Packing: Shorts in Europe? 13

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 always a good idea.

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 nice restaurants. Even if they aren’t forbidden on the street, you will be screaming 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?

It’s Cultural

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 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 a dead giveaway for a tourist. 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 my answer is no, women should not wear shorts in Europe.

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, or more so at least. The reality is that these days, 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 good on anyone. Khaki shorts and socks with sandals? Mammamia! That’s cause for deportation in Italy.

My advice for men- 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.

Some other solutions for men are long shorts, the kind we call “Board Shorts.” 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.

The reality is, even if we love our shorts, they don’t always look good or 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 appropriate. 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.



Sarah Murdoch is a tour guide and guidebook writer for Rick Steves Europe. Her blog, Adventures with Sarah, focuses on packing tips, travel stories and advice for planning the best trip possible.

13 thoughts on “Packing: Shorts in Europe?

  • Dianne W

    This entire article is spot on. I’ve been traveling in Europe and around the world for 45 years. Basically, in recent years it seems the “ugly Americans” have proliferated everywhere. They speak too loudly, act like boors, dress like they’re at Disneyland (and Disney is the fashion faux pas capital of the world), and generally look and act like heathens. I’m with you on how to dress while traveling. I no longer wear shorts at all, anywhere. In summer it’s capris all the way, nice ones with a fitted (NOT overly tight) sleeved top over a sleeveless tank. For spring and fall European travel, again you’re absolutely correct: fitted long pants or a skirt/dress with leggings for warmth. Layers on top (I favor quick-dry q-zips or similar), followed by a cardigan, finish with an Eddie Bauer rain jacket or a Scottevest trench. If one packs correctly, everything can be washed in a sink, wrung out, neatly laid out and wrapped on a towel which you then step on all over to get the rest of the drips out, hang up overnight to be completely dry and never need ironing. Someone must speak up for dressing like a savvy traveler instead of a tourist. Thanks for your post.

  • Edward Johnson

    We were in Rome last August, there were definitely many Italian men wearing shorts and flip flops. Having said that, if i wear shorts in Europe they are tailored golf shorts (10 inch inseam) along with a polo shirt and shoes with no socks SHOWING. I do pack in my day bag a pair nylon pants that I can put on in a bathroom if needed. The other thing is that I take my cue from our guides, if he shows up in shorts, I am changing to shorts!

  • Kimiko

    Manpris have been popular in the Orlando area for years now. Men from many areas (the U.K., and Brazil in particular) wear them–often with cross body bags. They look stylish and appropriate for the sweltering climate here!

  • Christine

    For women who are stuck on shorts because of chafing when you wear skirts (especially when it’s hot), they now make sheer short-like underpants to wear under your skirt/dress. They work well for me as I prefer skirts/dresses over shorts for the most part when it’s hot.

    • Paula Davis

      what a great idea and advice! I’ll look for these….any particular place a woman can buy these? any brands you recommend?

      • Kimiko

        Jockey skimmies are the ones I have. There is a regular version and a wicking version. They perform well– the wicking version is the summer version (very light and super quick to dry). You can buy them at Jockey’s website or anywhere Jockey is sold (Target, etc.)

      • Christine

        I’ve purchased them at Jockey and Kohls, but you can get them at nearly any department store (i.e. JC Penny, Target etc.)

  • Lisa

    Last year, on my Eastern Europe tour with RS, our guide (male) wore shorts and t-shirt. Never did he look out of place. Many of us on the tour wore shorts as well. It was very hot, you would have looked ridiculous wearing anything else. No one wore short shorts, ratty looking T’s, sloppy, baggy or unkempt anything. No one looked at us or cared what we were wearing. I get very hot and overheated very easily and long pants, even capris are not an option for me when the temps are in the 90’s.

  • Linda

    I have several skorts, they are tasteful, do you agree? they look exactly like skirts….think of being on the golf course.

  • Paula Davis

    Mamma mia!! Shorts have always been a dead giveaway for tourists….especially AMERICAN tourists. Nothing wrong with being American–proud of it. Just don’t be an UGLY American — and I agree with Sarah, most people do not look good in shorts and let’s please cover up those butts. No surprise that American girls traveling in many lands, who dress inappropriately (and also who don’t) are often considered an easy lay (cross the Mediterranean to North Africa and you’ll find out). For those of us who never were, it caused lots of problems! Let’s all try to be a bit classier — especially now, when Europeans are very concerned about our country and its relationships abroad.

  • Vicki

    NO SHORTS!! I have just returned from Italy and was continually shaking my head at the Americans in despair at the inappropriate short, short shorts (Women and men). The young girls especially, who often insist on showing off their derrieres. Could we Americans be just a bit more sophisticated? We are easy to pick out — we are the ones that look like we just rolled out of bed even in semi-formal settings. Sigh!

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