Mary McGillivray

Calling to all the Historically Curious community – we have someone special to introduce: Mary McGillivray, historian, art lover, and veteran rover of Europe!

Your ultimate guide to taking on the continent

In the days of yore, young men with means, particularly in the United Kingdom, ventured out on the “Grand Tour” at the end of their education. The length of the trip could vary, depending on interests and cash reserves. Yet it usually focused on intellectual and cultural exploration: to absorb the grandeur of Greek theater, to stand in awe below the Sistine Chapel’s painted ceilings, to taste the richness of French cuisine. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, British women began to travel as well. As with their male counterparts, they sought the education and refinement that the continent could offer. Some of them wrote remarkable travel logs and journalism, which people back home devoured. Yet in many cases, women could not enjoy the same travel experiences as men during this time. Luckily, we now live in a world that’s far more equal, where men AND women can embark on life-changing travels. And though the “Grand Tour” definitely needs some modern updates, its core mission remains valuable. Today, we’re going to discuss how that might look, especially for solo female travelers eager to experience the marvels of Europe. I’m Mary McGillivray, and I’m here to guide you through a grand tour with a modern twist! Follow my journey below.

The roots of the “Grand Tour”

First things first. Let’s go a bit deeper into what the original “Grand Tour” was. As we said, it was mostly for young men with deep pockets. Typically, they’d embark on this trip as a rite of passage, after taking their degrees but before joining the workforce. The most traditional “Grand Tour” began at the Port of Dover. Then, travelers crossed the channel by boat to Belgium and from theremade their way south via countries like the Netherlands, Germany, and Switzerland, all with a key destination in mind: the cultural and historical riches of Italy. At the time, travel for women was rarely possible without a chaperone, though the mass adoption of railways led to some amount of change.

From the castle heights at the Port of Dover you can see England and the continent!
From the castle heights at the Port of Dover you can see England and the continent!

My modern tour of Europe

Now, let’s shoot back to the present! I decided to follow some of the original stops of the old “Grand Tour” but with a decidedly modern twist. I began my exploration deep in the Swiss Alps. In the 18th century, grand tourists crossed the Alps on foot, risking bad weather, freezing temperatures and wolves. If you can believe it, some tourists even paid a local to carry them over the mountains! Of course, this is something of the past. Instead, I chose to make a nod to the 19th century, and I explored this magical place via the Bernina Express, a remarkable train route that begins in either Chur or St. Moritz and then chugs along over 55 viaducts through 39 tunnels and by countless scenes of natural wonder and small village charm. For me, the views out the enormous windows of the train were unforgettable, especially when they reached 2328 meters in altitude.

Seek thrills on rails and stunning views on train rides in the Swiss Alps
Seek thrills on rails and stunning views on train rides in the Swiss Alps.

Once I crossed the Alps, I began my journey south toward Siena. In the words of the 18th-century writer Samuel Johnson, “A man who has not been [to] Italy is always conscious of an inferiority.” But I’m not a man, and Samuel Johnston never actually went to Italy. So perhaps I need a different source of inspiration. How about these ladies? Travel had long been a luxury for posh men, but by the late 19th century, with the rise of women’s emancipation and the invention of the railway, more and more posh women were embarking on their own Grand Tours of Europe. The two ladies in that portrait, Jane and Annie Cobden, visited Siena in 1881, and they were photographed here at the studio of Paolo Lombardi. They also happen to be my ancestors! As I wandered through this old town, I felt truly connected to my forbears. Painted in hues of burnt umber and rich ocher, Siena is the quintessence of old Italian elegance—and it hasn’t much changed since the Cobdens visited. At its heart stands the zebra-striped cathedral, which is a local symbol and is known as one of the most gorgeous churches in all of Europe. I explored each nook and cranny of the building, admiring its esoteric idols and the ancient religious stories that go along with them. Next, I visited the Palazzo Pubblico, an imposing structure whose construction began in 1297 and where each of the city’s leaders has lived. Today, the building also houses the Civic Museum, a place where you can dive deep into the history of Siena and the region broadly.

Put on your walking shoes to see all of stand-out Siena, Italy
Put on your walking shoes to see all of the stand-out Siena, Italy.
Pompeii, Italy
Pompeii, Italy.

Tips and advice: traveling solo as a woman in Europe

Are you just starting to plan for your solo female trip? Not sure where to go, how to get around, what are the best practices when it comes to safety? That’s totally normal. Our best advice? Lean on those women who have already done their “Grand Tour.” We asked Mary to prepare her most important tips so that you can venture out on your own. Here is what she wanted to share:

  • Europe is one of the safest places on earth, especially for women. You can explore countries from east to west, north to south with the confidence that you are secure.
  • A few things you might want to consider to make your journey even safer: Carry a photocopy of your passport. Keep one bank card on you and one at your lodgings. It’s also great to have a bit of cash. If you’re staying at a hostel or a communal space, make sure your belongings are safe. Only take registered, legal taxis.
  • Buy a local sim card (don’t be stingy on this one!) with good coverage in every country you will visit, and invest in a portable power pack to charge your phone on the go. Always having access to your phone and internet will give you peace of mind as a solo female traveler and make getting around easier!
  • And finally, trust your gut! Your good judgment will guide you well.

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