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Tips for finding that perfect European souvenir

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Photographs by Rick Steves’ Europe/RICK STEVES

Artisans like this alabaster sculptor in Volterra, Italy, keep the local craft alive and provide meaningful souvenirs for travelers.

With each trip I take, I look for cultural souvenirs -- experiences and memories are the gold nuggets of travel. Shopping is never my priority, but I find the best souvenirs come from local entrepreneurs and craftspeople. These days, Europe's modern shopping arenas are also fun spots to witness a slice of contemporary life. In moderation, it can be fun to immerse yourself in the retail culture of Europe's grandest cities. Here are some smart places for shopping, places where you're experiencing culture rather than collecting things.

OUTDOOR MARKETS: The most colorful shopping in Europe, and a fun way to feel the local vibe, is at its lively open-air markets. A stroll along Portobello Road, one of London's many lively street markets, has you rubbing elbows with people who brake for garage sales. In Florence, Italy, the sprawling San Lorenzo Market has stalls of garments, accessories and leather jackets ranging from real to vinyl. Even a place as overrun with visitors as Istanbul's Grand Bazaar has tourist-free nooks and crannies that offer a glimpse into the real Turkey. Jump into the human rivers that flow through these venues.

ARTISAN SHOPS: Try to experience some "creative" tourism when you travel. Seek out and appreciate a local craftsperson. In Volterra, Italy, visit Roberto and Giorgio's powdery workshop and watch as they carve alabaster into exquisite, translucent sculptures. In Rothenburg, Germany, appreciate the printmakers selling etchings made with the same copper-plate techniques that artist Albrecht Duerer used 500 years ago. The narrow streets near Vienna's cathedral are sprinkled with old-fashioned shops that seem to belong to another era. They are just the place to pick out an elegant dirndl.

Before these local businesses are pushed out by the rising tide of cookie-cutter chains and synthetic conformity, seek out Europe's true artisans who are committed to doing things the old-fashioned way. Engaging with these craftspeople is an exciting way to bring local history and culture to life (and you can return home with a memorable souvenir).

DEPARTMENT STORES: In Europe, many department stores are just as much of an attraction as the souvenirs they sell. In Paris, visit Galeries Lafayette or Printemps. Harrods is London's most famous and touristy department store, but locals prefer Liberty on Regent Street. In Italy, an upscale department chain is La Rinascente, and in Spain, El Corte Ingles is everywhere. Berlin's mammoth Kaufhaus des Westens (KaDeWe) has a staff of 2,100 to help you sort through its vast selection of 380,000 items. Though lacking the charm of artisan shops and markets, department stores offer an economic and efficient way to pick up souvenirs as well as a glimpse at everyday fashions and local lifestyles.

BOUTIQUES AND SHOPPING ZONES: The best shopping districts not only offer interesting stores but also let you feel the pulse of the city. In Rome, an early evening stroll down Via del Corso takes you past local millennials making the scene, as well as the cheap department stores they prefer. Then head over to Spanish Steps for the beautiful people and their more elegant shops. In Paris, a stroll from the Bon Marche department store to St. Sulpice Church allows you to sample sleek clothing boutiques and clever window displays while enjoying one of the city's more attractive neighborhoods.

MUSEUM GIFT SHOPS: Gift shops at major museums (such as the Picasso Museum in Barcelona or the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam) are the place to pick up books, postcards, unusual posters, decorative items or clever knickknacks featuring works by your favorite artist or commemorating a historic event or sight. Museum gift shops are also a good source for books you may not see elsewhere.

CHRISTMAS MARKETS: If you're traveling around the holidays, Europe is peppered with festive Christmas markets serving up a healthy dose of holiday spirit and plenty of traditional nutcrackers, ornaments and sweets. Hand-carved wooden ornaments and Nativity scenes, lavish wreaths and aromatic candles line the booths. In Germany, look for nutcrackers made in the Erzgebirge region, where they originated. Stroll around while sipping hot mulled wine, spiced with cinnamon, cloves and citrus fruits. This quintessential Christmas market drink ("Gluhwein" in Germanic countries) is served in a holiday-theme ceramic mug, which makes a fun, inexpensive souvenir.

I'm often asked about the difference between a tourist and a traveler. To me, a tourist visits all the big sights, sees spectacles on stage and returns home unchanged with a suitcase full of knickknacks. A traveler becomes a temporary local, engages with the culture and comes home enriched, with a vivid collection of experiences and a broader perspective. Whether you are a tourist or a traveler, or a little of both, a few well-chosen souvenirs can remind you of the highlights of your trip for years to come.

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European department stores (such as Galeries Lafayette in Paris) can be glamorous platforms for top fashion and people-watchi... + Enlarge

Travel on 08/06/2017

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