In a city that for centuries has thrived almost exclusively on tourism, remember this: Where you buy cheap, you get cheap. Venetians, centuries-old merchants, aren’t known for bargaining. You’ll stand a better chance of getting a good deal if you pay in cash or buy more than one item. In our limited space below, we’ve listed some of the more reputable places to stock up on classic Venetian items.
Shopping Streets & Markets
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 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 Frezzaria, just west of Piazza San Marco and running north-south, offers bars, souvenir shops, and tony clothing stores like Louis Vuitton and Versace. The non-produce part of the Rialto Market is as good as it gets for basic souvenirs, where you’ll find cheap T-shirts, glow-in-the-dark plastic gondolas, and tawdry glass trinkets.
The Mercatino dei Miracoli (tel. 041/2710022), held only six times a year in Campo Santa Maria Nova (Cannaregio), is a fabulous flea market with all sorts of bric-a-brac and antiques sold by ordinary Venetians—haggling, for once, is acceptable. It usually takes place on the second Saturday or Sunday of March, April, May, September, October, and December, from 8:30am to 8pm. The Mercatino dell’Antiquariato (www.mercatinocamposanmaurizio.it) is a professional antiques market in Campo San Maurizio, San Marco; it takes place 4 to 5 times a year (usually Mar–Apr, May, Sept, Oct, and Dec; check the website for dates). 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.
Arts & Crafts
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 (shops), where you can watch artisans paint amid their wares.
Now here’s the bad news: There’s such an overwhelming sea of cheap glass 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). Plus, 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 China are sold at stratospheric prices; ditto the truly high-quality glass (although trinkets can be cheap and fun). The best place to buy glass is Murano itself—the “Vetro Artistico Murano” trademark guarantees its origin, but expect to pay as much as 60€ for just a wine glass.
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 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.
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).
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.
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.