While Rome is famous for the Colosseum, St. Peter's Basilica, the Vatican Museums and a host of other touristic sights, it's also a great shopping city. Retail finds range from dazzlingly expensive designer duds and handmade shoes to delicious and affordable food and wine to bring back home. So when your cruise ship hails at Rome's port city of Civitavecchia, you may opt out of organized excursions to museums, churches and ancient sites to choose a little retail therapy instead.
If you decide to venture into Rome, here's an important warning: Central Rome is a long way from Civitavecchia, where all the cruise ships dock. It easily takes 90 minutes to drive between the two cities -- longer still during rush hour and for a slow-moving tour bus. You can take a train into Rome, but bear in mind that the Civitavecchia train station is a 20-minute walk from the closest end of the port, followed by a 50-minute train ride to Roma Termini, Rome's main train station. Factor in the time -- and traffic jams -- to get back to your ship after a long day of shopping, and we recommend arranging transportation through a cruise line transfer or even a third-party tour operator. Once you make it to Rome proper, you will find cheap tourist tat, such as T-shirts, hats, statuettes and postcards, just about anywhere in the city (we recommend Campo de' Fiori if this is really what you're looking for). But, those items are about as Italian as spaghetti and meatballs, which --news flash -- is not Italian!
Here's our advice for how and where to find authentic made-in-Italy and only-in-Rome keepsakes, either for yourself or for loved ones back home.
1. Designer clothes and accessories
Let's get this out of the way: There are no bargains to be had on designer fashions and accessories in Rome. But, if you yearn to drop a big chunk of cash on a little something from Prada, Fendi, Gucci or other temples of Italian style, they're all here. Most of the marquee names in Italian and international fashion have one or more stores along the streets connecting the Spanish Steps, Piazza del Popolo and Via del Tritone.
If you're visiting in the months of July, August, January or February, you can expect to find big discounts during seasonal sales -- meaning the goods are still expensive, but with slightly less sticker shock.
2. Handmade leather goods
Florence might be Italy's capital for handmade leather goods, but you can still find plenty of buttery leather bags and gorgeous hand-tooled shoes in Rome. There's no one district or market for leather as there is in Florence, so it's hard to set out on a directed search for the perfect pair of pumps. But, several small shops on the streets fanning out from Campo de' Fiori sell high-quality leather goods, including handmade shoes and bags with prices mere mortals can afford. Stores selling higher-end goods are concentrated around the Spanish Steps (see above).
In all cases, look for the terms "made in Italy," "vera pelle" or "vera cuoio" (real leather) stamped on the leather goods. But, because of a glut of imported imposters, this isn't surefire proof that the item was really made in Italy. Check for that leather smell, examine stitching and overall craftsmanship, and ask a lot of questions from the store clerk before you make a purchase. They should be able to tell you what part of Italy the item comes from and maybe something about the bottega or even the person who produced it. If you get a dismissive "Yes, yes, it's made in Italy" response and the prices are a little too good to be true, move on.
3. A.S. Roma soccer gear
If you're a fan of professional soccer or if you just want to take home definitive proof that you were really in Rome, buy some official FIFA soccer gear from Rome's best-known team, A.S. Roma. Several A.S. Roma stores are located in the historic center, which is where the team's fan base has historically been sited. (In the Rome suburbs, you'll likely find more fans of S.S. Lazio, A.S. Roma's archrivals.)
Shirts, socks, jackets, shorts and every other kind of emblem apparel are available. Official FIFA team gear is also available at Rome's Nike stores and other sporting goods' stores. Cheaper, unofficial team gear is available in street kiosks and souvenir shops along Corso Cavour, but the quality is much lower and ultimately it's not the real thing.
4. One-of-a-kind and bijou jewelry
A souvenir of unique handmade jewelry might not scream "Rome!" but you'll always remember where you bought it. The city has loads of stores offering handcrafted baubles -- our favorites are clustered on the streets of Monti, one of Rome's most authentic neighborhoods. Shops and studios with new, original designs are found along Monti's main commercial corridors, Via del Boschetto, Via dei Serpenti, Via Leonina and Via Panisperna, but don't forget to duck down side streets as well.
There are also a handful of vintage shops selling bijou jewelry from the attics, dresser drawers and bureau tops of many a Roman nonna (grandmother). This is also a great neighborhood for lunch, if you need some sustenance between shops.
5. Funky vintage wear
As long as you don't mind that your souvenir from Italy is of the preowned variety, Rome has some fine, funky vintage clothing stores chock-full of designer tops and bottoms, shoes and boots, purses and bags. Via del Governo Vecchio near Piazza Navona has several vintage resellers, as does the aforementioned Monti.
These stores are places not so much for bargains but for finds -- these storeowners know the value of their merchandise and it's priced accordingly. But, that Pucci dress, well-worn biker jacket or Chloe boots will make you the envy of your friends back home.
6. Italian wine
Yes, Italian wine is available in your home country, but there's a lot more of it available in Italy, for a lot less money. For around 10 euro (about $10), you can buy a good bottle of wine in Rome that would cost three times as much in your local supermarket. And for 20 euros (about $22), you can get a great bottle of wine.
Since wine is such a ubiquitous drink in Italy, you'll have no trouble finding little enotecas, or wine shops, many of which double as wine bars and sell wines from all across Italy. Be clear with the merchant about how much you want to spend, lest you be steered to the upper brackets. If you want something made close by, ask for wine from Lazio, a region of Rome. And if you can't find an enoteca, even small grocery stores usually have good selections of wine.
There's technically no limit as to how many bottles of wine you can bring back in checked luggage, but most cruise lines will make you check wine or spirits purchased ashore and retrieve it when your cruise ends. (Plus, all that wine will weigh a lot in your suitcase.)
7. Authentic Italian foodstuffs
Italian culinary products are always a treat to bring back home, either for your own enjoyment or as gifts. Easily portable items to shop for include extra-virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar, truffles under oil, olives, dried porcini mushrooms and small jars of olive, mushroom or roasted pepper tapenade. Another delicious souvenir that has a surprisingly long shelf-life? Pecorino Romano cheese, a hard, sharp sheep's cheese, or equally flavorful Parmigiano-Reggiano, made from cow's milk. Both are sold in shops all over Rome. Ask to sample before you buy, and make sure the seller knows you're flying home with the cheese and prepares it sottovuoto -- or vacuum-sealed
Shopping for these items in a colorful Roman market is a treat in itself. Close to central Rome, the most authentic food market is Mercato di Testaccio, where market stalls offer gourmet groceries, plus lots of fresh items and street food for an impromptu picnic. Campo de' Fiori market is more centrally located but also a lot more touristy.
A few delicacies you can't bring back home with you? Any of that delicious prosciutto, salami or other cured meats, and any fresh produce. If you try to sneak these items in your checked bags, even if vacuum-packed, a sharp-nosed beagle is likely to sniff them out at Border Control. And, something we discourage you from buying? Those packages of rainbow-colored ribbon pasta for sale everywhere. They're pretty, but there's nothing authentic about them.
8. Religious souvenirs
For many visitors to Rome, seeing the city's many significant churches and basilicas is an important part of their cruise excursion. These are the best places to buy gifts and souvenirs of a religious nature. There are three gift shops within St. Peter's Basilica, including one on the roof terrace below the dome. Even if you don't want to wait in line to enter the basilica, there's a large gift shop on St. Peter's Square, on the left-hand side when facing the basilica. This is also the site of the Vatican City post office, where you can buy stamps and mail postcards postmarked from the Vatican.
In the Vatican Museums, there are 12 gift shops selling art books, posters, T-shirts and other souvenirs, as well as rosary beads, cross/crucifix jewelry and other jewelry designs inspired by the museums' vast collections. Most of the larger churches in Rome also have gift shops.
Note that none of the shops affiliated with the Holy See sell items blessed by the Pope. Shops outside the purview of the church may claim to have blessed items, but their pedigree is doubtful at best.