Types of souvenirs: Choosing the right one on a trip

Souvenir stand in Nicaragua

This souvenir stand in Nicaragua sells both locally produced items and other types of souvenirs.

Souvenirs as Artifacts of Meaning

Folding display of Paris

Some types of souvenirs fire on all cylinders: They are small, and like this tiny diorama of Paris, they store flat but open up. Such souvenirs are unique and are good reminders of your trip or gifts to others.

William Morris, one of the leaders of England’s Arts and Crafts Movement, once said, “If you want a golden rule that will fit everything, this is it: Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” 

The same criteria can be applied when considering the types of souvenirs to pick up on a trip. For example, musical instruments, bowls, carvings, weavings, paintings, drawings and an entire army of busts and small figures have found their way into my backpack or carry-on. Each represents a moment on a trip, a physical marker of time and place. Most lean toward beautiful rather than useful (typical tourist souvenirs, alas, are rarely either). But each has meaning.

Why buy a souvenir?

Beyond the utility or aesthetics of an object, is there any other justification for lugging something home with you? Of course. Here are some criteria I use when evaluating types of souvenirs.

  • The object is locally made. In the best cases, it represents a craft or trade for which that country or area is known. Hopefully, it will also register on the beautiful scale.
  • The object delights. It charms and whispers to you, perhaps because of beauty but often for non-aesthetic reasons—quirkiness, nostalgia, uniqueness, etc. It defies all your “at home” logic on reasons why you don’t need it. But these kinds of objects have a reason all of their own and rarely, once they make the journey back with you, do you regret their acquaintance or purchase.
  • The object fits a pattern. It aligns with an existing collection or perhaps the dream of one.  
  • The item matches the interests of a friend or family member back home. You realize it would make an excellent gift.

The object, or at least the exchange of money, serves as a means to an end. That might mean: 

  • To develop a relationship so that you can take the person’s photo or find out more about their craft or life there. This works particularly in busy markets where photographing a merchant may distract from other potential customers they have. In short, you buy something to compensate the person for their time.
  • To further a local tradition that might die out without visitor purchases.
  • Because the vendor has made such an interesting pitch or story that you treat a small purchase as much as a reward for entertainment as for the product itself. 
Small clay Moroccan buildings

Sometimes you buy a souvenir, such as this one from Morocco just to help out the vendor who has been kind to you.

What about other types of souvenirs?

A final category consists of items that seem appropriate at the time but result in the same “What was I thinking?” reaction at home as that Singapore Sling-induced tattoo. These would include aloha shirts or muumuus, Lederhosen, most hats, and velvet paintings that appeared far more sophisticated back in the gallery. If such purchases make your trip experience better, go for it. But recognize that as much as you’d like, the item, taken out of its initial context, won’t restore the magic of the place or the moment. You can’t recreate your trip at home by wearing that floral muumuu everywhere. But you can select those types of souvenirs that are beautiful (there goes the velvet cat painting) and useful (there goes the Lederhosen) in their own right, as well being filled with memories and meaning.

Wooden shoes

Yes, people in the Netherlands once wore these wooden shoes. But would you wear a pair at home?

For you and for others

Carved mask from Costa Rica

Some types of souvenirs can make great gifts for the right person, but others, such as this mask carved out of balsa wood by an indigenous people group in Costa Rica, may be ones only you will fully appreciate.

The term “souvenir” is defined as “a thing that is kept as a reminder of a person, place or event.” Unfortunately, the word has become associated with kitschy fridge magnets, t-shirts, shot glasses and stuffed animals dressed in so-called local attire (that the locals rarely if ever wear except when selling these items). But souvenirs can be so much more than what you buy from a souvenir stand.

They can be wonderful to collect for yourself, but they can be especially meaningful as gifts. Great gifts are thoughtful— in both senses of the word. They show that you were thinking of the person and you took great effort to choose wisely.  

The rewards of souvenirs for others

Bringing back thoughtful souvenirs extends the delight of your trip long past your return as you help others experience a small piece of your adventure in a way that matters to them. You create a token of memory for them (just as your own souvenirs do for you) so that every time they see or use your gift, they think of you.

Making the pursuit of suitable gifts part of your trip adds an element of quest to your journey. You’re always on the hunt for the appropriate gift which, in turn, causes you to think of the person while you’re away. If you consider bringing home gifts as a duty, you’ll end up with the cheap types of souvenirs. If you treat it as a search of delight to let others know you care enough to find something just right, then it adds a wonderful layer of discovery and meaning to your trip.

All that sounds great. But how do you know what types of souvenirs to bring home? Here are some thoughts on how to get the best souvenirs on your trip. 

Accordion book from Asia

This small book unfolds to reveal hand-painted flowers. Such types of souvenirs are unique to the region you visited yet tend to be appreciated by a wide range of people back home as gifts.

Thoughts from others on collecting souvenirs

On the January 30, 2019 podcast of Women Who Travel (from Conde Nast Traveler), the three hosts noted these ideas for souvenirs:

  • Scarves: They are light, easy to pack and each country has different styles and materials.
  • Jewelry: In particular, earrings are small, usually inexpensive and reflect different regional designs.
  • Books: One great idea is to buy a book about the region and get it signed by the bookstore owner or clerk where you bought it.
  • Postcards: You can collect these for you or mail them home to select friends. In our online world, taking the time to write and figure out how to mail a postcard is an act of true love or friendship. And with postcards, the more bizarre, the better. Also, don’t overlook the freebies in your hotel room.
  • Matchboxes: These are harder to come by as fewer people smoke, but still available. Bottle caps, corks and similar items also work.
Moroccan scarves

My sons and I purchased some scarves in Morocco both as souvenirs for others and practically, to protect against blowing wind when we rode camels into the Sahara. Who says your souvenirs can’t be useful?

Additional considerations for collecting or giving souvenirs

I think all of the above can be great types of souvenirs. In addition, here are some other considerations for meaningful souvenirs, for yourself or others.

Seal box

This tiny box (about an inch wide) from New Bedford, MA reflects the marine heritage of the place and fits into that souvenir category of quirky yet oddly compelling. At least to me. The seal’s flippers move when you shake the box.

  • Local crafts or specialties: As noted above, these are usually at the top of my list. Some examples include animals and insects woven from local grasses in Hawaii, wood carvings in Indonesia, nesting dolls in Russia, personal chop (engraved stone) in China, Christmas ornaments in Austria, batik in Thailand, copperware in Egypt, glass in Venice, silk kites in Korea, etc. Best of all is when you get to meet the artist or craftsperson. That adds additional meaning and helps ensure your money stays in the local economy.
  • Copper engraving

    This colored engraving on a copper sheet from Cairo is a good example of something specific to that area and also flat.

    Flat things. These are easy to pack and come in a surprising range of options including prints, maps, posters, small paintings, fun cocktail napkins, bottle labels, paper cuttings, coasters, shadow puppets, photographs/drawings from local artists, collages, weavings and even local currency. Use cardboard or other hard surfaces to protect your more precious items in your bags.
  • Textiles: They’re flat and they fold. Sure, you’ll likely have to have a carpet shipped home, but smaller rugs, wall hangings, pillow cases (you can buy the pillow and just bring the beautiful case home since most pillows are easy to replace) and other decorative items can enhance many rooms and settings.
  • Clothes, hats and shoes. Beyond decorative textiles are ones you can wear. But proceed with caution here. I’ve found these are either home runs when you find something totally unique or one-and-done wonders that seemed great on the trip but you never wear again (such as the above-mentioned lederhosen, moo moos, etc.).

Wooden bowls from Costa Rica

  • Small bowls, cups, vases or boxes. Every culture has their variation, whether of ceramic/porcelain, wood, glass, metal or other material. They fit in a rolled up pair of socks and something about the very small size makes them appreciated gifts. Plus, they tend to be items you can use, as well as admire on a shelf.
Tea set from China

Bowls can include cups and this contemporary tea pot

  • Gifts of nature. A seashell, an unusual feather, piece of wood or sea glass, a chunk of some memorial like the Berlin Wall (buy these, don’t make them a DIY project or you just may be staying longer in country or paying a lot more for your trip in fines than you anticipated), dried tea leaves from a tea plantation (along with some of the processed tea you purchased there), sand (in a small baggie or pill bottle) from a beach or a famous desert, etc.
Frog coin purse

Some types of souvenirs like this coin purse made from a local frog in Nicaragua seemed so bizarre that I bought it as a fun gift. Only later did I stop to consider that it wasn’t so much fun for the frog. Be wiser than I was on the types of souvenirs you choose to purchase.

  • Musical instruments. This doesn’t work for everyone, but if you’re musically inclined, each culture has their own stringed, wind and percussion instruments. Many — harmonicas from Germany, penny whistles from Ireland, maracas from Mexico or small drums from Uganda — easily fit in a carry-on bag and can be fun to learn. For those who still buy CDs, picking some up of local music can also be a great gift for music lovers.

When considering types of souvenirs, don’t overlook the seasonal ones like Christmas or other ornaments such as these from Germany.

  • Bags. As more cities ban or charge for plastic shopping bags, it’s fun to have alternatives. In almost any country, you can find variations of materials from cloth to canvas to woven fibers. Many are hand-made or have quirky designs that make them fun items to collect and to give to others. Bonus tip: Buy a local shopping bag and keep your stuff in it and you’ll fit in much better as a local than with a garish backpack.
  • Kitchen utensils and towels. I’ve found that practical gifts have a better chance of being appreciated by friends and family who haven’t been to the places I just visited. Unique or interesting kitchen utensils go over well as gifts for any foodies or chefs. We’ve brought home ingenious peelers, beautiful kitchen towels or hot pads, dish towels with comical designs, even interesting spoons. You can expand to other rooms of the house as well with home office supplies unique to a country, lights, bookends, candles, trays, etc.
Chinese tea pot

A unique teapot can be a wonderful type of souvenir for tea-drinking friends.

  • Hobby-related items. Have gardening friends? Interesting tools, seeds or ornaments make great gifts. Sports fans? Team shirts or other paraphernalia are always a hit. Readers and writers? Journals, pens, stationery or even distinctive bookmarks work well.
Handmade journal

This handmade journal from Indonesia is an example of a type of gift that works for anyone who writes or draws.

  • Small pewter sculpture of sausage vendor

    For years, friends have given me small figures from around the world. Thus, I further this collection on trips with types of souvenirs like this pewter sculpture of sausage vendor from Germany. He’s about 3 inches tall.

    Collections. This is a no-brainer. If you or a friend have a collection of anything, use your trip to expand it. My wife has collected dolls since she was a little girl. Each trip is an opportunity to see how a particular culture makes dolls. My mom has collected turtles for as long as I can remember. On every trip, I help to add to their numbers. Knowing other people’s collections makes gift buying — and receiving on their end — much more rewarding.
  • Food and drink items. Mustard from Germany, jam from Norway, chocolate from Belgium (or so many places), spices from Morocco, tea from China, herbs from Peru, macrons from France, honey from Slovenia, wine, aperitifs, coffee or other local drink specialties, etc.
  • Cheap souvenirs. I didn’t say you shouldn’t bring back the tacky items. Just don’t make them your exclusive or even primary purchases. Pins, patches, spoons, flags, toys and items that have no logical reason for existence other than as a souvenir—any of these could be good memory makers or gifts in the right context. I have an entire collection of tacky bottle openers that my in-laws and I give reciprocally from trips. Buy it once and it’s cringe-worthy. But the same type item every trip and its a collection. Still, always ask this: Where did this item come from? (Safe bet, China). So unless you’re in China, strive to find something made locally if you can.
Bottle opener collection

These are just some of the many bottle openers I’ve picked up on trips and have given to my in-laws.

A few ideas for what to do with the stuff you keep

  • Write it down. On larger items, you can put a small sticky label on the bottom of the item to remember where it was from and when. But a better approach for many is this: Keep a Memories List. Either on a computer or on paper, after each trip, make an inventory of your acquisitions. It’s almost as much fun to go through that document after many years as it is to see the items.
Framed print from Spain

One way to solve the display issue is to purchase souvenirs like this lithograph from Seville, Spain that come already framed. That won’t work for large prints, but this frame is about 5 inches square.

  • Decide how you’ll display the items. Personally, we do what museums do. We rotate our collections so they don’t grow old. Keep some out and more in storage. And think about that storage next trip when you want to bring home half a dozen items. There’s a point where collections turn into clutter. Be mindful as you travel. One truly memorable item, perhaps one made by an artist you met, can be better than five items you forget about a week after you’re home.
Glass rhino from South Africa

This glass rhino from South Africa is a good example of types of souvenirs that are small, easy to pack and can fit easily into a shadowbox or other display case.

  • Think creatively about containers or display areas. Shadow boxes can be handy for displaying small types of souvenirs. Best of all, once you start using this kind of display, you shrink the size of what you look to buy to fit. Dedicated shelves also work as do display cabinets. I like the comment on the Women Who Travel podcast about scarves: One of the hosts has a drawer just for all the scarves she’s collected. Each time she opens it, all the memories flood back. With flat items, many can be framed and hung if you have wall space. Or, as we are now doing, put them into archival sleeves or mount them on acid-free sheets and keeping in a large scrapbook.
Coffee cup from Scotland

Items like this uniquely glazed coffee cup from Scotland can be a great souvenir because you can keep it yourself or give it to others since anyone can always use another mug, right?

  • Give them away. You have the trip. You likely have photographs you took on that trip. Hopefully, you also have a journal where you recorded the key moments. Souvenirs are nice. And small, meaningful ones can be amazing. But personally, I’ve derived far greater pleasure from bringing home thoughtful gifts for others than most of those I’ve done for myself. Most. Not all. I have several I love and that speak to me in ways a photo can’t.

Final thoughts

So go ahead and collect these special artifacts of meaning. I’ll let you figure out what to do about the storage issue. But do one last thing: examine them. If that teacup you purchased in Wales just sits on a shelf, it has little value. Thus, take it out once in a while. Look at it. Use it even. Remember the moment you first saw it. Let your souvenirs be true artifacts of meaning by being aids to your memories of the places and experiences they represent.

William Morris would be very pleased with that. And so will you.