Over the many years of planning custom Italy itineraries for clients, we’ve realized that travelers often have misconceptions about shopping Italy street markets. Many imagine a souk-like maze of stands that sell a bit of everything for one-stop art, clothing, souvenir, and food shopping…and all of it produced locally. Most Italian markets, however, are rather small and focused on one or two specific types of goods, often of dubious quality.
A recent client wanted to allocate four hours in her itinerary one afternoon to “do some street market shopping” and sent along a list of items she wanted to purchase that included shoes, belts, glass, ceramics, souvenirs, t-shirts, watercolor paintings of main sights, scarves, and postcards. After we had a conversation about Italian street markets, she realized that this wasn’t the best strategy to get through her list. We suggested that she hire a personal shopper for a couple of hours to check off her list, and then spend time browsing a local street market without a list of must-haves.
If you think you’d like to try your hand at shopping at street markets in Italy, here are eight things to know before you go:
Many street markets sell only food. If you ask about a town’s “market days” or ask your hotel where the street market is, they’ll likely direct you to a street market (mercato ambulante) with stalls selling only food, or, if you’re lucky, a few housewares. Don’t expect to find leather bags or shoes at these markets, although they are ideal for picking food for a lunchtime picnic, people-watching, or interacting with the locals. I always swing by a local street market to see what vegetables are in season, so that I know what to order for dinner (I particularly love the food markets in Padova and in Bologna, and the fish markets in Sicily).
Markets in Italy are not open seven days a week. One client mentioned that they planned to visit Rome’s Campo de’ Fiori market (a good example of a food-only market) on the day they arrived, which happened to be a Sunday. Unfortunately, Sunday is the only day of the week that Campo de’ Fiori’s market stalls aren’t up; we sent her to Rome’s Porta Portese market, a decent flea market open only on Sundays.
If you aren’t interested in food markets, ask specifically about antique markets, flea markets, shoe markets, or artisan markets. You can definitely buy shoes, belts, bags, clothing, and locally made goods at street markets; you just need to find the right kind of market. For antique markets in Tuscany, check here. The website Napoli Unplugged has a great list of markets in Naples (my favorite is the shoe market!). Just do a bit of research ahead of time to find out which markets are on which days.
Markets in Italy are usually open only in the mornings. Expect a market to set up in the early morning and start shutting down at about 1 or 2 p.m., so don’t allocate your market-browsing time to the afternoon. (The 4 – 7 pm time frame, however, is ideal for shopping in local boutiques). There are exceptions here; one worth noting is Florence’s leather-and-much-more market, San Lorenzo, open daily from morning to evening. Some antique markets also run all day.
Markets are usually cash-only.Italy is a very cash-oriented society in general, and you should always carry enough cash to get you through the day. This is especially true when shopping Italy street markets, where vendors often do not accept credit cards or any other form of payment.
Merchandise may not be high quality. A client went to Rome’s Trastevere market recently and exclaimed that “everything is made in China!”. If you want to ensure quality, “Made in Italy” items, heat to artisan shops or boutiques, not street markets. Or search for a market that features artisans selling their wares, called a mercato artigianato. For high-end Italian brand names, skip the markets altogether and make a beeline for one of Italy’s many Outlet Malls.
You can usually negotiate the price (with the exception of food) as long as a market stall isn’t simply an outpost of a brick-and-mortar store. If the stand is an extension of a nearby store, you may not be able to negotiate. Otherwise, expect to get 10% off pretty easily for consumer goods, though it varies by market.
The area in and around any market is total chaos. This means you need to keep an eye out for pickpockets and expect street closures and traffic jams (when market vans park wherever they want to unload their stuff) because the markets are usually set up right on the road. So if you are arriving by car, don’t expect to find parking nearby. While driving to the street market in Turin, I got into a fight with my GPS because it kept trying to route me through the middle of the market, a route I obviously couldn’t follow.
None of this is to dissuade you from shopping at stress markets in Italy. These buzzy hubs of commerce and gossip are a great way to plunge into the local culture and try out a few words of Italian, so do stop to browse when you come across a mercato. Just make sure your expectations and schedule match the reality!