World's Greatest Toy Stores
Longoni’s Sopa de Principe is a refreshing counterexample at a time when faceless mega-chains and online retailers have muscled many independent stores out of business. Increasingly, children in New York City, Hong Kong, Paris, and Dubai seem to be playing the same video games and laughing at the same cartoons.
Thankfully, adventurous travelers can still find humble mom-and-pop shops, designer boutiques, and stately department stores that reflect the playful id of a country’s people. Some, like London’s Hamleys—a favorite of both commoners and queens—have served the local community for generation after generation.
From the marionettes of Prague to the cutesy kawaii characters of Tokyo, toys are not only a memorable travel souvenir, but also a window into what makes a society tick, laugh, and smile. And you’ll discover them at these one-of-a-kind toy stores.
AMI Marionettes Shop, Prague
The Czechs take their marionettes seriously; in Prague, you can watch stringed “actors” perform complete Mozart operas at the National Marionette Theater. But that doesn’t mean every shop sells high-quality puppets. Skip the souvenir stands in tourist-clogged Old Town in favor of this gallery near Prague Castle, where you’ll find artist-carved linden-wood originals and antique rarities from the early 20th century. Look for marionette versions of the Good Soldier Švejk, a beloved fictional World War I–era soldier. loutky.cz
Toy Joy, Austin, TX
Although Austin’s favorite retro toy store moved to upgraded downtown digs this summer, Toy Joy hasn’t abandoned the city’s guiding philosophy: Keep Austin weird. The new space includes a glow-in-the-dark room filled with stars, moons, and animals as well as an undeniably odd lineup of trinkets and tchotchkes. They’re the kind you might expect to find in an arcade prize stand—Frida Kahlo temporary tattoos, zombie finger puppets, and Kim Jong Il tongue scrapers.
Schmancy Toys, Seattle
As its name suggests, Schmancy Toys sells items that are design-focused but still a little irreverent. Owner Kristen Rask has filled her downtown boutique with plush creations that are far from mere child’s play. In addition to her own crocheted potted cacti, you’ll find quirky pieces like dumpling magnets, kits for knitting one-inch-tall zombies, and Abbey Christine’s hand-stitched felt finger puppets of Johnny Cash and a banjo-plucking Steve Martin. schmancytoys.com
Less than a five-minute walk from the Pantheon, you’ll find a small shop watched over by one of Italy’s most famous sons, Pinocchio. The Bartoluccis have been in the wood-carving business since 1936, when they opened an accordion factory in their native Emilia-Romagna. In 1981, Francesco (the family’s white-bearded answer to Gepetto) began constructing marionettes. You can find his pine puppets, clocks, and figurines—hand-constructed with time-honored tools like saws, chisels, and planers—here and at stores across Italy. bartolucci.com
F.A.O. Schwarz, New York City
This flagship toy department store is every bit as rarefied and aspirational as its Fifth Avenue neighbors, Saks and Bergdorf Goodman. Opened in 1862 by a German immigrant, America’s oldest toy store moved to its current location across from the Plaza Hotel in 1986. While F.A.O. is known for its toy soldier doormen and the giant floor piano featured in the movie Big, it isn’t stuck in Toyland’s past. Recent additions include the Muppet Whatnot Workshop for creating your very own Muppet and the Ridemakerz shop, a whimsical garage where kids can customize model cars with high-tech additions like lights and sound effect.
Rotofugi Designer Toy Store & Gallery, Chicago
Located in a historic flatiron building on Chicago’s hip North Side, this boutique found its name from two different inspirations: the roto-casting technique used to mold the collectible vinyl figurines sold here and Fugi, the owners’ beagle–shih tzu mix. Although the name is meant to sound vaguely Japanese (as a nod to the designers who popularized this aesthetic), local Chicago-based artists like Travis Lampe (Tear Drips) and Shawnimals (Ninjatown Zipper Charms) created many of the shop’s designs. rotofugi.com
Kiddy Land, Tokyo
The Tokyo district of Harajuku has become synonymous with the kawaii subculture and its obsession with all things cute and cuddly. (You may have heard about it from unofficial ambassador to the West Gwen Stefani.) So it’s only natural that the flagship of this beloved national chain is found amid Harajuku’s teen-filled streets. Reopened in 2012 after months of renovation, six-story Kiddy Land is filled with capsule boutiques celebrating Snoopy, Hello Kitty, and teddy-bear Rilakkuma. Look for the store's gashapon, or hand-cranked vending machines—they dispense small toys encased in plastic capsules, which often become collector's items.
The Doll Hospital, Lisbon
At Lisbon’s Figueira Square, the world’s oldest doll hospital traces its roots back to 1830, when an old lady began fixing broken toys brought to her by neighborhood children. Surgeries now happen in an operating room upstairs, where skilled artisans reattach limbs, replace eyes, and stem the tide of receding hairlines, for patients ranging from Barbies and shabby teddy bears to priceless vintage porcelain dolls. hospitaldebonecas.com/en
LARK Toys, Kellogg, MN
One of America’s largest and most popular family-owned toy shops is gleefully dedicated to old-fashioned delights, namely, hand-carved, hand-painted wooden pull toys, puzzles, and cars. Located in a town of under 500 in southeastern Minnesota’s Mississippi River Valley, the 21,000-square-foot store is a destination in its own right. Presided over by four pet llamas, LARK Toys boasts an antique toy museum, a fudge shop, an 18-hole miniature golf course, and a hand-carved basswood carousel created by local artisans. larktoys.com
Sopa de Principe, Buenos Aires
From her humble shop in the trendy Palermo district, designer Verónica Longoni has elevated the rag doll to the status of art symbol. Her hand-stitched dolls, robots, and zoo animals—with quirky touches like button eyes and lopsided faces loosely inspired by writer-illustrator Edward Gorey—have been sold at New York’s MoMA Store and featured in the 2013 thriller Mama. Longoni’s Arma Mostro kit allows kids to channel their inner Dr. Frankensteins by mixing and matching different limbs to create a uniquely customizable monster. sopadeprincipe.com.ar
Steiff Museum & Factory Outlet, Giengen an der Brenz, Germany
Famous for high-end teddy bears with a trademark button-in-ear design, Steiff got its start when a polio-stricken seamstress named Margarete Steiff began crafting elephant-shaped pincushions in a southern German hamlet in the 1880s. To celebrate the 125th anniversary of Margarete’s birth, Steiff opened a museum in her honor, complete with a life-size plush petting zoo, a collection of rare historic toys, and a fabrication demonstration center—plus a factory outlet brimming with discounted products. steiff.com
LEGO Store, Copenhagen
Invented in 1932 by a Danish carpenter, LEGO bricks have become one of the country’s most beloved exports. The brand’s Copenhagen flagship, opened on the pedestrian shopping street Strøget in 2010, is a veritable shrine to Danish culture. You’ll find brick replicas of the city’s ubiquitous cyclists, the colorful buildings along Nyhavn, and the Amalienborg Palace guards. lego.com
Terrific Scientific, Sydney
In this Big Bang Theory era, Terrific Scientific is further proof that it’s hip to be a nerd. The store deals in geeky delights—volcano-making kits, model dinosaurs, ant farms, and telescopes—that bring the classroom right into the playroom. It’s been a staple of posh Sydney suburb Annandale since 1994. terrificscientific.com.au
Hamleys has sold tin soldiers and rag dolls since 1760, when it opened as a tiny shop called Noah’s Ark. Over the years, it has been a constant presence for the British people through thick and thin—even staying open while bombs fell on the store during the Blitz. Nowadays the venerable Hamleys has a seven-story flagship on Regent Street that attracts commoners, tourists, and even royals, who have stocked their nurseries with Hamleys toys for generations. hamleys.com