Take a trip this season and not only will you get to have fun and explore a new place, but you'll also have a chance to find truly special gifts. Toys, antiques, vintage clothing, exotic handmade crafts and unusual books bought in your favorite destinations are certainly an upgrade from chain-store sweaters and DVD's. We've compiled a list of some of our favorite shopping spots for travelers, from the Christmas markets of Vienna to San Francisco's funkiest bookstores.
Portobello Road, London
Best for: Antiques
Why Go: Spend a day in London, strolling among eclectic booths and shops selling antiques, art, collectibles, books and other treasures in Portobello Road, and you'll be sure to present your family with some of the most unique gifts since your granddaughter made Christmas ornaments out of her baby teeth. Get your fix of people-watching as you shop -- Portobello Road offers a crowd as diverse and interesting as the trinkets that sit on its makeshift booths. On Saturdays, dozens of specialty antique suppliers set up kiosks displaying a remarkable variety of wares. The offerings range from vintage nautical and aviation memorabilia to rare books, antique cutlery, and remnants of Victorian taxidermy (for the antiquarian animal enthusiast in your life). Expect crowds and hagglers; know your antiques and you could discover some great buys!
The market also offers booths with fresh fruits and vegetables, and there are some restaurants and cafes nearby if you're looking to rest your feet or quench your thirst. If you can't make it on a Saturday, this location harbors dozens of interesting antique and specialty shops, which are open throughout the week.
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Bookstores and Boutiques, San Francisco
Best for: Unique clothing and books
Why Go: There's nothing like the smell of a good bookstore. Browse dozens of specialty bookshops in San Francisco, from Green Apple Books to Dog Eared Books. Pick out a good read for a friend and wrap it with some candles and bath beads -- a perfect recipe for a stress-busting winter night.
For clever clothing finds, try the North Beach section of San Francisco, where you can look in trendy boutiques or charming second-hand clothing shops. Peruse the vintage shops on Haight Street for a one-of-a-kind article for the teenager (or the trendsetter) on your list. And don't forget yourself! You probably have a holiday party or two penciled in your datebook, so be sure to try on a few outfits of your own while you shop.
Schonbrunn Palace Christmas Market, Vienna
Best for: Christmas treasures
Why Go: With or without its Christmas market, Schonbrunn Palace is a special destination. A UNESCO World Heritage site, this 14th-century monument, with its palatial gardens and the world's oldest zoo, is available for tours year-round. However, if you visit the palace between mid-November and late December, be prepared to immerse yourself in the Christmas spirit! The famous Schonbrunn Palace Christmas market opens in the weeks before Santa's big night and draws travelers from across the globe to experience the joy of the holidays in Vienna.
Pick through hundreds of handmade Austrian gifts as you walk among approximately 80 exhibitors selling Christmas-related goods. Listen to carolers and sample Christmas cakes and gluhwein, the hot spiced wine that's a local specialty.
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Jemaa el Fna, Marrakesh
Best for: Exotic handmade gifts
Why Go: Take a shopping excursion to Morocco and discover the colorful offerings of the Jemaa el Fna market square in Marrakesh. The market is located in the center square of Marrakesh, a locale once used to sell slaves in medieval times. Less tragic wares have replaced the human trafficking of old, and today one can find handmade Moroccan shoes, jewelry, wooden carvings and spices.
Browsing the busy Moroccan market is an incredible shopping adventure. You must haggle, but don't let it turn you off; negotiating a good deal is part of the fun, and a great way to interact with locals. (We've got haggling tips in Shopping Abroad: A Traveler's Guide.) Dodge the snake charmers and henna artists (you're here to shop!) and head for the stores along the edge of the square, where you'll find great prices on pure Moroccan silver. Stay till dusk and you'll witness dozens of Moroccan food carts drifting into the square, thickening the air with tempting smells. You probably won't find any Christmas-themed gifts in this predominantly Muslim nation; however, we suggest purchasing a collection of authentic Moroccan spices for the family cook, or a hand-carved chess set for your boss.
Local Specialty Shops, Venice
Best for: Glasswares, lace and masks
Why Go: Venice is nearly as well known for its expertly crafted lace and glassware as for its romantic canals and gondoliers. If you've already booked a winter vacation to this amazing city, we must insist you do your holiday shopping in its cobbled streets. If not, perhaps you should treat yourself to an Italian shopping jaunt/vacation and kill two birds with one stone.
Trek to Il Merletto, the only store in the world that offers handmade lace crafted by the students of the Scuola del Merletto in Burano (kept securely behind the counter, this lace is not supposed to be sold to the public), and your recipient will be utterly astonished by the rarity of her gift. Or you can find an equally unusual present at one of Venice's famous mask stores. Masks range from simple and elegant to frightening or absurd; each design has a story that conjures up historical tales of Venetian Carnival or 18th-century Italian plays. Glasswares are a popular product in Venice as well, and the sheer number of glassware stores drives down prices due to heavy seller competition.
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FAO Schwarz, New York
Best for: Toys
Why Go: If you haven't actually been to New York's behemoth of a boutique, where you can find toys ranging from traditional Legos and Barbies to FAO exclusives like the 70-inch Big Piano, you've probably seen it featured in the movie "Big," or read about it in the news.
Yet something tells us that gazing out the window is the last thing you'll be doing when you're strolling among aisles with piano dancers twirling on a giant keyboard, toy airplanes suspended from the ceiling and life-size stuffed animals silently watching hundreds of shoppers bustling by. Have your kids create their own Muppet at the Muppet What-Not Workshop, or pick up some tasty treats in the 6,000-square-foot sweet shop. We recommend an early-morning visit to FAO Schwarz in order to beat the crowds.
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--written by Caroline Costello