History can be pretty dense. And as an academic subject in school, it always felt rather dry and unapproachable to me. It wasn’t until I started traveling, that my perspective quickly changed and I realized that history isn’t meant to stay on the page — it comes alive through storytelling and shared experiences. While we're all stuck at home, virtual tours may be the best way to access those stories.
For travelers especially, the historical context of a place is a powerful conduit to cultural appreciation in the present. The more we can learn about a destination's history, the more we’ll be able to understand why the locals eat what they eat, drink what they drink, dance how they dance, dress how they dress, why their government operates the way it does, and why their buildings look the way they do. With a stronger understanding of this context, travelers can develop the confidence to engage with locals in a meaningful way, to try new experiences, to support the local economy, and of course, to keep learning.
Historical knowledge can also help tourists to make more sustainable choices. For example, recognizing a history of colonialism in a particular place may influence our decision making, from the businesses we choose to patronize, to the conversations we initiate.
So what better way to prepare for upcoming travel, or enrich the memories of journeys past than to do some virtual travel from home? Even when physical travel is impossible, the ever expanding world of virtual experiences offers a wide variety of immersive experiences that help bring history to life. With just an internet connection and a curious mind, armchair travelers can strike an enjoyable balance between the experiential and the academic.
So whether you’re a bona fide history buff, or a conscious traveler seeking informative context, I hope you’ll enjoy this list of Hidden Lemur favorites: virtual tours for history buffs.
Online Experiences with Local Experts
One good thing about living through the chaotic year of 2020 is that people are virtually coming together in creative ways that will continue for years to come. Paid video experiences have now become a cross-continental commodity connecting experts to curious explorers worldwide. If you are a history buff who loves to travel, consider booking a virtual experience with a scholar or local expert in your area of interest. Not only is interactive learning a lot more fun than staring into the computer screen alone, you’ll also be making a direct contribution to sustainable tourism by providing income to locals who need it.
Here are Hidden Lemur’s top five picks:
- Brazil Virtual Tour: This website has a full calendar of free virtual tours with accredited Brazilian tour Guides. They believe in keeping these experiences free for those who want to experience historic Brazil. Donations and “gratitudes” are welcome, and tourists can specify which guide they would like to compensate.
- Context Conversations: “Scholar-led virtual learning for the intellectually curious.” This site offers live conversations (private or small group) with scholars worldwide. Context conversations believe that travel is the ultimate form of education, and have created a vast network of experts who share their knowledge on thousands of different cultural and historical topics. 100 percent of tips will go directly to the expert with whom you speak.
- With Locals: This platform was initially created as a marketplace to facilitate organic connection between tourists and locals.They envision a world without mass tourism, and instead, personalized traveling at scale. All virtual experiences are created and managed directly by the hosts and organized by topic of interest. History buffs – check out the The History and Tales category!
- Go Ahead Tours: This site is all about shared-real time experiences with hosts from around the world who have skills to share and stories to tell. This company draws upon five decades of relationships with local tour guides, historians, and experts to bring unforgettable virtual experiences to curious tourists.
- Tours By Locals: Functions similarly, and offers a plethora of customizable tours based on your specific interest or location. Even better, they encourage continued future travel and in-person connection by giving tourists the option of applying the cost of their virtual session to a future in-person tour.
Best Virtual Walking Tours
Guided walking tours are one of my favorite ways to get acquainted with new places and learn a little about their history along the way. The following three YouTube channels have reimagined the classic walking tour by making at-home versions for virtual travelers. Whether you’re planning a future trip or just want to visit historic cities from home, these treadmill friendly walking tours offer a physical and entertaining way to learn!
- ProWalk Tours: The ProWalk Tours youtube channel offers high quality 4K walking tours filmed with immersive binaural audio. Whether you want to experience the world from the comfort of your own home or plan your next trip abroad, let Prowalk Tours be your guide. They cover a huge amount of Italy, the Pyramids of Giza, and the Eiffel Tower.
Some of their walks are specifically designed to be done on a treadmill (an elliptical or bike would do just fine too) so you can lace up and recreate the physical aspect of sightseeing from home.
- Rick Steves’ Europe: Rick Steves is an expert on European travel specifically, with thirty years of experience personally curating European tours for curious travelers. For bite sized tour clips of your favorite cities, check out his youtube videos.
- Living Walks: This channel creates vibrant videos that give viewers an up-close look at some of the world’s most historic cities. These super-realistic walking tours are accompanied by painstakingly organized timelines that allow viewers to control their experience and navigate quickly between sites of interest.
Virtual Tours for Parents, Educators and Lifelong Learners
History View VR has the ultimate catalogue of virtual field trips, used mostly by teachers who want to bring historical sites into the classroom. You can find informative VR lessons on the King Tut Museum, Chichén Itzá, The Titanic, The Bombing of Hiroshima, and even more world history by clicking icons displayed on the interactive world map.
You can use your computer to scroll through these virtual tours in 2D, or use a VR headset if you have one!
For even more immersive learning, check out these nine virtual field trips that make history come alive.
Virtual Tours of Historic Landmarks
This category exists mostly thanks to Google Arts and Culture, and their multinational collaborators who have created virtual experiences in almost any place your heart could desire.
For example: Here, you can take a virtual tour of the Palace of Versailles, and then pop over to the legendary Prague Castle.
If you still haven’t had enough naked cherubs, marble busts, or stained glass, take a quick detour to Rome for a VR compatible virtual tour of the Vatican.
But wait! Don’t leave Europe without visiting Stonehenge!
And since you’ve made it this far, might as well say a quick hello to China’s Forbidden city.
Speaking of famous cities, you wouldn’t want to miss the Big Apple. Click here to take a guided virtual tour of historic Central Park in New York.
Online Museum Exhibits
Again, Google Arts and Culture has the edge over almost everywhere else online. The platform showcases high-resolution images and videos of artworks and cultural artifacts from over 2,000 different museums throughout the world. You can zoom in and out of images in great detail, and view some of the most famous artwork ever created, all from the comfort of your couch.
The platform is available in 18 languages and has been praised internationally for increasing access to cultural knowledge for those who may not have had the opportunity otherwise.
If you’d like to support museums directly or have a niche historical interest, here are three selections that I have recently enjoyed:
- National Women’s History Museum: This museum is arguably just as interesting online as in person. With so much content to explore, it’s easy to spend an entire morning getting lost in the archives. These online exhibits are informative, fun and accessible. It’s also easy to navigate between the topics that interest you without getting bogged down by dense literature.
- Anne Frank House Virtual Tour: In keeping with the theme of historically influential women, you can now travel to Amsterdam in virtual reality to explore the secret annex where Anne Frank and her family hid during World War 2. The tour takes about 25 minutes and includes pertinent background information. It is free to all, and offered in seven languages.
- The National Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C. opened in 1946 and is a center for the history and science of aviation, spaceflight, planetary science, terrestrial geology, and geophysics. It is the fifth most visited museum in the world and contains articiats from mankind’s most historic space explorations, including the Apollo 11 Command Module Columbia, the Friendship 7 capsule, the Wright brothers’ Wright Flyer airplane, and Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis. The virtual tour offers a 360-degree walk-through of the entire museum.
Best Historical TV Shows
I get it, one can only consume so many VR exhibits and online tours before the brain begins to liquify. For history geeks who are starting to have that soup-between-the ears feeling, a good dose of entertainment makes an effective antidote. Here, you can check out the most binge-worthy historical TV shows on Netflix.
Or, if you don’t have a subscription, here is a list of 179 historical documentaries from around the world that you can watch for free right now.
Online History Lectures and Events
At History Extra, by BBC’s History Magazine Online, you can find webinars that connect you to experts from all over the world. Many of these talks are delivered by accomplished authors who delve into niche historical topics and follow up their lectures with Q&A sessions.
If you can’t make the virtual live events, listen to their informative podcasts here, featuring expert historians.
The New York Historical Society also offers virtual events and talks to the public, with discounted rates for members. To access their calendar, click here.