Travel: Quintessential Continental Tour

A guide to a modern day grand tour across Europe, Part 1. 

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portugal

View of Lisbon Portugal from Ritz Four Seasons

Three hundred years ago, young British men of certain means embarked on a “Grand Tour” — theoretically to expose themselves to classic antiquities of the Renaissance but probably, like so many college graduates today, merely searching for a reason to delay adulthood for a year.  France and Italy were the norm, then Germany and Switzerland were added to the rotation in the 19th century, but gradually the Grand Tour simply became a continental tour of Europe’s storied history, remarkable art and architecture, elegant cuisine and the breath-taking scenery.

Today, embarking upon a tour of Europe’s 51 countries is as consuming on both time and resources as it was in the 17th century; however, if neither are an issue, here are three countries to start a quintessential continental tour with recommendations of where to stay, what to do and where to eat.   

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Four Seasons George V

FRANCE

Just mentioning France evokes a visceral image filled with art, wine, food and fashion.  Cannes.  Burgundy.  Lyon.  Saint Tropez.  Aix-en-Provence.  When traveling to France, it’s nearly impossible to pick a city and not be compelled, but perhaps no city stands on the global stage as vibrantly as Paris.  

WHERE TO STAY:  Drop your bags at the inestimable Four Seasons George V in the heart of the Champs-Élysées, between the Arc de Triomphe to the west and the Eiffel Tower to the east.  Like Marie Antoinette’s boudoir come to life, the George V is home to delectable food at three Michelin starred Le Cinq and the month-old Le George, as well as the famous lobby filled with Jeff Leatham flowers.  Plus, George V’s location within walking distance of numerous famous institutions makes it easy to hit the Eiffel Tower first thing in the morning before the glut of tourists make it unbearable.  Take your selfie for social media and walk north along the Left Bank of the Seine to the Musee d’Orsay.  

Beef Bourginion in France

Beef Bourginon at Restaurant Bourgogne Sud

WHAT TO DO:  While everyone makes a beeline for the Louvre and the impossible to see Mona Lisa, the divinely preserved Beaux-Arts architecture of the Musee d’Orsay’s former life as a railway station now sets the stage for priceless pieces of artwork spanning thousands of centuries.  Additionally, the Left Bank (also known as the Latin Quarter) has maintained the picturesque scenery of outdoor cafes and limestone buildings made famous by the Left Bank’s former residents Edith Wharton, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald so let your mind and feet wander aimlessly in these two arrondissements.  

WHERE TO EAT:  Cross to the Right Bank, with a pitstop at the Notre Dame de Paris, to Marais to fuel-up on a budget.  Dinner at Frenchie is a treat but reservations are absolutely mandatory so try something more low-key at tiny classic Parisian bistro Restaurant Bourgogne Sud (one of the best beef bourguignon ever made) near the Paris Hilton Opera.  Or if the Parisian nightlife is more your style, try sexy Canderlaria and the terribly exclusive Silencio nearer to Montmartre.  

Lisbon

Lisbon Portugal

PORTUGAL

The nearly forgotten gem of Europe — perhaps a result of the sibling rivalry between the dominating culture of Spain and the quietly sweet Portugal — has recently tipped to this quaint country of 6 million residents.  Easily accessible through a direct, less than 6 hour flight on TAP Portugal, start a Portuguese adventure in the capital city of Lisbon before ending at L’AND Vineyards in Alentejo or in the enchanting spell of Douro Valley.  

WHERE TO STAY:  33 culturally significant buildings have been restored to their former glory, thankfully with all the modern conveniences, by Pestana Pousadas de Portugal hotel group.  The newest member is heartbreakingly lovely Pousada de Lisboa, a member of Small Luxury Hotels.  Located right on Parliament Square, the hotel’s central location makes most of the old city walkable.  Or for a magnificent stay in glamorous old-school Lisbon, aim for the Ritz Four Seasons.  The premiere grand hotel of Portugal, high on a hill with soaring views of the city, has retained its stately feel without any stuffy oldness and the food-and-beverage program is top-notch.  

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Regaleira Estate

WHAT TO DO:  While Thailand has made the tuk-tuks famous, Lisbon has its fair share of motorized tuk-tuks.  Take one if steep hills for optimum calorie burning is not your style (or if you can’t find the funicular) and begin the day at St. George’s Castle, a 6th century castle fortified by both Romans and Visigoths before the Moors took it over.  Wind slowly down the curving streets to take in the beautiful tile-work and stop for a shot of port.  Also consider one of the most stunning architectural buildings near Lisbon is in nearby Sintra, home to Regaleira Estate.  Built at the close of the 19th century, the swirling turrets, towers, gardens, statues, mysterious wells, ponds and grottoes is eerily fascinating.  Over 91 acres covers this property so be careful not to be lost when darkness falls as it is said to be haunted.

WHERE TO EAT:  Belcanto, Belcanto, Belcanto.  Chef Jose Avillez’s two Michelin starred Belcanto, across from Lisbon’s Opera House, consistently wows the tastebuds with its flavorful offerings — consider the fact there are no 3 Michelin starred restaurants in Portugal.  Of course getting a reservation is an absolute nightmare so try sister restaurant MiniBar for a more accessible, both in space as well as in budget, or skip food altogether and head to Lisbon’s famous Pink District for drinks at Pensao Amour.

London view

London view from The Langham

UNITED KINGDOM

While it seems odd to include the originators of the Grand Tour on the list, the British are inextricably tied to the quintessential continental tour as both creators and owners of much of Europe’s storied history.

WHERE TO STAY:  150 years ago this year, The Langham London began the grande hotel industry in London when it opened their doors.  This summer, after a recent $45 million dollar renovation, The Regent Wing feels as vibrant as when heads-of-state slept overnight before visiting the Kings of England.  Furthermore, no luxury amenity is lacking:  Artesian is considered the “world’s best ” by the industry group for bars, the Chuan Spa has the famous Asian beauty touch, and the swathes of the famous Langham fragrance calms the nerves  Of course, competition in the luxury hotel game is quite stiff in this bustling city of 20 million, and the impeccable attention to details at The Lanesborough (another recently renovated property by The Oetker Collection) near the super exclusive, i.e. expensive, Hyde Park Corner is noteworthy as is the flagship Four Seasons London property Park Lane Hotel.     

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Mad Hatters Tea Party

WHAT TO DO:  Finding what not to do in London is far easier than finding what to do in London.  Start the day with a quick stroll around Buckingham Palace.  Like The White House, when the Queen is in residence the flag is at full mast so tours will be even more difficult to come by.  Walk the short 15 minutes over to Trafalgar Square and take in the National Gallery for exquisite art.  The free entrance is worth it just to fuel up on the Impressionist collection covering several galleries (or the free wi-fi) before popping out to the heart of the shopping quadrant of Leicester Square, Oxford Circus, Piccadilly Circus and Covent Garden.  If you can not stand crowds, then you can not make it in any of these four areas so just mosely over the river to the Bankside neighborhood’s quiet Tate Modern near The Globe Theatre where Shakespeare directed the plays we Cliff Note-d in school.  

WHERE TO EAT:  The horrible food London was better known for a decade ago has swiftly changed to a noteworthy foodie scene.  Start the day right with a luscious breakfast at Plum + Split in the conveniently located Great Northern Hotel.  Also consider a classic British Sunday Roast at Hawksmoor Seven Dials.  For a more omnibus meal selection, Executive Chef Jason Atherton’s take on a British pub — albeit with lavish interiors and delicate platings — Berners Tavern it a standout winner.  Located inside the EDITION Hotel London (model and celebrity favorite), Berners Tavern is gorgeous on the eyes and stomach.  Naturally, top up any trip with a classic high tea but instead of doing the boring afternoon tea at the Ritz, head to the Sanderson’s super-fun and joyfully delectable Alice in Wonderland tea.  The Mad Hatters Tea Party looks just as good on Instagram as it feels to eat.  Cheers!     

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