With the rapid expansion of the airline industry and development of robust tourism industries that cater to all budgets, travel is more accessible than ever before. Or at least it was, before the COVID-19 pandemic made visiting other countries a health risk at best and downright impossible at worst. Since borders to certain destinations have been closed for close to a year and even a visit to your local favorite eatery poses a challenge, experiencing other cultures up close and personal is more difficult than ever before. If you miss packing up your must-have travel accessories into your favorite piece of luggage and boarding a flight out of town — you’re not alone. Thankfully, there are virtual tours and experiences online that can give us a taste of the adventures we’re craving, right from the comfort of our couches.
Whether you’re looking for a fun change of pace for an at-home Valentine’s Day date or need to look at something other than your immediate surroundings — you should definitely check these out. Companies like Amazon, AirBnb and Google have created virtual experiences where you can tour cultural landmarks from all over the world, cook food with experienced chefs or shop from local boutiques and stores all from your couch via a WiFi connection. There’s everything out there — from a virtual tour of the Guggenheim to a soulful biscuit making class to a virtual stroll over the Great Wall of China. No matter what you’re interested in experiencing there’s something out there for you to browse and hopefully satisfy your travel bug with, even for a little while. These experiences are also great for when the world has opened back up for those who can’t swing a week away from work or financially afford an international vacay. The world is yours to explore — simply open up your laptop and dive in.
We’re going to outline a few highlights from each of the big major companies mentioned above and highlight some must-see museum tours and other virtual tourism websites worth checking out. Again, all you need is a WiFi connection and an intrigued spirit — your passport can stay in its drawer. Let’s dive in.
Amazon Explore is Amazon’s brand new virtual tourism service that offers experiences in three main realms: Learning & Creativity, Personal Shopping and Culture & Landmarks. Many of the tours are offered by local touring companies in the area or destination, so you know you’re getting an authentic experience and supporting local businesses. You can browse by focus or region, and the experiences range in price and length from $10 and less to over $50. The service is brand new so there aren’t many reviews on most of the classes, but the reviews that are there are very positive thus far. I participated in the dumpling-making class below a week or so ago and loved it. All the experiences are audio-only, so your video camera is not turned on but you’re still able to speak with your tour guide.
1. DIY Dumplings: A Cooking Lesson Live Streamed From Hong Kong
Dumplings, anyone? I mean really, who doesn’t love a good dumpling. This live streamed cooking class was excellent, and the perfect length for a weeknight dinner making session or weekend date night. You have the option to buy the ingredients and follow along or you can simply take notes and ask the chef questions. There’s also a function within the portal where you can take a picture of the screen if you like a certain landmark or want to remember a certain step in the recipe. The guide taught us about the origin of making dumplings, schooled us on the different types of dumplings and led us through detailed instructions about how to make them. Five stars all around.
2. Inka Markets Discovery: Lima Shopping Tour
This is a shopping experience led by Intrepid Urban Adventures in Peru that leads you through one of their busiest shopping markets. You’ll discover the work of local artisans whose techniques with local materials have been passed down from generation to generation. The products you’ll see include Inka pottery, textiles, handmade jewelry and more. You can purchase products directly from local vendors and have them shipped right to you after your tour is complete.
3. Munich: The City of Churches, Palaces and Beer Gardens
This tour is led by Inside Tour — a company based in Berlin, Germany that specializes in high-quality, historical tours throughout the country. You’ll learn about the past, present and future of Munich on this tour and visit sites like Marienplatz, Church of our Lady and the Hofbrau House — one of the most famous breweries in Munich. You’ll learn about the importance behind the world-famous beer celebration “Oktoberfest” as well as Germany’s darker history and Hitler’s Nazi movement. If you’re into beer, WWII, European cities or all three — check out this tour.
AirBnb doesn’t just offer great rentals to stay in nearly anywhere in the world, they’ve also got online virtual experiences that span all sorts of activities and destinations you can embark on from your computer. Each one, similarly to their rental program, is led by a host who guides you through the activity and gives you that local experience AirBnb is all about. I haven’t experienced one of their excursions for myself but I picked a few that look intriguing to me after browsing the hundreds they’ve got on their website.
4. Soulful Biscuit Making
This online experience has stellar reviews and is hosted by Jumoke in New York City, a culinary expert who’s been a guest on numerous talk shows and food shows like Top Chef, Neighborhood Chef and more. He shares his 10 Biscuit Commandments among other guidance for making delectable goodies. When you sign up for the class you’ll receive an e-book copy of his Soulfull Biscuits which contains over 50 different biscuit recipes.
5. Irish Village, History, Culture and Craic
Intrigued by Ireland? Same here! This virtual tour is Ireland’s #1 best-selling online experience and features fantastic views, quizzes, traditional Irish music, scary stories, culture and lots of Irish Craic. Ireland’s beauty consists of rugged coastlines, deep forests and rolling hills you can get lost in — and you’ll experience all of this and more from the comfort of your home. Your host Daniel and his dog Missy accompany you on the journey, and use 360 HD videos to give you the most immersive experience possible.
6. Make Mexican Street Tacos With a Pro Chef
Graciela, a Mexican chef born and raised in Mexico City, owns a family inspired cooking studio where she hosts cooking experiences with her sister Lorena and cousin Krystel. In this cooking experience she’ll teach you how to make an authentic Mexican street taco from scratch with all the necessary components including flour tortillas, traditional salsa, filling and more. The recipes are practical and easy to follow at home, and there are vegan recipe options as well.
Virtual Tours Available Anytime
These next couple options are unique from the ones above in that you can access them at any time. They’re not hosted by an in-person tour guide but are self-lead and offer 360 experiential views of a destination you navigate through yourself. Perhaps you’ve used the Google Maps “Street View” function before — many of these programs feel similar. The best part? These tours are accessible whenever your schedule allows it, so if you’ve ever wanted to visit a museum at night this is your chance.
7. You Visit Machu Picchu
This site contains stunning visuals of this famous UNESCO World Heritage Site of Peru and includes detailed commentary of different sites within the city. You’ve got the freedom to scroll, turn and enjoy 360 views of the destination, and your visit is totally on your schedule — you can pause, rewind to previous overlooks and return to the tour at any point. If you’re looking for something free to look at on the internet that isn’t YouTube, this is something worth trying.
8. The China Guide — Great Wall of China
This virtual touring site has a few options for spots around China including multiple sections of the Great Wall and the Forbidden City. Each tour costs $8.00 and offers 360 views of the spot you can navigate and an informative tour guide-esque voice over that shares history, facts and guidance with you. If you’re curious about China or are researching for an upcoming trip and want to get a sneak peak of your destination this site is a great option.
There are a few other tours worth noting that you should check out if you’re interested in the self-navigated, VR-type tours seen in the previous two options. Google Arts & Culture, Google Maps and the Google Art Project all offer tours of destinations around the world. Google Art Project is all about street art in different destinations which looks very intriguing.
There are also MANY virtual museum and aquarium experiences out there that you can scroll through, including with some of the most famous and heavily trafficked museums on earth. The Louvre, Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C all offer virtual touring on their website. See… I wasn’t kidding about a night at the museum.