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Virtual Vacations: Exploring Museums, Zoos, and Aquariums Online This Summer - Part One

With the onset of a global pandemic, online tours and events (“virtual vacations”) became a way for parents to give their kids a cultural, and educational experience without having to leave home. While they certainly didn’t take the place of a real camp, they have helped fill in the gaps that the health guidelines created over the last couple of years.

Even as the world opens up, some virtual vacations might be just the thing to cure the dog days of summer. You get to visit places you might never be able to in person, and spend an hour or two soaking up some culture and a little education.

I have personally checked out various museums, zoos, and aquariums, and ranked their tours and online offerings. I rated these virtual vacations (on a scale of 1 to 5 of iconic items from that location) on content, navigation of the experience, and overall fun factor.

In Part One, I explored the art world, organized crime and law enforcement, and musical instruments.

Van Gogh Museum

First stop is Amsterdam, Netherlands, home to artist Vincent Van Gogh, whose impact on the art world has been significant to say the least. The Van Gogh Museum, through Google Arts & Culture has a virtual tour that is free.

Content: 4 sunflowers

  • Their permanent collection boasts 200 paintings, 500 drawings, and more than 750 letters. The collection includes fan favorites works like “Almond Blossom” and “Sunflowers.”
  • Virtually tour each floor and get a very real feel for the building which is stunningly minimalistic. It is the perfect way to display Van Gogh’s beautiful artistry and use of color. .
  • While the tour is basic, there is a delightful section of the Van Gogh Museum website (apart from the virtual tour) that caters to younger students. It has kid-friendly information, coloring activities, stories, and even a board game.

Navigation: 3 sunflowers

I did feel like I was “walking” through the space, but in that kind of whooshing-through-a-portal feeling that some of the virtual tours have. I could, however, see so much of the art, which for someone living 5,396 miles from Amsterdam was perfect. A person with better eyesight may be able to read the placards next to the art a lot better than I could. But I was able to view the works in a way that would likely make a security guard nervous if I were to get that close in person.

Fun Factor: 3 sunflowers

Your student will definitely need to have developed a love of art galleries to appreciate the virtual tour. But the kids section makes up for the minimalistic virtual tour with its kid-friendly offerings.


With 38,000 works of art, the Louvre art museum in Paris is the largest one in the world. With so many objets d’art, I can’t imagine the difficulty the curators had in selecting the areas to present virtually.

Content: 5 Mona Lisas

Out of the museum there are five different galleries to “walk” through for free. Other content such as podcasts, and a virtual reality “Mona Lisa Beyond the Glass” experience are available as well.

  • From Afar: Travelling Materials and Objects
  • The Advent of the Artist
  • Powers Plays
  • The Body in Movement
  • Founding Myths: From Hercules to Darth Vader

Other experiences include:

  • Louvre Kids section which provides fun, animated videos on some of the more popular pieces of art, and kid-friendly information.
  • Guided tours of the Louvre on certain days for a fee
  • Louvre website, including some photos of the art within the museum, a history of the gardens, views inside the palace and more!

Navigation: 4 Mona Lisas

The virtual tours through the Petite Galeries are lovely and the transitions as you “walk” through are more natural and less like being swept up in a portal. Some placards are difficult to see, but there are icons you can select to read more. Although, the ones I clicked on were in French, so I had to dust off my two semesters of language.  

Fun Factor: 4 Mona Lisas

While some of the galleries may be a little too “quiet” for your younger student, the Louvre Kids area is a terrific introduction to art and museums. The guided tours offer a recommended age range which can be helpful in determining whether or not your student will enjoy a certain tour or not.

The Mob Museum

Content: 3 fedoras

  • From their distillery and speakeasy in the basement to the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre Wall on the 3rd floor, you can see some (but not all) of the exhibits.
  • There is also a pretty wide selection of videos both embedded on their site and on YouTube to learn more.
  • Short video guided tours include “The Mob in Politics and Culture”, “The Mob and Las Vegas”, and “Birth of the Mob.”

Navigation: 3 fedoras

The website menu guides you around easily, and everything is just a click or two away. The information is legible, and the pictures are as high-quality as your particular monitor can provide. The Mob Museum videos are professionally made although some, particularly the taped events at their physical location are quite long. I deducted a fedora since some of them may be a little too long for a short attention-spanned teenager. The virtual tours, however, are in short bites and better suited for casual viewing.

Fun Factor: 3 fedoras

The Mob Museum is aimed at more of a niche audience, and the material is not going to be suitable for a quite a few age groups. And while this isn’t the free-reign experience like some of the other places on this list, it may still be worthwhile for your true crime or history buff.  

The Musical Instrument Museum

Content: 1 sousaphone

While I have no doubt that visiting the museum in person is a stimulating experience, the online and virtual offerings pale in comparison to some of the other locations on this list.

  • Their virtual tour is more like a commercial or trailer, plays for under 10 minutes and does not clearly represent much of what there is to see and do there.
  • STEM, Musical Menagerie Tour, and Discovery Tour video collections are available and aimed at school-age students, but they do come with a price tag of $3 per video and $15 for the collection.  
  • Virtual fieldtrips and artist residency opportunities are offed for K–12, but are only offered for educators and also come with a fee (free access may be available for Title I schools).

Navigation: 1 sousaphone

Unfortunately, there wasn’t much to navigate aside from the video collection and short trailer.

Fun Factor: 1 sousaphone

If you are willing to pay for the video collections, there is some cool information and activities. But the website did make me want to go check out their brick-and-mortar location.

That’s it for part one, but of course, I am just scratching the surface on what “virtual vacations” are out there. If you have suggestions, drop them in the comments! Stick around for part two where I go a little “wild” with zoos, aquariums and natural history for the nature lover in your household!

Amy Licht
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