Explore the Past Through Virtual History Tours

April 27, 2020 Updated: May 8, 2020

Staying at home doesn’t mean learning opportunities are over; in fact, more worlds have opened up now than ever before, including peeks into the past.

For a quarantine activity that’s both interesting and mentally enriching, check out eight museums offering virtual history tours. During this unprecedented period of history, it’s especially encouraging to be reminded of how humanity has overcome adversity for millennia.

Whether you dive in yourself or share the tours with your newly schooled-at-home kids, you’ll be too busy learning and engaging with the world-shaking events of yesteryear to realize the activity is indeed educational.

The National WWII Museum, New Orleans

The National WWII Museum is rated the No. 1 attraction in New Orleans on TripAdvisor, but like many museums and establishments, it has been forced to temporarily close in response to the pandemic.

Luckily, curious minds can still explore this rocky period of history through the museum’s online offerings—and it’s an especially opportune time to do so, not only because this year marks the 75th anniversary of the end of “the war that changed the world,” but also because insights from the museum can help put today’s challenges into perspective.

A global pandemic is a unique situation, but it’s not the only time humanity has had to band together and face life-or-death circumstances.

The digital museum experience includes at-home history lessons with lesson plans, daily webinars, videos, and even virtual field trips to transport visitors to historic World War II sites around the world, and you can also explore the exhibits virtually. There’s also the museum’s Service on Celluloid podcast, which examines how World War II has been depicted in film over the past 75 years, and in the Digital Collection, you’ll find more than 1,000 oral histories from those who lived through it. Past webinar topics include making at-home sanitizer and Clorox wipes and baking with rations.

To access the museum’s many World War II resources virtually, head to their website or sign up for their daily newsletter to be notified of Facebook live events, artifact showcases, WWII-inspired playlists, recipes, reading lists, and more.

The National Palace Museum, Taiwan

museum taiwan
National Palace Museum in Taipei, Taiwan. (vichie81/Shutterstock)

Cross the globe without buying a plane ticket to check out the permanent exhibitions at Taiwan’s National Palace Museum. Thanks to a 720-degree VR experience accompanied by audio, visitors can “tour” the massive museum, which houses the world’s largest collection of Chinese art, spanning 5,000 years from the Neolithic Age to today. Virtual visitors can wander the museum on established routes or stop for in-depth descriptions of certain artifacts.

Feeling a bit musical? Among its exhibitions dedicated to natural history, fossils, and fine arts, ChiMei Museum in Taiwan’s southern Tainan province is home to the world’s largest violin collection, and the museum allowed Google Street View to take panoramas throughout the museum and park—including areas that aren’t accessible in person—so you can take a “walk” through as if you were there.

Newport’s Historic Mansions, Rhode Island

the elms newport mansion
Sitting room at The Elms in Newport, R.I. (Dan Hanscom/Shutterstock)

While you’re stuck at home, consider checking out a few historic mansions for some serious home envy. Thanks to the Preservation Society of Newport County, you can take a virtual tour of Newport landmark The Elms, a summer residence of a coal baron and his wife, which began construction in 1898, or opt for a jaw-dropping walk-through of the Marble House, the late-1800s summer house of Mr. and Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt, which contains 500,000 cubic feet of marble.

Another historic Newport mansion, Rosecliff, is currently offering virtual exhibits dedicated to Tiffany glass and John James Audubon, whose life’s work was creating portraits of all the birds in America.

Mt. Rushmore National Memorial, South Dakota

mount rushmore
Mount Rushmore. (South Dakota Department of Tourism)

Take a virtual bucket-list trip to South Dakota’s Black Hills to see Mount Rushmore, the massive cliffside sculpture of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln carved directly into the rock face. Use the online 3D explorer for an up-close look or take a virtual tour of the monument without having to book a trip.

While you’re “visiting” South Dakota, head to The Journey Museum to explore humanity’s journey through existence as well as some history of the Black Hills. The museum’s online education efforts range from videos about sod houses to explanations of how every part of a bison can be used.

Ronald Reagan Presidential Library/Museum, California

ronald reagan presidential library and museum
The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley, Calif. (Visit Conejo Valley)

Reagan enthusiasts will get a kick out of taking a virtual tour of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Conejo Valley, California, to learn about Reagan’s presidency and the state of the world during that period of history.

On the virtual tour, you can even wander the Air Force One Pavilion, where you’ll find the very same Air Force One that flew President Reagan more than 660,000 miles during his presidency. You can’t step inside the plane like you can when visiting the museum in person, but you can “walk” under the belly of the plane as well as view a remnant of the Berlin Wall outside.

European Museums via U River Cruises

“The Art of Painting” by
Johannes Vermeer, circa 1666-1668, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria. (Public domain)

Typically, travelers flock to U River Cruises because they offer a varied and vibrant taste of Europe on one easy trip. While the river cruise line’s sleek ships are docked for now, U is continuing to share virtual tours via Google Arts & Culture of the many world-famous European museums that its typical itineraries hit—sans tickets, lines, or closing hours. From Budapest’s Museum of Fine Arts to the Art History Museum in Vienna, U River Cruises is curating the best in armchair travel for their weekly newsletter while wishful cruisers dream about their next departure.

American Revolution Museum at Yorktown

American Revolution Museum at Yorktown
The American Revolution Museum at Yorktown. (William Silver/Shutterstock)

Located in Greater Williamsburg, Virginia, the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown explores the pivotal period of our nation’s founding, from the beginning of Colonial times to the introduction of the Constitution. While the museum is closed for now, online visitors can watch videos covering the people and events of early Virginia, participate in interactive 30-minute history lessons that are broadcast live twice per week, tour the museum virtually through their app, and even enjoy quizzes, games, and posting thoughts and reflections on the Liberty Tree.

Nearby 18th-century Colonial Williamsburg also has virtual tours on offer, including a 360-degree tour of the Governor’s Palace brought to life with sound and video, as well as a streaming channel you can add to Amazon Fire TV or Roku.

National Museum of the Pacific War, Texas

The National Museum of the Pacific War
The National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, Texas. (ShengYing Lin/Shutterstock)

The National Museum of the Pacific War, which welcomes more than 100,000 visitors per year, is “the only institution in the continental United States dedicated exclusively to telling the story of the Pacific and Asiatic Theaters in World War II” and has expanded its digital programming to welcome online visitors, especially children.

Available on the museum’s YouTube channel, both Nimitz Minitz and Highlights and Insights of the Pacific War offer short videos packed with interesting information on World War II in the Pacific. In addition, the museum will highlight an oral history of a WWII veteran (currently available to the public on its website) on its blog and social media on a weekly basis.

Skye Sherman is a freelance travel writer based in West Palm Beach, Fla. She covers news, transit, and international destinations for a variety of outlets. You can follow her adventures on Instagram and Twitter @skyesherman