The Grand Tour

Since the time of Elizabeth I, diplomats, courtiers and wealthy nobles had travelled to Europe to learn about and experience different cultures.

During the 18th century, it became enormously popular, a symbol of wealth and status, with the belief that it would complete a young man’s education (like a gap year), after university but before marrying and settling down. A Grand Tour could last a few months or several years.

The primary destination was Italy, Rome ‘the Eternal City’, preferably for Easter, before the heat of summer brought malaria to the surrounding marshes. Essential stops on the way were Paris, important for buying the latest fashions; Venice to celebrate Carnival; Florence for the art and Naples to see the live volcano Vesuvius. The Tour could also include the Low Countries, Switzerland and the German states. As the 18th century progressed, travellers explored further to Greece and Turkey.

The amount of preparation depended on finances, interests and aims. Young men often had a tutor or bear-leader to guide them and direct their education, and also keep them out of trouble. Some Grand Tours turned into a holiday – a social whirl of drinking, gambling and women!

Wealthy travellers would take their own transport, a carriage and horses, their own servants and a cook if they were concerned about eating ‘foreign’ food. Less wealthy Grand Tourists could hire transport, or, if there was some, even use public transport.

Journeys could be dangerous, the roads were not always good or safe and essential items to pack included pistols and swords for protection against robbers and bandits, as well as a medicine chest full of remedies, similar to our First Aid box today. If taken ill, few travellers wanted to risk being treated by a ‘foreign’ doctor.

Travellers began by making their way to the coast, usually Dover, where they would wait to cross the Channel to Calais. Depending on tides and weather, the crossing could take anything from 6 – 36 hours, unless easterly winds put the boat back into the harbour. If so, the journey would start all over again. On arrival in France, tourists would have to go through Customs. This could take some time and the English complained of having to bribe French officials to be allowed through quickly.

Paris was the centre of the fashionable world and a popular city. The French language was familiar and tourists bought new clothes, socialised, enjoyed good accommodation and good food. Though the city itself was described by Horace Walpole as ‘the ugliest, the beastliest town in the universe, a dirty river with a dirtier ditch calling itself the Seine’. They took lessons in fencing, riding and the latest dances. Many would visit the royal court at Versailles to watch the French King in a public display of eating meals or attending Mass. Few visitors liked the palace but many enjoyed the gardens.

From Paris, the tourists would make their way down south towards Lyon, then either on to Marseilles to take a boat to Italy, or they would cross the Alps. The fear of pirates or shipwreck meant that most people chose the Alps, it was considered a ‘horrid necessity’. If they had brought their own coach it would have to be dismantled and carried by mules over the mountains. Tourists were then carried in a kind of sedan chair, although sometimes a winter sledge was used for a speedy descent.

After the Alps, Turin was the next stop, then Milan, where the opera was excellent. From Milan, there was a choice of a number of different Italian states to visit. In Venice, Carnival traditionally began on Twelfth Night, but as it was so popular, the Venetians extended it to last six months. Venice may have been described as having ‘stinking canals’ and ‘coffin-like gondolas’, but this didn’t stop tourists defending the city.

Florence was also a favourite city to visit, described as ‘a scene of enchantment, a city planted in a garden’. There were outstanding artworks here including statues by Michelangelo and Giambologna. In the surrounding Boboli gardens, the sixteenth-century Grottoes were places of mystery and reflection.

In Rome, visitors wanted to see the famous antiquities, which were often hidden or buried and difficult to see clearly. Guides were hired to show visitors around the city, although there are some reports of tourists who refused to get out of the carriage and viewed all of the attractions from their seat. The Coliseum was a place used for sheltering people and animals at that time.

By the middle of the 18th century, both Herculaneum (1738) and Pompeii (1748) had been discovered and there was fresh excitement about the antique treasures that could be found there.

Fun Facts

  • The 18th century was called the ‘Age of Enlightenment’ because it was believed through knowledge, study, analysis and reason, that superstition and fear could be banished.
  • Travellers could study different activities on their travels, including art, architecture, firefighting, shipbuilding and more.
  • Only a little money would be taken for fear of robbery, and multiple passports were required for crossing borders.
  • From 1720’s guidebooks were published to help tourists work their way through the foreign lands.
  • When in Paris, if the tourist came from an aristocratic family, they might have the honour of being presented to the French King. To show this achievement, the tourist could wear shoes with red heels.
  • Many tourists had their portraits painted and collected antiquities including paintings and sculptures. Charles Townley amassed a larger collection which is now in the British Museum.