The concept began as early as the 1600s and continued until the mid 1800s when regular travel became easier. This wasn’t a quick jaunt either, young men would spend months or even years on their trip. And this wasn’t Europe on $5 a Day. These young men were very wealthy and carried letters of introduction to stay with their aristocratic peers at castles and manors across the Continent. It’s traditionally associated with the British nobility, but was also undertaken by North and South Americans and some other Europeans.
The idea was for a post college graduation trip to see the classical world that they had studied (back when mastery Latin and ancient Greek were the hallmarks of the classical liberal arts education). Italy was the prime location to go and study the art and architecture of Rome, Florence, and Venice. In a time before museums really existed, it was only the aristocracy that had access to a lot of the famous works of art because they could appeal to their peers who owned them to let them in for a look. Inspired by seeing these classical artworks, many gentlemen set out to acquire some of their own. They were also inspired architecturally to create their own grand estates back at home in the style of the ancients, which gave rise to the Neoclassical period of architecture.
Other key destinations in the Grand Tour were Paris (to improve one’s French, the language of sophistication at the time), Switzerland, Austria, Germany, and Holland. Of course, it was not all about the serious study of art and architecture. Grand Tourists made plenty of time for wine-ing, dining, and partying with all the loveliest and wittiest people in the highest circles. They weren’t all totally selfish either, sometimes they would bring artists (who would benefit tremendously from the exposure to ancient and Renaissance art) and other people of lesser means with them as companions.
The advent of the industrial age and the greater ease of travel opened up the idea of a “grand tour” of Europe to more and more people. It eventually became fashionable for older women to take grand tours of Europe, bringing along a lucky daughter or niece as a companion (for propriety and for the younger lady’s education). Of course, the idea still exists in the concept of a “gap year” in many countries, or just the general “study abroad” or “backpacking around Europe” that are still wildly popular today.