Packing Tips: Clothes

Come on...do you really want to blend in with the locals?
By Rick Steves

The bulk of your luggage is filled with clothing. Minimize by bringing less. Experienced travelers try to bring only things that will be worn repeatedly, complement other items, and have multiple uses (for example, since I don't swim much, I let my shorts double as a swimsuit). Pack with color coordination in mind. Neutral colors (black, navy, khaki) dress up easily and can be extremely versatile.

To extend your wardrobe, plan to spend 10 minutes doing a little wash every few nights, or consider a visit to a local launderette, which is in itself a Back Door experience. Choose fabrics that resist wrinkling or look good wrinkled. If you wring with gusto, lightweight clothing should dry overnight in your hotel room.

Many travelers are concerned about appropriate dress. During tourist season, the concert halls go casual. I have never felt out of place at symphonies, operas, or plays wearing a decent pair of slacks and a good-looking sweater or collared shirt. Some cultural events require more formal attire, particularly outside of high season, but the casual tourist rarely encounters these. Women who don't pack a dress or skirt will do just fine with a pair of nice pants.

If you're trying to blend in, realize that shorts are not common streetwear in Europe. They're considered beachwear, to be worn in coastal or lakeside resort towns. No one will be offended if you wear shorts, but you might be on the receiving end of some second glances. Shorts are especially uncommon on older women and in big cities, and the cutoff temperature for "hot enough for shorts" is much higher than in the US. Especially in southern Europe, women can blend in with the locals by wearing Capri pants or a skirt instead; men can pack a pair of as-light-as-possible pants.

Shorts, tank tops, and other skimpy summer attire can also put a crimp in your sightseeing plans. Some churches, mostly in southern Europe, have modest-dress requirements for men, women, and children: no shorts or bare shoulders. Except at the strict St. Peter's Basilica (in Rome) and St. Mark's (in Venice), the dress code is often loosely enforced. If necessary, it's usually easy to improvise some modesty (buy a cheap souvenir T-shirt to cover your shoulders, or carry a wide scarf to wear like a kilt to cover your legs). At some heavily touristed churches in southern Europe, people hand out sheets of tissue paper you can wrap around yourself like a shawl or skirt.

It can be worth splurging a little to get just the right clothes for your trip. For durable, lightweight travel clothes, consider ExOfficio, TravelSmith, Tilley Endurables, Eddie Bauer, and REI.

But ultimately — as long as you don't wear something that's outrageous or offensive — it's important to dress in a way that makes you comfortable. And no matter how carefully you dress, your clothes will probably mark you as an American. And so what? Europeans will know anyway. To fit in and be culturally sensitive, I watch my manners, not the cut of my clothes.

More Tips for Women

Thanks to ETBD staffers Joan Robinson, Ann Neel, and Margaret Cassady for the following tips:

Some women bring one or two skirts because they're as cool and breathable as shorts, but dressier. A lightweight skirt made with a blended fabric will pack compactly. Make sure it has a comfy waistband. Skirts go with everything and can easily be dressed up with a pair of flats and hose (or warm tights if it's cold).

Try silk, microfiber, or stretch lace underwear, which dries faster than cotton, but breathes more than nylon. Bring at least two bras (what if you leave one hanging over your shower rail by accident?). A sports bra can double as a hiking/sunning top. You don't need a bikini to try sunbathing topless on European beaches — local women with one-piece bathing suits just roll down the top.

Accessorize: Scarves give your limited wardrobe just the color it needs. They dress up your outfit, are lightweight and easy to pack, and if purchased in Europe, make a great souvenir. Some women bring a shawl-size scarf or pashmina to function as a sweater substitute, head wrap, skirt at a church, or even a blanket on a train. Functional, cheap, but beautiful imitation pashminas can be found all over Europe. Vests and cardigans can be worn alone or mixed-and-matched with other clothes to give you several different looks as well as layers for cold weather. Leave valuable or flashy jewelry at home.