painting of Venice a stop on the Grand Tour of Europe
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What was the Grand Tour of Europe and how to recreate it, 21st-century edition

As the most visited continent, Europe is a popular tourist destination.  Today, pretty much anyone can explore European cities and cultures. However, travel in the past was limited and only accessible to the wealthy. Enter the Grand Tour, the rite of passage of the young English aristocrats (not Jeremy Clarkson’s TV series) that was all the rage during the 17th and 18th centuries.

You could almost say that the Grand Tour of Europe concept was revived once again in the post-war world. Many students embarking on a gap year would go backpacking in Europe to find themselves before embarking on adulthood’s realities and responsibilities. Same idea, with two different approaches. It’s still a popular activity today.

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What exactly was the Grand Tour of Europe?

The concept of the Grand Tour of Europe originated somewhere in the mid-17th century. It was typically undertaken by young British aristocrats coming of age (around 21 years old). These men (and very few women from wealthy families) would undertake a tour of the continent as a way of enriching their education. They would embark on this adventure searching for art and cultural experiences, usually accompanied by a tutor/guardian.

While the tour originated among the Englishmen, the sons of wealthy Germans and other northern Europeans also took on this practice. There were even wealthy North and South Americans coming to Europe for cultural polishing. It’s not to say that you had to be wealthy to want to learn more about culture and history. Unfortunately, travel in the 17th and 18th centuries was expensive, which meant you needed substantial wealth to afford it. Thus, limiting who could partake in this experience.

Basilica di San Marco in Venice
Venice – a popular stop on the European Grand Tour

The European Grand Tour could take anywhere from several months to years. Yes, years. That means you had to be able to have enough wherewithal for covering lodgings, transportation and extra-curricular activities for you and your companion. While it was supposed to be a learning experience, unsurprisingly, it often resembled a life of debauchery. These young men were more interested in drinking, gambling and amorous liaisons than they were in sketching ruins and journaling about their experience.

What exactly happened during the Grand Tour of Europe?

The whole purpose of the Tour was to further one’s education. These young men would have received the best education available to them in school, including philosophy, literature, art, architecture and languages. The tour was like a rite of passage deemed necessary for these young men before taking on their role in society and politics.

Travel to the continent was meant to broaden their horizons, provide some social polish, and make important connections. They would often travel with letters of reference that secured their audience with many influential people, including the French and Italian royalty, and British diplomats stationed abroad.

Paris city of Lights at night
Paris – alluring visitors for centuries

In addition to making valuable contacts, the Tour provided awareness and exposure to other cultures and foreign lands. Today, we still travel to foreign places to learn about the customs and cultures that are different than our own. They just did it with more resources.

As the tour could last a few years, the experience was definitely life-changing. In a world without TV, the Internet and social media, people didn’t have a lot of access to learning about other cultures. This was one of the ways to experience them for yourself. After travelling and living in various countries, it would have been quite a shock coming back home.

What was the European Grand Tour itinerary?

NOTE: It’s important to mention that many of these countries we know today and reference here did not exist during the Grand Tour. Italy, Germany and Switzerland didn’t become countries until the second half of the 19th century. Before that happened, several independent states existed in their place. However, for ease of reference, I’m going to refer to them by the names we know today.

The European Grand Tour generally started in London. The travellers would have to make their way to Dover, where they crossed the English Channel to Calais, France. It’s worth mentioning that the passage could be a gruelling experience, and many risked getting sea-sick, ill or shipwrecked. It took about three days to cross the Channel.

France

Once you made it to France, the next stop on your journey was Paris. While today this might seem like a great idea for a scenic road trip, the journey would have been done as quickly as possible in those days. There was no lingering to admire the countryside. It was a different time, and one had to be wary of threats like bands of unsavoury characters waiting to take advantage of unsuspecting travellers. As the gentleman would be travelling with his tutor/guardian (often referred to as bear-leader), valet, staff and coachmen, he would be eager to make it to his destination without any issues.

aerial view of Paris with Eiffel Tower in the background
Paris was a popular start to one’s European Grand Tour

Paris has always been the cultural centre of Europe. Many young men came here to refine their manners, clothes and the experience of the French court and high society. It’s easy to see how seductive Paris might have been to a young man finally on his own with a considerable amount of money at his disposal. It’s also unsurprising that those with enough resources would stay in Paris for an extended amount of time.

Those with less monetary wealth often made Paris their main focus and stayed there before heading back home. Those that had more money at their disposal travelled to their next destination. Quite often, it was through the Alps to Switzerland before arriving in Italy.  

Want to know more about Paris? Read Why you should visit the City of Lights!

Italy

The itinerary of the Grand Tour of Europe was not fixed. However, after Paris, it was commonly accepted that one travelled on to admire Italy’s art, culture and history. Crossing the Alps was a challenging experience as there were no trains or carriage roads. The journey would be made by dismantling a carriage and using a mule and numerous pulleys to carry it over.

While you could have arrived by boat in Genoa, there was the threat of pirates, which obviously made that a riskier choice. Those that made it to Italy were rewarded with an unapparelled experience. Venice, Florence, Rome and Naples were the standard route, although you could have ventured out to other places.

What was the Grand Tour of Europe and how to recreate it, 21st-century edition | kasiawrites
Rome a “must-see” stop on the European Grand Tour

Thanks to the rise and influence of the Renaissance in the 14th to 16th centuries, Italian culture dominated Europe. As Italian artists, painters and scholars travelled to other European courts, they brought with them an appreciation for philosophy, arts and literature, and fashion.

It’s not surprising that many would want to visit Italy and see the glory of what was once the Roman Empire for themselves. This became especially popular after the re-discovery of Pompeii and the nearby towns. We still do that today, and if you’re like me, you love exploring ancient ruins.

As most travellers ended their tour in Italy, they made their way back home in a similar way or by travelling through similar routes before they boarded the ship back home. The journey there and back could be lengthy, adding about six months just in travel time.

With the revival of interest in the classical world, you might wonder why Greece wasn’t on the Grand Tour of Europe itinerary. That’s because Greece was under the Ottoman Empire’s rule and not as accessible to young men on a European tour. It’s not to say that travellers didn’t go there. It just wasn’t a common stop on the Tour for most people.

Thinking of visiting Greece? Here are 7 Reasons to start planning your trip!

The legacy of the European Grand Tour  

The Grand Tour’s focus on studying and collecting art allowed many to bring home paintings, artworks, antiques and lavish souvenirs. Many of these acquired pieces ended up decorating their homes back home. Eventually, many of these priceless collections became part of museums in London today.

Natural History Museum
Natural History Museum, London

While many of the young men were rowdy and caused many issues with their behaviour and drunkenness, many took advantage of their experience. The same privilege that made the Tour possible was often credited for producing notable authors, scientists, patrons of the arts and scholars. These men brought with them the knowledge and experience that enhanced the cultural richness of their home.

Another familiar legacy of the Tour was the creation of guidebooks and tour guides. Without widely available tourist information, travellers would have to rely on the experience of others. It wasn’t that difficult to come up with an itinerary and recommendations when everyone travelled pretty much the same route.

What ended the Grand Tour?

As with everything else in life, what goes up must come down. The relative peace in Europe, especially along the route, was why the Grand Tour flourished. While travellers had to be on the lookout for thieves, they didn’t have to travel through battlefields. The end of the Seven Years’ War in 1763 guaranteed a steady flow of visitors to Europe.

The tour was not just accepted; it became an expected rite of passage among the young aristocrats. In fact, many people of wealth or those funded by them, travelled extensively, collecting art and other valuable objects all over the continent, bringing home extensive collections of priceless works.

What was the Grand Tour of Europe and how to recreate it, 21st-century edition | kasiawrites
The pesky Napoleon

So what put an end to this great past-time? Well, the French Revolution and Napoleon. Once he invaded Italy in 1796, that was the end of the Grand Tour. You might wonder why it didn’t just resume after the war ended. That’s because travel itself changed, officially marking the end of the Tour.

People like Thomas Cook changed the way we travel. Remember the guides and itineraries that were created to assist those on Tour in navigating the way? Cook was the first person to recognize packaged holidays’ profitability and organized group tours as early as 1841. The Industrial Revolution led to the creation of wealth and allowed many, who wouldn’t otherwise be able to travel, to do so. You no longer had to be a wealthy aristocrat to travel to the continent.

The European Grand Tour in the 21st century

Here is a suggested itinerary that is comparable to that of the European Grand Tour. You can shorten this to about two weeks, but I would recommend at least three weeks for a more in-depth experience. You can always add other destinations to suit your itinerary as they are very accessible from these locations.

  • London: 3 days
  • Paris: 3 days, 5 if you want side trips to Versailles and the Loire Valley
  • Venice: 2 days
  • Florence: 3-4 days
  • Rome: 4 days
  • Naples: 3-4 days, including a visit to Pompeii and/or Herculaneum

As there are 44 countries in Europe, the possible combinations of itineraries can be endless. You can organize them by physical proximity, themes or duration. You can even create detailed itineraries of individual countries that have numerous tourist offerings. Planning multiple destination travel is easy once you know where you want to go.

Final thoughts

Europe today has great connectivity and a robust transportation network. Travelling between different countries and cities is a lot more affordable and accessible than it was in the past. It’s also safer, and travellers have access to detailed information about destinations before they even leave their homes. You no longer have to travel with a personal entourage to carry your belongings, look after your needs and make sure your clothes are ready to wear.

As a traveller and a history fan girl, I find the evolution of travel fascinating. There are so many things we take for granted today that were unthinkable in the past. Traveling alone, especially solo as a female, is not an uncommon occurrence. You can backpack, stay in hotels or in luxurious hotels, sail the Mediterranean on a yacht or tour with a group. The options are endless. Makes you realize how fortunate we are today. Are you a fan of European tours? 

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    Lannie Travels
    1 Dec 2020
    11:47am

    I remember reading about grand European tours in the time of Jane Austen or Charlotte bronte! Great idea for a post and definitely classics for someone’s first trip to Europe!

      kasiawrites
      1 Dec 2020
      11:50am

      It was all the rage so not surprising it made it into books! 🙂

    Peggy
    1 Dec 2020
    12:01pm

    Fascinating!! The gap year does seem to be morphing into something similar! I wish it had been all the rage when I was young, haha!

      kasiawrites
      1 Dec 2020
      12:08pm

      I’m so happy you liked it! The gap year is definitely the same idea! Anyone can do it tho, not just the rich sons of aristocrats 🙂

    Anthony
    1 Dec 2020
    12:25pm

    Such a travel in time! I’m getting wiser with everyone of your posts, Kasia. Keep those crazy travel-related topics coming!

      kasiawrites
      1 Dec 2020
      2:11pm

      Ha ha! Always happy to hear that! You’ll be happy to know that my brain is filled with stuff like that so there will be more things in the future. 🙂

    Tom from smalltownplussize
    1 Dec 2020
    2:04pm

    This is an excellent view into history and was very interesting!

      kasiawrites
      1 Dec 2020
      2:11pm

      Thank you! I’m glad you enjoyed it 🙂

    Steven Jepson
    1 Dec 2020
    3:03pm

    Fun history and a great idea for a post! I took my first Grand Tour of Europe at the age of 30, hit 8 countries, and feel that I saw all the major architecture and art of Europe in three weeks. I hope that there are many more Grand Tours to come.

      kasiawrites
      1 Dec 2020
      3:11pm

      Thank you! That sounds like it was a great trip. 8 countries? That’s pretty impressive! Wishing you more great tours of Europe in the future.

    ROSS
    1 Dec 2020
    3:08pm

    Awesome post Kasia. This has always fascinated me so thanks for the info. How amazing would it be to do?

      kasiawrites
      1 Dec 2020
      3:16pm

      Thank you, I’m glad you enjoyed it! I think it must have been an incredible experience for them to arrive in places like Paris, Venice or Rome since they didn’t have the ability to see what it really looked like beforehand. Paintings were a good start, but they were limiting since it took a long time to paint them. I think that seeing these places in real life would have been even more impressive.

    Sally Jane Smith
    1 Dec 2020
    3:58pm

    A very interesting piece, thank you. And, wow, three days to cross the Channel!

      kasiawrites
      1 Dec 2020
      8:34pm

      You’re welcome! I’m glad you enjoyed it 🙂 Three days on a boat that is not even close to boats today. I would have puked my guts out!

    Wendy White
    3 Dec 2020
    4:34am

    How interesting. Travel has certainly changed a lot since these times. The concept of the Grand Tour of Europe is still there, albeit different. Hubby did a Contiki Grand Tour of Europe 🙂

      kasiawrites
      3 Dec 2020
      2:12pm

      I can see why the idea was so popular and why it has evolved over time! I bet these travellers from the past would be impressed how much more they can see today instead of taking 6 months just to get there and back!

    John Quinn
    3 Dec 2020
    5:34am

    You bet I am a fan. Thanks for giving us a visualisation of how these tours went. I’ve seen it in so many period movies. I wouldn’t be up for the years of travelling, but your suggested itinerary, oh yeah I could do that.

      kasiawrites
      3 Dec 2020
      2:14pm

      Awesome! I wouldn’t mind doing a 3-year stint somewhere, but not the way they did it in the past! Yikes, I wouldn’t even make it across the English Channel on a boat!

    Alexandra
    3 Dec 2020
    6:18am

    Great idea to have revive the Grand tour! It’s indeed astonishing how much travel has changed for the past century… and how lucky we are now to travel everywhere so easily and at a decent cost most of the time!

      kasiawrites
      3 Dec 2020
      2:29pm

      Agreed, travel has changed 100%! I can’t even imagine having to travel by coach or on a boat without AC or heat. Plus, it took so long to get places. We are definitely so fortunate to be able to do that today. Even though I think flights from Canada are expensive, they are still not as bad as what it would have cost to travel back then.

    Francesca
    3 Dec 2020
    5:54pm

    There are certainly some similarities with the Grand Tour and gap year haha. This is so interesting though! I went on a school trip to Italy when I was 18. Needless to say it was a bit wasted on us at that age… I will have to go back! 😂

      kasiawrites
      4 Dec 2020
      12:51pm

      You totally have to go back! I never did a gap year but since I’ve always been travelling I didn’t feel like I was missing anything 🙂

    Travel for a while
    6 Dec 2020
    2:53am

    Great post! I was always reading about the Grand Tour and this made me realize how complicated it was to travel at that time.

      kasiawrites
      6 Dec 2020
      1:26pm

      Thank you! I’m glad you enjoyed it. The tour itself would have been amazing, but I prefer modern conveniences of travel to that in the past 🙂

    Kevin | Cocktails and Carry-Ons
    6 Dec 2020
    8:47am

    Beautiful article. Seeing these phenomenal cities in one trip is a bit mind-blowing! It would be such an amazing memory!

      kasiawrites
      6 Dec 2020
      1:28pm

      Thank you! Even today these cities are amazing. It would have been an unreal experience back then to visit a place you might have only seen in a painting or only read about.

    Alison
    9 Dec 2020
    4:15am

    Love this. One of my favourite books is A Room With a View which starts with Lucy Honeychurch on her Grand Tour – I actually think that book sparked my love affair with Italy.

      kasiawrites
      9 Dec 2020
      10:51am

      You know I think I’ve heard of this one but then I forgot the name! I’ll check it out, thanks for the recommendation!

    Becky Exploring
    12 Dec 2020
    3:53am

    Love this historical look at touring Europe. It’s interesting to imagine all the travel difficulties they would have encountered – bandits, pirates, lack of transportation through the mountains – that aren’t so much an issue today. But what an experience the Grand Tour would have been!

      kasiawrites
      12 Dec 2020
      3:12pm

      My thoughts exactly! I can’t even imagine what they had to endure in those days. I don’t think I would be able to make it far by boat or in a coach. Makes me very appreciative of today’s travel.

    Stefan (BerkeleySqB)
    20 Dec 2020
    1:31pm

    Absolutely loved this post, Kasia. As someone who loves travel and history this struck a chord with me. I realised that one thing I am missing in my life is posts about the history of travel.

    Tip to the hat how you draw the connection to today’s travel. I learned so many new things. To be honest, to my shame I had not even known about Thomas Cook, except for the name, obviously.

    On a separate but related note, I recently came across an article about Medieval journeymen. Those teenage craftsmen, who had just finished their apprenticeship, travelled and worked across Europe for several years before returning to their home towns. It’s not travel in a strict sense, because they stayed at each location for several weeks or months, so not contradicting your statement that travel was only for the rich.

    However, in some ways those guys from simple backgrounds lived a much more cosmopolitan life than most people today. Or then. As you say, many of those aristocrats were mainly about debauchery and getting gazeboed.

      kasiawrites
      20 Dec 2020
      3:59pm

      Thanks so much, Stefan! I enjoy writing about travel, and I actually do have a post on what travel was like in the past. Those who travelled anywhere were mostly soldiers, clergy and tradesmen, although it was mostly a necessity not for the scenery. The Grand Tour was done as a leisurely activity and was limited to the wealthy. Most people couldn’t afford to travel for pleasure – that’s what I was referring to 🙂 Thomas Cook changed that.

        Stefan (BerkeleySqB)
        27 Dec 2020
        6:20am

        Oh.. noice. I’ll have a look at that other post. 🙂

          kasiawrites
          27 Dec 2020
          12:41pm

          Hope you like it!