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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?