For as long as there have been humans, those humans have moved. Whether it was from one forest to another or on lifelong treks across continents, humans have been a restless bunch since the beginning. A few people have stood out though, in changing or greatly influencing the way people travel over time.
Some of them are great political figures, some are inventors, some are pioneers, and some are writers, but all of these people have had a major impact either on the travel world or on the world because of their travels. I’ve tried to include a number of women and non-westerners, as a lot of these lists are totally dominated by white men.
Here they are:
Though much of her story is overshadowed by her disappearance on a flight over the Pacific, Amelia Earhart’s greatest contribution to the world of travel was trailblazing a place for women in the field of aviation. She remains iconic to this day.
No one person so clearly shows how travel can change the world as Charles Darwin. The naturalist took a two-year-long journey aboard the HMS Beagle. Over the course of the trip, Darwin began to develop the theory of evolution, which has since fundamentally changed the field of biology and mankind’s understanding of its place in nature as a whole. And all because one man said yes to a boat trip.
Hemingway, the terse, hyper-masculine, brilliant voice of the Lost Generation was responsible, more than probably anyone else, for romanticizing the life of the expatriate. Hemingway’s Europe is one full of bullfights, benders, and failed romances, but it’s hard to read one of his stories and not think, “Maybe I should go to Paris.”
Anaximander was an early Greek philosopher who made one huge, monumental contribution to the world of travel: he made the first ever world map. While little is known about him as a person—whether, for example, he was much of a traveler himself—he started the long tradition of leaving behind a record for the benefit of later travelers.
Though the Wright Brothers had invented the airplane 20 years earlier, aviator Charles Lindbergh showed the world its incredible potential when he became the first person to fly his plane across the Atlantic.
Che Guevara was a traveler before he was a revolutionary. In his 20s, he began to travel his native South America on a motorcycle, and what he saw on these trips turned him into a Marxist revolutionary and possibly the most recognizable face in the world. His incredible account of his travels in The Motorcycle Diaries remain influential to those who travel with a mind to not only change themselves, but to change the world as well.
Though Columbus was a horrific human being, his impact on the world is still being felt. While he was far from the first person to set foot in the Americas, he was the person to make Europe fully aware of its existence, and that led to an explosion of exploration. It was an age of exploration that had murder, oppression, slavery, and genocide bundled up with it—but you can hardly argue it didn’t change everything.
Freya Stark was a great British traveler and writer who became hooked on the Middle East when she got a copy of One Thousand and One Nights for her ninth birthday. Stark became a nurse during World War I, and then went on to travel through Lebanon, Iraq, and Iran, often as the first westerner. Her travel writing remains influential to this day.
You’ve undoubtedly heard of Lawrence of Arabia, but you probably haven’t heard of his female counterpart Gertrude Bell. Bell was an adventurer and British diplomat who worked as a spy and as one of the founders of the country of Iraq.
The world’s “first” historian delivered his histories to the masses in the same manner as the poets of the time: by traveling around and reciting them to crowds. Herodotus’ work is known for its international focus, and he had to travel to accumulate much of his research, making him an early example of the hugely important relationship between travel and knowledge.
If you Google search “World’s Greatest Traveler,” every single list you find will have one man on it: Ibn Battuta. A Moroccan Berber, Battuta was born into a family of legal scholars, and studied law. When he was 21, he set out on his hajj, which should have taken him 16 months. It took him 24 years. He made it as far east as China, and upon his return, he continued to wander around Africa. But perhaps most impressive is that he did all of this in the 1300s.
Like Hemingway before him, Kerouac served as the voice of his generation, and romanticized that now-great American pastime: the road trip. His book On the Road inspired an entire generation of Americans, and remains influential among young people, artists, and musicians alike. One of those artists he inspired was—I’m not kidding—Katy Perry, who based her song “Firework,” on one of his most famous passages.
James Holman was much like many other 19th-century travelers in that he joined the navy and kept his travels going after that. He ended up becoming one of the most well-traveled people of his time, visiting every inhabited continent. The difference between Holman and other travelers? He was totally blind.
Travel has long been dominated by men, to the point where it has really only been in the last 150 years that most of the great female travelers have come to the fore. Jeanne Bare is an exception. A poor orphan in Burgundy, she disguised herself as a man and joined Louis Antoine de Bougainville’s crew, and eventually became the first woman to circumnavigate the globe.
Lady Hester Stanhope was a British adventurer who left the UK after a “romantic disappointment” and led the first-ever archaeological dig in Gaza. She later moved to an abandoned monastery in Lebanon and made it into a home for the many refugees in the area. She died there after slowly becoming senile, but her legacy remains as one of the most-colorful British adventurers in the country’s long, troubled relationship with the Middle East.
The man who deserves—over Christopher Columbus—the title of the “First Westerner in the Americas,” is possibly the Viking Leif Erickson. Born in Iceland, Erickson left the Island when his father was banished, and was with his father when he formed the first permanent Norse colony in Greenland. Erickson himself was blown off course while sailing back to Greenland from Norway, and saw land he did not expect to see which he dubbed “Vinland.” It was North America—but no one’s sure if he was actually the first person to set foot there.
The man who may be the best novelist of all time came from a long line of Russian nobility. But at the end of his life, he became a Christian anarchist and began wandering the countryside on foot. The man who was the political forefather of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., was also the man to make being a mendicant cool.
Marco Polo is undoubtedly the father of western travel writing—though he was hardly the first traveler, his 24-year journey accounted in The Travels of Marco Polo inspired European explorers including Columbus. Polo’s book is known for its tall tales, so he also started the grand travel writing tradition of constant, wild exaggeration.
America’s first great writer was also the man to popularize travel writing in the States. His accounts of his travels through the Holy Land, Innocents Abroad, remains perhaps America’s greatest travel book, while his masterpiece The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is perhaps the first (and best) of the American buddy travel stories.
It’s a crime that more people don’t know about Nellie Bly. Aside from being an incredible investigative journalist, Nellie Bly (the pen name of Elizabeth Jane Cochrane) is famous for her around-the-world trip inspired by Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days. Bly made it around the world in 72 days, and wrote about her trip all the way around, which makes her the grandmother of travel blogging.
Possibly America’s first (known) great female explorer, Sacagawea served as the Shoshone interpreter (and occasional guide) to the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Sacagawea was the wife of Toussaint Charbonneau, a Quebecois fur-trapper who joined the expedition, and she turned out to be incredibly useful to the expedition, and managed to make the entire journey with her young child.
No two people deserve to be on this list more than Wilbur and Orville Wright, the Ohio bike-makers who invented the airplane. The moment of that first flight marked a turning point for the world of travel—without airplanes, travel would be far more difficult, and far less available to those without significant amounts of time and money to spare. Airports suck now, but without airplanes, “seeing the world” would be a class luxury.
A Chinese Buddhist scholar in the 7th century, Xuanzang spent much of his time traveling around his country searching for Buddhist texts. His search eventually sent him on a 17-year pilgrimage to India, which made him legendary in China. He’s still revered both as a Buddhist and as a traveler.
Here at the beginning of the 21st century, space tourism is prohibitively expensive, but it is slowly becoming more of a thing. The man who started that, the first man to escape earth’s gravity and make it into space, was Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. In the US, we tend to focus less on Gagarin and more on our own astronauts, but Gagarin’s monumental achievement will cast a shadow over space travel for as long as it’s a thing.
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