Top 10 Shopping Experiences in Europe
Just as visits to art galleries and Roman ruins are required on any tour of Europe, shopping is a must-do as well. But don’t be mistaken, shopping in Europe is not like shopping at home. It isn’t about hitting the strip mall to pick up socks and underwear; and if you find yourself in an outlet store, it’s only because there’s a good chance you’ll find discounted Dolce and Gabbana.
In Europe, you can shop for all the fine products you’ve ever dreamed of, from Italian leather to Bohemian Crystal and French perfume, in the very spots they were made, which may also happen to be some of the most beautiful places in the world.
Here, in time for holidays, are the Top 10 Shopping Experiences in Europe. And if you’re lucky enough to visit at Christmastime, you’ll get the added bonus of roasted chestnuts, sparkling lights, and elaborate holiday decorations to help you become the most popular Secret Santa around.
1. OXFORD STREET – LONDON
It’s Christmastime, so there’s no need to be afraid; unless, of course, you’re standing in the middle of Oxford Circus at rush hour! Shopping bags a’swinging, free newspapers flying, storefronts all be-dazzled, and The Body Shop on every block. The Christmas Shoppe at Harrod’s might be London’s most beautiful spot for souvenirs, but Oxford Street will really get you in the festive mood. Hundreds of lights are strung high across the street, the window displays of Debenhams and Selfridges are even more elaborate than usual, and street vendors call out “Merry Christmas!” in accents straight out of A Christmas Carol. No city celebrates Christmas quite like London (Dickens’ hometown, after all!) and nowhere does it sparkle more than Oxford Street.
2. CHAMPS ELYSÉES – PARIS
The “Avenue of Diamonds and Rubies” (named for the steady stream of car headlights and taillights) is the ultimate shopping destination. From quaint patisseries to the world’s largest Adidas shop, anything and everything can be found along this stretch of the world’s most expensive real estate. It’s easy to see why retailers pay millions to set up shop; the history of this broad, tree-lined avenue, designed during the Renaissance by Marie de Medici, is that of the city itself. Parisians in 1940 cried on its sidewalks as Nazi troops celebrated the Surrender of Paris, only to rejoice in those very same spots four years later when Allied troops held their own victory parade. Today, the Bastile Day military parade – the largest in Europe – makes its way along the 2km avenue from the Napoleon-commissioned Arc de Triomphe to Place de La Concorde, as does the last leg of Tour de France. Cafés, croissants, cinemas and champagne – all of Paris is on display on the Champs Elysées, right alongside haute couture in its hometown.
3. CHRISTMAS MARKETS -PRAGUE
There are Christmas markets all around Europe, but my favourites are the ones in Prague. You can feast on mulled wine, hot sausages and roasted chestnuts while you shop for traditional Bohemian crystal or blown-glass ornaments. The Christmas markets fill the two main town squares with brightly-decorated wooden huts, carollers, and the ever-wafting scent of sugary donuts. Start in the Old Town Square, where a giant Christmas tree, draped with 100,000 lights, soars into the skyline like one of the city’s hundred spires. Then grab another mulled wine and sing Good King Wenceslaus while you walk to Wenceslaus Square, named for that very King who once ruled this golden city.
Everyone gives the gift of chocolate at Christmas, but if you visit Belgium first, you can upgrade your offering this year. With 175,000 tonnes produced in the country annually, the Belgians are the true masters of chocolate; even the Swiss got their recipe from them. Just like a winery-tour in France, you can visit Belgian chocolatiers to learn the techniques, find the perfect gift, or simply treat yourself. They invented the praline, they perfected the cocoa bean, and among their many other gourmet brands, Belgians proudly offer the world’s most exquisite chocolate: Godiva. Terry’s Chocolate Orange be damned! A trip to Belgium will give you something really impressive to stuff in a stocking.
After you’ve tried to figure out the Swedish language, eaten fermented herring because it’s a local delicacy, and broken the bank doing it all, it’s refreshing to catch a (free!) shuttle bus out to a familiar big, blue store. That’s right, IKEA was born in Stockholm. You’ll get a kick out of seeing all the familiar trappings – meatballs and hot dogs, heart-shaped pillows and bright yellow shopping bags – but with Swedish price tags and Swedish names (like “badpuff” for bath puff) in a building thrice the size of your local. When you’ve had your fill, head back into town and visit H&M, another Stockholm native retailer. It’s okay to crave a little familiarity in a foreign country, and just knowing that these are the originals somehow reduces the guilt while experiencing the pure pleasure of visiting them.
6. FES, MOROCCO
For a most memorable shopping experience, there is nothing quite like the old town of Fes el Bali, Morocco. (Note: While this North African city is not part of Europe, many people who travel to Europe are also interested in visiting Morocco because of its unique beauty and customs, and its proximity to Europe.) The labyrinthine medina will transport you right back to the 9th century when it was built, so it’s worth the trip over to Northern Africa to experience it. Buy leather products at a tannery that were dyed right before you in giant barrels of colour. Visit a ceramics shop to watch the artists painting intricate vases and ashtrays, or let a carpet-weaver spread his creations before you. And be sure to visit an old apothecary, where you can buy Spanish flies for the more adventurous on your list. There are over 10,000 small shops, some only a few metres wide, nearly all of them family-run. And since Fes is the largest car-free area in the world, you can browse at your leisure, only keeping an eye out for donkeys or wheelbarrows. The best part? At the end of a long shopping day, you can duck into one of the traditional hammams to relax. Just go easy on the opium (yes, also for sale there).
7. SARAJEVO – BOSNIA
If you don’t want to leave the continent, you can get a similar Medina experience in Sarajevo. Bašaršija, the Ottoman-built old town, is still the commercial and social heart of Sarajevo; the name itself means ‘main market’ in Turkish. It is a cobblestone maze of copper coffee sets, silk scarves, pottery and jewellery. Stop often for coffee breaks as you explore the streets, each dedicated to a particular craft. This 16th century old town is not quite as old as Fes, but, being so near to the rest of modern-day Europe, it feels just as otherworldly.
8. GETREIDEGASSE – SALZBURG
You came to Salzburg, Austria to see Mozart’s birthplace; how convenient that he was born on one of Europe’s most interesting shopping streets! Getreidegasse is not as glittery as the Champs Elysées, nor as modern as Oxford Street, but its charm lies in its adherence to tradition: each of the shops, from booksellers to shoe stores, must hoist a wrought iron guild sign above its door with a picture of the goods offered inside. Getreidegasse is a throwback to the days when people could shop, but not necessarily read the shop sign. When family-run businesses were dedicated to one trade only, and when young Mozart lived in the house at number 9, composing his first symphonies amid the bustling businesses below.
No, you can’t afford to buy anything in Milan, Italy. But that doesn’t matter. Shopping is the whole point of Milan. You don’t need to be a millionaire to admire the posh shopping district where you’re surrounded by gorgeous Italians and their friends, Gucci, Valentino, and Prada. Via Montenapoleone, Via della Spiga, Via Sant’Andrea; all the beautiful people in the world pass through these streets, carrying big, bright bags past windows decorated with sparkling jewels and luxurious fabrics. If you’re expecting a gaudy Disneyland of shopping, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by Milan’s demure, elegant scene. You won’t know whether to stare at the clothes, the people or the architecture, and you’ll love every minute of it.
There’s no better gift to send home at Christmas than a personal letter from the real Santa, from his real home at the actual Arctic Circle. You can order knockoffs online, but the real deal can only come from Rovaniemi, way up North in Finnish Lapland where Christmas is celebrated year-round. Stock up on holiday gifts from the Santa Claus Village’s many shops; from ornaments to reindeer meat to hundreds of cards and postcards. My favourite gift? A package of envelopes, chosen from the 600,000 letters sent annually from kids around the world -addressed in crayons and stickers to Mr. Santa Claus, or Babba Natale, or Père Noel. The original Finnish Santa, Joulupukki, was a hairy beast who terrified kids; but don’t worry, he sure offers a nice collection of souvenirs.
Written by Andrea McDonald for EuropeUpClose.com