The Incredible Adventures of Ida Pfeiffer

By | April 5, 2019

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An illustration of Cape Horn from The Story of Ida Pfeiffer and Her Travels in Many Lands. Source: (digitized by Project Gutenberg)

Ida Pfeiffer led an unlikely second career as one of the world’s first female explorers. Born in 1797 in Vienna as Ida Laura Reyer, she hailed from a middle-class family with five brothers and one younger sister. She was treated as a boy by the family, a role she embraced. One biographer commented, “Dolls she contemptuously put aside, preferring drums; and a sword or a gun was valued at much more than a doll’s house.” 

It was only at the age of ten after her father died that her mother forced her to adopt female norms, such as wearing a dress. In 1820 at age 23 she entered an arranged marriage to an attorney 24 years her senior. She had two sons with her husband, but eventually, the couple became estranged and lived apart. The family was wracked by financial troubles, but Pfeiffer prudently invested and saved to pay for her boys’ tuition.

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Ida Pfeiffer photographed by Franz Hanfstaengl (1856). Source: (

An Overwhelming Desire

Pfeiffer’s overwhelming desire was to see the world. This dream was realized only when her sons became independent. In March 1842, at the age of forty-five, she took to the road intent on visiting Palestine and the Holy Land.

She told her family and friends that she was going to visit an acquaintance in Constantinople (Istanbul). After a steamer voyage down the Danube, she reached the ancient city and then journeyed to Jerusalem, Egypt, and the Red Sea. She returned to Vienna vis-à-vis Italy.

Pfeiffer proved adaptable. While in Palestine she found a group of male tourists who asked if she could ride a horse, offering her one. Confidently, she climbed onto the steed and took off – it was her first time riding.