Many fascinating historic places can be explored as you sit comfortably at home. Online tours whisk you in seconds from your living room to faraway France or Germany or Italy. When you need a break from the daily grind, why not hop onto your computer and travel?
The added benefit of virtual tours is that you can pause, back up a video, look around a website for more information, and learn all you want about a place or person. And if you’ve already visited a destination, you’ll find that a virtual tour brings back pleasant memories and may even open your eyes to something you missed in person.
The following historic places are all worth a look through their virtual tours. You can spend anywhere from a few minutes to several hours (or even days at a place like the British Library) exploring online. Which place are you most inspired to visit?
1. Mont Saint Michel
The stunning Mont Saint Michel is an island between the channel tides of Normandy and Brittany. At low tide, it’s accessible by land, but at high tide it is surrounded by water. Built in the Gothic style between the 11th and 16th centuries, the Benedictine abbey on the island was one of the first places to be declared a UNESCO World Heritage site.
In person, you must climb about 900 steps from the streets and shops on the ground up to the top of the abbey. A virtual tour is far less strenuous and gives you a feel for this phenomenal landmark. You can visit 14 features of Mont Saint Michel and its surroundings. Click and hold on each number, and you can move around to get a good look at each area. The tour moves from the access road from the mainland to the island all the way up to the top of the abbey for a view of the gold figure of Saint Michael the Archangel atop the steeple. Information on each point also pops up.
If you want to see the abbey inside and out in greater detail, visit the UNESCO site for official photographs.
The origins of Pompeii go back to the seventh century B.C. Located at the intersection of major roads in the area, the village became a bustling trade and travel center. Wealth resulted in beautiful decor and notable villas. Pompeii prospered for hundreds of years.
Then, in A.D. 79, nearby Mount Vesuvius erupted, and lava covered Pompeii, freezing it in time. The buried city lay forgotten until the end of the 16th century, when construction began on a canal in the area and an architect found inscriptions and frescoes under the rubble.
Today, much of the town is uncovered and open to tourists. An excellent online virtual tour takes you to 27 sites. You can move around for a 360-degree view of each. Get a close-up look at places such as the Temple of Jupiter, the Civil Forum, the Large Theatre, and the Forum Baths.
3. Anne Frank House
One residence in Amsterdam is known all over the world because the young Anne Frank lived there. Anne and her family hid in the upstairs annex of her father’s office from June of 1942 until their discovery in August of 1944. While Anne didn’t survive World War II, she lives on through the words of her diary, written in the cramped quarters behind the hinged bookcase.
Today, you can tour the Anne Frank House online and get a picture of what life was like for her family and friends during this long lockdown.
If you want to learn more about Anne’s life before she went into hiding, this virtual tour shows the Frank house and photos of Anne’s schoolroom and the young Anne.
4. British Library
The British Library in London is the largest library in the world, with its holdings estimated to include from 170 million to 200 million items. The library is worth a visit if you’re in London, but you can also peruse many collections online. A virtual look at the library is far more of a deep dive into whatever subjects interest you than merely a look at the library building.
Online offerings include historic maps, manuscripts such as Beowulf and 900 Greek documents, and Leonardo da Vinci’s original notebooks. Look around and search for anything from stamps to books. An interesting collection contains recordings of sounds such as British accents and popular music. Oral histories are also recorded and available.
If you prefer shopping to research, visit the library’s online gift shop for a taste of British culture. They stock items such as their 100 most popular books, jigsaw puzzles, and greeting cards.
5. Churchill War Rooms
From this underground bunker in central London, Prime Minister Winston Churchill and his staff charted the course of World War II. The rooms, abandoned on the day the war ended in May of 1945, were left as they were for decades. They opened to the public in the 1980s. Today, it’s possible to go below street level in busy London and immediately be immersed in the world of the 1940s. It’s easy to imagine that dark time when the outcome of the war was far from certain.
You can visit the Churchill War Rooms online for a look at each of the main areas. Marvel at the vintage phones of different colors. See the planning maps with stick pins and string for plotting troop movements. And see the room where Churchill slept when he stayed in this bunker after working his typical 18-hour days.
The online tour plays on its own, but you can pause at any time to zoom in on something that interests you. And you can continue from the War Rooms into the connected Churchill Museum to learn more about Churchill’s life and work.
6. Nuremberg Documentation Center
Delve into more World War II history with a visit to the Nuremberg Documentation Center, either in person or with an online tour. In the years leading up to the war, the National Socialists held massive rallies on these grounds. The building, designed by Adolf Hitler, now houses detailed displays on the rise and fall of the Nazi Party in Germany. Exhibits examine the Holocaust and memorialize its victims. The hope is to prevent such a horror from ever happening again.
The virtual tour offered by the Nuremberg Documentation Center is led by the delightful Fiona Haberland. Of all the tours mentioned in this article, this is the one that feels the most personal. Due to the somber content, this tour is also emotional. Join Haberland as she walks through the permanent exhibit, Fascination and Terror. Choose from the 20-minute version or the expanded 52-minute video.
Giverny, a small town in rural Normandy, France, is connected forever with its most well-known resident, Claude Monet. The Impressionist artist and his family lived in their home here during the years Monet painted his gardens, Japanese bridge, and lily pond for all of us to enjoy. From the time the family moved to Giverny in 1883 to the time of Monet's death in 1926, Monet developed his gardens and then captured them with his paint palette. And all that time, he and his wife and their eight children lived in their charming pink house with its bright green shutters, set among the trees and blooms.
While you may eventually travel to France and tour the gardens, why not take a virtual tour of Monet’s lovely home right now? The home is decorated as it was when Monet lived there. See some of his collections of Japanese prints, his sunny yellow dining room, and his blue-tiled kitchen with its gleaming copper cookery.
For a virtual look at the gardens, this two-minute tour will give you a good overview.
8. Prague Castle
Perched high on the hill above Prague’s Old Town, Prague Castle is a complex of buildings. Both royal and religious structures have occupied the castle grounds since the ninth century. Today, it is home to the office of the president of the Czech Republic. Within the walls of the castle, visitors can take in architecture spanning 1,000 years.
To tour Prague Castle online, begin in the courtyard, and then click on the red arrows to move to different parts of the castle. The impressive Cathedral of Saint Vitus is on display from several viewpoints. When I visited, the line to go inside the cathedral was so long that I only saw the exterior. It’s fascinating to see the interior on this online tour.
9. Catacombs Of Paris
Paris found itself with a health issue in the late 1700s. Its cemeteries filled up, and there was a great need for more burial space. An underground warren of tunnels provided the solution. The Paris Municipal Ossuary opened in 1786 and was dubbed the Catacombs after Rome’s similar tunnels.
The Catacombs of Paris opened to the public in 1809. Tours are popular today, as fascination with this sprawling ossuary continues.
A 2-minute virtual tour of the Catacombs of Paris will give you a good idea of what an in-person tour is like. You can watch this if you aren’t planning on visiting in the near future, or you can watch to decide whether to include this in your travel itinerary. I have taken this tour and found it fascinating, but visitors must walk on narrow paths lined with hundreds of skulls and other bones. So you want to be sure you’re prepared for what you’ll see before you buy a ticket and climb down into the tunnels.
Did any of these tours inspire you to visit in person? While I’ve enjoyed some of these attractions in person, I haven’t made it to Pompeii… yet. And on three trips to Normandy, I missed seeing Mont Saint Michel. My bucket list is growing! Yours, too?