Italy’s culture of artisanal, quality craftsmanship is unlike any in the world.
One of the best things you can do while in Italy is buy local, handmade items. Not only do they support the local economy, but they’re sure to be higher quality than the knick-knacks and souvenirs from who-knows-where.
Whether leather or mosaics, glass or gold, Made-in-Italy ensures some of the finest crafts in the world, but certain areas specialize in certain crafts.
If you want to be sure to get high-quality, authentic crafts than you need to know where to buy what.
Want authentic Murano glass? Get it in Murano! Looking for a chic leather jacket like the ones you see all the Italians wearing? Count on the hundreds of years of tanning history in Tuscany and get it there. Looking for top-notch woodworking? Head to Trentino.
Where to Buy What:
Woodcrafts from Trentino
Woodcrafting evolved naturally in an Alpine area with plenty of wood as well as long, winter nights like Trentino. Since the Middle Ages people from the area have created magnificent toys, furniture and other wood crafts, especially in Val Gardena. Today you can buy handcrafted wooden toys of any type, cuckoo clocks, crucifixes and other statues. I have the most exquisite nativity scene carved in feather-soft wood from the area.
Glass from Murano
There are a lot of knock-offs here so you’ll have to be careful, but authentic Murano glass work is worth the effort. Tour a factory, see it being made, shop to your heart’s content. On Murano, you can get just about anything in glass: jewelry, vases, decorations, chandeliers, tableware, sculptures. Nearly all ship worldwide.
Mosaics from Ravenna
It’s no secret that I love mosaics. They’re incredible, just look at these. Get mosaic picture frames, wall hangings, mirror or other decorations in Ravenna, the ground-zero for mosaic art.
Masks from Venice
The masks they sell throughout Italy are little more than mere trinkets compared to the elaborate, individual actually-Venetian masks. A real souvenir, you can get them in ceramic also to hang on your walls.
Silk from Como
A little less artisanal than once-upon-a-time and a little more industrial, Como is nevertheless the silk-producers for Versace, Gucci, Givenchy, Dior and other luxury designers in Milan and Paris.
Violins from Cremona
The infamous Stradivarius violins were created in Cremona, Lombardia and today the tradition is just as strong. A violin can take more than 200 hours to handcraft, making each one a unique piece of art. Though an extremely pricey souvenir, those intrigued by the craft can visit the Museo del Violino to learn about the history, process and art.
Leather from Tuscany
Belts, shoes, jackets, bags, you have your pick of leather products when visiting Tuscany. Since local tanneries popped up along the Arno (in order to wash away the mess and smells from preparing animal hides), leather has been a prime product of the region and still is today. There is street after street of leather vendors in the San Lorenzo Market in Florence and ones similar throughout most of Tuscany. For small items like change purses and wallets, buying directly from the vendor is best, otherwise, you need a complete leather guide like this one from Italy Magazine. Take it a step further and design your very own leather purse with an artisan in Florence’s Oltrarno to go home with a souvenir and an experience!
Gold from Rome
Ok ok, so you can buy gold anywhere in Italy, but Rome has the most enduring tradition of goldsmithing and all metalsmithing for that matter, having gained the craft in ancient times from the Greeks and Etruscans. Italian gold starts at 18 karats, as opposed to America’s 10-karats lowest legal standard, giving it a more brilliant color from the start. Browse around, but if you’re really serious, make an appointment with an artisan and design the piece of your dreams.
Nativities from Naples
Speaking of nativities, the most famous in all of Italy come from Naples. Neapolitans have been perfecting their craft since the Middle Ages, and it shows. Visit Via San Gregorio Armeno in the heart of Naples’ historic city center to see shop after shop of floor-to-ceiling nativity scenes, pieces and decorations, no matter what time of year!
The city even has a museum filled with Neapolitan nativity scenes created and collected over the years. At Museo Nazionale di San Martino you can also see the largest nativity scene ever with more than 150 figurines, 80 animals and 500 other pieces.
Tailored dress shirts from Naples
It’s not secret that Italy has great shopping, but you don’t go to Naples for just any old thing. It’s ground zero for bespoke menswear. So go for a fitting and get a handmade, bespoke suit and dress shirt and learn what it means to dress like an Italian.
Ceramics from Vietri sul Mare, Campania; Deruta, Umbria and beyond
Ceramics is a tricky one, because you can honestly find it throughout Italy, from north to south. Check out the beautiful and colorful ceramics from Vietri sul Mare along the Amalfi Coast. All the objects are painted by hand and most have been updated for modern tastes. Choose a ceramic vase, bowl, plate, address number or other decoration for your home.
Or else make a stop in Deruta, Umbria, one of the biggest producers of maiolica ceramics since the Middle Ages. Both locations have a museo della ceramica to show the history, tradition and craft.
Puppets from Palermo, Sicily
Though you may not love puppet shows, the culture and craft of Sicilian puppetry are protected by UNESCO as an intangible cultural heritage. Medieval Italian puppet theater was one of the first on the scenes and it all started in Sicily. Artisans created puppets and marionettes with intricate details that functioned as well while entertainers created dialogue on the spot. Head to the Opera dei Pupi in Palermo, Sicily to see a show and get a glimpse of Sicily’s ancient culture and afterward tour the town to find the shops and studios selling traditional puppets and marionettes, Sicily’s classic entertainment pieces.
Embroidered textiles or woven baskets Castelsardo, Sardinia
Traditional Sardinian garb is extensively embroidered and you can find examples throughout the island. Closely linked to Sardinia’s massive textile production is basket-weaving. Perhaps the best location for basket production is Castelsardo on the north coast. Buy a woven basket, mat, tray, rug or vessel of nearly any kind and support Sardinian’s weavers.Italy is a shopper’s paradise. There’s so much that you could purchase to remember your trip. Of course compared to mass-produced souvenirs Italy’s top work are investment pieces, but they’re certainly memorable. Buon shopping!