Tips for Looking Un-American in Europe

Some Americans get a little nervous about their citizenship when traveling overseas. When Bush was president and the Iraq war was started, there was some ill will towards Americans in some countries. Some travelers didn’t want to obviously stand out as Americans. Of course, if you are wandering around Paris or Berlin with a backpack on your back and your head down in a tour map mumbling in American English about how to find the nearest McDonalds, it’s pretty easy to tell that you’re not a local.

I’m not suggesting that you should try to hide or even that you would be successful at that endeavor, but there are a few things you can do to make it not so obvious that you’re an American tourist.

Blending in in Rome
Blending in in Rome

First, check your socks and shoes. If you’re a man, wearing white athletic socks and white Nike cross-trainer athletic shoes is a dead giveaway. Better to have some black Pumas with dark socks, or nice leather loafers. If you’re a woman, wearing comfortable, practical walking shoes sounds like a good idea and you’re thinking that your feet will thank you after a long day touring every last exhibit at the Louvre. However, the local women most likely will still be wearing uncomfortable, impractical high heels. Because looking good is more important than sore feet.

Next, don’t wear shorts. Even if it is very hot, wearing cargo shorts (with the aforementioned white socks and athletic shoes) is a no-no. For one thing, nobody wants to see your spindly white legs and knobby knees. Instead, get a lightweight pair of pants. But not those travel pants with the zip-off shorts. Those just look dorky, and who would wear those around your own city anyway?

If you have one of those fancy travel vests with the 39 pockets, leave it at home. Those should only be used if you’re fly fishing in Montana.

Americans love their baseball-style caps. They might look great for cheering on the Yankees, advertising your farm’s seed choices, or making political statements, but in Europe and other places you might as well replace the logo on the front with a sign that says “I am an American! Be rude to me in Parisian cafes.”

A good general rule is to dress up a little more than you would do at home. Americans have a tendency to look, well, sloppy. Blue jeans, a baggy t-shirt, and a bulky hooded sweatshirt advertising the college you wanted to attend or dropped out of is the uniform of the American traveler. You don’t have to dress up to look like an insurance salesman. But you also don’t need to look like you just finished cleaning the garage.

Leaving some of the bright colors at home is good, too. The lime green shirt, orange socks, and purple pants might be fine for your golf course, but will look strange in many places in Europe. I was in Copenhagen, Denmark in the winter and I am sure that 99% of the people on the Strøget wore black. Black pants, black boots, black leather jackets, black scarves, and black hats. I thought I was at an undertakers convention. I had a bright blue ski jacket on and felt very conspicuous.

I don’t always follow these tips, but sometimes I do have minor successes. I was waiting for the elevator to go up one of the towers of the Frauenkirche in Munich, Germany when a woman asked me for the time. In German. I gave her a slight smile and answered her in English. She looked puzzled and walked away to ask someone else.

Curacao is an island in the Netherlands Antilles where they speak Dutch, Papiamentu, Spanish, and English. They also get a lot of Dutch and German tourists in the winter. My family was greeted by the owner of a restaurant in Willemstad first in Dutch, then in German, and then in Spanish. We didn’t say a word. Finally, he spoke in English and we all smiled.

You don’t have to shop at H&M or Zara before leaving the US, but a few minor tweaks to the wardrobe may help you blend in. At least until you open your mouth…

Wearing the wrong touring clothes
Breaking all the rules

18 Replies to “Tips for Looking Un-American in Europe”

  1. Oh my goodness! I’m so glad you titled that last photo! I saw it and immediately thoughts, “this writer is a very poor example!” hahaha. Indeed, it is a photo that breaks all the rules but you were safe with me. I’m sure I was wearing pumas dark and a skirt.

    Great writing!

  2. Thanks… I am not suggesting everyone should change their identity, but if you want to blend in a little bit, it will help if you don’t look like such an obvious American…. Looks like you’re a Brit, so you fit right in already 🙂

  3. Awesome write up!!! Loved it. So true and I work in travel in very famous tourist spot in Cape Town and my colleagues and I always play a game called ” Spot the American”. You can see them a mile away with the uni the dropped out of or still attending. But besides the dress sense its the way they speak or ask for things that is most upsetting…” I want a wine tour” “Give me…..” Get me this or that….

    Most people consider it really rude. Especially in Africa. Well I love it when they come here and quickly have to adopt a new way of looking at things cause THIS IS AFRICA is a common excuse here. There is no Starbucks or lightning fast internet…things just are the way they are….

    Great post…..hope this educates a few people and while you at it….please tell them Africa is not a country….so many Americans seem to think that.

    1. Excellent points! Generally, American schools have failed to teach geography. Most Americans can’t name many countries on the map. If someone is a traveler, one would expect more intelligence, but not necessarily…

  4. Hey Steve,
    Good post. We DO stick out like a sore thumb as tourists. Maybe it doesn’t matter so much. Maybe it does. In Italy I always try to dress up a bit. In Germany it depends where you are. In Munich (where I live) American tourists are very conspicuous with their shorts and their baseballs caps.

    Enjoyed the post,

    1. I was in Italy in 2009 and I noticed in the big cities especially, most people were way better dressed than a typical American in the US (and regardless of economic status).

  5. Not sure I would want to be mistaken for a German tourist – if there is any group of tourists MORE badly dressed or get a bad tourist rap than Americans, it’s the Germans.

  6. Hey Steve!

    I enjoyed your post 🙂 I’ve been studying for half a year now in Spain and although I rarely dressed myself in stereotypical “American style” in the US I’ve enjoyed attempting to blend in here. Perhaps it’s just the excuse I’m using to support my fashion addiction but ‘when in Rome’… or in my case, Pamplona… right? I hope more Americans consider this when choosing how to present themselves in the future. It’s not important to try and be a chameleon or to change your personality but it is important to take care with the way you are making yourself appear because so often when meeting new people the first impression has such a large impact. Thanks for posting, great content and your sense of humor won a few smiles from me!


  7. I know what you mean! We’re from Louisiana and we’ve been living in Prague for over 2 years now, and while my hubby looks Russian in the face, he sticks out like a sore thumb as an American because he stays home and doesn’t mingle so he doesn’t know what to do.

    On the other hand, I go out to the village markets all the time and *try* to mingle with only a few words of Czech and mostly miming. I walk around munching on bread and paprika salami slices and bubbly water, just like the locals (staying away from things like Red Bull and M&Ms that give away my heritage). Also, holding up my thumb along with my other fingers when counting off how many kilos of Ediam I need, instead of using only my pointer and middle finger for “2” really goes a long way. And buying Czech brands instead of the overpriced American and British imports when I find they taste the same (which isn’t always true!) is another sure sign.

    Here in Prague, you still fit in wearing comfy casual clothes and no make-up, but if you go as far as wearing a mini skirt, no leggings and high heel boots in the middle of a foot of snow….then you’re hardcore European, lol.

    Also, Americans and especially British folks really stand out because they tend to be loud and noisy and even obnoxious and generally Czechs are quiet, respectful and soft-spoken and save their boisterous personalities for the pub after work.

    It’s taken me 2 years to not look like a tourist anymore, so don’t expect to look like you fit in during the first time you visit as a tourist – it’s been only in the last 3 months that I have had like 10 Czech people come up and ask me questions in Czech and look confused when I speak, in mangled Czech, that I don’t understand Czech and I only speak English!

    But I like not looking like a sterotype – I’m proud of my American heritage but often embarrassed at my US and UK comrades that make an idiotic spectacle of themselves or act entitled and smug. The best way to fit in is to be yourself, but perhaps maybe a bit more humble and open-minded 🙂

    Europe is a wonderful, wonderful place and full of amazing people and cultures – if you put your entitlement and judgment away and open your eyes to the unique and interesting ways that other people in the world think and live. You may find your heart stays in Europe when you fly back home, lol!

    1. Thanks for making some good points and observations! My father was Polish and when I was a kid I always wondered why he started counting with his thumb instead of his first finger. When I got to Poland I realized that that’s how they do it over there! Good luck in Prague. I would like to go there someday…

  8. So true! When I moved to Europe four years ago I instantly started the blending in process. I was amazed at how much fellow Americans tend to stick out with their style and loud voices in any major European destination. I have to confess that with my expat friends we would make fun of them all the time! And if they asked us something, while wearing telltale hoodies or A&F clothing, we pretended we didn’t speak English 😀
    So mean, I know, but as an American expat living abroad, some badly dressed, loud and ill-behaved Americans ruined our own reputations in the eyes of the locals.

  9. Nice article Steve! You certainly covered all the stereotypical faux pas Americans tend to make sometimes, although I do believe that the image of an American tourist abroad has definitely changed from the loud-mouthed obnoxious oaf to a much more cultured one. I grew up in Texas and now live in Bombay where it’s pretty hard to distinguish Americans from other nationalities (mostly due to the damn humid weather, practically everyone’s in shorts and baseball caps). It’s definitely helpful to blend with the locals especially if you’re visiting conservative countries like India where it isn’t the best option for women to wear skimpy clothes in the scorching heat due to the sexual harassment women are bound to face, even in major cities (beware of Delhi, ladies!). Plus a few phrases of the local language never hurts. French people are amazingly helpful even if you make a complete idiot of yourself trying to speak French.

    I believe that what we may sometimes lack in etiquette we more than make up for when it comes to being friendly and genuine. And you gotta admit, we’ve learned to tolerate and completely ignore the nasty jibes people sometimes give you just because of your nationality. 🙂

  10. Excellent article Steve. You are so right about the shorts – just leave them at home. Last summer we took our two children to France. At home I normally wear shorts all summer so first day in Paris I change into a nice pair of walking shorts and we start walking around. Well after a bit it dawns on me most people aren’t wearing shorts. Sure there were some, but no doubt like me they were tourists. Lunch time I went back to change into some capris and just felt much better that I wasn’t so obviously a tourist.

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