Travel the World For Free: the Best Online Sites For Culture Vultures
Updated: Aug 30
Here's my wanderlusty guide to the best online travel and cultural sites you can explore from the comfort of your couch or computer. Everyone can use a virtual vacation or an infusion of art, am I right?
Lately, the farthest I seem to travel is from my desk to the fridge. I exchange coffee for wine as day merges with night. I only wear sweat pants. And I groan at the thought of cancelled and lost trips. I need my geographical cures. I'm a travel blogger who can't travel right now.
But I've also discovered that there's a whole different world awaiting me -- DIY armchair travel and culture. You can discover amazing cities in Europe (and the world) from the comfort of your couch, computer, or balcony. Preferably with a suitably chilled beverage.
Armchair travel isn't nearly as glamorous as the real thing, of course. Not many things are. But you can still wear your jammies and take your time admiring the goods without queues and crowds.
The Best Online Travel and Culture Sites To Get Your Culture Fix and Treat Cabin Fever
So, here's my list of the very best travel and cultural things to experience virtually
-- museums, operas, art masterpieces, historic landmarks, broadway shows, TV, and books. Social distancing doesn't have to mean cultural distancing. Let's travel the world for free and take a virtual vacation.
1. World Class Virtual Museums
My favorite way to explore world culture is through museums. Many world class museums have excellent virtual tours and online collections. Some have collaborated with Google Arts & Culture to bring their masterpieces to you in high resolution or present thematic tours.
I won't belabor the point. I've written an exhaustive guide with a huge (and ever expanding) list of 50 amazing museums with virtual tours from around the world. There's something for everyone on this list -- modern art, Renaissance art, Dutch art, ancient artifacts, sculpture, etc.
Take a gander. You can spend a day at a museum from home.
You can also tour more than 2 million artworks in 120 venues on the Smartify app. This app -- dubbed "Shazam for art" -- is a virtual tour guide. It's making all its audio guides free through the end of 2020. You can browse museums or tune in for short snippets on a specific work.
2. Virtual Italian Museums
Bella Italia! Italy is one of the most popular countries on earth -- with a rich ancient and Renaissance culture, museums galore, and some of the world's most iconic landmarks. Not to mention the delectable pasta and gelato.
If you can't explore Italy in person (my May vacation was cancelled), you can now do it online. From ancient Roman ruins to the Renaissance masterpieces, you can visit premiere collections in Italy via the internet.
Here's my complete guide to the best virtual museums and online collections in Italy. If you want to explore or investigate the best ruins in Rome, I've got a guide for that too. And many of those sites archaeological can also be explored virtually. If you want to travel to Florence, click here to my guide to 20 iconic museums in Florence.
3. Virtual Paris Tours: How To Tour Paris From Home
Who doesn't love and dream about the City of Light? If you're missing Paris or need some destination or cultural inspiration (who doesn't?), there's a fix. Now, you can virtually tour many of Paris' must see sites, landmarks, and museums right from your couch.
If you fancy a trip to Paris, I won't repeat myself. Here's my guide to the 18 best virtual tours to transport you to the ever fascinating Paris, with all its myriad attractions.
4. Virtual London Tours: How To Tour London From Home
The best place to start is the 360 virtual tour of the city. With an interactive map, this site takes you to London's iconic landmarks -- Westminster Abbey, Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, the London Eye, and so much more.
You can also take a virtual 360 tour of the Houses of Parliament. If you want to delve more deeply into British history, you can take a virtual 360 tour of one of my favorite London landmarks, the Tower of London. If you want to relive WWII and the rousing speeches of the politician Winston Churchill, you can also virtually tour the Churchill War Rooms.
Here's my complete guide to the Churchill War Rooms (which I adored) and my guide to 10 amazing museums in London, which are on Google Arts & Culture. Just use the search engine to find them. If you want to plan a future trip to London, here's my 5 day itinerary and travel guide.
5. Virtual Rome Tours: How To Tour Rome From Home
There are many fantastic virtual tours of Rome as well. Here's my complete guide to 25 virtual tours of Rome. Among them are some of Rome's must see sites, landmarks, ruins, museums, and secret subterranean sites.
You can admire Raphael frescos at the Villa Farnesina. You can visit Nero's Palaces, the well-preserved Trajan's Markets, the beautiful Pantheon, the Altar of Peace, the Castle Sant'Angleo, and the Italian House of the Presidency, the Quirinal Palace.
If you want to plan a future trip to Rome, here's my 3 day itinerary and travel guide. Though 3 days isn't enough, I warn you. I was just there again for a week and I couldn't get enough. I'm already plotting a return trip.
6. Virtual Barcelona Tours: How To Tour Barcelona From Home
If you want to visit Barcelona from home, now's good time. Barcelona is a visual feast, a popular city with boundless culture and fairytale architecture.
Barcelona has museums galore, some of the world's most iconic landmarks, and chic and funky neighborhoods to explore. Not to mention the delectable tapas. If you're stuck at home or can't explore Barcelona in person, you can travel to Barcelona online.
Here's my guide to DIY virtual tours of Barcelona's fabulous must see sites. Sip on sangria or nibble on some jamón ibérico as we cyber experience some Spanish culture. If you'd like to visit museums in Barcelona and Spain, here's my guide to accessing Spanish culture.
7. Virtual Vatican Tour: How To Tour the Vatican From Home
Ever wanted to visit the Vatican and the Sistine Chapel? The Vatican Museums hold some of the best works of art on the planet. They're invaluable crowning glories of Western art, telling stories of the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, the history of the Catholic Church, and the birth of the Renaissance.
On the Vatican's website, you can take an online virtual tour of the Vatican Museums, including the Sistine Chapel, the Pio Clementino Museum, and the Raphael Rooms. You can also tour Vatican City on Google Arts & Culture, check out 360 views of St. Peter's Basilica, and listen to National Geographic's audio tour of the basilica.
8. Virtual Tours of Ireland: How To Tour Ireland From Home
Were you planning an Irish idylll? Happily, you can explore myriad sites in both Ireland and Northern Ireland via Virtual Visit Tours.
With online 360 tours of castles, historic sites, and churches, this site is a one-stop-shop for virtual tours of Ireland.
My favorite site in Ireland is the Ciffs of Moher. It’s hard to capture the sheer scale and outright majesty of the cliffs. But the virtual tour on the official website comes close.
9. Virtual Tours of Spain: How To Tour Spain From Home
Hop across the Mediterranean to sunny Spain to continue your virtual tour of Europe. In Barcelona, you can explore the Modernista architecture of Antoni Gaudí at Park Guell, Casa Mila, and of course, La Sagrada Familia. I've written about many Gaudi sites. If you want to know more, check out my Barcelona page. And don’t forget to stop at the peaceful Park Ciutadella.
Continue west to Madrid and explore Plaza Mayor at the city’s center. Then, dedicate some time to the arts as you admire the collections of Velázquez, Goya and more at the Prado Museum. The Prado also has a 360 virtual tour of its Rubens exhibition and an impressive online collection.
If you want more Spain in your life, I've got you covered. Here's my guide to visiting the Prado, my guide to the best virtual museums in Spain, my guide to all Antoni Gaudi's UNESCO-listed sites in Barcelona, and my guide to virtual tours in Barcelona.
10. Online Opera Performances In Europe
If you love opera, the Metropolitan Opera has just announced they will stream operas for free for a month. It will host “Nightly Met Opera Streams” in a Live HD series on its official website. Here's the streaming schedule.
The Royal Opera House in London also has a YouTube channel with a selection of famous operas and ballets, just a click away. And, if you can't be in elegant Vienna Austria to see opera, the Vienna State Opera has some selections on their website.
11. Online Andrew Lloyd Webber Musicals
Calling all music lovers. Andrew Lloyd Webber will be streaming his musicals for free online in a new series for West End and Broadway fans. Entitled "The Shows Must Go On," the series will start with the 2000 rendition of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.
Dates for some of Webber's most notable shows, Evita, Cats, and Phantom of the Opera, haven't yet been announced. But music fans can see an orchestra from London’s West End perform “All I Ask of You." Webber recently tweeted himself playing the song.
Here's the YouTube channel for The Shows Must Go On.
12. Online Theater in London
If you'd like to attend a theater performance virtually, the National Theater in London has you covered.
Shakespeare's Globe Theater has entered the streaming age as well. Tune in to the theater's YouTube channel to see a Shakespeare performance. Right now, Romeo and Juliet is streaming until the end of May. After that, other classics will follow.
13. Google Arts & Culture Virtual Tours
Google Arts & Culture is a fantastic online app. It gathers together information from museums across the world. There are over 2500 virtual tours on Google Arts & Culture. Now you can roam around empty museums.
Google Arts & Culture is chock full of high resolution photographs of art, stories about culture, and bits of historic intrigue.
If you want to have a little fun, there's a feature that allows you to snap a selfie and find your fine art twin from their archived masterpieces. When I tried out this nifty option, I got Young Woman Reading a Book from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. At least I was "young."
Google Arts & Culture also has a feature called Art Zoom. It's a blog with docents analyzing and explaining classic masterpieces in art history. The close up look at the details of the painting is intense and incredible. The most recent offering is a look at Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh.
You can also explore UNESCO heritage sites on Google Arts & Culture. There are scholarly articles, 3D tours, and articles about conservation efforts to save and preserve these sites. Click here for my guide to the best UNESCO sites in Europe.
14. Google Street View Virtual Tours
Google Arts & Culture also has scads of Google Street View options. Street View, by Google Maps, lets you get outside. It's a virtual representation of our surroundings on Google Maps. It consists of millions of panoramic 360 images.
If you like to snoop and spy, Google Street View is for you. You can spy on your neighbors, check out your childhood home, travel to Europe, or scout out the filming locations of your favorite shows.
15. Street Art Virtual Tours
Are you a fan of street art? I know I am. If so, you have some options.
You can explore street murals by London artist Banksy on Google Arts & Culture. The Google Cultural Institute also offers "stories behind the art," featuring tales of street art across the world. And you can virtually explore 9 amazing street art murals in New York City.
16. Secret Door Virtual Tours
Secret Door is a site where you open a virtual door and it transports you to one of the world's landmarks or hidden gems via Google Street View.
To my shock, the first time I opened the door I was staring at the hypogeum (basement) of the Colosseum in Rome, where I had just stood a month ago on my latest geographical cure. The next time I landed in Bali.
The site is a bit glitchy and slow. You may have to reload it to open the door again. But I still thought it was pretty interesting, with the element of surprise and crystal clear images.
17. National Parks Virtual Tours
The documentary National Parks Adventure is a great introduction to the National Park System in the United States. It was created to celebrate NPS' 100th birthday. The film features some of the nation's most popular parks -- Yellowstone National Park, Glacier National Park, Yosemite National Park, Redwood National Park, etc.
You can also virtually tour 33 national parks on Google Earth. And Google Arts & Culture has an interactive exhibit entitled The Hidden Worlds of the National Parks. In the video experience, a park ranger guides you through each park. On the site, you can use Google Street View to take 360 virtual tours of the 113 national parks and monuments.
18. YouTube Travel Vloggers
YouTube gives you access to the world. You can take virtual walking tours of cities, tour important monuments, or get history lessons just by searching the site. I like the ProWalks, GeoBeat, Rick Steves' Europe, and Smarthistory channels. But here's a complete list of excellent travel vloggers.
19. Wanderlusty TV Shows and Films
Another excellent way to travel vicariously, and swoon over drop dead beautiful locations, is via TV. If you've exhausted Netflix already, right now you can sign up for one month free of Amazon Prime.
Here are some of my favorite TV shows and movies that are travel related, take you to far off places, or use beautiful real life filming locations.
Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown
The World's Most Extraordinary Homes
Eat Pray Love
Call My Agent
Midnight in Paris
Crazy Rich Asians
Game of Thrones
If you want to focus on live streaming shows, here's my complete guide to my 22 favorite travel related TV shows to treat wanderlust and cabin fever.
20. Thematic Filming Locations Guides
Do you like filming location guides? I've got some to offer. Personally, I love to travel with a theme and track down real life locations that have inspired me online or in books.
If you're intrigued by the grandeur of the French king Louis XIV, here's my guide to filming locations for the Versailles series. If you prefer England and want to be transported to bucolic Cornwall, here's my guide to filming locations for Doc Martin.
If you're obsessed with the badass assassin Villanelle in Killing Eve (guilty!), I've written filming locations guides for the show for Europe and Paris. Season 3 starts soon and Killing Eve will travel to Barcelona, among other European hotspots.
21. Travel Books
Maybe you prefer to put your nose in a book rather than watch TV? I'm a bookworm myself. If so, I have a list of my 20 favorite books about Paris, all of which I just adored. They're guaranteed to get you in the mood for your next trip to France.
Here are some other travel books I've enjoyed that will allow you to experience or relive a destination from your own couch:
Circe, Madeline Miller
Masters of Rome, Colleen McCullough
Vagabonding, An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel, Ralph Potts
In a Sun Burned Country, Bill Bryson
The Alchemist, Paul Coehlo
A Year in Provence, Peter Mayle
Turn Right at Machu Picchu: Rediscovering the Lost City One Step at a Time, Mark Adams
Under the Tuscan Sun, Francis Mayes
London, Edward Rutherford
The Dharma Bus, Jack Kerouac
22. Travel and Culture Podcasts
I've been going on a a lot of long walks lately. And that means podcasts to keep my mind occupied.
Here are some of my favorites:
Join Us in France
What You Missed in History Class
Roads and Kingdoms
Travel with Rick Steves
Women Who Travel
The Week in Art
If you like arty podcasts, here's my complete guide to filling your ears with art.
23. MasterClass, Online Cultural Education
One cool thing to do if you're stuck at home is take a master class. MasterClass is a new online education platform. The world’s most successful people -- global leaders, creators, sport stars, political experts, and celebrities -- lecture and teach about how they became successful. These are busy people; this is information you
can't get elsewhere.