A dress code to honor when you visit the Vatican
Visiting the Vatican takes some planning to ensure you enjoy the whole experience. Along with more typical sightseeing considerations, there's the matter of a dress code. The four main public attractions in Vatican City – St. Peter's Basilica, the Vatican Museums, the Vatican Garden and the Sistine Chapel – all require appropriate dress for entry. The same goes for attending a Wednesday morning audience with the Pope in St. Peter's Square. It's not a complicated or demanding dress code, but it's strictly enforced. Familiarize yourself with the rules so you're not turned away at, well, the pearly gates.
What not to wear
The Vatican's dress code is most easily defined by the don'ts. Just show respectful, slightly conservative modesty befitting a Roman Catholic church. Don't reveal shoulders, an eyeful of cleavage, a lot of leg, or the back or belly.
Tank tops, sleeveless shirts and low-cut tops are a no-go. Don't wear tops that are cropped or cut to show the midriff or a big swatch of back skin. Shorts, miniskirts and skirts or dresses that fall above the knee are prohibited. Wearing a hat indoors isn't allowed, and flip-flops are considered too informal.
Use common sense. For example, don't wear anything showing language or graphics that might be perceived as offensive in this environment. The same goes for sheer or see-through clothing on the somewhat revealing side. You'll have come a long way, so don't risk being denied entry for poor judgment; it makes for much less interesting stories and photos, not to mention unpleasant memories.
What to wear
You certainly don't need to get decked out in formal wear to be admitted into Vatican sites. Just follow the rules.
A T-shirt, blouse, or other top that covers shoulders, chest, back and stomach will do, and a dress is fine if it hangs over the knee and isn't cut low in the front or back. Any pants (including jeans), capris, or skirts or dresses of adequate length are fine to wear. Sandals and sneakers are acceptable, too.
Be aware that, when it comes to skirts and dresses, opinions on what “too short” means vary from one Vatican guard to another. If you go with something knee-length, you're leaving your fate to the whims of the person admitting you. Err on the side of below the knee.
When in Rome during a cooler time of year, regular outfits should provide enough coverage to satisfy the dress code in Vatican City. But if it's a summertime visit, you're no doubt packing shorts, sleeveless shirts and other clothes that could squash a visit to the Vatican.
It isn't necessary to be uncomfortably warm, though, during the summer. Breathable, lightweight fabrics work well. Just accessorize to meet the Vatican dress code. A light scarf or pashmina covering shoulders will get you in, even with a sleeveless top. Similarly, adding a sarong, tights or leggings to your bottom half solves the short skirt problem.
It's surprisingly cold, though, inside some Vatican attractions, even in the summer, so you may be thankful for the dress code. Also, if it's cold or rainy out, use the free cloakroom service at the Vatican Museums where you can leave coats, umbrellas and even baggage.
What to wear to audiences
Papal audiences are held on Wednesdays and Sundays whenever the Pope is in the Vatican. The primary exception is late July through August, when he's at his summer retreat in Castel Gandolfo. There's no variation in the dress code for these special occasions.
Because these events are held outdoors, hats are not only permitted, but a good idea in the spring or summer when the brim provides sun protection. Wear sunscreen, too; you're likely to be standing in direct sunlight.
As the most popular tourist attraction in Rome, the Vatican is busy year-round. The lightest crowds tend to be during January, February, November and December. The throngs are thickest from morning to early afternoon – especially on Wednesdays when the Pope hosts audiences. If you go later to avoid the herd, keep in mind that final entry is at 4 p.m.
The Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel are closed on Sundays, except for the last Sunday of each month. Admission is free, final entry is at 12:30 p.m. and crowds are especially heavy.