Souvenir shopping tips to avoid falling into collecting meaningless mass-produced trinkets.
Do your travel keepsakes and souvenirs invoke memories of your trips to faraway places, are you reminded of conversations with locals… what you learned about the meaning behind that token of travel that you had acquired, or are you reminded of a cheesy and touristy souvenir stall that sells garish trinkets and mass-produced statuettes, miniature landmarks, and T-shirts and shot glasses and the likes?
What really is a souvenir?
The word souvenir has origins in French meaning remembrance or memory. It can bee found in Latin as well as – subvenire. In the late eighteenth century, English speakers began to use the term, primarily to refer to the objects themselves, though it can also be used as a verb – “to take as a memento”. A souvenir is an item that evokes a specific memory, a definition that can apply to any object.
Why do we buy souvenirs?
In this day and age of social media where we document everything about our travels – right from sunrise to sunset … from what we ate, to where we ate and who we had that cocktail with… we all like to document our lives and travels into little squares!
Why do we need a physical object, a souvenir when we have all these breadcrumbs that we leave behind that we can find our digital trails again? Because we want to look back and remember and reminisce that slice of time with something tangible because it transports us back to that time of an idyllic beach vacation and reminds us of the carefree beach bum days in the sun. It helps us travel back to the beautiful destinations, ancient cities we explored in awe, strolling the markets and museums.
What do you think of when you see the souvenirs you have collected over the years?
I collect magnets as mementos from our travels and have a fridge door overflowing with them ranging from miniature turtles, sand in bottles, mini landmarks, colorful city names. It is fun to pause and look at them and think about our trip and be transported there for a brief moment until I find my supplies for dinner and close the fridge.
Beyond that, I find there is no meaning behind them. Sometimes it serves as conversation starters when we have friends over, which usually starts something like “oh have you guys been to…” I save the maps, museum tickets, pamphlets and love looking back, but the souvenirs I cherish the most are the ones that have a story behind them.
How to find the perfect travel souvenir?
Find that perfect travel souvenir is easy if you look for something that tells a story, your travel story! Here are a few from our trips…
We love the soaps we bought in Provence after walking around stores in Gordes talking to a man who owns his own lavender fields and makes soaps and oils. I bought some more lavender oil in Aix-en-Provence that I still have and use so sparingly, holding on to those memories of lavender fields we found past its prime in Southern France.
I love my little yellow wine jug that says “vino” from Tuscany, I rarely use it but it reminds me of the house wines we drank in the Trattorias that we ate every night in Italy.
A friend once got me some lamps from Turkey and a scroll from Egypt, I’m yet to travel there but love looking at them and dreaming about my trip there someday. I already know what I want to buy from there. Another great Souvenir Shopping Tip: do your research early, know your price and what you are willing to pay for your souvenirs.
Masks from Venice are the pinnacle of mystery, beauty, and seduction. Nothing catches the imagination more than these pieces of art. A Venetian mask or an eye mask can be made of papier-mâché and leather, feather, lace, filigree or combinations of the above. We have a couple of these lovely masks and are always ready for a masquerade ball, or a party! Just waiting for the invites 😉
I bought a pair of lovely handmade tan espadrilles from Barcelona that I adore. We went looking for them in Granada and Seville but didn’t see them or was not looking for them in the right place. Yes, you can buy espadrilles from your department stores or online but to me every time I wear them it reminds me of our summer trip to Spain and brings a smile.
And then there are the clothes, which tend to be my most treasured souvenirs. I have a couple of below the knee skirts from a London high street store, that I bought a few years ago, it probably is dated, looks a little out of style but every time I wear it makes me feel like I’m getting ready for an afternoon tea at one of the elegant high tea places in London.
Sometimes Souvenirs don’t last very long, we bought spices from Seville that got used up a month in and now use my herb-de-Provence from our France trip so sparing. My husband teases me – “You know you can buy it from the store down the street right” little does he know that every whiff of the lavender in it takes me back to the Sault, don’t think the little can of McCormick is going to do that!
We enjoyed our Papaya, banana, pineapple Jam from the French Polynesia, with every bite reminds me of the turquoise waters and our ATV ride through the pineapple fields of Moorea.
Food items always make for great souvenirs and gifts for friends. I love getting Tea from China anytime hubby’s business associates come to visit. One thing I stock up when I return from India are South Indian Filter coffee from Chennai. Served strong with milk and sugar, once you have tasted these there is no going back to boring drip coffee! I have converted many friends to this long-time favorite of mine!
On a trip to Mexico, we stopped at Playa de Carmen city to have some authentic tacos and stroll along 5th Avenue stores and watch the Mayan women weave crafts and bought a few of these wristbands.
We loved these fans from Seville that kept us cool during the hot days exploring Andalucía. The hand fan, or also known as ‘abanico‘, is a perfect complement used by a Flamenco dancer used in the intense and exotic “Flamenco” flashing fan in their hand or by the popular “Sevillana” to provide a sense of privacy, mystery, and allure, while providing relief from the baking hot summers of Southern Spain.
The photo above is a collection of wooden boxes with intricate inlaid work I found in Granada. If you look closely there is also a miniature version of the fountain from “Patio de los Leons” or Patio of the Lions on one of the boxes. After visiting the Alhambra, we walked into the little store and saw the artisans working on them right there and had to bring home a couple. How beautiful are these little boxes?
We were recently in CapeTown, South Africa, and were looking for gifts that the kids could take back home for their friends. Just around the corner from Taj Cape Town where we stayed was Greenmarket Square. A cobblestone historic square filled with little shops and eateries, it is the second oldest public space in Cape Town.
There were stunning canvas artworks on sale, along with leather goods like sandals, hand-crafted jewelry, ornaments, and much more in the bustling and colorful market. We bought some bead jewelry from the entrepreneurial and friendly young man.
When we were in Nairobi, we visited Kazuri’s bead factory. You can walk around the factory and see how these Kenyan women turn clay into pieces of art. The finished products are in colors of fiery sunsets, ocean blues, and in patterns of hooves and spots. I brought home a few bracelets and necklaces in shades of red and gold to remind me of the colors of this beautiful land.
9 Simple Souvenir Shopping Tips
A few simple tips for buying meaningful souvenirs on your vacation.
- Buy small and locally handmade items, if possible directly from the artisan.
- Buy something useful be it a vase, jewelry or pouch, rather than figurines and statues that just gather dust.
- Research what the local specialty is and try to buy that.
- Remember you can ship them home if you like traveling light.
- Don’t wait till the end of the trip to buy the souvenirs, collect them along the way.
- Buy scents, oils or soaps unique to the location. My favorite souvenir shopping tip, one whiff of the smell transports you back to the trip!
- Souvenir doesn’t have to be always purchased from a store. Make a scrapbook from the photos, tickets, maps and other small items.
- Try to stay away from Touristy Souvenir Shops.
- Follow your heart. If something speaks to you buy it without worrying too much about haggling and if it is the right price. Listen to your instincts and pay what it is worth to you!
A collection of refrigerator magnets may show off where we have been, but if our only memories of getting them are the tacky little shops, their value as souvenirs is negligible.
Souvenirs can be anything – from coins and currency, coffee cups, art prints to little pieces of jewelry, as long as those objects have a meaning, trigger a memory and remind you of your travel story.
If you are bitten by the wanderlust bug like us and are either traveling, planning a trip or love looking back fondly on your travels – then invest a little time and travel money into your souvenirs.
After all, traveling is not about the stamps on your passport or the curios you collect but the memories you make along the way. Does your souvenir bring back fond memories of your travel? Great! If not, use these Souvenir Shopping Tips to buy better ones next time.
What Souvenirs do you collect from your travels that sparks your memory?
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