Should you pack shorts for Europe? Temperatures are climbing here in Italy, it’s getting close to 90 at mid day. For most people in the US, summertime heat means shorts weather…unless you’re from Seattle where kids wear shorts in the snow. If your travel plans are taking you to Europe in the summer, you’re probably planning on tossing in a couple pairs. However, before you do, you should be aware that shorts in Europe aren’t as common as in the US.
I get why we love shorts in the US. I grew up near LA and lived in shorts year-round. But when I moved to Italy as a student, I learned the hard way that shorts aren’t as common.
As a traveler, shorts in Europe are problematic for a few reasons. They are not allowed in most churches unless they cover the knee. They are not allowed in upscale restaurants. Even if they aren’t forbidden on the street, you will be stating that you’re a tourist by wearing them, and they may make you feel out of place in more conservative areas. So what’s a traveler to do in a heat wave? Is there any way to bring shorts and wear them the right way?
Many travelers ask me if shorts in Europe are ok to wear at all. In the past I would have said no, no, NO. I’ve spent a good chunk of my life in Italy, beginning more than 20 years ago. The customs I picked up back then still ring in my thoughts, and shorts were strictly a no-go, considered crass and too casual even for the grocery store. I don’t think you could have even bought them here when I was a student living in Rome.
Things are changing and Europeans do wear shorts these days. European style shorts are becoming far more common for locals in northern Europe, although still not common in France and Italy in particular. But still, on the whole, Europeans tend to dress more formally than we do. Shorts are something you mostly see in a beach resort. If you see them in the city, it’s rarely on locals. Shorts are considered to be too casual and too revealing, which, I realize, is rich coming from cultures that accept and endorse Speedos on men of all ages.
Shorts on Women
Most European women choose skirts and dresses in a heat wave. That’s smart because dresses tend to be comfortable and have the natural advantage of, um, let’s call it “air-conditioning.” For women visiting Europe I would tend to encourage adopting the skirt and dress custom over shorts. You’ll be more comfy, plus dresses have versatility – add leggings and a sweater if the weather gets cool.
The other option is Capri pants, or pants that go just below the knee. That is usually my go-to choice. My bag right now has two pairs. Capris usually look best if they are slim fitting, think Audrey Hepburn, and worn with sandals or flats. A nice pair of black Capris with a crisp white shirt and a scarf or necklace…that is a classy, no-fuss look.
Women have plenty of good options for comfortable, classy, feminine summer wear, so from my perspective, there’s no reason to wear shorts. Yes, I know you disagree with me. That’s ok.
Yes, I Know, Men Love Shorts
It’s tougher for men, I know, I know. Telling them not to wear shorts is dooming them to being sweaty. The reality is that these days, Italian mens shorts are beginning to be worn by Italians on hot days, even stylish city folk. It’s more common to see them on young men outside of the big cities, but they can be anywhere.
The difference is keeping it classy. Sloppy cut-offs, overly baggy shorts, or shorts worn with tube socks up to the knees don’t look classy on anyone. Khaki shorts and socks with sandals? Mammamia! That’s cause for deportation in Italy;
My advice for men is to bring shorts that are fitted, that won’t wrinkle, in a neutral color like black or gray. Collared polo shirts are a far better look than T-shirts here. Wear nice shoes: leather sandals or boat shoes are a good choice. And consider linen pants. They are both cool and make you look like Lord Byron.
Some other solutions for men are long shorts, the kind we call “Board Shorts.” Can you wear shorts to church? As long as they cover the knee, they will probably be fine most places, but still not the opera.
I have noticed a trend in Europe that you may not know about. I call them “Manpris”…Capri pants for men. If you see them, you know one thing immediately- the person wearing them is definitely not American. If you can convince your man to buy them, they make a fun and unique souvenir, plus, I think they look cool. You can even buy them here if you want to really blend: https://amzn.to/3NqUQvL
The reality is, even if we love our shorts, they don’t always look appropriate. If shorts are really your thing, keep in mind that swim trunks are not the same thing. If you have a young woman in your life, please spread this advice – if your buns are visible out the bottom, they are too short. This fashion is popular with young girls and isn’t a great choice. Anywhere. Sorry for sounding like a grumpy old lady, but I see the looks that these shorts attract, and that is the kind of attention that no woman really wants.
Should I or Shouldn’t I? I LOVE Shorts!
The best insight I have heard was from a local. One of my girlfriends, an American married to an Italian and living in Italy, gave this take: “You can wear shorts, everyone does, but most women will do that only if they dress it up. They will add layers and accessorize with cool jewelry or a scarf to make it look presentable.”
In the end, there is no right answer here. Bring shorts if you have a good reason, if they look good on you and make you feel comfortable. Make sure they are longer and fit you well.
I’m old fashioned I guess. You’ll never see me wearing shorts in Europe, not unless I’m at the beach laying in the sun. Preferably with a cocktail.
From the variety and quantity of reactions, it seems that shorts are a very polarizing topic. Some people have shouted AMEN at me, others have been offended that I’m pointing this out in my frank way of speaking and others have said I am totally wrong about this. I am here only to give advice for a better trip based on years of observations.
I say this: there is a difference between what is possible and what is correct. Yes, you can eat a tuna sandwich with raw onions and garlic mayo in a stuffy train compartment full of other people. You can do jumping jacks in the middle of St. Peter’s Basilica. It is possible, maybe everyone else is doing it, but is it right?
There are tons of people wearing shorts everywhere in Europe, even in churches. It is possible, you probably won’t get struck by lightning, but I strive to elevate the experience of travel. This is not just for you, the traveler, but for the locals as well. They appreciate travelers that are sensitive enough to observe cultural norms.
I always err on the side of being too polite to locals, too formal, and too conservative in my dress. I’m old fashioned, I guess, but we have an important concept in Italy called “La Bella Figura”, or the beautiful figure, being your best self to the outside world. It means something to people here that you dress well, speak kindly and show more respect and formality than you need to. Observing these cultural quirks is not just kindness, but something you will be repaid for in mutual respect and kindness. It’s important.