The Grand Tour was the traditional travel of Europe undertaken by mainly upper-class European young men of means. The custom flourished from about 1660 until the advent of mass railroad transit in the 1840s, and was associated with a standard itinerary.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term was coined by Richard Lassels (c 1603-1668), an expatriate Roman Catholic priest who wrote The Voyage of Italy, which was published posthumously in Paris in 1670 and then in London. Lassels' introduction listed four areas in which travel furnished "an accomplished, consummate Traveller": The intellectual, the social, the ethical (by the opportunity of drawing moral instruction from all the traveller saw), and the political.
The Grand Tour served as an education rite of passage by those who took the Tour. Primarily associated with Britain (particularly the British nobility and wealthy gentry), similar trips were made by wealthy young men of Protestant Northern European nations on the Continent. (In general, the French looked to the salons of Paris and Versailles instead, to provide a cultured polish to its gilded youth and reinforce standards of taste.) The New York Times described the Grand Tour in this way: "Three hundred years ago, wealthy young Englishmen began taking a post-Oxbridge trek through France and Italy in search of art, culture and the roots of Western civilization. With nearly unlimited funds, aristocratic connections and months (or years) to roam, they commissioned paintings, perfected their language skills and mingled with the upper crust of the Continent.
The primary value of the Grand Tour lay in the exposure both to the cultural legacy of classical antiquity and the Renaissance, and to the aristocratic and fashionable society of the European continent. A grand tour could last from several months to several years. It was commonly undertaken in the company of a knowledgeable guide or tutor. The Grand Tour had more than superficial cultural importance; as E.P. Thompson stated, "ruling-class control in the 18th century was located primarily in a cultural hegemony, and only secondarily in an expression of economic or physical (military) power.
The most common itinerary of the Grand Tourshifted across generation in the cities it embraced, but the tourist usually began in Dover, England and crossed the English Channel to Calais in France. From there the tourist, usually accompanied by a tutor (known colloquially as a "bear-leader") and if wealthy enough a league of servants, would acquire a coach (which would be disassembled and packed across the Alps, as in Giacomo Casanova's travels, and then resold on completion) and other travel and transportation needs.
Upon hiring a French-speaking guide, the tourist and his entourage would travel to Paris. There the traveller might undertake lessons in French, dancing, fencing, and riding. The appeal of Paris lay in the sophisticated language and manners of French high society, including courtly behavior and fashion. Ostensibly this served the purpose of preparing the young man for a leadership position at home, often in government or diplomacy.
From Paris he would typically go to urban Switzerland for a while, often to Geneva (the cradle of the Protestant Reformation) or Lausanne. (Alpinism (mountaineering) was a development of the 19th century.) From there the traveller would endure a difficult crossing over the Alps into northern Italy (such as at St. Bernard Pass), which included dismantling the carriage and luggage. If wealthy enough, he might be carried over the hard terrain by servants.
Once in Italy the tourist would visit Turin (and, less often, Milan), then might spend a few months in Florence, where there was a considerable Anglo-Italian society accessible to traveling Englishmen "of quality" and where the Tribuna of the Uffizi brought together in one space the monuments of High Renaissance paintings and Roman sculptures that would inspire picture galleries dressed with antiquities at home, with side trips to Pisa, then move on to Padua, Bologna, and Venice. The British idea of Venice as the "locus of decadent Italianate allure" made it an epitome and cultural setpiece of the Grand Tour.
From Venice the traveller went to Rome to study the ruins of ancient Rome. Some travelers also visited Naples to study music, and (after the mid-18th century) to appreciate the recently-discovered archaeological sites of Herculaneum and Pompeii and perhaps for the adventurous thrilling ascent of Mount Vesuvius. Later in the period the more adventurous, especially if provided with a yacht, might attempt Sicily (the site of Greek ruins) or even Greece itself. But Naples or later Paestum further south was the usual terminus.
From here the traveller traversed the Alps heading north through to the German-speaking parts of Europe. The traveller might stop first in Innsbruck before visiting Berlin, Dresden, Vienna and Potsdam, with perhaps some study time at the universities in Munich or Heidelberg. From then travelers visited Holland and Flanders (with more gallery-going and art appreciation) before returning across the Channel to England.
The idea of traveling for the sake of curiosity and learning was a developing idea in the 17th century. With John Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) it was argued, and widely accepted, that knowledge comes entirely from the external senses, that what one knows comes from the physical stimuli to which one has been exposed, thus, one could "use up" the environment, taking from it all it offers, requiring a change of place. Travel, therefore, was necessary for one to develop the mind and expand knowledge of the world. As a young man at the outset of his account of a repeat Grand Tour the historian Edward Gibbon remarked that "According to the law of custom, and perhaps of reason, foreign travel completes the education of an English gentleman." Consciously adapted for intellectual self-improvement, Gibbons was "revisiting the Continent on a larger and more liberal plan"; most Grand Tourists did not pause more than briefly in libraries.
The typical 18th century sentiment was that of the studious observer traveling through foreign lands reporting his findings on human nature for those unfortunate to have stayed home. Recounting ones' observations to society at large to increase its welfare was considered an obligation; the Grand Tour flourished in this mindset.
The Grand Tour not only provided a liberal education but allowed those who could afford it the opportunity to buy things otherwise unavailable at home, and it thus increased participants' prestige and standing. Grand Tourists would return with crates of art, books, pictures, sculpture, and items of culture, which would be displayed in libraries, cabinets, gardens, and drawing rooms, as well as the galleries built purposively for their display; The Grand Tour became a symbol of wealth and freedom. Artists who especially thrived on Grand Tourists included Pompeo Batoni the portraitist, and the vedutisti such as Canaletto, Pannini and Guardi. The less well-off could return with an album of Piranesi etchings.
The "perhaps" in Gibbon's opening remark cast an ironic shadow over his resounding statement. Critics of the Grand Tour derided its lack of adventure. "The tour of Europe is a paltry thing", said one 18th century critic, "a tame, uniform, unvaried prospect". The Grand Tour was said to re-enforce the old preconceptions and prejudices about national characteristics, as Jean Gailhard's Compleat Gentleman (1678) observes: "French courteous. Spanish lordly. Italian amorous. German clownish." The deep suspicion with which Tour was viewed at home in England, where it was feared that the very experiences that completed the British gentleman might well undo him, were epitomised in the sarcastic nativist view of the ostentatiously "well-travelled" maccaroni of the 1760s and 70s.
After the arrival of mass transit, around 1825, the Grand Tour custom continued, but it was of a qualitative difference -cheaper to undertake, safer, easier, open to anyone. During much of the 19th century, most educated young men of privilege undertook the Grand Tour. Germany and Switzerland came to be included in a more broadly defined circuit. Later, it became fashionable for young women as well; a trip to Italy, with a spinster aunt chaperon, was part of the upper-class woman's education, as in E.M. Forster's novel A Room with a View.
In 1998, the BBC produced an art history series 'Sister Wendy's Grand Tour' presented by Carmelite nun Sister Wendy. Ostensibly an art history series, the journey takes her from Madrid to St. Petersburg with stop offs to see the great masterpieces.