What Was the Grand Tour?

Coined by Richard Lassels (1603-1668), a Catholic priest and travel writer, the term “Grand Tour” was applied to sons from wealthy English families that embarked on travels abroad to Europe and beyond. The height of the Grand Tour’s popularity was in the 18th and 19th centuries. The Napoleonic Wars halted wealthy English travelers from exploring the Continent, but once Napoleon lost at the decisive Battle of Waterloo, many resumed the custom. 

The Grand Tour was a popular method for aristocratic young men to polish off their education. Latin and Greek literature and philosophy laid the foundation of the English education system with pupils being taught these subjects at an early age. This made Greece and Italy desirable destinations. However, France was also a popular destination since French was a second language for many English aristocrats. 

Planning the Grand Tour by Emil Brack, c. late 19th century. Depicts a young couple looking at a map of Italy. Credit: Private Collection, Public Domain.

Traditionally, the route began in Paris, where supplies and transportation for the trip—which lasted months, sometimes years—could be procured. Travelers would then advance through the Alps, travel on through Turin, and arrive in Greece or Italy. Many travelers targeted arriving at the same time as large festivals, such as Carnival in Venice or Holy Week in Rome. 

From there, major destinations of interest were cities that played important roles in the Italian Renaissance, such as Florence, Venice, Naples, and Rome. Remnants of classical cities were explored, such as Pompeii and Herculaneum. These aristocrats also visited with royal families in Italy, Greece, and France, learning the innerworkings of foreign courts in the process. 

Guides, called cicerones, often accompanied the young aristocrats on their travels, acting as a tutor and chaperone. They would provide teachings on the history, literature, and arts of the targeted destinations. They also arranged visits to museums, galleries, and other places of intellectual and antiquarian interest.

A Grand Tour Group of Five Gentlemen in Rome, group portrait attributed to artist John Brown. Credit: Public Domain, Springhill © National Trust.

The Grand Tour, as stated earlier, lasted somewhere between several months and years. It was a means for young aristocrats to complete their learning but also provided an excuse for certain disgraced persons to leave England in the event of a divorce, bankruptcy, or social ruin until their shame was swept away by the next scandal. Those who returned to their homes in England bore crates filled with new clothes, art pieces, books, and other various souvenirs. 

While mainly young men from wealthy families went on the Grand Tour, women also traveled to the Continent. Lady Hester Stanhope (1776-1839) was an adventurer and archaeologist who traveled through Europe and the Middle East, her exploits daring and famous for a time when women were restricted to the domestic sphere (read more about Lady Hester Stanhope on my blog here). Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire (1757-1806) traveled abroad while pregnant with her lover Charles Gray’s daughter, and Caroline, Princess of Wales (1768-1821) explored Europe for several years between 1814 and 1820. 

British Gentlemen in Rome, possibly painted by Katherine Read, c. 1750.
Credit: Public Domain, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

When railroads began to appear across England and Europe, the Grand Tour started to dwindle as a symbol of wealth as the opportunity to travel became available to middle class peoples. This educational rite of passage, acting as exposure to classical antiquity and civilization and the glories of the Renaissance, was more widely pursued by other characters, such as writers, artists, and composers, with the advent of the Industrial Revolution. 


The Grand Tour by Jean Sorabella, The Met

The Grand Tour by Rachel Knowles, Regency History

The Grand Tour: 19th Century Travellers on TheGrandTourinVenice.com

The Grand Tour in the 18th & 19th Century on Jane Austen’s World

HISTORY OF THE GRAND TOUR by Janet Simmonds, EducatedTraveller.com

Lady Hester Stanhope: Aristocrat, Archaeologist, and Adventurer by Kat Devitt, The Enduring Writer’s Blog

What was the ‘Grand Tour’? on National Trust UK

What Was the Grand Tour of Europe? by Lucy Davidson

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