When I was a bookish teenager, stranded in suburbia, I was fascinated by the idea of the European Grand Tour. How thrilling it must have been to be a Georgian gentleman, fresh out of university, sauntering across the Continent on a 18th century gap year, ogling Europe’s greatest artworks, and having all sorts of larks along the way.
Today, thanks to budget airlines, travelling across Europe has never been easier. Now you can create your own Grand Tour, spread across a succession of weekend breaks. Granted, it’s not quite so leisurely as the Georgian version – a mad dash to the airport after work on Friday night and a bleary-eyed flight back on Monday morning – but if you don’t mind roughing it a bit you can visit Europe’s leading galleries without breaking the bank, and still hold down a steady job back in Blighty.
So where to go? Well, the original Grand Tour was a round trip, through France to Italy and back through Germany. Since you probably won’t be doing your modern Grand Tour in one go (unless you’re extremely workshy or completely loaded) it doesn’t need to be a round trip, so you can mix it up a bit. The galleries below are merely my personal favourites, but I hope this list gives you a few ideas. I have chosen ten galleries in ten countries, plus a tried and tested hotel in each city.
I have tried to avoid the obvious – galleries like the Louvre or the Prado or famous art capitals like Paris or Berlin – and venture slightly off the beaten track. After all, for the discerning art lover there are plenty of hidden treasures to explore in Lyon, Dresden and Trieste.
I have been to all these places more than once, some of them more times than I can count, yet the magic never wears off for me. I didn’t go abroad until I was 18* and it’s still a thrill each time I cross the Channel. These weekend mini-breaks may not reach the epic scale of the Grand Tours I used to read about in history books but, for art-lovers, the 21st Century, not the 18th Century, is the golden age of travel.
Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
The Van Gogh Museum is the most popular museum in the Netherlands, with over two million visitors every year. It’s easy to see why. The world’s biggest Van Gogh collection, bequeathed by Vincent’s devoted brother, Theo, it’s a comprehensive survey of his entire oeuvre, from early works like The Potato Eaters to Wheatfield with Crows, painted just before his suicide.
Stay at the Bilderberg Hotel Jan Luyken, a boutique hotel on an attractive sidestreet a short walk from the museum.
Museu Picasso, Barcelona
Pablo Picasso spent his formative years in Barcelona, and this lively museum, in the heart of the historic Barri Gotic, houses a treasure trove of his early work. Jacqueline Roque, Picasso’s widow, donated a superb collection of his late ceramics. There are also some intimate photos of Picasso at work, taken by the late great war photographer David Douglas Duncan.
Stay at Casa Camper, a hip design hotel around the corner from MACBA, Barcelona’s chic museum of contemporary art.
Musée Magritte, Brussels
‘All that I desire is to be enriched by intensely exciting new thoughts,’ said René Magritte, and a visit to this dreamlike museum is like stepping inside the artist’s head. The master of surrealism retreated from the real world, to explore the strange netherworld of his imagination. Each of his paintings is a riddle, wrapped in an enigma. Nothing is entirely as it seems.
Stay at the Amigo, a suave five star hotel in an ideal location, just behind the Grand Place.
Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden
Assembled by Augustus the Strong, Saxony’s randy enlightened despot, Dresden is home to the finest collection of Renaissance art in the world. The baroque gallery in which it is housed survived the destruction of the city in 1945, and though the collection was shipped off to the Soviet Union it was returned after Stalin died. Don’t miss Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus, Raphael’s Sistine Madonna (with its grumpy angels) and Canaletto’s views of Dresden. The view he painted will be there in the flesh right before your eyes.
Stay at the Taschenbergpalais, built by Augustus the Strong to house his favourite mistress – a hollow ruin during the Cold War, now immaculately restored.
Muzeum Naradowe, Gdansk, Poland
Sometimes, it’s worth visiting a gallery just to see a single painting, and it’s well worth visiting the Muzeum Naradowe to seek out The Last Judgement by Hans Memling. Painted in Bruges in 1467, for a Florentine banker, its violent provenance is a fitting metaphor for the history of this war torn city. Stolen by Germanic buccaneers, who brought it here, it was plundered by the French, who took it to Paris, the Prussians, who took it to Berlin, and the Soviets, who took it to Russia. The gallery in which it’s housed has an equally complicated past. Originally a medieval monastery, then the Pomeranian Museum (until the Germans left, in 1945) it’s now the National Art Museum.
Stay at the Scandic Hotel, a comfortable modern four star, conveniently located close to the Hanseatic Altstadt.
Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon
Parisian museums can be a bit overwhelming, like gorging on a gigantic buffet. Lyon’s Musée des Beaux-Arts is ideally proportioned – just the right amount of art, like a perfect Plat du Jour. You’ll find everything here under one roof, from Classical antiquities to French Impressionists like Monet.
Stay at the Cour des Loges, a romantic hotel in the Vieux Ville with a Michelin starred restaurant.
Latvian National Museum of Art, Riga
Vilhelms Purvitis is one of the finest landscape artists of the early 20th Century, yet he’s unknown in Britain. Why? Because for half a century, his work was hidden behind the Iron Curtain. Born into the Tsarist Empire, he died under the Third Reich, and when Latvia was swallowed up by the Soviet Union his tranquil landscapes kept the idea of an independent Latvia alive. This handsome museum has the best collection of his work.
Stay at the Grand Palace, a five star hotel in a Belle Époque building in the heart of the medieval Old Town.
Museo Revoltella, Trieste
I know, I know, this must seem like a daft choice, when there are so many amazing museums elsewhere in Italy, but I figured that if I didn’t plug it here you might never hear about it. Pasquale Revoltella was a rich philanthropist who built a beautiful palazzo in Trieste, filled it full of art, and left the house and its precious contents to his beloved hometown. I’ve never visited a more atmospheric museum. The collection ranges from 19th Century painting to 20th Century sculpture, but the most exquisite artwork is the house itself.
Stay at the Savoia Excelsior Palace on the seafront, billed as ‘the most luxurious hotel in the Austro-Hungarian Empire’ when it opened in 1911, but refreshingly friendly and informal today.
Leopold Museum, Vienna
In 1918, Austria lost two of its greatest modern artists: Gustav Klimt was 55 when he died; Egon Schiele was just 28. In the years that followed, Austrian aficionado Rudolf Leopold amassed the world’s biggest Schiele collection, plus a wonderful array of Klimt, and housed them in this modernist museum. In the heart of the Museums Quartier, Vienna’s equivalent of London’s South Bank, it’s not only a brilliant gallery – it’s also a fashionable rendezvous.
Stay at Das Triest, an old coaching inn redesigned by Terence Conran, in a sleek, understated style – five star without the fuss.
Brits who’ve never been tend to think of Zurich as a dull old place, but its artistic heritage is unrivalled, and it’s still a cultural capital today. A hotbed for exiles during both world wars, it was the birthplace of Dada. Zurich’s Kunsthaus has a fantastic archive of this eccentric movement, which transformed modern art. Other highlights include some sublime paintings by Ferdinand Hodler of Switzerland’s majestic mountains and lovely lakes.
Stay at 25 Hours Zurich West, a stylish budget hotel in Zurich’s trendy post-industrial district.
*The author’s first Continental journey was a chaotic Interrailing holiday. His long-suffering girlfriend, who accompanied him, finished with him shortly afterwards.