The famous travelers of all time


Ernest Shackleton. Antarctica’s most famous explorer (though Roald Amundsen was the first to reach it in 1911), Ernest Shackleton is synonymous with Antarctic exploration. He traversed the continent many times and is most famous for the 1914 voyage that trapped his ship Endurance in ice for 10 months.

The 10 greatest travelers of all time

10 APHRA BEHN (1640-1689)

First Englishwoman to make a living by the pen; possibly the world’s greatest armchair traveler Nominated by Dea Birkett, travel writer: “Aphra Behn was groundbreaking, claiming to have sailed to Suriname in the 1660s. Yet 300 years after writing Oroonoko, her powerful anti-slavery novel set in Suriname, we still don’t know if she went to South America or not. She started the tradition of European travelers grossly exaggerating and lying about what they’d done. We’ve been fictionalizing ever since.”


Affable Python and actor who went from spoofing Alan Whicker to replacing him as TV’s foremost traveler

Nominated by Charlotte Hindle, Lonely Planet author: “He’s done more than anyone else to bring the world into everyone’s living room.”

Traveling style: Intrepid, good-humored Englishman abroad, confessed erotomaniac – one who suffers from the compulsive urge to travel.

Places visited: Around the world in 80 days, pole to pole, full circle, across the Sahara and through the Himalaya.

Hardships suffered: Cracked ribs, altitude sickness, getting a cut-throat shave from a blind barber, being mistaken for Eric Idle, having his car rocked by an angry mob.

Changed-the-world rating: The surges in bookings that follow his televised travels are known as the “Palin effect”. Travel on TV once meant Judith Chalmers wishing you were there; Palin turned travel into a prime-time attraction and made the world a more exciting, accessible, place.

8 YURI GAGARIN (1934-1968)

Starman – the first man in space – who became the man who fell to earth, dying in a crash on a routine flight

Nominated by Mark Ellingham, Rough Guide’s founder: “He took the greatest leap into the unknown since Columbus – or at least since Laika, Sputnik 2’s dog.”

Traveling style: Focused and fearless. On 12 April 1961, Yuri was blasted into space in crude terms – in a seat on top of a tin can, which was itself on top of a bomb.

Places visited: Around the Earth and 315km above it.

Hardships suffered: In training, he withstood 13Gs of force in the centrifuge and sat in a dark, silent room for 24 hours; being grounded after his historic flight drove him to drink.

Changed-the-world rating: Fuelled the space race. With space tourism still somewhere between a prophecy and a joke, we haven’t seen the full impact of his heroism.

7 FRIDTJOF NANSEN (1861-1930)

Skier, oceanographer, humanitarian, the godfather of polar exploration; has an asteroid named after him

Nominated by Pen Hadow, explorer: “Nansen was the first to cross Greenland’s ice cap and the Arctic Ocean, and sailed further north than man had been before.”

Traveling style: Brave but not reckless – he never lost a single man nor a major piece of equipment.

Places visited: Skied across Norway, crossed Greenland and traveled 255km further north than any man had been.

Hardships suffered: Endured nine winter months with a colleague in a hut made of stones and walrus hides in Franz Josef Land, eating polar bear and walrus.

Changed-the-world rating: Technologically revolutionized polar exploration, inventing a cooker and water bottle still used today.

6 CHARLES DARWIN (1809-1882)

Founder of evolutionary theory

Nominated by William Gray, TV presenter, and writer: “Darwin discovered many species, while his observations during his voyage on the Beagle formed the bedrock of his theory of evolution through natural selection.”

Traveling style: Argumentative, determined, blessed with an inexhaustible curiosity.

Places visited: Across the Atlantic, Pacific, both coasts of South America, remote islands such as the Galapagos and Tahiti; he also rode across the Argentinian plains, hiked up mountains and trekked through the Peruvian desert.

Hardships suffered: Stomach pains, vomiting, heart palpitations, boils, storms and revolution in Buenos Aires.

Changed-the-world rating: He changed the way we think.


The most controversial explorer in history

Nominated by Bill Bryson: “Christopher Columbus didn’t discover America, but he opened the door to the European exploration of two mighty continents.”

Traveling style: Visionary, fearless, neurotic, ruthless. Stopped traveling only when mortally ill.

Places visited: Four voyages across the Atlantic, around the Mediterranean and, possibly, to Iceland.

Hardships suffered: Arthritis, flu, temporary blindness, fever, bleeding eyes, malnutrition, insomnia.

Changed-the-world rating: “He was head of the horde that introduced yellow fever, dengue, malaria, smallpox, measles, diphtheria, typhoid, and a few others to the Americas,” says the explorer Dr. Jane Wilson-Howarth. “In exchange, they brought back syphilis.” Columbus paved the way for Spain’s global empire, genocidal conflict with the indigenous cultures, slavery and the European settlement of North America.

4 IBN BATTUTA (1304-1368 OR 1377)

A medieval geographer who made Marco Polo look like someone who ought to get out more

Susan Spano of the Los Angeles Times says: “His tale is a wild but true yarn that surpasses that of Marco Polo.”

Traveling style: A charming freeloader, resilient, brave, a bit of a fussbudget and teller of tall tales.

Places visited: Travelled more than 120,000km, through regions that, today, comprise 44 countries, from Italy to Indonesia, Timbuktu to Shanghai.

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Hardships suffered: Muggings, attacks by pirates, was held hostage, once hid in a swamp for a week without food.

Changed-the-world rating: He was the last great Muslim geographer. His work offers an unparalleled insight into the 14th-century Muslim world and a rare perspective on the medieval empire of Mali.

3 SIR RICHARD BURTON (1821-1890)

Diplomat, fencer, and explorer; a man of towering intellect

Nominated by John Gimlette, travel writer: “While others traveled to blow the family cash, for Sir Richard Burton it was all an exercise incomprehension. He constantly challenged convention, and left his readers gasping.”

Traveling style: “Disloyal, waspish, foul-mouthed, scruffy, drunken and misogynistic, he was the worst of traveling companions,” says Gimlette. But he was seldom short of courage, ideas or a word – he knew 30 languages and 60 sounds in the vocabulary of monkeys.

Places visited: India, Arabia, East Africa, Fernando Po, Brazil, Syria, the US West, and Trieste.

Hardships suffered: A spear struck through his jaw, syphilis, malaria, rheumatic ophthalmia, attacked by bandits, smoked too much opium and was circumcised to make his disguise as a Muslim more convincing.

Changed-the-world rating: Burton may have been the first modern anthropologist, and he helped John Hanning Speke to discover the source of the Nile. His feat in becoming only the second European to visit Mecca inspired countless explorers. His translation of the Arabian Nights opened up a mysterious – and still misunderstood – culture to the West.

2 XUANZANG (602-644 OR 664)

The Chinese Buddhist monk who went on the mother of all pilgrimages and pioneered travel writing

Nominated by Michael Palin: “Xuanzang traveled alone on a pilgrimage to discover the origins of Buddhism. The scope, scale, and significance of these travels for Chinese and Indian history have never been equaled.”

Traveling style: “He was curious, courteous, determined, intelligent and courageous,” says Palin.

Places visited: Xian, the deserts and mountains of western China, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, all of India.

Hardships suffered: hunger strikes, often caught by bandits, nearly died of thirst, survived an avalanche.

Changed-the-world rating: “He left a priceless legacy in the record of his journeys and translations of Buddhist writings that might otherwise have been lost,” says Palin.

1 CAPTAIN JAMES COOK (1728-1779)

An indefatigable explorer who had all the essential traveler’s virtues – until he went a bit funny at the end

Nominated by Sara Wheeler, travel writer: “Captain Cook discovered more of the earth’s surface than any other man and excelled as a scientist, cartographer, and surveyor. He was bad-tempered – I like a touch of clay feet in a hero.”

Travelling style: Precise – an excellent navigator, he always drew up accurate charts; indomitable – when his ship, the Endeavour, ran aground in the Coral Sea, he beached and repaired it; shrewd – he averted scurvy by forcing his crew to eat fruit and sauerkraut; open-minded – his notes show genuine interest in other cultures.

Places visited: He circumnavigated the globe twice, visited all seven continents and crossed the Arctic and Antarctic circles.

Hardships suffered: Sailed with Captain Bligh, recovered from biliary colic by eating stew made from a ship’s dog; was clubbed to death in Hawaii.

Changed-the-world rating: By finding Australia and mapping New Zealand, Captain Cook essentially created the map of the Pacific we know today. He also anticipated ethnology and anthropology – and, arguably, independent travel. His aim to go “farther than any man has been before me but only as far as I think it possible for a man to go” is an inspiration to every traveler.

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Captain Sebastian and Magellan started their journey on September 20th, 1519 and traveled together the half of the world until Magellan got killed in the Philippines. However, historians, for some reason, call Magellan to be the first.


Who is the ?

No list of famous adventurers would be complete without the likes of Bear Grylls, Aron Ralston, and Steve Irwin. These famous adventurers’ names are widely known and regarded as brave and daring men and women who are willing to push themselves in the pursuit of a great adventure.


Jeanne Baret (1740-1807)

Colour portrait of Jeanne Baret

Baret is recognized as the first woman to circumnavigate the globe – but she had to do it disguised as a man. She joined the world expedition of Admiral Louis-Antoine de Bougainville from 1766 to 1769. The French Navy prohibited women on its ships, but that didn’t stop Jeanne. She bound her breasts with linen bandages and became Jean Baret. She enlisted as valet and assistant to the expedition’s naturalist Philibert Commerçon and traveled on the vessel with 300 men. Expedition accounts differ on when her true gender was discovered. But, by the time she returned to France, Jeanne had seen the world, defied conventions and earned a place in history.

Lady Hester Stanhope (1776-1839)

Sketch portrait of the adventurer Lady Hester Stanhope.

A British socialite and adventurer, Stanhope was possibly the greatest female traveler of her age. Born into an eminent political family, she played society hostess for her uncle, William Pitt the Younger. But as soon as he died, she took off for the unknown, finding her destiny in the Middle East. “Her Ladyship” did whatever it took to go where she wanted to go – including dressing as a man, carrying a sword and riding an Arab stallion. Crowning herself queen of the desert, Stanhope was the first European woman to cross the Syrian desert and the first to conduct modern archaeology research in the Holy Land.

Isabella Bird (1831-1904)

Sketch of explorer and travel writer Isabella Bird.

Overcoming poor health, as well as the limitations of living in a man’s world, Isabella Bird became one of the 19th century’s most remarkable female globetrotters. An explorer, writer, photographer and naturalist, she was the first woman to be elected a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. Her travels began at the age of 41 and didn’t end until she returned from a trip to Morocco when she was 72. In between, she visited America, India, Kurdistan, the Persian Gulf, Iran, Tibet, Malaysia, Korea, Japan, and China. She climbed mountains and rode thousands of miles on horseback, as well as the occasional elephant.

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Annie Smith Peck (1850-1935)

Portrait of American mountaineer Annie Smith Peck.

A trailblazing American mountaineer and scholar, Peck wrote and lectured about her adventures to encourage travel and exploration. Yet the acclaim she won for setting mountain climbing records was almost overshadowed by the outrage caused by her climbing attire: trousers and tunics instead of skirts. She showed her support for the Suffragist movement by planting a flag championing votes for women atop Mount Coropuna in Peru. The north peak of Huascarán in Peru was renamed Cumbre Aña Peck (in 1928) in honor of its first climber. She was elected a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society four years after women were admitted and were a founding member of the American Alpine Club. Smith climbed her last mountain, the 5,367ft Mount Madison in New Hampshire, at the age of 82.

Mary Kingsley (1862-1900)

Mary Kingsley photographed in her expedition canoe on the Ogooué River in 1895.

At a time when respectable women didn’t walk the streets of London unaccompanied, Kingsley was exploring uncharted parts of west Africa alone. After the death of family members, she had been obliged to look after, Kingsley was free to travel at the age of 30. In Africa, she canoed up the Ogooué river and pioneered a route to the summit of Mount Cameroon, which had never been attempted by a European. She became the first European to enter remote parts of Gabon and made extensive collections of freshwater fish on behalf of the British Museum. In her controversial book, Travels in West Africa, Mary expressed her opposition to European imperialism and championed the rights of indigenous people. The moleskin hat she wore throughout her travels is often on display at the Royal Geographical Society.

Gertrude Bell (1868-1926)

Gertrude Bell picnicking with King Faisal of Iraq, 1922.

Bell was a woman of firsts. Her expertise, determination, and curiosity got her to the top of mountains, but also the top of her professions. An archaeologist, linguist and the greatest woman mountaineer of her age, she is best known for her role in establishing the modern state of Iraq during the 1920s. She was the first woman to attain a first-class degree (in just two years) in modern history at Oxford, the first to make major contributions to archaeology, architecture and oriental languages, and the first to achieve seniority in the British military intelligence and diplomatic service. The in-depth knowledge and contacts she acquired through long and arduous travels in then Greater Syria, Mesopotamia, Asia Minor, and Arabia, shaped British imperial policy-making.

Nellie Bly (1864-1922)

Portrait of American journalist Nellie Bly, 1890.

No one had ever circled the globe so fast; American journalist Nellie Bly stepped off the train in New York on 25 January 1890 – and into history. She had raced through a “man’s world” in 72 days – alone and literally with just the clothes on her back – to “beat” the fictional record set by Jules Verne’s Phileas Fogg in Around the World in 80 Days, which had been published 17 years earlier. When she had suggested the trip to her newspaper editor, he replied that it was a great idea but he’d have to send a man. After all, as a woman, Nellie would need a chaperone and dozens of trunks. When she told him she’d take her idea to another paper, he relented and off she went with only two days’ notice and one small bag. Bly was also a pioneer of investigative journalism and paved the way for many other female reporters. Her stories brought about sweeping reforms in asylums, sweatshops, orphanages, and prisons.

Bessie Coleman (1892-1926)

Photo of Bessie Coleman standing on the wing of her plane.

Bessie Coleman flew in the face of race and gender discrimination to become the first black woman pilot in the world. Banned from flying schools in her native America, she taught herself French and traveled to France where she earned her pilot’s license in 1921, two years before her more famous contemporary, Amelia Earhart. Coleman flew all over the US, performing aerial tricks and lecturing to raise funds for an African-American flying school. She refused to participate in segregated events. Tragically, her life and dream ended when she died during an air show rehearsal at the age of 34.

Freya Stark (1893-1993)

Explorer Freya Stark sat on a donkey during an expedition to Jabal al-Druze, Syria.

Stark went where few Europeans, especially women, had ever been before. A British explorer and writer, her travels led her into remote areas of Turkey and the Middle East. While living in Baghdad, she explored and mapped uncharted areas of the Islamic world. Hers were some of the first accurate maps of the region. She moved on foot, on donkeys, on camels, and by car – camping along the way. Stark is the author of more than 24 travel books, covering local history, culture, and tales of everyday life. In spite of age and illnesses, she never stopped traveling. In 1972 she was honored as Dame Freya Stark.

Lady Grace Drummond Hay (1895-1946)

On 19 August 1929, wealthy aristocratic widow Lady Grace Drummond Hay boarded the LZ 127 Graf Zeppelin, the first airship to circumnavigate the world. When the airship landed 21 days later, the British journalist had become the first woman to travel around the world in a zeppelin. Her reportage of the pioneering flight was published in leading newspapers and helped cement her career as a writer and aviation specialist. The adventures didn’t stop there: Drummond Hay spent the next 10 years traveling the world and writing about her experiences. She was a foreign correspondent in Ethiopia and China and during the second world war, she was interned in a Japanese camp in the Philippines where she became ill. She died shortly after her release.


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