Put your endless COVID-era scrolling to use and point your browser toward an engaging virtual guided museum tour. While the pandemic has surely put a damper on American museum (and around the world) visits, these cultural institutions have stepped up to create and offer (usually free of charge) guided tours of their hallowed halls, from their Egyptian antiquities to their priceless artifacts to their contemporary art. Plus, even a few zoos have jumped on the bandwagon, so you can see your favorite furry friends whenever you like.
The vast majority of the virtual museum tours are available through Google Arts & Culture. This partnership between Google and the various institutions provides more than 2,500 museum and galleries tours worldwide – truly something for all tastes. You’ll find tours of the British Museum in London, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and the Guggenehim in New York City, a fantastic opportunity for the art fan, history buff, archaeology student or even elementary-school online art class to take a virtual field trip from the comfort of their home. A huge variety of museums worldwide offer, either in addition to the Google tours, or on their own, insightful video tours of their spaces and exhibits. Often, you can overlay an audio tour or podcast for a guided digital tour.
So which museums have free virtual tours? Can I take a virtual tour at the Louvre? What are the best online museum tours? Read on for inspiration.
National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
Two fantastic exhibitions are available online at the National Gallery of Art. Learn about the origins of fashion and its evolvement through the ages as you peruse some of the 18,000-plus watercolor renderings of American decorative objects from the Index of American Designs. The Fashioning a Nation exhibit takes you from the colonial era to the late 19th-century, reflecting America’s growing interest in material objects, as well as depicting the formal garments that were passed down through the generations.
Through the “Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting” exhibit, virtual visitors have access to some of the most renowned images of the Dutch Golden Age. As you peruse the art gallery online, study the connections between Johannes Vermeer, Gerard ter Borch, Gerrit Dou, Frans van Mieris and Gabriel Metsu.
Guggenheim Museum, New York City
Take a walk along the famous spiral staircase in the Guggenheim, stopping for as long as you wish to admire the incredible artwork along its twists and turns. Kids doing school at home? Take them on a “walk” through the eras of Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Modern and Contemporary art.
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
At one of California’s preeminent cultural institutions, you can see lifelike mummy portraits from the first through third centuries AD in “Faces of Roman Egypt.” You can view art from the 8th century to modern day. You can browse paintings, drawings, sculpture, photographs and manuscripts from as far back as 6,000 years ago. You can view “La Promenade” by Renoir in a guided manner that takes you closer than you ever thought possible.
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City
The six short video tours created for The Met have already won awards for their fresh way of unveiling the museum’s treasures for virtual visitors. Viewed more than 11 million times to date, the tours take you into the gallery after hours or give you a bird’s-eye view of The Met Cloisters, among other immersive experiences. Explore the Great Hall and the Grand Staircase with 360-degree capabilities. Visit the Temple of Dundur from dawn to dusk, in a manner that makes you feel like you’re on the banks of the Nile. “Walk” through The American Wing and The Charles Engelhard Court to view its iconic sculpture, mosaics and architectural elements. And impress the little ones with a front-row seat on The Met’s distinguished collection of arts and armor from around the world.
Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
Every exhibit at this classic museum is available to virtual visitors through a 360-degree view room-by-room tour. Click your way through to see everything as close as you wish, with the ability to read all placards and posters. You can also take a virtual tour of the Smithsonian Castle and the Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden.
NASA: Langley Research Center and Glenn Research Center
Satisfy your solar system curiosity with free online tours, and even “augmented realty experiences” at these two NASA headquarters.
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
There are 16 virtual exhibits available at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, including a popular “21st Century Designer Fashion” installment. Look for paintings, sculpture, furniture and decorative arts from North, Central and South America. View mummies, ceramics and more from ancient Eygptian and Greece. And marvel at masterpieces by Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Gauguin and Cassatt.
Boston Children’s Museum
While one of the first things to do for the kiddos post-pandemic is take them to this fantastic museum to blow off steam, for now a virtual visit is better than nothing. There’s no waiting and no lines to experience a variety of the museum’s most popular exhibits.
Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit
Google Arts & Culture is providing four online virtual tours at this massive museum, which houses more than 100 art galleries and one of the most significant art collections in the country. Watch “Frida Kahlo in Detroit,” “Ordinary People by Extraordinary Artists,” “Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry” and “Self Portrait on the Borderline Between Mexico and the United States.”
There are myriad ways to learn about the big, wide world at the iconic British Museum. Use Google Street View – the museum is actually the largest indoor space in the world that you can view this way. Visit more than 60 galleries and see everything from the Rosetta Stone and mummies in the Egyptian Sculpture Gallery to drawings by Michelangelo to artifacts from Oceania. For deeper insight, sign up for audio tours in which museum curators guide you through each gallery. As for the Google Arts & Culture tour of the British Museum, if you go that route you’ll have access to Street Views in Central and South America and more than 7,000 objects at the museum.
Musée d’Orsay, Paris
Did you know that this fabulous French bastion of culture is housed in a gorgeous Orsay train station, which was originally built for the 1900 World Fair? Learn about its magnificent history and the pieces within on a digital tour through the famous art gallery. See pieces by Monet, Cezanne, Gauguin and countless others. Don’t miss the exhibit through Google Arts & Culture: “From Station to Renovated Musée d’Orsay,” celebrating what is the first work of art you’d see upon entering the museum.
Pergamon Museum, Berlin
The Pergamon Museum houses a vast collection of ancient artifacts, all of which you can peruse at your leisure from the comfort of your home. This massive museum is known for its collection of Babylonian, Greek and Roman buildings. Look for the Ishtar Gate of Babylon, the Pergamon Altar and the Market Gate of Miletus, among other jaw-dropping relics of history. Within three separate museums – the Collection of Classical Antiquities, the Museum of the Ancient Near East and the Museum of Islamic Art – you’ll find exhibits such as “Islamic Prayer Niche,” “Tile – Building Ceramic – Iran 13th-14th Century” and “Ottoman Small Pattern Holbein Knotted Carpet – 16th Century.
You’ll feel like you’re actually browsing the hallways of the famous Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam as you take a Google Street View digital tour through the Dutch Golden Age. A variety of narrated videos are available on the museum website, exploring the significance of the renowned artworks you’ll find here, from Vermeer to Rembrandt.
Uffizi Gallery, Florence
Can’t get to Italy? Spend a Sunday afternoon browsing the art gallery of the de’Medicis, housed in a building constructed in 1560. From the “Madonna of the Goldfinch” from 1505 to ancient drawings by Federico Barocci, this is a genius way to visit one of Italy’s most renowned, but lesser-known cultural institutions.
Vatican Museum, Italy
Listen and learn with an expert guide as you take a video tour of the Vatican and the Sistine Chapel. “Enter” the chapel of St. Peter Martyr, the Room of the Immaculate Conception and the Gregorian Egyptian Museum. There is very little that is not available as part of a virtual museum tour when it comes to the Vatican – it’s worth the time to visit the Pio Clementino Museum, the Chiaramonti Museum, the New Wing, Raphael’s Rooms, the Niccoline Chapel and the Room of the Chiaroscuri.
The museum’s website overs an array of virtual tours designed to highlight the artistic masterpieces of this renowned cultural institution. Several Petite Galeries offer insight into various masterpieces and how they are connected to political power, how artists evolve through the ages and, in an exhibit dedicated to movement, an exploration of performing arts.
Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
The entire Van Gogh Museum is available through Google Arts & Culture, complete with the life story of Van Gogh and his 200-plus paintings, 500 drawings and 750 personal letters. This is your chance to visit one of the most popular art gallery destinations in the world, without leaving the comfort of your living room.
Someday, yes, you may have the chance to visit the stunning titanium and steel treasure that is the distinctive Guggenheim, but for now, sit back, relax and take a virtual tour through Frank Gehry’s masterpiece. Important pieces by Mark Rothko and Cy Twombly, as well as the outdoor Maman by Louise Bourgeois, are all available on this online art gallery tour.
Marvel at Michelangelo’s statue of David at the second-most visited museum in Italy. It’s small in size, but big on “wow” factor. The museum’s 360-degree, video-guided tour of the museum give a fascinating view of the displays here.
Natural History Museum, London
Now, here’s a great one for a virtual class field trip. Enthrall the homeschoolers with thousands of treasures from practically everywhere in the world and from countless time periods. They can take a 3D Victoria Walk through the streets of 19th-century London, view Emperor penguin eggs brought home from the Antarctic and view some of the oldest human skeletons ever found. Learn about the history of Hope, the blue whale that hangs from the ceiling in the Hintze Hall. Or, take an even more immersive visit into Hintze Hall, narrated by Sir David Attenborough.
Visit Vienna’s Albertina through Google Arts & Culture. This international modern art gallery is home to one of the largest, most significant print rooms in the world – there are 65,000 drawing and one million Old Master prints here. Look for “Study for the Last Supper” by Da Vinci and “The Water Lily Pond” by Monet.
Check out the almost 700,000 Chinese artifacts and artwork dating back 8,000 years at the National Palace Museum. There are a number of suggested tour routes, which help break the museum’s offerings down into manageable highlights.
Here’s a cool one! Take the family on a trip to far-flung Easter Island to explore this outdoor museum. You’ll watch a short video of the island and its monolithic statues, which will prompt great discussions about geography and history with the kids.
Virtual Zoo Visits
Looking for a zoo tour? The Cincinnati Zoo holds a daily “safari” in the afternoon on its Facebook Live Feed. There’s plenty of behind-the-scenes footage from The Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. The San Diego Zoo offers countless live-cam options, from koalas to polar bears to tigers. And at Baltimore’s National Aquarium, you can “walk” from floor to floor, from the tropical waters teeming with rainbow-hued fish to the icy tundra.