Any well-bred young gent in the 1600s–1800s was likely to go on the Grand Tour after university. The Tour, a sort of cultural gap year, took in much of continental Europe. The usual route ran through France and Switzerland and into Italy, with a return trip taking in Germany, Holland and any other countries the young man fancied. The essential stop to complete any cultural education was Rome, still an incredible destination for anyone interested in art or history.
This ancient road, once walked every year by feudal lords and their retinues forced to pay respects to the shogunate in Edo (modern-day Tokyo), is now a high-speed train route. You can be whisked from the high-tech wonders of Tokyo to the ancient imperial capital of Kyoto – nearly 300 miles – in a couple of hours. Not bad when you consider it would take the feudal lords more like a week to complete.
In 1843 Lewis and Clark set off from St. Louis on an epic journey to find a route through the Western half of America. Vital to their success was Sacagawea, a native Shoshone woman who accompanied them and acted as interpreter and occasional guide. The route they took is today called the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail, extending over 3500 miles and passing through 11 states and several national parks, including the impressive Yellowstone.
Though Route 66 is more well-known, it was Route 6 which captivated Jack Kerouac. In On the Road he wrote of his dream to travel "that one great red line across America." It didn’t quite work out, and the book records his many wanderings across the continent, but the romantic ideal of finding a road and sticking to it is still very much alive for many travellers – even if Kerouac ended up thinking it a "stupid hearthside idea."
Perhaps one of the most-travelled journeys in the world is the Hajj. In fact, this pilgrimage can have a lot of different routes, but they all end in the same place: Mecca. As one of the five pillars of Islam, every Muslim who is able to do so must complete the Hajj at least once in their lives, leading to the world’s largest gathering of Muslim people taking place in Mecca in the month of the pilgrimage.
Chaucer’s famous Canterbury Tales are the stories told by a group of pilgrims on the route to Canterbury cathedral. Famous tales include the Knight’s Tale, the Miller’s Tale and the (slightly saucy) Wife of Bath’s Tale. The Southwark to Canterbury route is still viable today, even 600-odd years after Chaucer wrote the Tales. The pilgrimage ends at the magnificent Canterbury Cathedral, a chance to see some of the medieval world for yourself.
Though made famous by the Vietnam war film Apocalypse Now, the journey up the Mekong really isn’t that scary. In fact, it can be the core of a truly excellent trip – the river runs through China, Myanmar (Burma), Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, taking in some of the great civilisations and landscapes of East Asia on the way. Though you may not want to recreate Captain Willard’s journey, a boat trip is well worth trying.
Doctor Livingstone spent years searching for the source of the Nile. Though he ultimately misidentified the site, he did end up exploring huge swathes of south and central Africa including the great Lake Tanganyika – it may not be the source of the Nile, but it’s still an impressive sight.
Unquestionably one of the most famous rail journeys of all time, the Trans-Siberian is also the world’s longest railway, stretching over 5700 miles from Moscow to Vladivostok. This epic route isn’t only for tourists and travellers; many Russians just use it as a way of getting from A to B. Nothing gives you a sense of the scale of this country by meeting someone on a casual trip to their grandma’s place, 3000 miles away.
El Camino de Santiago is a major Christian pilgrimage, on which one of the most famous routes is the Camino Francés (‘French Way’). This path takes you on a month-long walk from the Pyrenees through the north of Spain to the grand Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, Galicia. The experience of taking in the stunning countryside and beautiful towns of this region at a gentle pace means that even many non-pilgrims find this a fulfilling path to walk.
In 1910, two separate expeditions set out for the South Pole. In the end Amundsen’s Norwegian team made it there first (late 1911) with Scott’s British team reaching the Pole five weeks later. Scott and his men died on the return journey, but there is no doubt that both groups earned their place in the history of exploration, and turned the eyes of the world to this spectacular frozen continent.
Nellie Bly was a famous reporter, who circumnavigated the globe in 1889. On her travels she met Jules Verne, author of Around the World in 80 Days in Amiens, France. He reportedly said, "if you do it in 79 days, I shall applaud with both hands. But 75 days – that would be a miracle." She made it back in 72 days, 6 hours and 11 minutes. Round-the-world plane tickets make the trip a little easier for inveterate adventurers today.
To find inspiration for your future trips read our guide about famous world explorers and their experience.
In Homer's Odyssey, Odysseus wanders the world after the fall of Troy, trying to find his way home to Ithaca. There's disagreement about the modern-day locations of some sites; at one point he's held captive by the beautiful nymph Calypso in Ogygia, which might now be called Gozo. It could also be in the Ionian Islands, Balearic Islands or even somewhere off the East coast of America. Whichever sunny island it is, there are worse places to spend a few years.
An ancient trade route, the Silk Road runs from Syria through central Asia, ending in eastern China, and there are even some sea routes extending it into Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Southeast Asia. The main overland route takes in some jaw-droppingly beautiful places whose history and culture have been shaped by the Silk Road’s trade; the beautiful, much-mythologised cities of Uzbekistan are just some of the wonders on the route.
Although he travelled around the coast of South America and past New Zealand, Australia and South Africa on his five years aboard HMS Beagle, the most famous part of Darwin’s journey was in the Galápagos islands. Here, he noticed the small variations across species present on more than one of the islands, such as tortoises and finches. The rest is scientific history, and people still visit these stunning islands today to see the amazing range of wildlife.
© Michal Sarauer/Shutterstock
Though most famous for the round-the-world flight on which she went missing, Amelia Earhart completed a great many incredible journeys in her life. One of the most groundbreaking was her 1932 solo flight from Newfoundland to a small town near Denny, Northern Ireland – the first nonstop solo flight across the Atlantic by a woman. On landing, a local innocently asked her: "Have you flown far?"
Gertrude Bell was a pioneering female explorer, cartographer, archeologist and diplomat. She travelled throughout the Arab world, one of the first women to do so, recording her experiences in books such as Amurath to Amurath and Syria: The Desert and the Sown. On top of this, she played a part in establishing Iraq and Jordan as self-determining nations. Follow in her footsteps by exploring the picturesque ruins along the Euphrates, visiting the ancient cities of Jordan, or learning seven languages.
Instead of the usual Grand Tour, Byron headed to the Mediterranean. He was particularly impressed by Albania – "thou rugged nurse of savage men!" – where he stayed for a time with the vicious warlord Ali Pasha. The trip inspired one of his greatest works, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, and the most famous portrait of Byron depicts him in Albanian dress. Albania today is well worth a visit, whether you visit that rugged countryside or the sophisticated capital of Tirana.
During his travels around Southeast Asia, Alfred Russel Wallace collected birds and insects to send back to wealthy collectors in Britain, studied natural history – oh, and came up with the idea of natural selection. In 1858, he published a revolutionary paper on evolution with Charles Darwin. He is perhaps most famous on the Indonesian island of Ternate, where he was based for several years; visitors today will easily understand what attracted him to the relaxed, green, occasionally lava-spewing island.
The conquistador Lope de Aguirre is one of many who have tried to find El Dorado, the "City of Gold". His journey in particular is famous because it somehow wound up with him rebelling against the King of Spain, capturing Isla Margarita and eventually meeting a grisly end. Visitors today (hopefully more sane than Aguirre) can discover plenty of jaw-dropping places along the 4000-mile course of the Amazon river – perhaps even the mythical city itself.
If your plans are less ambitious than travelling around the world, explore our Travel Bucket List Ideas where you'll find plenty of travel ideas where to go.