Given the White Continent accounts for some 5.5 million square miles—not counting the Antarctic and sub-Antarctic islands many consider equal draws—it’s not necessarily an easy matter neatly defining the top places to go in Antarctica. Anywhere cruise ships, expedition vessels, and flights go here is utterly amazing, and unlike any other place on Earth.
That said, we’re taking a stab at rounding up the foremost places of interest in Antarctica for sightseeing, fully aware we’re leaving off many piercingly beautiful, outrageously dramatic, and soul-stirringly adventurous locales. We’re spotlighting some of the chief attractions of each, though you’ll notice “scenery” shows up with most (and, really, could be applied to all): such is the otherworldliness of the Antarctic zone’s land- and seascapes.
Best For: Wildlife, Scenery, Adventure
For many travelers, the Antarctic Peninsula is the White Continent: the part of this enormous, back-of-beyond landmass they’ll actually see and interact with. Fortunately, this most northerly extremity of Antarctica, which extends well above of the Antarctic Circle to a tip only a bit more than 600 miles from Tierra del Fuego, happens to be one of the globe’s most spectacular places.
Here, mountains loom past 10,000 feet, with steep-walled fjords and rugged islands composing a glorious coast. Iconic landmarks include the volcanic mesa—a classic example of a tuya—of Brown Bluff and the basaltic fangs of Una’s Peaks. Classic sightseeing routes include the sublime subpolar tableaus of Hope Bay, Paradise Bay, and the Lemaire Channel (aka “Kodak Alley”). Extensively (but completely) iced-over as it is, the Antarctic Peninsula is the mildest part of the continent, especially along the western coast with its oceanic climate. Summertime wildlife sightings abound, from gentoos, chinstraps, and numerous other penguin species to seabirds, seals, and whales.
Best For: Icebergs, Wildlife
Separating the Antarctic Peninsula from East Antarctica’s Coats Land, the Weddell Sea is one of the most beautiful places in Antarctica: an endlessly enigmatic realm boasting perhaps the clearest waters of any corner of the World Ocean. Ice shelves such as the Filcher-Ronne—second-biggest in Antarctica, after the Ross Shelf—and the Larsen edge this fabulously remote sea, and hulking tabular icebergs are defining features: reason enough to see this waterway, if it’s accessible and not utterly ice-choked.
Then there’s the wildlife, not least penguins: droves of Adélie penguins, first and foremost, but also the northernmost colony of emperor penguins off Snow Hill Island. Weddell, crabeater, and leopard seals haunt the sea, which seasonally also supports humpback and minke whales as well as orcas.
Best For: Scenery, History
The open waters of the World Ocean draw to their southernmost point at the Bay of Whales in the Ross Sea. The sea continues southward toward the White Continent’s bedrock shores, but comes capped by the roughly 190,000-square-mile Ross Ice Shelf: the greatest on Earth. Those who sail or fly over the Ross Sea can marvel at the ice shelf’s dramatic front, which extends more than 300 miles and rises better than 100 feet tall in places. That’s not the only stirring scenery on offer, either: Ross Island mounts to several volcanic summits, including the 12,448-foot edifice of Mount Erebus, Earth’s southernmost active volcano, glowing with a lava lake in its summit crater.
Along with the cosmic scenery—and a rich marine ecosystem founded on krill blooms and culminating in seals and whales—the Ross Sea stirs the imagination with its rich history. Remote and partly ice-shelved as it is, this roughly 370,000-square-mile embayment offers more direct access to the polar interior than other Antarctic seas, perhaps most famously being used by Roald Amundsen as the starting point for his successful South Pole sojourn. It’s thus one of the best places to visit in Antarctica for history buffs. The sea’s named after the British Royal Navy explorer, James Clark Ross, whose ships Erebus and Terror first forayed into its waters in January 1841. Those who land on Ross Island can see the historic huts of Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton dating from the Discovery and Nimrod expeditions.
Best For: Scenery
Among the most all-around interesting places in Antarctica, the McMurdo Dry Valleys also rank as perhaps the driest zone on Planet Earth. They are the largest expanse of ice-free ground on the White Continent, forming a nearly 2,000-square-mile “Antarctic oasis” amid the predominantly glazed-over wilderness. The strong katabatic winds blasting down into the Taylor, Wright, and Victoria valleys off the surrounding Transantarctic Mountains—which also block ice-sheet incursions—mostly explain their aridity and barrenness.
There’s tremendous austere beauty in the McMurdo Dry Valleys: peak-ringed, scattered with frozen saline lakes and the odd mummified seal carcass. No feature here is quite so eye-catching as Blood Falls, where red, iron-rich outflow from a subglacial pool cascades down to the frozen lid of West Lake Bonney.
Best For: Scenery, Climbing, Adventure
Antarctica boasts an abundance of dazzlingly beautiful, dazzlingly isolated mountain ranges, but none rise so high or so commandingly as the Ellsworth Mountains of West Antarctica. This block of continental crust reaches only modest heights in its southern section—the Heritage Range—but soars impressively skyward to the north in the Sentinel Range, host to all but two of the White Continent’s loftiest peaks, including five summits above 15,000 feet. The crowning mountain, the Vinson Massif, forms the 16,050-foot apex of Antarctica, thus making it one of the “Seven Summits” so lusted-after by globe-trotting mountaineers.
Climbers certainly find an adventure of a lifetime among the Sentinel ramparts, but anyone inspired by the rawest of wilderness scenery will also relish the chance to tent out here.
Best For: Adventure, Photo Ops, History
Most Antarctic travelers don’t make it all the way to the Geographic South Pole, but even being in relative proximity to this farflung-est piece of terra firma is a thrill. For those who do make the airborne journey, the South Pole—set up at 9,200 feet on the Polar Plateau—rewards with its ends-of-the-Earth ambience, historical significance, and (ahem) bragging rights.
Reflect on the tremendous efforts undertaken by explorers to reach this prized piece of real estate, visit the U.S.-run Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station (named after the first two said explorers to reach the spot), and memorialize your visit at the festively flag-flanked Ceremonial South Pole.
Best For: Wildlife, Scenery
Commonly incorporated into White Continent cruises—it lies in the Scotia Sea 900-odd miles from the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula—South Georgia, part of a British Overseas Territory along with the South Sandwich Islands, very much holds its own as a bucket-list travel destination. The vistas, for one thing, are extraordinary: This ravishingly rugged island rears from beaches, sea cliffs, and fjords to glacier-swaddled mountain horns rising to more than 9,000 feet.
And then there’s the fauna. South Georgia deserves a slot on the shortlist of the world’s greatest wildlife-watching destinations. More penguins—multiple kinds, but particularly kings, gentoos, and macaronis—breed here than anywhere else, alongside hordes of seabirds: among them Antarctic prions (whalebirds) and a significant share of the globe’s stock of wandering albatross, which boasts the greatest wingspan of any bird. By far the majority of southern fur seals gather here in raucous rookeries, and roughly half the planet’s population of southern elephant seals—biggest of all pinnipeds—as well, with battles between titanic bulls over “beachmaster” status among the supreme wildlife spectacles of the Antarctic realm.
Best For: Scenery, Wildlife
Lying between 60 and 70 miles off the Antarctic Peninsula, the South Shetland Islands are, for many tourists, the true gateway to the White Continent. This archipelago of 20-odd islands greets passengers who’ve braved the Drake Passage (which separates the South Shetlands from Tierra del Fuego) with thrilling Antarctic flavor, from the mountain glaciers and snowfields to the clamoring colonies of penguins, seabirds, and seals. A must-see part of the South Shetlands is Deception Island, among the only confirmed active volcanoes in the Antarctic, with a spectacular harbor contained within its drowned caldera.
Besides a number of international research stations, King George Island, the largest of the South Shetlands, supports an airfield at which sightseers on Drake Passage-skipping fly-and-cruise itineraries land from Punta Arenas, Chile.
Particularly when the main tourist circuits are considered, the above eight locations are certainly sturdy contenders for the top places to visit in Antarctica (and its surrounds). Each and every one of them casts a heck of a polar spell!
You May Also Be Interested In
Our travel guides are for informational purposes only. While we aim to provide accurate and up-to-date information, Antarctica Cruises makes no representations as to the accuracy or completeness of any information in our guides or found by following any link on this site.
Antarctica Cruises cannot and will not accept responsibility for any omissions or inaccuracies, or for any consequences arising therefrom, including any losses, injuries, or damages resulting from the display or use of this information.