Free virtual globe-trotting, tours & experiences
Including visiting Grand Canyon and Vatican, walking on a volcano, Disney rides & more
This guide was originally written in March 2020 during the first national coronavirus lockdown and was last updated in November 2020, but most of the tips below still apply.
We may be stuck indoors for the time being but that doesn't mean we can't broaden our horizons beyond our living room walls, because let's face it, there's only so many thousand-piece jigsaws you can do, and Netflix series you can watch. While we aren’t able to physically travel the globe at the moment, there are ways to do it virtually – and for free.
Don't get too excited – I've not mastered teleportation – but in this guide I'll show you how a bunch of nifty modern tech means that just because you can't go see the world, you can bring the world to you. There's stuff that will interest both adults and kids, including:
When visiting big cities across the globe – or even in the UK – museums are high on many folk’s list when wanting to soak up a bit of history and culture. Some of the most famous museums in the world offer free online tours where you can take a virtual 'walk' around the exhibits, as if you were actually there.
Here are a few of the top tours...
Home to the Pope, and an absolute trove of iconic art, Roman sculptures and architecture. The Vatican offers seven virtual tours, giving 360-degree views of its museum sites, including the Sistine Chapel – be sure to look up, it’s quite the impressive ceiling courtesy of Michelangelo. You can walk around the rooms and zoom in to get a better look. For a peek at Vatican City, this You Visit tour shows off St Peter's Square and Basilica.
Unfortunately you won’t be able to come face-to-face with the Mona Lisa, but this Paris museum does offer virtual tours of four exhibits including Egyptian Antiquities and artwork from Rembrandt.
The ecology of African elephants, the skeleton of a massive sea turtle, human evolution, and of course dinosaurs are just some of the exhibits in this Washington DC museum. You could spend a lot of time in here as it's a biggie, spanning three floors. As if it were Night at the Museum, you've got the whole place to yourself, even the empty café… which seems a tad odd, but it does contain a jaws-dropping 52-foot-long model of a mega-toothed shark.
Closer to home, London's British Museum covers the history of cultures across the world. You can take a virtual walk through the museum at Google Arts & Culture, or take a look at this interactive timeline dating back to 2,000,000 BC, where you can select various artefacts that are housed in the museum and learn more about them through images, text and audio.
Have a wander through the hiding place where Anne Frank spent over two years during World War II and wrote her diary. There are then a further seven settings within the house for you to explore. Even during regular times, if you want to visit this house and museum in Amsterdam, you've got to book weeks ahead.
This museum in Taiwan is stunning. Explore the outside and then head inside for a collection of nearly 700,000 pieces of ancient Chinese artefacts and artwork. You could spend a long afternoon in here, reading and listening to in-depth descriptions of anything that piques your interest during various guided tour routes.
The world is a beautiful place and thankfully, especially in times like these, you don't have to get on a plane, boat or hot air balloon to see some of its natural wonders and popular tourist spots.
One extensive resource is Google Arts & Culture. Not only can you step inside thousands of museums and art galleries, but it'll transport you – Google Streetview style – to some of the biggest landmarks across the globe such as the Colosseum in Rome, the Great Pyramids in Egypt, and the Taj Mahal in India.
Here are a few more popular virtual tours for your viewing splendour...
Courtesy of Google Earth, you can take a virtual hike (far less knackering than a real one) to 18 different viewpoints which show off the immensity of the Grand Canyon in Arizona. There's always been some debate about which viewpoint is best, but personally, I think the Abyss is a feast for the eyes.
While you'll be missing out on breathing in that fresh (and likely hot) canyon air, MSE Rhiannon thinks there are advantages to seeing it virtually...
My first thought on seeing the Grand Canyon was that it was too vast for the eye to take in, it looks like a photo – so save yourself some money and see it virtually. Fewer flip-flop wearing 'hikers', too ;)
Google Arts & Culture's 'Hidden Worlds of National Parks' allows you to go on five separate voice-guided tours (each lasting about half an hour) where you can kayak through icebergs, fly over an active volcano, trek through a cave, and swim through the third-largest coral reef in the world... all with a cup of tea in your hand.
If you fancy a peek at where The Queen is social-distancing, the Royal Family's website has virtual tours of Windsor Castle, Holyrood House in Scotland, and Buckingham Palace – which includes the White Room where Her Majesty broadcasts her Christmas speech, the grand staircase, and the throne room. Each tour shows off just a few rooms, and while you can spin around for a 360-look, you're only able to 'stand' in the same spot... well c'mon, one doesn't want one dirtying those fancy rugs.
The thought of staying indoors for the next several weeks might not seem like fun to any thrill-seekers out there, but you can still live on the edge, from the edge of your sofa.
Below are some fun (if not a little frightening) 360-degree experiences. These YouTube videos support a virtual reality headset if you happen to have one for a truly immersive experience, but I'm guessing most of us don't, and it's by no means essential – you can very much enjoy them without one.
If you're using a relatively modern phone or tablet, then you can simply move your device to navigate your view. On a computer/laptop, use your mouse to click and drag.
National Geographic has a selection of 360-degree videos on its YouTube channel including a tiger shark encounter, and this hammerhead shark encounter. Flipping to a more tranquil deep dive, how about swimming with dolphins instead. Each experience lasts a few minutes.
As the old saying goes – just because you can, doesn't mean you should – and really, taking an expedition to the heart of an active volcano isn't advisable even if you're able to. However, a group of climbers did it, and you can join them on a four-minute adventure as they get as close as possible to a spitting lava lake. Anyone else feel hot or is it just me?
This one's not extreme, but it is extremely cool if you're into musicals. Disney's The Lion King is one of the longest-running musicals in both London and New York. If the thespian in you has ever wondered what it's like to be on stage, then you can experience being in front of an audience and backstage at The Lion King Broadway musical through this 360 actors' point of view during an entire five-minute performance of 'The Circle of Life'.
Zoos and aquariums around the globe are closed to the public, but thanks to live camera set-ups, we can still watch exotic animals eat, sleep and generally laze around... pretty much all we're doing at the moment too then.
Below are some of my favourite live streams. While many of the cameras are operated by volunteers to help follow the animals, there'll be times when they're not in view of the camera – much like you don't always get to see every animal when you go to the zoo – but there are plenty here to try.
My absolute favourite to watch – live cameras in Africa including Tembe Elephant Park, Tau Waterhole, Gorilla Forest Corridor and more. The scenery is majestic enough, but to watch elephants exploring in such a natural habitat is spectacular. There's sound too, so you can really immerse yourself in the wilds of Africa. Also keep an eye out for lions, leopards, rhinos, zebras and buffalo.
There's a lot of monkeying around at this Texas zoo with its chimp cams. You can also watch gorillas, rhinos, elephants, and giraffes. But perhaps the most fascinating live feed (if you're not afraid of insects) is the ant cam where you get a close-up view of leafcutter ants hard at work.
The cameras are live from 1pm to 1am BST. For an extra bit of fun, if you wait your turn, you can control the movement of some of the cameras and channel your inner David Attenborough.
High-definition cameras give you a clear look at pandas, elephants, lions, and naked mole-rats. The cameras are live 24 hours a day but volunteers operate them during the day so you're playing less games of Where's Wally? trying to spot the animals.
This zoo has several live cams – you can check out its baboons looking a little red-faced (and reared) foraging, grooming and exploring, as well as apes, elephants, koalas, penguins, polar bears and tigers.
Water-way to spend your time at home – for some aquatic adventuring, you can dive in to the Georgia Aquarium cams which give an under-water look at a beluga whale, otters, penguins, puffins, jellyfish, sharks and piranhas which you can see being fed on Saturday, Sundays and Thursdays at 7pm BST (hopefully it's nothing like the movie). For a bit of Finding Nemo, the indo-pacific barrier reef cam is particularly soothing.
Spring time is usually when many theme parks open again for the season, and if you feel like you're missing out, then taking a virtual trip to the theme park capital of the world – Orlando – may just help a little.
Perhaps you've been watching the new Disney+ streaming service (see how to get a seven-day free trial) and you're wishing upon a star that you could be at Disney World – well you can, sort of. No, I'm not taking the Mickey – with a bit of Disney magic (and a lot of Google Streetview) you can explore Disney World in Florida, and more of its parks elsewhere. A fun thing to do with the kids could be to have a 'walk' around the park and see if you can spot Mickey, Donald, Goofy and the gang.
Psst... I know what you're thinking... 'I really wish I could go on the rides!'. Check out the unofficial Virtual Disney World YouTube channel where you can experience lots of popular rides including Frozen Ever After, Slinky Dog Dash and Splash Mountain in first-person point of view.
These are interactive videos of full-length rides, so while you're on there, take a 360 look around. Here's an example:
You start off high in the sky with an aerial view of the park before diving into some of the attractions below. Grab a sick bag as there are two rollercoasters that you can 'ride' in first-person point of view. You'll have a whale of a time.