Retail therapy is even more fun once you step outside your own country, whether you’re shopping in a famous European department store, a one-woman lace-making shop or at a weekly open market. Even the shopping-averse can find treasure hunting in European countries to be thoroughly enjoyable, as a way to meet locals, learn about their way of life, and perhaps have a little chat over the counter.
What to buy
European shopping is nothing if not tempting: chocolates from Belgium and Switzerland, leather from Spain and Turkey, clothing and accessories from France, jewelry from Italy or Greece, Christmas ornaments from Germany and the Scandinavian countries, lace from Cyprus, hand knit woolens from the British Isles or Iceland…and that’s just a start. Small original paintings and photographic books of places you’ve visited are great ways to bring a bit of Europe home with you. Every country has something representative of its history, culture, and esthetics. Take a look at each European region to learn about its signature specialties.
Global trade being what it is nowadays, consider doing some comparison shopping before your travels begin. This way you;ll have an idea when you buy goods in Europe of whether you’re really getting a unique piece or a better price – but sometimes the pleasure is in knowing that you bought that cuckoo clock in the Black Forest, or met the jeweler who designed your amber necklace. Take those memories home in your mind and in your suitcase.
Another good idea before you leave is to find out exactly what your home country’s customs department allows you to bring in, especially regarding foodstuffs. Once you’ve carried that amazing olive oil, preserves from a market, or beautifully packaged liqueur, you want to make sure you can keep it, nor do you want to pay unexpected duty on your acquisitions.
Where to buy
Where to shop in Europe depends upon your preference for the familiar or the unknown. Main shopping streets, or “high streets” have international chains you already know and you’ll begin to recognize European chains as well; if you fail to buy that shirt you love in Sweden, you may be able to pick it up in the Czech Republic. Outlet malls have sprung up in many European countries wehre you can make a day of it, looking for bargains. Department stores offer the widest array of goods, and are often worth a visit for their spectacular architecture, such as the Galeries Lafayette in Paris and Gallerie Saint Hubert la in Brussels, or to marvel at the displays, such as the food halls at Harrod’s or Selfridges in London. If you chose a relaxing holiday on a beach in a country like Portugal, you cannot miss shopping in Madeira, Porto or the capital, Lisbon.
Wander side streets and intriguing neighborhoods to find the real gems, the unique shops and boutiques offering art, pottery, clothing, leather goods or jewelry designed and produced locally. You can have a marvelous time hunting down your particular interest, such as old books or antiques.
Open markets are one of Europe’s great delights. They carry products from the very practical to the outlandish and feature seasonal and artisanal products you may not see elsewhere. Flea markets abound and offer some great bargains and sheer entertainment for the items you’ll see; there are also special markets for just one kind of item, such as antiques. For the inside scoop, talk to local folk about the best places to shop, and check with local tourist offices for the locations and times of weekly markets.
Museum shops are wonderful places for paper goods and high quality reproductions of art and jewelry in the collections that you won’t find elsewhere. Take a look at all the lovely wares when you buy your postcards.
Your last opportunity to shop may be at the airport, but don’t laugh! Airport malls are increasingly sophisticated, and they’ll always sell the most popular local goods for those last few gifts on your list. Take a look at the duty-free shops at the airports, on international ferries and at some train stations. You may find specials not available elsewhere and can divest yourself of any foreign change jingling in your pocket.
When to shop
Sales in Europe are infrequent and intense; in many countries the law allows them only twice a year, in December or January and June or July. Eat a hearty breakfast and wear comfortable shoes, this is serious business! Many locals save their big shopping for the sales because the discounts are phenomenal, up to 70 per cent by the end of the sale period.
If you happen to be in Europe in late November and early December, be sure to visit one of hundreds of Christmas markets throughout Europe. Germany is renowned for its magical marketplaces where craft items, tasty local snacks, and bracing Gluhwein delight all the senses. You’ll find equally charming and tempting markets in the British Isles, France, Belgium, Austria, Norway and many other festive corners of Europe.
How to buy
Credit cards are accepted almost everywhere in Europe, but at open markets and fairs you may find that paying in cash earns you a small discount. Before you fall entirely in love with that lamp/painting/sweater, ask if credit cards are accepted.
The practice of bargaining for a better price varies from country to country. To avoid causing offense or being taken for a ride, find out from the tourist office if prices are set or negotiable in shops. Haggling is much more common in markets, but the amount of wiggle room can also vary greatly depending on where you are. The more disinterested you appear to be, the better price you’ll get!
Clothing and shoe sizes vary between countries in Europe, Britain and the U.S., so be sure to try things on before buying them. Exchanges and refunds are not common; if you decide you dislike your purchase, keep in mind that many European stores will only issue store credit rather than a refund.
If you buy heavy or fragile items, enquire about insured shipping services at the shop. The price of sending the goods on ahead may be well worth keeping your luggage light.