There are many benefits to shoulder season travel – smaller crowds, lower prices, and usually decent weather. It’s the “usually” part there that makes shoulder seasons tough to pack for.
Shoulder seasons are, by definition, transition periods from one weather extreme to another, and so you often end up with a smattering of both ends of the weather spectrum. In Italy, the shoulder seasons are spring and fall – and while they’re slightly different weather-wise, figuring out what to pack for Italy travel in spring or fall is pretty much the same question.
While it’s not possible to create one master packing list that will work for every Italy traveler, I can give you some ideas for things you may not have thought of bringing with you. Consider this to be a list of suggestions based on things that I find handy on my trips or that frequent Italy travelers I know always bring with them.
Keep in mind that this packing advice may change depending on when during the shoulder season you’re planning your Italy trip. Early spring is going to be more like winter, while late spring is going to be more like summer – so plan accordingly.
What to Pack for Italy in Shoulder Seasons (Fall & Spring)
The weather in Italy during the spring and fall can vary significantly from day to day and city to city, so packing for either one is all about being prepared for changes. This doesn’t mean packing for every weather eventuality (that’s too many suitcases), but it does mean bringing things that serve multiple purposes whenever possible.
- Lightweight Rain Jacket – Chances are, unless you’re visiting higher altitudes in early spring or late fall, you’ll need a jacket to deal with rain more than cold. Bring a lightweight and packable jacket (find them on Amazon) that’s at least water-resistant (doesn’t have to be Gore-Tex), knowing you’ll rely on your clothing underneath your jacket for warmth if needed.
- Scarf/Shawl – Having a scarf is good if it might get cold, and if it’s warm and you’re wearing a tank top you can wear a shawl-sized scarf over your shoulders to get into churches (more on “church appropriate” clothing below). I love big pashmina-style scarves (find them on Amazon), because they serve so many purposes. I bring mine on the plane to keep warm, I use it to cover my shoulders before going into a church, and if it’s chilly in the evenings it’s a scarf around my neck.
- Water-Resistant Shoes – Winters are often wet in Italy, and the shoulder seasons aren’t often much more dry. Having shoes that aren’t porous will make you far happier than dealing with wet socks the instant you walk outside.
- Slippers – Unless I know it’s going to be super hot, I always pack slippers when I travel. My feet are usually cold, and I also appreciate the comfort of a cozy slipper after a long day of walking around. You can get slippers that travel well, from Isotoner’s classic ballet flat style (find them on Amazon) to down bootie slippers that compress quite well (find them on Amazon).
- Small Collapsible Umbrella – You’ve probably noticed the “shoulder seasons are rainy” theme here, so the appearance of an umbrella on this list won’t be a surprise. When an unexpected rainstorm occurs in Italy, the guys who sell cheap souvenirs on the sidewalks are suddenly armed with all manner of cheap umbrellas. In a pinch, that totally works – but they’re crappy umbrellas (mine tend to last for a few days and no more). I almost always pack a windproof travel umbrella (find them on Amazon) in my suitcase.
- Hat – If you can find a hat that performs double duty, shielding you from potential rain and potential sun, then you’re doing well. I usually err on the side of sun protection, bringing a packable sun hat (find them on Amazon), and use the hood of my jacket or my umbrella if it rains.
- Sunglasses – Since buying the fake designer sunglasses from the guys on the sidewalk could come with a big fine (if you’re caught), and since sunglasses take up so little space in your bag, you might as well bring your own.
- Sunblock – Getting a sunburn is never fun, especially on vacation. Do note that if you’re traveling with only a carry-on bag you’ll need to decant your sunscreen into one of your TSA-approved 3oz containers (you can buy more in Italy if you need it). Otherwise, look into solid sunscreen (find it on Amazon) to bypass the liquid restrictions altogether.
- Paper Fan – This is another “it’s small, so why not” item, but I only bring one if I know it will be on the hot end of things. Paper Chinese fans are cheap (find them on Amazon), and it’s amazing how much relief they can bring when you’re on a bus or Metro and the air just feels like it’s not moving.
- Layers – Layering your clothing is the key to packing for the shoulder seasons. I generally don’t bring anything too warm or heavy, knowing that if it gets chilly I’ll just add more layers. If you’re traveling toward the end of the fall or start of the spring (or will be up in the mountains where it’s colder), you may want to bring one slightly heavier sweater or fleece layer.
- “Church Appropriate” Clothing – This doesn’t mean wearing your “Sunday best” for mass, it means being appropriately-attired to go into the churches in Italy. Many have strict rules for how you have to be dressed to go in – and that means your shoulders, knees, midriffs, and (ladies) cleavage must be covered. As mentioned above, having a light shawl comes to the rescue if you’re wearing a tank top, but nothing will help if you’re wearing shorts. In other words, even if you know it will be warm the whole time you’re in Italy, bring at least one pair of lightweight trousers or a long skirt so you don’t get turned away at the door of the church.
What Not to Pack for Italy in Fall or Spring
- Swimsuit? – This is tricky during the shoulder seasons, because sometimes by the end of spring and at the start of fall the weather feels basically like summer and therefore like beach weather. Swimsuits take up very little room in a suitcase, so you might consider throwing it in your bag. Just know that in late spring, the sun may be out but the water in some places may still be pretty chilly.
- Gloves & hat? – Again, this depends a bit on when during the shoulder seasons you’re traveling and also a bit on where you’re going. If you’ll be up in the mountains or visiting Italy in early spring or late fall, bringing gloves and a hat may not be a bad idea at all.
Because shoulder seasons can be difficult to plan for, don’t forget to also read what to pack for summer and winter trips:
But how can I make sure to bring what’s in fashion right now?
If you really want to be in fashion when you’re in Italy, the best thing you can do is plan to buy something when you get there that’s in the color everyone’s wearing right then. You can pick up a relatively cheap shirt, dress, scarf, or purse in one of the outdoor markets that pop up in every Italian town, or you can budget a bit more for something a bit nicer – either way, it’s a fun way to add to your wardrobe and have something to wear immediately and feel very “of the moment” during your trip.