What would an updated Grand Tour look like? - The Motte (2023)

This is an effortpost inspired by this subthread in Small Scale Questions Sunday. The question is what would a modern Grand Tour look like?

Basic assumptions:

  • The purpose of the Grand Tour is to experience the greatest achievements of European culture. A certain amount of hedonism is permitted (the brothels of Venice were a staple of the original Grand Tour) but the primary purpose is educational.

  • We take for granted that Western Civilisation is a distinct culture, that its roots are in Classical antiquity, that it is Christian, and (whether because it is superior or just because it is ours) it is the thing we are looking at.

  • We are looking at a living culture where possible, not just museums. This was an important point of the original Grand Tour - the tour ideally included fencing lessons in Paris, drawing lessons in Florence, and music lessons in Naples - in all cases these were the centres of living traditions at the time. Obviously, European culture is still very much alive and we will take this into account.

  • The modern tourists are a small mixed-sex group of early-20's Americans (or Canadians or Australians) from upper middle-class backgrounds whose parents are funding them to do the Grand Tour (the closest analogy to the original English aristocratic tourists).

  • Like the original Grand Tour, this is not an actual pilgrimage. Although a lot of religious sites make the itinerary for their historical or cultural importance or their architectural merit, we are not interested in spiritual importance as such.

  • We have 4-6 weeks (based on @grognard's comments). This is obviously a lot less than the original Grand Tour, but we can travel faster. I also assume we are doing this in during the summer, which affects what is open and such like.

From these we get the following conclusions:

  • We are not going to be wasting much time admiring the scenery. I am a proud European who has done a lot of travelling, but I don't think we have anything that stands up against the Grand Canyon or the Yosemite Valley.

  • We will do most of our travelling by train - both because it is the easiest way to get into European cities (traffic and parking are a nightmare) and because the European high-speed rail network is itself an outstanding achievement of modern European culture.

The original Grand Tour had a fairly standardised outbound route: London -> Paris -> Geneva -> through Switzerland and across the Alps to Northern Italy -> visits to various northern Italian cities including Venice and Florence -> Rome -> Naples. The return via German-speaking Europe was less standardised. @2rafa suggested a rough itinerary for the round trip on the other thread. I am going to disagree, and suggest a one-way Grand Tour: London (probably actually York) to Naples overland via Paris, Lausanne, Bologna, Florence and Rome. Why?

The core of the European culture that exists now is England and France. This historic core of European high culture (both in classical antiquity and the Renaissance) is Italy. London/Paris/Rome or London/Paris/Florence/Rome is the quintessential European itinerary for a reason. I think the return leg is relatively less valuable than it was in the eighteenth century. Vienna and Budapest are fascinating, but the culture that built them didn't survive World War I. A lot of the German sites that the original Grand Tour included was destroyed by allied bombing or Soviet criminality, or rendered culturally dead by de-Nazification. Berlin has a thriving modern culture, but I am inclined to exclude it from the Grand Tour on grounds of degeneracy. Also, changing religious norms mean that there is no longer the need to balance time spent in Catholic and Protestant countries. For example, the more intellectually inclined original tourists spent time in Heidelberg partly because the university in Catholic Bologna wasn't open to them.

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The other controversial suggestion I am going to make is skipping Venice. It is a detour from the route I am proposing, and in my experience (I have visited twice) it is not worth it - it is now a culturally dead tourist trap (unless you are in town for the Biennale) and apart from the novelty of a city in a lagoon, it doesn't do anything that Rome and Florence don't.

What are the things we want to see:

  • Architecture and the visual arts. Obviously. A huge part of the point of the original Grand Tour, and easily accessible as a tourist.

  • Scientific achievement. Less accessible as a tourist, but I have tried to fit it in.

  • Engineering achievement. Apart from the trains and the various civil engineering marvels you see on the way, I have struggled here. The sine qua non of European engineering achievement is the British industrial revolution, but I don't know how to engage with that as a tourist. As an American, you can probably argue that this is less important because 21st century Europe is not noted for its engineering excellence. A lot of the most tourist-accessible engineering achievement is in military museums.

  • Performing arts, including classical music, including both traditional high culture, and excellent modern culture. The aim is as far as possible to experience arts in their spiritual home. Most of what we are looking for post-dates the original Grand Tour. I will assume that the modern tourists are able to get tickets to sold-out shows (most of the tickets I am going to list are easy to get hold of if you book well in advance).

  • Sport. This wasn't a thing at the time of the original Grand Tour, but is obviously a hugely important part of European culture, and can be experienced as a tourist if you can get tickets.

  • Food. Again, a hugely important part of European culture that is easy to experience as a tourist. French and Italian cuisines are globally recognised as excellent.

I have made a slightly arbitrary decision to exclude places which are associated with historically important events but where there is nothing spectacular there now - in particular I am not including any battlefields.

It is now after midnight in London - more route details to follow tomorrow.


If anyone is still reading, I have finally got some time to write down the actual itinerary my brain was staggering towards.

1. London

I think we have 1 week in and around London. Within Central London, the key sites are:

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  • Art galleries: National Gallery, Tate Britain and Tate Modern are obvious no-brainers. If you have the time and interest, several people in the thread have mentioned Sir John Soane's museum, which I have also heard good things about. When I am showing people round London, I go for the Cortauld Institute, partly because of the collection of Impressionists and partly because it is in Somerset House, which is a worth-the-visit building architecturally.

  • Unique and spectacular bulidings: Westminster Abbey, St Paul's Cathedral, the Tower of London (not only is this one of the best-preserved medieval fortified castles on the planet, it is also a Royal palace with the associated traditions and pagentry, and the hopefully-final location of the nearest thing this Earth has to a Silmaril - the Koh-i-Noor diamond), the Houses of Parliament (if you are visiting in summer, Parliament is in recess so the building is open to public tours). Tower Bridge - it is worth paying for the tour, which includes a visit to the machine rooms and the opportunity to cross on the top walkway. Spend some time wandering around the City (the one square mile historic core of London that is now the financial district - there is either a Wren church or a spectacular modern building round every corner.

  • Other museums: British museum (finest collection of looted antiquities in the world, and it isn't close), South Kensington museums - the Science Museum and the Natural History Museum are no-brainers, the Victoria & Albert would be as well except that it suffers from the all-to-common problem of modern museums that no curatorial effort goes into the permanent collection - the temporary exhibitions are spectacular, but touring the permanent collection feels like touring someone's attic. The Museum of London is

  • Museums relavant to special interests: The Bank of England Museum, the London Transport Museum, the Wellcome Collection (history of medicine), the British Library treasures collection (historically significant manuscripts, including one of the 4 surviving sealed originals of Magna Carta), the Imperial War Museum (which does exactly what it says on the tin), the Design Museum (likewise), the Handel/Hendrix museum (two composers in different eras lived in different flats in the same building - the whole building is now a museum).

  • Victorian interiors: This is not really Grand-Tour worthy, but my understanding of American anglophilia is that Victoriana is a big part of it. The Linley Sambourne house (Punch cartoonist) and the Leighton House (pre-Raphaelite artist and aristocrat) are spectacular preserved examples.

I am not including:

  • Madam Tussauds and the London Dungeon (tourist traps)

  • The Churchill Rooms (reluctantly, but it falls under the "battlefields are not achievements" criterion)

  • The London Eye or any viewing platforms (we already have views from Tower Bridge, the St Paul's galleries if you go up, and the chimney at Tate Modern)

  • The Zoo and Aquarium (great fun, but not quintessentially European or Western in any way)

  • Buckingham Palace (unspectacular architecturally)

  • Any Harry Potter attractions (ephemera, but I have no objection if you want to add them).

1a. London suburbs

There are two obvious suburban excursions in my view - both would be long half days.


Maritime Greenwich. The British seafaring tradition is one of Western Civilisation's crowning achievements - in fact I would be willing to defend the proposition that it was Western Civilisation's single greatest achievement until Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon. Greenwich is its spiritual home. Key attractions are the Cutty Sark, the National Maritime, the Royal Observatory, and the buildings of the Old Royal Naval College (Inigo Jones and Christopher Wren both did some of their best work there). It is traditional to travel one way by riverboat and the other by commuter rail.

Hampton Court Palace The Old Palace was built by Cardinal Wolsey in a deliberate and subversive attempt to compete in majesty with the King's palaces, and was confiscated by Henry VIII after Wolsey's fall. The Baroque palace added on by William III and Mary II after the 1689 Glorious Revolution was Cristopher Wren's answer to Versailles. The formal gardens (including the world's largest vine) and maze are also world-famous.

Other possible suburban excursions include Windsor (obviously), Kew Gardens (world's finest botanical garden, including the famous Victorian glasshouses and a gorgeously silly replica Japanese pagoda), and the Dulwich Picture Gallery (which stars a collection of Dutch Old Masters that had been bought to be the core of the Polish National Gallery collection, but the deal fell through when Poland was conquered in the 1790's - and it is a National Gallery worthy collection).

1b Day-trips from London

There are two obvious compulsory ones here:

Oxford or Cambridge (just under an hour by train). The University is the quintessential Western institution, and these are the second and third-oldest surviving universities, and are in the top 10 in contemporary rankings. Unfortunately it is hard to experience an ancient university as a university on a day-trip as a tourist, but the architecture of the Colleges and the various university museums make it worth the journey. The spirit of the original Grand Tour would include spending a couple of weeks participating in something like the Cambridge International Summer Programme (only weakly selective - you don't need to be an elite-university calibre student to participate), but we don't have time for that. You only need to do one of the two universities - Cambridge has the edge because of King's College Chapel, but Oxford has the advantage if you are doing Xtreme Tourism that it is on the same railway line as Stratford-upon-Avon, so you can spend most of the day in Oxford and get to Stratford in time for an evening Shakespeare performance.

Bath (1hr 20 by train). As one of the Great Spas of Europe and home of the Roman Baths, this is the sort of place that would have been on the original Grand Tour if it included England. Apart from the Roman Baths, none of the individual sites are quite Grand Tour worthy, but the cathedral, fashion museum, Jane Austen museum, and fine Palladian architecture collectively make the bar.

Other candidates include:

Stonehenge. This is an odd duck. It is utterly underwhelming as a visitor (you can no longer get within touching distance of the stones unless you manage to wrangle a pre-arranged sunrise visit, and it is literally just a circle of large stones), but it is one of the outstanding achievements of Stone Age architecture anywhere in the world, is several hundred years older than the pyramids, and technically qualifies under the "scientific achievement" heading given that the alignment of the site is evidence of systematic astronomy. I struggle to imagine doing a serious Grand Tour without including it. Unfortunately the site is not easily accessible by public transport (if you try, it ends up being a full day with Salisbury Cathedral and Old Sarum thrown in as filler attractions) - there are various coach tour options including stopping off at Stonehenge on the way to or from Bath.

Canterbury (1 hour by high-speed train). As the mother church of the Anglican Communion and the place where St Thomas a Becket met his martyrdom, Canterbury Cathedral is a legitimate pilgrimage destination for Episcopalians or other Anglosphere Protestants who see the English Reformation as part of their religious tradition. Otherwise it doesn't make the cut - you are going to be seeing a lot of cathedrals on the Grand Tour and unfortunately (unlike Bath) the other attractions in Canterbury are a bit crap.

York (Just under 2 hours by train) In my view, too far for a day trip. There is a version of the Grand Tour that begins in Edinburgh and stops off in York en route to London, but I don't think we have time for it if we are going to get to Naples in 4 weeks.

1c Cultural experiences to enjoy in London

Theatre - obviously Shakespeare is on the menu. If you have enough evenings, it is probably worth seeing Shakespeare at the Globe (where they do it the way Shakespeare would have done it, which was not highbrow at the time - the main competition for the original Globe was the bear-baiting next door) and Shakespeare done highbrow (possibly in Stratford). I also think a West End show is worth it. Modern commercial theatre is clearly an achievement of Western civilisation, some of it is very good indeed, and the West End is a major centre with its own unique version of the tradition. The high-end product is large-scale music theatre - frankly, the Grand Opera of our time - and the best composer in that style is Andrew Lloyd Webber. So I would pre-book tickets to an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. (Phantom of the Opera is generally considered the best musically).

Music - if we are doing the London-Naples route, then London is probably the best place to take in a classical concert. (For other routes, the standard of classical music is generally higher in the German-speaking bit of Europe). I would leave the opera to Paris or Milan - it is normally sung in the original language anyway. I don't spend enough time in the contemporary music scene to know if it is worth going to gigs in London or not.

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Football - this is a huge part of European culture, and the Grand Tour should include a match. If you want to play the sophisticated soccer fan back in the US, you need to go to an EPL game. Brentford/Crystal Palace/Fulham/West Ham have more easily available tickets than Aresnal/Chelsea/Tottenham Hotspur. But if you are only going to one football match, I would skip London and go to a Serie A match somewhere in Italy - the fan culture is much healthier, the tickets are cheaper, and the sporting standard is similar.

Other sport - given the nature of the Grand Tour, it might make sense (depending on dates) to attend one of the socially prestigious sporting events which form part of the London Season. Royal Ascot probably offers the best compromise between a high production values sporting and social occasion and tickets actually being available to the masses.

Clubbing - the European nightclub culture based around electronic dance music is distinct from American nightclub culture based around overpriced bottle service and therefore qualifies as permissible hedonism for Grand Tourers. The spiritual home of this culture is Ibiza, but London is the best clubbing city on the London-Naples route. I am too old to offer further advice, but @5434a recommends Fabric and Printworks. The Ministry of Sound is canonical, but probably qualifies as a tourist trap by now.

Food - we can obviously skip French and Italian (both are good in London, but not as good as in their home countries). For splurge meals, I would be looking at three choices:

  • Traditional British luxury. The Savoy Grill is the obvious choice, but the restaurants at any of the grand London hotels qualify.

  • Updated takes on traditional British cuisine (which doesn't suck if done right) - St John is canonical for this sort of thing. The Hawksmoor chain of steakhouses would also qualify - although the menu is a bit too similar to a smart American steakhouse to be distinctively British.

  • Some kind of weird modern fusion cuisine that could only exist in a city as diverse as London. Use Michelin or Zagat's to find candidates.

For more ordinary meals, some obvious pointers are:

  • Traditional fish and chips

  • Modern street food at Borough Market or Greenwich Market

  • Sandwiches at Pret a Manger (a ubiquitous chain that is actually good and mostly serves office workers)

  • Curry. The Brick Lane curry houses are tourist traps. Tayyabs in Whitechapel is canonical for City workers going for a curry after work, but there are hundreds of good curry houses in London. Chicken Tikka Massala is the canonical London curry - it is a British take on Butter Chicken. Balti is also thoroughly British - it comes from Birmingham.

Update - there appears to be a small amount if interest in going on, but I am close to the 20k character limit and still struggling with a crunch at work, so I am going to put some quick notes in the comments.


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