When you shop in a foreign city, do you ever wonder whether you’re buying something authentic, paying too much or falling prey to a tourist trap?
I once paid an exorbitant price for a Venetian glass fish, swindled by a fast-talking hawker in the Piazza San Marco. Like most travelers, I want to come home with a meaningful memento from an international trip. Years after my glass-buying blunder, I have learned a few tricks for locating traditional handmade souvenirs at fair prices. Read on for my golden rules for sorting the treasure from the trash.
What to Buy
Shops from Santa Fe to Singapore overflow with handmade wares, representing a kaleidoscope of local traditions. For the casual traveler, selecting which silk scarf or wood carving to bring home can be intimidating. How to distinguish between the choices? How to judge quality and authenticity? How do you know if you’ve overpaid?
Do your homework ahead of time. As you plan your itinerary, read up on what traditional handcrafted goods you’re likely to encounter. What sparks your curiosity? Ceremonial masks? Celadon pottery? Go to the library and read more about them. Even a cursory education will help you avoid reckless purchases that lead to buyer’s remorse.
Buy what’s traditional in each town. Buy your Limoges pillbox in Limoges, not in a port-side trinket shop on the French Riviera. And certainly not at the duty-free shop at Charles de Gaulle airport.
Look for less obvious finds. You may set out to buy a carnival mask in Venice, but don’t overlook handmade paper. In Mexico City, you’ll see millions of handwoven blankets, but how about tableware made of silver or tin? In Dublin, you might forgo Waterford crystal for a woolen sweater or a handmade wooden rocking horse. Less famous souvenirs are less tainted by tourism, which means you can usually find a good deal on an authentic craft.
Where to Buy
Where you buy is at least as important as what you buy. Buy directly from the artisan whenever possible. On the Hopi reservation in Arizona, potters and carvers welcome you into their home studios. In Oaxaca, Mexico, you can chat with weavers while they work their looms. You’ll value your souvenir even more if you make a connection with the person who made it, and the interaction will be one of your trip’s most memorable experiences.
When you can’t buy from the artisan, buy from a reputable dealer or shop. Buy from a store with a regional or national reputation, one that guarantees authenticity in writing and offers a clear return policy. Ask a lot of questions. Many factors can influence the value of handcrafted goods. Is the artisan known? Is the piece signed? Was it made using completely traditional techniques?
Shop at juried craft exhibitions and museum stores. Buy at craft markets and cultural fairs that are juried, meaning that the exhibitors had to pass quality control to display their wares. Museums also maintain a high-quality standard for the wares in their shops, with a focus on local tradition.
Exercise restraint at factory outlets and duty-free shops. Buy only if you know the brand – and its value on the U.S. market. These shops mostly profit from impulse buyers who believe it’s their last chance to grab a deal before heading home.
If at all possible, avoid buying from shops and street vendors surrounding cruise ship ports and major tourist attractions like the Leaning Tower of Pisa or the Great Wall of China, where you’re guaranteed to overpay for a low-quality item. Stick to the handmade and traditional, and you’ll come home with a quality souvenir you’ll treasure for life.
This article originally appeared in the New York Daily News.
I love the ceramic dishes from Italy. I have two pasta bowls from the Amalie coast and two beautiful serving dishes from San Gimiano. I use them all the time. We lugged the pasta bowls home through the airport but we were smart enough the second time around to have them shipped. I can’t begin to list all of the things I’ve brought home but I try to purchase things that I will truly use that give me a feel for the culture from which they come.
I love to travel and hope that I get to re-book our trip to Italy soon. We pray for you every day.
Thank you–this is really helpful, and it supports local artisans who may be especially hard hit in these times of lockdown.
4 stories: 1. staying at an canal house in Amterdam, the host had decorated with Delft everywhere! Before we left, we made an offer on several small items (unmatched–tobacco jars, etc.) and he reluctantly accepted. Got them appraised at home and turns out they are quite old, lesser-known patterns; we got the deal of the century(s). So it never hurts to ask!
2. Panama Canal cruise: picked up a great authentic hat, and later, a lovely caftan. I asked the woman if she made it; “yes.” Washing it a home, I found a tag “made in China”! It has held up very well, lol.
3. Outside Pompeii on a tour, stopped at a cameo factory. Watched the man carvng under a microscope, listened how they said everything was 18k. Chose a ring and after it was laboriously rung up (credit card phoning, etc.), the receipt said 9k! Oh no–but they explained that 18k is too soft (untrue) and the bus was being held for us, so we just kept it.
But I have a number of treasures that I watched the maker create, on the Ponte Vecchio, in Heraklion, on the Hopi rez… I concur with museum shops too.
Another great place for treasures: flea markets! Look in Frommer’s etc. to see when and where they are held. some booths may be family household items or handmade goods, others imported “trash,” so be ready to take some time. Rotterdam, Amsterdam… Best one ever was findong old lace on the banks of the Seine, north of Paris… Giverny?
I had the joy of going to Venice twice. The first time in 2004 and the last time in 2011. The change in those few years was quite drastic, I thought. On my second trip I had several really in-depth conversations with locals, including merchants, and found that a lot of the original Italians are leaving the city and that many of the stores have been bought by foreign entities. Unless an item is specifically stamped “Made in Italy “, it is often not authentic. It was a good “heads up” experience for me and I made conscious decisions to buy from Italian merchants. They often have little out-of-the-way shops which are fun to discover and make the experience very enjoyable.
I always budget for one traditional, quality product that is emblematic of the place: Bohemian crystal from Prague, tapestries from Belgium, a really good piece of glass from Venice, silver from Mexico, bone china from England – even a Louis Vuitton wallet from France. These, to me, count as souvenirs. I’ll always remember sipping Champagne in the L.V. store on Place Vendome while I selected my purchase – it made it so much more fun! To get the good stuff you have to save up and do your research.