Part of what makes virtual flight joyful is the reality and authenticity of the scenery and surroundings. Whether it is the hustle and bustle of the busy metropolis-type cities below, or the wide-open plains of the countryside or mountain regions, after the flight and authenticity of the aircraft itself, it is important to make the “outside”, the scenery, equally authentic so as to achieve as realistic a flight as possible.
So, with that in mind, here are the best freeware photoreal scenery add-ons available to you in 2020.
As the article is quite lengthy, you can jump to the sections easier by using the jump links below:
Remember, all of the add-ons and mods featured in this article work with all versions of FSX and of course the Steam Edition too. What's more, all of the mods featured below also with Prepar3D including P3Dv4.
It's worth noting that almost all of the files featured below are very large and may take a long time to download depending on your internet connection. This is the nature of this type of scenery and can't be avoided.
Also worth noting is that we have chosen the best-of-the-best photoreal packages available. These freeware packages are, in our opinion, as good as the leading payware alternatives.
Firstly, Don't Forget Your Mesh
Before we jump straight into the photoreal packs we have on offer, it's highly recommended to use a terrain mesh mod to give you accurate terrain detailing and data. The mesh pack that we feature below compliments all of the scenery packs and works flawlessly with all of them.
FreeMeshX Global Terrain Mesh Scenery 2.0
Perhaps one of the best of these free mesh packs would be FreeMeshX Global Terrain Mesh Scenery 2.0, which aside from Antarctica, Greenland, and any Russian territories beyond the 60N latitude covers the entire virtual globe. However, the remainder of North America (the United States was already up to standard as the default setting), South America, Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, and Oceania all offer significant upgrades on their previous versions, with South America, Asia, and Africa all being particularly improved.
This, then, means that pretty much wherever you choose to fly, barring some of the more out-of-the-way “snowy zones”, are extremely genuine and so enriching the overall experience of virtual flying.
In total, over 400GB of raw terrain data was used to compile this pack and awaits those who choose to download this file all of which fully support FSX, FSX Steam, and P3D. And what’s more, installation is also extremely easy and streamlined. In short, this mod is essentially a must for virtual flyers.
One thing to note, though, ensure that FreeMesh X is placed above all default terrain in your Scenery Library, as well as ensuring that the add-on is below all airports, FTX regions or landclasses. You should also ensure the use of a simulator vector update tool – FTX Vectors or UTX, for example – in order that vectors adjust accordingly.
Download size: 45.41 GB
Now, moving on to the actual photoreal packs...
The United States features some of the most iconic terrain and landmarks in the world. Some of which make fascinating viewing from the air, virtual or otherwise. So, strap in while we explore of the best photoreal scenery packages for some of the finest states in America
The endless miles of sandy limestone, rocky canyons, national parks, and even the flow of the Colorado River all make Utah one of the most picturesque landscapes in the United States. And one that looks particularly stunning from the air. The package you will be downloading should you choose to explore Utah, is made from genuine aerial photographs. Of course, what this means is that every single second of your virtual flight over Utah will be unique, as opposed to the “repeating tiles” of previous versions.
Furthermore, and another small improvement that goes a long way is the wide-ranging selection of airports available for use. From such large facilities as Canyonlands Airport or to remote dirt-road type landing strips as the well-known “Needles Outpost”, the scenery for Utah is as breathtaking as it is authentic.
Perhaps just as important as what you will be getting is how easy are things to set up. The answer, in a word, is very! Simply unzip the folder on to your hard drive, open the folder named “scenery” and accompanying “readme” file, and add this to your FS library. After that, you are set to take to the skies over Utah and enjoy the views.
Download size: 37.44 GB
If there is any state in America that is packed full of scenery worth viewing from the air, it just might be the dreamland state of California. And this file offers all of the best and major landmarks as well as the detailed, varied terrain of The Golden State – all 70GBs of it. From the major cities such as Los Angeles and San Francisco to the sunny beaches and vast deserts, and mountainous snow-capped peaks, a virtual flight around California is perhaps a must for serious virtual flyers.
Whatever the destination or landmark, chances are, you will find it here. From the Golden Gate Bridge on the Pacific coast to the vastness of the Mojave Desert. Even the lakes and dunes of these most beautiful landscapes will leap out at you from the screen and make you feel as close to being over there as virtually possible.
And like most of the other American state add-ons, it is a case of un-zip, drag, and drop.
Download size: 70.99 GB
If there is a state that could match California for the picturesque settings, it could be Colorado, home of the Rockies, one of the most iconic and well-known landscapes the world over. In fact, the unique mountainous terrain of the Colorado Rockies not only makes for amazing viewing, you quite literally see what an authentic pilot would see on any journey through this airspace. A journey that is breathtaking as it is challenging.
Like many of the other add-ons, real aerial and up to date photographs are used to make up the package, providing an ever-increasing authentic experience for the virtual pilot. And much like the improvements to the aforementioned states above, the “repeating tile” situation is one that is avoided with pleasure, leaving the pilot to concentrate solely on the flight and the scenery.
This particular package is a large file download, which perhaps tells you all you need to know about the amount of detail on offer. With this in mind, it is recommended that a high-quality mesh texture package such as FreeMeshX Global, which we mentioned at the top of the article.
Download size: 16.09 GB
The state of Washington in the upper northwest of the United States is rich in green landscapes and all-American landmarks such as Seattle’s Space Needle, the beautiful rocky coastlines of Pacific Northwest, or the breathtaking and extensive national parks. In short, such cities as Seattle and Olympus are must-see destinations for any virtual pilot. Perhaps the fact that Seattle is the home to both Boeing and Microsoft makes this even more so.
This “tucked away” and largely forgotten about location for many is an aviation experience that will appear as authentic as the real thing due to the sheer amount of fine detail on offer. Furthermore, this package is ideal for those who are looking to participate in international cross-border flying, as the pilot can guide their aircraft over the Canadian border, following the Columbia River and having the opportunity to experience the abundance of changing scenery as they do so.
Like the Colorado package above, a high-quality mesh texture package is recommended in order to gain the fullest experience. And, like the other American state sceneries, installation is literally a case of two clicks, a drag, and a drop.
Download size: 31.62 GB
Sandwiched between the iconic states of California and Washington, both of which are also available as downloads above, Oregon would happily complete the entire west coast of the United States, enabling the pilot to take his plane from San Diego near the Mexican border to Seattle near the Canadian one.
Oregon has some stunning coastline to take in – all of which has been replicated in stunning and meticulous detail – as well as such well-known location as the state’s Ring of Fire volcano site. In fact, almost every last detail of the state of Oregon has been recorded and reproduced for the pleasure of the virtual pilot.
As the file is particularly large – again a reflection on the amount of stunning detail available – a high-quality mesh package is recommended to get the full experience of this most fascinating and often overlooked states of the United States. From Salem to Portland and the west coast country in between, the Oregon package is a must for the beginner or experienced pilots alike.
Download size: 44.39 GB
Not only is almost every last inch of the state of Wyoming on offer in this package, but it is also arguably one of the best displays of mountainous terrain any virtual pilot is likely to fly over. It is a state that you will likely find yourself overlooking from the virtual aircraft time and again, much like actual pilots would do if all their time was their own, no doubt.
This open backcountry to the United States is like a country within a country, offering vastly different views to many other of the photoreal scenery add-ons for the United States. While the file size isn’t as large as some of those on offer, as before a high-quality mesh texture package is still recommended in order to get the full experience of flying virtually over the mountainous terrain of Wyoming.
The set-up of this add-on is simplicity from start to finish which delivers particularly well in terms of absolute authenticity to the actual terrain.
Download size: 25.1 GB
Although certain areas of Idaho are not covered in this recent package, the vast majority of the middle-American state has been. Similar to the state of Wyoming the mountainous landscapes over Idaho are truly breathtaking and have been captured and replicated in their stunning beauty here. And there is plenty to see, including the Craters of the Moon National Monument.
The state capitol, Boise is also superbly represented here, replicated in detail and accuracy to the last detail. Furthermore, should you wish to take a more military-style flight over Idaho, you can do so in a military jet and then the fighter plan at Mountain Home Air Force Base.
Download size: 33.57 GB
Of course, as picturesque and stunning the terrain of the United States of America is, the terrain of Europe is equally so. Some of the new photoreal available with the European add-ons are certainly worth checking out. Here are some of the best free ones available.
The scenery of Cyprus perhaps offers the best ever terrain and landmarks of the island in the south of Europe. Over 9,000 square miles are on offer, all covered in the most minute and authentic detail. All of the historic monuments and remains are replicated to an extremely high standard, including the vast and varied influences that have left their mark on the country throughout history.
The entire island is covered, including the busy city regions, making such lively locations as the capital, Nicosia, absolutely swell with activity appearing much as it would should you be flying over the ancient island in reality.
Furthermore, this add-on is easy to install and compatible with the most popular mesh add-ons, as well as being fully suitable for FSX and FSX Steam. The file itself is relatively large, although once installed the amount of detail that leaps out at you from the ground below justifies all 5GBs of data.
Download size: 5.35 GB
Perhaps lesser known by comparison to some of the other European nations, Albania in the east of Europe certainly offers no less and more than holds its own in terms of breathtaking scenery and intriguing, diverse terrain. In fact, it is the diverseness of the scenery below that makes this add-on all the more appealing, meaning every flight has the potential to offer you something different.
For the virtual pilots who have ventured over previous versions Albania, they will appreciate instantly how much of a vast improvement this offering really is. Literally, every last stretch of land has been meticulously covered.
From the bustling capital city of Tirana to the industrial heartlands, and the major landmarks, all have been reproduced in great detail, meaning anyone who chooses to head out over into the virtual skies of Albania with this package will experience an authentic and interesting journey.
Like many of the other similar photoreal packages, the files if relatively large at 6GB, but is simple to install, and worth the space on the hard drive.
Download size: 6.84 GB
Right off the bat, we should state the add-on for Hungary, at one stage one of the leading nations of Europe, is a very large file standing at just over 16GB. However, once you take to the virtual skies, flying over such iconic and famous cities as Budapest, you will realize that every last byte of data has been put to good use.
Much like other European nations, the upgrade on offer here is substantial and significant, and even for virtual fliers who have ventured this way before, the experience will be akin to a new destination such is the amount of detail that has been captured and represented here. In total, over 93,000 square miles of landscape, cities, and landmarks have been replicated. In what is truly one of the most underappreciated hubs of Europe, those who make the decision to install this Hungary add-on won’t regret doing so.
Once again, the file is significantly large, but is simple to install, and is compatible with the main popular mesh add-ons, perhaps the most ideal being FreeMesh X Global.
Download size: 16.37 GB
Although only a relatively small country, with an add-on download size of just over 2GB, the add-on for Kosovo is as interesting and detailed as the history of the nation itself. And the amount of detail that is available throughout is stunning, which adds up to just short of 11,000 square miles.
From the major cities to the stunning landmarks, those who choose to head out over the landlocked nation will find plenty of amazing and picturesque views to greet them. Indeed, the absolute entirety of the country has been replicated to outstanding quality, every last rich and diverse mile of it. And given the complex and controversial backstory to the nation, it is one that is perhaps more than worth having a virtual fly over.
This is compatible with the usual mesh expansions and, of course, is extremely easy to install.
Download size: 2.63 GB
By contrast to the Kosovo pack above, the Macedonia equivalent stands at over 25GB of data, all of which translates to over 25,713 square km of detailed, authentic, and diverse terrain and landmass. And much like other European countries in the eastern region, many of the previous versions would offer a “bland experience” of dull land below.
Now, however, with this latest free add-on, the detail is much precise making a virtual flight over Macedonia as interesting as the country itself. All of the major cities and towns are replicated, as are the vast, but now interesting in their detail, stretches of farm and agricultural areas. Even the many lakes and rivers now stand out more due to their authenticity. Whether taking a commercial airliner over this masterful European nation or flying a small Cessna-type plane, the flight will be packed full of interesting and genuine scenery.
Despite the large size of the add-on, installation is easy, and the program is compatible with the usually recommended mesh texture packages.
Download size: 25.49 GB
Many of us might remember the former nation of Yugoslavia, and the many conflicts that erupted there in the early-to-mid 1990s. Once you take to the virtual skies over Slovenia, which was once part of Yugoslavia, it is easy from studying the fascinating terrain below as to why this was such an important and concentrated area of the troubles. Essentially, it is a vital trade route between mainland Europe and the eastern states that emerged following the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
As well as the political and economic importance, the land itself is some of the most beautiful on offer throughout all of Europe. And what’s more, almost all of this beauty is captured and replicated in this free add-on, with most of the major cities and significant landmarks covered, totaling around 20,000 square kilometers in just over 16GB of data.
Easy to install and compatible with mesh texture packages such as FreeMesh X Global, this is a must for anyone who wishes to virtually explore the eastern parts of Europe.
Download size: 16.11 GB
The largest of the former Yugoslavian nations is without doubt Serbia. And that is more than reflected in the 35GB of detail that makes up this package for the country. As well as the largest, it is also, generally speaking, one of the most important of countries of eastern Europe, and perhaps a must for anyone with an interest in exploring the landscapes of these historically interesting nations.
There is just short of 90,000 square kilometers available to fly over, and should you wish to reconstruct the entirety of the Eastern Europe region, it works well with Slovenia, Kosovo, Macedonia, and Albania.
From the capital city of Belgrade – one of the most historic and beautiful cities in all of Europe – to the sprawling farmlands and countryside. Those who opt to download this add-on will likely find themselves taking to the Serbian skies more and more.
Download size: 34.84 GB
Given that Malta is, relatively speaking a small island, in terms of flight simulation, it has often been overlooked in terms of the detail of the terrain below. However, this latest mod/expansion changes that perspective and offers a rich and detailed replication of the island in its entirety. And although the island stands at only 333 square km, there is a late to see, with it being contained within just short of 2GB.
There are also some remarkable coastal details of the lapping Mediterranean Sea. In short, any virtual air travel over this terrain would be enjoyable, but a small twin-seater plane journey would be ideal.
The attention to detail available here is outstanding, and the add-on for Malta has a lot packed in for your enjoyment. Easy to install and of only minimal size, this is perhaps another must destination for virtual pilots in 2020.
Download size: 1.47 GB
Other (Middle East/Asia)
Of course, while the Americas and Europe take up vast, vast stretched of the planet, there are other interesting locations a little further afield that you might wish to look at. Below are two of the best of these.
One of the most interesting countries in the world, both in contemporary times and in history is Israel. And this new mod manages to brilliantly capture the detail and terrain of this stunning, complex, and intriguing parts of the world.
Over 22,000 square km is on offer, including the major cities, ports and wide-open plains. Furthermore, such key and historic territories as Palestine, the Gaza Strip, and Golan Heights are all available for inspection from the virtual skies.
The package itself stands at just short of 9GB of space and is worth every last byte. This package, given the interesting landmarks and the sheer attention to detail within them, will be one that any virtual pilot who chooses to take to Israeli skies will find themselves coming back repeatedly in order to view the geographically diverse terrain and historic landmarks.
Download size: 8.42 GB
At around half the size of Israel at just short of 5GB, this expansion pack for the Republic of Lebanon is no less detailed or alluring. And this version for Lebanon is, without doubt, the most comprehensive to date. One of the major Asian countries, all of the major cities have been replicated as well as stunning terrain, from farmland to the long stretches of desert land and the mountain regions. It is a destination that is both historic and worthy of investigation.
With over 10,000 square km of scenery reproduced, the entire country is ready and waiting to be explored from the comfort of your own computer chair.
The add-on, like all of the others mentioned here, is easy to install and is compatible with most of the other FSX and FSX Steam mods on the market and of course, all of the mesh terrain files (FreeMeshX in particular).
Download size: 4.66 GB
It's worth noting that some users may call photoreal (or photorealistic) scenery, VFR scenery. This is essentially the same thing. VFR stands for visual flight rules which means that you are flying the aircraft by sight and not using the instruments. VFR flying is generally based on landmarks, points of interest and generally known locations on the terrain below the aircraft. All of the add-on packages available in the article above are essentially VFR scenery. They enable you to view the world as it would appear in real life with roads, landmarks and towns, and cities all true-to-life which you can use for visual navigation.
...so there you have it; our 2020 guide to the best freeware photoreal mods that work with pretty much any platform (apart from X-Plane). If you are interested in X-Plane scenery, do check out our article covering photoreal for XP11.
All of the expansions above are of course large files and may take a long time to download depending on your internet connection speed. They are most definitely worth the wait, though. All of the files featured in this article have been tested on Microsoft Flight Simulator X (standard, Gold and Acceleration), Microsoft Flight Simulator X: Steam Edition and Prepar3D (all versions including P3Dv4).
While we have only mentioned a few files above, do take the time to check out our entire scenery section here. Also, our file library features more than just scenery. We have aircraft, missions and many mods/expansions - check out the entire FSX section here. And don't forget, if it works with FSX, chances are it'll work with P3D too. Finally, we have just launched our P3Dv4 compatible freeware section here.
We would love to hear your opinions. Please post your comments in the section below. What's your favorite file? What package did you enjoy the most? Have we missed any? What other areas would you like to see?