Sunday Best: What To Wear When Visiting Italy’s Churches

Whether it’s a tiny chapel in a small country town or the grand and imposing St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, the rules remain the same.

Woman attending mass in churches
A woman stands against a pew in the middle of a church service. Siena, Italy. Photo: Michele Canciello on Unsplash.

Most historic churches in Italy—outside of Mass—are free to enter for visitors. Each region has their own unique architectural style and patron saint(s), and as a result become something of a tourist destination for non-locals to check out while passing through town. But what sometimes gets forgotten is that as a place of worship some dress code rules need to be respected—and while this is generally not an issue during the cooler months when you’re wearing sweaters and jackets, in the summer time (and especially as temperatures continue to trend upwards) the chance of running afoul of the dress code is higher if you’re not prepared.

As we briefly touched on in our Essential Travel Guide, dressing well is valued in Italy, especially in formal settings. This also includes when attending Mass and entering church buildings.

So what exactly does this mean. For the most part, the restrictions are standardized across most Catholic places and generally come down to the following:

  • No bare shoulders, crop tops, sleeveless tops, or backless summer dresses;
  • No shorts or miniskirts;
  • No rips or tears in long jeans or pants;
  • No hats (it’s considered bad manners to enter a church with your hat still on);
  • T-shirts are fine as long as they don’t feature any offensive or derogatory language, symbols, or imagery.

For men and women, the general rule of thumb is that shoulders, upper arms, and the knees must be covered when entering a church. For women, a midi-dress with cap sleeves would be suitable, or a light (but not see-through) blouse with culottes or capris that finish at the knees. For men, a linen or cotton shirt with short sleeves and jeans or khakis, which can either be full-length, or knee-length on especially hot days. Children aren’t held to the same restrictions in these situations, but for the most part stick to nothing sleeveless, and no short shorts.

While footwear is also not heavily enforced, flipflops are generally considered to be too casual even under normal circumstances in Italy, so would not be recommended in any case.

A good way to avoid getting caught unprepared is to keep a shawl or light cardigan/jacket with you to throw over your shoulders or tie around your waist while you’re out and about. It’s good for impromptu church visits, as well as surprise weather events, or late balmy nights out in the centro.