How to Buy “Good” Souvenirs from Around the World

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When you travel you often get the opportunity to purchase items from around the world to bring back home with you.  Of course in the global-Amazon-Prime-almost-anything-you-want-in-two-days-or-less world we live in, buying something made in Paris, Japan, Africa, etc. isn’t as “special” as it probably once was, but buying souvenirs on your journeys can be a very fun part of travel.

If you remember the way the salty air smelled when you purchased a necklace from a beach-side stall, that was a good souvenir purchase.  If you remember the smell of pastries and the way you felt as you purchased a painting in Paris, that was a good souvenir.  If you bought something on your journey that you can actually use once you get back home, that was a good purchase.  There are lots of ways to buy “good” souvenirs, and here are a few of my tips.

1.  Buy items you can actually use.

Here are two things I bought while in Japan, both of which were very inexpensive and that we actually use on a regular basis.  First, I bought a bowl that holds our keys, phones, sunglasses, etc.  Second, I bought chopsticks for the whole family.  I can buy bowls and chopsticks here of course, but this way I remember my trip to Japan via subtle items in my home that we not only own, but use.

Another example of buying this we actually use can come in the form of clothing.  While in Madrid this spring it started raining very hard, and instead of dealing with wet kid feet we just decided to buy C some stylin’ red rain boots that she loves.  Now every time she wears them back home we all remember the Spanish downpour.

I also picked up some Spanish made shoes while we are at the same store that weren’t exactly right for the rainstorm, but that make me remember the trip every time I wear them back home.

2.  Buy smaller items.

I prefer to buy smaller souvenirs both because they are easier to get home in my luggage and because they take up less space in my home.  This allows me to remember more places and decorate shelves with the items I treasure from around the world.  For example, I have a small bog oak harp from Ireland, a handmade star from Amsterdam, a ball used in the game we went to at Wrigley Field, bulls from Spain, metal ship and tile from Holland, books from The Maldvies and Alaska, and a shark and shells from The Bahamas.

All of these items are on built-in shelves in my living room, and most were actually pretty darn inexpensive, or at least they weren’t expensive.  Since they are small, they all easily fit in my suitcase without incurring additional shipping charges or hassle.

3.  Buy local items you can’t get online.

I have found that buying locally made things that I can’t easily just click and buy online makes me happier not just in supporting the local economy wherever we travel, but in those items having for meaning for me months and years down the road.  I cringe a bit when my daughter wants her “purchase for the trip” to be some toy or stuffed animal we could easily buy back home at Toys-R-Us, so we have tried to even teach her about buying items unique to the destination that she won’t be able to buy when she goes home…or at least won’t be able to buy as easily.

She has her fair share of non-nondescript toys and stuffed animals from our travels, but increasingly she has picked unique figurines and wooden toys from places like Barcelona, Aruba, Bahamas, and Mexico that are (allegedly) local to some of the places we have been.  Heck they could have all been made in a factory in China for all I know, but at least that isn’t the story we are given.

4.  Buy something that evokes a memory.

This “dime a dozen” reproduced painting from Paris is about 3 euros and is readily available in those iconic green stalls, or bouquinistes, along the Seine.  It isn’t unique or handcrafted in any way, but it reminds me of the day we spent on the Seine and strolling in Paris on a spring day, so it was the perfect purchase and decoration for my wall.  Not only do I love it and the memory of that day in Paris, but the price was right for my budget.

IMG_9756.JPG5.  Buy from a shop you want to stay in touch with.

This may be a little more rare, but while we were in Dublin a few years ago we visited several antique shops, and met some very unique and interesting shopkeepers along the way.  One shop that we loved, even though most items were out of our price range, was Martin Fennelly Antiques.  We made a small purchase that day, but have kept in touch off and on, and love looking at the inventory on his website as a reminder of that day in Ireland.  In fact, for an anniversary a few years later we made another purchase from his shop online.


In our case this shop became the souvenir that keeps on giving even though we haven’t yet made it back to Ireland since that original trip.

If you are lucky enough to travel frequently thanks to miles and points, it is important to give some thought into what items you purchase and bring into your home so that you don’t become “overwhelmed with stuff” or waste money on things that will lose their luster as soon as they are unpacked from your suitcase.  I’m a huge fan of both less is more, and items being as functional as possible, so those are core components that factor into our souvenir purchases.

How does your family decide what to purchase and bring home from their travels?

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  1. Always like to buy souvenirs for the kids so they keep remembering about our trips together. Problem is that my little one asked me why we bought souvenirs from many different places and most of them are all “Made in China”. 🙁 Thus, I now try to make sure it something that was really local and not made in thousands in China and shipped back to be sold as local.

  2. You hit several nails on the head that resonate with me. My criteria mirror yours: Something “unique” to the region visited, something that will make me remember my visit in a special way – and will be a conversation/story starter when someone sees it, something not too heavy/bulky to carry around, and something not “unreasonably” priced (subjective, I know). My problem is twofold, however: 1) I’ve long since run out of space, even for “small” souvenirs, and 2) I’m a sucker for higher-quality model airplanes (metal, less-often plastic ones) that they sell in many foreign carrier duty-free magazines. So barring me building a museum travel wing, I’m learning to take more photos and send more postcards (which I also keep). Le sigh, J’aime travel!

  3. Don’t spend money on souvenirs….send POSTCARDS instead, INCLUDING to yourself! During the trip it is like a mini-adventure to visit a local post office! The postcard and stamp are mementos of the trip. Pick some random observation that is unique to the location to write about on the postcard. Something like “In the U.K. the traffic light goes from red to red AND yellow to signal that it is about to turn green. Kinda like each stop at a light is a mini-drag race!”

  4. We have for 30 years collected original watercolors, from street artists. Easy to bring home. Also get small local artist things. Thanks for the idea for Japan, headed there at end of year

  5. I’ve learned to focus on jewelry, Christmas ornaments and hand crafted items. If I love something I buy it; In the past I waited and missed the opportunity.

    • We also buy Christmas ornaments on every trip we take. It always makes putting up the tree a little extra special because we can remember and also remind our young daughter about a lot of the trips that she took that she no longer remembers. I highly recommend to any family that celebrates Christmas to buy ornaments as souvenirs.

  6. I totally agree with everything you wrote in your article. The leather goods purchased in Spain remind me of our trips throughout the region. And our glass plate from Murano was marked with the date we purchased it, which coincided with our 20th wedding anniversary.

    As we look at those items and our pictures from our journeys, we are constantly reminded about our wonderful shared hobby of travel and how it has enriched us on so many levels (including opening of our minds).

  7. I love your souvenirs, although I sometimes have trouble finding stores selling smaller craft items that aren’t an arm and a leg. We lucked out in a village in Japan finding some small water colors painted in the 20s that were being sold for cheap in the back of a junk shop.

    Also, don’t forget things given to you. As well as buying chopsticks in Japan, I kept the paper cranes given to us by the flight attendants on the NH flight to Tokyo, as well as some tiny silver ones given to us by a cafe owner with our bill. And the coaster from the pub in Cologne where they count your tab by putting hash marks on the coaster. We also like to bring back bottles of local spirits, like ginjinha from Lisbon, apricot liqueur from Austria and blueberry bitters from Maine. Those don’t last forever, but they are a good conversation starter.

    We’ve been discussing picking one photo from each place and having it nicely framed. However, we’d soon run out of room!

  8. We take four-ish miles/points trips per year, some weekends and some longer, and at each destination we buy two souvenirs. One, like you, we buy something to display in our home that reminds us of the trip. We have a conch shell from the Bahamas, a stacked glass cactus from Sedona, etc. Second, we buy a Christmas ornament (or something that we can turn into an ornament) for our “travel tree.” We’ve finally amassed a collection big enough to have a whole Christmas tree for! It’s a pencil tree in the corner of the dining room, and it’s become my favorite piece of holiday décor. We hang the ornaments as a family, talking about memories we have from each place. 🙂

  9. Every Christmas our tree is decorated with our souvenirs. We started 15 years ago and the collection of small unique mementos of the cities and countries traveled has gotten quite extensive. Seeing them again brings back many fond memories we get to re-live each Holiday Season. Christmas 2015 will find 2 new “ornaments” added from our trip to Costa Rica this past March.

  10. We like to buy kitchen items in places like 100 Yen stores in Japan — every time I take the corn off the cob for my Mom I’m reminded of Japan. Coasters, trivets, whisks, teaspoons…we use them all day-to-day, they are very small and very ordinary and were very cheap, and they remind us daily of our travels. We like to buy specialty mustards in France, which often come in commemorative glasses. We drink juice from Asterix and Obeslisk glasses and remember France. We also large picture frame that we filled with a piece of scrap metal covered with wrapping paper, and we put travel magnets in it. They’re contained inside the frame, and it makes a wall art item we pass daily, reminding us of beautiful places or pieces of art in the magnets we’ve bought.

  11. i just came back from a month long trip to Europe Germany France Austria Switzerland etc. and we bought water colors as well as Cristmas ornaments. My family started that tradition when I was a child and it continues.

  12. Starbucks Mugs! We are fanatical, must have coffee first thing in the morning people. We have about 50 mugs from all over the world and love using them every day as a reminder of our May travels.

  13. I love finding thrift/charity shops where I travel and they are great for souvenirs. In Norway I purchased hand-embroidered pieces for a few dollars that were $50+ in markets. Today in London I found some lovely, small crockery serving dishes that I will use regularly and remember my time here. And the thrift/charity shops are usually in local neighborhoods so that gets me out of the city center and into a more “authentic” part of the city.

  14. I only ever get one kind of souvenir. Every country I visit I make sure I buy something that can hang on my Christmas Tree. This actually becomes a bigger challenge than it’s probably worth because you don’t find a ton of places that sell actual ornaments. But, you can always convert something. Otherwise, I rarely buy anything other than food on any trip.

  15. I like to buy tea towels for daily use in my kitchen. I think of the trips very often as I was and fold them each day. Many have been consigned to the rag pile over the years but that’s fine with me. They are less than $10, functional and fit easily in my suitcase.

  16. Always a Christmas tree ornament or two. Our life story plays out on our tree each year, and I live it more than I can express. I cry each time we decorate it and cry again when they all come down! I also bring back some sand from each beach trip along with white coral and drift wood from Kauai. My scallop shell collection from the beaches of Cape Cod is not only dear to me because I adore this particular type but because both of my daughters know they are my favorite shell and have spent a good amount of their beach time searching for them to present to me. 🙂 I am also a bit obsessed with drink tumblers, the kind with the straw, those are fun to bring home and use daily to remind me of our special trips. I love the one from Starbucks Hawaii that has hibiscus on it.

  17. Like others who have commented above, we purchase something to hang on the Christmas tree. It has to be small and un-crushable, since we have limited space (carry-on luggage only).

    And we always try to find something with the name of the city or nation printed on it, because memories tend to fade as the years and the destinations roll by.

    • Love the Christmas Tree idea – we actually already had that in mind for our second daughter’s ornament collection (first daughter’s ornaments already have a different “theme). So fun!

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