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I’ve had this post partially written and on the back burner for a while, in favor of writing actual travel posts. But, under stay at home orders, this seems like a good time to finish it. My husband, a VR headset aficionado, has tried to get me to travel virtually for a while but met with resistance. But there are some VR travel programs worth exploring, plenty of immersive videos and many online virtual tours as well if you don’t have a VR headset available. Here are some of the best VR travel experiences and online tours I’ve found so far:
Before the coronavirus hit, keeping us all at home, my husband and I had a conversation about the idea of not traveling. I was high on the idea of seeing as much of the world as I could and, though I knew about the environmental impacts of flying, cruise ships, RVs — that was at war with my desire to experience the places in the world I had always wanted to visit. Carbon offsets? Wasn’t that an option? Hadn’t I offset my carbon use already by not traveling at all for so many years? But, deep down, I knew that both these things didn’t truly mitigate the impact of frequent flying (though I still don’t fly that frequently in comparison to many people.)
My husband is into VR headsets. “Here. Put this on,” he would say, a virtual VR pusher. But I mostly avoided the headset, both because they look idiotic and because I have the tendency to get easily drawn into escapist pastimes. And virtual travel? It’s nowhere the same as going to a place, meeting people, tasting the food, experiencing the culture…
But. Here we are all stuck at home now. And, on the other end of this crisis, many of my adventures may end up being local rather than international ones.
Maybe it was time to finally take him up on his suggestion and do some virtual exploration. Surprisingly (or not so surprisingly), I liked it.
Online Virtual Tours
Google Virtual Tours: Versailles and Other Tours
Platforms: The Versailles tour is available on VR headset via Steam on the Oculus Rift and also has a website component. Other tours are on the website.
GGoogle Virtual Tours presents this “private virtual tour” of the Château de Versailles. The website includes many “virtual tours” with historical facts, 3D renderings of art and objects from the palace. The Versailles tour is part of Google Arts and Culture (see below), which has a bunch of online tours of exhibits and monuments.
Unless I missed something, the Steam VR tour lets you “hop” from room to room within the primary part of the palace and interact with various objects, learning more about each as you go. It didn’t offer (unfortunately), the ability to wander around the massive palace grounds. But it’s free, and it was fun to navigate through once I got the hang of it, so no complaints!
I may wander around the palace again with the audio guide in French, just for practice!
Format: Website.Google Arts and Culture also has a VR app, but it needs a Daydream-ready VR headset. However, some virtual tours (i.e., the Versailles tour mentioned above) may be available on other VR devices.
While I chose to list some specific virtual tours individually here, I’m still browsing Google Arts and Culture because there is so much content here — from historical explorations to tips on doing phone camera projects while stuck at home.
But I’ve been most drawn to their Google Street View tours. You can walk around exhibits that are now closed, including an abandoned Paris building turned into a street art exhibition, (re)explore the stones at Stonehenge, look at Macchu Picchu from above, among many other virtual adventures.
Some of these tours, like the Paris street art one, mentioned previously, let you navigate room to room to get a virtual close up of the art. Others, like Machu Picchu, were from a distance vs. a walkthrough. None, of course, are as immersive as VR, but I found some of the tours, particularly the art ones, an enjoyable distraction.
I’ve always loved Google Earth — I’ve used it for fun, even during trip planning in some cases. I was looking forward to getting back to the outdoors this Spring and up to Olympic National Park, but for the time being, it’s back to armchair exploring.
Google Earth offers a look at 31 national parks in the United States, including Pacific Northwest Parks like Mount Rainier and Olympic.
Clicking on one of the circles will “fly” you to the park of your choice. You then have the option of navigating to various places in the park with arrows on the right side of your screen. For some components of the tour, such as the Nisqually entrance, you can “walk” through that part of the park by clicking the forward arrows in Street View. For others, like the Grove of the Patriarch’s trails, the only choice seemed to be a “photosphere” that offered a 360-degree view of a fixed location.
I haven’t visited enough of our National Parks — this “tour” offers plenty of inspiration for when exploration, again, goes live instead of virtual.
If you happen to have a compatible VR headset at home, Google Earth VR is impressive. You can read more about it below.
If “Dark Tourism” is your thing, you might want to visit this online tour of the Paris Catacombs. Here, you can tour part of the famous Paris ossuary without the crowds, or the damp. It was easiest to navigate by just going forward from room to room, but if you enter a chamber, like the one above, you can pan the camera around for a 360-degree view.
If visiting the actual catacombs is in your future plans, we wrote a post about our visiting the catacombs here.
If “Dark Tourism” is your thing, Wandering Crystal wrote a post about other online dark tourist places here.
At the time I’m writing this, the Louvre has shut its doors due to coronavirus. However, it offers a few “online tours” on its website: Egyptian Antiquities, Remains of the Louvre’s Moat, and Galerie d’Apollon. The tours are all in Flash, and I found it a bit difficult to navigate through them. But, then, I found the actual Louvre hard to navigate due to its immensity.
Best VR Travel Experiences and Apps
If you’re fortunate enough to be stuck at home with a virtual headset, there are a bunch of “virtual travel” options, both free and paid. My favorite? So far, simply exploring with Google Earth, with Wander as a close second.
The good news is that I didn’t experience any virtual “travel sickness” with any of these.
Note that when I say “free” here — I refer to the app — unfortunately, not the headset.
I sometimes like browsing Google Earth on the desktop anyway, so I wasn’t surprised that I enjoyed Google Earth VR on the Oculus Rift. It offers many “tours” — from various cities to themes like “nature” and colors. You can change the time of day, and I found some of the starry skies and sunsets unexpectedly beautiful.
But, stuck inside the house, I found myself first not navigating to faraway places but to the familiar — Seattle. I sat gazing down Yesler toward Smith Tower and the waterfront and then “flew” northbound first to the house where I grew up.
I found myself staring at the house from above, my sentimental, emotional nonsensical brain doing a time rewind. The careful, craftsman-restoration style siding morphed to 1970s aluminum yellow, then to barnyard red. The open porch, again, became covered by a panel of windows. And, finally, my mom walked out the front steps, waving, getting ready to water the little primroses she’d plant each year, followed by a little barefoot blonde girl who twirls on the front lawn to the church bells that ring out every day at noon.
Ugh! Too sentimental! I tried to check my voyeurism and move on. But, somehow, I wasn’t ready to leave the past behind just yet. I navigated over to the house we used to own to check out what the new owners had done. This offered me the opportunity to complain about their lack of weeding (while conveniently ignoring the unpleasant truth about the current state of my yard.)
Finally, I decided to tour a couple of other cities. I hovered over Venice and Paris and Tokyo, looming above the rooftops, a virtual Godzilla. I could lose myself in Google Earth VR for a long time.
I didn’t want to like Wander at first.I felt spoiled by Google Earth VR’s open ended explorations. Wander, available on Oculus Quest and a couple of other platforms, seemed limited at first. But it grew on me, –and now I’m having difficulty putting it down. I think it’s one of the best vr travel experiences for the Oculus Quest.
Wander is based on Google Street View. Wander wouldn’t let me “fly” into a location like Google Earth. However, I found that it did allow me to navigate down streets anywhere in the world. Even down to the alley I played in growing up (another trip down memory lane.)
On occasion, I got a surprising overhead view like the photo below of Robin Hood’s Bay UK. A torrential rain and wind storm prevented my visit to this little fishing town when I was in the UK. VR offered a chance to (sort of) complete that trip.
Most of the time, navigating straight down streets seemed the only thing I could do. I couldn’t find my way inside York Minster Cathedral, for instance. And I couldn’t enter the Egyptian Circle at Highgate Cemetery. But a few times I was surprised.
Upon one login, I found myself inside the Sagrada Familia. And another time, using voice control to get to Chateau de Versailles, I found myself not outside the grounds on the street, but inside the Palace of Mirrors.
Wander also lets you do a few other tricks. For streets that have multiple-year Street View data, you can become a virtual time traveler (but with a minimal range.) Look back at how the roads and buildings have changed.
You can also explore by clicking any location on a map. You have the choice of either a minimap at the bottom of the screen or a large, central map. The push of a button will send you to a random location. I found myself playing a virtual version of “Where in the World is Cheryl?” Wander dropped me off on rural roads in South Africa, at waterfalls, and in run-down villages. Guessing my location usually was difficult and I was usually dead wrong.
If you have a friend who also has a headset, you can open a virtual room and do socially-distant-mutual-exploration.
Wander also has several “collections” available. Should you not be able to decide for yourself where in the world you want to (virtually) travel, you can explore these. I tried the “Haunted Houses” collection. This put me streetside and on the grounds of places I’d visited before. Places such as Winchester Mystery House, and outside of sites such as the Borden House. But Wander didn’t seem to want to let me wander into these places, so this adventure proved a bit frustrating.
But the escape offered by Wander, overall, was satisfying, if temporary. It’s a small fix for wanderlust when the only wandering that I’m doing is between the backyard and the sofa. I’ll be returning to wandering in this app.
Format: Desktop, Phone, VR Headsets
When I first put on the headset, I saw the choice for YouTube VR. Of course, YouTube has VR! Why had that not occurred to me?
While you don’t have to have a VR headset you’ll only get a 360-degree experience by using a headset. Other videos, even with a headset, are not immersive.
Fly over Neuschwanstein Castle or dive with giant manta rays. If you want to escape reality altogether, experience The Dali Museum’s Dreams of Dali 360.
The Dali Museum’s video, based on his painting Archaeological Reminiscence of Millet’s Angelus, is impressive when viewed through a headset. Fly through a 360-degree surrealistic dream world. Elephants with stilt legs, a sunset sky with crescent moon, and moody music proved to be a relaxing experience.
Platforms: Oculus Quest (National Geographic also has a VR app for Google Daydream and Samsung devices, but we haven’t tried that for comparison.)
National Geographic’s Explore VR is not an adventure that works well sitting on a couch. Unlike many of the other virtual “adventures” listed here, this one’s a roomscale experience and is best done standing up with a generous “Guardian” set up. Sitting down, I found myself unable to easily hit the buttons, pick up the camera, or grab the pole that appears to be a positioner for the adventure ahead.
You’re a National Geographic photographer, but with, it seems, only two assignments: Antarctica or Machu Picchu. I chose Antarctica for mine.
The portion of the adventure I tried involved kayaking through the icebergs and taking nature photos: Sea Lions, Orcas, Emperor Penguins — but in the comfort of a warm, non-antarctic room.
I didn’t expect to actually like paddling this virtual kayak. But, especially since I haven’t been able to use my kayak since last Spring due to a shoulder problem, I unexpectedly found myself enjoying steering the kayak through the icebergs. It’s your choice whether to sit on the floor and pretend you’re in a real kayak or stand at the kayak’s center.
Crash into an iceberg? No problem! You just bounce off or go right through it. Avalance in the distance? No worries, so far danger has stayed safely away from me in this Antarctic adventure.
Next? Off to Machu Picchu.
Facebook via Oculus
It’s an eerie experience to see Paris’ iconic locations mostly absent of people and cars.
But, this same scene is reflected everywhere right now; the same emptiness haunts the streets of Seattle or San Francisco. I make promises to myself to not complain about traffic and crowds once we can return to some semblance of normal.
Travel 360-degree videos are too numerous to mention, and quality varies widely. Some videos, such as a series on Scotland we viewed on the Oculus Quest appeared grainy. However, you still may want to watch them just for the view.
We also experimented with Nature Treks VR on the Oculus. This app puts you in various landscapes from a meadow to fall leaves, to underwater — but, overall, I wasn’t a fan of this one. Somehow, I found the environments too animated-looking to suspend disbelief temporarily.
As we find more of the best VR travel experiences and online virtual tours, we’ll add them to this post in the future.
Do you have any favorite online virtual tours or VR travel “experiences” that you’d like to share? Let us know in the comments!