Vatican City became its own country back in 1929 and entering into the smallest country in the world comes with some rules. One of them is the official Vatican dress code. While you don’t have to be too formal, you do have to ensure you have dressed appropriately if you want to enter the Vatican Museums or St. Peter’s Basilica.
Basically you are not allowed to show your knees or your shoulders when entering into the Vatican. This means no mini skirts, tank tops, or short shorts. This all sounds simple but what about summertime when temperatures get sometimes above 100 degrees Fahrenheit/40 degrees Celsius and you want to wear shorts and a sleeveless shirt?
Vatican Museums Dress Code
Entering into the Vatican Museums you, first of all, have to go through security. To be honest they are not strict about you going through the museums with your knees and shoulders showing unless you come across a very grumpy security guard. You will likely be admitted into the general museums even if you are dressed a little immodestly by the Vatican standards. However, it is better to dress more covered to avoid issues later on.
Strictly speaking, no knees, no shoulders, no hats. There is usually no guard at the entrance as you enter the Sistine Chapel after visiting the Vatican museums checking to see if you have your knees or shoulders covered but you may be unlucky, especially if it is not too busy and the guards have more time on their hands. If you are in the Sistine Chapel staring at Michelangelos fresco s and you are close to a guard they may ask why your knees and shoulders are not covered and at worst you may be escorted to the exit.
St. Peter’s Basilica
The dress code enforcement at St. Peter’s Basilica is VERY VERY STRICT. Absolutely no knees, no shoulders, no hats. Even if you have lined up for an hour and get through security, if your knees and shoulders are showing, you will not be allowed in. It can even become a little ridiculous, such as if you are wearing a dress or shorts that almost reaches your knees the security will ask you to stretch them down. Also, you will see some people with sweaters wrapped around their waist to hide their knees, which is allowed
What to Do if You Violate the Vatican Dress Code
These restrictions only really apply to the summertime as with the heat of the summer in Rome people want to wear as little as possible. You will find a number of tourists who are unaware of the no shoulders, knees, and hat rule. But there is an emergency strategy. Most souvenir shops around the Vatican sell basically paper pants/trousers, I actually had to buy a pair before when I was young and naive and unaware of the rules when I first entered into the Vatican. I kept the pants as they were so comfortable and I used them as pajamas. The most well known of the souvenir stores in Galleria San Pietro right in front of St. Peter’s Square.
You will also find many people during high season on your way into the Vatican trying to sell you shawls to cover your shoulders. Take note that if they are not trying to sell you these shawls from an official store but only from the street you will be able to negotiate the price with them and it can be a nice little souvenir to bring home.
If you are very stuck, if a friend has a sweater or a scarf that can be tied around your waist that will reach to your knees, then that will work even if you look a little odd. Also if you are wearing 3/4 length shorts that cover your knees you will be fine, even for St Peter’s Basilica.