Follow the graphics as you walk through the unassuming galleries, much in the same way you would do if you were actually there. Scan the rooms, get your bearings, and simply click on any bullseye graphic to learn more about the artifacts on display. Hyperlinks take you to videos should you want more in-depth information as you wander.
One of the stars of the museum’s exhibits, is the 1951 Harwell Dekatron/WITCH computer. After being rebooted in 2012, it is known to be the world’s oldest working computer. As you might imagine, it takes up half of the room’s space, and looks prehistoric compared to modern equivalents. One of the galleries is filled with machines that look more like kitchen appliances from the 1960s than computing devices. From an aesthetic point of view, it is interesting to marvel how far we have come in industrial and computer design. This museum tour certainly has its niche, and those who love all things historical and digital, will be absolutely engrossed.
Occupying nearly 750,000 acres, maybe the second best way to see Yosemite National Park’s granite cliffs, cascading waterfalls, and crystal blue streams, is virtually. How else could you see so much of this famous national treasure that sits squarely in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains. Established in 1980, and deemed a World Heritage Site in 1984, Yosemite attracts over 4 million visitors per year.
Virtual Yosemite does a magnificent job of delivering the scenery to your home, with high-resolution photography that captures the wide open spaces, the valleys, the rock formations, domes, and verdant meadows. Toggle around the scene, and zoom in and out, as you wander. Red target hotspots guide your journey. Either hover over the hotspot for a brief description of the location, or click, and be transported immediately.
Classic Yosemite scenes, like the famous Tunnel View and ancient giant Sequoia forests, await you. Get lost in the colorful flowers of McGurk meadow, and take a peek around the McGurk log cabin, which dates back to the early 1800s. All yours to enjoy in spectacularly vivid color. Many places that are only accessible on foot, or to those with hiking expertise, are within reach, virtually. ‘Hike’ to Half Dome summit, which at its shortest route, is between 14-16.5 miles. At one time, it was considered unclimbable. Yosemite Falls Summit, at 2,425 ft, is especially exciting, allowing you to look down into Yosemite’s highest waterfall.
As we all know, the virtual tour is no substitute for the fresh, clear, air of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, but, for now, it can certainly provide ample inspiration for your next US road trip.
No doubt, one of the best ways to spend idle time these days is to turn on Netflix or Hulu, and escape reality. For a true nature or animal lover, however, there are some wonderful alternatives. The San Diego Zoo Live Cams provide an intimate look into many animal habitats that are spread across their 100 acres in southern California.
There are 12 live cams, including tigers, elephants, condors, polar bears, and penguins. The San Diego Zoo was the first zoo to successfully breed a Giant Panda, and the panda cam archive is a joy to watch. As per their agreement with China, 27-year old Bai Yun and her 6-year old son, were repatriated to China some time ago. Each cam view offers a link to learn more about the specific species; a more in-depth look at a tiger’s habitat, a penguin’s diet, or the baboon’s family life, for example. Furthermore, there are blog archives with even more educational materials about each species and sub-species.
I clicked on a few of my favorite animals to catch a glimpse of what was happening real-time. Patience is needed, this is live, remember. For the first few minutes, the polar bears were camera shy, but then slowly sauntered into view. Next, I clicked on the giraffe cam, and was surprised to see a crash (yes, that’s the technical term) of rhinos photo-bombing the scene. The live view of the African Plains exhibit showed many animals leisurely enjoying their day. As a point worth noting, the San Diego Zoo was a frontrunner in zoo design; one of the first to create cage-less habitats that mimic natural ones.
Especially intriguing is the Burrowing Owls cam, which is actually a pair of cams, both above and underground, highlighting newborn owlets. Whichever cams you view, prepare to settle in and relax as you watch zoo life unfold in front of you.
If you haven’t had a chance to explore Google Arts and Culture, run, don’t walk to your closest computer. Google Arts and Culture is an online platform that has worldwide reach, extending access to thousands of visitors to see and learn about art and culture. Launched in 2011, Google Arts allows ‘armchair tourists’ to circumvent the earth. Through this amazing portal, you can explore a one-man spacecraft, check out the inside of a Hawaiian lava tube, or gallop around Bryce Canyon on horseback, among other things.
Movie buffs will enjoy scrolling virtually around the tours of 17 iconic movie locations. Scattered around the world from Petra to Philadelphia, you can read a facts about each location as you pan the scene. Fly off to Paris, to see the streetscape from Inception where Leo DiCaprio teaches co-star Ellen Page to build dreams. The Post de Bir-Hakeim Bridge, as well as colorful buildings and busy restaurants, complete the view along the River Seine.
While on that side of the pond, head to the UK and visit Bridget’s house. Bridget Jones, that is, the quirky, lovable heroine from Bridget Jones’s Diary. Follow the arrows to walk around her neighborhood, past her favorite shops, and even to the market where she bought the ingredients for her doomed blue soup. Later, fly back to the US to tackle the famous Philadelphia steps like Rocky did in his classic film. You won’t break a sweat as you run the 72 wide, stone steps towards the Philadelphia Museum of Art entrance. Then, relax and take in the views of this historical city.
The names of the rooms in Carlsbad Caverns National Park sound as if from a fantasy film: Queen’s Chamber, Chocolate High, Hall of the White Giant, and Lake of the Clouds are a few whimsical examples. Carlsbad Caverns, considered by many, one of the best caves in the world, certainly does have an otherworldly feeling to it. Located in the Guadalupe Mountains in Southeastern New Mexico, the caverns were likely known to the Native Americans over 1,000 years ago. However, it wasn’t until the 1880s that they were discovered by a teenaged miner named James Larkin White, and became a place to mine bat guano (dung).
Legend has it that Larkin explored deeper into the caves, about 750 feet below the surface, and started to give guided tours to curious tourists. Tourists who weren’t put off by having to descend almost 200ft into the caves via a guano bucket.
The 360 degree virtual visit begins to give a sense of the limestone caves, and you can descend (thankfully sans bucket) at your own pace into the tunnels and chambers below the surface. Arrows guide your journey in this self-guided tour. Ethereal colors light up the limestone of the halls as you find your way towards the Big Room, aka Hall of Giants, the centerpiece of Carlsbad. At 4000 ft long, the Hall of Giants is the fifth largest cave in North America, and 28th in the world. Eerie and dramatic, you can almost hear the echo of tiny water droplets in the background.
Eleven panoramic views are displayed along the bottom of your screen, and you can choose to go in order, or leap around the vast caverns. Look down upon the Witch’s Fingers. Marvel at the mirrored pools of water. Gaze upwards at the Giant Twin Domes of dripping rock formations.
Seventeen species of bats live in the caves, and should you be able to visit one day, you might catch sight of a Mexican free-tailed bat, among others. In 2005, with the help of thermal imaging cameras, 793,000 were counted. Depending upon your love of bats, perhaps the virtual tour is the best way to view Carlsbad after all?
One of the most iconic structures in the world, the Great Wall of China, has a history as long as its border walls. Originally built by soldiers and peasants to safeguard and protect Chinese territories from nomadic threat, and spanning over 3,000 miles, the Great Wall of China is hard to process in its enormity. With the help of The China Guide’s virtual tour, you can begin to get a sense of this ancient wonder and its vast surroundings.
Over 2,300 years old, the Great Wall was built in multiple areas of Northern China by different dynasties.The wall height was determined to be at least three times the height of the average man. Much of the wall has eroded over time, as the virtual panos will attest, the stone seemingly crumbling before your very eyes.
Three panoramic views await you in this tour of the Great Wall. The sun shines golden hues over the walls and into the countryside beyond. The views include the Watchtower, a chilly winter scene, and the view from Jinshanling to Simatai. Take in the serpentine curved wall as it disappears into the distance, notice the layout of the bricks, and the cobbled stone walkways. Admire the layered clouds in the distance. The Great Wall of China will outlast this current state of quarantine and would certainly be worth a real visit one day.