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What would an updated Grand Tour look like?

This is an effortpost inspired by this subthread in Small Scale Questions Sunday. The question is what would a modern Grand Tour look like?

Basic assumptions:

  • The purpose of the Grand Tour is to experience the greatest achievements of European culture. A certain amount of hedonism is permitted (the brothels of Venice were a staple of the original Grand Tour) but the primary purpose is educational.

  • We take for granted that Western Civilisation is a distinct culture, that its roots are in Classical antiquity, that it is Christian, and (whether because it is superior or just because it is ours) it is the thing we are looking at.

  • We are looking at a living culture where possible, not just museums. This was an important point of the original Grand Tour - the tour ideally included fencing lessons in Paris, drawing lessons in Florence, and music lessons in Naples - in all cases these were the centres of living traditions at the time. Obviously, European culture is still very much alive and we will take this into account.

  • The modern tourists are a small mixed-sex group of early-20's Americans (or Canadians or Australians) from upper middle-class backgrounds whose parents are funding them to do the Grand Tour (the closest analogy to the original English aristocratic tourists).

  • Like the original Grand Tour, this is not an actual pilgrimage. Although a lot of religious sites make the itinerary for their historical or cultural importance or their architectural merit, we are not interested in spiritual importance as such.

  • We have 4-6 weeks (based on @grognard's comments). This is obviously a lot less than the original Grand Tour, but we can travel faster. I also assume we are doing this in during the summer, which affects what is open and such like.

From these we get the following conclusions:

  • We are not going to be wasting much time admiring the scenery. I am a proud European who has done a lot of travelling, but I don't think we have anything that stands up against the Grand Canyon or the Yosemite Valley.

  • We will do most of our travelling by train - both because it is the easiest way to get into European cities (traffic and parking are a nightmare) and because the European high-speed rail network is itself an outstanding achievement of modern European culture.

The original Grand Tour had a fairly standardised outbound route: London -> Paris -> Geneva -> through Switzerland and across the Alps to Northern Italy -> visits to various northern Italian cities including Venice and Florence -> Rome -> Naples. The return via German-speaking Europe was less standardised. @2rafa suggested a rough itinerary for the round trip on the other thread. I am going to disagree, and suggest a one-way Grand Tour: London (probably actually York) to Naples overland via Paris, Lausanne, Bologna, Florence and Rome. Why?

The core of the European culture that exists now is England and France. This historic core of European high culture (both in classical antiquity and the Renaissance) is Italy. London/Paris/Rome or London/Paris/Florence/Rome is the quintessential European itinerary for a reason. I think the return leg is relatively less valuable than it was in the eighteenth century. Vienna and Budapest are fascinating, but the culture that built them didn't survive World War I. A lot of the German sites that the original Grand Tour included was destroyed by allied bombing or Soviet criminality, or rendered culturally dead by de-Nazification. Berlin has a thriving modern culture, but I am inclined to exclude it from the Grand Tour on grounds of degeneracy. Also, changing religious norms mean that there is no longer the need to balance time spent in Catholic and Protestant countries. For example, the more intellectually inclined original tourists spent time in Heidelberg partly because the university in Catholic Bologna wasn't open to them.

The other controversial suggestion I am going to make is skipping Venice. It is a detour from the route I am proposing, and in my experience (I have visited twice) it is not worth it - it is now a culturally dead tourist trap (unless you are in town for the Biennale) and apart from the novelty of a city in a lagoon, it doesn't do anything that Rome and Florence don't.

What are the things we want to see:

  • Architecture and the visual arts. Obviously. A huge part of the point of the original Grand Tour, and easily accessible as a tourist.

  • Scientific achievement. Less accessible as a tourist, but I have tried to fit it in.

  • Engineering achievement. Apart from the trains and the various civil engineering marvels you see on the way, I have struggled here. The sine qua non of European engineering achievement is the British industrial revolution, but I don't know how to engage with that as a tourist. As an American, you can probably argue that this is less important because 21st century Europe is not noted for its engineering excellence. A lot of the most tourist-accessible engineering achievement is in military museums.

  • Performing arts, including classical music, including both traditional high culture, and excellent modern culture. The aim is as far as possible to experience arts in their spiritual home. Most of what we are looking for post-dates the original Grand Tour. I will assume that the modern tourists are able to get tickets to sold-out shows (most of the tickets I am going to list are easy to get hold of if you book well in advance).

  • Sport. This wasn't a thing at the time of the original Grand Tour, but is obviously a hugely important part of European culture, and can be experienced as a tourist if you can get tickets.

  • Food. Again, a hugely important part of European culture that is easy to experience as a tourist. French and Italian cuisines are globally recognised as excellent.

I have made a slightly arbitrary decision to exclude places which are associated with historically important events but where there is nothing spectacular there now - in particular I am not including any battlefields.

It is now after midnight in London - more route details to follow tomorrow.

Update

If anyone is still reading, I have finally got some time to write down the actual itinerary my brain was staggering towards.

1. London

I think we have 1 week in and around London. Within Central London, the key sites are:

  • Art galleries: National Gallery, Tate Britain and Tate Modern are obvious no-brainers. If you have the time and interest, several people in the thread have mentioned Sir John Soane's museum, which I have also heard good things about. When I am showing people round London, I go for the Cortauld Institute, partly because of the collection of Impressionists and partly because it is in Somerset House, which is a worth-the-visit building architecturally.

  • Unique and spectacular bulidings: Westminster Abbey, St Paul's Cathedral, the Tower of London (not only is this one of the best-preserved medieval fortified castles on the planet, it is also a Royal palace with the associated traditions and pagentry, and the hopefully-final location of the nearest thing this Earth has to a Silmaril - the Koh-i-Noor diamond), the Houses of Parliament (if you are visiting in summer, Parliament is in recess so the building is open to public tours). Tower Bridge - it is worth paying for the tour, which includes a visit to the machine rooms and the opportunity to cross on the top walkway. Spend some time wandering around the City (the one square mile historic core of London that is now the financial district - there is either a Wren church or a spectacular modern building round every corner.

  • Other museums: British museum (finest collection of looted antiquities in the world, and it isn't close), South Kensington museums - the Science Museum and the Natural History Museum are no-brainers, the Victoria & Albert would be as well except that it suffers from the all-to-common problem of modern museums that no curatorial effort goes into the permanent collection - the temporary exhibitions are spectacular, but touring the permanent collection feels like touring someone's attic. The Museum of London is

  • Museums relavant to special interests: The Bank of England Museum, the London Transport Museum, the Wellcome Collection (history of medicine), the British Library treasures collection (historically significant manuscripts, including one of the 4 surviving sealed originals of Magna Carta), the Imperial War Museum (which does exactly what it says on the tin), the Design Museum (likewise), the Handel/Hendrix museum (two composers in different eras lived in different flats in the same building - the whole building is now a museum).

  • Victorian interiors: This is not really Grand-Tour worthy, but my understanding of American anglophilia is that Victoriana is a big part of it. The Linley Sambourne house (Punch cartoonist) and the Leighton House (pre-Raphaelite artist and aristocrat) are spectacular preserved examples.

I am not including:

  • Madam Tussauds and the London Dungeon (tourist traps)

  • The Churchill Rooms (reluctantly, but it falls under the "battlefields are not achievements" criterion)

  • The London Eye or any viewing platforms (we already have views from Tower Bridge, the St Paul's galleries if you go up, and the chimney at Tate Modern)

  • The Zoo and Aquarium (great fun, but not quintessentially European or Western in any way)

  • Buckingham Palace (unspectacular architecturally)

  • Any Harry Potter attractions (ephemera, but I have no objection if you want to add them).

1a. London suburbs

There are two obvious suburban excursions in my view - both would be long half days.

Maritime Greenwich. The British seafaring tradition is one of Western Civilisation's crowning achievements - in fact I would be willing to defend the proposition that it was Western Civilisation's single greatest achievement until Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon. Greenwich is its spiritual home. Key attractions are the Cutty Sark, the National Maritime, the Royal Observatory, and the buildings of the Old Royal Naval College (Inigo Jones and Christopher Wren both did some of their best work there). It is traditional to travel one way by riverboat and the other by commuter rail.

Hampton Court Palace The Old Palace was built by Cardinal Wolsey in a deliberate and subversive attempt to compete in majesty with the King's palaces, and was confiscated by Henry VIII after Wolsey's fall. The Baroque palace added on by William III and Mary II after the 1689 Glorious Revolution was Cristopher Wren's answer to Versailles. The formal gardens (including the world's largest vine) and maze are also world-famous.

Other possible suburban excursions include Windsor (obviously), Kew Gardens (world's finest botanical garden, including the famous Victorian glasshouses and a gorgeously silly replica Japanese pagoda), and the Dulwich Picture Gallery (which stars a collection of Dutch Old Masters that had been bought to be the core of the Polish National Gallery collection, but the deal fell through when Poland was conquered in the 1790's - and it is a National Gallery worthy collection).

1b Day-trips from London

There are two obvious compulsory ones here:

Oxford or Cambridge (just under an hour by train). The University is the quintessential Western institution, and these are the second and third-oldest surviving universities, and are in the top 10 in contemporary rankings. Unfortunately it is hard to experience an ancient university as a university on a day-trip as a tourist, but the architecture of the Colleges and the various university museums make it worth the journey. The spirit of the original Grand Tour would include spending a couple of weeks participating in something like the Cambridge International Summer Programme (only weakly selective - you don't need to be an elite-university calibre student to participate), but we don't have time for that. You only need to do one of the two universities - Cambridge has the edge because of King's College Chapel, but Oxford has the advantage if you are doing Xtreme Tourism that it is on the same railway line as Stratford-upon-Avon, so you can spend most of the day in Oxford and get to Stratford in time for an evening Shakespeare performance.

Bath (1hr 20 by train). As one of the Great Spas of Europe and home of the Roman Baths, this is the sort of place that would have been on the original Grand Tour if it included England. Apart from the Roman Baths, none of the individual sites are quite Grand Tour worthy, but the cathedral, fashion museum, Jane Austen museum, and fine Palladian architecture collectively make the bar.

Other candidates include:

Stonehenge. This is an odd duck. It is utterly underwhelming as a visitor (you can no longer get within touching distance of the stones unless you manage to wrangle a pre-arranged sunrise visit, and it is literally just a circle of large stones), but it is one of the outstanding achievements of Stone Age architecture anywhere in the world, is several hundred years older than the pyramids, and technically qualifies under the "scientific achievement" heading given that the alignment of the site is evidence of systematic astronomy. I struggle to imagine doing a serious Grand Tour without including it. Unfortunately the site is not easily accessible by public transport (if you try, it ends up being a full day with Salisbury Cathedral and Old Sarum thrown in as filler attractions) - there are various coach tour options including stopping off at Stonehenge on the way to or from Bath.

Canterbury (1 hour by high-speed train). As the mother church of the Anglican Communion and the place where St Thomas a Becket met his martyrdom, Canterbury Cathedral is a legitimate pilgrimage destination for Episcopalians or other Anglosphere Protestants who see the English Reformation as part of their religious tradition. Otherwise it doesn't make the cut - you are going to be seeing a lot of cathedrals on the Grand Tour and unfortunately (unlike Bath) the other attractions in Canterbury are a bit crap.

York (Just under 2 hours by train) In my view, too far for a day trip. There is a version of the Grand Tour that begins in Edinburgh and stops off in York en route to London, but I don't think we have time for it if we are going to get to Naples in 4 weeks.

1c Cultural experiences to enjoy in London

Theatre - obviously Shakespeare is on the menu. If you have enough evenings, it is probably worth seeing Shakespeare at the Globe (where they do it the way Shakespeare would have done it, which was not highbrow at the time - the main competition for the original Globe was the bear-baiting next door) and Shakespeare done highbrow (possibly in Stratford). I also think a West End show is worth it. Modern commercial theatre is clearly an achievement of Western civilisation, some of it is very good indeed, and the West End is a major centre with its own unique version of the tradition. The high-end product is large-scale music theatre - frankly, the Grand Opera of our time - and the best composer in that style is Andrew Lloyd Webber. So I would pre-book tickets to an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. (Phantom of the Opera is generally considered the best musically).

Music - if we are doing the London-Naples route, then London is probably the best place to take in a classical concert. (For other routes, the standard of classical music is generally higher in the German-speaking bit of Europe). I would leave the opera to Paris or Milan - it is normally sung in the original language anyway. I don't spend enough time in the contemporary music scene to know if it is worth going to gigs in London or not.

Football - this is a huge part of European culture, and the Grand Tour should include a match. If you want to play the sophisticated soccer fan back in the US, you need to go to an EPL game. Brentford/Crystal Palace/Fulham/West Ham have more easily available tickets than Aresnal/Chelsea/Tottenham Hotspur. But if you are only going to one football match, I would skip London and go to a Serie A match somewhere in Italy - the fan culture is much healthier, the tickets are cheaper, and the sporting standard is similar.

Other sport - given the nature of the Grand Tour, it might make sense (depending on dates) to attend one of the socially prestigious sporting events which form part of the London Season. Royal Ascot probably offers the best compromise between a high production values sporting and social occasion and tickets actually being available to the masses.

Clubbing - the European nightclub culture based around electronic dance music is distinct from American nightclub culture based around overpriced bottle service and therefore qualifies as permissible hedonism for Grand Tourers. The spiritual home of this culture is Ibiza, but London is the best clubbing city on the London-Naples route. I am too old to offer further advice, but @5434a recommends Fabric and Printworks. The Ministry of Sound is canonical, but probably qualifies as a tourist trap by now.

Food - we can obviously skip French and Italian (both are good in London, but not as good as in their home countries). For splurge meals, I would be looking at three choices:

  • Traditional British luxury. The Savoy Grill is the obvious choice, but the restaurants at any of the grand London hotels qualify.

  • Updated takes on traditional British cuisine (which doesn't suck if done right) - St John is canonical for this sort of thing. The Hawksmoor chain of steakhouses would also qualify - although the menu is a bit too similar to a smart American steakhouse to be distinctively British.

  • Some kind of weird modern fusion cuisine that could only exist in a city as diverse as London. Use Michelin or Zagat's to find candidates.

For more ordinary meals, some obvious pointers are:

  • Traditional fish and chips

  • Modern street food at Borough Market or Greenwich Market

  • Sandwiches at Pret a Manger (a ubiquitous chain that is actually good and mostly serves office workers)

  • Curry. The Brick Lane curry houses are tourist traps. Tayyabs in Whitechapel is canonical for City workers going for a curry after work, but there are hundreds of good curry houses in London. Chicken Tikka Massala is the canonical London curry - it is a British take on Butter Chicken. Balti is also thoroughly British - it comes from Birmingham.

Update - there appears to be a small amount if interest in going on, but I am close to the 20k character limit and still struggling with a crunch at work, so I am going to put some quick notes in the comments.

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2. Paris

Travel by Eurostar - the Channel Tunnel regularly makes lists of wonders of the modern world, although you don't really experience this cruising through it at 99mph.

Key sites in Paris:

Art - Louvre, Musee d'Orsay, Modern art gallery on the top floor of the Centre Pompidou. The Louvre is sufficiently large and complex that it would be worth a group of Grand Tourists hiring a professional guide to identify the things they were interested in - it is one of the two museums on this list where you could usefully spend a full day.

Unique buildings - Eiffel Tower, Notre-Dame, Sacre-Coeur, the Garnier Opera House - consider the guided tour if you are not going to the opera.

Whatever-it-is - Catacombs tour

Wandering around - The Marais, Ile de la Cite

2a Suburban excursions - Cité des Sciences et de l'Industrie (science museum), Versailles, Euro Disney if you must.

2b Paris excursions

Chartres cathedral (about one hour by TER train) - the OG Gothic Cathedral. On the same TER line as Versailles so you could combine both in one long day.

Reims (46 minutes by TGV) - Cathedral and champagne. Cellar tours are in Reims or in Epernay, vineyard tours usually depart from Reims.

The Loire - this is the big one. The only reason why the Loire valley chateaux were not on the original grand tour was that they were not open to the public until after the French Revolution. They are a must-see for Grand Tourists, even though they are off-route. You could spend a whole week in the Loire valley if you wanted to.

The best chateaux in my view are Chambord (accessible by shuttle bus from Blois station) and Chenonceau (not accessible by public transport at all). There are various levels of commitment depending on how much time you have. A day trip by public transport is going to get you to two chateaux - probably Blois and Chambord (TER trains take to Blois take between 1hr36 minutes and 2 hours). Organised coach trips can get you to three in a day - various combinations exist. Two days lets you get more done, and also lets you get further away from Paris. Overnight in Blois or Amboise if you are staying in the Eastern Loire, and Tours if you are going further west. This is one of the places I would consider hiring a car(s), or even splashing out on a customised private minibus tour if the group is big enough. My 2-day hardcore Loire itinerary looks like: Day 1 - pick up car at Vendome-Villiers TGV to avoid Paris traffic. Do Chambord, Chenonceau, and Blois or Amboise on day 1. Stay in a motel near Tours. Do three of Chinon, Azay-le-Rideau, Fontevraud Abbey (not a chateau - but the highlight of my Loire trip. The Abbey Church is a key transitional form between Romanesque and Gothic architecture, and also has the tombs of the Plantagenets including Richard the Lionheart and Eleanor of Acquitaine), Saumur (only if there is someone horsey in the group). Return via Tours TGV.

2c Paris culture

Food - get a Michelin 2/3 star French meal if you can afford one. French haute cuisine is to gourmet cooking as classical music is to music. Just like curry in the UK, there are a number of fusion cuisines arising from French colonialism. Frenchified Lebanese and Moroccan are both great. I haven't tried Frenchified Vietnamese, but I want to next time I am in Paris. Traditional Paris cafe staples like croque monsieur should also be on the list.

France has a theatrical tradition almost as rich as England, but it isn't accessible to you unless you speak fluent French. There is a French performing arts tradition loosely defined as Cabaret which qualifies as a must-see - Moulin Rouge is canonical, but I don't know how much of a tourist trap it is. The Paris opera is excellent - the choice between Paris and Milan for Opera should be based on what is showing when you are in town. You might want to see a mime show, if you are into that kind of thing (you sick fuck).

3 Paris to Geneva

This is a case where the map tells me one thing and the train timetable something else. The train timetable tells me that the only sensible stopover is Lyon - the TGV makes the run in 2 hours non-stop. The map says we are going through the middle of Burgundy and it would be wrong not to stop off in Burgundy - the best destination is Beaune (Hotel-Dieu, wine tours). I am not familiar with Lyon, but it does seem to merit the stop. The old town has World Heritage Site status, and Lyon is now the gastronomic capital of France (as far as I can see, multiculturalism and high rents are driving traditional French haute cuisine out of Paris).

3a French wine

I think seriously engaging with the French wine-making tradition at some point on your trip through France is compulsory. Options for visiting vineyards and wineries on this route include Reims (Champagne), Burgundy, and Saumur (if you spend longer in the Loire valley). When eating out in France (except Paris), drink local.

4 Switzerland

We start with Geneva and Lausanne. As well as the usual urban sites, there are a couple of oddball attractions which qualify based on my criteria in the OP. Geneva has CERN. The visitor centre is good, but the public tours of the site are limited and only available by lottery on the day. If you have a physics major in your group it is worth trying to pull strings to get a scientific tour. Lausanne has the Olympic museum.

There are then two routes into the mountains - @2rafa recommended the Rhone Valley route with Zermatt as the stopover. I think this is a great route, but I mildly prefer the route through the Bernese Overland, including the scenic GoldenPass line from Montreux to Spiez and then a train through one of the Lochtsberg tunnels to Brig, where it joins up with the other route. Possible stops include Gstaad (the tradition of European luxury tourism that begins in the Victorian period is Grand Tour-worthy, and Gstaad is one of the best places to engage with it, particularly given that you are paying out-of-season prices) and Spiez (traditional Swiss lakeside resort popular with locals).

In either case you then go through the Simplon tunnel, famous for being the route used by the Agatha-Christie era Orient Express to cross the Alps, and continue to Milan.

Major update dropped if anyone is still paying attention

Re Stonehenge, a few miles down the road is Avebury with a lesser stone circle that is continually open to the public on account of being slap bang in the middle of the village, and with a nice pub at the side too. It's not worth making a special trip unless you're already in the Bath area but it's worth adding a mention of it to your entry on Stonehenge for anyone who might be interested.

Agreed that Avebury is great - in fact I consider it a better tourist visit than Stonehenge if you are not "big game hunting" - which admittedly Grand Tourists are and probably should be. But if you only have a week in the UK, then I wouldn't spend enough time in the area to do both, and if I am fitting something in as basically a stop-off on the way to or from Bath then Stonehenge fits the bill.

I am, this is great, thank you.

Scientific achievement. Less accessible as a tourist, but I have tried to fit it in.

The Dutch Republic had a disproportionate amount of this, as well as art, during the 16th century, so the modern Netherlands seems like a good fit. It also has a lot of old buildings that survived WW2, and given its size, is relatively important historically (due to the aforementioned prominence in art and science, plus its trading empire, early focus on religious tolerance, and connection to Hapsburg Spain). There's probably quite a lot of cool stuff in Amsterdam and Utrecht.

As a bonus, the cities are relatively easy to get around by foot, bike, and transit (rather than car).

We are not going to be wasting much time admiring the scenery. I am a proud European who has done a lot of travelling, but I don't think we have anything that stands up against the Grand Canyon or the Yosemite Valley.

I'm a proud resident of the American West, but the Swiss Alps are still pretty incredible to me. You're welcome to leave them off your itinerary because you want to focus on other things, but at the very least a train ride through the region (Switzerland has several scenic trains) is worth a few days. Plus Switzerland does have many of the things you mentioned--like the Netherlands, it survived WW2 with a variety of beautiful architecture, includes a tremendous variety of cultures in a small area, has been important to science (the combination of CERN and Albert Einstein's home alone is a solid 1-2 punch), and has great food and wine.

London is still a no-brainer, but since Brexit it feels weird. Dublin looks like might be the future capital of English-speaking Europe, and is thus worth a look (plus more solid architecture and history).

One location I would like to visit is the Gotthard massif. Not because of its outstanding natural beaty, but from purely geomantic and historical reasons. It's the top of the European world, the fulcrum around which everything rotates. To the east, behind the Oberalp Pass, the Rhine begins, flowing into Germany. To the west, just 32 km away, behind the Furka Pass, the Rhone begins, flowing into France. To the south, behind the Gotthard Pass, the Ticino begins, flowing into the Po Valley of northern Italy. And in the middle, the Reuss begins, the river that begat Switzerland: not an empire, not an ethnostate, not a city state, but the oldest civic nation.

The OGT used the Gotthard to cross the Alps - usually on foot.

I did this ten years ago in college, twice, once as a student and once as a TA. Twelve kids (six boys and six girls), two professors, two vans; 35 cities, 15 countries, 12 weeks. Route started in Paris, around Northern France then South to Spain, across Southern France to Italy, ferry to Greece, Constantinople, up through some Slavic countries to Hungary, then through some Germanic countries back to Paris. So I have a ton of thoughts, some probably slightly out of date, but practical given that I have two tours of experiences and have pretty extensive knowledge of how the trips before and after mine went as well. Semi-Organized thoughts follow, I may add more later as this thread grows or I have time to think:

GOALS/PURPOSE

OP states that the goal is to experience European Culture. I agree with that, with the cynical addendum that the benefit of the Tour is to have enough experiences that one can competently speak on European Culture in social situations. Foreign travel has long been the ultimate upper-class status symbol, the Grand Tour gave you a set of cultural touchstones that would allow you to talk to others of your class, the modernized one still does. The kind of upper middle class kids we’re talking about will one day be at cocktail parties where Law Firm Partners/C Suiters/Managing Directors etc will say they’re going/they just went on a two month trip to Greece on vacation. Having done the Tour, you will be able to say “Oh, what did you think of Elefsina?” Or “Make sure you don’t miss Meteora!” as appropriate. In 3 months you can squeeze in enough to have a wide range of experiences to talk about at cocktail parties for the rest of your life; the goal is to pack enough into two weeks in Italy to hold up your end of the conversation with someone who traveled there for months.

So, because I prefer cynical goals for structure to wishy-washy profound ones, I’ll say the sub-goal is to be exposed to elements of European culture that will act as high-class status markers for the Tourers on their future endeavors. With that out of the way...

PLACES/EVENTS

— Normandy. A beach and a graveyard. I know you said no battlefields, but if you’re an American this is critical. It’s an important part of history, it is fascinating and profound to see, and you’ll bring it up in a speech at the VFW when you run for office twenty years from now. While here, drink cider and calvados, and maybe visit Mt. St. Michel if you can.

— Greece. I loved Greece the most out of every country we visited. The history is vital to Classical European Civilization as a concept, being there also helps you understand the Byzantine and Orthodox strands of European civilization that Anglo Hegelian history can miss. Food is great, and great in a way where you can get great Greek food everywhere you go where haute French cuisine is an occasional treat. Athens, Meteora, Lepanto were my highlights; also visited some other locations on the mainland and Crete.

— Budapest. Call it ethnic pride, but the most beautiful women on the trip were in Budapest, as were the best bars. One of the boys on our trip with an LDR back in the states refused to go to the bars with us because he thought he couldn’t trust himself around them. Cheap, beautiful, historic.

-- You MUST drive on the Autobahn. Absolute necessity. Not hard to rent a car with an international driver's license, everyone will ask about it later.

— In one of England/France/Germany/Italy/Spain you should see a football match. Ideally a mid-range side, somewhere between a mid-table top flight and a top-table second flight team. It’ll be cheap, you’ll have fun. Buy a scarf. Then for the rest of your life if someone asks you if you like soccer, you can say “Oh, I support Girona/Torino/Nice, I saw them live and just fell in love! I know they never win it all, but going to game was so amazing that I can’t support any other team.” This gets you soccer street-cred among PMC europhiles where you’d get called a frontrunner for supporting Real/Barca/Bayern/Juventus, while also getting you out of the conversation because nobody actually cares about Girona.

— A shocking number of European colleges teach some courses in English. Try to get the chance to sit in on a class at an elite school, it’ll make a fun experience and get you some local color.

— I agree with @orthoxerox that you should mix “chill” cities into the “Pack in cultural stuff” cities. In particular, assuming Americans, I’ll note that you should map out which cities are good for which things. In Italy and Greece and Turkey I stand out like a sore thumb, I can’t blend in if I want to. From Hungary through Vienna to Dresden, people kept walking up to me and asking me questions in German, then getting pissed when I’d say I didn’t speak German thinking I was just being a penis and didn’t want to talk to them. Pick chill places your mix of looks/language skills will match. I will say, for chill I hated France and Spain, loved Rome and Athens and Berlin.

ROMANCE, GENDERED DIFFERENCES

No one is going to consider their European Tour complete without a European Romance to talk about later. (I’m going to assume they’re all sluts, good Christian boys and girls wouldn’t travel without already having a spouse unless it was a mission trip.) Unfortunately, I had and you specified a mixed-gender group, and women and men will have vastly different results. A lack of facility with the local language, local knowledge, and a private home to return to are huge disadvantages to men, minor inconveniences for women. There is no town in France so small that a horny 21 year old American girl can’t find a gallant Gaul to keep her warm; and there is no rave in Berlin big enough that a nebbish New England boy can’t strike out with every girl there. [I lack personal experience here, when I traveled I was monogamous with the-now-Mrs. FiveHour]

For the boys, this means that you need to protect them from getting robbed or scammed by clever prostitution rings. You don’t want anybody to end up like Albert in the Count of Monte Cristo I’ve never actually seen it happen, but I’ve seen things that felt shady happen to friends. The set-up is something like, a girl who barely speaks English seduces a tourist who has cash at a bar, takes him to a second location, fucks him, her pimp shows up and demands an absurdly large sum of money as payment. The tourist is scared, doesn’t know if he can call the cops, hands over the money. The best way to avoid this is to get your boys some action, but I have no idea how you do this, so anyone who has more experience in being single/romantic tourism can chime in.

For the girls, this means you need to protect them from predators and green-card grifters. I’ve literally known a half dozen cases in my life of mid white girls marrying Arab or Eastern European dudes who were just trying to get citizenship and end up ruining the girl’s life. The important thing is making sure everyone understands you’re in Europe for a good time, not a long time, and talk some sense into anyone getting starry eyed.

For both groups, try to get everyone to be accommodating of bringing people back to your rooms, its safer than people getting dragged to a third location.

With the mixed group, out of 6 and 6 inevitably, like clockwork, every year, two boys who kept striking out with local girls would fall for two girls on the trip, who would normally rebuff the boys because their egos were in overdrive from being a female tourist in Italy. Alas, the heartbreak inevitably played out by some bridge in some historic town. Try to keep it from dragging the group down.

GEAR

— Everyone in the group should get a watch. Just one that tells time, I’m not trying to rehash the watch thread from earlier. A watch is the most basic communication device if not everyone has a functioning cell-phone or can ask the locals reliably; “Meet up at 4:00 at the hotel” is much easier to execute if you know when 4:00 is.

— Men, buy a good comfortable unstructured blazer, you can pull it on over anything and look more put together. Everyone from Lululemon to Hugo Boss makes something called a travel blazer, but I just wore a regular navy cotton unstructured blazer from LL Bean. I’m a big believer that you should never travel without clothing appropriate for church or a nice dinner, I find dressing poorly when visiting a cathedral disrespectful, and dressing up will get you better treatment than you’ll get in cargo shorts a lot of places. In addition, a good blazer has a ton of pockets you can keep stuff in to stay organized, and the inside pockets (or zippered pockets ideally) will keep valuables secured. I’m a big fan of dressing well when you travel in general, it’s a great opportunity to put together a capsule wardrobe and have no choice but to look great, but the blazer is the core element of looking good as a white-ish man.

— Speaking of valuables, don’t take anything you care about on this trip. Your grandmothers ring, your lucky necklace, your favorite earrings, your top-of-the-line phone, your expensive winter down jacket, your favorite shoes, your dog eared and annotated Walden you take everywhere. Leave them behind, your odds of losing them on this trip are IMMENSE with the constant travel. Not even talking theft, just leaving them behind and not realizing it until you are two countries away. Buy a cheap phone, clothes you don’t care about, leave the sentimental stuff

Hugo Boss makes something called a travel blazer

General advice: Hugh Boss suits are very poorly regarded in the male fashion world, they're fused and low quality even for modern fused suits. Also the link is to a Hugo by Hugo Boss suit which is a diffusion line so one step below even regular Hugo Boss stuff. Get yourself a decent Canali if you want a good fitting suit that will last years to come.

I agree with @orthoxerox that you should mix “chill” cities into the “Pack in cultural stuff” cities.

To expand on my idea, it's still about the "cultural stuff", but of a more mundane type. The burbs have been present in so many American media as the default environment that even most Europeans don't notice anything wrong until they find themselves watching Hey Arnold! or some other media about urban Americans that is not a crime drama and realize there's a more immediate connection. But American burbs are very much American.

So if the tourers are not from a NYC borough or SF I would suggest spending a week in an AirBnB with a pretty relaxed schedule: let them go shopping and cook their own meals, take a day trip by train or by bus, visit the local university and appreciate the differences from their alma mater, go clubbing with the locals (get drunk because it's Europe and you are allowed to, get into a fight because no one's packing heat), install WhatsApp on their phone to stay in touch with the new best friends (formerly sparring partners), buy something in Zara or H&M that "looks either gay or European", get spooked in a Muslim or African ghetto, etc.

I think trying to do this faster is a mistake. Slow travel between nodes on the journey was probably important and if you're like me you're going to be burned out on the art and scenary maybe a week into a packed trip.

Was gonna say, I enjoyed France so much more with several day breaks between big cities. And had a lot more fun in San Marlo than Paris, come to think of it.

I am inclined to agree, but I think even the basic London-Naples route in four weeks requires a reasonably brisk pace.

Living in London, I prefer the sort of speed where you take two weeks to do eastern Sicily and come back later to do the western half.

The National Gallery in Trafalgar Square in London would be a great place to start, some of the best art Europe has to offer situated amongst miles of impressive architecture. I spent four hours there.

Sir John Soane's museum is also an underrated gem, with his personally curated set of antiquities (including an Egyptian sarcophagus) furniture, sculptures, architectural models and paintings (including some great pieces by Canaletto).

Seconding Soane's museum - truly amazing, and truly underrated.

London, Paris, Florence and Rome are a must. Something Americans might want to experience that the original grand tourists didn't have to is the European life in general. I would include a mid-sized European city for this, something like Vienna, but the problem with Vienna is that it's all the way out there.

Something like this might work:

  • London

  • Eurostar to Amsterdam

  • Amsterdam

  • River cruise to Strasbourg (sadly, the easily googleable ones suck)

  • Strasbourg

  • TGV to Paris

  • Paris

  • TGV to Lyon/Marseille

  • Lyon/Marseille (for that authentic experience and an overall slowdown)

  • drive to Turin

  • Freccia to Florence

  • Florence

  • Freccia to Rome

  • Rome

Since you mention rail, engineering achievement, and an itinerary of London-Paris you might want to have a look at the newly opened Elizabeth Line while you're in London, then take the Eurostar to France.

In the UK the expectation is that classical tickets are easy and cheap to get and popular music act tickets are hard and expensive, involving queuing online to be disappointed when a Viagogo bot clears them out in the first ten seconds of going on sale. Have a look at Printworks and Fabric for clubbing in London.

If you're travelling from York to London you could look into stopping in at Bradford or Leicester for a curry. Bradford is in Yorkshire, Leicester is about half way between York and London.

For London sights I'd include the Tower of London if only for the crown jewels, the British Museum for all the other historic relics we've looted/preserved, and the Tate and the Tate Modern for visual art although you will probably find broadly comparable or superior collections of those at any of the other stops on your tour. There's also Shakespeare at The Globe, or Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap at the West End if you want a more middle-brow piece of popular British theatre.

I'd strongly recommend seeing one of Gunter Van Hagen's BodyWorlds exhibitions. I saw the permanent exhibition in Amsterdam.

For trains you have to include the York railway museum and probably a ride on the Flying Scotsman.

Whatever the petty details, it should culminate in viewing all of Europe from orbit. Nothing else will do.

The purpose of the Grand Tour is to experience the greatest achievements of European culture. A certain amount of hedonism is permitted

I believe since the old grand-tour days not much has developed in the first category but plenty did in the second one. I would suggest just keep to the old classics with some stops in well regarded rave and drugs scenes like Berlin.

Plan for the development of this post if people are interested:

  • Ideas for the key cities (London, Paris, Florence, Rome) including sites and excursions

  • A detailed route through Switzerland and northern Italy

  • A list of key performing arts experiences and the best cities to experience them in

  • A list of key culinary experiences

  • Possible live spectator sport experiences

  • A rough timetable and budget

  • Possible route variations including starting in York or Edinburgh, a southern route from Paris to Florence through Provence, Genoa and the Cinque Terre, a detour via Venice, a detour via Amsterdam/Bruges

  • What is left out (in my view, the biggest omission driven by route practicalities is Barcelona)

Ideas for the key cities (London, Paris, Florence, Rome) including sites and excursions

On Rome - the Colosseum, the Forum, and the Vatican City are tourist traps that are nonetheless more than worth it, and indeed are practically compulsory. Regarding the Vatican, the Sistine Chapel is nice to see if possible, but frankly overrated and almost not worth the significant hassle of getting in, whereas I found the interior of the Basilica of St Peter an underrated highlight of the city. Less well-known but worthy sites run into the dozens, but one that stays with me is the Capuchin Crypt.

Florence is among the most consistently beautiful places simply to walk through. The best part of the main cathedral is the outside - the interior is a crowded disappointment by comparison, but that doesn't matter when the outside is there. I personally found the dome climb good fun and fascinating in engineering terms, but it's often a bother to organise and queue for and can be claustrophobic: the bell tower offers an equal or superior view for less bother. (It is worth seeing Florence from above - consider also Piazzale Michaelangelo for this). Fiesole is a nice day-trip if you have time.

Modern-day Naples itself is frankly unpleasant. Its surroundings are glorious. My advice would be to stay in one of the nearby towns and go into Naples and parts of the Amalfi coast by train or whatever. Whatever you do there, devote a day (starting in the early morning to avoid tourist hordes) to Pompeii. It's IMO the best possible way to appreciate those roots in classical antiquity.

Regarding the Vatican, the Sistine Chapel is nice to see if possible, but frankly overrated and almost not worth the significant hassle of getting in, whereas I found the interior of the Basilica of St Peter an underrated highlight of the city.

But the Sistine Chapel offers the easiest access to the interior of the Basilica of St Peter unless you're also doing the Vatican Gardens guided tour.

My advice would be to stay in one of the nearby towns and go into Naples and parts of the Amalfi coast by train or whatever.

Any suggestions for towns for staying in? Sorrento? Amalfi town?

Both are good options for a more relaxing holiday, but Amalfi doesn't have a train station. Sorrento is on the end of a Circumvesuviana branch line, close enough for Pompei, but an hour away from Naples.

Modern-day Naples itself is frankly unpleasant.

I've been there, and although it is loud and grubby, I don't think that is a reason for steering clear. The city itself is no more dangerous than any other tourist trap, although I would avoid the Camorra-controlled northern suburbs. It is noticeably less bad the pre-Giuliani NYC, for example.

Camorra-controlled northern suburbs

Still an issue?

Genoa

meh

the Cinque Terre

a tourist trap of the highest calibre

Venice

a tourist trap that's worth it

Brussels

what?

Amsterdam

goes against your whole trad idea

Barcelona

a tourist trap that's not worth it

Brussels

what?

Apologies - I meant Bruges. Will go back and edit.