Top virtual walking tours

While travel has come to a near standstill during the coronavirus pandemic, technology is allowing us to visit almost any place on the planet in the blink of an eye.

Words by Joly Braime

Tablet showing a landscape and text "Top virtual walking tours"

International travel has been a tricky business lately, as temporary restrictions and long quarantine periods play havoc with even the best-laid plans.

Amid all this, one unexpected trend of 2020-21 has been the rise of the internet-based ‘virtual walk’. These range from simple videos and innovative guided Zoom tours to more interactive experiences using technology such as 360-degree video and virtual reality.

The key to enjoying virtual walks is not to try to compare them to actually being out with your boots on. A virtual walk is a different thing, with plus points of its own. You can travel long distances with ease (even through time, if you fancy), it’s a good deal better for your carbon footprint, and it’s a lot simpler to organise. (I felt a thrill of satisfaction taking a virtual tour of St Petersburg (pictured right) without the Kafkaesque absurdity of a Russian visa application). It may even provide a little taste of the future. Here are some tried and tested examples.

Follow a National Trail with 360-degree imagery

Google’s car-mounted Street View cameras have been buzzing Earth’s highways and byways for well over a decade, capturing millions of miles of images. But some hardy folk have also saddled up with the heavy Google Trekker camera backpacks and ventured away from the roads.

This means there is now 360-degree imagery of many of our beautiful national trails. You can gaze out from Roseberry Topping on the Cleveland Way, snoop round the milecastles of Hadrian’s Wall and even follow the Cambrian Way over the scaly Rhinogydd. There is a good deal of nostalgic pleasure to be found in reliving old adventures, but you could also seek out new ones either here or overseas. 

I fell down a very interesting rabbit hole one afternoon roaming the post-Chernobyl ruins of Pripyat and Japan’s abandoned Hashima Island (of Skyfall fame). 

To get this imagery, you just have to go to your preferred location on Google Maps and click the little yellow ‘Pegman’ icon, usually found on the bottom of the screen, which will bring up blue circles wherever the Trekker cams have taken pictures.

Slow down with a 4K virtual nature walk

Tall, giant red tree trunksThere was a trend a few years ago for ‘slow TV’. Pioneered by NRK, the Norwegian state broadcaster, the most famous of these ‘minutt for minutt’ films showed the seven-hour train journey from Oslo to Bergen in real time. Subsequent hits included eight hours of a log fire and 18 riveting hours of a salmon river.

Slow TV has a lot in common with the ‘nature walks’ you can find in abundance on YouTube – in which some gentle soul has strapped on a camera harness and headed out to film several hours of peacefully monotonous trail footage. There’s something rather hypnotic about the slow bobbing of the camera, the crunch of footsteps and the soughing of the wind, especially if you’re locked down in a city.

Woodland environments seem especially relaxing, and my favourites have included a walk among California’s redwoods and a serene bimble along an abandoned railway in the Ukraine, with birds chirruping in the trees.

You’ll often see the term ‘4K’ on virtual walk videos. This refers to the screen resolution, which is even sharper and clearer than HD (high definition). While you’ll need a 4K screen to get the best out of it, these videos tend to be generally higher quality. youtube.com – search for ‘4K virtual hikes’

Stroll around a city – now and then

Many of the virtual walks on YouTube are in cities, and these can be more diverting than the nature ones. I reckon the secret is to pick somewhere vividly unfamiliar, where your eyes would be out on stalks in real life. I’ve particularly enjoyed busy Asian cities like Tokyo, Bangkok and Seoul, full of neon lights, unfamiliar foodstuffs, tinny music and automated voices drifting from shop speakers.

The silent guides behind the camera are often charmingly curatorial, too. Sometimes they will deliberately thread their way through a group of people, so you can eavesdrop on snatches of conversation, or choose to linger in certain places.

A bonus of virtual walks is that you can travel through time as well as space, since YouTube also contains several historic city tours using colourised and enhanced footage from the early 20th century – complete with faked-up street sounds of voices, trams and clip-clopping horses. Everyone is sporting a straw boater and there isn’t a mobile phone in sight.

In fact, one of the curious things about a modern-day virtual city walk is the sheer number of people walking around glued to their phones. There you are looking into their world through a screen, and they’re looking out of it through another. youtube.com – search for ‘4K city walks’ and ‘60 fps historic footage’ 

Colourful Tokyo street scene from low down with lots of people crossing the road

Take a guided Zoom tour

The world’s tour guides have had a rough year. A charismatic local guide lives long in the memory, but lockdowns and travel bans have left many of them high and dry, particularly in countries where government support isn’t forthcoming.

Fortunately, some have adapted, offering inexpensive guided ‘walks’ remotely via Zoom or similar. Sometimes the guide will actually do the walk, but more often they will conduct it from their computer, manipulating Google Street View to show you the different places and cutting to interior shots, historical photos or other pictures, where appropriate. Some guides have been clever and had fun with this different format. I did one where a London guide paused at a defunct tube station – normally off limits – then took us for a look inside, using photos she’d taken previously.

There are plenty of platforms to choose from offering these virtual tours – including Viator, The Tour Guy and even Airbnb – and the range of available excursions is dizzying. You could visit farms in Nepal, descend into the Paris Catacombs, or take a Communist history tour of Ho Chi Minh City – and that’s just for starters.

Have an interactive adventure

Some virtual walks take the interactivity a step further, like The Hidden Worlds of the National Parks project – a collaboration between the United States National Park Service and Google Arts & Culture. Using a combination of 360-degree video, short films, sound clips and other tools, you can follow five park rangers as they show you the wonders of their particular patch. 

The project has eschewed the usual honeypots like Death Valley and Yosemite in favour of lesser-known areas such as Alaska’s Kenai Fjords, Dry Tortugas National Park in Florida and Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico. Your Smokey Bear-hatted guides will take you caving, kayaking, ice climbing, scuba diving and horse riding, let you listen to the roar of a Hawaiian volcano or sweep a telescope across the night sky over Utah’s Bryce Canyon. The Carlsbad tour also features an especially pleasing section where you transform into a bat.

artsandculture.google.com/project/national-park-service – click ‘start exploring’

Take a virtual reality walk

Cardboard viewer with two eye holes showingThe most extraordinarily immersive virtual walks make use of virtual reality (VR) equipment. My favourite was an experience where I donned a VR headset and entered the Chauvet Cave in the Ardèche in France, moving through a series of viewpoints and using hand-held controllers to manipulate a flaming torch, so I could inspect the 36,000-year-old cave paintings.

This walk can be downloaded through the Steam gaming platform, but there’s a simpler video version available on Google Arts & Culture that preserves some of the 360-degree functionality for your phone or tablet. Watch it through YouTube (search for ‘The Dawn of Art’) on a phone, and you can even enjoy it in 3D using a cheap cardboard viewer (right).

Incredibly vivid, interactive experiences like this raise some intriguing questions about the future of virtual travel – particularly since the Chauvet Cave isn’t open to the public, even in normal times. Soon enough, with any luck, many of the world’s trails will be back under our boots again, but as virtual reality advances, could it allow us to explore places that are simply too dangerous, fragile or inaccessible for mass tourism? 

A man stands above ruins, with a backpack on which holds a camera

Using Google Trekker at the Inca ruins of Machu Picchu in Peru

Equipment

All you really need to enjoy a virtual walk is a computer, tablet or phone – though a pair of headphones will make the experience a whole lot more immediate. 

If you’re feeling more adventurous, you could also experiment with virtual reality (VR). Proper VR headsets run to hundreds of pounds and need quite a powerful computer, but if you happen to know a serious video-gamer, then they might have one you can try out.

However, VR doesn’t have to be pricey – you can also watch some VR content, like 3D YouTube videos, using a half-decent phone and a basic 3D viewer. A Google Cardboard headset (arvr.google.com/cardboard) will set you back under £10 and is exactly what it sounds like – a sheet of pre-cut card that folds into a pair of simple goggles, with a compartment to put your phone in. It’s a sort of motion-sensitive version of those old stereoscopic viewers, with your phone providing the image. To watch compatible 3D videos, all you do is click the small headset button for an inexpensive but fun VR experience. This only works on phones, not with laptops or desktop computers.

Tricking the senses

A ramble in the real world is a cocktail of sensory information. With virtual walks, though, five senses are whittled down to two, so it makes sense to maximise the ones you’ve got.  With a decent pair of headphones, good quality sound can feel quite immersive, evoking memory echoes in the other senses. Virtual walks in the rain are particularly nice – the soothing drumming of raindrops on the umbrella feels a bit like being safely ensconced in a tent when it’s pouring outside.

Virtual walks round food markets are also worth a try. Best to be just a little bit peckish but not too hungry (otherwise it is torture). I found it inspired me to spice up my lockdown menu. I would see something enticing in an eastern market somewhere, then attempt to bodge an ersatz version from items available at the Whitby Co-op.