California: Yosemite National Park
Sure they’re amazing in-person destinations, but the United States’ national parks also tend to be on top of their game when it comes to virtual visits. And few parks are better than Yosemite.
The park’s dedicated virtual tour site offers panoramic, 360-degree photos laid out on a map for easy locating. There’s also a virtual tour where you can click on locations in the park by name and be taken to that spectacular photography, as well as written explainers of what you’re looking at. Click on “Stoneman Meadow,” for example, and you’re taken to a field where a slowly panning shot shows you surrounded by impressive peaks and landmarks such as Half Dome, North Dome and Royal Arches.
The park and surrounding areas are broken up into eight zones, with each zone offering a number of places to click on and discover. As well as the park’s most popular spots such as the sheer, vertical rock formation El Capitan, the tour gets you into some of the park’s most remote, least visited spots. The Hetch Hetchy Reservoir perhaps lacks the soaring grandeur of the Yosemite Valley, but areas like its Wapama Falls remain worth a visit.
And of course, as with any good tour, there’s a gift shop. If any images particularly stand out on your tour, there’s a gift shop where you can buy photos.
Mongolia: Choijin Lama Museum
Sometimes, Google Street View is all you need. In addition to taking pictures for mapping of just about every address on the planet, Street View teams have also taken pictures that allow you to take “walking tours” of famous landmarks – including some that are pretty far-flung for the average American tourist.
The Choijin Lama Museum is a series of Buddhist temple buildings in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital.
The buildings are not that old – the complex was built in the early 20th century, in a brief window between Chinese and Soviet rule when Mongolia was independent (as it again is today). But they’re done in the largely Chinese-influenced style of Buddhist religious architecture that dates back centuries.
The museum also contains artifacts of Mongolian Buddhism. It became a museum in the 1940s when Mongolia had become a Soviet satellite state, most religion was banned and Buddhist monks had been executed across the country. It’s now home to robes, masks and other accoutrements of a faith that has seen a resurgence since Mongolia became an independent state in 1990.
A Google Street View stroll around the grounds reveals buildings that could use some repairs – organizations such as the Arts Council of Mongolia have been working to better preserve the site. But it remains a fascinating insight into a part of the world most Americans will never see.
Search for “Choijin Lama Museum” on Google Street View.
Somewhere Above You: The International Space Station
Even during normal times, the ISS is a fairly tricky place to visit. However there are some cool virtual tours out there that will thrill any child who’s a budding astronaut – or, truth be told, most adults too.
NASA’s ISS web presence includes a number of interesting videos of people onboard the station, as well as a selection of photos. NASA also offers a website where you can learn when the station’s going to be over your area; if it’s a clear night the next time it’s above Fort Lauderdale, you can go out and see for yourself. In addition to the days and times the station should be visible, the site even gives you location in degrees of where it will be visible, and for how long.
For a fully 360-degree experience, however, you’ll want to go to Google Earth or the European Space Agency. Both offer tours of the floating laboratory and residence that give an intimate look at what it’s like to live and work in orbit around Earth. Visit places like the cupola from which astronauts can view earth. (While there, you can click on a link that shows a six-minute time-lapse video of earth from the cupola.) Or just look at the various spaces where astronauts live and work for the months that they’re in space. It’s a genuinely interesting look at a place that probably won’t be taking Airbnb reservations anytime in the near future.
Russia: The Russian Museum
The sprawling, massive Russian Museum is one of those places that’s impossible to take in in a day – even more so when you consider that over the years, the museum has taken on other historic buildings that are not on its property but that now fall under its remit. A virtual tour lets you move around the grand space, commissioned by Russia’s final czar, Nicholas II, and opened in 1898. You can browse by collection or exhibition, or you can take panoramic, 360-degree tours of various rooms in the museum’s many buildings. The latter option is well worth it as this is one of those museums where the space itself is as much a part of the experience as the art.
Every part of the museum has its own English-language video, as well as a section offering the highlights of the art seen there. But the main feature is perhaps the 360-degree tour. Stand, virtually speaking, in the middle of, say, the Mikhailovsky Palace and look around, clicking on any painting for greater detail or information on it.
The art in the museum is staggering – during the early Soviet years, many private collections were forcibly taken into state hands, and many wound up here. But simply being in such grand, historic spaces is worth the virtual trip all on its own.