Revised November 2, 2010
When you think of high fashion, you immediately think Paris and Milan. With these two style-setting cities in the heart of Europe, you quickly realize that for most Europeans, dressing well is important.
If you dress in the casual style that Americans don for vacations, you will clearly be identified as an American, an outsider. So while it is impossible to overcome your language limitations and physical size, you will feel more comfortable if you blend in with the locals. This means a wardrobe that is darker and dressier than you might wear for sightseeing at home. It also means you want to select items that don't easily wrinkle in your bags. For all but your flight days, synthetic knits are good choices because they are light, don't show wrinkles, and launder easily.
The best advice you will get, whatever time of year you travel, is to pack light. On my first trip, I toted clothes through six countries that I only wore once. By the second trip, I was able to pare my selection down to six blouses that easily mixed with simple pants and skirts, all of which I could easily pack into a backpack.
By the second trip, I also limited the shoes I lugged across the continent. I brought two pairs...one for climbing rocks and bicycling, the other for city strolls and famous restaurants. I did that by carefully shopping for shoes that would look stylish at night but were comfortable for walking. My favorite shoes were from Okabashi, plastic sandals that were at home on the beach and in the campground shower but dressy enough to wear to dinner with a skirt. I walked more than 5 miles a day in these ergonomically designed slings and did no harm to feet that were recovering from "plantar fascia." My husband survived with three pairs of shoes: hiking sneakers that he also used on biking days, city walking shoes and sandals for the beach and campground showers. Again, we turned to an online retailer to find shoes to fit his size 15 feet.
Shorts are typically reserved for the beach and outdoor activities. Bring a pair if you plan to go boating or bicycling; don't count on them to be part of your sightseeing wardrobe. Remember that you are often visiting churches and chapels which should be respected as places of worship even if you are not a member of the congregation. On a recent trip to Rome, we saw irate foreigners who were upset that the Vatican enforced a dress code that barred shorts and bare shoulders and could not comprehend that a religious organization might set limits on acceptable dress at its most sacred location.
One of the more difficult questions to answer is what you should do about formal wear. If you budget for an expensive dinner in Paris, Rome or Lyon or want to go to the casinos of Monte Carlo or Deauville, women should have a stylish dress and men want, at minimum, a sports jacket and tie. If you are only visiting a city or two with lots of space in your luggage, it is easy to make space for these extras. If you are camping or travelling by train, you may want to think twice about putting your suit or elegant dress into your backpack. It may be easier to leave your good clothes at home and, if you really need a sports coat or dress, buy one in Europe. It will be a souvenier that brings back great memories every time you put it on in the states.
If you are going to Europe in the winter, prepare for cold and snow. Warm sweaters and jackets are essential as you wander from sight to sight. Bring gloves and hats if you are visiting any city north of the Alps or travelling in mountains--prepare for the cold evenings made famous in WWII movies and BBC dramas. It is easy to build a stylish winter wardrobe, with modern wool fabrics and warm knits that travel well and protect you from bitter breezes. Also be sure to include warm underwear such as "Underarmor" so that you can be comfortable strolling city streets during the coldest days of winter.
The cooler temperatures of spring and fall also make it easy to select light knits and blends that will look great after a day in a suitcase.
The varied temperatures of summer and the bright selection of colors you find in American stores will make it difficult to build a summer wardrobe for Europe but you can do it. Be cautious as you select fabrics that are primarily cotton, silk or linen--they may crush easily. Synthetics may seem more practical but be sure to think about how they will feel on hot humid days. Throw a light rain jacket or poncho in your bag to protect you from a summer downpour (which you can expect in many locations).
If you are travelling into the Alps, be sure to have a warm jacket. Though summer days are likely to be sunny, if you take a cable car or train to the top of the mountains, it will be cool, especially as afternoon winds begin to blow across the snowfields. If a summer storm begins, you are risking hypothermia at the higher altitudes. I brought a moderate weight jacket (not my warmest) and a sweater that I layered over a long sleeve teeshirt. It was enough to keep me warm as clouds developed and winds blew up from the valley and too much as the sun returned and we started to climb on the sunny slopes later in the afternoon. Modern "long underwear" is an ideal choice for a layer when your traveling. It is lightweight and compresses to nothing in your bag but provides a very comfortable layer of warmth when you need it. Be certain to remember that some fabrics will absorb water and to keep you warm so you are better selecting microfibers and othe modern water-repellant jackets to keep you both warm and dry. If you are going to do some serious mountaineering, prepare as you would for a summer backpack in the Colorado Rockies--layers, lightweight and temperature efficient clothing. To keep your pack light, you may want to ship your mountain gear home after you are done with it or you may want to use old clothes (that were destined for Goodwill anyway) for your layers and then discard them when you leave the mountains.
If you are camping, you'll be happy to find that most campgrounds have washing machines and dryers. The price for these services will surprise you. Expect to pay a few dollars to wash a medium load of clothes and a few more dollars to use the electric dryer. European campers often travel with clotheslines and let the warm air dry their clean laundry.
Some hotels and motels will do the laundry for you, but you should expect to pay dearly for the cost of the service. Keep the cost in perspective. You have spent thousands to get to Europe, don't give up afternoon of sightseeing to save $10 on your laundry.
If you do your own laundry, it is good to plan that time into your schedule before you leave. We carried enough clothes to get us through 7 days without doing laundry. I included lightweight, quick drying tops and underwear that I could launder in the bathroom sink if I needed to stretch another day. While it is easy to find microfiber garments for women, it took a bit of shopping to find them for my husband but ultimately I found great prices on microfiber briefs at Sierra Trading Post.
Be sure that you have enough medications to get you through your trip and a potential day or two delay. If the medicine you take is extremely vital, be sure to carry a prescription for a refill in case you somehow lose your supply. If you are traveling with friends or family, you may also want to carry each prescription in two different medicine vials; one in your bag, the other in your companion's bag, to reduce the odds of losing all of your medicines with one mistake. BE CERTAIN THAT ALL OF YOUR MEDICINES, or at least a large supply of your essential medications, ARE IN YOUR CARRY-ON LUGGAGE. The risk that your checked luggage will be lost or delayed is high enough that you shouldn't take the risk.
We put together a basic first aid kit with bandaids, antiseptics, pain relievers and the ever important stomach medicines. The reason to prepare the kit at home is because you don't need full boxes of bandaids or medications and you can make them space efficient if you store them in zip lock bags. While this was convenient, it was comforting to know that we could find a substitute for anything we left at home in the many pharmacies around town, often novel products we could not find in the US. In fact, it was interesting to try some unique European over-the-counter remedies. Knowing that the EU has long fought for high standards in food, I felt comfortable using those OTC products.
If you forget sunscreen or other makeup, you'll enjoy a stop at a European drug store. US brands were common but many other options were available for sunscreens and lotions. I quickly realized how limited my choices were at home when I walked into a pharmacy that carried the full line of Loriel products as well as numerous other European brands with interesting formulas.
Be sure to pack or buy sunscreen, especially if you will be visiting Rome or other parts of southern Italy, Greece, France or Spain in the summer. There is little shade in the Roman Forum or Coliseum, the Acropolis or the hilltop towns of Provence, so protect yourself from those burning rays.