It would be hard to imagine a trip that didn’t involve a little souvenir shopping. From the mass market, cheaply made trinkets sold in shops or by hawkers who chase tourists on foot to the higher end, unique, or personalized items that become family heirlooms, travelers spend billions of dollars when shopping as part of domestic and international trips every year.
As part time travelers, even though it feels like most of our energy is spent researching, planning, and taking trips, the truth is we’re home quite a bit. Adam and I both work from home fulltime, which means our house doubles as an office for both of us. In a way, that has increased the significance of the souvenirs we buy and display. They aren’t just happy reminders of the places we have visited; they are part of our home’s aesthetic, and we see them almost constantly. The fact that we travel extensively means we have frequent opportunities to bring new items into our home—and there have been plenty of times we have had to talk each other out of buying something because saying yes to one souvenir would mean saying no to another one. Our home’s walls can only handle so many physical reminders of our travels!
If you have trouble picking out just the right souvenir, you aren’t alone; selecting souvenirs is one of the topics on which we are often asked to share guidance and advice. We hope this information will make your next shopping trip a little easier (or even shorter!) in your quest to find just the right treasure to remind yourself of the great vacations you take.
What Makes a Great Souvenir?
A great souvenir should be valuable to you. When it comes to making a purchase, I use a VALUE system to determine whether or not the item is worth buying.
► V is for VerifiableI always look for verifiable souvenirs. To me, a verifiable souvenir is one that is representative of or identifiable to the place I visited. Hand woven rugs from Morocco or Turkey, a beer stein from Germany, or matryoshka doll from Russia are all souvenirs that identify as representative of their home countries. They don’t have to be stereotypical; one of my favorite verifiable souvenirs is a brightly painted wooden guinea pig statue that I purchased in Peru. Guinea pigs are ubiquitous there (especially on menus!), but because I have owned guinea pigs as pets for most of my life I was excited to find a statue that both had personal meaning for me and clearly represented the country where I bought it.
Verifiable souvenirs should also be genuine or authentic; spend your money on items that are real, not counterfeit. Especially with more expensive purchases, do some research on the best places to buy souvenirs so that you don’t inadvertently purchase something fake or pay too much for an item that only looks like the real deal. It can be dizzying to convert between your home currency and the local currency, especially if you feel you are under pressure or are in an environment where haggling is expected. Stay calm, ask questions, don’t allow yourself to be rushed into a decision, and come prepared with information on what a good price should be. You will be much more likely to leave with a genuine, verifiable souvenir in those situations.
► A is for Affordable
Perhaps the most obvious guideline in the VALUE system is that any souvenir you choose should be affordable. Whether or not something is affordable will depend on your budget; if you are traveling the world on dollars a day, you may have fewer options than if you have saved for years for a dream vacation. No matter what budgetary restrictions you have imposed on your souvenir shopping, don’t spend more than you are comfortable with—or more than you have—on any souvenir, no matter how nice it might be or how much you want it. If you overspend on a souvenir, when you look at it at home you run the risk of first thinking about how much you spent on it before you remember the place where you bought it, which is a terrible memory for a souvenir to hold. Set limits to how much you are able or willing to spend on any single item as well as during your trip as a whole. That will help you to focus on what is affordable for you instead of lingering over the items that are simply out of budget.
► L is for LastingA lasting souvenir is one that is of good quality; it is something that you can imagine keeping for years to come. These souvenirs can be integrated into your home’s décor and are less likely to end up forgotten in boxes in the attic. They don’t have to be guaranteed to last forever—glass or porcelain can break, for example—but with proper care they should be durable without running the risk of fading, disintegrating, or otherwise falling apart. Asking yourself if a souvenir will last can be a great decision point when determining if you will bring it home with you; if you can’t imagine keeping it in your house for a long time, it may not be worth the money in the long run.
There is a great exception to this element of the VALUE system, and that is for consumable products like food or wine. Souvenirs aren’t always something you display in your home, although that’s the type we tend to purchase. We also come home with bottles of wine, tins of tea, chocolate, or other snacks that remind us of a place we love. These treats don’t usually last very long, but we’re happy we have them while we do!
► U is for Unforgettable
Unforgettable souvenirs are the best kinds to buy. These are souvenirs that have great memories attached to them; when you close your eyes you can remember right where you were when you made the purchase. I’ll never forget the perfect, sunny day when I bought a tiny wooden Pinocchio figurine in Greve in Chianti, a tiny Tuscan town where we stopped to explore and eat affogato after lunch. We had spent the entire morning sipping wine and eating delicious food, we were with a fun group of fellow travelers, and we were in the happy, relaxed state of mind we always strive to reach during a vacation. The Pinocchio figurine was a bit of a touristy purchase; every store had dozens just like it. I knew having one in my home would remind me of that day, though, and a few years later Pinocchio still connects me to a great moment in the middle of a great trip.
Unforgettable souvenirs are also those items you can’t forget even if you pass them up the first time. During our trip to Krakow, I saw a beautiful, colorful glass painting of St. Mary’s Basilica in a little shop we stopped into while waiting for a pierogi restaurant to open. My eyes were instantly drawn to this piece of art, and I considered purchasing it right away. I decided against it, though; it was the first store we had stopped into that morning, so I didn’t know what other souvenirs might be available. Also, it was slightly more than I wanted to pay. Adam and I spent the rest of the day in Krakow, and I couldn’t get the painting out of my head. I compared every other souvenir to it, and by the end of the day I knew I needed to make the purchase. I’m glad I did; I keep it in my office, and I love seeing it every day.Unforgettable souvenirs can work the other way, too—I passed up on a few items in Copenhagen when I visited in 2013, including a very cozy-looking sweatshirt. It has been years since I decided not to buy it, and yet I still think about it quite a bit. When I am in Copenhagen for a day later this year I know exactly what souvenir is making the trip home with me—if it has been years and it’s still on my mind, it will definitely be a good purchase!
► E is for Emotional
Perhaps the most important item in the VALUE system, any souvenir you select should be emotional. It should connect you to the place where you found it, and ideally it should bring you joy. Many of the souvenirs we buy end up generating an emotional connection for the same reason that makes them unforgettable. A glass swan that sits on our TV stand reminds me of the incredible tranquility we enjoyed when Adam and I spent a morning at Lake Bled in Slovenia completely alone, except for a couple of joggers and a pair of swans that glided across the water. The swan is nestled between three hand-painted candlesticks we purchased during our visit to Cape Town, South Africa; the candlesticks make me smile when I remember buying them at the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens from a very cheerful woman who made us feel welcome and appreciated in her home country. Travel should make us feel. You might be seeking peace, excitement, or just fun, but your souvenirs should connect into those feelings and remind you of why you invested in a vacation in the first place. Emotional souvenirs retain that energy, and you’ll feel it when you look at them and enjoy them long after your trip has ended.
Where Do You Find Great Souvenirs?
For many people, any souvenir stand or shop will produce dozens of options; if you are looking for magnets, postcards, tiny statues, or plates with cityscapes painted onto them you’ll likely find no shortage of items to buy. If you are looking beyond the standard offerings for items that match the VALUE system, it can be a little trickier or more time consuming to find what you want. When we are looking for souvenirs, we keep the following in mind:
► Ask locals for advice
People who live in the city you are visiting will know more about the best places to go to find what you want to buy. They can also advise you on what souvenirs are the most characteristic or representative of a place if you aren’t sure what you are looking to purchase.
► Know your tastes
Think about what you are looking for in terms of size or style; what will fit best in your home? Are you looking for specific patterns or colors? Do you need something to fit in a certain space? Knowing your own tastes can help you skip stores that likely won’t have what you need so you can focus your time and energy on shops that carry the types of products you want.
► Unexpected stops can produce the best souvenirs
My favorite example of an unexpected souvenir comes from a trip to Seoul many years ago, when I was surprised to be invited to join a couple of native South Koreans for a traditional tea ceremony. They gave me two simple white teacups to remember my experience with them, and to this day they are among my most prized possessions.
Souvenir Collections: Worth the Investment?
A lot of people collect certain types of souvenirs, and we do, too! Our collection of choice is magnets; we have a wall in our basement that we painted with magnetic paint, and it now displays some of the fun, cheap souvenirs we have picked up on the road. If you have a collection you are trying to grow, souvenir shopping can be a lot of fun, especially on trips that take you to multiple cities, museums, or other points of interest. If your collection makes you happy, it’s worth the investment.
Silly Souvenirs: Worth the Investment?
These are the items you see in shops and wonder who in the world would buy them: a jar of fog from San Francisco. A miniature Empire State Building that isn’t even heavy enough to be a paperweight. We tend not to buy these types of items (they aren’t supported by the VALUE system), but you may find some items are too cute or silly not to buy even if you know they won’t stand the test of time.
We keep a jar of Oregon rain water in our laundry room, where it serves no purpose but to make us laugh (Adam is from Portland, Oregon, and it absolutely rains there a lot!). I also have a cheap yellow and green tuk tuk toy that I bought in India not long after narrowly escaping an untimely death when one almost ran me over. It, too, makes me laugh; it doesn’t fit into our house’s décor, but it cost less than 1 USD and reminds me of one of my first international trips.
Overall, silly souvenirs probably won’t be your best purchases, but once and a while you may find they are very much worth the money.
How Do You Display Souvenirs?
When it comes to displaying the great things you find on your travels, there are some incredibly artistic and inventive ways to showcase them. We have a lot of items that sit on shelves and hang on walls and bring color and life into our home, a pleasant connection to the places we have seen and the people we have met. Spending even a few minutes on Pinterest will connect you to dozens and dozens of ideas that might inspire some creativity, and before you take your next trip it might be worth thinking about what elements you anticipate wanting to remember the most. That may influence your souvenir purchases, and it might also influence your photography (if you plan to print and frame your pictures) or what you save (if you plan to make a collage from train tickets or brochures).Although we have souvenirs throughout our house, my favorite spot is the accent wall I have created in my office. I have purchased one souvenir to hang on that wall in every country I have visited. I love the wall because it’s fun to show guests when they visit, but mostly I love it because I draw a lot of energy and inspiration from it when I work. The colors, textures, and memories bring positivity to my day, and they have provided the creative force behind some of the projects I have designed. With almost 60 countries now represented on the wall, it’s a bit crowded these days, but it I love adding to the collection and enjoying each piece that eventually makes the wall its home.
Memories for a Lifetime
Souvenirs may be one of the most important expenditures you make when you travel. When you think about the role they can play in your life—a connection to happy memories with great people on wonderful vacations—it’s worth putting some real thought into what you purchase. Use the VALUE system to think about what kinds of souvenirs will work best for you—but don’t feel that you have to buy something on every trip you take. Sometimes the best souvenirs we bring home with us are the memories we make and experiences we enjoy. Just like a great souvenir can be a powerful addition to your home, a terrible souvenir can be a waste of money. It’s taken us many years of exploring the globe to fill our home with some truly treasured pieces, and I’m always excited when I find another great souvenir to bring back to help us visually tell our travel stories.