Travel Tips: How to Dress for a European Vacation

In an earlier post I shared ideas from our American-based Slow Travel Tours leaders about how to pack for a European vacation. The most important theme related to packing is to Pack Light! But packing light also means you must Pack Right, which is closely related to how to dress and what to bring.

So for this post I again asked other Slow Travel Tours leaders to join me, this time for a discussion about how to dress for a European vacation. Obviously this depends on your personal style, where you’ll be, what you’ll be doing, and the time of year, but our group offers some very helpful ideas—whether you’re part of a small group tour or traveling on your own.

If you’re traveling in Europe on a small group tour, always pay attention to the guidance provided by your trip leader. They will give you excellent information about the weather and what kinds of clothes you’ll need for your activities.

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How should people dress for a trip like yours? 

Cheryl Alexander (Italian Excursion): We stay in the Italian countryside so it’s appropriate to dress casually.  Jeans, khaki pants, t-shirts, cotton shirts or blouses, sturdy shoes (I recommend bringing only 2 pair of “broken in shoes) are all on our list of what to wear.  We may only dress up for dinner once (if at all) on a tour, and I just recommend adding a pretty wrap or scarf for women and a button or polo shirt for men.

Dress casually for the countryside

Packing light means a lot of “mix and match” with just a few pieces of clothing. We ask that women bring a wrap or sweater to cover sleeves and no too-short shorts, for the visits to cathedrals/churches, out of respect.  Depending on the time of year we’re traveling, which is usually during mild times (spring and fall), I tell guests to bring a light-weight jacket such as a windbreaker, no heavy sweaters as they take up too much space in the luggage.  Layering shirts is always a good bet!

Anne Woodyard (Music and Markets): Our trips involve concerts and sometimes are based in major cities. For summer tours we suggest our travelers bring a cool brimmed hat, comfortable walking sandals for the day, and cool, casually dressy outfits for concerts, with a light shawl or sweater for cool evenings.

For winter tours we suggest travelers bring a small umbrella, a warm coat, gloves, and scarf, comfortable walking shoes, and casually dressy outfits – such as slacks or skirt and a long-sleeved nice top – for evening events. New Year’s Eve dinner and jazz is our dressiest event. We spend a good amount of time outside walking on our tours, but restaurants and shops can sometimes be heated to an almost uncomfortable warmth, so layering is always a good idea.

Bill Steiner (Adventures in Italy): We encourage people to think layers and to bring, at most, one more- formal outfit. Our trips are relaxed and don’t require fancy clothes. Think about clothes that all go well together. Then add or shed a layer to stay comfortable.

Matt Daub (Arts Sojourn): No matter where you are going, or for how long, there is no need to bring more than just a few changes of clothes. Select items of clothing that coordinate so that you can make it appear that you have more outfits than you actually do.

Kathy Wood (European Experiences): Our European Experiences trips are based in the countryside, where dress is practical and informal. Women don’t need dressy clothes, heeled shoes, or expensive jewelry. We’ve rarely seen a man in a tie on any of our trips—even at the very best restaurants—and most don’t even wear a sports jacket.

We ask people in our groups to dress comfortably and informally. You want to be neat and tasteful, definitely not sloppy-casual, and a good representative of your own country. Jeans, khakis and hiking pants are fine, and shorts of a respectable length are fine on warmer days, especially for active days. I wouldn’t bring more than one pair of jeans though, as they are bulky and heavy and difficult to handwash and dry. Capris are a great alternative for women in warm weather. Black and khaki capris are great basics to include for travel May through September.

For men, slacks, khakis or jeans are fine, with a button shirt or polo shirt. In Europe you’ll also see a lot of men in midcalf-length pants in the warmer months, and these are very popular for hiking. I’d stay away from gaudy or bold patterns in shirts and if you wear a t-shirt, choose something simple—not a loud logo.

Personally, I wear a lot of black that I accessorize with different tops and scarves, often layering tops. I’ll take a few pairs of black pants (black jeans and dress pants) and couple pairs of black or khaki capris, two or three pairs of black shoes. That keeps things very simple.

Buy scarves to vary your wardrobe

Scarves are a great way to dress up an outfit at night, and even a simple scarf adds a bit of color and fashion (and warmth) during the day. The outdoor markets of Provence are a great place to buy scarves, so travelers on our Luberon trip never need to bring scarves from home. You can buy some really nice ones for 10 euro or less. Jewelry is also a popular purchase at the markets.

Heather Jarman: (Sapori e Saperi) Dress in Italy is very casual. You can wear jeans (though maybe not shorts) even to the opera or to a Michelin-star restaurant. I recommend that people bring layers which they can add on chilly nights and peel off on warm days. I supply umbrellas to my guests, but a light waterproof jacket is more comfortable if you’re caught in a shower in the woods. Comfortable walking shoes or sandals are essential, because even in towns many streets are steep and cobbled and walking on them feels a bit like mountain climbing.

What types of clothes do you recommend people bring for your trips? 

Bill Steiner: We travel in the shoulder seasons when the weather is neither hot nor cold. Consequently we recommend casual, comfortable, and breathable. A rain jacket, which can double as a light coat and a crushable hat are useful to deal with the elements. Comfortable walking shoes are a must, and I prefer thick socks that wick moisture away.

Kathy Wood: Lightweight, comfortable, casual, tasteful. Neutral colors that mix and match, perhaps with one or two accent colors. Simple accessories. Layers to add or subtract based on the weather.

Bring clothes you can layer up or down

Regardless of the time of year, you should bring clothes to layer up or down, depending on the temperature, as temperatures may vary 30°F or more in the same day. For a one week trip—being sensitive to packing light—I’d bring three pairs of slacks and four or five tops. You should plan on wearing each item of clothing several times. Don’t bring clothes that wrinkle easily or need to be ironed—that’s a complexity you don’t need to deal with. Bring clothing for one week—even if your trip is eight weeks! Then plan on doing laundry or handwashing so you can wear the same clothes (in different combinations) every week.

You always need a jacket or sweater for the possibility of cooler days and evenings. Women can bring (or buy) a big scarf or shawl.

You’ll walk a lot on any European vacation, so it’s absolutely essential to have good walking shoes that are well broken-in… shoes that will enable you to walk safely on uneven surfaces like cobblestone streets or gravel tracks. There’s no need to bring heeled shoes as they just aren’t practical. Sturdy sandals are fine in the warmer months, but women should always bring one pair of closed toe walking shoes for the possibility of cooler days and evenings. If you have to buy shoes in Europe, they can be quite expensive.

Heather Jarman: If people are coming on one of our tours with a truffle hunt, then they need long trousers, socks and sturdy shoes. In October last year, five Australians and two Americans set off with Gianni and his dog into the brambles in search of these precious nuggets. The Australians were all wearing shorts or skirts and sandals without socks; the Americans were wearing sturdy hiking shoes and long pants. When they returned, the Australians legs had been shredded, but they bore their wounds bravely and swore they’d enjoyed every minute of it, especially later when eating the truffles.

Judie Burman (Caves & Castles): We always advise our guests to bring casual clothing – adaptable for varying temperatures. When it’s hot outside, the caves feel cool so a jacket, fleece or cardigan is necessary. And, of course, a waterproof is advisable – just in case.

Our tours are very relaxed. Most guests prefer to change in the evenings, especially if we’re going out, but if they choose not to, that’s fine. Equally, some people like to dress up a bit more to visit restaurants – that’s fine too.  It’s what they’re comfortable with. We don’t mind and the restaurateurs don’t mind; they understand people are on holiday.

Footwear is important. Again the key word is comfort, but firm soles are necessary for walking on rough ground, although walking boots are not necessary. They’re not always comfortable for travelling in and are bulky to pack.

We always recommend travelling light. We were most impressed by a young graphic artist who was with us for a week-long tour. She’d travelled from the States, stayed over in Paris and just had a carryon roller case, but she had everything she needed, including her sketching materials!

Do you find that some travelers have misperceptions about how to dress in Europe? 

Cheryl Alexander: Yes, many folks have an impression of formality that is no longer present in Europe unless one is traveling at a higher level of luxury travel.  There are some small, exclusive cruise ships that require guests to “dress” for dinner.  Our trips do not require that level of sophistication.  It’s easy to dress up a woman’s outfit with a colorful wrap or scarf or interesting costume jewelry.

There are certainly some high-end restaurants in the major cities where it would be appropriate to dress up more, but most restaurants are very casual about their presentation as they are family run and tend to know all their local customers.  Having said all of that, it does seem that the older Italian generation tends to be less casual in their attire.  You will always see some of the older women who only wear dresses and men who wear only slacks, not jeans.

Bill Steiner: Every country has its own style of dress, often quite recognizable. Americans tend to be much more casual than Europeans. Because we are visitors, I try to at least respect local tradition. In Europe, I think this means casual but a little more covered up than we would dress in the U.S.

Heather Jarman: My gastronomic tours all take place in Italy, which many people believe to be uniformly hot and sunny in every season. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Around Lucca, in northern Tuscany, where most of my tours are based, we have lots of rain and sometimes snow between November and March. Temperatures often hover around 0?C (32?F) for weeks at a time. We also often have some rain in May and June and again in September, but we welcome this since it produces delectable porcini in the woods. But it would be a shame to miss winter here; there are many chestnut festivals, Christmas fairs and even a soup competition. Dressed properly, you can stay warm and dry, and indoors you’ll usually find a cheering log fire to sit round.

Kathy Wood: Some people do think that the dress in the south of France is much more sophisticated. That may be true down on the Côte d’Azur, but in our small Luberon village and on all our European Experience trips, dress is more informal and functional. Some people think “cruise wear” might work for a European vacation, but I think those bright colors and patterns are too bold and conspicuous in the areas where we travel. I tend to avoid the super bright colors that you sometimes see in American clothing.

We had three women in one of our early groups who admitted they had not read the materials we sent about preparing for our trip. They based their wardrobes on a certain image of southern France that was more appropriate for the coast in July or August. For our early May trip, they brought mostly pretty flowing sundresses (sleeveless) and little flip flop shoes. This didn’t work at all for the weather or the walking. They all had to buy several items of warmer, more practical clothing. One of the women had a blanket from her Air France flight that she wore one night a wrap… hardly the stylish look she had hoped for! And the flip flop shoes really cute but definitely not practical!
 


Kathy Wood and her husband Charley lead European Experiences, week-long “slow tours” in some of the most beautiful areas of Europe, including The Chianti Experience in Tuscany, Italy and The Luberon Experience in Provence, France. National Geographic Traveler magazine named The Luberon Experience one of their “Tours of a Lifetime” for 2012, the top 50 tours in the world.

In 2014 Kathy and Charley hosted Experience weeks in the Luberon (Provence), Chianti (Tuscany), the Périgord (Dordogne), and the Cotswolds (England). They have hosted over 50 Experience groups since they launched in 2006.

Kathy and Charley have been traveling in Europe for over 20 years and love sharing their special places in Europe with other travelers. Read more about Kathy and Charley here.

Slow Travel Tours is an affiliation of small-group tour operators who offer personalized trips in Italy, France and other European countries.

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