There is something special about popping into a store that has been selling the same things for years, decades, and even centuries. The interior design harks back to olden times, and just the thought of all the people who have come into the shop over the previous generations, dressed in the fashion of the times and living a life so different from ours, makes old stores a worthwhile addition to any travel itinerary. And gives you some confidence in the products sold as well. After all, if the product survived progress, wars, modernization — even online shopping — then it can’t be too bad, can it?
Going through the list of shops I have visited over the years of traveling, in no particular order, I realized without intention, that all the shops listed are in Europe. To narrow it down even more, most stores are in London and Paris, giving some kudos to my love for those cities, where history is still alive and well. And to be honest, this is really quite handy, as you can not just search out one store next time you find yourself in London and Paris, but several.
Please note that, while the foundation dates of the stores mentioned below are correct, whether they are all indeed the oldest examples of their individual genre, is at times questionable. Just like many cities around the world claim to be the oldest and longest settled, there are many shops that make claims that might just contradict others. The fact remains, these are beautiful and very old stores well worth visiting for a shopping experience coupled with a bit of time travel.
1. Le Bon Marche, Paris, France
Hands down my favorite department store of all time, Le Bon Marche on Rive Gauche in Paris, is also the oldest department store in the world. Opened in 1852 by Aristide and Marguerite Boucicaut, it pioneered a way of shopping that was until then unheard of: a one-stop multi-story shop, where you could get pretty much everything you would normally have had to travel across Paris to get.
The store is beautifully designed inside and out and puts on a show regularly when its iconic escalators get dressed up for Christmas and other special occasions. Ever so photogenic, the store also sells utterly desirable items. Ironically called “The Bargain,” it sells luxury goods from high-end fashion to beautiful kitchen wares, from perfect gifts to gorgeous jewelry, and at Christmas, the most unusual Christmas Tree baubles. This is where you can spend a fortune in no time. Add to that the superb food hall, to be locked into the store overnight, or make that for a week, would be a delight.
Pro Tip: Go to the top floor, the shoe department, under the beautiful stained-glass roof. And bring a camera!
2. Livraria Bertrand, Lisbon, Portugal
Livraria Bertrand is the oldest bookstore in the world, dating to 1732. In the heart of the bustling shopping precinct of Chiado in the center of Lisbon, this store is decorated on the outside with those gorgeous blue and white Azulejo tiles. Inside, history is palatable, with books on display under ancient arched ceilings, and on shiny wooden shelves. There is also a rather pretty café inside, with a savory and sweet menu paying homage to many book titles and authors. Settle down with your new purchase (they do sell English books as well as Portuguese ones) and stay awhile. Please note not to mix this bookstore up with the equally famous and very beautiful Livraria Lello, which is located in Porto.
Pro Tip: You are steps away from the iconic Tram 28, which trundles through the old city center, and is worth squeezing onto.
3. Queen’s Lane, Oxford, UK
The city of Oxford is old, its university the oldest in the English-speaking world, with colleges dating to the 1200s. And, as students and coffee usually go well together, it is not necessarily surprising that, if not the world’s, but Europe’s oldest still-going coffeehouse is found in Oxford. The Queen’s Lane Coffee House was established back in 1654, before the plague and the Fire of London. While the building is a little crooked, the inside is a higgledy-piggledy mix of corners and tables, with decent coffee and great sweet nibbles — with a lot of students there revising.
Pro Tip: I don’t mean to take you away from this old coffeehouse, but just opposite is another little beauty, the Grand Café. It might not have the history, but it is beautiful and they make a great afternoon tea.
4. Lock & Co. Hatters, London, UK
You would not have thought that hats were still that popular, but Lock & Co. Hatters, handily located between the Ritz London and St. James’s Park, still does a roaring trade. And has done since 1676. Be they old-fashioned straw hats, trilbies, fedoras or pork pies, boater hats, weatherproof or packable, they also do a fine wedding collection and some stylish caps. They’re all made to measure, with a storeroom full of famous heads made from wood, with personal measurements noted for repeat business. In their old ledgers, you can find illustrious names such as Admiral Lord Nelson, Oscar Wilde, Sir Winston Churchill, and Jacqueline Kennedy.
Pro Tip: Two shops down, you’ll find Berry Bros & Rudd, the world’s oldest wine store, dating to 1698.
5. Santa Maria Novella Pharmacy, Florence, Italy
Reportedly the oldest pharmacy in the world, it is also one of the prettiest: Santa Maria Novella Pharmacy in Florence. Named after the Basilica Santa Maria Novella behind it, it was founded in 1221 by the Dominican monks connected to the church. It all started with humble rose water, which was popular not solely for its sweet smell, but also as a means to keep the plague and other diseases at bay. The pharmacy, while plain outside, so plain you could easily walk past, is stunning inside, complete with a chandelier, black-and-white-tiled floor, and arched ceilings.
Pro Tip: The pharmacy still sells its rose water, and you can even buy it online, if your baggage allowance is tight.
6. Hamleys, London, UK
The oldest toy store in the world, Hamleys was founded in 1760 under the name Noah’s Ark. To be fair, it only moved to its current flagship store location on Regents Street in 1881, but it is still the first, and as the tag line claims, it’s the “finest toy shop in the world.” The store was so popular that it used to have a fleet of horse-drawn carriages delivering parcels across the city, and even stayed open during WWII, despite being bombed. Today the emporium has 160 stores worldwide, but nothing beats the seven-floor magic on Regent Street. I dare you to go in and come out with nothing — not even one little teddy bear.
Pro Tip: It’s a 5-minute walk to Piccadilly, where you can find Fortnum & Mason, London’s oldest department store, dating to 1707.
7. Twinings Tea, London, UK
The narrow premises of the Twinings Flagship store on the Strand, just opposite the Courts of Justice, have been continuously occupied by the tea company since 1706, when Britain’s first tearoom was opened by Thomas Twining. Tea was introduced to Britain in 1662 but reserved for royalty at first. Opening a tearoom in the heart of old London made it available to the public, and, as they say, the rest is history.
Twinings owns the world’s oldest continually used company logo, and the slender and very easily missed building is one of the oldest shops in London still in its original location. Today the beautiful and historic setting houses a store, a museum, and of course, a tearoom. Here you can do tea tastings, working your way through some of the more exotic varieties of their assortment of 200-odd teas.
Pro Tip: At 440 The Strand, you can find Coutts & Co. Bank, which was founded in 1692, just 2 years before the Bank of England was founded. But it is not the oldest bank in the world; that honor goes to Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena in Italy, which dates to 1472.
8. A La Mere De Famille, Paris, France
Started in 1761 by Pierre-Jean Bernard, A la Mere de Famille is said to be the world’s oldest chocolate shop. Monsieur Bernard set up shop at 35, rue du Faubourg Montmartre, and the very same shop is still there today, looking gorgeous as ever. A beautiful exterior with gold lettering, the inside of the old-fashioned shelves are crammed with goodies displayed in jars on counters, in antique display cabinets, all set off with old light fittings and a lovely tiled floor — just as it was some 260 years ago, and just as popular. Indeed, in Paris alone, there are now 12 other branches of the chocolate store. At popular celebrations, such as Easter and Christmas, the window display, and the seasonal specialties, are an absolute delight to see and taste.
Pro Tip: Between the Louvre and the Palais Royale, there lies A la Civette, reportedly the oldest cigar shop in Paris, if not the world. Founded in 1716, this is heaven for cigar lovers.