How was your weekend in Ocean City this summer? Get up to NYC on the Chinatown bus? If only you were a British aristocrat coming of age in the 18th century, you could be wrapping up the first leg of your “grand tour” of Europe, a traditional fancy-person’s trek from Paris to Rome and beyond that lasted anywhere from four months to four years. (The tradition continues, if the “Rich Kids of Instagram” tumblr is any indication.) Fortunately, the National Gallery of Art’s “European Grand Tour” exhibit can whisk you away with the bluebloods of yesteryear for free.
This small show highlights the trappings of early Euro-tourism. The rare books on display include some of the Western world’s first travel guidebooks, which featured the names of good local tour guides, engraved illustrations of famous sites and labyrinthine neighborhood maps. These all offered welcome advice for the young traveler looking to impress his family upon his return.
“[Wealthy families] would send young men to France and Italy to learn the customs and broaden their understanding of art history,” exhibit curator Yuri Long says. “These guys went on to collect the art and ship home artifacts.”
And it was mostly guys, entourages in tow, taking the grand tour; women didn’t start traveling in this manner until the late 19th century. This shift coincided with new transportation options (like trains) and the rise of the middle class. As travel became more accessible to more people, the Grand Tour became more egalitarian and modern tourism as we know it was born, spawning countless keepsake Eiffel Towers.
Above: Start your journey outside Paris with this 1714 travel diary, complete with a hand-drawn map of the Palace of Versailles’ gardens. “This was a time when we start seeing the first secular travel books,” says curator Yuri Long, noting that earlier guidebooks were strictly for religious pilgrimages. These guides were “not necessarily what we think of today, with Frommer’s two-day tours. It was more general routes: ‘If you’re interested in ruins, these are the sites to focus on; if you’re interested in the culinary universe, these are the places you want to go.’ And the early ones get into where to stay, who you can talk to.”
It’s on to Italy with this late-17th-century print of Rome’s Pantheon. This spectacular vista is better than what tourists would have seen. “The depiction of the piazza is somewhat imagined,” Long says. “You probably couldn’t get a view from this far away [at that time] and see the whole thing.”
End your tour in Athens, Greece, with these 19th-century photos of the Parthenon. “If you were coming from England, you would usually make your way through France and various Italian cities, and Rome would have been the end point,” Long says. “By the 19th century, people were going farther. First it would have been Sicily, then they started going to Greece, and eventually to what they called ‘The Orient,’ which is basically what we now call the Middle East.”