Van Buren had visited England in 1832 when Andrew Jackson had named his former Secretary of State to the position of Minister or Ambassador to the Court of St. James. A contrarian congress failed to approve the appointment and Van Buren was soon recalled. Jackson retaliated by choosing Van Buren as his running mate in the election which gave Jackson his second term in office, and four years later Van Buren succeeded Jackson as President.
In preparation for this visit, Van Buren read Cooper's European Travel books as well as some of Washington Irving's books about life amid European culture. He arranged a letter of credit for $10,000 with Barings, a British bank. He arranged for the care of his farm and his financial affairs. President Franklin Pierce gave him a letter to British Prime Minister Lord Aberdeen asking for any courtesies that Her Majesty's government might extend to the 8th President. Archbishop John Hughes of New York also provided Van Buren a letter of introduction to Pope Pius IX.
Martin Van Buren, senior and junior, arrived in London in mid-May of 1853. Van Buren renewed his acquaintance with Lord Palmerston, who was now the Home Secretary. According to Van Buren's biographer John Nevin, the former president "was received with high honors and entertained lavishly. Palmerston also sent word to British diplomats to prepare the way for Van Buren's visits to France and Italy.
Martin Jr. remained in London while his father left for Ireland on June 22, 1853. He traveled with his friend former New York Congressman Gouveneur Kemble and the two were warmly greeted in Dublin. From there they traveled to Scotland toward the end of the summer, before heading on to Belgium and Holland, sailing across the North Sea. Dutch had been Van Buren's first language, and while he was at the Hague, he visited the state archives and traced his family's connections with the original colony of New Amsterdam. He also visited the village of Buren, where he met some of his distant relatives, but found no trace of his ancestors. He was able to converse with the inhabitants in his native tongue, in which he was said to have remained fluent.
In late August of 1853, Van Buren and Kemble parted company and the former president headed for Italy. He spent some time there and in early November he arrived in Rome where he had an audience with Pius IX. The Pope afforded Van Buren the honors shown to a visiting head of state. In Rome he also met Henry Gilpin, who had been Attorney-General in Van Buren's cabinet. Van Buren spent a month in Rome with the Gilpins seeing the sights and attending to the nightlife as well. Both Kemble and Gilpin later complained that they had a hard time keeping up with Van Buren, who seemed to have an abundance of energy that his traveling companions could not keep up with.
Van Buren remained in Italy into the New Year, traveling to Sorrento, Florence and Naples. In the latter venue, he was entertained "lavishly" by King Ferdinand and Queen Mary Theresa. Ferdinand was considered to be somewhat of a tyrant, but Van Buren's only comment about the King was that he and his Queen had been very hospitable.
In Florence, Van Buren was able to receive letters from home and was able to catch up on some of the more recent political sentiment. He learned that Democrats were become less enthusiastic about Pierce's presidency, and that abolitionism and nativism were on the rise. Probably the best news he received was that his son Martin Jr. was responding well to the medical treatment he was receiving.
Van Buren had a family reunion of sorts in the town of Vevey, Switzerland, on the shores of Lac Leman, where he met his sons Abraham and John, who were also vacationing in Europe with their families. Martin Jr. was not present. The news now was that his condition was once again worsening, and so the former president decided to return to London. His route took him to Nice, where he stayed at the Hotel Grand Bretagne, where he awaited further news about Martin Jr. He also received news that his youngest son Smith was to be married to Henrietta Irving, a grand-niece of Washington Irving. Van Buren approved on the match.
By this time he had hoped that his son Martin Jr. could be relocated to Cote d'Azur, where the winter climate was more favorable. He received news that Martin Jr. was too ill to travel. Father and son reunited in Paris in early 1855, where Martin Jr. was quite ill. Van Buren arranged for some of the leading physicians in the city to see his son, but he also realized that the end was near for the younger Van Buren. The former President wrote:
"We have the best of servants, and troops of obliging friends by which the painfulness of our situation is as much as possible lessened, but the last result is constantly before my eyes and cannot be disguised and I fear much longer delayed. I bear this with a steadiness and firmness, seldom equalled, never exceeded. A silent tear is all that can be seen or heard by way of complaint."
On March 19, 1855, just three days after Van Buren wrote those words, his son Martin Jr. died from the tuberculosis that had stricken him. He was 42 years of age. His body was returned home and is now at rest at the Kinderhook Reformed Church Cemetery with the rest of his family.
Martin Van Buren Sr. remained in Paris until June, when he sailed for London. It was in London that he was in the city as the same time as two other presidents: Millard Fillmore was visiting the city, and James Buchanan was there as the US Ambassador. According to Niven, Van Buren sailed for home on June 20, 1855. (This date seems to conflict with a report from one of Fillmore's biographers that on June 20th, the two men were present at a state dinner, and though it's likely that one of the two dates is incorrect, it is not impossible that Van Buren set sail after the dinner).
Van Buren supported James Buchanan for president in 1856, though he later criticized the Buchanan administration for its lack of effort to challenge the southern states when they threatened secession. In the election of 1860, he supported Stephen A. Douglas, the candidate of northern Democrats. Once the Civil War began, Van Buren made public his support for the Union, and supported Abraham Lincoln's efforts to prevent the southern states from seceding. In April, 1861 former President Pierce wrote to the other living former Presidents and asked them to consider meeting in order to use their stature and influence to propose a negotiated end to the war. These efforts failed to materialize in any action.
Van Buren's health began to fail later in 1861, and he was confined to his bed from pneumonia during the fall and winter of 1861–62. He did not recover. Van Buren died of bronchial asthma and heart failure at his Lindenwald estate in Kinderhook at 2:00 a.m. on July 24, 1862, at the age of 79.