10 great expeditions that changed the world

Welcome to Cheapflights

The simple way to find cheap flights and hotels from all your favourite travel companies

Here we pay homage to the 10 greatest expeditions of all time. For each one, we’ve named two places where you can follow in its footsteps.

We live in a great time for travel. Never in history has it been easier to reach near and far-flung places.

But, of course, the world hasn’t always been so accessible, so navigable. For every trail that exists today there was once an intrepid explorer who first blazed it.

In fact, some explorers did more than simply beat new tracks and chart new waters. Their endeavours were so ground breaking, so revolutionary, they changed the world.

Here we pay homage to the 10 greatest expeditions of all time. For each one, we’ve named two places where you can follow in its footsteps.

NB Our list contains only men purely because many of the greatest feats of human exploration were completed in times when women endured stifling social restrictions. Look out for our post on Top 10 Female Pioneering Travellers and our Top 10 monuments to women leaders.

10) Vasco da Gama sails to India

Vasco da Gama - Great expeditions that changed the world
Vasco da Gama. Picture via Wikipedia

The expedition…

When: July 8 1497 to January 7 1499 (549 days).
Endeavour: The Portuguese explorer commanded the first ships to sail directly to India from Europe. The total return distance was greater than the circumference of the Earth.
Struggles: The outbound journey was quick and smooth at 32 days; the 132-day return leg, in contrast, was anything but. Sailing against the wind, more than half the crew was lost and only two of the four ships returned.
Legacy: Paved the way for long-lasting European colonial empire in Asia. Opened trade between India and Europe by sea.

Where you can follow in the footsteps…

Vasco da Gama - Lisbon
Lisbon, Portugal – Expedition set sail from the Portuguese capital. Photo by K. Kendall
Cheap Flights To Portugal
Vasco da Gama - Kappad Beach - Great expeditions that changed the world
Kappad Beach, Kerala, India – The expedition landed on this vast beach 32 days later. Photo by K. Kendall

9) Roald Amundsen wins the race to the South Pole

Roald Amundsen - Great expeditions that changed the world
Photo: Wikipedia

The expedition…

When: 3 June 1910 to 25 January 1912 (602 days).
Endeavour: The Norwegian led the first team of explorers to reach the South Pole on 14 December 1911, beating Scott’s famously doomed British Antarctic Expedition by 33 days.
Struggles: None: great preparation, quality equipment, appropriate clothing, dog-handling skills and great proficiency in skiing ensured a relatively smooth and uneventful expedition.
Legacy: A number of locations in Antarctica are named after him, including the Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station, the Amundsen Sea and Amundsen Glacier.

Where you can follow in the footsteps…

Funchal, Portugal - Great expeditions that changed the world
Funchal, Portugal – Where Amundsen’s ship Fram resupplied en route to Antarctica. Photo: Porto Bay Hotels & Resorts Events
Roald Amundsen - Antarctic Peninsula - Great expeditions that changed the world
Antarctic Peninsula, Antarctica – Accessible by cruise ship, it’s the most-visited region of Antarctica. Photo: winkyintheuk

8) Sherpa Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary first to summit of Everest

Norgay and Hillary - Great expeditions that changed the world
Norgay and Hillary. Photo: Wikipedia

The expedition…

When: 20 February 1953 to July 1953 (132+ days).
Endeavour: The Nepali Sherpa and New Zealander undertook the first confirmed ascent of Everest (world’s highest peak) on 29 May 1953.
Struggles: On the morning of the historic ascent, Hillary awoke to find his boots frozen solid outside his tent – it took him two hours to defrost them.
Legacy: Nearly 2,000 climbers have reached the top of the Earth since Norgay and Hillary. The final technical section of Everest’s South ridge, a 40 ft rock wall, is named the Hillary Step.

Where you can follow in the footsteps…

Kathmandu - Great expeditions that changed the world
Boudhanath stupa, Kathmandu, Nepal – Nepal’s capital, and the departure point for all trekkers and mountaineers heading to the Everest region. Photo: Wonderlane
EBC Great expeditions that changed the world
Modern Everest Base Camp, Nepal – As close as any trekker is allowed to get to the peak without a permit. Photo: Brett Ackroyd

7) Dr David Livingstone’s search for the source of the Nile

David Livingstone - Great expeditions that changed the world
David Livingstone. Photo: Wikipedia

The expedition…

When: January 1866 to 23 October 1871 (over 2,100 days).
Endeavour: Flying in the face of received wisdom, Scotsman Livingstone sought to prove the source of the Nile lay south of Lake Victoria and Lake Albert.
Struggles: The expedition was beset by many problems: members of the party deserted him soon after the outset, supplies (medicines included) were stolen, he mistakenly concluded Lake Bangweulu was part of the Nile and he witnessed 400 Africans massacred by slave traders. Yet it was Livingstone’s failing personal health that ultimately curtailed his adventure. Having already survived pneumonia, severe cholera saw him abandon his mission at the shores of Lake Tanganyika.
Legacy: Though he did not complete his objective, Livingstone was the first Westerner to gaze upon now world-renowned locations like Victoria Falls and Lake Malawi. A month after his arrival at Lake Tanganyika, just short of six years since he last had contact with the outside world, he was tracked down by U.S. journalist Henry Morton Stanley who uttered the now famous line, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”

Where you can follow in the footsteps…

Victoria Falls - Great expeditions that changed the world
Victoria Falls / Mosi-oa-Tunya – Livingstone named his “discovery” in honour of Queen Victoria, who reigned over the British Empire at the time. Photo: jurvetson
Lake Malawi - Great expeditions that changed the world
Lake Malawi – Livingstone reached here in 1859. Photo: Sam Beddoes

6) Christopher Columbus’ first voyage to the West Indies

Christopher Columbus - Great expeditions that changed the world
Christopher Columbus. Picture: Wikipedia

The expedition…

When: 3 August 1492 to 15 March 1493 (225 days).
Endeavour: When the Ottoman Empire seized control of Constantinople (modern day Istanbul), Europeans were all of a sudden without safe land-based trade routes to China and India. Columbus resolved to find a new route via the Ocean Sea (today known as the Atlantic Ocean).
Struggles: His flagship the Santa María ran aground on Christmas Day 1492 on the northern shores of Hispaniola where it had to be abandoned. But that was far from his greatest mistake. Columbus will forever be known for one of the greatest navigational blunders of all time:
Legacy: He did not imagine any land existed in between his departure point in Spain (Palos de la Frontera) and Asia. However, unbeknownst to him, all four of his grand voyages failed to reach their destination, landing in various locations in what we now know as the West Indies, South America and Central America instead. To his death, Columbus asserted he had reached Asia.

Where you can follow in the footsteps…

The Bahamas - Great expeditions that changed the world

The Bahamas – The first “New World” land sighted by Columbus. Photo: The Islands Of The Bahamas
Christopher Columbus - Canary Islands
Canary Islands – Columbus resupplied here en route to the West Indies. Photo by Turismo de Canarias

5) The Lewis and Clark Expedition

Lewis and Clark - Great expeditions that changed the world
Lewis and Clark. Picture: Wikipedia

The expedition…

When: 14 May 1804 to September 23 1806 (863 days).
Endeavour: Americans Meriwether Lewis and William Clark set out to explore the U.S.’ new, recently acquired territory in the West. As well as establishing an American presence designed to ward off claims from European powers, they documented more than 200 plants and animals, and 72 native tribes. On November 20 1805, they became the first American’s to reach the Pacific Ocean by travelling overland across U.S. territory.
Struggles: Relatively few, though several of the team’s men were disciplined for dereliction of duties, and Lewis was accidentally shot by another member of the party a month before the expedition was completed.
Legacy: Their endeavours were, and remain, emblematic of core American values such as expansion, development and the taming of nature.

Where you can follow in the footsteps…

Lewis and Clark - Columbia River
Columbia River, Washington, USA – Lewis and Clark travelled down the Columbia River on the final leg of their adventure to the Pacific Ocean. Photo by .Bala
Lewis and Clark - Lolo Pass
Lolo Pass, Bitterroot Mountains, USA – One of the most challenging stages of their route. Photo by saborcesar

4) Captain James Cook’s voyage for the Australis Incognita

James Cook - Great expeditions that changed the world
James Cook. Picture: Wikipedia

The expedition…

When: 26 August 1768 to 12 July 1771 (1,051 days).
Endeavour: Many authoritative people in 18th-century Europe believed a large continent existed at the lower reaches of the Southern Hemisphere (Antarctica wasn’t discovered until the middle of the 19th century). It was dubbed Terra Australis (meaning “South Land”). Englishman Cook was commissioned by King George III to seek evidence of it. On the round-trip to and from Plymouth, the voyage sailed around Cape Horn, through the southern Pacific, circumnavigated New Zealand, passed the Great Barrier Reef and rounded the Cape of Good Hope.
Struggles: The expedition was unable to complete its primary objective of determining the distance between Venus and the Sun, natives stole equipment from a supply fort in Tahiti, and his ship Endeavour ran aground on the Great Barrier Reef, only narrowly avoiding sinking.
Legacy: Mapped the entire New Zealand coastline with only minor errors – a remarkable feat for the time. Cook’s landing at Australia’s Botany Bay sparked British interest in the territory, eventually leading to its colonisation.

Where you can follow in the footsteps…

James Cook - Tahiti
Tahiti – Where the voyage observed the transit of Venus across the Sun. Photo by Tim Moffatt
James Cook - Coromandel
The Coromandel, New Zealand – Striking green peninsula first mapped by Cook. Photo by Quiltsalad

3) Charles Darwin and the voyage of the Beagle

Charles Darwin - Great expeditions that changed the world
Charles Darwin. Picture: Wikipedia

The expedition…

When: 27 December 1831 to 2 October 1836 (1,742 days).
Endeavour: This, the second of HMS Beagle’s three great voyages (a circumnavigation of the globe), primarily aimed to survey southern South America. Yet it has become much more famous for the impact it had on one of its passengers – a young and recently graduated naturalist by the name of Charles Darwin. By the end of the nearly five-year long expedition, three-and-a-half of which he’d spent on land, Englishman Darwin had made his name as a formidable geologist and fossil collector.
Struggles: Darwin had to spend a month in bed in 1834 after falling ill. Earlier in the voyage, the ship’s artist had to be replaced due to health problems.
Legacy: Darwin’s detailed observations were the cornerstone of his theories of natural selection and evolution, ideas upon which many base their understanding of life.

Where you can follow in the footsteps…

Charles Darwin - Galapagos Islands
Galápagos Islands – The unique bird, reptile and amphibian species here were hugely informative to Darwin’s theories. Photo by A.Davey
Charles Darwin - Sydney
Sydney, Australia – Darwin admired the burgeoning, bustling city when he landed in early 1836. Photo by paul bica

2) The Travels of Marco Polo

Marco Polo - Great expeditions that changed the world
Marco Polo. Picture: Wikipedia

The expedition…

When: 1271 to 1295 (exact dates unknown – around 9,000 days)
Endeavour: Departing Venice in 1271, 17-year-old Italian Polo set off with his father and uncle for what became an extremely lengthy exploration and adventure through Asia. All three returned to Venice 24 years later, with many treasures in tow. Having seen Asia, Persia, China, and Indonesia, it’s estimated they had travelled around 15,000 miles in all.
Struggles: Polo’s greatest struggle came after his return (see below).
Legacy: After returning to Italy Marco Polo was captured and sent to prison. There, he regaled stories of his adventures to the Italian romance writer Rustichello da Pisa, who later turned them into the book The Travels of Marco Polo. Produced before the age of printing, it was a rare popular success in the 13th and 14th centuries. The book’s reach went beyond mere entertainment; its influence can be seen in the make-up of what were considered authoritative maps of Asia in the 15th century. Polo’s descriptions of the Far East also famously inspired Christopher Columbus to travel there himself.

Where you can follow in the footsteps…

Marco Polo - Venice
Venice, Italy – Marco Polo was born and bred in Venice, and it’s the place where stories of his travels first reached the public consciousness. Photo by Valerii9116
Marco Polo - Beijing
Summer Palace, Beijing, China – Polo claimed he was a special envoy for Kublai Khan, who ruled China and Mongolia from Beijing for 17 years. Photo by ahenobarbus

1) Ferdinand Magellan and the First Circumnavigation of the Earth

Ferdinand Magellan - Great expeditions that changed the world
Ferdinand Magellan. Picture: Wikipedia

The expedition…

When: 10 August 1519 to 8 September 1522 (1,126 days)
Endeavour: In the early 16th century, Portugal controlled the eastward spice trade routes around Africa. Living in self-imposed exile from his native country Portugal, Magellan convinced the Spanish king to back his attempt to sail the westward route to the heart of the spice trade (modern day Indonesia). Magellan’s expedition was trailblazing in every sense of the word: it was the first to sail from the Atlantic to the Pacific; the first to cross the Pacific; and most importantly, the first to complete a circumnavigation of the Earth.
Struggles: The voyage was beset by the kind of misfortune that often accompanies such a ground-breaking endeavour: mutiny, scurvy, rough weather, and supply shortages all decimated the crew. Only one of the original five ships completed the mission, and Magellan wasn’t aboard it: he had been killed a little over a year earlier while intervening in battle between rival chieftains in the Philippines.
Legacy: Magellan’s voyage proved beyond doubt that the planet was round, revolutionising astronomy and geography, not to mention science and religion, in the process.

Where you can follow in the footsteps…

Ferdinand Magellan - Seville
The Plaza de España, Seville, Spain was the departure and arrival point of the voyage. Photo by serge y.
Ferdinand Magellan - Philippines
The Philippines – The islands where Magellan met his maker. Photo by Lost In The RP

Written by insider city guide series Hg2 | A Hedonist’s guide to…

(Featured image: Wikipedia)

10 great expeditions that changed the world was last modified: June 26th, 2019 by Brett Ackroyd
Author: Brett Ackroyd (631 posts)

Brett hopes to one day reach the shores of far-flung Tristan da Cunha, the most remote of all the inhabited archipelagos on Earth…as to what he’ll do when he gets there, he hasn’t a clue. Over the last 10 years, London, New York, Cape Town and Pondicherry have all proudly been referred to as home. Now it’s Copenhagen’s turn, where he lends his travel expertise to momondo.com.