A mix of low-end trinket stores and middle-market-to-upscale boutiques line the narrow zigzagging Mercerie running north between Piazza San Marco and the Rialto Bridge. More expensive clothing and gift boutiques make for great window-shopping on Calle Larga XXII Marzo, the wide street that begins west of Piazza San Marco and wends its way to the expansive Campo Santo Stefano near the Accademia. The narrow Frezzeria, also west of the piazza and not far from Piazza San Marco, offers a grab bag of bars, souvenir shops, and tony clothing stores.
In a city that for centuries has thrived almost exclusively on tourism, remember this: Where you buy cheap, you get cheap. There are few bargains to be had; the nonproduce part of the Rialto Market is as good as it gets, where you'll find cheap T-shirts, glow-in-the-dark plastic gondolas, and tawdry glass trinkets. Venetians, centuries-old merchants, aren't known for bargaining. You'll stand a better chance of getting a bargain if you pay in cash or buy more than one item.
Venice is uniquely famous for local crafts that have been produced here for centuries and are hard to get elsewhere: the glassware from Murano, the delicate lace from Burano, and the cartapesta (papier-mâché) Carnevale masks you'll find in endless botteghe, where you can watch artisans paint amid their wares.
Now here's the bad news: There's such an overwhelming sea of cheap glass gewgaws that buying Venetian glass can become something of a turnoff (shipping and insurance costs make most things unaffordable; the alternative is to hand-carry anything fragile). There are so few women left on Burano willing to spend countless tedious hours keeping alive the art of lace-making that the few pieces you'll see not produced by machine in Hong Kong are sold at stratospheric prices; ditto the truly high-quality glass (though trinkets can be cheap and fun). Still, exceptions are to be found in all of the above, and when you find them you'll know. A discerning eye can cut through the dreck to find some lovely mementos.
Venice Shopping Strategies -- There are two rules of thumb for shopping in Venice: If you have the good fortune of continuing on to Florence or Rome, shop for clothing, leather goods, and accessories with prudence in Venice, because most items are more expensive here. If, however, you happen on something that strikes you, consider it twice on the spot (not back at your hotel), and then buy it. In this web of alleys, you may never find that shop again.
The interesting Mercatino dell'Antiquariato (Antiques Fair) takes place three times annually in the charming Campo San Maurizio between Piazza San Marco and Campo Santo Stefano. Dates change yearly for the 3-day weekend market but generally fall the first weekend of April, mid-September, and the weekend before Christmas. More than 100 vendors sell everything from the sublime piece of Murano glass to quirky dust collectors. Early birds might find reasonably priced finds such as Murano candy dishes from the 1950s, Venetian-pearl glass beads older still, vintage Italian posters advertising Campari-sponsored regattas, or antique postcards of Venice that could be from the 1930s or the 1830s -- things change so little here. Those for whom price is less an issue might pick up antique lace by the yard or a singular museum-quality piece of hand-blown glass from a local master.
Libreria Studium, San Marco 337 (tel. 041-522-2382), carries lots of travel guides and maps as well as books in English. Two other centrally located bookstores are the Libreria Sansovino, in the Bacino Orseolo 84, just north of the Piazza San Marco (tel. 041-522-2623), carrying a good selection of books about Venetian art, history, and literature; and the Mondadori, San Marco 1346 (tel. 041-522-2193), on Salizzada San Moise, which stocks travel guides and English-language books.
For art books and other colorful hardbacks on history and Italian sights to hold down your coffee table at 40% to 50% off, head to Libreria Bertoni Mario, San Marco 3637B (Rio Terrà dei Assassini; tel. 041-522-9583), or Libreria Beronti Alberto, San Marco 4718 (Calle dei Fabbri; tel. 041-522-4615).
The Murano Art Shop, at San Marco 1232 (on the store-lined Frezzeria, parallel to the western border of, and close to, the Piazza San Marco; tel. 041-523-3851), is a cultural experience. At this small shop, every inch of wall space is draped with the whimsical crafts of the city's most creative artisans. Fusing the timeless with the contemporary -- with a nod to the magic and romance of Venice past -- the store offers a dramatic and evolving collection of masks, puppets, music boxes, costume jewelry, and the like. It's all expensive, but this rivals a visit to the Doge's Palace.
When it seems as if every gift-store window is awash with collectible bisque-faced dolls in elaborate pinafores and headdresses, head to Bambole di Trilly, at Castello 4974 (Fondamenta dell'Osmarin, off the Campo San Provolo on your way east out of Piazza San Marco in the direction of the Church of San Zaccaria; tel. 041-521-2579), where the hand-sewn wardrobes of rich Venetian fabrics and painstakingly painted faces are particularly exquisite. The perfect souvenir starts at about 20€ in this well-stocked workspace north of Campo San Zaccaria.
Food lovers will find charmingly packaged food products for themselves or friends at the well-known pasta manufacturer Giacomo Rizzo, near the major Coin department store, northeast of the Rialto Bridge at Cannaregio 5778 at Calle San Giovanni Grisostomo (tel. 041-522-2824). You'll find pasta made in the shape of gondolas, colorful carnival hats, and dozens of other imaginatively shaped possibilities (colored and flavored with squash, beet, and spinach).
Those with a sweet tooth should head in the opposite direction, to Giancarlo Vio's Pasticceria Marchini, just before Campo Santo Stefano (San Marco 2769 at Ponte San Maurizio; tel. 041-522-9109), where the selection of traditional cookies are beautifully prepackaged for traveling -- delicate baicoli, cornmeal raisin zaleti, and the S-shaped buranelli.
If you're going to go all out, look no further than Venini, Piazetta dei Leoni 314 (tel. 041-522-4045), since 1921 one of the most respected and innovative glassmakers in all of Venice. Their products are more works of art than merely blown glass. So renowned are they for their quality, Versace's own line of glass objets d'art are done by Venini. Their workshop on Murano is at Fondamenta Vetrai 50 (tel. 041-273-7211). Cheap they are not, but no one else has such a lovely or original representation of hand-blown Murano glassware.
You should also visit the spacious emporium of quality glass items at Marco Polo (San Marco 1644; tel. 041-522-9295), just west of the Piazza San Marco. The front half of the first floor offers a variety of small gift ideas (candy dishes, glass-topped medicine boxes, paperweights).
Glass beads are called "Venetian pearls," and an abundance of exquisite antique and reproduced baubles are the draw at Anticlea, at Castello 4719A (a bit off Campo San Provolo going north on Calle San Provolo; tel. 041-528-6946). Once used for trading in Venice's far-flung colonies, they now fill the coffers of this small shop east of Piazza San Marco, sold singly or already strung. The open-air stall of Susie and Andrea (Riva degli Schiavoni, near Pensione Wildner; just ask) has handcrafted beads that are new, well made and strung, and moderately priced. The stall operates from February through November.
Chimento, San Marco 1460 (Campo San Moisè; tel. 041-523-6010; www.chimento.it), carries gold and silver jewelry of their own manufacture as well as items from top international designers, including Faberge.
Tiny Antichità Zaggia, Dorsoduro 1195 (Calle della Toletta; tel. 041-522-3159), specializes in genuine antique jewelry (and glassware) of the highest quality and beautiful designs.
The jewelers at Esperienze, Cannaregio 326B (Ponte delle Guglie; tel. 041-721-866), marry their own art with the local glass-blowing traditions to create unique pins, necklaces, and other jewelry.
Leather & Shoes
One usually thinks of Florence when thinking of Italian leather goods. But the plethora of mediocre-to-refined shoe stores in Venice is testimony to the tradition of small shoe factories along the nearby Brenta canal that supply most of Italy, and much of the world, with made-in-Italy footwear. Venice has plenty of fine shoe stores -- including Bruno Magli, San Marco 1302 (Calle dell'Ascensione; tel. 041-522-7210), and Mori e Bozzi, Cannaregio 2367 (Rio Terrà della Madonna; tel. 041-715-261) -- but one store deserves singling out for sheer oddness. Even if you're not in the market for shoes, stop by Rolando Segalin, San Marco 4365 (Calle dei Fuseri; tel. 041-522-2115), for fantastical footwear in an acid trip of colors and shapes, including curly-toed creations; many are intended for Carnevale costumes.
Linens & Lace
Frette, San Marco 2070A (Calle Larga/Via XXII Marzo; tel. 041-522-4914; www.frette.com), is another long-respected place to head for classy linens, bedclothes, and silk jammies. They'll even do custom work for you.
For hand-tatted lace from the only school still teaching it in Venice, ride out to Burano to visit the Scuola dei Merletti, Piazza B. Galuppi (tel. 041-730-034), founded in 1872, closed in 1972, and reopened in 1981. (Note: The Scuola dei Merletti and the museum are closed for restoration until mid-2010.)
A shortage of mask bottegas in Venice is not a problem; the challenge is ferreting out the few exceptionally talented artists producing one-of-a-kind theatrical pieces. Only the quality-conscious should shop at La Bottega dei Mascareri (San Polo 80 -- at the northern end of the Rialto Bridge amid the tourist booths; tel. 041-522-3857), where the charming Boldrin brothers' least elaborate masks begin at about 20€. Anyone who thinks a mask is a mask is a mask should come here first for a look-see.
Not only does Il Canovaccio, Castello 5369-70 (Calle delle Bande; tel. 041-521-0393), produce high-quality artisan work, but it's undeniably cool. Rolling Stone guitarist Ron Wood has shopped here, and the shop provided the masks and costumes for the orgy scene in Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut.
Biblos, with shops in San Marco at 739 (Mercerie San Zulian), 2087 (Via XXII Marzo), and 221 (Mercerie de l'Orolorgio; tel. 041-521-0714; www.biblos-venezia.com), carries leather-bound blank books and journals, marbleized paper, enamel pill boxes, watercolor etchings, and fountain pens.
For a broad selection of wines from the Veneto and across Italy at truly decent prices, head to Bottiglieria Colonna, Castello 5595 (Calle della Fava; tel. 041-528-5137), which will put together gift packets of wines in packs of six, and also handles liqueurs from around the world. There's a more down-to-earth cantina called Nave de Oro, Cannaregio 4657 (Rio Terrà dei SS. Apostoli; tel. 041-522-7872), where locals bring empty bottles to have them filled with a variety of Veneto table wines at low, low prices -- 1.80€ to 2.30€ per liter.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.