Have you ever wondered what life was like when wooly mammoths wandered the Earth? Have you ever wanted to stargaze with a Maya astronomer? Perhaps you dream of strolling through a leafy Chinese tea plantation or sailing on a Viking ship. You’re in luck—historical tours are trending. In recent years, they have popped up on every continent, inviting curious travelers to take a step back in time.
If you don’t have a time machine handy, create your very own—turn back the dial and prepare for an exciting journey through history, beginning with…
The Cradle of Humankind, South Africa (2-3.3 million years ago)
Our journey begins in South Africa, just outside of Johannesburg, at the Cradle of Humankind. Because some of the oldest human fossils were found here, the Cradle invites you to imagine the lives of our most ancient relatives. Upon arriving at the visitor center, friendly guides are there to welcome you home.
The Cradle is made up of two areas, the Maropeng Visitor Center and the Sterkfontein Caves. We recommend taking a guided tour to bring your experience to life.
Starting at the Maropeng Visitor Center, you’ll see an impressive grass-covered dome housing stunning museum exhibitions. Next, head through a tunnel featuring a timeline of Earth’s history,and board a boat to take a literal sail through time and space. Keep your eyes peeled for glaciers and exploding volcanoes reminiscient of the Ice Ages.
Spark your imagination as early humans discover fire for the first time and follow the evolution of man as you browse the skulls suspended in great bubbles overhead. As you learn how life came to be, say hi to Mrs. Ples and Little Foot—human fossils found in the nearby Sterkfontein Caves. You’ll also meet other prehistoric creatures like the dinosaurs, now extinct. Check out stone tools used by these early humans and get hands-on in the Experience Lab, where more modern technology engages you in scientific discoveries.
Grab lunch at the casual Market Place Restaurant or the more elegant Tumulus Restaurant. Then fasten your orange hard hat and head toward the Sterkfontein Caves. Your guide will point out the geological features that make up this magical place, such as dolomite and limestone. You’ll also see the site where Little Foot was discovered. Search for sedimentary rock layers as you marvel at cave features like the Elephant Chamber. Afterwards, catch your breath in the cave’s small exhibit as you reflect on the lives of our ancient relatives.
Aboriginal Australia (60,000 BCE)
Next we’ll ride the waves to Sydney, Australia. Archeologists estimate around 65,000 years ago African people sailed to Australia and began to settle on the small continent. Indigenous Australians comprise two groups: Aboriginal peoples from the mainland and the Torres Strait Islander peoples from the Cape York peninsula.
On the Australian continent, the Aboriginal people lived in hunter-gatherer clans. During the 1700s, Europeans colonized Australia and had a devastating impact on the native inhabitants. Today, Australians strive to celebrate and honor all Indigenous Australians and their central role in shaping the country’s culture.
The Royal Botanic Garden of Sydney honors the Cadigal, Dharawal and Darug people who hail from the Sydney area. On a trip to the garden, visitors can stroll through the history of each group. In the Cadi Jam Ora: First Encounters Garden, you can relive the stories of the Cadigal people on a trail nestled among native plants. The Cadigal’s experience as hunter-gatherers taught them how to thrive alongside the region’s plants and animals. Take a guided Aboriginal Heritage Tour through the garden to learn more about these pioneers of sustainability.
Uncover Cadigal artifacts, tools, and customs, and search for edible native bush plants. Be sure to bring your appetite, because you’ll get to sample these staples of Cadigal cuisine. Take home some honey made by the garden’s own bee colony or pick up a book on gardening. at the gift shop. When you arrive home, plant your own garden and watch the memories from your trip blossom before you.
La Brea Tar Pits (50,000 BCE)
During the same period that Indigenous Australians settled down under, present-day North America was home to herds of mammoths and sabre-toothed cats. In what is now Los Angeles, California, these Ice Age creatures are preserved in the La Brea Tar Pits. Thousands of years ago, plants and animals from this area were trapped in asphalt, sinking deep into the ground. Fossils formed from these remains, and today paleontologists continue excavations to uncover the mysteries of the Ice Age.
The La Brea Tar Pits are home to a museum, fossil lab, and theater, as well as the Lake Pit, Hancock Park, and Pleistocene Garden. Throughout the parks, you’ll find native Ice Age plants specially cultivated to teach us about life during this period. As you explore, you’ll meet dire wolves, giant sloths, sabre-toothed cats, and Zed—a Columbian mammoth.
Take the guided Excavator Tour to visit current dig sites, see preservation at work in the Fossil Lab, and watch the asphalt bubble in the Lake Pit. Delve even deeper into the past at the 3D Theater or check out the Ice Age Encounters Puppet Show. Budding paleontologists can bring home their own mammoth stuffed animal or dig kit from the gift shop. And since the tar pits are an active dig site, future visits will surely bring new discoveries.
Maya Marvels (400 CE)
Let’s fast forward to the year 400 CE, when the Maya city of Chichén Itzá was founded. The Maya civilization extends from Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula through Central America. One of their most sacred sites, Chichén Itzá is the perfect place to immerse yourself into Maya society. The Maya peoples were extremely sophisticated. They had a unique language made of glyphs, an advanced mathematical system, and a deep understanding of astronomy. As jungle dwellers, the Maya respected their environment. This celebration of the natural world can be seen throughout the ruins of the city.
Tours of Chichén Itzá allow visitors to uncover the secrets of the Maya. You’ll explore many ruins such as the “El Castillo” pyramid and stone temples. On your tour, you’ll also visit the ball court where the Maya played ulama, a pre-Columbian game thought to be the oldest team sport in the world. Art lovers will enjoy magnificent sculptures and carved reliefs, while science enthusiasts will appreciate the “Caracol” space observatory.
During your tour, savor Maya food and take a dip in a sacred cenote—natural deep-water sinkholes fed by rain and underground rivers. Don’t miss the spectacular Chichén Itzá Night Show, where Maya stories are projected onto the facade of El Castillo to transport visitors to the heyday of this great civilization.
Virtual Viking Voyage (800 CE – 1100 CE)
Setting sail from the Yucatán, we now head across the Atlantic to Oslo, Norway, circa 800 CE, to visit The Viking Planet. If tales of Thor and Loki already have you on the edge of your seat, then you’ll love this 100% digital museum. The Viking Planet, opened in 2019, aims to immerse visitors in the world of the Vikings.
Founded by film industry veterans, The Viking Planet channels cinematic magic to bring the Vikings to life. Although they were known as brutal pirates (or “vikingr” in old Scandinavian), the Vikings were also noteworthy for their impressive shipbuilding, merchant culture, and spirit of exploration. In fact, a Viking named Lief Erikson was one of the earliest Europeans to land on North American soil.
The Viking Planet offers 9 state of the art experiences that transport visitors back to the age of the Vikings. A Viking ship equipped with VR headsets and moving chairs welcomes sailors brave enough to hop aboard during a battle at sea. Meanwhile, the 270-degree cinema and Norvegr (“north way”) exhibit offer a glimpse into Viking life.
Several Vikings greet you at the Hologram Theater, eager to share their stories. Examine viking weapons, don your Viking best at the selfie zone and snap a family photo in front of the green screen. If you think you’ve got what it takes to become a Viking, customize your own digital Viking ship and hit the open seas. End your visit with a souvenir from the gift shop to keep your Viking vibes going strong.
Sensational Samurai (1100 CE)
Leaving Norway behind, we now zoom over to Japan circa 1100, the beginning of the country’s medieval period. Samurai warriors and ninjas were especially important during this time in Japanese history. Many samurai lived in castle towns which can still be explored today. One of the best places to immerse yourself into samurai life is the Kyoto Samurai and Ninja Museum.
This museum is designed for visitors both young and old to channel their inner warrior. On a guided tour of the museum, check out samurai artifacts such as Edo Period swords and decorative armor. Imagine yourself as a samurai, honored with protecting the ancient castles of Japan. Armor up for the Samurai Sword Experience and learn the ancient art of sword fighting from a samurai master, or learn how to use a traditional bow and arrow. You can even train as a ninja in the star throwing competition and blowgun activity.
Before heading back to modern-day Kyoto, be sure to grab a souvenir photo of you and your family dressed in samurai or ninja attire. Cool down from your training session with a tea ceremony at the nearby Maikoya townhouse to experience the more delicate side of Japanese culture.
Colonial Williamsburg (1600 CE)
Much like Japan, the United States offers a rich history to explore. If you’ve ever wondered what America was like during the early years while it was still a British colony, visit Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia. Colonial Williamsburg, “the largest outdoor living museum in the country,” is a working colonial town. There is something for every visitor to enjoy and online you can find a variety of itineraries to help plan your visit. Notable tours include the Ghost Tour Junior (perfect for kids) and the Actors’ Lament, an interactive reenactment of a touring theater company.
You can get around Williamsburg on foot, by carriage or wagon. Explore the Governor’s Palace and Gardens to relive British royal life, and be sure to stop by the kitchen to see what’s cooking. Listen to the military band play as they march through the city streets.
To see how commoners lived, check out the farms and gardens, the apothecary, and the many shops that served the townspeople. Whether you’re interested in fashion, woodwork, animals, or metalwork, you’ll meet friendly historical figures going about their daily lives. You can also stroll through the Arboretum and Art Museums to see the colonial period through artistic eyes. Experience the true diversity of the colonial period through African American and Native American experiences. After a day of exploration, feast on colonial favorites at Chowning’s Tavern.
Tea-riffic China (1700 CE)
Another place to get a taste of the past is the Longjing Tea Village located in Hangzhou, China. Tea was first developed in China, and has held a special place in Chinese culture for thousands of years. Longjing tea is also known as dragon well tea courtesy of local legends, including that of a water dragon who saved the town and its tea plants from drought. As China’s most important tea, Longjing tea became popular in the 1700s when the Emperor Qianglong discovered its healing properties.
Today you can visit the Longjing Tea Village to sample Chinese tea culture. The village is located near the West Lake, one of Hangzhou’s natural wonders. When you arrive, begin your journey at the China National Tea Museum. Wander through the halls of ancient tea pots and observe the tea making process. Then, head outside and explore the surrounding tea plantations. Across the rolling hills, take in the sweet scent of the tea leaves. You can even visit the very same tea plants cultivated by the Emperor Qianlong. Tea ceremonies are offered for visitors to sample the sweet Longjing green tea. As you roam the village streets, stop by a local tea shop to pick up some Longjing tea for the road.
The Royal Road of Brazil (1700 CE)
When the Portuguese discovered gold, diamonds, and other precious stones in Brazil, the country’s royal family mapped out a transportation route from the mining towns all the way to the port of Rio de Janeiro. The mined goods would then be shipped back to Portugal. Today, the Estrada Real, or Royal Way, is one of Brazil’s most unique destinations.
Wooden signs mark important points along the Estrada, and visitors can even get their own Estrada Real passport which will be stamped along the trail. Travelers can traverse all four paths along the trail or spend a day in one of Estrada’s historic cities. One of the most famous cities along the Estrada is Ouro Preto, located in the state of Minas Gerais. Ouro Preto is the perfect place to experience the history and culture of Brazil.
Nestled on a picturesque mountaintop lies this historic city. Stroll the cobblestone streets and breathe in the fresh mountain air. Wherever you are in this hilly city, you’ll see breathtaking churches perched high above. Located in Plaza Tiradentes is the wonderful Museu da Inconfidência. This museum houses artifacts and art from Portugal’s royal family and tells the story of Brazil’s journey towards independence.
As you uncover Brazil’s history, picture yourself posing for a painted portrait just like the royal family. Grab a traditional lunch of feijoada and warm up with a delicious hot chocolate at Chocolates Ouro Preto. No matter how you choose to experience the Estrada Real, it will forever leave a stamp on your heart.
Belle Epoque France (1870 CE – 1914 CE)
It’s no secret that Paris is home to countless historical attractions. Perhaps its most amusing is the Musée des Arts Forains, or Museum of the Fairground Arts. According to antique collector Jean Paul Favand, “laughter and parties did not have a museum, yet so many are dedicated to wars.” Favand understood the importance of joy and fun, so he founded a museum dedicated to wonder and magic.
During the late 1800s and early 1900s, France experienced a Belle Epoque, or Beautiful Age, in which economic prosperity allowed many French people to visit fun fairs, theaters, and other attractions. Favand’s museum houses attractions from France’s Belle Epoque and offers a unique twist for visitors. Everything in the museum, from vintage games to the bicycle carousel, can be played or ridden by visitors.
The museum is often booked for special events, so take care to plan your visit when it’s open to the public. The best way to experience the museum is on a guided tour through its four section, La Rue Jardin (The Garden Street), Les Salons Vénitiens (The Venetian Rooms), Le Théâtre du Merveilleux (The Theater of Marvels), and the titular Musée des Arts Forains.
On your tour, you’ll discover a secret garden dripping with vines and purple flowers and filled with hidden curiosities. The Venetian Rooms, designed in the style of Venetian Palaces, welcome you to the past with gondola rides and an opera theater. Enjoy carnival tunes in the ballroom of the Theater of Marvels, and challenge fellow visitors to a round of the race horse game. In the Musée des Arts Forains section, put your pedal to the medal on the bicycle carousel or trot along on the horse carousel. While the museum is a great place to visit any time of year, every Christmas the Festival du Merveilleux transforms into a wintery wonderland. Whenever you visit the Musée des Arts Forains, you’re sure to find magic at every turn.
Time travel may still be the stuff of science fiction, but historical tours are a fantastic way to bring the past to life. No matter where you go, the wonders of history are always waiting to be rediscovered.