We live in a great time for travel. Never in history has it been easier to reach near and far-flung places.

But, of course, the world hasn’t always been so accessible, so navigable. For every trail that exists today there was once an intrepid explorer who first blazed it.

In fact, some explorers did more than simply beat new tracks and chart new waters. Their endeavors were so groundbreaking, so revolutionary, they literally changed the world.

Here we pay homage to the 10 greatest expeditions of all time. For each one, we’ve named two places where you can follow in its footsteps.

NB: Our list contains only men purely because many of the greatest feats of human exploration were completed in times when women endured stifling social restrictions. Look out for our forthcoming post Top 10 female pioneering travelers!

Our featured image is the great explorer Christopher Columbus via Wikipedia.

Vasco da Gama sails to India

The expedition…

  • When: July 8, 1497 to Jan. 7, 1499 (549 days)
  • Endeavor: The Portuguese explorer commanded the first ships to sail directly to India from Europe. The total round-trip distance was greater than the circumference of the Earth.
  • Struggles: The outbound journey was quick and smooth at 32 days; the 132-day return leg, in contrast, was anything but. Sailing against the wind, more than half the crew was lost and only two of the four ships returned.
  • Legacy: Paved the way for a long-lasting European colonial empire in Asia. Opened trade between India and Europe by sea.

Where you can follow in the footsteps…

Lisbon, Portugal – Expedition set sail from the Portuguese capital

Kappad Beach, Kerala, India – The expedition landed on this vast beach 32 days later


Roald Amundsen wins the race to the South Pole

The expedition…

  • When: June 3, 1910 to Jan. 25, 1912 (602 days)
  • Endeavor: The Norwegian led the first team of explorers to reach the South Pole on Dec. 14, 1911, beating Scott’s famously doomed British Antarctic Expedition by 33 days.
  • Struggles: None: great preparation, quality equipment, appropriate clothing, dog handling skills and great proficiency in skiing ensured a relatively smooth and uneventful expedition.
  • Legacy: A number of locations in Antarctica are named after him, including the Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station, the Amundsen Sea and Amundsen Glacier.

Where you can follow in the footsteps…

Funchal, Portugal – Where Amundsen’s ship Fram resupplied en route to Antarctica

Antarctic Peninsula, Antarctica – Accessible by cruise ship, it’s the most-visited region of Antarctica


Sherpa Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary first to summit of Everest

The expedition…

  • When: Feb. 20, 1953 to July 1953 (132+ days).
  • Endeavor: The Nepali Sherpa and New Zealander undertook the first confirmed ascent of Everest (world’s highest peak) on May 29, 1953.
  • Struggles: On the morning of the historic ascent, Hillary awoke to find his boots frozen solid outside his tent – it took him two hours to defrost them.
  • Legacy: Nearly 2,000 climbers have reached the top of the Earth since Norgay and Hillary. The final technical section of Everest’s South ridge, a 40-foot rock wall, is named the Hillary Step.

Where you can follow in the footsteps…

Boudhanath stupa, Kathmandu, Nepal – Nepal’s capital, and the departure point for all trekkers and mountaineers heading to the Everest region

Modern Everest Base Camp, Nepal – As close as any trekker is allowed to get to the peak without a permit


Dr. David Livingstone’s search for the source of the Nile

The expedition…

  • When: January 1866 to  Oct. 23, 1871 (more than 2,100 days).
  • Endeavor: Flying in the face of received wisdom, Scotsman Livingstone sought to prove the source of the Nile lay south of Lake Victoria and Lake Albert.
  • Struggles: The expedition was beset by many problems: members of the party deserted him soon after the outset, supplies (medicines included) were stolen, he mistakenly concluded Lake Bangweulu was part of the Nile and he witnessed 400 Africans massacred by slave traders. Yet it was Livingstone’s failing personal health that ultimately curtailed his adventure. Having already survived pneumonia, severe cholera saw him abandon his mission at the shores of Lake Tanganyika.
  • Legacy: Though he did not complete his objective, Livingstone was the first Westerner to gaze upon now world-renowned locations like Victoria Falls and Lake Malawi. A month after his arrival at Lake Tanganyika, just short of six years since he last had contact with the outside world, he was tracked down by U.S. journalist Henry Morton Stanley who uttered the now famous line, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”

Where you can follow in the footsteps…

Victoria Falls/Mosi-oa-Tunya – Livingstone named his ‘discovery’ in honor of Queen Victoria, who reigned over the British Empire at the time

Lake Malawi – Livingstone reached here in 1859


Christopher Columbus’ first voyage to the West Indies

The expedition…

  • When: Aug. 3, 1492 to March 15, 1493 (225 days).
  • Endeavor: When the Ottoman Empire seized control of Constantinople (modern day Istanbul), Europeans were all of a sudden without safe land-based trade routes to China and India. Columbus resolved to find a new route via the Ocean Sea (today known as the Atlantic Ocean).
  • Struggles: His flagship the Santa María ran aground on Christmas Day 1492 on the northern shores of Hispaniola where it had to be abandoned. But that was far from his greatest mistake. Columbus will forever be known for one of the greatest navigational blunders of all time:
  • Legacy: He did not imagine any land existed in between his departure point in Spain (Palos de la Frontera) and Asia. However, unbeknownst to him, all four of his grand voyages failed to reach their destination, landing in various locations in what we now know as the West Indies, South America and Central America instead. To his death, Columbus asserted he had reached Asia.

Where you can follow in the footsteps…

The Bahamas – The first ‘New World’ land sighted by Columbus

Canary Islands – Columbus resupplied here en route to the West Indies


The Lewis and Clark Expedition

The expedition…

  • When: May 14, 1804 to Sept. 23, 1806 (863 days)
  • Endeavor: Americans Meriwether Lewis and William Clark set out to explore the United States’ new, recently acquired territory in the West. As well as establishing an American presence designed to ward off claims from European powers, they documented more than 200 plants and animals, and 72 native tribes. On Nov. 20, 1805, they became the first Americans to reach the Pacific Ocean by traveling overland across U.S. territory.
  • Struggles: Relatively few, though several of the team’s men were disciplined for dereliction of duties, and Lewis was accidentally shot by another member of the party a month before the expedition was completed.
  • Legacy: Their endeavors were, and remain, emblematic of core American values like expansion, development and the taming of nature.

Where you can follow in the footsteps…

Columbia River, Washington, U.S. – Lewis and Clark traveled down the Columbia River on the final leg of their adventure to the Pacific Ocean

Lolo Pass, Bitterroot Mountains, U.S. – One of the most challenging stages of their route

Captain James Cook’s voyage for the Australis Incognita

The expedition…

  • When: Aug. 26, 1768 to July 12, 1771 (1,051 days)
  • Endeavor: Many authoritative people in 18th century Europe believed a large continent existed at the lower reaches of the Southern Hemisphere (Antarctica wasn’t discovered until the middle of the 19th century). It was dubbed Terra Australis (meaning “South Land”). Englishman Cook was commissioned by King George III to seek evidence of it. On the round trip to and from Plymouth, the voyage sailed around Cape Horn, through the southern Pacific, circumnavigated New Zealand, passed the Great Barrier Reef and rounded the Cape of Good Hope.
  • Struggles: The expedition was unable to complete its primary objective of determining the distance between Venus and the Sun, natives stole equipment from a supply fort in Tahiti, and his ship Endeavor ran aground on the Great Barrier Reef, only narrowly avoiding sinking.
  • Legacy: Mapped the entire New Zealand coastline with only minor errors – a remarkable feat for the time. Cook’s landing at Australia’s Botany Bay sparked British interest in the territory, eventually leading to its colonization.

Where you can follow in the footsteps…

Tahiti – Where the voyage observed the transit of Venus across the Sun

The Coromandel, New Zealand – Striking green peninsula first mapped by Cook

Charles Darwin and the voyage of the Beagle

The expedition…

  • When: Dec. 27, 1831 to Oct. 2, 1836 (1,742 days)
  • Endeavor: This, the second of HMS Beagle’s three great voyages (a circumnavigation of the globe), primarily aimed to survey southern South America. Yet it has become much more famous for the impact it had on one of its passengers – a young and recently graduated naturalist by the name of Charles Darwin. By the end of the nearly five-year long expedition, three and half of which he’d spent on land, Englishman Darwin had made his name as a formidable geologist and fossil collector.
  • Struggles: Darwin had to spend a month in bed in 1834 after falling ill. Earlier in the voyage, the ship’s artist had to be replaced due to health problems.
  • Legacy: Darwin’s detailed observations were the cornerstone of his theories of natural selection and evolution, ideas upon which many base their understanding of life.

Where you can follow in the footsteps…

Galápagos Islands – The unique bird, reptile and amphibian species here were hugely informative to Darwin’s theories

Sydney, Australia – Darwin admired the burgeoning, bustling city when he landed in early 1836


The Travels of Marco Polo

The expedition…

  • When: 1271 to 1295 (exact dates unknown – around 9,000 days)
  • Endeavor: Departing Venice in 1271, 17-year-old Italian Polo set off with his father and uncle for what became an extremely lengthy exploration and adventure through Asia. All three returned to Venice 24 years later, with many treasures in tow. Having seen Asia, Persia, China and Indonesia, it’s estimated they had traveled around 15,000 miles in all.
  • Struggles: Polo’s greatest struggle came after his return (see below).
  • Legacy: After returning to Italy, Marco Polo was captured and sent to prison. There, he regaled stories of his adventures to the Italian romance writer Rustichello da Pisa, who later turned them into the book The Travels of Marco Polo. Produced before the age of printing, it was a rare popular success in the 13th and 14th centuries. The book’s reach went beyond mere entertainment; its influence can be seen in the makeup of what were considered authoritative maps of Asia in the 15th century. Polo’s descriptions of the Far East also famously inspired Christopher Columbus to travel there.

Where you can follow in the footsteps…

Venice, Italy – Marco Polo was born and bred in Venice, and it’s the place where stories of his travels first reached the public consciousness

Summer Palace, Beijing, China – Polo claimed he was a special envoy for Kublai Khan, who ruled China and Mongolia from Beijing for 17 years


Ferdinand Magellan and the First Circumnavigation of the Earth

The expedition…

  • When: Aug. 10, 1519 to Sept. 8, 1522 (1,126 days)
  • Endeavor: In the early 16th century, Portugal controlled the eastward spice trade routes around Africa. Living in self-imposed exile from his native country Portugal, Magellan convinced the Spanish king to back his attempt to sail the westward route to the heart of the spice trade (modern day Indonesia). Magellan’s expedition was trailblazing in every sense of the word: It was the first to sail from the Atlantic to the Pacific; the first to cross the Pacific; and most importantly, the first to complete a circumnavigation of the Earth.
  • Struggles: The voyage was beset by the kind of misfortune that often accompanies such a groundbreaking endeavor: mutiny, scurvy, rough weather and supply shortages all decimated the crew. Only one of the original five ships completed the mission, and Magellan wasn’t aboard: he had been killed a little more than a year earlier while intervening in battle between rival chieftains in the Philippines.
  • Legacy: Magellan’s voyage proved beyond doubt that the planet was round, revolutionizing astronomy and geography, not to mention science and religion, in the process.

Where you can follow in the footsteps…

Plaza de España, Seville, Spain – Departure and arrival point of the voyage

The Philippines – The islands where Magellan met his maker

Written by insider city guide series Hg2 | A Hedonist’s guide to…

About the author

Brett AckroydBrett hopes to one day reach the shores of far-flung Tristan da Cunha, the most remote of all the inhabited archipelagos on Earth…as to what he’ll do when he gets there, he hasn’t a clue. Over the last 10 years, London, New York, Cape Town and Pondicherry have all proudly been referred to as home. Now it’s Copenhagen’s turn, where he lends his travel expertise to

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