Before European Bus Tours: The History of The 16th Century Grand Tour of Europe

by Lindsay Shapka in , ,

What is the Grand Tour?

Long before Contiki Tour busses started carting tourists around Europe at breakneck speed — beginning in the late sixteenth century to be exact — young aristocrats from England, Germany, Scandinavia, and America started travelling to Paris, Venice, Florence and Rome as a way to round out their classical educations. This practice came to be known at the Grand Tour of Europe. 

Originally, the goal was to have these individuals be accompanied by a teacher who would walk them through the treasures of antiquity and expose them to the wonders of the classical world. (Most, however, set out hoping to have a grand adventure and return home with a bunch of souvenirs — not much different than many travellers today.) 

There were few museums at the time, and so paintings, sculptures, and other historic treasures were viewed in private collections, in artist's studios, or at the archaeological site where they were being excavated. The route for the Grand Tour would usually begin in London and then the travellers would head to Paris. While some might find themselves in locations like the Netherlands, Switzerland, Spain, Greece, or Turkey, most spent the majority of their time in Italy. Rome, with its huge and well preserved historic sites, was considered to be the ultimate destination. 

The result of the Grand Tour was that a large group of young aristocrats suddenly became more worldly, bringing home ideas about architecture that were applied to country manors, and beautiful antiquities that decorated their homes (and are now in museums). These Grand Tourists also helped to support the working artists in the destination cities, as many bought paintings and sculptures from them to bring home as souvenirs of their grand adventures. 

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