You can explore the world, from national parks to the Palace of Versailles
by Aaron Kassraie, AARP, Updated December 14, 2020
En español | So the coronavirus outbreak has put your vacation plans on hold. But you can still take virtual trips to many iconic places — including America’s national parks, New York City and at least one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
PHOTO BY: Courtesy Google Arts and Culture
America's National Parks
You don’t need to worry about social distancing at these five national parks if you visit them through Google Arts & Culture. An especially awe-inspiring tour features Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, where you can see videos of Kilauea erupting, go inside a lava tube and enjoy a 360-degree view of a rainforest, all guided by a park ranger. The series also explores the Dry Tortugas in Florida, Alaska’s Kenai Fjords, Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico and Bryce Canyon in Utah.
PHOTO BY: Courtesy english-heritage.org
See this prehistoric monument in Wiltshire, England, through a variety of lenses on this Skyscape site created by English Heritage. That includes a representation of what the burial ground looked like before construction of Stonehenge began about 5,000 years ago and an account of its evolution through the millennia, as well as a skyscape that explains how the stones were aligned with the sun, moon and planets. During the virtual tour, select the circular “hotspots” to watch a video about each tagged area. An interactive map provides an aerial view of the grounds, allowing you to learn the history of different locations from above. You’ll also find lots of written information about this unique landmark.
PHOTO BY: Courtesy Virtual NYC
New York City
Although the streets of the Big Apple are a bit quieter these days, there are still loads of attractions and performances you can experience through your computer screen. Virtual NYC is packed with experiences curated by the city’s tourist board to give would-be visitors (or quarantined New Yorkers, for that matter) “ways to explore the five boroughs while socially distancing.” You can sort through more than 130 online options by category to find free recorded performances, such as Shakespeare in the Park’s presentation of Much Ado About Nothing; virtual tours, including an hourlong exploration of Grand Central Terminal; live-streamed comedy shows and other forms of multimedia immersion.
PHOTO BY: Courtesy Road Scholar
Around the world
These aren’t really virtual vacations, but they’re a taste of what you’d experience on a trip with Road Scholar, the nonprofit educational tour company for travelers 50 and older. It’s been offering a series of live online “virtual learning” sessions on Zoom focused on different sites around the globe. Discussions have covered everything from the history of the French Vikings in Normandy with Belgian scholar Nettah Yoeli-Rimmer to the history of Native American cuisine with Lois Ellen Frank, a Santa Fe chef and Native American food historian. The lecturers — the same experts that travelers might hear on a Road Scholar trip to France or the American Southwest — take questions in a Q&A session following their talks (which are available to stream after the live event, too). Some are free, others are $25.
PHOTO BY: Courtesy Google Arts and Culture
The Palace of Versailles, France
Bring the home of Louis XIV into yours as you tour the Hall of Mirrors, the Royal Opera and royal residences at the Palace of Versailles outside Paris. You navigate the way you use Google street view (this is another Google offering), using arrows to move around rooms and get closer to paintings, such as the gorgeous 1683 ceiling fresco Figure of the Royal Magnificence, Immortality and Progress in the Fine Arts, by René-Antoine Houasse. If you click on the info tags, you can learn more about each highlighted object. The controls are a little wonky, and you certainly don’t get the feeling of opulence and grandeur that you’d get in person, but it’s a nice next-best kind of visit for housebound Francophiles
PHOTO BY: Courtesy AirPano
Taj Mahal, India
Due to strict security measures, it took months of paperwork and pleading with Indian authorities before photographers affiliated with AirPano, a Moscow-based photography group, were allowed to capture these aerial images of the Taj Mahal. These breathtaking views of the iconic mausoleum have been witnessed only by the birds that flew over it — until now. Listen to Indian music while you use your cursor for a click-and-drag exploration of the massive structure. To move to a different bird’s-eye view, sift through the pictures on the right side of the screen or click through the circles on the bottom. You can also find details about the photographers’ long quest for access to the site, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. The AirPano site also has cool, relaxing videos of gorgeous spots like the Matterhorn in Switzerland and a flight above Tokyo at night.
Editor's note: This article was originally published on April 7, 2020. It's been updated with new information.