The hallmarks of Italy’s artisanal tradition–creativity, innovation, craftsmanship–go back at least 3,000 years, to when Etruscans fashioned extraordinary works with bronze and Romans excelled in mosaics and glass.

Now travelers keen to avoid mass-produced generica can embrace a creative culture that puts a premium on the handmade, the painstakingly rendered, the movingly authentic. And with that they get a sense of the country’s real, enduring identity. “Made in Italy means products crafted with soul,” says Franco Cologni, former chairman of Cartier International and founder of Milan’s Creative Academy.

Pause to chat with a ceramicist in her workshop or a glassblower by his furnace, and you have a window into a place’s daily rhythms, its cultural history, its animating principle. Come away with an artifact custom-made for you, and that moment lives on long after you’ve resumed life back home.

Italy’s capital for fashion and design, Milan is always in a hurry, devouring the present as it bets on the future. This city in Italy’s industrial north weds imagination with precision, beauty with utility, and emotion with technique–a drive for excellence fueled by an ongoing dialogue between Milan’s many creative minds and skilled craftspeople.

This dynamic has played out for more than a century at the Compagnia Marionettistica Carlo Colla & Figli, one of the oldest marionette companies in the world. It dates to the 1800s, when the Colla family, wealthy traders in wood and coal, created a family theater–and began fashioning marionettes and scenery. Their shows entertained Milan society.

Two hundred years later, marionettes still take shape by hand here, the bodies sculpted from pinewood, then outfitted with clothing, wigs, and accessories, all by artisans such as Mariapia Lanino, who scours local markets and collections for antique fabrics. She restores what she finds in a little room ruled by two cats. Other artisans create the scenery and lightning under the supervision of artistic director Eugenio Monti Colla.

Marionette performances produced by the Colla family–Sleeping Beauty, The Pied Piper–provide an alternative realm for children growing up with PlayStations and other video distractions.

“After so many computer buttons and keys,” one child says, “here I feel free.”

Visit Compagnia Marionettistica Carlo Colla & Figli (Via Montegani 35/1) by appointment. Puppets, which generally are special-ordered, cost $800 each and require 1-4 months to complete.

More authentic buys in Milan:

> Le Bici del Drali (Via Agilulfo 16)

Mechanic of champions, 86-year-old Beppino Drali has been taking orders for his custom bicycles for decades.

> Pino Grasso, Ricami Alta Moda (Via S. D’Orsenigo 25)

The art of embroidery is both honored and updated at this studio that works with many fashion houses.

> Pierluigi Ghianda (Via Desio 53)

Everyday wares–forks, bookshelves, trays–morph into objets d’art in the workshop of Milan’s “poet of wood.”

This piece was written by Isabella Brega, the executive editor of Traveler’s Italian partner magazine, Touring.