travel in the past

What travel in the past looked like compared to today

Travel in the past was about adventure, discovery and domination. However, when you think about it, the term explorer has gone out of style. Today, we contemplate whether we are tourists or travellers. What type of we are and how does that define us. That was not the case in the past. People didn’t have the same perception of travel as we do today. Do you ever stop and wonder what travel was like before it was fashionable?

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Travel in the past wasn’t for pleasure

In a way, we were born to travel. As nomadic tribes, people moved in search of food. Hunters and gathers were the original discoverers. Following seasonally available plants and the game forced them to move from place to place.

travel in the past
soldiers were the most common type of traveller

As settlement became more permanent, people searched for other things. New lands, commerce and war. This is where the tales of Vikings, Romans and other tribes conquering the world take the forefront in travel.

Another group of people that did travel in the past quite a bit were the holy men. Travel in the name of religion prompted pilgrims and missionaries to journey into foreign lands to spread their god’s word with various success levels.

Battles for supremacy and travel in the past

The tales of soldiers marching to war are legendary. From the battles of neighbouring tribes to the Viking raids, the life of a soldier was also one of a traveller. Mind you, it was anything but enjoyable. You were either sailing on a ship, riding on your horse or walking for miles in all kinds of weather. Life was short and violent.

travel in the past
travel in the past meant military life

While pillaging and killing your enemies is far from learning about new cultures, it still required travel. All of the Crusades, while fuelled by greed and religious zeal, provided exposure to new lands. Even prisoners of war and those who became slaves brought with them knowledge and traditions that weaved into their conquerors’ lives.

Travel in the past, especially for those forces against their will, wasn’t pretty or glamorous. Yet, it offered exposure to different things and the exchange of ideas. We still do that today with less violence and death.

The age of discoverers – stepping up travel in the past

This is probably one of the most interesting shifts in travel. Driven largely by the need for new and expanded trade routes, the discoverers turned travellers. This was the time of Marco Polo, Christopher Columbus, Vasco da Gamma and many others. They travelled the world, discovering new lands and cultures.

Want to know more about travel in the past? Check out 15 People who changed travel!

I always try to imagine what these European must have felt stepping on the shores of the new world, so different from everything they knew.  The same goes for the native tribes that watched these white men set foot on their land.

travel in the past
Ships were the only way to go to faraway lands

The human quest for knowledge and discovery perfectly fits into the essence of these discoverers. Enter cartography, geography and advances in everything from medicine and engineering to food and drink. The world was becoming smaller thanks to the discoverers that led the way.

The invention of leisurely travel

The Romans were the first to embrace the idea of travelling for leisure. During hot summers, the elite would travel to their villas in Pompeii and other places along the coast. Travel in the past for wealthy Romans was definitely not how we travel today. Often, they brought their entire households to ensure the level of luxury stayed the same no matter where they went. 

The royals would travel between their various residences or drop by their subjects’ households expecting to be wined and dined in later years. As with the Romans, it was the wealthy and privileged that had the means for mobility.

travel in the past
travel in the past: Ancient Roman villa remnants

Travel in the past was largely limited to the upper classes. Somewhere around the 16th century, the Grand Tour became fashionable for the wealthy and young European aristocrats. Somewhat of a throwback to the ideal of the Renaissance Man, the tour provided a level of polish to their education as well as an appreciation of the arts and literature.

Numerous young men flocked to London, Paris, Venice, Florence and Rome in the name of self-enlightenment. They were the early tourists, arriving to admire the local offerings and taking their experience back with them. Then the French Revolution came and put an end to the Grand Tour.

Days of adventurers and explorers

The 18th and 19th centuries marked a definite shift in the concept of travel. The Victorians saw themselves as civilized and full of a thirst for knowledge. This also meant they wanted to see the world. Travel in the past was not always about learning. For them, it was about conquering. 

Explorers travelled looking for treasure rather than discovering new lands. They amassed numerous objects from around the world for their private collections.

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This was when mummy unwrapping parties were all the rage and the tales of adventures dominated civilized society.  Various interest groups were born, focusing on different aspects of wonder. Quite often, these societies sponsored exploration missions in hopes of further treasure discoveries.

travel in the past
Why visit museums?

Europeans of all backgrounds searched for the lost and forgotten.  This led to Pompeii’s rediscovery, finding the Rosetta Stone and various Bronze Age items, including cave paintings.

At the same time, Heinrich Schliemann’s find of what he believed to be the mythical Troy raises criticism over his methods. Archaeology, as we know, begins here.

How did we travel in the past?

Even though travel was limited to the wealthy and privileged, it was still primitive compared to today. Although there were some advantages, I’d take today over the past any day.


Today you might travel in a group of friends or relatives with the idea of everyone having a great time. In the past, as an explorer or an adventurer, you’d be travelling in a company of servants, assistants and staff. There would’ve been someone carrying your stuff, setting up your tent and preparing your meals.

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Of course, if you discovered a unique and important treasure, someone would have been there to pack it up and ship it. Not to mention an army of local diggers and guides to make your life easier as you search for a priceless treasure.


Clothes are definitely the one thing that I can’t get over. They used to wear a lot more clothing than we do. It’s all fine and dandy if you’re in an air-conditioned place, but to be without it and wearing all those layers would be torture.

The images of fully clothed men in safari hats and neck scarfs are enough to make me sweat. You don’t see too many women travellers in those days. I can imagine how difficult it would have been with all the dresses and petticoats.  I’m glad the cultural dress codes have changed tremendously since those days.

Modes of transportation

 If you think travelling on a cramped plane or train sucks, imagine being cramped into a horse carriage on a bumpy road for hours. Even the most luxurious coach would become uncomfortable after a while. Arriving in a new place didn’t guarantee clean lodgings or adequate food supplies.

To venture further, a journey on the sea was almost guaranteed. I can’t even imagine being on a ship for months on end. As someone who gets seasick, I would be dead by the time we arrived.  This mode of transportation is just torture to me.

In addition to riding horses, camels, elephants and other animals to floating on rafts and riverboats, it all sounds exhausting. And dangerous.  I can see how not everyone rushed out to be an adventurer.

The rise of mass tourism

The development of rail and trains is really the breaking point of travelling becoming accessible. Rail lines, part of the Industrial Revolution, made travel quicker and cheaper. The rising middle class was made up of factory owners and merchants, all eager to spend their newly found wealth.  

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Thomas Cook

With a new interest in travel, travel started to become a business with the means and time to do so. One enterprising man, Thomas Cook, took advantage of this by creating packaged tours back in 1841. He was responsible for package holidays that included all services today’s travel agencies provide. From booking accommodations, tickets, itineraries, tours and currency exchanges, Cook pioneered it all.

The idea spread to other places, forming the travel agency model we know today. How cool is that?

Final thoughts on travel in the past

As I look at travel in the past, I wonder why I am not calling myself an adventurer. Has it become a dirty word? After all, I crave adventure. I love to discover new places, learn about them and occasionally bring treasures home with me. Does that not make me an adventurer? I think it does and I’m going to bring it back.

Are you an adventurer? Would you like to travel as they did back in the day? Let me know.

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