The Best Souvenirs from Italy

There is a difference between a souvenir and a memento. The former calls to mind cheap, often tacky, ultimately dust-collecting gewgaws picked off the shelves of rather seedy street-side shops -- usually at the pressing insistence of bored children—and then quickly passed on to dogsitters and elderly aunts back home.

The latter, instead, suggests something deeper. Not only is it an object (ideally impossible to find in your home city) that captures the character and artistry of a specific place, but also your state of mind and heart while you were there. All this, and, of course, the more practical requisites of being small enough to easily pack in your suitcase, and useful (or loved) enough not to be relegated to the back of a closet in a few months or years.

Here we suggest a few of our favorite purchases while traveling in Italy, objects that encompass the spirit of the memento though, for the sake of familiarity, we’ll call them souvenirs.

Rome


As one of Italy’s largest cities, Rome is more about snappy designer boutiques and large housewares stores than tiny artisan workshops (though many of those can still be found in its neighborhoods). This is where you can revel in Italy’s sense of style and love of food, and pick up a reminder of these two fundamental pillars of Italian culture to enjoy back home.

Shopping Street, Rome
Photo by Tom and Michelle Vissers via Flickr)

Chic Rome is our favorite place to poke around the more stylish neighborhoods (including Trastevere and Monti) for personal accessories like sunglasses (Brian’s favorite) and one-of-a-kind jewelry and home accessories like contemporary ceramics and designer kitchen utensils and supplies (we especially love to bring back the long, thin rolling pins perfect for rolling out large sheets of fresh pasta).

Florence


Florence has a thriving artisan workshop culture, and many of those who are still handcrafting high quality wares are working leather. If you’ve been holding out for a pair of nearly-indestructable handmade shoes or boots, or a bag that will last a lifetime, Florence is where you need to go. Skip the overrated San Lorenzo market (recently relocated to Piazza del Mercato Centrale) and instead head to the city’s historic leather school, the Scuola del Cuoio in Santa Croce.

L1060076 (Photo by Darren and Brad via Flickr)

As the capital city of Tuscany, famous for its excellent food and wine, this is also a good place to choose some gastronomic treats. There are a number of excellent gourmet shops in the city, which carry some of the region’s most sought after olive oils and wines, and we always stop by Dolceforte for sweet treats of chocolate and biscotti.

tuscan cats(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

We have to admit that our all-time favorite souvenir is something that we can hardly recommend all travelers bring back from Italy: two kittens!

Maria and Cesare(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

Venice


Though you may be tempted by one of Venice's elaborately decorated masks (and go ahead, we won’t tell anyone), those are a relatively new craft developed specifically for the tourist market. The truly historic art forms of Venice are two: glass and lace.

Venetian Glass Shop(Photo by Edward Westin via Flickr)

Both hail primarily from one of the outlying islands in the Venetian lagoon (glass from Murano and lace from Burano), and both require a bit of care when purchasing, as their popularity (and the cost of the painstaking labor and years of training that go into each piece) have driven demand so high that the market is now flooded with cheap copies from overseas. For glass, go directly to the highest quality glass workshops on Murano and for lace to Burano’s historic lace school.

Amalfi Coast


The Amalfi Coast is inextricably tied to two things: the casually chic Mediterranean seaside resort style made popular by Jackie O, Brigitte Bardot, and other 1960s A-listers, and lemons, lemons, lemons. Here is where you will want to wander the streets of Positano and pick up some colorful leather sandals, Capri pants, and flowing gypsy-style skirts and blouses...all perfect for slipping on over your bathing suit after a day on the beach. For your male travel companions, Brian loves the colorful Capri Watch sold in a number of area shops.

Sandali capresi
(Photo by Michele Mariani via Flickr)

The streets of Amalfi are lined with shops overflowing with lemon-scented, um, everything. Soaps and creams, housewares, candles, gourmet food, and, of, course, the famous local limoncello. These are often inexpensive and unique “pensierini” (little gifts), a perfect treat for yourself or whomever is watering your plants while you explore the Costiera Amalfitana.

Lake Como


Lake Como is one of the most understatedly elegant areas of Italy, and nothing captures this timeless sense of style and luxury like the gorgeous silk accessories sold at Frey in Bellagio (Via Garibaldi, 10). We have a number of men’s ties and women’s scarves that we have purchased over the years—and more that we have given as gifts—and they are beautiful to both the eye and to the touch.

Naples


For all its chaos and grit, Naples has a surprisingly noble tradition of hand-tailored clothing for men. Many of the most respected tailoring families have opened up shop in cities as far flung as London and New York, but maintain their historic headquarters in the backstreets of Naples. It is a wonderful place to have a crisp dress shirt, tie, or an entire bespoke suit custom stitched by these expert hands.

Our Favorites


We love the handpainted majolica ceramics from Deruta in Umbria, and the most respected workshop is Ubaldo Grazia. If you would like a piece that is as authentic but perhaps less pricey, we recommend Fanny Ceramica (Deruta and Spello) and Bettini (Deruta and at the ceramics market on the steps of Perugia’s Duomo each Tuesday and Saturday).

Untitled(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

We also can’t seem to keep ourselves from the gorgeous home linens found in Italy. Busatti (carried in many high-end textile shops around Italy) and Brozzetti (in Perugia) have absolutely beautiful fine silk, linen, and jacquard textiles, often hand-loomed.



Contributor: Rebecca Winke

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