15 famous explorers whose travels put yours to shame

written by Joanne Owen
updated 5/27/2021
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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 your own trip of a lifetime. And we’re talking ultimate bucket list experiences.

Read on to experience a journey through time and around the world alongside 15 famous explorers. It’ll take you to the depths of the ocean, too, and we've also included a few lesser-known voyagers among the more famous explorer names. It's important to note, though, that some of these famous explorers in history aren’t without their controversies, not least due to the imperialist notion of Europeans “discovering” long-settled places.

 1. Marco Polo (1254 -1324)

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 crossed 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 spend three years travelling back to Venice via Istanbul.

Marco Polo's portrait on the Italian 1000 lira banknote © Shutterstock

If you fancy following in Marco Polo’s fearless footsteps, you could explore our customisable tailor-made trips, like this one covering some of Uzbekistan’s unique cultural highlights. Or head here for 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 this Venetian land and water tour that includes a visit to his birthplace.

2. Abubakari II (c.1280 - c.1337) 

Abubakari II might not be one of the most famous explorer names, but some scholars argue that he deserves a prominent place alongside famous historical explorers.

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 pictured by the explorers themselves.

Map of Africa by Abraham Ortelius, circa 1570 © Shutterstock

3. Christopher Columbus (1451 -1506)

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.

Columbus's 1492 landing © Shutterstock

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.

4. Amerigo Vespucci (1454 -1512)

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.

Statue of Amerigo Vespucci on the facade of the Uffizi gallery, Florence © Shutterstock

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.

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5. Ferdinand Magellan (1480 - 1521)

Ferdinand Magellan's arrival in the Philippines © Shutterstock

6. Sir Francis Drake (c.1540 - 1596)

Queen Elizabeth I knights Francis Drake in 1581 © Shutterstock

7. Sir Walter Raleigh (1552 -1618)

Walter Raleigh © Shutterstock

8. Captain James Cook (1728 - 1779)

Statue of Captain James Cook in Sydney © Shutterstock

9. Charles Darwin (1809 -1882)

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.

Statue of Charles Robert Darwin in Natural History Museum, London © Shutterstock

10. Dr David Livingstone (1813 - 1873) 

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, in 1855 he discovered Victoria Falls and in May 1856 he became the first European to cross the width of southern Africa.

Legendary meeting between Henry Morton Stanley (left) and David Livingstone in Africa in 1871 © Shutterstock

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?”

11. Isabella Bird (1831 - 1904)

1885 hotel porter - Isabella Bird's celebrated photography © Isabella Bird/Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons Attribution

12. Nellie Bly (1864 - 1922)

In 1888, Bly, aged 25, 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. She actually completed the journey in 72 days, winning a bet struck with Verne himself. Bly casually exclaimed: “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."

Portrait of adventuress Nellie Bly © Shutterstock

13. Freya Stark (1893 - 1993) 

Stamp depicting Dame Freya Madeline Stark © Shutterstock

14. Jacques Cousteau (1910 -1997) 

Jacques Cousteau statue in La Paz, Baja California Sur, northwest Mexico © Shutterstock

15. Ranulph Fiennes (1944 - present)

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.

Sir Ranulph Fiennes © Foreign and Commonwealth Office

At Rough Guides we’ve always taken pride in telling it like it is - whether we’re updating details in our guide books, or researching emerging destinations. With that in mind, we want you to know that when you click on links that lead to our affiliate partners’ sites, we can earn a small commission (at no cost to you). This is one of the ways we’re able to keep doing what we do best - provide you with travel advice and inspiration you can trust. Speaking of which, you can trust what we link to - our travel writer experts are exactly that (experts) and have highlighted them to share ideas that might make your trips all the more satisfying.

Header image: vintage map of Columbus's voyage © Shutterstock

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written by Joanne Owen
created 12/18/2014
updated 5/27/2021
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