The term "Grand Tour" refers to the 17th- and 18th-century custom of a traditional trip of Europe undertaken by mainly upper-class young European men of sufficient means and rank (typically accompanied by a chaperon, such as a family member) when they had come of age (about 21 years old). Young women of equally sufficient means ("debutantes"), or those of either gender of a more humble origin who could find a sponsor, could also partake. The custom—which flourished from about 1660 until the advent of large-scale rail transport in the 1840s and was associated with a standard itinerary—served as an educational rite of passage. Though the Grand Tour was primarily associated with the British nobility and wealthy landed gentry, similar trips were made by wealthy young men of other Protestant Northern European nations, and, from the second half of the 18th century, by some South and North Americans. The tradition declined as enthusiasm for neo-classical culture waned, and with the advent of accessible rail and steamship travel—an era in which Thomas Cook made the "Cook's Tour" of early mass tourism a byword.
The New York Times in 2008 described the Grand Tour in this way:
Three hundred years ago, wealthy young Englishmen began taking a post-Oxbridge trek through France and Italy in search of art, culture and the roots of Western civilization. With nearly unlimited funds, aristocratic connections and months (or years) to roam, they commissioned paintings, perfected their language skills and mingled with the upper crust of the Continent.
The primary value of the Grand Tour, it was believed, lay in its exposure to the cultural legacy of classical antiquity and the Renaissance, and to the aristocratic and fashionably polite society of the European continent. In addition, it provided the only opportunity to view specific works of art, and possibly the only chance to hear certain music. A Grand Tour could last anywhere from several months to several years. It was commonly undertaken in the company of a Cicerone, a knowledgeable guide or tutor. The Grand Tour had more than superficial cultural importance; as E. P. Thompson stated, "ruling-class control in the 18th century was located primarily in a cultural hegemony, and only secondarily in an expression of economic or physical (military) power." The legacy of the Grand Tour lives on to the modern day and is still evident in works of travel and literature. From its aristocratic origins and the permutations of sentimental and romantic travel to the age of tourism and globalization, the Grand Tour still influences the destinations tourists choose and shapes the ideas of culture and sophistication that surround the act of travel.
In essence, the Grand Tour was neither a scholarly pilgrimage nor a religious one, though a pleasurable stay in Venice and a residence in Rome were essential. Catholic Grand Tourists followed the same routes as Protestant Whigs. Since the 17th century, a tour to such places was also considered essential for budding artists to understand proper painting and sculpture techniques, though the trappings of the Grand Tour—valets and coachmen, perhaps a cook, certainly a "bear-leader" or scholarly guide—were beyond their reach. The advent of popular guides, such as the Richardsons', did much to popularise such trips, and following the artists themselves, the elite considered travel to such centres as necessary rites of passage. For gentlemen, some works of art were essential to demonstrate the breadth and polish they had received from their tour. In Rome, antiquaries like Thomas Jenkins were also dealers and were able to sell and advise on the purchase of marbles; their price would rise if it were known that the Tourists were interested. coins and medals, which formed more portable souvenirs and a respected gentleman's guide to ancient history were also popular. Pompeo Batoni made a career of painting the English milordi posed with graceful ease among Roman antiquities. Many continued on to Naples, where they viewed Herculaneum and Pompeii, but few ventured far into Southern Italy, and fewer still to Greece, then still under Turkish rule.