Great Explorers: Alma Karlin Maximiliana

“If I was to be born again, I wish to be a bird so I can travel.”

Alma Karlin Maximiliana dreamed of escaping her domineering mother’s reach. She wished to forge her own path. Her determination, helped her become one of the early 20th century’s most accomplished female travelers.

Karlin Maximiliana was one of the first European women to travel the world alone. The early 20th century was characterized by global wars, xenophobia, and dramatic political shifts which made travel dangerous.

Who was Alma Karlin Maximiliana?

Karlin Maximiliana grew up in Celje, Slovenia in the late 1800s. Alma had a close relationship with her father, who inspired her to travel. “If you start to travel westbound and travel for a long time, you will eventually end up in the same spot,” he told her. Her father’s death left her devastated.

On the other hand, her relationship with her mother was strained. Her mother obsessed over her daughter’s reputation. She forced Karlin Maximiliana to be a proper lady, to dress elegantly, and to prepare for marriage. Because of her mother’s opinions and strict upbringing, Karlin Maximiliana grew up with many insecurities, particularly regarding her appearance. 

Alma Karlin Maximiliana.

Alma Karlin Maximiliana. Photo: Unknown


Growing up, Karlin Maximiliana was the opposite of what her mother expected of her. She was a tomboy with unconventional interests like photography, writing, and linguistics. Free-spirited, curious, adventurous, and innovative, she did not let her many illnesses hold her back. She excelled at languages which further drove her desire to explore.

“I must go. Something inside me forces me to do this, and I will not find peace if I do not follow this force,” she wrote.

Voluntary exile

At 19, she decided to make her move and escape her mother’s influence. She left for London to study at a prestigious language school. Referring to it as “voluntary exile,” she enjoyed it to the fullest. She met people from around the world and learned about their cultures. She mastered English, Spanish, French, Italian, Russian, all of the Scandinavian languages, Chinese, Sanskrit, and Latin. During her travels in Europe, she even picked up Esperanto. A personal project was a dictionary with 10 languages in one. She carried it with her everywhere she went. 

Karlin Maximiliana also had a spiritual side. She became fascinated with theosophy (a religion established in the United States during the late 19th century) and explored its philosophy and the occult. She wrote several works on her thoughts about the movement. However, later in her life, she gravitated toward the Roman Catholic Church.

World War I forced Karlin Maximiliana to leave the UK. However, she saw this as an opportunity. She headed off on an eight-year trip around the world, taking only a suitcase of clothes, her typewriter named Erika, her trusty self-made dictionary, and a small amount of money.


Karlin Maximiliana did not have generational wealth to support her travels. She was self-made and self-sustaining, earning her way by writing for local newspapers, giving lectures, providing professional translations, and working for ambassadors in embassies.

She went to South and North America, Asia, Australia, New Zealand, and the remote Pacific. She visited around 45 countries.

Alma Karlin Maximiliana in the 1920s.

Alma Karlin Maximiliana in the 1920s. Photo: Digital Library of Slovenia


She loved Asia most, visiting China, Japan, Taiwan, Indonesia, and Korea. Japan and China held a special place in her heart, Japanese art and customs enthralled her. The people were quite taken with her as well. She was briefly engaged to a Chinese gentleman but they broke it off.

Traveling as a lone woman came with many challenges. People tried to assault her, rob her, kill her, and imprison her. Yet she persevered.

She compiled a three-volume travelogue that proved very successful in the late 1920s and into the 1930s. The travelogue was translated into German and Finnish.

Karlin Maximiliana was never lucky with her health. She had breast cancer and suffered from depression. She eventually stopped traveling and returned to Slovenia, where she continued to dedicate her time to writing.


Slovenia hails Karlin Maximiliana as a cultural hero. She is a testament to perseverance and determination. Despite her conditions and difficulties, she forged ahead and lived a full, fascinating life.

Kristine De Abreu

Kristine De Abreu is a writer at ExplorersWeb.

Kristine has been writing about Science, Mysteries and History for 4+ years. Prior to that, Kristine studied at the University of Leicester in the UK.

Based in Port-of-Spain, Kristine is also a literature teacher, avid reader, hiker, occasional photographer, an animal lover and shameless ramen addict.