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5 Famous Female Explorers and Travelers

Travel Team | Feb 12, 2024

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If I asked you to name a great traveler or explorer, what names come to mind?

Maybe you’d start with a few historical figures like Leif Erikson or Marco Polo. Or you might find yourself listing contemporary explorers like Rick Steves or Sir David Attenborough.

While numerous men have contributed to the world of travel, plenty of women have also left an impact, visiting all corners of the globe. The five adventurers below — and countless others — prove that a woman’s place is wherever she chooses to go.

Most Famous Female Explorers and Travelers

1. Isabella Bird

In a time when women were expected to inhabit a “sphere of domesticity,” Isabella Bird was exploring the world’s farthest reaches. Born to a wealthy family in 1831, she was adventurous and outspoken despite having suffered a series of severe childhood illnesses. After a doctor suggested travel as a treatment for Bird’s insomnia, depression, and chronic pain, she was given 100 pounds (approximately $14,500 in today’s dollars) to travel wherever she wanted.

Bird used that travel fund to visit the United States — an experience that informed her first book: The Englishwoman in America. While traveling through the U.S., Bird hiked volcanoes in Hawaii (which inspired yet another book) and rode hundreds of miles on horseback through the Rockies, among other adventures.

Her love for travel wasn’t limited to just the United States. As she gained notoriety as a travel writer and missionary, Bird explored Japan, China, and Korea; founded a hospital in India; studied the Karun River in Persia and Armenia; and was even gifted a stallion by the sultan of Morocco. And that only scratches the surface of Bird’s extensive travel career.

Featured in numerous publications, Bird became a celebrated household name in her home country of England. She was named the first woman fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, became the first woman inducted into the Royal Scottish Geographical Society, and was elected to the Royal Photographic Society.

2. Fanny Workman

Fanny Bullock Workman was a jack (or jill) of all trades. At once a cartographer, geographer, author, mountaineer, activist, and suffragette, Workman played a significant role in breaking down the gender barriers in both travel and politics alike.

Born in 1859 to a wealthy Massachusetts family, Workman received an elite education in the U.S. before meeting her husband, William Workman. Fanny and William shared a love for nature, and they spent their summers hiking and climbing in the White Mountains of the U.S. Northeast. It was through the climbing community that Fanny connected with other women who shared similar interests in athletics and the great outdoors.

After inheriting large estates from their families, Fanny and William relocated to Germany, where they took advantage of the many bike routes throughout Europe. These cycling trips served as inspiration for the travel books that they would go on to author.

Fanny later proposed venturing beyond Europe, with trips to India, Algeria, and Southeast Asia. There, she and William mountaineered in the Himalayas, explored the Hispar and Siachen Glaciers, and hiked or bicycled across thousands of miles of terrain. Fanny was a diligent record-keeper. Throughout her travels, she helped create maps for lesser-known regions, took meteorological readings, and photographed key landmarks along the way.

As time passed, Fanny remained a fervent supporter of women’s suffrage and gender equality. In a particularly iconic moment during a visit to the Silver Thorne Plateau in Karakoram, Kashmir, Fanny displayed a newspaper headline reading “Votes for Women,” while her husband snapped a series of soon-to-be-famous photos. In her travel writing, Fanny underscored that women were capable of thriving outside the home — whether in high altitudes, under extreme heat, perched on a mountaintop, or at a voting booth.

3. Nellie Bly

Nellie Bly wasn’t just a traveler. This groundbreaking journalist captured the world’s imagination by bringing fiction to life. In 1888, Bly suggested to her editor at the New York World that she recreate Jules Verne's famous novel, Around the World in 80 Days, with an international trip of her own.

The idea was met with great enthusiasm, and in November 1899, Bly departed aboard the Augusta Victoria steamer for the first leg of her nearly 40,000-mile journey. (A competing American journalist, Elizabeth Bisland, tried to race Bly, circumnavigating the globe in the opposite direction at the same time.)

After kicking off her trip in Hoboken, New Jersey, Bly traveled through England, France, and much of the Mediterranean. She made stops in countries like Sri Lanka, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Japan. While her editors and readers waited back home, Bly sent status reports back to the United States through both telegraph and standard post.

After a bout of rough weather in the Pacific, she arrived in San Francisco, then took a private train back to New Jersey. In just 72 days, Bly had broken the world record for global travel while pioneering a new form of investigative journalism. Along the way, she captured the hearts, minds, and imaginations of a global audience.

Bly could also be considered something of a light-packing trendsetter. During her travels, she packed only her dress, a hat, an overcoat, her toiletries, several pairs of underwear, and a small money purse containing a few hundred dollars’ worth of English and American currency.

4. Junko Tabei

Japanese mountaineer Junko Tabei began climbing at the age of 10 and never looked back. After participating in climbing trips throughout high school and college, Tabei formed Japan’s first-ever all-women’s climbing group, the Ladies Climbing Club (LCC) in 1969. The club’s slogan, "Let's go on an overseas expedition by ourselves," was a direct response to the perceived sexism in the climbing community.

Tabei’s love for climbing continued with trips to Mount Fuji and the Swiss Alps. As the LCC became more established, Tabei took part in an ambitious new endeavor: a group expedition to Mount Everest.

On May 16, 1975, with support from her sherpa guide, Tabei became the first woman to summit Mount Everest. Following her achievement, Tabei gained prominence within the global climbing community and beyond, even receiving accolades from the King of Nepal and Japanese officials.

Not content to stop with Everest, Tabei continued scaling mountains around the globe. In 1992, she became the first woman to complete all Seven Summits by climbing the highest mountain on every continent.

5. Jessica Nabongo

p>The most contemporary explorer on our list, Jessica Nabongo is a self-described global citizen, a title she’s more than earned as the first Black woman documented to have visited every country in the world. A native of Detroit, Michigan, and the child of Ugandan parents, Nabongo set her ambitious travel goal while in Bali. Just over two years later, in 2019, she visited her 195th country at the age of 35.


Nabongo turned her adventures into a book — The Catch Me If You Can: One Woman’s Journey to Every Country in the World. You can read all about her explorations and find tips and itineraries in her book as well as her blog.

Travel + Leisure named Nabongo to its list of 50 Most Notable People in Travel in 2021. She’s also the founder of Jet Black, a travel firm that promotes tourism to Africa, Central and South America, and the Caribbean.

How to Be Safe on an Adventure

Are you prepared for your next adventure? Perhaps you’ll be following in the footsteps of these great women, or you could blaze a trail entirely your own. These safety tips for female travelers are a good place to start. You can also try our guide to women’s solo travel.

And before you strike out on the road, remember to protect your trip with travel insurance. Find the best coverage for you at SevenCorners.com or talk to one of our licensed agents.

About the Authors

This article was written by Grace Lower, an avid traveler and explorer in her own right, and edited by Becky Hart.

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