When you visit Venice you can easily buy a Venetian mask, ‘Murano’ glass made in China or an I love Venezia t-shirt from any one of the souvenir stands that dot Venice and line Campo San Marco and the route to the Rialto Bridge.
But explore the backstreets of San Polo and Dorsoduro and you’ll find hidden shops selling distinctive Venice take-homes that make for much more meaningful and memorable mementoes, from handmade bespoke stationery made by the great Paolo Albi to made-to-order slippers modelled on those gondoliers have worn for centuries.
Each day as we walked from our palazzo apartment in San Toma to wherever we were going that day, I would discover wonderful boutiques I hadn’t noticed before, often secreted down alleyways or tucked into quiet square, so many that I could easily fill a book with them. These are just a handful of my favourites.
The pretty Pied à Terre shop lies like a delicious surprise beneath the arcades behind the tacky tourist stalls at Rialto (on the markets side of the bridge). Here you’ll find handsome brocade, silk and velvet slippers in bold colours, inspired by 18th century Venetian styles (ask for the Venetian and Sabot designs), along with their famous Furlane slippers, which originated in the Friuli Venezia Giulia countryside early in the 20th century. As the peasants who worked the farms couldn’t afford leather shoes, they recycled rags, jute bags (used to carry seeds) and bicycle tyres to make the shoes. After WW2 rural women, desperate to make some money, travelled from the country to Venice to sell the shoes from their wicker baskets. The gondoliers realized the shoes were perfect for their work as the soles wouldn’t scratch their boats, and soon everyone was wearing them. Pied à Terre uses old tyres for the soles and rich fabrics (recycled whenever possible) are used for the uppers. Bring along your own fabric and you can get a pair made to measure.
VINTAGE MURANO GLASS
You may be able to find Murano glass all over the world (and in some cases cheaper than it will be in Venice) but, sadly, much of the glass in shops on Venice that is promoted as coming from Murano is actually made in China or Eastern Europe. The only way to truly guarantee that a glass product has come from Murano is to buy it from the island itself or look for the sticker verifying the authenticity of the product. The next best thing is to look for antique or collectible Murano glass, and another advantage of this is that the piece will probably be rare if not unique and have a lot more character than the patchwork dish you see in every second store. While there are many elegant antique stores all over Venice, especially in the San Marco neighbourhood, the price of a piece from one of these will probably be greater than the sum you’ve spent on your entire trip to Venice. You’re much better looking for charming little antique shops in the backstreets of San Polo, Santa Croce and the Dorsoduro, such as the idiosyncratic Meraviglie de Venezia Arte e Vietro which sells exquisite, authenticated Murano pieces from the 1930s through to the 1960s, such as kaleidoscopic paperweights, miniature vases, and vibrant pendants, along with other vintage jewellery and charming trinkets.
ECO-FRIENDLY JEWELLERY & ACCESSORIES
The shopping in Venice is easily as interesting as it is in Rome or Paris if you know where to look – or you take the time to discover. For idiosyncratic ethical pieces by young designers, my favorite shop is Dietro Langolo, opened late last year by Federica Serena and Sylvia Saltarin, two young Venetian architects looking for a career change. There are some unique products here by young Venetian designers, such as the Mela range of handmade, multi-functional colourful jewellery, belts and hair clips, made from recycled silicon and electric cable, and jewelery and bags made from recycled fabrics by Spanish-born long-time Venetian resident Irene Gomez. The shop also features interesting Italian products, such as the range of one-off t-shirts by Hibu from Milan and the handmade Milanese ceramics from Maria Vera. You’ll also find other interesting European products such as the recycled candy wrapper handbags from Mexico’s Nahui Ollin, and bags and belts made from recycled fire hose from Feverwear in Germany.
HANDMADE AND HANDCRAFTED
Two of my favorite stores stand right opposite each other on the corner of a skinny lane in San Polo called Calle dei Saoneri. Il Mercante di Sabbia sells a carefully-curated, inimitable collection of jewellery, handbags and accessories, that includes everything from contemporary pieces of striking silver jewellery, retro-inspired handbags and vintage beads. Across the alleyway, Fanny is Venice’s Sermoneta, an elegant store stocking beautiful handmade leather handbags, belts and gloves. You’ll see scores of shops around Venice selling bags and accessories, but look closely and you’ll discover that while they might be imprinted with ‘Italy’ they’re actually manufactured in China; check the labels inside. Opt instead for a hardier, local, handmade pieces.
STATIONERY & POSTCARDS
Beautiful handmade leather-bound notebooks, address books and photo albums, and delicate hand-printed notepaper and stationery inspired by old Venetian designs, are to be found at the two shops of artisan Paolo Albi (who we wrote about here), where you can also order your bespoke business cards and stationery. You’ll also find pretty notebooks, calendars, and even Venetian recipe cards painted in watercolours by Venetian artist Nicola Tenderini, which you can buy direct from the man himself at his Rialto market store (see this post about Nicola and painting in Venice).
GETTING TO VENICE
There are numerous flights into Venice’s Marco Polo International airport. We’ve mostly flown Emirates airlines direct and then taken the water taxi straight from the airport to our hotel or apartment. Low-cost airlines fly into Treviso airport and then it’s a short bus ride to Venice on the airline shuttles. For a package there are always great value Venice city breaks to be found outside the summer high season. Trains also run all over Italy into Venice’s busy train station. Getting around Venice is easy on water and foot, but for us exploring on foot and getting lost in the labyrinthine alleyways, where shops like those above are hidden away, will also be our preference.