How to pack for a holiday in Rome: Light, in a backpack but don’t forget the sport coat

For Rome, you can pack light and still be stylish. Photo by Marina Pascucci
For Rome, you can pack light and still be stylish. Photo by Marina Pascucci

The snow has melted, and you’re holding your smiling face up to the sun every day. You’ve been staring at that photo of the backlit Colosseum ever since you booked your Rome vacation for this spring. Lent is over but you’re continuing your abstinence from all Italian food until you sink your teeth into that first pizza at Pizzeria Remo. Soon, however, you’ll need to get to work. Decisions must be made. Items must be bought. The biggest question facing many travelers is a source of unnecessary stress.

What should I pack?

As a veteran traveler, I don’t sweat the small stuff. And packing is small stuff. I can pack for a month’s trip to Jupiter in about two hours, depending on if my anti-poison astro suit has been washed. The general rule of thumb I tell people is pack what you think you’ll need — then cut it in half. Don’t pack anything unless you plan on wearing it at least twice. While packing, look in the mirror. Pack what you’re wearing. That way you’ll look normal and you’re not walking around rural India in those stupid Ali Baba pants you’ll never wear again.

Rome isn’t as easy as the weather would suggest. Yes, in the ideal visiting months of April, May, September and October the average high temperature ranges from about 72-82 degrees. Rain is maybe three inches a month. But Rome can be complicated. In the capital of the most stylish country in the world, you don’t want to look like you walked out of an Iowa cornfield. Yet the 2,000-year-old cobblestones covering most of the town center can turn your feet into Norcia sausage before you climb one Spanish Step.

I’m here to help. After living here 5 ½ years and visiting many other times, I know what to pack and what not to pack for any time of year. For simplicity sake, I’ll stick here to the ideal months of spring and fall. Forget summer. If you’re crazy enough to visit Rome in July and August you won’t listen to this advice anyway.

So keep this list on your laptop while you’re packing your backpack, which brings us to my first item.

Backpack. Don’t take a roller bag or anything on wheels. Rome’s sidewalks are about as wide as your average Italian runway model. Your bag will spend most of its journey to your hotel in a gutter. Many streets are cobblestones. The rattling of the wheels will drown out your conversation and your bag will need a NASCAR pit crew to repair the wheels. Backpacks are comfortable, convenient and hip. You can walk anywhere with them, take up less space on crowded buses and subways and you’ll look like a road-wise traveler, not like you came from an American Express bus. This will earn you instant street cred with the pickpockets, which brings us to item No. 2 …

Money belt. I wear them anywhere in the world, but in Rome it’s more important. It’s No. 2 in the world in pickpockets behind Barcelona. The number reported in 2014 hit 1,848. That’s reported. Don’t try to be macho here. No reason to flash clenched fists. You won’t know you’ve been robbed until you try to pay for lunch. They’re that good. Instead, buy a thin, five-inch-wide money belt that slips inside the waistline of your pants. They’re available in any luggage store. Put everything in there you can’t afford to lose: credit card, cash card, excessive cash, passport, etc. Keep just enough cash in your wallet to get through the day. They can’t rob you unless they knock you out and strip you. Also, just in CASE, keep another credit card in your wallet or separate from your money belt. Don’t take it off except to bed or the shower. Do NOT pack a fat fanny pack you hang around your waist or money belts that hang around your neck. You might as well replace them with a sign reading, “ROB ME.”

Soletopia photo
Soletopia photo

Sport coat. Yes, it might be a pain to pack but it’s essential in Rome. You can NOT overdress here. Roman men wear sport coats all the time, particularly in the evening. Pack a dark blue, something that goes with everything and dresses up anything. The weather is mild enough where you can wear it comfortably during the day and night. For a little flair, pack a pocket kerchief that matches your shirt. You won’t look gay. You’ll look Italian. (Bonus advice: Don’t wear this outfit anywhere near Lubbock.)

Italian shoes. If you don’t have any to pack, buy them here. They’re beautiful, practical and so comfortable you could leave a shoe store and walk the Appian Way in them. (Psst, men! They’re cheaper here than in the States. Italian stores price them for Italian men on Italian budgets; they price women’s shoes for women tourists.) Call them shallow, but Italians judge you on how you dress. They start from the ground up. Women, don’t let the cobblestones intimidate you. Pack those heels you’ve been dying to wear. Centro Storico is compact. You won’t have to walk far. Besides, one of the three basic questions Italians ask each other, besides where you’re going on vacation and have you tried a new restaurant is: Where did you buy your shoes?

Merrells. During the day, you WILL walk a lot. I average four miles a day living like a local without ever “going for a walk.” Merrells, out of Rockford, Mich., are the best travel shoes I’ve ever owned. A French photographer I met in Mongolia had a pair that put my white Nikes to shame. Merrells feel like sneakers but the design makes them more dressy. I’ve worn them trekking in the High Tatras in Slovakia and out to dinner in Paris. They hide dirt well. They won’t look out of place with a nice pair of pants.

Loose pants. Rome’s humidity won’t be confused with Houston’s or St. Louis’ but it does reach 50 percent. When it’s mid-70s you don’t want your pants glued to your skin. Dockers or cargo pants are excellent for touring Rome. Don’t try buying them here. Romans wear them extra tight. My legs are hopelessly skinny and even I struggle to find them big enough. My girlfriend, Marina, suggests leggings for women. They’re light and comfortable and versatile for changes in weather.

T-shirts. This might be an easy assumption. Everyone packs T-shirts. The important point in Rome is what to have on it. To fit in, wear something plain. No wording. No “I’M WITH STUPID” or an Eiffel Tower. You look like a tourist already. No reason to further advertise it. And no one cares if you went to Michigan State. Italians think it’s just the state of Michigan. Leave your school colors at home. Wear dark colors. They hide sweat stains from any creeping humidity. Many Italians wear T-shirts of major brands: Abercrombie & Fitch, Dolce & Gabbana, Kappa. Those words are accepted. Also popular in Italy are solid-color v-neck T-shirts.

Collared long-sleeved shirts. Italian men wear long-sleeve shirts untucked often with their sleeves slightly rolled up and two top buttons unbuttoned. Cotton is very comfortable. Growing in popularity and taking more space in my closet are long-sleeve un-collared shirts. They’re more casual and cool. For women, Marina says silk blouses are practical and stylish. For 2018, green is IN.

Hat. I’m not a big weather guy. Weather never affects my mood. It only affects what I drink and what I wear. I do wear hats here. You’ll be in the sun a lot and may want to cover your face. Wear a fedora of black, straw or gray. They’re cooling, practical and look good with a sport coat or stylish shirt. Do NOT wear the white fedora that every tourist seems to receive when going through Rome’s airport customs. No matter where you go, even the bathroom, you’ll look like you’ve strayed from a tour group. Also popular are the short-billed, flat-topped fisherman’s hats. They’re not great for the sun but excellent in a flash rainstorm. They also fit in the inside pocket of your sport coat. Women can wear wide-billed hats of enormous variety.

Shorts. When I lived in Rome the first time in 2001-03, no one wore shorts, even in July. That has changed. When it’s hot Rome men often wear shorts — but stylish. They’re long, to the knee or beyond, and in bright colors that go well with matching shoes. Do not wear cargo shorts. This is Rome, not the Amazon.

Lightweight jacket. At night it can cool into the mid-50s, low 60s. It’s comfortable but a waistcoat or leather jacket is perfect for nocturnal excursions in case a sport coat isn’t warm enough. Also, pack a hooded windbreaker that stuffs into a corner of your backpack. They’re good also for the occasional rainstorm.

Coin purse. The euro has changed the way Italians carry money. With 2- and 1-euro coins, you can’t afford to lose any. Find a little four-sided leather pouch that snaps shut. It’s perfect for holding loose change while you’re in a long line buying a gelato. It also won’t fall out of your pocket when you’re reclining in a hotel lobby easy chair.

Daypack. In the bottom of your backpack, put a smaller pack to take with you while sightseeing during the day. In it put your camera, guidebook, map and snacks. You don’t want to have your camera exposed on Rome’s public transportation or trains in Italy. You don’t want to be seen staring at your guidebook. Hide it. Women should bring a small handbag at night. And bring it from the States. Yes, women come from all corners of the globe for Italian purses but they’re expensive. What would you rather do, ladies, have an Italian handbag or eat well? Never mind. I know the answer.

That’s it for now. Use this as a guide, not a bible. You all have your own needs. Just pack light. Leave just enough room for style. And remember: Rome isn’t just a destination. It’s an attitude.