In Europe, many of the world’s greatest artworks are still in their original locations: the church. And many of these ancient buildings still serve as houses of worship to this day. Even if you are not religious, entering into a church to cool off during the hot summers or peeking in to see some gorgeous artworks is a must. Although many tourists are not there as worshipers there are some things to keep in mind to be respectful when visiting Catholic churches while abroad.
Although your “Sunday best” isn’t necessarily required, how you dress when entering a church still matters. Some churches are very strict (like Assisi which almost didn’t let in my friend in because her shoulders were showing) to some that don’t seem to have any dress code at all. Unfortunately, you never know until you show up, so it’s better to play it safe. Here are things to keep in mind before walking out your hotel door:
- Shoulders & upper thighs should be covered
- No offensive t-shirt slogans
- No midriffs
- Take off hats/visors (men only)
- Ladies, carry a scarf to serve as an impromptu covering
Use Your “Inside Voices”
If there is no service going on, talking is ok as long as quiet voices and proper attention is used (aka how any self-respecting adult acts inside a building). If you are traveling with kids, just remind them to use their “inside voices” and all should be good. However, if Mass is in progress keep the talking to an absolute minimum.
FYI there are many churches that will not even allow tourists in if Mass is in progress. So you may have to wait until Mass is over (about an hour) to be let in.
Every church I have ever been to has had some kind of monetary collection avaliable. It is my personal habit to donate in every house of worship I go to, but I think it is a good rule of thumb to follow especially if you take photos; think of it as a photography “tax.” Out of all the churches in Europe I have seen, only the cathedral in Aachen specifically had a sign that asked for a euro donation if you took photos to help with renovations.
In addition to the “general” donation, many Catholic churches will also have candles. I personally always light a candle and say a prayer for my deceased family members. Anyone can light a candle (you don’t have to be Catholic or even believe in God) but please abide by the candle donation request before you light one. They do not magically appear in the churches for free, they pay for them!
All museums and churches in Italy now allow photography (yay!) so you can get some really gorgeous photos of some amazing locations. Just be aware of your surroundings and try not to block any altars from those worshiping or praying in front of them. And even though many churches are dark (thereby tempting you to use flash), it’s really not a good idea (if it is even allowed). Just be patient, and you will be rewarded with breathtaking photos.
Although taking photos of worshipers is not really “ok,” if done from a distance in a unobtrusive way, you can get away with it. Just remind yourself, you are not in a museum – this is a living house of worship.
Pay Attention to the Signs
Some parts of Catholic churches are roped off ONLY for worshipers, such as a small side chapel, or are entirely closed off to the public, like the high altar. Do NOT, I repeat do NOT violate these sacred spaces out of curiosity, it’s just completely rude. If the area is roped off for worship only and you would like to enter, put the camera away and enter with a religious mindset. If there is a big do not enter sign (or locked gate seen above), just stay on the other side!