Dress code in the Vatican

A handy guide to the dress code in the Vatican that explains why there’s a dress code for the Vatican, when and where it’s enforced inside Vatican city, dressing for a Papal Audience, and the particular Vatican dress code for men, women, and children. In The Creation of Adam, both the First Man and the Creator are showing a fair amount of flesh – but if you want to see Michelangelo’s masterpiece in the Sistine Chapel, or indeed enter the Vatican City at all, you will have to be a little more conservative in your choice of clothing!

Why is there a dress code for the Vatican?

As a state within a state, the Vatican is not Italy, and it’s not simply a bunch of museums and cool buildings: it is a religious state and the heart of the Roman Catholic Church.

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Dress code, rules, and prohibitions in the Vatican, Italy

In the same way that you might expect to dress differently when visiting holy sites in the Middle East, the Vatican dress code exists because the idea is that in the Catholic religion, modest clothing shows respect to the Catholic god and to the religious institution itself.

You will find the Vatican dress code enforced in all indoor areas in the Vatican – including St Peter’s Basilica, the Sistine Chapel, and the Vatican Museums.

If you aren’t dressed appropriately, guards may refuse you entry to the city.

Is the Vatican dress code enforced?

Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that if you hang around at the entrances long enough, you will see visitors being turned away.

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Hall of the Maps, Vatican Museums, Italy

However, you can also play the opposite game, which is to spot visitors who managed to sneak past the guards apparently flouting the rules.

All things considered, it is not worth risking ruining a day of your vacation by thumbing your nose at some pretty easy-to-follow rules.

Now, what are they?

General dress code in the Vatican

As well as the watchwords “common decency” or “modest attire”, perhaps the rule of thumb is to wear clothes that you associate with a visit to a traditional church.

Heads, shoulders, knees, and toes

So that means any caps or hats must be removed when you enter buildings.

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Vatican Museums – Hall of the Candelabras, Vatican, Italy

Shoulders and upper arms should be covered at all times, ruling out tank tops and revealing blouses.

Similarly, any clothes which expose the knees – so that includes shorts, dresses, and skirts – are a no-no. Ripped jeans and T-shirts are something of a grey area, although it is safe to say they are discouraged. Perhaps not worth the risk of holding up your day at the Vatican!

Finally, footwear. Flip flops or casual sandals are not expressly forbidden in the Vatican dress code but are not recommended. Leaving aside questions of decency, you will also want to wear sensible flat shoes given your itinerary. Between St Peter’s Basilica, the Sistine Chapel, and the rest of the Vatican Museums, you are going to be doing a lot of walking (and queueing), so save your flip-flops and sandals for the beach.

Offensive tattoos

Tattoos are not a problem, but any tattoo or clothing which features an offensive word or slogan (as judged by security personnel) cannot be displayed.

Vatican Dress code for a Papal Audience

As the Papal Audience is generally an outdoor gathering in St Peter’s Square, rules are a little more relaxed.

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Crowds in St. Peter’s Square, Vatican City, Italy

Here, common sense rules the day somewhat. Rome’s summer months can be sweltering, so men are allowed to wear hats.

Still, it’s a good idea for females visiting the Vatican to cover their shoulders, especially if entering indoor areas during the event.

Leaving the dress code aside for a moment, it’s also important to remember how exposed to the sun you might be during the audience, so as well as headwear and clothes which cover sensitive areas, don’t forget to wear sunblock.

Vatican Dress Code for Men

Of course, men have fewer restrictions in the dress code to contend with!

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Men wearing long pants or jeans in the Vatican Museums, Italy

Long sleeve shirts should be your go-to option. Any color shirt is permitted although white shirts are preferred, again following traditional conventions. However, with throngs of tourists, I don’t think anyone cares or even notices anymore.

A t-shirt is also acceptable, providing the slogans and images it features are not inappropriate. Sleeveless tops, such as tank tops and muscle shirts, are not allowed.

Wearing shorts is also OK, as long as they are long enough. They have to be at least knee length, so leave your vintage soccer shorts in the hotel!

As long as the weather is permitting, it might be best to wear long trousers. Linen trousers are also allowed if the temperature is high. Another option is to wear jeans – although, as noted above, you should avoid ripped ones.

Wearing a hat inside is considered bad manners, just as it is everywhere in western countries but see above for Papal Audiences.

Vatican Dress Code for Women

Women unfortunately have to give their outfits more thought. You might feel totally comfortable going to a regular church in a blouse or sleeveless dress, but according to the Vatican dress code, anything which reveals shoulders is out of the question.

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Women dressed appropriately in the Vatican Garden, Italy

A strapless top, a tank top, or a top with spaghetti straps will all likely see you refused entry depending on the pickiness of the security guards.

Similarly, be careful not to show off too much flesh. Low-cut shirts which reveal cleavage are not allowed, so pick out something with a higher neckline.

Also, crop tops are also off-limits. You can show off your killer abs in Rome, but if you plan to have a day at the Vatican museums, cover them!

Perhaps more obviously, tops that expose a bare back or pants which don’t totally cover up your I ❤️ Rome panties are forbidden.

Fitted clothing is permitted, but figure-hugging items such as jumpsuits might lead you into trouble.

I’ve noted that the tour guides are often stricter than the security guards and will check your outfit and call over a street clothes seller to find you something to put over your shorts, skirt, or shoulders.

Finally, any skirt, dress, or pair of shorts you opt for must be knee-length. Even if you are wearing tights, short shorts or mini skirts are not permitted. I have seen lots of women get into the Vatican with shirts above the knee, but I’ve seen a lot also have to buy a shawl to wear as a skirt after being denied entry!

Vatican Dress Code for Kids

In theory, the dress code applies to children as much as it does to adults, and visiting the Vatican can be an awesome experience for kids that becomes a major childhood memory. In practice, the authorities tend to be a bit more relaxed with how the little ‘uns look.

Perhaps the main consideration is that they wear shorts that are not too short and that their shoulders are covered.

What if I am turned away?

All is not lost. Every year, millions of people come to pay a visit to the Vatican, and hundreds – if not thousands – run foul of the Vatican dress code.

Michelangelo's frescoes (The Creation of Adam) in Sistine Chapel, Vatican City
Michelangelo’s frescoes (The Creation of Adam) in the Sistine Chapel, Vatican City

That means there are neighborhood vendors who are there to save your bacon. Instead of traipsing glumly back to the hotel, you can purchase plastic cloaks that will cover your knees and shoulders or shawls to wear as a skirt over your shorts!