Sick of snow globes and coffee mugs? We travel to extraordinary shops in five countries to discover goods that you definitely will not be able to pick up in duty-free.
When exploring somewhere new, certain travelers focus on hitting all the major museums. Others attend the local opera or dine at the most buzzed-about restaurants. But one could argue that shopping can be one of the best insights into a destination’s culture. Perhaps you’re in search of that special souvenir that you could never find anywhere else. Maybe you’re interested in interacting with locals in an everyday retail way. Or you might just plain want to have some fun spending a little cash. Whatever the case, shopping is an integral part of the travel experience. So we’ve chosen five of world’s most unique shops and explored what makes them worth visiting.
Lucien Legrand Filles et Fils
In the 19th century, Paris was filled with covered arcades called “galeries” whose halls were lined with stores — predecessors to the modern mall. Unfortunately, many were demolished to make way for new boulevards and housing during the building craze of Haussmann’s renovation of the city (from the 1850s to the 1920s). However, a few have survived including the precious Galerie Vivienne in the second arrondissement. Its splendor may be slightly dilapidated, but it is still home to upscale stores ranging from antique bookshops to tearooms to prêt-à-porter boutiques. In addition, it’s got one of the city’s most venerable wine stores: Lucien Legrand Filles et Fils.
The store was originally a grocery in 1880. However, a generation later, two brothers named Pierre and Alexandre Legrand transformed it into a wine shop. Pierre’s eldest son, Lucien, took over the family business in 1945 and made it into a local institution by scouring the French countryside for little-known, high-quality wineries that he introduced to the well-to-do of Paris.
The store’s idiosyncrasies begin with its name. Note that it does not finish with the typical “et fils” (and sons). Instead, the shop uses “filles et fils” (daughters and sons) because the eponymous Lucien did not have any sons. Thus, he left the establishment to his daughter Francine, who ran the business with aplomb, establishing a sort of oeno-empire. The shop changed hands in the year 2000, but it remains in the same spot in the Galerie Vivienne and today offers over 3,000 wines sourced from 350 vineyards all over France.
However, the place is anything but stuck in the past. In recent years, it has expanded to a new tasting room across the corridor from the original shop. There, you can attend both longer-term tasting courses (why not spend a couple weeks in Paris learning about French wines from local experts?) — plus weekly tastings with select winemakers or themed by region and variety. You can also drop by daily from noon until 9pm to taste wines by the glass or bottle accompanied by petites gourmandises (snacks). caves-legrand.com
Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella
It takes a special kind of 14-year-old to commission her own signature scent. (No, we’re not talking about Mylie Cyrus or Kylie Jenner.) Back in 1533, after departing her native Florence to marry Henry II of France, Catherine de’ Medici directed the Officina Profumo Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella to create a new special fragrance just for her — a little something with a citrusy base bouquet. In doing so, she set off a European style sensation.
Nearly 500 years later, you can still buy that same perfume in one of the most gorgeously restored shops in all of Italy. Though you can also find outposts of the Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella in New York, Los Angeles and Bal Harbour (among other cities), the Florence original melds the experience of an apothecary, art gallery and department store to an effect that cannot be replicated.
The shop dates back 400 years, so take time to marvel at the vintage display cases, beautifully-frescoed ceilings, crystal chandeliers and marble floors. Place an order at one of the counters, then continue perusing. Meanwhile, your purchase will be prepared and set aside at the cashier’s desk, wrapped to perfection and ready for your carry-on.
The ingredients and original recipes for its various tinctures, unguents and oils were all once grown and compounded on site. Today, most are manufactured nearby — still according to the traditional recipes and not tested on animals.
Go and bring back bottles of the sweet almond paste with almond and grapeseed oils, beeswax and glycerin — it’s perfect for toning the skin. The pomegranate bath oil with citrus, vetiver and sandalwood makes a soothing night mask. You’ll want some of their lemon-scented hand cream to hydrate your skin before the flight. And don’t forget a keepsake bottle of the Acqua di Santa Maria Novella, the famous perfume first created for Catherine de’ Medici. smnovella.it
Ock Pop Tok
(Luang Prabang, Laos)
Deep in the Laotian mountains — where the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers meet — lies the former imperial city of Luang Prabang. Once the royal capital of Laos, today this French-colonial gem is a UNESCO World Heritage site that invites visitors from around the world to stroll historic lanes, marvel at gilded temples, cruise waterfall-dotted rivers, or visit elephants and saffron-robed monks.
Thanks to the store (which also functions as a gallery and cultural center) Ock Pop Tok, visitors can also explore the magnificent arts and crafts of Laos in a more immersive way than ever before. Located a few minutes’ walk southwest of town, Ock Pop Tok is almost a village unto itself. It was launched in 2000 by co-founders Joanna Smith, a British expat, and Laos native Veomanee Douangdala. Their goal was to create self-sustaining fair-trade businesses for the country’s artisans. Since then, it has grown into a series of boutiques and a “living crafts” center where travelers can interact with and learn from local artists working in their respective trades.
Guests can visit during the day to wander the gardens or enjoy a lunch of traditional Laotian dishes such as fried riverweed with buffalo jam, spicy green papaya salad with pork crackling, or grilled Mekong fish with mint and lemongrass. There is also a small guesthouse on the river with rooms for rent.
However, the essential reason to come is to explore handicrafts that hail from all over the country. Visitors can take classes lasting hours or days — covering subjects from fabric-dyeing to indigo stenciling to weaving complex patterns on wooden looms. Then, at the end of the course, you take home your very own creation.
If you don’t have time, you can just stop by the store to pick out a few pieces — scarves, prayer flags, wall hangings, bedspreads — to tote home with you. Each comes with information on the artist who created it, the materials used, and which tribe or region the piece hails from. There is even a little boutique outpost back in the central town if you forgot someone on your gift list. ockpoptok.com
Long before it became synonymous with Ikea, Sweden was already a hotbed of modern design — thanks largely to this stylish Stockholm store. Back in 1924, art teacher Estrid Ericson received a small inheritance, which she promptly invested in starting a design company specializing in affordable pewter decorative pieces.
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Working together with the artist Nils Foustedt, Ericson’s workshop became a Scandinavian trendsetter, quickly shedding its “Swedish Tin” moniker to encompass all things interior design. Soon, the shop outgrew its original storefront, and Ericson moved it to Stockholm’s most fashionable street, the waterfront esplanade of Strandvägen. There, it quickly turned into the arbiter of interior design for the entire city — thanks in part to commissions with some of Sweden’s most avant-garde designers plus what Ericson collected on her increasingly exotic travels through Europe and the Americas.
The most important collaboration, however, was between Ericson and Jewish-Austrian designer Josef Frank, who had fled the Nazis in the 1930s. His slender, whimsical furniture pieces in wood and various metals, and colorful textiles with sylvan and floral prints were a sensation at World Exhibitions in Paris (1937) and New York (1939). They helped shape the course of modernist design.
Many of those original designs are still evident in the pieces on sale in the same Strandvägen space today. Almost all the furniture is made in Sweden, and Josef Frank’s designs are executed in the same carpentry workshops that have produced them since the 1950s.
Although it is now overseen by a foundation that promotes education, research, environmental causes and the preservation of Sweden’s interior design legacy, Ericson’s spirit of collaboration lives on in its extraordinary “exhibition rooms,” which the store commissions from auteurs and artists. Most recently, production designer Maria Djurkovic created pieces for the gallery that drew inspiration from movie sets of the 1930s, ‘50s and ‘80s. You can also see Estrid Ericson’s office in a permanent exhibit in the store’s new tearoom — if you get there before maxing out your credit card in the showcase rooms along the way. svensktenn.se
(Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe)
Recent decades have been rough for Zimbabwe, which was once one of Africa’s economic success stories and a fairly stable democracy. Nevertheless, people tend to stay in nearby Livingstone, Zambia, when visiting Victoria Falls (the world’s largest waterfall) and take quick jaunts over the border to visit the famous grand hotel in Zimbabwe with views of the falls.
Not too far from the hotel is a little shopping center called Elephant’s Walk Shopping and Artistic Village. There are some shops here that sell more traditional souvenirs (and cafes serving homegrown Zimbabwean coffee), but you will also find boutiques and galleries showcasing some of Zimbabwe’s up-and-coming young artists. The collapse of Zimbabwe’s economy has generally meant the decline of its once-vibrant arts community, but this small enclave of artisans continues to flourish.
Among the shops to visit are Chitenga Tenga with its handmade traditional fabrics and textiles; African Heritage boutique for collectibles including exotic leather, sculptures, masks and batik fabric; and Pischem Art Gallery for paintings and sculptures by contemporary local artists. There is also a small museum called the Jafuta Heritage Center displaying local artifacts.
However, the most unique shop is undoubtedly the Ndau Collection, a jewelry company run by Christie Halsted and her mother Gail van Jaarsveldt. In addition to the checking out what’s available in the showroom, you can pay a visit the workshops in the back and meet the men and women meticulously producing each of the distinctive pieces sold here.
Halsted is an expert in the historic global bead trade. (Much of the trade in this part of Africa was once conducted using beads as a currency.) Many of her pieces incorporate antique or vintage beads, some of which date back several centuries. She also utilizes both hard-to-find and salvaged materials (such as repurposed crocodile skin and ostrich leather), natural bone and horn, and semi-precious metals like silver, copper and bronze to create one-of-a-kind ornaments.
Halsted’s pieces range from simple bracelets and rings to intricate necklaces, headpieces and clutches. Each is created by hand over the course of several weeks and is either a unique project or part of a limited-run collection.
That’s all to say: If you buy a piece of jewelry here, none of your friends will have it. To make sure, you can even schedule a consultation to have a bespoke piece created for you during your visit.
Ndau Collection and Elephant’s Walk also run a community-based initiative called the Ruoko Project that identifies talented local artists and artisans and helps train them in their chosen craft with professional-level equipment and gives them studio space in which to work so that the artistic legacy here can live on. elephantswalk.com
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Last modified: May 10, 2019