What to pack for a sightseeing vacation

Are you finally taking the European tour you've always dreamed of? Some people are lucky enough to begin travelling early, but there is great joy in knowing that it is never too late to kiss the Blarney Stone, see the Crown Jewels of England, watch the sun set from the top of l'Arc de Triomphe, get a cheesy photo of you holding up the leaning Tower of Pisa, and take in the beauty of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. If now is your time to crisscross a foreign country checking those special sightseeing goals off your "bucket list," let us help you plan your packing, so that you can concentrate on shopping for a new camera!

Packing for a sightseeing trip depends some on where you are going and what you are doing. The weather in Vietnam is not precisely comparable to the weather in Switzerland, for example. So for our purposes, we are going to assume that you are traveling through western Europe, as that region is packed with some of the top tourist destinations in the world. The Eiffel Tower, the Tower of London and Neuschwanstein Castle are consistently named among American's most desired sightseeing stops.

Packing for cultural differences

You will find that the denizens of European countries are generally more formal than Americans. It's fine to wear casualwear and there's no need to "dress up," but you will feel more comfortable socially and blend in better if you avoid hyper-casual athleisure wear and anything you would wear to putter around the house. When you travel in western Europe, you will want to channel a chic, elegant vibe to your casualwear. We have all seen the cartoon stereotype of American tourists wearing clompy sneakers, shorts, graphic tees and visors, and unfortunately that really is how many Americans come across to the proper British, the chic French or the fashionable Italians. You can combat that stereotype by dressing to blend in rather than announce your tourist status.

Sharp jeans in your favorite cut, crisp tees, and a feminine blouse are great basics you can mix and match with a couple of scarves for everyday looks. You absolutely do need comfortable shoes, but unless you are on an organized, high-impact, eight-cities-in-10-days student tour where stamina is key, dress as you would to go to lunch and the art museum in your own city. Supportive flats or stylish walking shoes are perfectly adequate for a regular day out unless you have specific needs or challenges for your footwear. Another key piece that will differ from what you might generally wear is your everyday topper. Consider wearing a light blazer as your main topper as you travel—your fleece would blend in as you travel the Alps and an elegant cardigan would look well in Bath, but a high-quality, slightly crumpled linen blazer will look great everywhere and help you visually mix with the locals. The thrill when you get asked for directions will be worth it!

Unless you are a student, avoid carrying a student backpack. Fashionable fanny packs or "bum bags" are trending right now, and ladies can certainly carry a regular purse, but we strongly recommend a handbag backpack. Look for a backpack in leather or waxed canvas, with a smaller stance than a student backpack; you won't be carrying lacrosse gear or calculus texts! Seek out handbag detailing, such as gold hardware, handsome topstitching or even a tassel or bow accent if that's your taste. A bag of this type has the capacity you will need for a full day: water bottle, portable charger, sunscreen, a place to stuff your scarf if you get too warm. At the same time, it offers style and function rather than lots of function with no style.

In all likelihood, you will want to visit some of the great cathedrals, from Salisbury Cathedral to the Vatican. Especially as you travel through predominantly Catholic nations such as Italy and Spain, the dress codes to visit places of worship become more stringent. To enter the Vatican basillica, for example, men must wear long pants, women must have their shoulders and knees covered, and flip-flops are strongly discouraged. As Rome can get searing-hot, we recommend either dresses or capris-and-tee outfits for ladies traveling in the summer months. Simply take a large muslin scarf with you to drape over your shoulders, arms and décolletage to make your outfit respectful to the venue. Pin it with a brooch if it makes you more comfortable!

Dressing for cultural differences is not just to tamp down stereotypes and help you feel good about how you look, though. Remember that it is in the interest of your safety to blend in with the locals. You are generally bodily safe traveling around Europe, but the presence of pickpockets and purse snatchers is beyond anything you have seen in the U.S. and tourists are targeted specifically. Blend in. If you need to minutely study a map, sit down to do so, or read it from your phone. When you pass signs in the Tube or Metro that read "Caution: Pickpockets in Area," fight the urge to touch your wallet to make sure it's still there. Pickpockets work those signs to see where people keep their valuables. Walk past the sign as if you see it every day. Subtly maintain your American sense of personal space and don't let anyone touch your person. Clothing is your first line of defense in this matter, and we are here to help you organize that!

Practical matters when packing for a sightseeing vacation

Notice that we haven't said, "Don't take any shorts or sneakers!" You may want those for visiting the Colosseum or the Eiffel Tower, for hanging around in small towns or walking on a beach. Consider your itinerary with care. Think about what you would usually wear for every activity, and then let us help you plan how to pack lightly.

First, plan on doing laundry midway through your trip. You may go through two outfits a day if it's hot, and you want to pack lightly, anyway. Good hotels will take care of it for you, while small hotels will happily direct you to a local laundromat. It may seem like a waste of time to spend two hours sitting in a Waschsalon or laverie, but frame it in your mind as a fun cultural encounter. Take a snack, see if you can strike up a conversation with the attendant, and be grateful when you roll a single suitcase along with you rather than being loaded down like a burro.

Second, plan your packed clothing as a capsule wardrobe. Everything possible should mix and match. Remember that neutrals are more than black, white and navy. You might build your ensembles all around denim, dove grey and rose quartz pink. Planning is the key. Each bottom should go with each top, each dress should go with each scarf, and everything should look great topped with your blazer! Packing lightly is also a delightful excuse to purchase clothing and accessories along the way. A scarf, handbag or bracelet makes a lovely souvenir, and if you need to you can ship things home to save space in your luggage!

With thoughtful packing, you can take a European tour with a single large suitcase and a medium-sized day bag, allowing you to concentrate on the sights and not on wrangling your bags. Plan to enjoy your surroundings and know that you can look and feel your best, even as a tourist.

Basic packing list for sightseeing vacations:

  • Seasonally-appropriate blazer in neutral color
  • 3 pairs jeans or pants
  • 3 basic tees
  • 3 tops or blouses, we recommend one have a collar
  • 1 pair of capri pants or shorts
  • 1 dress or skirt outfit
  • 2 scarves
  • 2 pairs of shoes appropriate for walking/being on your feet
  • umbrella or hooded rain jacket
  • sleepwear
  • underthings
  • medications, cosmetics, toiletries
  • journal for jotting down impressions and thoughts
  • These items should all color-coordinate for mixing and matching, and this list includes the outfit you wear on the plane.

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