The Grand Tour – Not Just For the 1%

In a world where most travel is vicarious, just a few clicks away, the concept of the Grand Tour may seem wasteful or even immoral.  Something for the 1%, or, much worse, the people who want to be like them, the wannabees, nobles plotting to become royalty (or whatever the 21st century equivalent is).  I believe that it isn’t – but that it has also changed shape, to become almost unrecognizable.

English Gentleman on Grand Tour in Rome

So what, exactly is this Grand Tour thingy? Well, there’s a long, complete article on Wikipedia, of course (which is where the image above of an English gentleman posing in Rome came from), but for our purposes, suffice to say that it was a custom among upper-class gentlemen to take a long trip to continental Europe after finishing their university studies.  It is mainly associated with British gentlemen, but was practiced in most of northern Europe as well as North and South America.

Ah, it’s just like when modern college kids finish college, then, and it’s nothing special.

No, it’s not.

While the purported objectives of both kinds of trips are similar (get to know other cultures), that is where the similarities end.  While a typical modern student trip might involve coming into continued contact with the local populace and seeing the local culture, a Grand Tour would would put one in contact with the creators of that local culture, as well as an understanding of why that culture exists, from the horse’s mouth.

The differences don’t end there…  A grand tour would last months, even years even had youth hostels existed during its heyday, no one on the tour would ever have gone near one.  No, if you’d been visiting the continent, you would have been lodged at the homes of notables in the countries you visited.  You would have been exposed to the top of society, as opposed to the bottom and sides.  There’s a much clearer view from up there, of course, which meant that the Grand Tour would create a much deeper understanding and, in so doing, remove a layer of ignorance and arrogance.  It was a good thing.

It was not universally loved, of course.  Isaac Asimov wrote a story called “Good Taste“, set in a future in which mankind has colonized parts of the solar system.  Essentially, the main character goes on a “Grand Tour” of other celestial bodies, where he gains knowledge and loses some of his prejudices – which eventually leads to serious problems (I don’t want to spoil it for you, if you’d like to read it, the story is available here).  

Fittingly, the conflict centers not on the knowledge gained but on the prejudices lost, and that has always been the Grand Tour’s greatest value.  It takes more than a couple of weeks in Paris to accept the French attitude towards sex (hell, even I was surprised that they show hardcore porn on normal cable channels, completely uncensored) or, on the other side of the spectrum, Arab marriage customs.  You need to understand the people’s quirks, get more than just a passing feel for their beliefs, and see their culture as more than just a tourist.  But in doing so, you will lose part of what makes you similar to the people back home.  It’s the fear of the different, the “contamination” that it brings, that leads to the fear, and this is what Asimov was pointing at in his story.

Of course, there is ample reason to fear, at least in the eyes of the narrow-minded.  On returning home, the attitudes of your acquaintances will seem primitive, provincial and narrow.  Their attempts to right the world’s wrongs will seem basic and one-sided.  Finally, you will not be able to resist speaking out initially out of a desire to help them expand their views, then out of frustration and, finally (if you are too dense to shut up in time), out of self-defense.

I know that among some super-rich families, this is still a custom, but other than that, there are many ways to go on the tour.  Probably the most popular is to get transferred to a job abroad.  This has the advantage that you will be living in relative luxury on company accounts, hobnobbing with the upper crust and other expats, and – though you may not enjoy it – being exposed to other default conditions.  It also lasts long enough to make a lasting impression (three years is typical).

The downside is that people with the experience to deserve a transfer are usually a bit old and set in their ways to be truly moldable.  Maybe the ideal would be to be the child of one of those expats (which has the added upside that you will possibly end up at one of these schools), but that isn’t something you can choose if it didn’t happen naturally.

As a counterpoint, being a world citizen on the internet is just about the worst way to do it.  It gives a lot of information around which to form an opinion, but none of the context that is, by definition, unwritten.  A lot of people believe they have had contact with other cultures or ideas, based on their online adventures.  That is about the same as saying that you’ve climbed Everest because you’ve seen pictures taken from the top.

Anyhow, I think that, if at all possible, everyone should be exposed to an immersion in a different culture at an early age – or at an advanced age.  And never stop teaching what you’ve learned, even if most people won’t want to hear it.



  1. Are you sure the view is clearer from the top? A culture is made by all the people in it, very much including the masses at the bottom.

    During my student years and while working as an archaeologist throughout my twenties i traveled in Central American, southeast Asia and the Pacific. I didn’t have much money. I slept on a lot of dirty floors and ate questionable food. I met interesting people, who had nothing to do with the tourist industry, and had experiences no tourist would have. Not every experience i had was pleasurable, but every one was certainly enlightening in some way.

    My most recent foreign travel experience was to Ghana. My husband and i saved for two years to afford the airfare, but once there we didn’t spent much. Travel on the cheap definitely involves some hardship, but the experience of meeting and interacting with real people is irreplaceable.


    1. As always, great insight here Kimberly (plus, totally envious of your Ghana trip!). And you may find it surprising when I say that I agree that doing things on a shoestring is much better than having the money and going to the tourist traps.

      In fact, I think that people who do the usual tourist things get an experience that is just one step above people who just surf the web and pretend to know what they’re talking about. There’s a place calles Laila’s in Damascus, a few feef from the Ommayyed Mosque, which every tourist goes to… and completely unrepresentative of what Damascus is really about. This is a typical example.

      Having said this, I do stand by the belief that for full immersion, it’s still better to be with people who have a more global understanding of the society they live in – and because of education and a bunch of other factors, that does generally occur at the top (especially in third world nations).


  2. I think kimberly is on to something there.
    And don’t confuse your experience with what the grand tour was supposed to do for an Oxford man. If the purpose was to leave one’s prejudices behind, there wouldn’t be jokes with punchlines like, “I’ll be damned! He doesn’t speak Swahili, either.” No, the real purpose was to come home knowing ~why~ the sun must never set on the British Empire. To see for one’s self that the Dons, Dagoes, Darkies and Ivans hadn’t the slightest idea of how to keep the world going right.


    1. There was some of that, of course. Hell, there still is. But there was also a true appreciation for the classics, as well as a true belief that to do certain things well, one simply had to get off the island. The English (or Germans, Americans, or whoever) did feel that they did things better overall where they came from, but not necessarily that everything else was without merit. And they did understand why things were different a lot better.

      As for the prejudice… Well, yes. The world was a less-enlightened place 200 years ago, and there’s really nothing one can do about it, or any need to deny it. But relatively speaking, a person who’d been on the grand tour was enlightened compared to his peers, and that is what matters.


      1. I’m not so sure about this. For sure thoughtful travel is some mind-extending stuff. And maybe today the people at the top have a better understanding of how their societies fit into the global picture (though I’d say a billionaire has very little visceral understanding of what life is actually like for most of his felliw countrymen). But in the olden days, that global picture was almost entirely a result of forcefully overriding local cultures with slightly modified versions of the Old Country culture. Travelling at the top would really just give Europeans a variety of European experiences.

        And even today, getting the globalised, educated experience seems a lot more like interacting via the net than meeting the common man. Of course, I say that as a poorly-travelled lad from the cultural backwaters, so take it with a grain of salt, aait?


      2. You seem thoughtful for a poorly-travelled lad!

        Your mileage may vary, but think of it this way: if you got your knowledge of the US from the internet, you’d probably conclude that most Americans are either leftist PC fanatics or fundy Christians who want time to return to the 1700s. I’d say that represents maybe 5% of the real population!


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