How to use Google Earth and Street View to explore the planet

Globetrot from the comfort of the couch

Google Earth
In April, Google pushed out a major update to its Google Earth app.Google

For a long stretch of human history, you had to actually go somewhere to see what it looked like. Nowadays, it's much easier to check out the world's sights from the comfort of your own home.

Virtual tourism tools are improving all the time, thanks in part to Google's efforts to map all four corners of the globe. In April, the search behemoth announced a revamp of its Google Earth software, which now runs right in your web browser. While it goes global with Google Earth, the company is helping you explore local areas with its constantly improving Street View photography.

Here's how to explore the world in each of these free apps.

How to use Google Earth

Google Earth has been with us for more than a decade now. Although it first launched as a desktop program, Google recently revamped and relaunched the program as a web application. It gives you a three dimensional, interactive twist on the foundations laid by Google Maps, which makes Google Earth perfect for touring any location you like.

Because the software now works in your browser, getting started is easier than ever. Once you go to the website, you have two options: You can either click the Launch Google Earth button to tool around yourself, or scroll down further to select one of Google's pre-made packages. The latter will send you to specific places on the globe, where you can explore the area, check out photos, and read explanatory notes.

If you choose to dive into the main interface, simply click the search button (a magnifying glass) and type where you want to go. The search field is pretty smart, so, for example, "Paris" will take you to the same place as "the capital of France."

Google Earth 3D view

Google Earth 3D view

Google Earth now provides detailed 3D views of many towns and cities.David Nield/Popular Science

The program's navigation is pretty easy to use. Try out these commands:

  • Click and drag to move.
  • Use the mouse scroll wheel or pinch your trackpad to zoom.
  • Hold down Shift, then click and drag to change the tilt level or rotate the view.
  • Hold down Ctrl and click and drag to change the viewing angle.
  • Click the buttons down in the lower right corner of the interface to control the zoom level and switch between 2D and 3D views

When you zoom into the highest level of detail, you can see just how comprehensive Google Earth's 3D modeling has become, especially in urban areas. As on Google Maps, click on any of the names to learn more about that place or landmark.

Google Earth info cards

Google Earth info cards

Info cards tell you more about a place and let you bookmark it for later.David Nield/Popular Science

In addition to navigation, you have more menu options. Use the top-left hamburger button to open up the menu, and you can find the Map Style settings dialog, which lets you customize the amount of detail you see on the screen. Other options on the menu include the Voyages tours—the pre-made packages we mentioned earlier—and places you've bookmarked for later reference. Every time a place card appears on screen, whether from a search or a click on the map, you can bookmark it using the icon at the foot of the card.

Another feature we want to flag up is the I'm Feeling Lucky option, the die icon on the left-hand menu. Click the icon to be transported to a location on the globe picked out by Google. The destination will usually be an area of natural beauty or particular interest. This is a great way to discover new places.

As well as using the web interface, you can also download Google Earth for Android or iOS (the iOS version is more than a year out of date now, but expect an update soon). The phone apps are very similar to the web interface, though you must use your fingers to navigate rather than the mouse. You can still search for, tour around, and bookmark specific locations, or choose I'm Feeling Lucky to jump to somewhere new.

How to use Street View

Google Earth is fantastic for getting an overview of a place or checking out topography on a wide scale, but Street View is better for taking a really close look at neighborhoods. Built right into Google Maps and Google Earth, Street View will be more familiar to most people. To find somewhere specific, search for it in Google Maps or Google Earth, then drag the little Pegman icon from the lower-right corner to that spot.

Blue areas on the map mark streets and places of interest where Street View imagery is available. So, once you've reached your destination, click and drag to look around. The arrows or blue lines on screen help you navigate around while in Street View, so you can take a tour without leaving the ground. You can also tap the cursor keys on the keyboard to move about.

If you don't want to go through Google Maps, Street View actually has its own portal online, where you can find some of the best photography of locations around the world. The Street View cameras have traveled along footpaths, beside railway lines, down ski runs, and up mountain faces. Now that's dedication.

Street View gallery

Street View gallery

The Street View gallery shows off some of Google's picks.David Nield/Popular Science

Not sure where you want to visit? The Gallery page makes a good starting point. It provides a constantly rotating selection of highlights from different countries. Click on any of the options to see a gallery, in which Street View imagery automatically pans around each site. Click the arrows to go forward or backward, and use your mouse's scroll wheel or your laptop's trackpad to zoom in and out.

Another benefit of the guided-tour approach is that the program shows you background information on cards, which can give you context for whatever you're looking at. It's similar to the Voyages packs in Google Earth.

Street View

Street View

Street View takes you right down to the sidewalk level.David Nield/Popular Science

Street View in Google Maps has one added bonus, which is historical imagery. Click the date link in the top-left corner while in Street View to see if older pictures are available. In a lot of places, you can go back ten years or more, to the very earliest Street View snapshots.

As with Google Earth, you can find Street View apps for Android and iOS. They let you take a virtual walk around any location you like on your smartphone screen. One advantage of installing the phone apps is that you can create your own 360-degree images and upload them to Street View. Try photographing your local street or adding a particularly beautiful spot in the countryside.