Mountaineering & Expeditions

Famous Explorers | An Introduction to the Most Important Explorers in History

A basics guide to the most famous explorers, from Marco Polo to Amerigo Vespucci and Nellie Bly...

Famous Explorers

Famous explorers are the reason that we more or less know what lies in every corner of the globe today.

From early pioneering travellers like Christopher Columbus, Ferdinand Magellan and Marco Polo, who brought invaluable information about the Americas and Asia back to the European continent in a time when most thought the world was flat, to more recent adventurers like Ernest Shackleton, Nellie Bly and Edmund Hillary, so much of our present-day knowledge derives from the work of famous explorers.

In our new look at these adventurers and innovators on Mpora, we will be delving deeper into the people who took these journeys, looking at exactly what they are known for, exploring the myths and uncertainties around them, and studying the positive and negative effects they left behind.

In the meantime, here is just a short introduction to some of the most important explorers to ever walk, sail and navigate the Earth:

Marco Polo

Marco Polo remains one of the most famous explorers of all time.

Date of birth and death: Marco Polo was born in 1254 in Venice, Italy.

Place and date of death: Marco Polo died on 8 January 1324 in Venice, Italy.

What is Marco Polo Famous For? Marco Polo was one of the first explorers to travel the Silk Road, travel around Asia and visit China, where he found favour with the ruling Kublai Khan, in the Middle Ages. Crucially, he was also the first explorer to return to Europe afterwards and document the experience.

Vasco da Gama

Vasco da Gama in front of the map he traced.

Date of birth and death: Vasco da Gama was born in either 1460 or 1469 in Sines, Portugal, depending on which archives you believe.

Place and date of death: Vasco da Gama died on 24 December 1524 in Kochi, India.

What is Vasco de Gama Famous For? Vasco da Gama was the first person to ever successfully sail from Europe to India, leaving Calicut on 29 August 1498. The explorer was commissioned by the king of Portugal to find a maritime route to the East, and the success of his journey proved highly influential in the years that followed.

Christopher Columbus

Christopher Columbus, in portrait.

Date of birth and death: Christopher Columbus was born in 1451 in Genoa, Italy.

Place and date of death: Christopher Columbus died on 20 May 1506 in Valladolid, Spain.

What is Christopher Columbus Famous For? The common misconception is that Christopher Columbus was the first European to discover America in 1492. Actually, Vikings – in particular Leif Eriksson – had landed there hundreds of years previously, but Columbus believed he had discovered America – and his journey is particularly important for beginning regular contact between Europe and America.

Hernan Cortes

Hernan Cortes, the explorer.

Date of birth and death: Hernan Cortes was born on an unknown date in 1485 in Medellin, Spain.

Place and date of death: Hernan Cortes died on 2 December 1547 in Castilleja de la Cuesta, Spain.

What is Hernan Cortes Famous For? Hernan Cortes is known for defeating the Aztec Empire and taking Mexico in the name of Spain in 1521. He was a Spanish conquistador and also helped to colonise Cuba.

Amerigo Vespucci

Amerigo Vespucci, the man who gave his name to North and South America.

Date of birth and death: Amerigo Vespucci was born on 9 March 1454 in Florence, Italy.

Place and date of death: Amerigo Vespucci died on 22 February 1512 in Seville, Spain.

What is Amerigo Vespucci Famous For? Amerigo Vespucci is the man who gave his name to the continents of North and South America. This was because he was the first person to realise that the continents of North and South America were distinct, something previously unknown to the people of Europe.

Christopher Columbus had assumed that America was part of Asia, but while sailing deep into South America in 1501, Amerigo Vespucci discovered the truth.

Lewis and Clark

Lewis, left, and Clark, right.

Date of birth and death: Meriwether Lewis was born in 18 August 1774 near Charlottesville, Virginia, USA. William Clark was born on 1 August 1770, also in Virginia.

Place and date of death: Meriwether Lewis died on 11 October 1809, and William Clark died on 1 September 1838.

What are Lewis and Clark Famous For? At the request of Meriwether Lewis’ childhood friend Thomas Jefferson (the principal author of the Declaration of Independence and third President of the United States), Lewis and William Clark led an expedition of the Louisiana Territory, a land that at the time the US had recently purchased from France.

They travelled from Missouri to the Pacific Ocean. Along the way Lewis and Clark documented their interactions with native tribes, with plants and animals, noted the climate and views, and famously never lost respect or kindness for or towards one another. The guide Sacagawea was crucial in ensuring they were able to carry out their peaceful mission with success. They are the most famous explorers in the history of the United States.

Jacque Cousteau

Philippe Cousteau, looking appropriately Wes Anderson. Photograph: Wikipedia Commons.

Date of birth and death: Jacque Cousteau was born in 11 June 1910 in Sant-Andre-de-Cubzac in France.

Place and date of death: Jacque Cousteau died on 25 June 1997 in Paris, France.

What is Jacque Cousteau Famous For? Jacque Cousteau invented a plethora of diving devices and scuba gear. He was a filmmaker and oceanographer as well as an explorer, and probably the most famous undersea explorer in recent history. Wes Anderson’s film ‘The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou’ is also dedicated to Cousteau!

Ferdinand Magellan

Ferdinand Magellan – one of the most famous explorers of all time.

Date of birth and death: Ferdinand Magellan was born on 3 February 1480 in Northern Portugal.

Place and date of death: Ferdinand Magellan died on 27 April 1521 in Mactan in the Philippines.

What is Ferdinand Magellan Famous For? Ferdinand Magellan was the first European to sail across the Pacific Ocean (and he is the man who named it as such). Magellan had left from Spain and was aiming for the Spice Islands, now known as the Maluku Islands, near Indonesia.

He was successful, but of the five ships he set out with, only one would be able to make the return trip. Of the 270 crew members that originally set out, only 18 returned safely, and Ferdinand Magellan was not one of them.

For a long time Ferdinand Magellan was considered the first person to circumnavigate the globe, but this has since been scrutinised.

Ibn Battuta

Legendary explorer Ibn Battuta.

Date of birth and death: Ibn Battuta was born on 24 February 1304 in Tangier in Morocco.

Place and date of death: Ibn Battuta died around 1368 in Marrakesh in Morocco.

What is Ibn Battuta Famous For? Abu Abdullah Muhammad Ibn Battuta (you can see why they shortened his name) was a Moroccan known for exploring throughout Africa, in Southern and Eastern Europe, to the Middle East, India and throughout Asia over the course of 30 years. He returned to Morocco to provide a comprehensive description of Muslims around the world.

Daniel Boone

Daniel Boone in front of the map of Kentucky.

Date of birth and death: Daniel Boone was born on 2 November 1734 in Pennsylvania, USA.

Place and date of death: Daniel Boone died on 26 September 1820 in Missouri, USA.

What is Daniel Boone Famous For? Daniel Boone was the frontman of the exploration, and subsequent settlement, of the State of Kentucky in the USA.


Sacagawea, the all-important guide for Lewis and Clark.

Date of birth and death: Sacagawea was born on an unknown date in May 1788 in Lemhi County, Idaho, USA.

Place and date of death: Sacagawea died on 20 December 1812 in North Dakota, USA.

What is Sacagawea Famous For? Sacagawea was the only woman on Lewis and Clark’s famous expedition into the west of America. She was the daughter of a Shoshone chief and acted as the interpreter for Lewis and Clark on her adventure. She was crucial in emphasising the peaceful nature of Lewis and Clark’s mission to the native tribes.

Francisco Pizarro

Francisco Pizarro in front of the Peruvian map.

Date of birth and death: Francisco Pizarro was born around 1471 in Trujillo, Cáceres, Spain.

Place and date of death: Francisco Pizarro died on 26 June 1541 in Lima, Peru.

What is Francisco Pizzaro Famous For? Francisco Pizarro was a Spanish conquistador who discovered a route through the Pacific Ocean along with Vasco Núñez de Balboa, conquered Peru and subsequently founded the Peruvian city of Lima, which remains the capital to this day.

Leif Erikson

Norse explorer Leif Erikson was the first European to sail to America.

Date of birth and death: Leif Erikson was born around 970 in the Icelandic Commonwealth.

Place and date of death: Leif Erikson died around 1020 in (you guessed it) the Icelandic Commonwealth.

What is Leif Eriksson Famous For? Leif Erikson was a Norse explorer who is credited with settling Greenland and being the first European to reach America, up to 500 years before Christopher Columbus.

Francis Drake

Sir Francis Drake, in front of a map charting one of his journeys.

Place and date of birth: Sir Francis Drake was born c. 1540 in Tavistock, Devon, England.

Place and date of death: Sir Francis Drake died on 27 January 1596 in Portobelo, Colón, Portobelo District, Panama.

What is Francis Drake Famous For? Sir Francis Drake was an English admiral who is renowned for circumnavigating and documenting the world from 1577 to 1580, and going on to help defeat the Spanish Armada in 1588.

Captain Cook

Captain James Cook, the British explorer.

Place and date of birth: James Cook was born on 7 November 1728 in Marton, Yorkshire in England.

Place and date of death: James Cook died on 14 February 1779 in Kealakekua Bay in Hawaii, USA.

What is Captain Cook  Famous For? Another English sea voyager, Captain James Cook is best known for his exploration of the Pacific Ocean and accurate mapping of the area. He is also remembered for his use of science in his travels. Amongst other things, in 1770 he discovered New Zealand and the Great Barrier Reef in Australia on the ship HMB Endeavour.

Edmund Hillary

Sir Edmund Hillary, the New Zealand explorer and first man to ever summit Mt Everest.

Place and date of birth: Sir Edmund Hillary was born on 20 July 1919 in Auckland, New Zealand.

Place and date of death: Sir Edmund Hillary died on 11 January 2008 in Auckland, New Zealand.

What is Edmund Hillary Famous For? Sir Edmund Hillary is best known as the first person to ever summit Mount Everest, the highest mountain in the world, along with Sherpa Tenzing Norgay.

Henry Hudson

Henry Hudson, the explorer who lent his name to the Hudson River and Hudson Bay, where he would eventually die,

Place and date of birth: Henry Hudson was born c. 1565 in England.

Place and date of death: Henry Hudson died after 22 June 1611 around Hudson Bay in northeastern Canada.

What is Henry Hudson Famous For? Henry Hudson was hired to find a new, quicker maritime route from Europe to Asia. In 1609, on his third attempt and working for the Dutch East India Company, he sailed the Atlantic Coast, before discovering what would become the Hudson River in the USA. He would later discover the Hudson Bay, where his crew would mutiny. He paved the way for the Dutch to colonise the areas of the Hudson River.

John Cabot

John Cabot is an explorer who pushed maritime boundaries.

Place and date of birth: John Cabot was born c. 1450 in Genoa, Italy (though some argue it was actually in Gaeta, Naples).

Place and date of death: John Cabot died c. 1498. It is not known whether he died at sea or on land.

What is John Cabot Famous For? John Cabet was best known for his voyage to North America in 1497. Though his name sounds Anglo, he was actually Venetian, though his journey did allow England to lay claim to the lands of Canada.

Ernest Shackleton

Sir Ernest Shackleton is one of the most famous explorers of the modern era.

Place and date of birth: Sir Ernest Shackleton was born on 15 February 1874 in Kilkea in the Republic of Ireland.

Place and date of death: Sir Ernest Shackleton died on 5 January 1922 in the Falkland Islands.

What is Shackleton Famous For? Sir Ernest Shackleton is famous for his journeys into the Antarctic. After being sent home ill from an expedition to the Antarctic in 1901 he led the infamous Trans-Antarctic Expedition in 1914. Shackleton aimed to cross Antarctica by travelling through the South Pole. His ship the Endurance became trapped in ice and stranded the men, but the tale of Shackleton’s leadership and how he was able to save all of his crew and get back to land safely has now become the stuff of legend.

David Livingstone

David Livingstone filled in immeasurable gaps in European knowledge of African while also preaching against slavery.

Place and date of birth: David Livingstone was born on 19 March 1813 in Blantyre, Scotland.

Place and date of death: David Livingstone died on 1 May 1873 near the egde of the Bangweulu Swamps in Zambia.

What is David Livingstone Famous For? David Livingstone is known for his navigation of the continent of Africa. He travelled to introduce the African interior to Christianity, and with the aim of freeing them from slavery. His exploration provided the western world with a far better understanding of the continent of Africa and he was the first European to cross the width of Southern Africa. On his return home he talked on the horrors of the slave trade, and finally died while on an expedition to reach the source of the Nile.

Samuel de Champlain

Samuel de Champlain was the man who settled Quebec in the 17th century in Canada.

Place and date of birth: Samuel de Champlain was born on 13 August 1574 in Hiers-Brouage in France.

Place and date of death: Samuel de Champlain died on 25 December 1635 in Quebec City in Canada.

What is Samuel de Champlain Famous For? Samuel de Champlain is best known as a French explorer who settled Quebec in 1608, mapped the St. Lawrence river and created a colony for “New France”.

Roald Amundsen

Roald Amundsen was the famous explorer who was the first man to set foot on both poles.

Place and date of birth: Roald Amundsen was born on 16 July 1872 in Borge, Østfold in Norway.

Place and date of death: Roald Amundsen disappeared on 18 June 1928 while flying on a rescue mission in the Arctic.

What is Roald Amundsen Famous For? Roald Amundsen was the first man to ever set foot on the both the North and South Pole.

Zheng He

Zheng He is a famous Chinese explorer.

Place and date of birth: Zheng He was born on 23 September 1371 in Yunnan, China.

Place and date of death: Zheng He died on an unknown date in 1433 in Kozhikode, India.

What is Zhung He Famous For? Zhenge He was a Chinese explorer and commander who explored the world under orders from the emperor of China, and established numerous new trade routes along the way. He took seven main expeditions over the course of his life.

Nellie Bly

Nellie Bly was a journalist and explorer who travelled the world in 72 days.

Place and date of birth: Nellie Bly was born on 5 May 1864 in Pennsylvania, USA.

Place and date of death: Nellie Bly died on 27 January 1922 in New York, USA.

What is Nellie Bly Famous For? An investigative journalist by trade, Nellie Bly was the woman who travelled around the world in 72 days in 1889 and put the fictional adventures of Philleas Fogg to shame. She was known as a pioneer in journalism for the commitment to her stories, which including having herself admitted to an asylum for an expose on the conditions and mistreatment forced on the mentally ill.

Juan Ponce de León

Juan Ponce de Leon was the man who gave Florida its name.

Place and date of birth: Juan Ponce de León was born on 8 April 1460 in Santervas de Campos, Spain.

Place and date of death: Juan Ponce de León died on an unknown date in July 1521 in Havana in Cuba.

What is Juan Ponce de Leon Famous For? Juan Ponce de León was a Spanish conquistador who led a European voyage for gold which would take him to the South of the USA. He named Florida and became the first governor of Puerto Rico. He may have also accompanied Christopher Columbus on the 1493 journey to “the New World”.

John Franklin

Sir John Franklin lead an infamous mission on which many, including himself, perished.

Place and date of birth: Sir John Franklin was born on 16 April 1786 in Spilsby, England.

Place and date of death: Sir John Franklin died on 11 June 1847 on King William Island in Canada.

What is John Franklin Famous For? Sir John Franklin was an explorer whose lost expedition to the Arctic has earned infamy. Departing in 1845, the aim was to navigate the last uncharted territory of the Northwest Passage. The ship became stuck in ice and all 129 men on board died, including Franklin.

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