I hear it’s warm and sunny in other parts of the country, but in Portland, OR today it’s cold, snowy, and I’m pretty reluctant to leave my cozy house or drive anywhere. This got me thinking about virtual field trips; in my opinion, one of the coolest educational developments made possible by technology. While no replacement for a real adventure, a virtual trip can let you explore far-off locales from home; a great option on days with bad weather, or when you can’t just hop on a plane to Paris or Africa.

Unfortunately, if you type “virtual field trip” into Google you’ll come up with a lot of sites that look they were built around 1994, with small pictures and big blocks of text to read. Hardly the most engaging thing for digital natives accustomed to life-like video game graphics and 3D movies, and nothing like the experience of actually being there.

Lucky for you, I’ve weeded through all those boring sites, and compiled the coolest, most interactive virtual experiences, live webcams, and 360° tours out there, so you can spend more time exploring!

Tour a world-class museum

First off, no list would be complete without the Google Art Project, which uses street-view to take you inside some of the most famous art museums in the world. Stroll through the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Palace of Versaille, or Tate Britain, and view pieces from the collections up-close. And I mean, really close. You can zoom in on Starry Night and see van Gogh’s heavy brush strokes in more detail than if you were actually standing there. Or check out Scholastic’s video tour of New York’s American Museum of Natural History hosted by author Brian Selznick (The Invention of Hugo Cabret and Wonderstruck). The author walks viewers through some of the most famous exhibits in the museum.

Go on safari, or visit a zoo or aquarium

Africam features live streaming webcams and audio at various safari locations around Africa. It was night time there when I checked in, and even though the cameras are equipped with night vision, there wasn’t much to see. But you can always check out the highlights (I watched a couple of cheetah’s hanging out near a watering hole.) Many zoos and aquariums also have webcams on their most popular exhibits, including the famous San Diego Zoo and its Panda Cam. If the pandas are snoozing, you can also check out the zoo’s apes, condors and elephants via webcam. For fish lovers, the Birch Aquarium, the New England Aquarium, Monterey Bay Aquarium, and the Georgia Aquarium all offer streaming views of  their aquatic residents, including fish, sharks, otters, and penguins. Sure you could watch cute animal videos on Youtube, but if you want a more authentic experience, the webcams are a good alternative.

Go on a dinosaur dig

For dinosaur enthusiasts, the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History has a nice virtual walkthrough of its dinosaur exhibits, as well as a fun interactive dinosaur dig game. Kids can unearth, clean, and reassemble a dinosaur skeleton.

Look inside the human body

Studying the human body? Medtropolis’ Virtual Body takes you on a guided tour, and lets you zoom in for a look at individual organs and play interactive games.

Explore the Lascaux Caves

As a kid, I was fascinated by the cave paintings of Lascaux; the 17,000 year old paintings of animals discovered by four teenagers in 1940. So I was super excited to find a virtual tour of the caves, complete with animation, sound, and lots of information about the individual paintings. Definitely worth checking out if your child is interested in history, or is studying the caves!

Visit Anne’s secret annex

The Diary of Anne Frank is a staple of middle and high school reading lists. With the Secret Annexe Online, students can explore the house where the Frank family hid. The tour includes audio, video, historical photos, and a 360° tour of the house as it looked during the war, including spaces that are off-limits at the real house in Amsterdam.

Take a spacewalk

Aspiring astronauts should check out NASA’s International Space Station Spacewalk Game. Students can explore the station and try their hand at virtual simulations of real missions conducted by astronauts.

Visit the South Pole

The United States Antarctic Program has a webcam at its South Pole station. It’s disabled right now due to weather, but you can view some cool footage from the station of the aurora australis, or Southern Lights.

Explore Ancient Egypt

PBS’s extensive Nova site includes a great exploration of Egypt’s most famous landmarks. See the pyramids of Giza, the Sphinx, and walk around inside the ancient tombs and temples with detailed photos and interactive panoramic views.

See what used to be there

Historypin uses Google street view technology and historical photos to show you what an area looked like in the past. See historic Paris or New York, or even your own hometown or state capitol. You can also check out 360° views of world landmarks, Italy’s historic ruins, or tour a college campus via Google’s street view gallery.

So there you have it – my favorite sites for taking a virtual adventure from the comfort of my sofa. What are your favorites?

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