In 19th-century Europe, women rarely traveled far, especially not alone, so Ida Pfeiffer had to come up with a good excuse. The Viennese housewife told her friends and family that she was going to visit a friend in Constantinople, but she really planned to go all the way to what is now Israel. Later, when questioned about her audacious journey, she said that her trip was a religious pilgrimage. The real reason, however, was that she wanted to explore the world like a man could—bravely, independently, following her curiosity.
At the time, travel in these regions was perilous, especially for a solitary woman. Pfeiffer, 45 years old, with neither status nor wealth, felt there was a high chance she would not return. In 1842, she got her will in order and set off down the Danube on a steamer. Over the course of about nine months, she passed through the Black Sea to the Holy Land, down to Egypt, and finally to Italy before arriving back home. Along the way, she sailed through river rapids, rode long hours on horseback through the desert, and braved mobs who stared at and manhandled her because she was such an extraordinary sight.
It would have been seen as immodest for a lady to pursue writing about her adventures, but a savvy publisher persuaded Pfeiffer to let him print her observations and reflections—anonymously at first, then under her own name. The book, Journey of a Viennese Lady to the Holy Land, became the first of a string of bestsellers and launched her travel career, which spanned 16 years, 150,000 miles by sea, and 20,000 miles on land, including two trips around the world. No known woman had ever traveled alone so far and lived to write about it.
“That’s what made her so famous,” says John van Wyhe, a historian of science at the National University of Singapore and the author of Wanderlust: The Amazing Ida Pfeiffer, the First Female Tourist, which was released this month. “Everywhere she went, people were just astonished that she was traveling by herself. She’s such an improbable hero—she’s not wealthy, she’s not beautiful, she’s not educated—and yet she does all of these amazing things.”
Pfeiffer was born in 1797 in Vienna, and she endured an unusual upbringing that prepared her well for her later pursuits. Her father was a well-to-do merchant but ran an austere household, toughening up his seven children with meager diets and few comforts. But he also allowed young Ida to wear boys’ clothing and romp around with her five brothers. (She also had a sister who was born later.) “I was not shy,” she wrote decades later of her childhood, “but wild as a boy, and bolder and more forward than my elder brothers.”
“She’s such an improbable hero—she’s not wealthy, she’s not beautiful, she’s not educated—and yet she does all of these amazing things.”
When she was almost nine, Pfeiffer’s father died, and her mother began imposing the strictures of girlhood that Pfeiffer detested, like wearing dresses and playing the piano. She read travelogues and, when she realized she was barred from joining the military because of her gender, set her sights on travel and science. When Pfeiffer was in her early twenties, she was married off against her wishes to an affluent widower and gave birth to two sons. For a couple of decades, Pfeiffer raised her children and, when her husband couldn’t find work, lived in poverty. She taught drawing and music lessons to keep the family afloat. After her sons had homes of their own, she started daydreaming again about seeing the world.
At the time, there were some popular women travel authors, such as Isabella Frances Romer and Lady Hester Stanhope, who journeyed with their husbands or male escorts. Pfeiffer’s husband was too old to travel (and she may not have wanted him to come), and she was not wealthy enough to travel in style like the authors she had read. But with a small inheritance from her mother, who died in 1831, she set off anyway.
On her second expedition, in 1845, she headed north to see Scandinavia and Iceland, traipsing between hot springs and geysers and climbing up an active volcano. She taught herself to speak English and Danish, take daguerreotypes, and collect and preserve animal, mineral, and plant specimens. Upon her return to Austria, she sold the specimens to museums and wrote another book, financing her biggest undertaking yet: a trip around the world.
In 1846, she took off on a sailing ship (sailboats were cheaper than steamers) across the Atlantic to Brazil. Over more than two years, she plunged into the rainforests of South America, weathered the turbulent waters of Cape Horn, hopscotched across South Pacific Islands, made fast friends with the queen of Tahiti, accompanied a tiger hunt in India, and visited a harem in Iran. While Pfeiffer was attacked several times and barred from entering certain places that were reserved for men, she was mostly treated kindly. Some historians say she may have even enjoyed more safety traveling as a woman, simply because she was such a curiosity.
By this time, Pfeiffer was famous. News of her uncommon exploits splashed across newspapers around the world. Later in her travel career, hotels and ships offered her free rooms and passages because of her celebrity. She was described as petite, plain, and slightly stooped, but one who moved with deliberation. Although she was staid and reserved, she also had prodigious energy, going to places few Europeans had ever seen.
She plowed through jungles at an indomitable speed, tiring out her guides, and once asked the crew of a sailboat to tie her to a mast, like Odysseus, so she could fully experience the fury of a storm without being swept away, according to Van Wyhe. She also didn’t take any nonsense—when one donkey driver tried to cheat her in Alexandria, Egypt, for example, she pulled out her horsewhip and gave him a couple of good smacks.
While Pfeiffer insists on her own simplicity and humility in her books—perhaps an attempt to adhere to gender norms—she was also keenly observant, unsparingly judgmental, and wry. “Much was spoken, and little understood,” she wrote about dining with a family in Jaffa (which she refers to as Joppa), Israel, and navigating a language barrier. “The same thing is said often to be the case in learned societies; so it was not of much consequence.”
In her own lifetime, Pfeiffer’s books were translated into seven languages. The king of Prussia awarded her a gold medal in the arts and sciences. Explorer Alexander von Humboldt and the geographer Carl Ritter extolled her accomplishments, helping her to become the first woman recognized as an honorary member in the geographical societies of Berlin and Paris. Today thousands of Pfeiffer’s specimens remain in European museums and institutions, and several species are named after her.
On several occasions, Pfeiffer considered retiring, but her curiosity and restless spirit compelled her abroad. On her last trip, to Madagascar and Mauritius, she was caught up in a coup, expelled, and fell ill, perhaps with malaria. She never fully recovered and died in Austria on October 27, 1858. She was 63.
After her death, Pfeiffer’s books remained popular through the 1880s but then fell out of print. Inspired by her example as well as others, more women started traveling alone, and the late 19th and early 20th centuries spawned a cohort of famous and adventurous solo women travel authors, including Isabelle Eberhardt and Freya Stark. One can only imagine Pfeiffer’s astonishment.