Being well-travelled is one thing. Being an explorer is quite another. From Marco Polo’s Silk Road expedition, to Nellie Bly’s epic 1889 voyage around-the-world-in-72-days, these 15 famous historical explorers sure knew how to make the most of their time on earth. What’s more, these famous explorer names might just provide inspiration for places to visit during your own trip of a lifetime. And we’re talking ultimate bucket list experiences. It's important to note, though, that many famous explorers in history aren’t without their controversies, not least due to the imperialist notion of Europeans “discovering” long-settled places. In the piece that follows we've included a few lesser-known voyagers among the more famous explorer names, along with trail-blazers making history today.
Famed for his travels along the Silk Road, thirteenth-century Venetian Marco Polo is unquestionably one of the world’s most famous historical explorers.
One of the first Europeans to visit China, he left Venice in 1271 and crossed the Middle East with his family. They traversed Jerusalem, Afghanistan and the Gobi Desert for three years on their way to China, where they visited Kublai Khan, the Mongol emperor. Polo stayed in China for 17 years, and only around 1292 - after escorting a Mongol princess to Iran - did he make the return journey to Venice via Istanbul.
If you fancy following in Marco Polo’s fearless footsteps, you could explore our customisable tailor-made trips, among them an exploration of some of Uzbekistan’s unique cultural highlights and inspirational itineraries around China. But fear not if you’re looking for closer to home adventures. You could always discover more about the man on a Venetian land and water tour that includes a visit to his birthplace.
Abubakari II might not be one of the most famous explorer names, but some scholars argue that he deserves a prominent place alongside them.
Thought to have been the ninth mansa (sultan or emperor) of West Africa’s Mali Empire, Abubakari II abdicated to undertake an exploratory ocean voyage. According to an account recorded by the Arab historian Ibn Fadlallah al-Umari or al-Umari (1300 - 1349), Abubakari II “did not believe that it was impossible to reach the extremity of the ocean.” So, “he equipped two hundred boats full of men, like many others full of gold, water and victuals sufficient enough for several years.” It’s said that Abubakari II didn’t return from this voyage, and a few scholars have posited the view that he travelled to the New World.
Having said that, the jury’s still out, with other academics arguing that there’s simply not enough evidence - for the time being at least. One thing’s for sure, on-going research and debates around Abubakari II are important reminders of the need to keep an open mind when it comes to understanding the past. New discoveries about famous historical explorers are always possible, much like the possibilities envisaged by explorers themselves.
Undoubtedly one of the most famous explorers in history, Columbus was born in Genoa in 1451. From a young age his impulse to travel was strong - he went to sea as a teenager and made Portugal his base. Having failed to secure royal patronage for his planned “enterprise of the Indies” (to reach Asia by sailing west), he went to Spain. After a time, he secured backing from King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella and on 3rd August 1492 he set sail across the Atlantic. Ten weeks later, land was sighted. But he was far from Asia. This land was, in fact, what later become known as the Bahamas.
After landing on other islands around the Caribbean (devastating indigenous populations), Columbus returned to Spain. Having been made admiral of the Seven Seas and viceroy of the Indies, he undertook three further transatlantic voyages, never reaching the Asian lands he’d originally planned to find.
When visiting the Caribbean, be sure to check out museums that uncover Columbus from the perspective of those whose lives he impacted. The Seville Great House heritage site in St Ann’s, Jamaica, for example, is home to an excellently curated history of the region. The exhibition covers the area and its peoples from the indigenous Taíno (who Columbus and his men abused and murdered in their thousands). Alternatively, if you’re in Genoa, you could take a guided tour of the city to see where Columbus was born and learn more about its history back in his day.
Florence-born Amerigo Vespucci is another name that comes to mind when thinking of famous explorers. A merchant and navigator with a well-connected family (they counted the Medici’s among their friends), Vespucci relocated to Seville in 1492. Here he worked for Florentine merchant Gianotto Berardi, who invested huge sums of money in Columbus's first voyage. Berardi also won a potentially profitable contract to provision Columbus’s second fleet.
As for Vespucci’s discoveries, considering that the Americas are named after him, the documentation is surprisingly scant. What is certain is that during the late 1490s he undertook two voyages to the New World. While another two trips have been alleged, the letter-based evidence is patchier, and the documents’ authorship debated. During these voyages he did, however, observe that the continent he was exploring was not part of Asia, as was believed at the time. He also explored the coast of modern-day Brazil, including areas of the Amazon and Para Rivers, though strong currents put paid to any plans they may have had to explore deeper. In 1502, during Vespucci’s second voyage, his fleet found a bay which they named Rio de Janeiro after the date - 1st January.
If you fancy following in Vespucci’s footsteps in South America, check-out our customisable Brazilian trip itineraries for inspiration. Chances are, you’ll see more of this vast country than Vespucci did during his voyage.
As famous historical explorers go, Portuguese Ferdinand Magellan was no stranger to embracing the hazards that often went hand in hand with his profession, among them epic storms, mutinies, sickness and near-starvation. After an early life as a page to queen consort Eleanor and Manuel I in Lisbon, Magellan jumped ship and sailed on behalf of Spain. This came as a result of Magellan being accused of illegal trading, and Manuel I refusing to support of Magellan’s plan to find a new spice route by sailing west through South America to Indonesia and India.
Not one to be deterred, Magellan found favour with Charles V in Spain and secured the funds for a five-ship voyage that set off in 1519. His Spanish crew weren’t best pleased to be taking orders from a Portuguese captain, to say the least. In fact, they mutinied in present-day Argentina. With one ship destroyed, and another making its way back to Spain, Magellan dealt with the mutineers (some were be-headed) and gained control of his reduced fleet. After navigating the treacherous channel connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans (later named the Strait of Magellan), he and his sickly crew made landfall on the Micronesian island of Guam, where a missing small boat prompted them to kill some of the island’s indigenous people.
A month later, Magellan reached the Philippines, though since an enslaved crew member he’d bought before the voyage could speak the speak the indigenous language, it seems this chap had circumvented the globe before Magellan. And Magellan didn’t make it the full way around either - after demanding that local people convert to Christianity, he was killed, leaving his crew to complete the round-the-world voyage without him.
Charles Darwin is undoubtedly the one of the world’s most influential and famous explorers. In 1831, aged 22 and fresh out of Cambridge University, Darwin joined the crew of the HMS Beagle to survey the coast of South America. Rebellion in Río de la Plata, fossils in Bahía Blanca, observations in the Andes and, of course, finches in the Galápagos turned his mind into “a chaos of delight” and paved the way for one of the greatest theories in history: evolution.
Missionary, abolitionist and explorer, Livingstone was vital in the mapping of the African interior. In 1852 he embarked on a four-year expedition to find a route from the upper Zambezi to the coast. Then, in 1855, he was the first European to see Victoria Falls and in May 1856 he became the first European to cross the width of southern Africa.
Ten years later he set out, on what would be his final trip, to locate the source of the Nile. Uncontactable for several months, he was found by Henry Stanley, explorer and journalist, near Lake Tanganyika in 1871. It was here the famous phrase was coined: “Dr Livingstone I presume?”
When it comes to famous explorer names, Isabella Bird probably doesn’t immediately spring to mind. Yet this fearless Yorkshire woman definitely deserves to be reckoned among the world’s famous historical explorers. After a sickly childhood, her adventures began when her doctor advised that she take an overseas trip to improve her health. As a result, Isabella accompanied her cousins to America, on instruction from her clergyman father that she could remain away for as long as her £100 allowance lasted.
The letters Bird wrote home during this trip become the basis of her first book, “An Englishwomen in America”. Following the deaths of her parents, she continued to travel and write to support herself, most notably exploring Hawaii, as described in her second book, “Six Months in the Sandwich Islands”, as they were then known.
Bird later rode 800 miles through the Rocky Mountains (as desribed in “A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains”) and explored Asia (as recounted in “Unbeaten tracks in Japan”). She also studied medicine so she could travel as a missionary, and studied photography so she could document her travels. Eternally defying the conventions of her day, she travelled to India at the age of 60, and later explored China and Korea, with her last book, “The Yangtze Valley and Beyond”, published in 1900.
In 1888, at the age of 25, Nellie Bly set off to travel the world in 80 days, just like Jules Verne’s Phileas Fogg. Her trip took her from New York to London, then onwards from Calais in France to Brindisi in Italy, Port Said in Egypt, Colombo in Sri Lanka, Penang in Malaysia, Hong Kong, San Francisco and finally back to New York City.
Bly actually completed the journey in 72 days, winning a bet struck with Verne himself. Of this achievement, she declared: “It's not so very much for a woman to do who has the pluck, energy and independence, which characterize many women in this day of push and get-there."
Not only a trail-blazing, record-breaking traveller, Nellie Bly was also a pioneering investigative journalist who reported on everything from the lives of impoverished working girls in Pittsburgh, to corruption and poor living conditions in Mexico. She also investigated the living conditions and treatment of patients in a New York insane asylum, even faking her own illness in order to be admitted to the asylum.
All that considered, Bly certainly merits a place at the table of famous explorers. And, while it goes without saying that she's a pretty impossible act to follow, if you fancy embarking on an epic solo voyage (or several) of your own, you might want to check out our tips for doing exactly that.
Born in Paris to bohemian parents - a British father and Italian mother - Freya Stark studied Persian and Arabic at the University of London at the age of 30 and began her lifelong immersion in the Middle East some four years later when she caught a cargo ship to Beirut. This pivotal trip saw Stark travel widely through Syria in secret (at this time it was under French control), thus paving the way for a future as one of the most esteemed, knowledgable and famous explorers of the Middle East.
In the coming years Stark trekked into western Iran’s wilderness, areas of which had never been visited by Westerners. In 1934 she voyaged down the Red Sea with the aim of reaching the ancient city of Shabwa, thought to have been the Queen of Sheba’s capital. Though illness curtailed this particular journey, Stark’s exploration of this region resulted in a clutch of seminal books that saw her awarded the Royal Geographical Society’s Founder's Gold Medal.
During WWII Stark worked for the British Ministry of Information in Yemen and Cairo, and later travelled extensively through Turkey. She made her last expedition in 1968 (a trip to Afghanistan at the age of 75), though she continued to travel well into her eighties.
As the first person to reach the top of the world, there’s no doubt that intrepid African-American Matthew Henson should be recognised as one of the world’s most famous historical explorers.
Born in Maryland, where his parents were subjected to attacks from the Ku Klux Klan, Henson was orphaned as a child and set sail as a cabin boy at the tender age of twelve. Under the tutelage of the ship’s Captain Childs, Henson was educated and became an accomplished sailor, voyaging to China, Japan, Africa, and the Russian Arctic seas.
When Childs died, Henson though his seafaring days were over until he met Robert Peary, a US Naval officer and explorer who took Henson on to assist his next assignment - mapping the jungles of Nicaragua. During this trip, the men formed a lifelong bond, and Henson went on to play a pivotal role in Peary’s exploration of the Arctic, mastering the Inuit language and learning skills that were essential for their survival during their expedition to the North Pole in 1908-09 (Peary’s eighth attempt).
Though Peary was lauded as the first man to reach the North Pole, Henson’s account of the final push of this attempt, as recounted in his 1921 memoir “A Negro Explorer at the North Pole”, describes otherwise. Henson rode in the lead sledge, his footprints were first to make their mark at the North Pole, and it was Henson who planted the American flag.
In 1937 the inaccuracy of Peary being deemed the first man to make it to the North Pole was rectified when Henson was made an honorary member of the prestigious Explorers Club of New York. Then in 1946 the US Navy awarded him the same medal they’d issued to Peary. Henson was also later honoured by Presidents Truman and Eisenhower.
In the field of underwater expeditions, famous historical explorers don’t come more well-known than Jacques Cousteau - the researcher, photographer, filmmaker and marine conservationist who co-invented the Aqua-Lung.
Cousteau’s early career in naval aviation was cut short by a car accident, and led to him following his love for the ocean. In the mid-to-late 1930s he worked for the French Navy’s information service, which saw him sent on missions to Shanghai and Japan.
In 1943 Cousteau and engineer Emile Gagnan co-created the Aqua-Lung, a breathing apparatus that revolutionised underwater exploration by making it possible to stay submerged for longer. A few years later, he showcased his first films, bringing the wonders of the ocean to a far wider audience, while also pioneering the field of underwater archaeological exploration.
Cousteau’s conservation achievements include making a key contribution to restricting commercial whaling, and leading a campaign against the French government’s plan to dump nuclear waste in the Mediterranean Sea.
Hailed as the world’s greatest living explorer by the Guinness Book of World Records, Ranulph Fiennes has led over fifteen gruelling expeditions in the past forty years. He is living proof that intrepid exploration still exists: he led the first hovercraft expedition up the Nile and was the first to circumnavigate the world along its polar axis – a feat of 52,000 miles, starting in the Antarctic and ending at the North Pole.
In 2003 he completed seven marathons, in seven days, on seven continents, and was the first British pensioner to climb Mount Everest, raising £6.2 million for charity.
In 1997, lecturer, author and former Rough Guides editor Fran Sandham threw caution to the wind and left his London life to walk 3000 miles across Africa, from Namibia's Skeleton Coast to the Indian Ocean. Remarkably, there was no big plan, no big sense of purpose beyond achieving that ambitious goal of traversing the continent in a spirit of adventure, on foot and alone - no sponsors, no strings, no support team.
As recounted in Traversa, Sandham’s boundlessly engaging account of his epic journey, he modelled his route on the Victorian-era "traversas" journeyed by the likes of Henry Morton Stanley and Dr David Livingstone. Taking almost a year, during which he was struck by malaria, with the threat of lions and landmines never far from his mind, Sandham’s journey demonstrates the human impulse to strike out and do things one’s own way, with Traversa suffused in a spirit of joie de vivre, albeit brilliantly tempered by the author's endearing self-deprecating wit.
Modern-day adventurer Mario Rigby is surely set to become one of the world's most famous explorers. Born in Turks and Caicos, Rigby grew up in Germany and Canada, where a talent for athletics saw him pursuing a career as a personal trainer. It was an athletics competition in San Salvador that first inspired Rigby’s desire to explore more of the world, and ultimately led to his Crossing Africa expedition.
In November 2015 Rigby left Toronto for Cape Town from where his incredible adventure began - an astounding 12,000 km trek north through eight African countries by foot and kayak that saw him reach Cairo in 2018. Contracting malaria, and dodging bullets and wild dogs along the way, Rigby was driven to learn from the people he met along the way, and committed to sharing their stories with authentic, respectful realism. Also a powerful, inspirational advocate for eco-conscious travel, Rigby’s continued adventures help support a number of charities, among them the Rainmaker Enterprise in Sudan and Toronto-based My Stand, a mentoring scheme for vulnerable young people.
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Header image: map of Columbus's voyage © Shutterstock
Joanne is a Pembrokeshire-born writer with a passion for the nature, cultures and histories of the Caribbean region, especially Dominica. Also passionate about inspiring a love of adventure in young people, she’s the author of several books for children and young adults, hosts international writing workshops, and has written articles on the Caribbean and inspirational community initiatives for Rough Guides. Follow her