The Grand Tour was a trip through Europe that began in the 1640s. It became extremely popular during the 1660s and remained so until the 1840s when large scale rail transit arrived. It was first introduced to the public by a Roman Catholic priest named Richard Lassels in his 1670 book Voyage to Italy. Designed for the young elite, it was established as a traditional rite of passage amongst wealthy upper class Englishmen, although eventually it burgeoned into a trip that included the fairer sex.
The tour was highly desirable for those who could afford to travel and usually began in Dover, England, where tourists crossed the English Channel landing first at Ostend in Belgium. Travelers went on to visit Switzerland, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Austria, France, and the Balkans, and as they went from city to city, they saw such sights such as the Alps, ancient Roman ruins, museums, Pompeii, the Seine, palaces, and the Rhine.
Travelers, such as Jane Austen’s brother, Edward Austen Knight, gained an increase in intellect, new information about human nature, and a deeper political and ethical view of the world. The following was stated by one source about the opportunities afforded those lucky enough to take the Grand Tour:
“Taking the ranks and the dispositions of the tourists into account, there was a great variety in the mode of adding the finishing-touch to the work of our schools and universities. The son of the influential nobleman had his introduction to the Court of this and that Grand Duke or King, and was present on grand ceremonial occasions, at great dinners, and huge drinking-bouts, and at boar and stag hunts. If he was disposed to acquired advanced notions in the art of governing people with the least trouble to, and the greatest advantage of, the governing party, he had the finest facilities afford him by the Metterniches and the Pombals of the age.”
In addition, besides gaining an education and learning about the world, travelers often returned homes with tales of their travel and they were expected to regale the less fortunate with stories about their travels, partly as a way to educate them and partly as a way to increase their own standing at large. Unfortunately, the tours were not always educational. In fact, sometimes they were nothing more than frivolous, bacchanalian affairs that included drinking, wenching, and gambling. One historian, J. Black, noted:
“Critics were correct in claiming that some tourists were more interested in sex, gambling, and drink than improving themselves. However, many of them would probably have acted in the same fashion at home. The Grand Tour served the useful purpose of letting people sow their wild oats abroad. Some commentators suggested that many tourists were too young.”
Paying for things on the Grand Tour was one problem that all visitors experienced. To make finances as simple as possible, one traveler noted:
“An eighteenth-century traveler commonly had his funds credited to him at some bank in a city that he expected to visit and there drew at his convenience. When Sterne was abroad, ‘All money received were to be sent up to London by Sternes agents, to Selwin, banker and correspondent of Panchaud and Foley, in Rue St. Sauveur, Paris. In turn the banking firm at Paris was to remit to Messrs. Brousse et Fils of Toulouse.’
But the methods of eighteenth-century bankers were cumbrous and slow, particularly if the tourist applying for money happened to be a stranger. How exasperating the procedure was, even as late as 1829, we may judge from the delays involved in cashing a draft in Paris. ‘My draft is presented, but it must be stamped; and I am directed to the public office, about half a mile off. Arrived, I wait my turn to be served, and, after paying a duty to the government for the registry, return to the banker, who receives my bill, and will account with me next week,’
It is not altogether surprising that the bankers … should have insisted upon convincing proofs of identity. A banker at Marseilles or Florence or Vienna could not hope to communicate with London and receive an answer under several weeks.”
Once all banking issues were resolved, travelers sometimes purchased carriages with the idea that their travel would be cheaper and that they could resell the carriage upon their return. Travelers also often arrived home with items that they were unable to obtain elsewhere. The English poet, letter-writer, classical scholar Thomas Gray wrote to a traveler who was taking the Grand Tour and offered this advice:
“Buy whatever you need to buy, — I do not mean pictures, medals, gems, drawings, etc., only, but clothes, stockings, shoes, handkerchiefs, little movables, — everything you may want all your life long. But have a care of the custom-house.”
As with all things, the Grand Tour eventually ended. One person wrote about its end stating:
“Probably it was the introduction of railways on the Continent which gave the death-blow to the Grand Tour … When once the old travelling-chaise, with its rumble, its roomy ‘boot,’ and its thousand-and-one appurtenances for the comfort of the wealthy traveller had passed out of fashion, and it became possible to take a return-ticket from Charing Cross to Vienna, the attractions of a journey round the capitals of Europe faded away, and it became necessary to find something to replace the method of enlarging the mind.”
If you are interested in learning more about the Grand Tour it was featured prominently in a 14-part PBS mini-series titled Little Dorrit, which is based on Charles Dickens’ novel by the same name.
-  The Dublin University Magazine v. 62 (Dublin: William Curry, Jun., and Company, 1863), p. 311.
-  J. Black, The British and the Grand Tour (Routledge Revivals) (London: Taylor & Francis, 2010), p. 82–83.
-  W. E. Mead, The Grand Tour in the Eighteenth Century (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1914), p. 172–73.
-  F. B. Sanborn, American Social Science Association and F. S. Root, Journal of Social Science: Containing the Transactions of the American Association no. 31 (Boston: Leypoldt & Holt, 1894), p. xiv–xv.
-  The Speaker v. 6 (London: Mather & Crowther, 1892), p. 554.