tourism involving travel to sites related to history and its sites of past events
Travel topics > Cultural attractions > Historical travel

Historical travel includes various kinds of destinations, from Stone Age cave paintings to Cold War installations of the late 20th century. History is a central focus for some travellers and some destinations, and almost every traveller in most places will at least have a look at some old buildings or the local museums.

Understand Edit

The early history of life on Earth is studied in paleontology, mainly through fossils. The earliest known fossils of the genus Homo date back at least 4.4 million years. Our species, Homo sapiens, is thought to have evolved between one and two hundred thousand years ago. Some homo sapiens migrated from Africa to the Middle East about 100,000 years ago and to Europe about 60,000 years ago. For purposes of this article, anything after 50,000 BCE counts as history. Naturally this overlaps considerably with our archaeology article.

Oldowan hand axe

The boundary between paleontology and archaeology, which deals mainly with the study of ancient human artifacts, is not at all well-defined. The oldest known tools made by hominids — Oldowan stone tools excavated in the Olduvai Gorge of Tanzania — are about 2.6 million years old. Australopithecines, of the genus which included direct ancestors of Homo, had cruder stone tools starting at least 3.3 million years ago. Controlled use of fire is apparently at least a million years old.

The boundary between prehistory and history is commonly drawn at the first local written records, which date back to around 3,000 BCE in Ancient Egypt and Ancient Mesopotamia, but as recently as the 19th century in some other parts of the world. Widespread literacy was rare in most of history and even when commoners could read and write, they often had no or limited access to durable material on which to write. As such, the written record is often focused on what the ruling elites deemed noteworthy and what can be learned about the everyday lives of common people is often only revealed indirectly or through archeology. "Oral history" or what was transmitted from generation to generation through poems, songs, legends and other means of storytelling was often dismissed by "Western" historiography but is now seen as a vital source of historical information instead of or in addition to the written record. The distinction of history and pre-history by the availability of writing alone is thus no longer unanimously accepted and other markers are used as well. Pottery, the wheel, the first domesticated animals (dogs), and the first evidence of crop cultivation all appeared between 30,000 and 20,000 BCE. A number of other important developments took place between about 12,000 BCE and 3,000 — the transition of some societies from purely hunting/gathering to being based on agriculture, irrigation, cities, metalworking, and domestication of many more animals. During the civilizations of Greece and Rome, historians demonstrated their interest in history with contributions such as the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, a list of important works of art and architecture in the region.

The line between "historical" and "modern" is arbitrary; some draw it around the time of the European Renaissance or slightly later with the great voyages of discovery starting with Columbus and Vasco da Gama. For travel guide purposes it can be convenient to draw it at the Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries, when cities, industries and railroads began to expand fast, displacing older structures and rural folk culture. Surviving settlements and city districts from before the mid-19th century which were designed before and survived the advent of cars and trains, referred to as old towns, are typically smaller and more compact (and thus walkable) than modern cities. However, during the 19th and 20th centuries, older styles of art, architecture and furnishing have been revived and reproduced, so that many buildings that look ancient might be less than 100 years old. There might even be a (neo)Gothic train station or an Ancient Greek-style building in the Americas.

Deserted settlements can be archaeological sites or ghost towns. Pioneer villages can be authentic or artificial. In some places you quite literally trip over historical remnants, whereas other historic sites have been painstakingly preserved and restored. While the latter is usually more interesting it may seem "fake", "sterile" or even "artificial" when done badly. Also — with few exceptions — there are fewer lines (if any) for historical places that people actually still live in (like old towns) or use for their original purpose (like many churches / mosques / synagogues / temples) than for museums or "theme parks".

Nostalgia tourism aims at recent history, remembered by people alive today (especially the middle-aged and elderly). As of the 2020s, it includes World War II, as well as postwar United States, Cold War Europe and the Soviet Union.

Some historical sites are threatened, either for natural causes or human-influenced ones like war or neglect. As of the 2020s, coastal cities such as Venice and New Orleans are sinking into the sea, ancient ruins in Iraq and Syria were damaged by wars of the 21st century, and many indigenous cultures around the world have only a handful of survivors left. Future generations are in no way guaranteed to experience these places as they are today. Responsible travel can provide incentives to save them, or at least their memory.

Continents and regions Edit

Africa Edit

Africa is the wellspring of the human race and therefore the site of the oldest finds of human remains, in locations ranging from South Africa to Ethiopia. See paleontology.

Africa was also home to some of the world's oldest civilizations, particularly Ancient Egypt but also Nubia and Ethiopia; see Ancient African nations for an overview. A bit later in antiquity, Carthage dominated much of North Africa and was then conquered by the Romans, who did major construction projects in their African provinces as they did in all other parts of their empire, leaving behind substantial ruins. In addition, there were great empires in both the Sahel and Southern Africa in the centuries before European colonialism; some of these relics have been vandalized by Salafist extremists in the 21st century, such as those in northern Mali, but a lot is still standing. Perhaps the two most prominent pre-colonial sites in sub-Saharan Africa are Timbuktu in Mali and the Great Zimbabwe in Zimbabwe.

Arab and Berber/Moorish civilization also has left deep and lasting marks on North Africa, and the Arabs, especially the Sultanate of Oman, had far-flung tributary states down the East African coast, also known as the Swahili Coast, notably including Zanzibar, Kilwa Kisiwani and Mombasa. There are also many relics of European colonialism, including slave forts and other forts on the coasts. Locations associated with the trans-Atlantic slave trade, World War II battles, the fights for independence, and the fight against Apartheid in South Africa can also be visited; see 20th-century South Africa for the latter.

Great Zimbabwe is a remnant of a vast empire in Southern Africa

Antarctica Edit

The only unsettled continent has very few traces of human history. Some Antarctic islands, such as the South Georgia Island and South Shetland Islands, have remnants of the whaling industry. The remains of expeditions of the "heroic age" of Antarctic exploration can still be seen and some have been actively preserved or relocated to museums in Europe and elsewhere. Many former research stations have been abandoned to be "swallowed" by snow and ice, and there aren't always many traces visible.

Asia Edit

While the Great Wall of China does not live up to the reputation to be visible from the Moon, it is one of the world's most impressive structures.

Asia had some of the world's oldest civilizations, including those in Ancient Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley, Persia, Anatolia, Syria, Phoenicia, Israel, the Edomites and Moabites of Jordan, China, India and Java, to name a few. The Middle East contains the world's first cities; some old towns have been inhabited for three millennia or more. The Holy Land is sacred to Judaism, Christianity, Islam and the Bahá’í Faith.

Iran has one of the oldest histories on earth. You may have heard names of emperors like Cyrus the Great or Ardashir I. The Achaemenid Empire was a really big empire which consisted of many states. The Silk Road played a very important role in supporting the economy of empire. The official language of the various Persian empires was usually Persian.

The Asian nation that lacks archaeological relics is much more the exception than the rule. Much has been lost due to iconoclasm, such as in Malaysia several hundreds of years ago, when the relatively new Muslims destroyed Malay Hindu temples; in Saudi Arabia within the last few years, when numerous historical sites were razed in Mecca and other places; in Afghanistan, when statues of the Buddha that were thousands of years old were dynamited by the Taliban; and in Iraq and Syria in the first decade of the 21st century, when the Islamic State group destroyed many of the larger Babylonian and other historical relics they can get their hands on and spirited many of the smaller relics out of the country to sell on the black market.

For relatively recent history, the "Hippie Trail" of the 1960s and 70s is covered in Istanbul to New Delhi overland. Parts of what was the usual route back in the day are currently too dangerous, but the journey is still possible using alternate routes.

Middle East Edit

East and Central Asia Edit

South and Southeast Asia Edit

Europe Edit

The Colosseum in Rome is an icon of the Roman Empire.
See also: European history

Europe has been more thoroughly excavated by archaeologists than any other continent. Southern Europe has archaeological sites from Ancient Greece, the Roman Empire and other ancient civilizations. Central Europe in particular is filled with medieval castles and early-modern palaces, with Old towns across the whole continent. Historical tourism itself has a long history in Europe; educational journeys such as the Grand Tour have been customary since the 17th century.

Europe's heritage has been scarred by war, especially World War II. The Holocaust was not just a genocidal campaign against the Jews; the Nazis also set out to methodically destroy Jewish heritage. Many beautiful synagogues were destroyed and never rebuilt due to - among other things - lack of a Jewish congregation, lack of funds or personal and institutional continuities. Jewish cemeteries, too, were vandalized. As the Second World War left many cities bombed beyond recognition, many city planners saw their opportunity to replace the "old fashioned" old towns with (in today's eyes) bland 1950s architecture and big streets and overpasses to make these places "ready for the automobile". Although the worst excesses have been turned back, many historical buildings that survived the wars were torn down in this somewhat iconoclastic frenzy.

Pan-European Edit

Central and Eastern Europe Edit

Nordic countries Edit

Northwestern Europe Edit

Southern Europe Edit

Oceania Edit

The Moai statues of Easter Island are iconic remnants of a lost civilization.

The first humans arrived at New Guinea and Australia 65,000 years ago; this places their indigenous cultures among the oldest known on Earth. Without writing or metalworking, their heritage is sourced from their artwork and oral tradition. See Indigenous Australian culture. The first settlers of the Solomon Islands arrived more than 30,000 years ago. The general term for these ethnic groups is Melanesians.

The rest of Oceania has a relatively short human history, though. The Austronesians began migrating into the Pacific around 3,000 BCE and were the first people to arrive in Polynesia, from 1,000 BCE onwards. They reached Hawaii in the 4th century CE, and New Zealand in the 13th century (see Maori culture), making the North and South Islands the last major landmasses on Earth to be settled (other than Antarctica). Oceania was also among the last regions to be charted and colonised by Europeans.

North America Edit

The September 11 Memorial in New York is one of the world's first monuments for an event of the 21st century.
See also: North American history, Indigenous cultures of North America

North American prehistory has left behind sites such as the New Mexico Pueblos and Ohio prehistoric sites. In addition, in Mexico and Central America, especially Guatemala, there are very impressive remains of the Mayan civilization, particularly quite a number of pyramids.

Sites associated with written history for the most part begin with early contact between the indigenous peoples of North America and European colonists. Often the indigenous were displaced by European settlers and sometimes killed (for example, the infamous Trail of Tears).

Early colonial sites are often preserved as "old towns" in Atlantic coastal cities such as Quebec City, Havana, San Juan, or St. Augustine. But there are also old cities inland, such as Santa Fe, New Mexico, Guanajuato and Granada (Nicaragua).

Early settlements that did not develop into major cities are often preserved (or reconstructed) as outdoor museums or "pioneer villages", like Louisbourg, Plymouth (Massachusetts), and Williamsburg.

Military tourism on this continent includes the American Revolution, War of 1812, the Mexican War of Independence, the American Civil War, the Mexican Revolution and the various "Indian Wars" between the colonists and the indigenous peoples.

African-American history includes sites related to the Atlantic slave trade as well as the Underground Railroad: multiple routes for smuggling slaves who had escaped the southern US across the northern states into what later became Canada (at the time British North America) or other non-US territory. Active primarily in the 1850s, when US federal law left slaves who had escaped to free states in immediate danger of recapture by slave catchers unless they left the US entirely.

History-focused itineraries include the Camino Real, the Royal Road linking the 21 Spanish missions of California; the Lewis and Clark Trail leading across the Western United States, following the route of explorers Lewis and Clark; the Oregon Trail which took settlers to the Pacific coast; the Ruta del Tránsito, the historic route from east to west across North America that passed through Nicaragua; Route 66, which existed from 1926-1985 but continues to be marketed for nostalgia tourism; and the American Industry Tour from 17th-century Massachusetts to 20th-century Chicago.

For the politically-inclined there is also the chance to see sites related to the Presidents of the United States.

Mexico history series Edit

Some of these topics overlap a bit with articles in other countries, especially those related to indigenous cultures, which share some stories with Canada, the United States, and Central America (especially Guatemala). Events during Mexico's Colonial era and the War of Independence often hinge on events in Spain and its empire.

United States history series Edit

Note that most of these topics are not exclusive to the United States. Indigenous cultures did not conform to modern boundaries and thus many were equally present in Canada and Mexico. Colonial boundaries were also different to modern ones: British colonial history includes Bermuda and Nova Scotia as much as the "13 colonies" of U.S. school textbooks. The American War of Independence was partially fought in present-day Canada. Even after the establishment of the modern boundaries, trends and events touched multiple countries; those interested in the Old West will also find cowboy culture in Northern Mexico and the Canadian Prairies.

South America Edit

Machu Picchu, the Lost Inca City.

Many people travel to Peru every year to see the Inca Trail and other historical sites from the Inca Empire. Other historical sites include the remnants of the Falklands War and the history of the Jesuit missions in Paraguay. Beautiful colonial old towns can be found all over the continent, especially in Argentina and Chile, whose mineral wealth made them some of the richest countries in the world during the early 20th century.

Themes Edit

Three fragments of the Epic of Gilgamesh, exhibited in the Oriental Institute Museum, University of Chicago

The great epics Edit

Some of the oldest and most famous works of literature are epic poems about great heroes. In all cases there is some dispute among scholars about the historical authenticity of these stories, and about the dates of both the events described and the composition of the text.

The Epic of Gilgamesh is the oldest known piece of literature. It tells tales of a Sumerian king who probably ruled in the first half of the 3rd millennium BCE and of a great flood. The best-known version was likely written around 1200 BCE. While a surprising number of copies survive for a text of that age, they are not all written in the same language and sometimes disagree significantly on details.

Other great epics were written a few hundred years BCE and describe events around 1000 BCE:

  • Homer recounts the story of the Trojan War in two epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey. Today Troy is an archaeological site which attracts tourists.
  • The Mahabarata is a great Indian epic. Perhaps the most famous passage in India literature is the Baghavad Gita, a dialog between the warrior Arjuna and the God Krishna which takes place just before the climactic battle. That battle was fought at Kurukshetra, which now attracts both pilgrims and tourists.
  • The Ramayana is another great Indian epic. An epic battle was fought between the forces of the hero, Rama, and the villain, Ravana, on the island of Lanka, which is widely believed to be modern-day Sri Lanka.
  • The Bible is a more complex set of books than can be encompassed by the term "epic", but parts of it are basically Hebrew epics. The Torah (Pentateuch or Five Books of Moses) was first written down in full in the 6th century BCE, with fragments having been found that date to the 7th century BCE. The Exodus of Moses is one of the most famous stories of the Old Testament. See Holy Land, Judaism and Christianity for Biblical destinations.

Various Norse sagas probably originated as oral tradition around 1000 CE and were written down a few centuries later. Other Europeans also had epics, such as the Old English Beowulf.

When reading any epic, keep in mind that most were passed down orally for centuries before being written down. Also, many tended to exaggerate numbers, either just to make a better story or to make rulers look impressive with great army sizes, harem sizes and feats of city building, so the "real deal" when finally verified by archeologists can fall short of the epic scales of the tales

Espionage history Edit

See also: Spies and secrets

Espionage has existed since ancient times, and sometimes made or broken the fate of nations.

Science and technology tourism Edit

See also: Science tourism, Industrial tourism, Nuclear tourism

Science tourism is for those with an interest in science, including science museums as well as live science research centers and exploratory missions. Closely related is industrial tourism, factory tours and museums describing manufacturing in various time periods from the start of the Industrial Revolution to the modern era.

Industrial tourism includes visits to historical or present-day industrial sites and museums. Mining tourism and certain underground works are a subset of industrial tourism. It is often related to the history of transportation, with maritime history, steam power, heritage railways, automotive history, aviation history and space flight sites.

History of organized labor describes the first trade unions and their struggle to improve working conditions.

Nuclear tourism is for those with an interest in the nuclear industry from either a science or military perspective. The locations can either contain live reactors or be otherwise of interest from a historical point of view.

Mathematics tourism includes places which inspired the understanding of numbers, geometry, and mathematical structure.

History of justice Edit

See also: History of justice, Organized crime tourism

Judicial tourism includes visits to courthouses, police buildings, prisons, crime scenes, and other places related to the legal system.

Military tourism Edit

See also: Military tourism, Police and military ceremonies

Military tourism is for those with an interest in current or historical military sites and facilities, including museums, battlefields, cemeteries and technology.

Exploration Edit

See also: In the footsteps of explorers

Retracing the voyages of the great explorers of old.

Many famous journeys are from Europe's Age of Discovery.

Philosophy tourism Edit

See also: Philosophy tourism

Philosophy tourism is for those with an interest in the history of philosophy, including historical residences of philosophers, museums, statues and places of burial.

Political history Edit

Monarchies, grand houses, legislative buildings, history of organized labour and United Nations are some themes for the history of government and politics.

See also Edit

This travel topic about Historical travel is a usable article. It touches on all the major areas of the topic. An adventurous person could use this article, but please feel free to improve it by editing the page.