6 dressing travel tips for Americans going abroad.

First, isn’t it simply fun to say “going abroad”? The words conjure the idea that you’re Katharine Hepburn in a 1940s flick. You’re casually discussing a transatlantic trip via a luxury liner like the Queen Mary. For an American, you will find the standard of dress different in Europe.

These days we fly, which is devoid of luxury unless you can afford the opulence of first class. Setting aside gripes against the airlines cramming folks in like sardines, let’s talk about packing for ten to sixteen days.

How to Pack Lightly for International Hiking Trips lists what to carry for hiking. But what to do when you’re first trip to The Continent includes London or Paris and hiking is not the main goal?

Here are the basics when pulling suitcases from your closet for dressing for Europe:

1. The most important thing is to travel light!

In Europe, odds are you’ll be getting around by train, taxi, and maybe bus at some point. Guess what? Storage space is limited on trains and buses. Taxis are not what you find in the USA and are on the small side—not SUVs. See the picture on the Pack Lightly for Hiking blog—you don’t want to be these sisters wrestling with suitcases for the duration.

Now look at these sisters traveling to Wales nine years later—boy, did we wise up!

When my husband worked for a European company and I accompanied him, we figured out the convenience of hotel laundry service. You know—that bag and slip of paper that hangs in the closet of American hotel rooms coast to coast? Yes, that one. Plan on using it—at least for shirts, socks, underwear (depending on the length of your trip.) Alex’s Brooks Brothers’ shirts came back as neat as new and saved suitcase room. Compact packing doesn’t mean you can’t dress nice in Europe.

There are also new combinations of nylon, spandex, etc., that make for nice travel shirts. Pop an under three-ounce bottle of Woolite in your bag and wash shirts in the evening for wearing the next day. 

2. Leave the bling at home!

This note is at the top of my travel list as a reminder to leave my only expensive piece of jewelry—my engagement ring—behind. Tourists in large cities in the states should skip the snazzy stuff, we have pickpockets, too. When we had grandma’s diamond re-set, the jeweler warned me that the thieves have a tool to snap the diamond off and you won’t know until later.

Having been distracted by would-be hucksters from NYC, Milan, Cologne, London, the bling stays home. No matter what we do, we will look like what we are: tourists. Keep thieves from being attracted to your gold or diamonds. You don’t need bling to look dashing in Milan.

3. If you wear an article of clothing to the gym, do not wear it to Europe.

This is a huge piece of advice to follow! Americans, for our consumerism, wear clothing everywhere that should not be seen outside the home or gym. Europeans do not do this. For a hilarious take on how an American adapts to living and adorning himself in France, read David Lebovitz’s tasty book, A Sweet Life in Paris.  Pay attention to Chapter 5: Dressing Like a Parisian.

Since my first trip to Germany in 2002, jeans have become much more acceptable as casual wear. That said, there is a huge difference in wearing denim here and wearing it in Italy, et al. Levis, my (dark) indigo pant of choice, are worn with the same aplomb as the most expensive pair of Coco Chanel trousers. Jeans are part of an outfit and should be, well, out-fitted, as such. Your upper half is to remain as fashionable as any five-star dinner out would have you dress.

Scarves are worn by men and women and are both utilitarian and an accessory. The intricate wearing of a scarf is often the thing that pulls together your ensemble.

I choose not to wear jeans in Europe. For hiking, they’re uncomfortable and for walking around Milan, I’m more at home in a pair of slacks. However, I do cheat: I have tan and black hiking pants (sans cargo pockets) that do the trick of combining comfort with a modicum of style.

Dressing for Europe Just Takes Some Thought

4. Leave the tennis shoes/sneakers/trainers at home.

Not only are the soles on most sneakers not durable enough to stand up to the frequently rock streets you’ll saunter across, they will, nine-point-nine times out of ten, make you feel out of place as soon as you leave your hotel. Maybe before you leave your hotel.

Do not dress like an American going to the gym when you're in Europe.
Don’t dress like him or carry water like her

Not being a girly girl, my assortment of shoes is down to about ten pairs, including winter boots, so I’m not the one to offer voguish footwear advice. But here’s what I can tell you. For city walking autumn through spring, I take two pairs of shoes: black Danskos and leather hiking shoes. The Danskos offer a bit of pizzaz although I’ll never match the Milanese women ambling those designer store streets in their stilettos after getting off their Vespa. How they do that is the grandest mystery!

Total foot comfort is essential as you’re likely to walk several miles a day. Opt for sturdy hiking shoes every time. The soles are heavy duty, which is great for strolling on the unevenness of those vintage cobblestone streets. In the early days, I wore out lesser soles during a two-week trip, so be cognizant of what you wear. Remember, you’re packing lightly, so try to limit yourself to two pairs.

For summer trips, Keen sandals are my go-to. If I were going again to the beaches of the Italian Riviera, I’d add inexpensive mesh water shoes. Those Italians are a hardy bunch, able to walk across stone-strewn beaches with, well, the same runway attitude that the women wearing those spike heels manage. My wimpy feet couldn’t handle it, which led to a lot of verbalized ouches as I tried to get to the water in San Fruttuoso.

5. For covering your head, leave the baseball cap at home.

I’m not sure I ever saw a European wearing one of these so-common at home hats. There are attractive hiking hats available these days—pop over to REI.com and take a look. Go for one that is crushable so that unpacking won’t leave you with a pancake to put on your head.

Because I’ve dealt with basal cancer on my scalp twice, with more sure to come—thank you, Celtic skin—I am religious about wearing a hat. After the Portofino to San Fruttuoso hike where my cute pink hat disappeared, I have a Outdoor Research (OS) Oasis Sombrero in deep purple, with a 5-inch brim. It’s been a real head saver on multiple trips.

Speaking of hats, when you are touring churches and cathedrals, make sure to take them off!

6. About backpacks.

We Americans are crazy famous for carting a backpack with us wherever we go. While a pack can be practical for days when you leave the hotel in the morning and won’t return until late, keep in mind a few things.

If backpacks are permitted in historic locations, they will be searched, the same as visiting a Smithsonian Museum in Washington, DC. Liquids are rarely allowed, so that massive bottle of water you purchased? Say good-bye the same as you would going through a TSA checkpoint.

dress nicely to go out for dinner in Brussels
Lovely spot to listen to the locals in Brussels

Remember you are in a city. Part of the joy of being a tourist is sitting at an outdoor cafe having a coffee or Perrier and people watching, listening to the lyrical sound of non-English being spoken.

In other words, relax and realize anything you need is most likely at your fingertips—you don’t have to carry it with you.

Dressing for Europe Lets You Re-examine Your Wardrobe

To close, there will certainly be locals dressing casually—the larger the city, the more this is seen. I’ve broken my own advice with Oboz shoes in fashion-capital Milan and my pink hiking hat in Bologna—comfortable feet and a safe scalp are important.

My Last Words on Dressing for Europe

Once you decide what clothing will work for you, square those shoulders and carry the outfit off with confidence and panache.


Related Post: Surviving Long Flights