Virtual reality isn’t new, but this felt like the year it finally arrived.

By Tanner Saunders
October 12, 2020
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As the pandemic forced travelers to stay home, virtual reality quickly became a portal to the world. Consider Google Arts & Culture, with its photos and 360-degree videos of more than 2,500 landmarks, including the Louvre, the Tate Modern, and U.S. national parks like Volcanoes and Kenai Fjords. While those virtual tours were popular before global lockdowns began, says Google’s Simon Delacroix, the company rushed to add new experiences this spring. In April, for example, Google helped the New York Philharmonic rescue its in-person music festival “Mahler’s New York,” putting YouTube concerts and walking tours related to the Austrian composer online.

The Royal Chapel at the Palace of Versailles, as seen on Google Arts & Culture.
COURTESY OF GOOGLE ARTS & CULTURE

Airbnb, too, quickly adapted to our homebound reality, transitioning its popular guided trips hosted by users, known as Airbnb Experiences, into digital formats. “We wanted to make sure that we could really transport people with an online experience and not lose the magic of connection and authenticity,” says Catherine Powell, Airbnb’s Global Head of Hosting. Among the options: making tacos with a chef in Mexico City, checking out street art across Buenos Aires, or mixing up sangria with drag queens in Lisbon.

Digital Airbnb Experiences now include taco making and wine tasting.
Courtesy of Airbnb

Airlines have jumped on the trend. Emirates has created virtual tours of its Airbus A380 planes, so you can sip a real cocktail at home while pretending you’re at the onboard bar. Hawaiian Airlines launched a series of video tutorials, teaching the basics of the islands’ native language and how to make poke bowls like the ones served at Honolulu’s Koko Head Café.

Even bucket-list experiences can now be livestreamed: Manitoba’s Churchill Northern Studies Center put the northern lights online, and Egypt’s Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities recently released a virtual tour of the tomb of Ramses VI.

And while nothing can compare with visiting Egypt’s Valley of the Kings in person, virtual tours promise to be a great equalizer. When all you need to see the world is Wi-Fi, your choices for escape are limitless.

A version of this story first appeared in the October 2020 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline Almost as Good as Being There.