As Waldo of Where’s Waldo? fame prepares to come to our headquarters in Warrenton, we at History Unboxed® are thinking about other famous travelers who went far and wide–although with less red and white striping. The Grand Tour, a 17th- to 19th

The future baron, Francis Basset, on the Grand Tour, with Roman historic sites like Castel Sant’Angelo and St. Peter’s Basilica in the background.

-century custom of traveling in style across Europe, is often considered the first period of mass tourism, and one might say that the young men of the Grand Tour walked so that Waldo could run!

How did it work?

During the period of the Grand Tour, these young men from wealthy, upper-class families would venture out with their guides for this rite of passage. Starting in England, they would cross France, hire a team of servants to cross the Alps, take a break in Switzerland, and then move on to the main attraction: Italy, which was the must-see locale on every Grand Tour itinerary. Sometimes, they would follow the footsteps of a famous author, artist, or Grand Tour tourist who came before them. Think of it like using the itinerary of a famous travel influencer!

Exploring the Sites

Goethe in the Roman Campagna, by Johann Tischbein, 1787. German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote extensively about the Grand Tour in his diaries which were later published.

Once in Italy, they would explore Florence before moving south to marvel at the sites including the newly-excavated ruins of Herculaneum and Pompeii. They would buy antiquities such as Roman and Greek marbles or smaller items like ancient coins, jewelry that had little pictures of the famous sites, or miniature Colosseum sculpture.  

Most importantly, they would have portraits made of themselves, because if there isn’t a painting of you in Rome, did you even go? 

A few intrepid travelers went feather afield to Greece and the Middle East, but most returned north through Germany once their Italian exploration was done. All together, these trips would take years!




Americans Join in on the Fun

Longfellow Family in Venice, 1869. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is seated in the center of the photo.

By the 19th century, wealthy people from North and South America had started to join in on the Grand Tour, but there were differences. For example, travel was not exclusive to young men. Often, whole families including women and children would go on these yearslong excursions. 

Poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was one such American tourist who brought his whole family with him on their Grand Tour. 

Often, the people who took part in the Grand Tour were from the Southern planter class whose wealth came from the labor of enslaved Black people. An example would be the Aiken family of Charleston who were some of the richest people in South Carolina at the time. The pressure to keep up the extravagant lifestyle through these lavish trips and grand homes continued to put strain on the finances of elite Southern enslavers. Many would fall into economic ruin with just one bad harvest leading to the further rupture of enslaved families that were broken up as they–as part of the estate–were sold to pay debts. 

Page 250 of The Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain

Mark Twain, who did his own Grand Tour, wrote about it in his best-selling book The Innocents Abroad, in 1869. 

Are you going on your own Grand Tour this summer? Where will you be traveling? Perhaps while you do you can think of the travelers who have gone before you like those on the Grand Tour and the always-on-the-move Waldo!

Rebecca McCormick is a writer and editor based in Fairfax, Virginia. She has a passion for history education and holds an MA in History of Decorative Arts. Rebecca believes that hands-on history and interacting with objects help learning come alive for children and adults.