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The Grand Tour - An Eighteenth Century Gap Year

Updated on April 17, 2014

And so Young man its off to Europe

If you thought the Gran Tourismo was a console game for the Xbox360 then think again. The original Grand Tour was the rite of passage for the sons of Europe’s Aristocrats in the years between 1660 and 1840.

They would spend up to three years travelling around Europe refining their education by gaining exposure to culture, language, art and architecture. The British nobility, aristocrats and landed gentry were most fond of the tour, with hundreds setting out each year to travel through France and Italy in search of treasure, love and a sense of self.

St Peters Square, Rome
St Peters Square, Rome
St Marks Square, Venice
St Marks Square, Venice

Guides and Maps

Thomas Coryat’s travelogue was one of the first guides about the tour “Coryat’s Crudities” released in 1611, detailed his journey through France, Germany and Italy. It was a “Rough Guide” to Europe of its day and covered a 1,975-mile trip to Venice, which he described as a “self-improving journey to view the arts and culture of Europe”.

Other guides soon followed, Feynes Moryson’s “Itinerary” in 1617 and then Richard Lassels, a Roman Catholic priest in 1670 published his book “The Voyage of Italy”. Before long it was mandatory to keep a journal of your “Tour” and have it published upon your return.

Maps could also prove to be a problem, inaccurate and at times simply made up. Experienced journeymen advised taking two or three different maps, so as to gauge the unknown areas better and to fill in or amend them as you went along.

The Doge's Palace, Venice
The Doge's Palace, Venice

Planning your Tour

Organising the tour was no mean feat either, one needed passports, health certificates, visas and a whole variety of travel documents before you set off. Money was also a problem, with bandits and highwaymen rife, simply carrying cash was not advisable and between England and Italy you needed no less than nine different currencies. The safest thing to do was to deposit money into a country's branch at home and obtain a credit note confirming the amount.

The countryside was the place of the peasant and until the enlightenment of the Romantics an area through which you passed on the way to your next town or city. So a bouncy stagecoach journey needed things to entertain, very much like today. Instead of iphones and Kimble readers, the well prepared young tourist would take along a library of bound miniature books, watercolour paints and a portable writing table to occupy his time.

Without the right connections and letters of introduction accommodation could be somewhat of a lottery, with dreadful accounts of travellers having to eat at the same table as servants and sleep in such squalid conditions on straw, near the livestock. Knowing the right people could get you into the plushest villas and palaces of an area and invites to all the social events. Otherwise you would have to do with the tavern and the inn.

The Itinerary

There was a whole list of suggested sites, tastes, festivals and experiences you were supposed to appreciate along the road many of them laid out in the guides were faithfully reproduced by the tourists and noted in their own books.

ParisThree months allocated

(reason – contemporary culture and fashion)

must see:


-Notre Dame

-Place des Vosges

Cross the Alps to Milan or Turin or sail around to Genoa.

Milan (reason – music and opera)

Genoa – two weeks

must see

– Cathedral

- Old city

Parma (reason – food, ham and cheese)

Vincenza (reason – Palladio architecture)

FlorenceTwo Months allocated

(reason – art and architecture)

must see:

- Duomo

- Uffizi Gallery

- Giotto’s Tower

Also tour the area, visit:

- Pisa

- Lucca

- Sienna

The trip to Rome typically takes three days

stop at Bagno Vignoni to bathe.

Towns to visit on the way to/from Rome:

- Bologna

- Arezzo

- Perugia

- Terni

- Viterbo

Rome - Allocate 4 months ideally Dec - Apr

(reason – Art & antiquities)

Must see:

- St Peters Tomb & Piazza

- Piazza del Popolo

- Forum

- Coliseum

- Hadrian’s Villa

- Sistine Chapel

Naples Allocate 1 month, ideally Apr - Jun

(reason – classical antiquities, music)

Must see

- Herculanium (after 1738)

- Pompeii (after 1748)

- Vesuvius

Back to Rome and on up to Venice, via Ancona

Venice Allocate 2 months ideally Feb for festa

(reason – pleasure and sin)

must see:

– Piazza S. Marco

- Doge’s Palace

Back across the Alps through Germany, Holland and Flanders or take a detour to Greece to see the Parthenon.


The benefits of the tour

Apart from the personal fun of three years away, one of the chief benefits Britain in particular gained was a civilising of its architecture. Architects like Christopher Wren and Indigo Jones shaped the future of British buildings due to their esperiences. Influences for St Pauls cathedrals' come from Florence, Rome and Greece. While Jones's adoration of Palladio's sense of symmetry was responsible for a thousand country homes and town squares. America's Whitehouse is based on inspiration from the tour as is Pall Mall and St James's Park.

Many of the good and the great under took the trip around Europe, Turner, Bosworth, Wordsworth, Lord Byron all endured the jolting, dusty rides for their own personal enlightenment and ours as a result.

Marmore Falls, Terni
Marmore Falls, Terni
The Molo, Venice
The Molo, Venice

End of an Era

The French Revolution and Napoleon saw the effective ending of the Grand Tour when his ambitions spread across Europe, making travel dangerous. At this time smaller tours around Britain's own interior were undertaken as people discovered the romance of the Welsh Wye valley and the Highlands of Scotland.

By 1815 after the Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo things returned to normal but it was not long before the stream train changed the tour all together. Making it cheaper, quicker, comfortable and more accessible to the lower classes.

It became popular for young women to also experience the trip, travelling with a chaperon, maiden aunts who would look after their well-being. E.M Forsters classic " A Room with a View" portrays this quite vividly. By the end of the twentieth century the invention of the "Gap Year" put the Grand Tour once more back on the agenda, this time also fashionable with American and Australian youth.


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    • profile image

      Channery 2 years ago

      I was really confused, and this answered all my quesoitns.

    • donna bamford profile image

      donna bamford 7 years ago from Canada

      Well Knell63- I found this truly enjoyable asone who took the garand tour in 1968 and then again for 4 years in the late 70's both tours were the richest most influential times of my life. I miss those though unlike Byron and Wordsworth and company I hitchhiked in 1968 and finished my tour traveling overland to India. Later i travelled by train - what a pleasure. Thank you for this article - the Aussies still do walkabout - I wish everyone would. We are not so well traveled in my country - Canada. They do not no what they are missing. Great article.

    • James A Watkins profile image

      James A Watkins 7 years ago from Chicago

      I love the stories about the Grand Tour. 3 months in Paris!? That would be a treat. 2 months in Venice. Now that is what I call a vacation; and an education par excellence. Thanks for this treat. The photos and layout are great, too. I wish I had your job! :)

    • Paradise7 profile image

      Paradise7 7 years ago from Upstate New York

      I enjoyed reading this so much. I could picture jolting along a dusty Italian road in a carriage, ever on the lookout for the random highwayman, and surrounded by my watercolors and calf-bound pocket book.

      Thanks for a great read.

    • Hello, hello, profile image

      Hello, hello, 7 years ago from London, UK

      I knew about the wandering around Europe to gain more knowledge but I learned a lot more from your hub. Thank you