During the 17th and 18th centuries, the Grand Tour was a bit of a rite of passage for the young and wealthy from England’s upper classes. They’d start off in Paris, but Italy was usually the primary destination, particularly the key cities of Venice, Florence, Rome and Naples.
The Grand Tour was seen as a cultural way to finish one’s education – travellers would learn about architecture, the arts and language, mingle with the elite, and pick up art and antiques to furnish their homes back in Britain.
The original Grand Tour often lasted a couple of years. Nowadays, we don’t tend to get quite so much time off work, so we’ve planned a more manageable itinerary that fits into a couple of weeks instead. It ticks off all four cities, and includes plenty of Italian culture, history and art – the perfect modern-day Grand Tour.
A Grand Tour of Italy
Start your Grand Tour off with a few days in Venice. Put St. Mark’s Basilica at the top of your sightseeing list – its golden interior, lavish artworks and Byzantine accessories are absolutely stunning. The city also has a handful of excellent art galleries, including the Gallerie dell’Accademia (home to masterpieces from Bellini, Titian and Tintoretto) and the Ca’ d’Oro Gallery. If you’re a fan of modern art, head to the Peggy Guggenheim Museum or the Punta della Dogana Museum of Contemporary Art.
Keep a day free for wandering – Venice is the perfect city to get lost in. Start by taking the #2 vaporetto (water bus) up the Grand Canal to Piazzale Roma, then stroll through the Santa Croce, San Polo and Dorsoduro districts to discover quiet canals and sun-dappled piazzas away from the tourist crowds.
“Vivaldi is one of Venice’s most famous composers. Dress up for a classical concert of his Four Seasons, played in some of the most beautiful churches and palazzos in the city, such as La Pieta Church, where Vivaldi was baptised.” Gianni Bruno, Venice Concierge
Back in the 17th century, Grand Tourists would travel from Venice to Florence by horse and carriage. Nowadays, high-speed trains make the 160-mile journey in just over two hours. Tuscany’s capital was also Italy’s Renaissance capital, and is home to a wealth of Renaissance art and architecture.
Make the duomo (cathedral) your first stop. Although the cathedral itself dates from the medieval period, its famous terracotta-hued dome was the first dome built during the Renaissance – its creation kicked off Italy’s architectural Renaissance.
Art lovers should make a beeline for the Uffizi Gallery (book in advance to skip the ticket queues), which holds the best collection of Italian paintings in the world. The Accademia is also a must-see – it houses Michelangelo’s David, probably the most famous statue in Florence.
Other sights to see include the Palazzo Vecchio (once home to the powerful Medici family), the churches of Santa Croce, Santa Maria and San Miniato, and the Museum of Bargello, where you’ll find a fantastic sculpture collection.
“The Salone dei Cinquecento on the first floor of the Palazzo Vecchio is just beautiful, with an elaborate panelled ceiling and huge frescoes.” Silvia Gualengi, Florence Concierge
From Florence, another high-speed train will whisk you to Italy’s capital in a mere 90 minutes. Seen as the centre of Western civilisation, Rome was a popular stop on the Grand Tour for its architecture and ancient ruins – many of which you can still see today.
The big-ticket item was the Colosseum, which is still remarkably intact. Avoid the queues by buying your tickets at the Roman Forum and exploring the remains of its grand arches, basilicas and temples before you head to the famous arena (you can do this on our Archaeological Wonders of Rome tour). Venturing down to the labyrinth of underground tunnels beneath the Colosseum can only be done on a guided tour, but the small charge is well worth it.
St. Peter’s Basilica was also high on the Grand Tour sightseeing list, thanks to the impressive artworks inside. Step into the vast interior and you can see stunning mosaics, paintings and statues – the most famous of which is Michelangelo’s Pietà, which was carved from a single block of Carrara marble.
“A few minutes’ walk from the Trevi Fountain is the Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini Church. Its underground crypt is a must-see – it’s decorated with more than 4,000 skeleton bones.” Davide Arcuri, Rome Concierge
Naples’ proximity to newly discovered archaeological sites like Pompeii and Herculaneum made it a key fixture on the Grand Tour. Board a high-speed train at Roma Termini station and in just over an hour, you’ll be arriving at Napoli Centrale for the final leg of your own Tour.
Pompeii and Herculaneum can both easily be reached on the Circumvesuviana train line from Naples. Pompeii is a huge site, with remains of ancient Roman roads, villas, shops, temples and even an amphitheatre. Herculaneum is smaller, but better preserved, due to being buried by mud rather than ash. Highlights include colourful frescoes and beautiful mosaics covering the floors and courtyards of the villas (Herculaneum was a summer resort town favoured by wealthy Romans, so the properties tended to be more lavish than those at Pompeii).
Naples’ spectacular opera house, Teatro di San Carlo, opened in 1737, giving travellers another reason to flock to the seaside city. These days, you can see the sumptuous interior on a guided tour or experience a live performance – operas, classical concerts and dance recitals are all on offer.
“After visiting Pompeii and Herculaneum, travel to the top of Vesuvius so you can look down at both towns from the very volcano that caused so much damage to them. To top off the sights, I would recommend going to the Archaeological Museum in Naples, which holds well-preserved artefacts from both sites. While you’re in Naples, a trip to see the Veiled Christ at Sansevero Chapel is an amazing art experience – the sculpture is absolutely beautiful.” Rosetta Fanzo, Neapolitan Riviera Concierge