In the 17th and 18th centuries, the Grand Tour of Europe was an immersive journey across the continent undertaken by Britain's elites. It was seen as an opportunity to extend one's education by absorbing the best of Europe's art, culture and fine food, and it could entail a two- or three-year commitment to exploring the wonders of Italy, France, Austria and Germany. Whatever the duration, it was also about living the good life, taking your time and, in-between, meeting local nobility, sketching the sights and enjoying sumptuous feasts.
The tradition has vanished in its lavish original form, but Traveller is going to revive it, albeit with some tweaks. Few of us, after all, have the option to take a year or two out like the Grand Tourists of the past but then again, modern transportation allows us cover much more ground in much less time.
Our proposed Grand Tour for the modern age is designed to last about a month: long enough to feel indulgent, but short enough to ensureyou still have a life to return to back home. Our itinerary is also quite different. The Grand Tour of centuries past was designed to showcase eye-opening destinations rich in culture and history. It included places such as Paris, Venice and Rome, which these days are among the most-visited places on the planet. We have chosen a new route through Europe that takes us to dramatically different destinations, from one of Spain's most splendid Moorish cities through Russia's grandest metropolis and deep into Eastern Europe. And, instead of travelling by carriage, our tour relies on flights (although some stretches, such as Helsinki to St Petersburg, can be done by train).
Some of these cities, such as Prague, are popular destinations; others, such as Sofia, remain under-the-radar. Each one embodies a different aspect of European history and culture, and each one has plenty of wonders to admire. Most of these cities, it should be noted, deserve a longer stay than the few days we have allotted. Taken together as an itinerary, however, we hope they offer a new perspective on Europe's many glories.
DAYS 1 TO 3
Europe is crammed with cities founded by kings and queens. Cities founded by warrior monks? Not so much. In fact, Valletta is the only one we can think of. The Knights of St John, like their more famous brethren, the Knights Templar, were originally formed in the 11th century to fight in the Crusades; more than 400 years later they were still going strong. Chased from their base in Rhodes in 1530 by the Ottomans, the Knights moved to Malta and promptly built a grand city to prove their glory was undiminished.
WHAT TO DO
Valletta's steeply-sloping streets, lined with elegant sandstone buildings and surrounded by 28 kilometres of walls, are home to 320 historic monuments – a figure rivalled only by Rome and Jerusalem. Must-visits include the Grand Master's Palace, with its displays of Gobelin tapestries and medieval armour, and St John's Co-Cathedral, one of most over-the-top baroque cathedrals in Europe. Don't miss the cathedral's oratory: on display are some canvases which the grand master – who clearly had an eye for art – commissioned from a hot young artist called Caravaggio.
For the maximum Valletta experience, book into one of the boutique hotels springing up in the city's narrow townhouses. Casa Ellul offers friendly service and gorgeous views from the top floors. Cosy restaurants are tucked into townhouses and dish up local Italian-tinged dishes (rabbit is a specialty). Bookings are recommended for popular venues such as Legligin, a restaurant and wine bar.
Malta is so compact you can squeeze the rest of its sights into a day, if necessary. Make sure you take a walk through the 1000-year-old city of Mdina, which retains a distinctly Arabic feel, and visit at least one of Malta's prehistoric sites, perhaps the necropolis at Hal Saflieni. Stop for lunch at Marsaxlokk, a pretty port town with a waterfront lined with brightly-painted wooden boats.
Garden in the Alcazar of Seville, Seville, Spain Photo: imageBROKER / Alamy Stock Photo
DAYS 4 to 6
Seville was one of Europe's leading cities for 500 years under Moorish rule; a beacon of learning and beauty at a time when much of Europe was in chaos. When the Castilians conquered the city in 1248, they obliterated many Moorish monuments, including the main mosque – the city's immense cathedral was built on the site, with the mosque's minaret co-opted to serve as the cathedral's bell tower – but enough of a legacy survives to make Seville a fascinating destination.
WHAT TO DO
Seville's Moorish history can be discovered in the whitewashed neighbourhoods of narrow streets that could be transplanted from North Africa, in the splendid orange trees that line its streets and, above all, in the breathtaking Alcazar. Originally built as a fort for the Caliph of Andalucia, the building – with its entrancing interiors and elegant gardens, featured in Game of Thrones as the water gardens of Dorne – has served as a royal residence for more than 1000 years and remains Seville's unmissable attraction.
In a quirky twist, having expelled the Moors, Seville's new Christian rulers were so taken by their architecture and its exquisite detailing, its arched colonnades, its fountains and its intricate tilework, that they created a new style of architecture called Mudejar, which mixed Moorish and Gothic elements. Mudejar monuments can be seen right across town, from the impressive Palacio de los Marqueses de la Algaba to the city's most sumptuous lodgings, the Hotel Alfonso XIII.
Tapas is a local tradition. Start the nightat Seville's oldest eatery, the 350-year-old El Rinconcillo, before heading to the cutting-edge Ovejas Negras, which serves inventive plates such as squid with lettuce sauce.
Strasbourg, France. Photo: Sorin Colac / Alamy Stock Photo
DAYS 7 TO 9
Strasbourg was one of the grandest cities of the Middle Ages and a stroll through its ancient streets offers a virtual open-air museum of European architecture. Highlights range from the 1000-year-old cathedral to the imposing 18th-century palaces such as the Palais Rohan and the Hotel de Hanau.
WHAT TO DO
Start with those historic streetscapes. Perched on an island with the river Ile looping around it protectively, Strasbourg's setting is as picturesque as the city itself, with its half-timbered houses, willow-lined embankments and chimney pots topped with storks' nests. If you have artistic inclinations, you might feel inspired by the example of the original Grand Tourists to make some sketches of beautifully-preserved areas, such as Petite France, formerly the tanners' quarters and now also the location of some of the city's best hotels, such as the lovely Régent Petite France.
If you prefer looking at art to making it, immerse yourself in world-class art in the city's excellent museums. Top picks include the Musée d'Art Moderne et Contemporain, displaying works by Rodin and Picasso; the Musée des Beaux-Arts for the masterpieces by Giotto, Botticelli and Rubens; and a magnificent collection of medieval art at the Musée de l'Oeuvre Notre-Dame.
Lovers of fine food and wine will enjoy Alsace's distinctive regional cuisine. The area's German heritage is in evidence, with choucroute (sauerkraut) and onion tart featuring heavily on local menus. There are some excellent fine dining options, including the acclaimed Au Crocodile, but for something more casual, try tarte flambée. This pizza-like flatbread is often topped with crème fraiche, onions and smoked ham. Wash it all down with some of the excellent local rieslings and gewürztraminers.
Cathedral Senate Square, Helsinki, Finland Photo: Ian Shaw / Alamy Stock Photo
DAYS 10 TO 13
They don't teach much Nordic history in our schools, and you can see why. After the end of the Viking Ages, nothing much seemed to happen here for 1000 years or so until the mid-20th century, when the Nordic countries were suddenly unveiled as design powerhouses. Helsinki makes it onto this itinerary not just for its architectural highlights, but as an example of a city where good design is woven into every aspect of everyday life.
WHAT TO DO
Helsinki is packed with superb examples of design and architecture, but the locals don't make a big deal of it. Tell someone you're a fan of architect Alvar Aalto and they may recommend you visit his Finlandia Hall, a striking concert venue clad in asymmetric panels of glittering marble. Or they may send you to the local Iittala glassware store, where a number of Alto-designed vases are available. In Finland, a well-designed vase is as worthy of admiration as a monumental piece of architecture.
Nonetheless, there are some architectural masterpieces you should not miss, including the monumental train station, designed by Eliel Saarinen. The atmospheric Temppeliaukio Church is a subterranean building with rock walls and a copper-clad ceiling. Check if there are any concerts taking place here during your stay; the acoustics are terrific. The family homes of architects Alvar Aalto and Eliel Saarinen are also worth a visit. (Saarinen designed almost every element in his family home, Hvitträsk, from the tiles to the pint-sized tables and chairs for his children), while the neighbourhoods of Katajanokku and Kruunerhaken contain a magnificent collection of art nouveau buildings.
Helsinki's newest hotel is the centrally-located Hotel St George, built around a winter garden. For a memorable meal, try Restaurant Jord, the more affordable sibling of Helsinki's best restaurant, Ask. Top picks include Finnish classics such as crepes with smoked lingonberry jam and pike perch served with grilled leeks.
In Helsinki's sprawling Design District, you can discover the latest local talent alongside design giants such as Iittala and Artek.
Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood in St. Petersburg, Russia Photo: Sergey Borisov / Alamy Stock Photo
DAYS 14 TO 17
ST PETERSBURG, RUSSIA
If you enjoy imperial excess, St Petersburg, the showcase city of the Romanov dynasty, is the place to go. Some people find that Petersburg's over-the-top splendour brings out their inner revolutionary but, no matter where you stand on the politics, the beauty of this city - conjured up out of the marshland by Peter the Great - is impossible to deny.
WHAT TO DO
St Petersburg is packed with spectacular buildings, from the imperial residences to the dazzling interiors of the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood. However, it is not just monuments that are eye-catching here; in Petersburg, even the grocery stores are exercises in elegance. (Check out the Eliseyev Emporium if you don't believe us.)
St Petersburg is also a cultural heavyweight. Attending a performance at the flamboyant Mariinsky theatre, whether ballet, opera or symphony, is a must. If you have never been able to work your through any of the Russian literary classics, book a table at Café Idiot – named after the Dostoevsky book - and feast on Russian classic cuisine instead.
When it comes to accommodation, Petersburg is one of those cities where it pays to go as grand as your budget will bear. We love the Belmond Grand Hotel Europe, which has an inhouse caviar bar.
Allow at least a day to explore the Hermitage Museum, where the artistic treasures on display - everything from ancient Scythian gold treasures to Rembrandts, Picassos and Matisses – are rivalled by the interiors of what was once the imperial family's Winter Palace, with its malachite columns and gilded mouldings.
Skyline of Prague at dusk. Photo: JOHN KELLERMAN / Alamy Stock Photo
DAYS 18 to 20
PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC
Much of the glory that is Prague was the vision of one man: Charles IV, Holy Roman Emperor and Czech king, who was determined to build one of the most impressive cities on earth. He succeeded so well that, more than six centuries later, Prague still dazzles.
WHAT TO DO
There is plenty to admire in Prague's historic heart, from its towering castle and elaborate bridges to the picturesque Old Town Square. Not all of Prague's glories are ancient, however. The city remains committed to culture – perhaps not so surprising when you remember that these are the people who elected a playwright to the position of president. In addition to its remarkable collection of public sculpture (look for the avantgarde works of David Cerny), Prague has embraced modern architecture, most famously in the form of Frank Gehry's Dancing Buildings, towers that lean towards each other like tango dancers.
Maintain the historic mood with a stay at the Alchymist Grand Hotel and Spa, housed in a 16th-century palace and dripping with gilt and red velvet. For a meal with a view, book a table at the Bellevue restaurant, where you can gaze at Prague castle while enjoying elegantly-executed Bohemian fare. A more rustic alternative is the old-school U Medvidku Pub, where you can savour what may be the city's signature dish: pork with dumplings, sauerkraut and pilsener.
The city where Mozart, Dvorak, Smetana, Janacek and Mahler all wrote and performed has melodies coursing through its veins. Catch a concert at the neo-classical Rudolfinum, home to the acclaimed Czech Philharmonic; if you visit during the annual Prague Spring festival, you can also enjoy performances in a range of atmospheric venues, from churches to the St Agnes convent.
Hungarian Parliament building, Budapest. Photo: Jan Wlodarczyk / Alamy Stock Photo
DAYS 21 TO 23
If Prague has a rival in the grandeur stakes, it would have to be Budapest, a city gifted a solid dose of glamour by those renowned urban planners, the Habsburg emperors.
WHAT TO DO
Start on the Danube's west bank in the royal quarter of Buda with the soaring gothic glory of St Matthias Church, the coronation venue for several Habsburg emperors, including the mighty Franz Joseph and the ill-fated last emperor, known in Hungary as Charles IV and in Austria as Charles I. Equally impressive is Budapest Castle, which houses the Hungarian National Gallery's superb collection of medieval, Renaissance and baroque stonework, sculptures and painting.
On the east bank, Pest's grandest monuments include the extraordinary 691-room Parliament building, the gilt-tripping Hungarian State Opera House and the lovely Gresham Palace. This beautiful building was originally built for – of all things – an insurance company; in the hands of Four Seasons, it has become one of the city's best hotels.
Budapest is not all about its monuments, however; its lovely streetscapes make this a great place to get lost. Start your explorations in the riverside Pest neighbourhood of Lipótváros and follow your feet: whichever direction you head in, you will discover grand squares, wide boulevards, and plenty of eye-catching architecture, ranging from belle epoque to art deco to Bauhaus.
Our vote for essential Budapest experience is an afternoon spent in one of its grand cafes. Take a seat in Café Gerbeaud or the Central Café, order up a glass of tokay wine and slice of cake - perhaps two, if you can't decide between the hazelnut-heavy Eszterhazy torta, or the buttercream-laden dobos torte – and know that you are enjoying the best that Budapest has to offer.
Thracian figurines, National Historical Museum, Sofia, Bulgaria. Photo: age fotostock / Alamy Stock Photo
DAYS 24 TO 26
If you are asking yourself, "Sofia? What on earth can I do there?", consider yourself a victim of the Cold War. During the years that eastern Europe was locked away behind the Iron Curtain, countries such as Bulgaria slipped from our collective consciousness, which is why most of us are oblivious to Sofia's rich history and heritage.
WHAT TO DO
Among the things you probably don't know about Sofia: it has an entire Roman city buried beneath its streets. Nine thousand square metres of Roman ruins have now been unearthed, creating an open-air museum filled with ancient streets and houses, baths and basilicas.
After the Romans, Sofia's history gets complicated. There are stints of rule by the Byzantines and Ottomans, as well as not one but two Bulgarian Empires, all of which left behind mighty monuments. Some are rightly celebrated, such as the Boyana Church with its vivid, lifelike 800-year-old frescoes. Others are harder to find. Few relics of Ottoman rule survive: one is the former mosque that now houses the National Archaeological Museum, worth a visit in its own right.
Bulgaria's culinary heritage is also worth exploring. Book a table at Bagri, a contemporary restaurant showcasing traditional foods and supporting small farmers. Hotel-wise, the Grand Hotel Sofia, which has a convenient location and excellent service, is among the city's best.
It is astonishing to think that, 2000 years after they founded the city that became Sofia, you can still find traces of the long-vanished Thracian people. Take a trip out of town to Kazanlak, where you can visit a 2000-year-old beehive tomb, decorated with richly coloured frescoes that illustrate the remarkably sophisticated lifestyles enjoyed by the Thracian elite.
Whirling Dervishes, Istanbul, Turkey. Photo: Peter Adams Photography Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo
DAYS 27 TO 30
True, only half of the city lies in Europe; the far shore of Istanbul is technically part of Asia. Yet this city has played a key role in so many European empires – under various names, including Byzantium and Constantinople – that it is a must for anyone interested in history.
WHAT TO DO
Istanbul is a city that has been shaped by great men. Take, for instance, the awe-inspiring Aya Sofiya, built as the grandest church in Christendom by one of the great Byzantine emperors, Justinian, then converted into a mosque by the Ottoman sultan who conquered the city, Mehmed the Conqueror. Or take the exquisite Sulemaniye mosque, built by the mighty Suleiman the Magnificent, its interiors soaring vertically in a manner reminiscent of the most striking Gothic architecture.
Not all of Istanbul's local heroes have won a lasting place in the history books, however. Nearly everyone who visits Istanbul walks past the landmark Galata Tower; few, however, know the tower was the launching point for the 17th-century Ottoman aviator Hezarfen Ahmet Celebi, who flew across the Bosphorus in the first flight with artificial wings.
For a room close to the heart of the action, the Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul at Sultanahmet takes some beating; from its terrace, guests get a ringside view of the city's most magnificent sights, including the Aya Sofiya and the Blue Mosque. Just a short walk away you will also find one of the city's best fish restaurants, Balikci Sabahattın.
The legendary wealth of the Ottoman sultans is on display at Topkapi Palace, where the exhibits include spectacular jewels, royal robes and an eclectic collection of religious relics that includes John the Baptist's hand and hairs from Muhammad's beards.
FIVE MORE GRAND CITIES
Poland has an embarrassment of beautiful cities, including Gdansk and Wroclaw, but this former royal capital is particularly rich in scenic sights from the stately old town to the buzzing Kazimierz district. See krakow.pl/english/
It is hard to decide which is lovelier: Riga's atmospheric old town, with its medieval streets and buildings, or the new town, which has an extraordinary collection of art nouveau architecture. See liveriga.com
There is nothing provincial about Malaga's impressive collection of museums. Highlights include the Carmen Thyssen Museum, the CAC Museum dedicated to contemporary art, an outpost of the Centre Pompidou and a museum dedicated to a local lad called Pablo Picasso. See malagaturismo.com/en
It is best-known for its summertime Bregenz Festival, where the stage floats on the water, but the town of Bregenz is also worth a visit for its cutting-edge KUB museum and its packed concert calendar. See austria.info
In this lively city, daily life takes place amidst an astonishing collection Roman, Byzantine, Venetian and Ottoman monuments. Where else would you find a magnificent Roman arch dominating the main shopping street? See thessaloniki.travel/en/
STILL GRAND AFTER ALL THESE YEARS
Three hundred years ago, visitors came for lessons in French and fencing and to admire the works in the Louvre. Today's travellers can also enjoy a host of newer attractions, from the Centre Pompidou to Frank Gehry's Fondation Louis Vuitton. See en.parisinfo.com
The Habsburg empire's most splendid capital is as famous for its rich cultural calendar as its grand palaces and amazing museums. Saint Stephens Cathedral and the Hofburg and Schönbrunn Palaces were familiar to Grand Tourists; not so the MuseumsQuartier or the extraordinary Hundertwasser Haus. See wien.info
Florence's historic centre has not changed much since the days of the Grand Tour, which is precisely why tourists still flock here in droves. Don't-miss sights include cathedral topped by Brunelleschi's dome, the opulent Baptistery and museums such as the Uffizi and the Galleria dell'Accademia. See firenzeturismo.it/en/
Antwerp's winning combination of small-scale charm and big-city grandeur has not diminished over the centuries. Nor have the city's superb museums – including the Rubenshuis, the Rockoxhuis and the Museum Mayer Van Den Bergh – lost their ability to impress. See visitantwerpen.be/en/
Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, more visitors are discovering this east German treasure. The showpiece capital of Augustus the Strong has a rich collection of baroque architecture and cultural treasures, including the rococo Zwinger and the world's largest porcelain mural, the Fürstenzug. See dresden.de/en/