Lighten up your souvenir shopping

By Rick Steves
This item appears on page 42 of the June 2019 issue.

Handmade lace in Belgium can be pricey, but it’s a characteristic, packable souvenir. Photos by Rick Steves

Shopping in Europe can be fun, but don’t let it overwhelm your trip. I’ve seen half the members of a guided tour of the British Houses of Parliament skip out on the tour to survey an enticing array of plastic “bobby” hats, Big Ben briefs and Union Jack panties instead. Focus on local experiences, and don’t let your trip become a glorified shopping spree.

As a fanatic about packing light, I used to wait until the end of my trip to shop, then go hog-wild in the last country I visited (and flew home heavy). One summer I traveled with a 16-pound backpack and avoided shopping until the last week of my trip, when, in Spain and Morocco, I managed to accumulate two medieval chairs, two sets of bongos, swords, a mace and a camel-hair coat... most of which are now in my attic.

Now I know better and shop light when it comes to souvenirs. Here are a few ideas for lightweight, packable souvenirs found in some of my favorite places in Europe.

Christmas ornaments in Germany — Rothenburg is one of Germany’s best shopping towns. Lovely prints, figurines, wine glasses and beer steins are popular, but if you want to shop light, consider a Christmas ornament.

Rothenburg is the headquarters of the Kathe Wohlfahrt Christmas trinkets empire, which has spread across the half-timbered reaches of Europe. Tourists flock to the two biggest stores, just below Rothenburg’s Market Square, where they hungrily fill little woven shopping baskets with goodies to hang on their trees. (Items handmade in Germany are the most expensive.)

Museum gift shops in Amsterdam — Gift shops at major Dutch museums (such as the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum) are a bonanza for shoppers. Consider picking up books, postcards, unusual posters, decorative items or clever knickknacks featuring works by Rembrandt, van Gogh or Vermeer. These gift shops are also a good source for books you may not see elsewhere.

Handmade paper in Sweden — The town of Lessebo in the Swedish Glass Country has a 300-year-old paper mill (handpappersbruket) that’s well worth a visit.

No matter what time of year it is, a German Christmas ornament from Rothenburg makes a memorable souvenir.

Making handmade paper using strictly traditional methods (the newest piece of machinery is from the 1920s), Lessebo’s mill is a study in the way things used to be: cotton fibers are soaked until they become pulp, packed into a frame, pressed, dried, glazed and hand-torn into the perfect size and shape.

This paper has long been coveted throughout Sweden for special purposes, and its excellent gift shop has artisanal watercolor paper, stationery and cards that will last a lifetime.

Ties in Croatia — Croatian soldiers who fought with the French in the Thirty Years’ War had a distinctive way of tying their scarves. The French found the look stylish, adopted it and called it à la Croate, or, eventually, cravate, thus creating the modern necktie.

If you’re in the Adriatic port of Split, look for Croata (Mihovilova širina 7 [Voćni trg], Split; phone +385 21 346 336 www.croata.hr/in-en), a boutique that sells neckties with traditional Croatian motifs, such as the checkerboard pattern from the flag or characters from Croatia’s 9th-century Glagolitic alphabet.

Lace in Belgium — You can visit high-end stores in Brussels, but Bruges’ Kantcentrum, or Lace Center (Balstraat 16; phone +32 50 33 00 72, www.kantcentrum.eu/en), is a museum and school that teaches you about lace making while you shop. Exhibits explain the different ways to make lace, and a computer lets you try different techniques yourself (it ain’t easy).

The payoff is upstairs in the demonstration room, where ladies chat merrily while making lace, usually using the bobbin technique perfected in Bruges. Observe as ladies toss bobbins; they follow maze-like patterns with a forest of pins to help guide their work. The result is on sale in the gift shop, along with materials for making lace on your own.

Soccer swag in Barcelona — Sports fans love jerseys, scarves and other gear associated with the wildly popular FC Barcelona (aka Barca) soccer team. You can find knockoffs at tourist shops, but for the real thing, visit Camp Nou Stadium, Europe’s biggest, with a capacity of over 99,000. A tour takes you in through the facility and a museum, and at the end, of course, there’s a big shop to buy official Barca gear.

Leather in Florence — Florence’s long leather-working tradition was born at Santa Croce Church, where Franciscan monks perfected the art of binding gorgeously illustrated manuscripts. Today, the venerable leather school at the church is the city’s most famous place to buy leather goods, but you’ll see leather for sale all over Florence. A wallet or belt is a nice, packable purchase.

Wherever you go, avoid souvenir carts outside of big monuments, where the goods tend to be overpriced and cheesy. Do your shopping in places that offer a fun cultural experience. If you shop smart and local, a few well-chosen items can help you capture the essence of a place for years to come.

Rick Steves writes European travel guides and hosts travel shows on public TV and radio. Contact Rick Steves’ Europe (Edmonds, WA; 425/771-8303, www.ricksteves.com).


An UPDATE — Cheryl Sullivan of Skiatook, Oklahoma, wrote, “On our way through Sweden in early July, my husband and I stopped in Lessebo to visit the Lessebo Handpappersbruk, the handmade-paper mill mentioned by Rick Steves in his June 2019 column (page 42). Unfortunately, the mill was purchased sometime in 2018 and has been closed by the new owners.
“We were told that the intent is to expand the mill’s capacity. No estimated date for reopening was known. The gift shop was still open, but the offerings seemed to be a bit depleted.”