"Young English elites of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries often spent two to four years traveling around Europe in an effort to broaden their horizons and learn about language, architecture, geography, and culture in an experience known as the Grand Tour" writes Matt Rosenberg in his excellent article, Grand Tour of Europe.
While the whole idea of the three year Grand Tour sounds nice to me, it doesn't sit well with the average boss in the 21st century. Not to mention the fact that broadening one's horizons seems to be a goal that's lost its significance in these troubled times.
So where's a person to go in Europe these days to get a flavor of "the continent?" Below you'll find some of my recommendations for a two to three week visit of Europe for today's on-the-go traveler.
The original Grand Tour started in London and crossed the channel to Paris. It visited big cities because that's where the culture was. (Not to mention the big tourist hotels.) The Tour would move on to Rome or Venice, with side excursions to Florence and the ancient cities of Pompeii or Herculaneum. Public transport, such as it was at the time, was used.
There are few reasons to deviate from these guidelines today. If you only have a short vacation time you will be more comfortable staying at a single hotel for three or four days rather then moving around every day. (Search for the "grand tour" on the web and you'll see offers of tours visiting a major city each and every day. I can't imagine what travelers get out of these sorts of tours--other then major travel vertigo I mean.)
There is enough to do in any of Europe's major cities to spend the whole two to three weeks in any one of them, as long as you are interested in a wide variety of activities and you like to explore and celebrate the differences between cultures.
So, let's base the New Grand Tour on the older framework, and modify it for modern travel tastes (and to take advantage of quicker travel times today.) Using an open jaws ticket that'll allow us to enter Europe in London and leave out of Rome, we'll take airplanes or trains to get between cities. (You really don't want any part of a car in London, Paris, or Rome and you can't even have one in Venice, so don't think of it at this point--we'll discuss the best way to add a car to the Tour on page 2.)
So let's see how an agenda for the aforementioned tour works out (links go to travel planning maps and essentials, if available):
That's two weeks. Notice that the itinerary doesn't include Pompeii. That's because you can visit Pompeii as a day trip from Rome. It's a moderately long one, taking two hours to Naples and then a 35 minute ride on the Circumvesuviana commuter train line to Pompeii. It's even shorter to Herculaneum. (Pompeii guide)
Feel free to juggle these destinations and durations around. Perhaps you'll want to eliminate London, giving you more time in the rest of Europe. Or you can make your way through Germany instead of going through France on your way to Italy. I might think of another Tuscan town between Venice and Rome if I had to travel in July or August, since Florence always seems overrun with tourists at that time. Your choice.
And you don't have to take the train. Europe is currently awash in cheap airlines to travel between cities these days. For Information on these cheap airfares and other transportation options, see the links in the linkbox below. Just remember that the time you save will often be eaten up by getting to and from the airport. Trains generally drop you in the center of cities.
Read on if you've got more time or you're looking to tack on a car tour of the countryside to the Grand Tour.
I've got three weeks. Give me some Grand Tour expansion possibilities with or without a car.
Where can you go if you have three weeks and wanted to extend your journey from the same basic Grand Tour?
Other cities easily accessible along the route (cities in parenthesis are cities not along the route but within 5 hours train ride):
What can I do with a car?
You can rent a car for as many days as you'd like. Paris is pretty easy to navigate out of (avoid the rush hours), so I'd recommend the car there. Italian trains are cheaper than the rest of Europe and the lines pretty extensive, so a car will be less of a bargain. Still, a car offers you the promise of a countryside excursion that you can't always get on the train, like a stop in Chianti wine country.
Other Options along the Grand Tour
Hotels often offer tours with companies that pick you up at the hotel. In Paris you might tour some castles of the Loire or go wine tasting in the Champagne region. In Rome you might visit Villa d'este, Pompeii, or Hadrian's Villa. Check at your hotel desk.