In Search of the Modern Grand Tour of Italy

This article originally appeared in the December 2015/January 2016 issue of Dream of Italy. Updated 2018.

Taking “a grand tour” sounds old-fashioned—and it truly is. Although the kind of leisurely, arts-focused weeks or months in Italy that many of us have only seen depicted in films like the 1985 Merchant-Ivory classic A Room with A View might sound romantic and relaxing, few modern travelers to Italy have the patience for the amount of luggage required—let alone the vacation time.

“Who has more than two or three weeks, these days, to take time off?” says Paul Bennett, co-founder of Context Travel, which specializes in half-day and day-long walking tours for no more than six participants. “Our clients want to make the most of their limited vacation days. I think the ‘grand’ part of a tour has migrated from length and breadth to depth and luxury—and each group has different ideas about what luxury means.”

Historic Meaning

Before we can define that luxury, and perhaps imagine a “New Grand Tour,” we should discuss what the historic Grand Tour involved. “The classic Grand Tour was the wealthy, young man who spent several months—at least—traveling in Europe after finishing his formal schooling,” wrote Lynne Withey, author of Grand Tours and Cooks’ Tours: A History of Leisure Travel, 1750-1915.

The young man typically hailed from England, and the tour, she said, served as “hiatus between adolescence and adulthood, between formal schooling and working—not that most of these people worked in the sense that we think of as work.” Whitey noted that “Italy was the high point, because these were people who were classically trained, and Rome and Greece were the cradle of Western civilization for them.”

Aristocratic and upper-class families, first in England and then in the newly rich 19th-century United States, wanted their sons to acquire sophistication and perhaps even a few Old Master paintings in their peregrinations. Italy became a locus of these journeys for its agreeable climate, wealth of artistic and cultural treasures, and Mediterranean lifestyle.

Typical itineraries would include temples of high art, like Florence’s Uffizi; architectural masterpieces, like Rome’s Pantheon; archaeological finds, from Pompeii to Herculaneum; and some outdoor adventure (often known as “Alpinism”) that might entail a trek in the Dolomites or a trip to Mount Vesuvius.

Changing World

When did things start to change? A Room with a View is set in 1908, before World War I forever changed the face of Europe, as well as the means of many of its greatest families. Although young men still took long sojourns “abroad” with their Oxbridge and Ivy League chums, more and more young women joining them, and undergraduate-sponsored programs that allowed students to spend an academic year under the supervision (however minimal) of faculty advisors.

By the post-World War II 1950s, very few young people had the time or inclination to embark on the traditional Grand Tour—but many of its elements survived. Few modern visitors would skip Florence’s Uffizi, Venice’s St. Mark’s Place or Rome’s Spanish Steps—all of which would have been classic stops.

It’s worth noting, says Pam Mercer of Tuscany Tours, that some Grand Tour classic stops actually influenced Italy’s tourism. Says Mercer, “It used to be when English nobles visited Florence, they had to seek out the man with the key to the Bargello, still in its post-dungeon-use state. But everyone wanted to see Giotto’s portrait of Dante, and the Italians became embarrassed at so many important visitors seeing the decay—so they spiffed it up to become the museum everyone loves today.”

Art historian and travel guru Alexandra Korey, PhD, points out that “Some of the characters involved in the later-stage, 19th-century Grand Tour culture were also important members of Florentine collecting practices, as well as art historians who published many volumes on Italian treasures.” Korey recommends the Herbert Percy Horne Foundation Museum in that city. “Horne was a 19th-century collector who helped revive interest in the medieval style, and left his ‘house museum’ to the city—an interesting collection.”

Despite such influences, “no one asks for the Grand Tour anymore,” says Sam Hilt of Tuscany Tours. “Our world has changed so much since that time it’s hard to imagine anyone sending their kids on a similar adventure. Still, there are places around the world that people definitely want to see, and millions take the trouble to do so every year. For the majority of travelers, this takes the form of a ‘bucket list.’ There are must-see places like Machu-Picchu, the Great Wall of China, or Petra, and must-see paintings and statues like the Mona Lisa or Michelangelo’s David.”

Hilt adds that “Today such travel is no longer part of an extended curriculum as it once was; it doesn’t serve specifically to deepen one’s understanding of what is to be valued and furthered and supported in one’s own culture. It’s, rather, a form of recreation for most people, a pleasant enough diversion from life at home.”

Bennett agrees: “The old-fashioned Grand Tour doesn’t exist,” but he adds: “Millennials, believe it or not, have completely redefined what today’s important trip through Italy consists of, from their taste for newer museums and monuments, to their enthusiasm for experiential travel. One of our most popular walks is an eco-tour of Venice.”

Although the experts we spoke to had differences of opinion on whether or not the old-school Grand Tour has any importance for today’s traveler, each agrees today’s traveler wants her experience to be as grand as possible given a particular trip’s parameters. With that in mind, here is a list of experiences the modern traveler to Italy wants:

New Museums

While we’d never suggest giving the Bargello in Florence a miss, there are many important art collections built in the past 50 years. Highest on every expert’s list: the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, one of the world’s most important modern art destinations, including works by Klee, Picasso, Braque, Duchamp, Léger, Brancusi, Dalí, Magritte, Miró, Mondrian, Kandinsky, Giacometti, Pollock, Rothko, Calder, Moore—and more.

When it comes to modern art, the Venice Biennale is in a class by itself—and for many people, worth scheduling a trip around on the years it is held. If you’re not already a fan, the citywide celebration offers something for everyone, from street concerts to swanky parties to juried exhibits.

Museo del Novecento in Milan is worth a stop for its Marini holdings alone. Rome’s MAXXI (Museo delle arti del XXI Secolo, or Museum of the Arts of the 21st Century) is important, too, particularly as it extends the reach of Italian art history—but also as it offers a great deal of education and exhibits for children, who will create the great art of the future.

More modern museum choices include the Ferragamo Shoe Museum in Florence showcases the famed designer’s creations from the 1920s on and the Messner Mountain Museum Corones  in the Dolomites. Mountaineer Reinhold Messner has placed museums in Sud Tirol at Firmian, Juval, Dolomites, Ortles and Ripa. The sixth and final location at Corones focuses on how those mountains were “tamed” by humans.

Culinary Experiences

“Culinary travel is completely new,” says Bennett. “It’s a wholly modern invention, and it’s something we get the most requests about no matter what time of year.” Cooking courses, market tours and trips to food producers have become de rigueur for sophisticated travelers to Italy.

Cooking schools remain extremely popular, and one of the slickest is run by Barilla (yes, the pasta company) in the middle of Parma—long a center of fine cuisine.  Equally as good or better are the lessons given by Italian grandmothers right in their own homes. (For many of our favorite cooking schools, see the August 2014 and September 2014 issues of Dream of Italy.)

But culinary experiences don’t end there…there are now gourmet-themed walking tours of nearly every city in Italy and organizations like Home Food that offer meals cooked in local homes.

Bennett says that clients of all ages look for “the most authentic” Italy possible, whether that means eating—or drinking. That means going straight to the source: Small-batch olive oil factories, artisanal chocolatiers and family-run vineyards are hugely important to tourists and tourism alike. Whether it’s exploring “biodynamic” wines in Tuscany, learning how a traditional Sicilian winery has successfully become a huge export business, or digging deep into regional varietals like Chianti, Italy’s grapes are ripe for discovery.

Archaeological Finds

Many prehistoric discoveries in Italy would not have been available to travelers on Grand Tour, or even to 20th-century travelers. Also, it was tougher to get to remote areas in the 18th and 19th centuries, before airplanes and automobiles shortened overseas travel and made the idea of a slow trek on foot less daunting.

In recent decades, archaeologists have uncovered never-before-seen sites and artifacts. One team has located a wall in Rome that proves the city existed two centuries earlier than believed, while another has pinned down new dates of existence for Italy’s Neanderthal residents and mysterious underground Etruscan pyramids in Umbria. (Although it’s not available for public viewing yet, recently a “packed” Etruscan tomb discovered in Umbria may be one of the new millennium’s most important finds.)

A man in Lecce was simply trying to find a sewage pipe when he unearthed a subterranean nest of structures that included a Franciscan convent and wall frescoes; it’s now a museum. In Sicily, recent digs at Selinunte are teaching scholars and travel experts about Magna Graecia, the pre-Roman Greek empire, and its contributions to the island’s multilayered past.

People will never skip Pompeii, but can now experience more of the site and its context. Just in December 2015, six new houses were re-opened after renovations at the site. These domus, or homes of wealthy and freedmen, include that lived in by Stephanus, the famed drycleaner (fullonicus) of ancient Pompeii.

Adventure Treks

There was often a great deal of walking on the classic Grand Tour. Today, travelers need scarcely set foot on a cobblestone if they don’t wish to, given the prevalence of tour buses in even the smallest Italian cities. Perhaps that’s why so many Millennials actively seek opportunities to bike, hike, ski, sail and climb where and when they can. And there are even Segways for some city tours.

Taking a bicycle tour is a particularly popular modern approach to Italy’s byways. The best tours provide all the luxuries, with your luggage conveyed from hotel to hotel, and gourmet meals booked at regular intervals. Ciclismo Classico offers trips in 14 regions of Italy at all different levels of cycling experience. Backroads goes to many of the same places, but also has tours of “All Italy” and “Italian to French Alps,” among others.

If you prefer an upper-body workout, try Venice Kayak, a completely different way to experience La Serenissima from the water. Prefer to take to the road? Rent a Ferrari or take a spin on a Vespa (many companies offer both).

Finally, if an experience equaling “grand” means superlatives, you might want to know about Italy’s “toughest trek:” Selvaggio Blu (“Wild Blue”) stretch of Sardinian coast that involves several days of climbing, backpacking and camping.

Modern Secular Pilgrimages

Of course religious tours still visit St. Peter’s Square and as follow in the footsteps of Saint Francis of Assisi. We have in mind the more secular traveler’s wish to visit someone like Dante-reciting “Dario the Butcher,” whose Antica Macelleria Cecchini in Panzano  draws admiring hordes who have read about him in Bill Buford’s book Heat or in his frequent media mentions.

Cecchini, who took over his family butcher shop after obtaining a university degree in literature, is known as much for quoting passages from his beloved poet as for innovating new cuts of meat and salumi in his heavenly smelling storefront.

Modern travelers also appreciate a side trip to see favorite spots of a literary character like Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano in Sicily and Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti in Venice. We can’t forget Sicilian tours inspired by Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather movies or an amble through Sophia Loren’s Rome.

One of the most entertaining of these “Hollywood-in-Italy pilgrimages” might be a visit to Rome’s Cinecitta Studios, where famed director Federico Fellini worked on classic films like La Dolce Vita, Satyricon and Amarcord.

More recent additions to the modern pilgrimage include a trip to Lake Como for a glimpse of the Laglio villa of George and Amal Clooney or even the celebrities themselves. “Pilgrims” also enjoy the town of Cortona, where author Frances Mayes restored her beloved Villa Bramasole (as featured in Under The Tuscan Sun) and encouraged a generation of her fellow Americans to pursue their own dreams of Italy.

–Bethanne Patrick